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Easter is not an island

Dr. Jim Denison is the CEO of Denison Forum.
His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 160,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries. Prior to launching Denison Forum in 2009, he pastored churches in Texas and Georgia. He holds a Ph.D and a Master of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Jim and his wife, Janet, live in Dallas, Texas. They have two sons and four grandchildren.

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Topical Scripture: John 20:1-9

On average, they stand thirteen feet high and weigh fourteen tons. The largest of them weighs as much as 165 tons. There are 887 of them on the island. And no one is sure why.

In 1722 a Dutch explorer discovered their island. It happened to be Easter Sunday, so he named his discovery Easter Island. Here the explorer found the famous “moai” of Easter Island, giant statues which guard the beach and dot the island. You’ve undoubtedly seen them in pictures—huge stone figures, mostly faces, standing mute and stoic for centuries. We’re not sure how the people of Easter Island made them, or how they moved them. Theories abound, but no one is certain. Easter Island is in a sense a fascinating miracle.

Easter Day can be like Easter Island for us—a miracle, but an island, isolated from the continent of life. An annual religious observance and little more.

Last year, the Baptist churches in our area experienced a 50% decline in worship attendance from Easter Sunday to the next week. Our own experience was identical to theirs. Clearly many people see Easter as an island, unconnected to the rest of the year. A religious event with little relevance to our daily lives.

But our lives and souls need more. We need a transforming daily experience with the Christ who rose on Easter Sunday. And so, today, I want to show you the factual reality and the personal relevance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why Easter is not an island we visit, but the home where we live.

To do that, I need you to take two walks with me.

Celebrate the reality of the resurrection

The first takes us back twenty-one years, to early spring of 1980 and a college retreat I was attending. My father had just died a few weeks earlier. In a few months I would graduate from college, marry Janet, and move to Southwestern Seminary to begin preparations for a life in vocational ministry. And my world came crashing in on me.

I’ll never forget that Saturday morning. I was about to spend the rest of my life preaching the gospel and serving the church. Was I sure about this? Was Christianity real? Was it more than Sunday school lessons and church services? Was I about to give my life to a religion, or to a reality?

I took that Saturday morning off from the retreat, and went for a walk. I can still see the stunning blue sky, hear the birds as they sang in the warm sun, feel the leaves and pine needles crunch beneath my feet. I walked and walked, as I thought about everything I had come to know about this Christian faith.

Perhaps you need to take that walk with me today, for yourself or to help someone you care about. Before we can see if Easter is relevant, first we must know if it is real.

As we walk and talk together, we begin where I started twenty-one years ago: with the fact that everything about the Christian faith hinges on Easter, on the resurrection. Jesus said he would rise again from the dead—if he did, his word is true and he is our living Lord. If he did not, the Bible is just a book and Christianity is just a religion.

Paul was clear: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). If someone were to find a skeleton and prove that it was Jesus Christ, we would disband this church, sell the property, and give up the faith. Christianity hinges on the reality of the resurrection.

So let’s start here as we consider the reality of Easter. What explanations make the resurrection just a story, an island and nothing more?

One option: perhaps the first witnesses to Easter went to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and proclaimed Christ raised from the dead.

But in our text, Mary Magdeline was the first to arrive, and Mark 15:47 says she saw where Jesus was laid. Joseph of Arimathea, the owner of the tomb, certainly knew where it was. And assuredly the Romans knew where they had placed their guard. No, they had the right tomb.

A second possibility: perhaps these disciples wanted so much for Easter to be true that they imagined it was so. But Mary didn’t expect Jesus to be gone: “we don’t know where they have put him!” (v. 2). In verse 11 she’s still crying; in verse 15 she thinks Jesus is the gardener and appeals to him for the body. Verse 9 is clear: “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.”

A third option, related to the second: maybe this was a hallucination, a mirage, a dream. But the tomb is still real, and empty. The Roman historians tell us that Christ was crucified by Pontius Pilate. His death and now-empty tomb are very real. More than 500 saw the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6), and 500 people don’t have the same hallucination. No, Easter is no wish fulfillment or hallucination.

A fourth approach: perhaps the women or disciples stole his body and announced him risen. This was the Jewish authorities’ explanation for Easter. But people don’t die for a lie. And they don’t keep a secret, either. Just a few conspirators hatched the Watergate plot, and they couldn’t keep the secret more than a day or so.

A fifth answer: maybe the authorities stole the body. But they would undoubtedly have produced it the moment the resurrection was first preached by the disciples. And a body has ever been found, though skeptics for twenty centuries have looked.

When our tour group visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul three weeks ago, we saw on display hair and teeth from Mohammed. None are on display anywhere in the world for Jesus.

