Topical Scripture: Matthew 28:1-10
He was a new clerk at the supermarket, his first day on the job. A lady told him she wanted to buy half a head of lettuce. He said, “I’ll have to go back and talk to the manager.” He went to the rear of the store, not noticing that the woman was walking right behind him. He found the manager and said, “There’s some stupid old lady out there that wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?”
Seeing the horrified look on the manager’s face, he turned around and, seeing the woman, added, “And this nice lady wants to buy the other half. Will that be all right?” The relieved manager agreed.
Later that day, the manager congratulated the boy on his quick thinking and asked where he was from. The boy said, “I’m from Toronto, Canada, the home of beautiful hockey players and ugly women.” The manager said, “My wife is from Toronto.” The boy said, “Oh, what team did she play for?”
I’m going to assume today that you’re as smart as that young man. That you know that reindeer don’t fly, and the Easter bunny isn’t real, and bodies don’t rise from the dead. If a friend of yours dies this week and you go to the “viewing” at the funeral home, you’ll expect to find his body in the casket. If it’s not there, you’ll consider these possibilities: (a) you’ve gone to the wrong viewing room at the funeral home; (b) the morticians have moved the body; (c) a family member or friend has taken it; (d) the person didn’t really die, and it’s all a mistake; or (e) you’re hallucinating, grieving so that you’ve lost touch with reality. These are your only logical options. Or maybe there’s one more.
I’d like to tell you two very personal stories regarding the resurrection. Next to my decision in 1973 to trust Christ as my Savior, these two stories are the most important events that have happened to my soul. I hope they’ll happen to yours as well this morning.
Then this will be Resurrection Sunday, not just a holiday but a holy day, for you today.
Is Easter real?
It was February of my senior year in college. My father had just died two months earlier. Janet and I were engaged to be married. In three months I would graduate and move to seminary to begin a life in vocational ministry. And the roof fell in.
I was taking part in a college retreat in East Texas. That Saturday morning, I woke up with the greatest fears and doubts I have ever experienced in my life. What was I doing? Where was I heading? Was I sure this was what I wanted to do with my life? I had become a Christian six years earlier, but my faith had been easy to this point. Church, worship, friends.
Now I was about to put my future on the line, to spend the rest of my life preaching and teaching the word of God. Was I sure it was really true? Did I really want to do this? In Easter terms, did I want to put all my eggs in this basket?
I left the retreat on that Saturday morning and went for a very long walk. I can still remember the blue sky overhead, the crunch of the winter leaves beneath my feet as I hiked through the woods. In my mind I returned to the first Easter. Go there with me now.
As the story begins, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb” (v. 1). Why here? Because they had seen Jesus buried (Matthew 27:61) and knew this to be the place. Even if they were wrong, Joseph (the owner of the tomb) would have corrected the mistake. If he did not, the Roman soldiers and authorities would have and quickly produced the body. So we haven’t come to the wrong viewing room.
When the angel rolled back the stone, the guards “shook” and fainted. So the soldiers didn’t take the body. Even if other Roman or religious authorities did, and Christians began erroneously proclaiming the resurrection, they would have produced the corpse and proved them liars. The morticians didn’t move the body.
“The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified” (v. 5).”
Jesus “was crucified”–the Greek is completed action, something already done. The Roman medical examiner pronounced him dead; the spear thrust into his side had pierced the pericardial sac around his heart, ensuring his death.
The burial cloths wrapped around his corpse made an airtight seal which would have suffocated him, even if he survived the cross. John’s gospel tell us that when Peter and John saw these burial cloths, they were collapsed on themselves, not stripped off; the body inside simply vanished (John 20:5-7).
He didn’t swoon, or fake his death. Ancient historians Tacitus, Seutonius, Mara bar Serapion and Josephus all confirm that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. It’s not a mistake–he really did die.
The angel continues: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him'” (vs. 6-7).
So we know that the disciples and women didn’t steal the body. They were as confused as anybody. They would not later lie about the resurrection, then die for a lie. And we know that they were not hallucinating; Peter and John would soon see the empty tomb, and the risen Christ would appear to more than 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6).
That Saturday morning, on that long walk, I mulled over the evidence. And came to this logical conclusion: Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. If he is raised, he must be God and Lord. He must be worth my life and service. His resurrection is the rope from which we swing. We put all our eggs in this basket. Easter is real. I hope you’ve come to the same conclusion, or that you will today.
Is it relevant?
