Easter Day 1999 The Empty Tomb

When the Soviet Union was still a super-power, a current hit on sale in record shops in Moscow was "Lenin lives in my heart". A student was asked if he believed the song. "How can I?" he replied. "The tomb of Lenin is one of the showpieces in Russia. And it is not an Empty Tomb!" There you have the great difference between the Christian faith and all other religions and philosophies. Someone put it like this: "The bones of Lenin are in Moscow. The bones of Mohammed are in Medina. The bones of Buddha are in India. But in Jerusalem there is the empty tomb." The Empty Tomb is our subject this morning. Today and next Sunday, in both the morning and the evening we are going to study John chapter 20 and what it teaches us about the resurrection and the risen Jesus Christ. This morning we are going to look at verses 1-9. The Resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith. It brought hope to the world that first Easter. People then saw something quite different about the early Christian converts. So they asked them questions. What they asked first of all was not about their faith but about their hope. The apostle Peter wrote:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3.15).

The early Christians knew that death had been conquered. They knew that the words of Jesus were true when he said:

"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; {26} and whoever lives and believes in me will never die."

Job had asked the question centuries before: "If a man dies, will he live again?" (Job 14:14). Millions have asked that question since. And they cannot answer it. But these Christians could. Christ had destroyed death, they said. People do fear death. In the modern world, in Kosovo you see simple people distraught when they tell of their loved ones who have been killed. Sophisticated intellectuals also speak of the dread of death. The 20th century atheist and philosopher, Bertrand Russell said: "there is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within." In the ancient world the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle said: "now death is the most terrible of all things, for it is the end." Death is the enemy. In the bible death is linked with sin. It says that "the sting of death is sin." But the Resurrection means death need be feared no more. "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [that means people already dead" (1 Cor 15.20). Christ's resurrection is a foretaste of ours.The empty tomb of Jesus and his appearing to his disciples gave the world a new hope. With that introduction let's now look at our passage more closely. First, I want us to think about THE DISCIPLES who went to the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning. There were three, Mary Magdalene, Peter and "the other disciple, the one Jesus loved" - who we know to be John, the apostle. They were all so different and with different needs. But the good news of the Resurrection is for everyone of every kind. Perhaps you have come in here this morning and you think your problems are so different from other people's. Well, the Jesus that Mary, Peter and John discovered had risen and left the tomb, can meet your need. Mary had been very mixed up. We are told that she was someone "from whom seven demons had come out" (Luke 8.2). She had probably been involved in the occult. Many people get involved in the occult today. Look at all the New Age and occult literature in the bookshops. And it is dangerous for all the initial claims to comfort and healing. The bible says so, and experience long term proves so. Then there was Peter. He was a hard swearing man. But like so many who want to be one of the boys he was a weak man - morally. He had to follow the crowd and be thought well of by the girls. He couldn't stand up for the truth and be in a minority of one. This led him to deny Christ three times. And there was John. He was at the other end of the spectrum. He was something of an intellectual. Certainly he was an amazing writer, with great artistic gifts as can be seen from his Gospel, and the letters of John and the book of Revelation which are probably from the same disciple. I expect there are people like these disciples here this morning. If you are, the good news on this Easter morning is that the risen Lord Jesus Christ loves you, and can free you, forgive you, comfort you and meet you in your need, by his Holy Spirit as he did with Mary, Peter and John. You may have been mixed up in the occult - or sexually mixed up as some people say Mary was. Or perhaps you are like Peter - you want to be one of the boys. The only reason you are holding back from committing your life to Jesus Christ is because of what your friends will think. Perhaps you are like John. You are a thoughtful and sensitive person. The risen Jesus met John's needs. John like the others was undoubtedly in great despair. Cardinal Newman talks about imagining what it would feel like to look out into the world and see no trace of God at all. It would be, he says, ...

just as if I were to look into a mirror and not see my face.

Just think of it - the terrifying thought of looking straight into a mirror and seeing only the furniture behind you. That was undoubtedly the state of John's soul that first Easter morning. The Christ in whom he and his friends had staked their futures was not the Messiah after all - so they thought. He had died by crucifixion - the most cursed of deaths according to Jewish law. Who is feeling like that this morning? The bottom for some reason or another has dropped out of your life. Be encouraged! Soon John was meeting the risen Jesus. Later he had an amazing vision on the Island of Patmos. And Jesus said to him those immortal words:

"Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. {18} I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades (Rev 1:17-18).

So much for the disciples. Let's now think, secondly about THE EMPTY TOMB. You say, "all this talk about the Resurrection is very good. It is very comforting. But can you expect us to believe it in 1999?" I reply: "how can you not believe it in 1999?" G.K.Chesterton once said the trouble with Christianity is not that is has been tried and found wanting, it has not been tried. And the trouble with many people over the Resurrection is that they have never tried to think about it seriously. There is nothing new in people having questions about the Resurrection of Jesus. 18th century England, before the great Evangelical revival in the time of Wesley and Whitefield that changed the face of England and the Western world, was as pagan and immoral as today if not worse. Christianity was a laughing stock, according to Bishop Butler, the Bishop of Durham at the time. And the church was confused. The celebrated 18th century lawyer, Blackstone, went around a number of churches in London. He said you couldn't tell whether the preachers were followers of Confucius, Mohammed or Christ! But a book was published then on the Resurrection by a man called Gilbert West. It was to challenge the ignorance and prejudices of the day. And on his title page Gilbert West put these words from the Old Testament Apocrypha:

Blame not before thou hast examined the truth.