A sixth option: perhaps Jesus didn’t die, but swooned on the cross and later convinced his disciples that he had been resurrected. This is the thesis of Hugh Schonfield’s best-selling book, The Passover Plot. But verse 7 is fascinating rebuttal: “The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” The Greek original is clearer: the cloth around Jesus’ dead head was collapsed in on itself, not unfolded as it would have to be if he or anyone else had removed it from his body. And a swooned victim of crucifixion could never overpower guards, walk through locked doors, and ascend back into the heavens. This theory won’t work.

A last attempt: perhaps someone else died in Jesus’ place, maybe his twin brother, as philosopher Robert Greg Cavin speculates. Perhaps God substituted someone else for him, as the Muslim faith teaches. But men and women who lived with him for three years saw him raised, and his own mother saw him die. This explanation doesn’t work, either.

And so we have exhausted literally every possibility. There is a real, empty tomb. And no possible explanation for it, except that Jesus is alive and Easter is true.

I came to know that it is so as I took that Saturday walk and thought about the evidence. I came back with a deep assurance that Christianity is real, that Jesus is alive, and that he is worth my life. I have never had cause to doubt since. I encourage you to join me in that commitment to the reality of Easter today.

Live in relationship with the living Christ

But is Easter relevant? I know that Easter Island is real, but that fact doesn’t make it relevant to my life. What about Easter Day? What difference does its reality make for us? Why come back to worship God next week? Why pray tomorrow? Why share your faith on Tuesday?

To answer these questions, I need you to take another walk with me.

It was Monday before Easter Sunday in 1997. Our ministry staff at my church in Atlanta took two days for a silent retreat.

Late Monday afternoon I took a walk down to the Chattahoochee River and around to the waterfall on the retreat property. I sat on a deck overlooking that waterfall, and God spoke to me. He showed me that my faith had become a religion, not a relationship. That I was working for God, not walking with him. I couldn’t remember the last time I prayed because I simply wanted to be with God, or read the Scriptures simply because I wanted to hear from him. I couldn’t remember the last time I took an hour to listen to God, or the last time I told him I loved him.

Easter was real for me, but the living Christ was not relevant. During those two days, I learned how to fall back in love with Jesus again. I’d like you to take that retreat, that walk, with me. Ask yourself the two questions I asked myself.

First, ask yourself whether you have a religion or a relationship with God.

A religion is something we do to please God, to earn his blessing and help. A relationship with him is what we do because God is pleased with us, because he loves us. Are you here today for what you can get out of church, or for what you can give to God in gratitude?

A religion requires an event, a place to go, a tradition to keep. A relationship is not an event or tradition, but a celebration of our daily faith in God. Are you here to observe a religious event, or to celebrate the risen Christ?

A religion can be completed as a task is completed or a bill is paid for the year. A relationship with God is never done—every day is new and exciting. Will you feel you’ve done your religious duty today, or that tomorrow is another day to walk with Jesus?

I determined on that day that I had more a religion than a relationship with God. What about you?

Second, ask yourself if you want a transforming relationship with Jesus. A religion leaves us the same as we were. A relationship with Jesus always changes us for the better.

These disciples were confused, upset, and frightened. They were meeting “with the doors locked for fear of the Jews” on that first Easter Sunday (v. 19), and again the next week. But soon these men who were terrified of the authorities were preaching to them. The “doubting Thomas” of verse 25 became the great missionary to India. Matthew would die for Christ in Ethiopia, James in Jerusalem, Philip in Asia Minor, James the Less in Egypt, Jude in Persia, and Peter in Rome. John would be exiled on Patmos, and would write our text and gospel.

I decided that I wanted more with Jesus, that I wanted him to transform my life as he had theirs and so many others. Do you? When is the last time worshipping Jesus changed your life?

Do you know how much Jesus wants a personal, daily relationship with you? He chose to stay on earth for forty days after his resurrection. Forty days to eat and live with his disciples, to teach them God’s word, to develop their faith, to prepare them for the future. He waited forty days to return to his glory with his Father, because he wanted a relationship with his friends.

That’s what I learned again on my Easter walk with Jesus four years ago. That Jesus wants us to love him before he wants anything else from us. I learned that Easter is not the observance of a religion, but the celebration of a relationship. Not an island we visit each year, but a home where we live every day. Do you want that kind of relationship with God?

Conclusion

You can begin today. Jesus is ready and waiting. In a moment I’ll give you opportunity to pray with me, as I introduce you to him.

If you have begun that relationship, you can deepen it today. Take a few minutes today to be alone with him. Thank him for dying on the cross in your place, to pay for your sins. Thank him for rising from the grave, so that you can have eternal life in heaven. Make an appointment to meet him tomorrow for Bible study and prayer, and next week here with us for worship. Connect the island of Easter to the continent of your life.

If you already have, ask Jesus what he wants next from you. How can your walk with him be even stronger and deeper? What next step can you take? Ask him today, and follow him tomorrow.

The historian Philip Schaff said it well: “This Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; without science and learning, He shed more light on things human and divine than all philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of schools, He spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since, and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, He set more pens in motion, and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, works of art, and songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.”

And now he wants a living, daily relationship with you. What is your reply to him?

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