But does it matter? Easter is a nice story, a lovely tradition, a time with your family in church and around the table, then we’re done. We move on. We’ve made a holy day into a holiday. What’s wrong with that? Why does the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead matter to our lives now, 20 centuries later?
Take another trip with me. It is the Monday of Holy Week in 1997. I’m with our ministry staff from my church in Atlanta, at a retreat center. We are given an essay by the well-known Christian writer, Mike Yaconelli. I’ve read and used it so many times since that it’s become part of me. Mike’s essay begins this way:
I lost my soul. I mean, I didn’t know I had one. What I really mean is, I knew I had one, but I had never come in contact with it.
I came from a tradition where souls were a theological reality, not a faith reality. Souls were for saving, not for communing. Souls were for converting and, once they were converted, they were to be left alone. Souls were too mystical, too subjective, too ambiguous, too risky.
I came from a wonderful tradition that has always lifted up the integrity of the Word of God, the significance of the Church, the centrality of salvation. But that same tradition, in the past few years, as seen an epidemic of moral failure. In a tradition that has always placed a high value on morality, moral failure has become a common occurrence. There seems to be an ever-increasing amount of defections from the faith. More and more of my friends are dropping out, giving up, or just placing their faith on the shelf for awhile.
Why? We have lost touch with our souls. We have been nourishing our minds, our relational skills, our theological knowledge, our psychological well-being, our physiological health . . . but we have abandoned our souls. Our souls have been lost.
I read the essay, then went for a walk. Sitting on a wooden deck overlooking a waterfall on the retreat grounds, the risen Christ spoke to me. I never use that phrase. I have never heard God’s audible voice. But on that Monday before Easter, Jesus’ Spirit spoke to my spirit as tangibly as if his words were audible. He made me realize that I had lost touch with my soul. I was so busy doing the work of the Lord that I had lost touch with the Lord. Mike’s essay described the state of my soul:
I became aware that my whole life was consumed with doing rather than being. I knew what it meant to believe in Jesus, I did not know what it meant to be with Jesus. I knew how to talk about Jesus, I did not know how to sit still long enough to let Jesus talk to me. I found it easy to do the work of God, but I had no idea how to let God work in me. . . . I knew how to be busy, but I did not know how to be still. . . . I could meet God anywhere, except in my heart, in my soul, in my being.
Sitting on that wooden deck, I could not remember the last time I prayed just to be with Jesus rather than to ask him for something. The last time I read his word just to hear from him, rather than to prepare a message or complete the day’s Bible study. The last time I sat in silence and listened to him. The last time I told him that I loved him.
I believed he was alive and real, but he wasn’t alive and real in me. That day I realized that he wants me to love him before he wants me to serve him. He wants me to walk with him, to pray to him, to listen to his voice in his word, to worship him, to do life with him. Not just go to church and do the work of the ministry, but love the Lord of the church and the Lord of the ministry. To serve because he loves me, not so he will. To stay close to Jesus every day, not just on Easter or Sunday.
That Monday before Easter I learned this fact: If we believe that Jesus is alive, and act as though he is, he will be for us. He will be as real to us as he was to the women in our text. They came to believe intellectually that he was alive, but then they met him personally. “Greetings,” he said (v. 9a); the Greek word is “Rejoice!” And they “clasped his feet and worshiped him” (v. 9b), and then told his disciples and the world that he was alive.
Because they had found him to be alive in their souls.
The first Easter changed nothing for those who did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection intellectually, or meet the living Lord personally. Will this latest Easter in Christian history do any more for you? Will you be any different when you leave than when you entered?
“Come and see the place where he lay” (v. 6). Consider the evidence. Examine the options. Understand that the tomb is still empty, and there’s no explanation except that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Sunday, April 19, AD 29. Accept the truth that Easter is real.
Now “clasp his feet and worship him” (v. 9). Abandon the self-sufficient, self-reliant way of life for which our culture is so famous. Ask the living Lord to guide your days and decisions. Start tomorrow by praying to him and listening to his voice through his word. Tell him you love him. Join us again next Sunday as we worship him. If you believe Jesus is alive, and act as though he is, he will be. Easter will be both real and relevant. And this will be Resurrection Sunday for you.
Mike Yaconelli’s essay closes:
God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, “Michael, I am here. I have been calling you. I have been loving you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear Me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard Me.”
I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me. . . .
It feels very different now. There is an anticipation, an electricity about God’s presence in my life that I have never experienced before. For the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day, “Michael, I love you. You are beloved.” And for some strange reason, that seems to be enough.
I can tell you that it is.