That is so relevant for today. People hear or read some second rate argument against the Resurrection and then treat in a totally cavalier fashion the documents and evidence of the New Testament. The New Testament makes it clear that the Resurrection of Jesus was not a crude resuscitation of a corpse. It was a supernatural bodily transformation. It was not the same old "flesh and blood" that was inheriting the new order of "the kingdom of God" - to use Paul's words. But the New Testament makes it quite clear that on Easter morning Jesus' tomb was found empty. And it was found empty because Jesus had risen. The body had passed through the grave clothes. Verses 6 and 7 of our reading are key:

He [Peter] saw the strips of linen lying there, {7} as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.

It wasn't a pile of linen that had been unwrapped. It was the linen lying there as though the body had passed through with the main shroud separate from the head piece. So verse 8:

Finally the other disciple [John], who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.

What made him believe was not his seeing the tomb empty. He had seen that when he first arrived. No! it was when he had a closer inspection of the burial clothes that he believed. Nor is there just the evidence of this Gospel. There are the three other Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. It is quite remarkable that the four Gospel writers all draw on different traditions. But they have remarkably similar accounts of the tomb being found empty. Mark's Gospel was probably written in the 60's of the first century. The information he and others drew on was being preached (and remembered) immediately after the event. And in 55 AD when Paul is writing to the Corinthians, he says that many of the disciples who had seen Jesus after the resurrection "are still alive". These people would have corrected these beliefs if they had been myths. That happened in the case of General Kitchener - of the Sudan, of the Boer War and of the first World War. After he drowned when his ship was sunk in the first World War, some people wouldn't believe he was dead. It took many years for people to believe he was dead. But in the end people faced the facts. It is the same with Elvis Presley. He lives on vividly in some people's memories. Some find it hard to believe he is dead. However, there is no serious religion of Elvis, that can bring peace and hope to millions and become a world religion. Elvis, like Lenin and those other religious leaders, does not have an empty tomb. But those early disciples did not believe in the resurrection just because of an empty tomb. It was the empty tomb together with their meeting Jesus. Tonight we are going to be hearing how Mary met Jesus; then next Sunday morning how the other disciples met him; and next Sunday evening how Thomas met Jesus. True, these accounts of the appearances in the Gospels, unlike the account of the empty tomb are so different. That is just what you would expect if different disciples reported different appearances of Jesus on different occasions to different writers and recorders. Nor were the disciples suggestible types of people. If it were just Mary on her own there might be some doubt. But Peter and John and then the sceptic Thomas do not seem at all suggestible. It is more reasonable to believe in the resurrection in 1999 than not to believe. That brings us to our final heading tonight. It comes from verse 9:

They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

JESUS HAD TO RISE Why did he have to rise? There are many reasons in the bible. But let me give you two fundamental reasons. First, there is the reason given in Romans 4 verse 25:

[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

What does that mean? On Good Friday Jesus Christ was crucified. On the one hand it was because the evil religious establishment together with a weak Roman Governor put him there. But on the other hand it was because you and I are sinners - along with those chief priests and elders and Pontius Pilate and Judas and President Milosevic and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and everyone else. All have sinned. All are guilty before God. The Cross - that it was needed - is a demonstration of how serious human sin is. Sin is turning your back on God and going your way and not his. We all do it - by nature. But on the Cross Christ bore the punishment you and I deserve. So the Cross is also a demonstration of how great is God's love. He wants to save us from a lost eternity. Peter didn't understand at the time, but in later life he understood something of what the death and resurrection of Christ was all about. He put it like this:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2.24).

The resurrection, is God's "yes" to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Who this morning has never said, "thank you" to Christ for dying for them? You can only do that when you realise that you need forgiveness, that you are a sinner. You may be religious and still not right with God. You may like coming to church. You may pray. You may read your bible. Those chief priests were religious, they prayed and they read the Old Testament. But they still put Christ on the cross. All of us fall short. We all need to be forgiven. The gospel of the Resurrection proves that not only death but also sin has been defeated. God puts your sin on Christ. You are then justified - to use that bible word. You are accepted just as you are as you accept by faith Christ's forgiveness. A second reason why "Jesus had to rise from the dead" is given in these words Peter:

In his [God's] great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Pet 1.3).

The resurrection means that a new birth is possible. You say, "what is that?" All of us by nature, by natural birth, are spiritually dead. Ultimately the reason why people don't believe in Jesus Christ and his resurrection is not because of intellectual difficulties. It is because they are spiritually dead and, therefore, blind and powerless. A lifeless corpse can't see; can't hear; can't speak, can't understand and can't do anything. You are like that spiritually, the bible says, until God gives you new spiritual life. He does that through Christ and his Holy Spirit. So Paul writes:

because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved (Eph 2.4-5).

I must conclude. I do so with three questions. Do you have hope for eternity or are you fearing death? Do you have peace with God because you know you sins have been forgiven? Do you have that "new birth" - that new life? The risen Christ can give you hope, forgiveness and new life. Having hope, being forgiven and experiencing new life is what the bible means by enjoying "salvation". Salvation is what the goodnews of Jesus Christ and Easter is all about. It is what Christ freely offers. He is the "saviour" of the world - and the only saviour. His Resurrection proves that. How are you saved - practically? Listen again to Paul - Romans 10.9:

if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

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