What comes to your mind when you think about Easter?
Is it Easter Eggs?
Or perhaps you are someone who doesn't go regularly to church but you think it is good to go at Easter time.
Yes, it is good going to church. Christians all over the world try to go to church on Easter Sunday. It is the most important day in the Christian calendar. But why do we celebrate Easter today on the 20 April?
Well, since the 16th century we have celebrated Easter on the first Sunday following the full moon after the first day of Spring. That is when you date the Passover - the time of the Crucifixion. To do that you have to fit solar to lunar calendars. That sounds complicated - and it is!
You have to use Golden Numbers and then do all sorts of calculations. Nor are Golden Numbers some secret code from Lord of the Rings. No! You find them in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer along with several pages of tables to help you do the calculations. You need Advanced Maths and a lot of time to determine the date of Easter.
The date, of course, doesn't matter. It is the fact that matters - the fact of that first Easter. As we sang in our opening hymn -
"Jesus Christ is risen today. Alleluia [which means, Praise the Lord]."
2000 years ago the Tomb of Jesus Christ of Nazareth was found empty. The message of the Resurrection of Jesus then spread around the world and it continues to spread. It lifts Christianity out of the realm of dead superstition and mere religiosity to being the faith of millions of people who are seeking after the truth. So what happened? Listen to a summary given by Peter a short time after the Resurrection on the Day of Pentecost - Acts 2.22-24:
"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."
Why was Jesus crucified? Who was responsible for his death? Verse 23 says:
"You [Men of Israel], with the help of wicked men [that is a technical term for the Roman authorities], put him to death by nailing him to the cross".
So who were these "Men of Israel". Well, there was Judas, for a start. About a week before the Crucifixion Jesus was at a dinner party in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Suddenly Mary comes in and pours a pint - yes a pint - a milk bottle full - of very expensive perfume made from a plant called spikenard - or nard for short - over Jesus' feet. The whole house was then full of the smell. "But" the bible says, "one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot … objected." He said this was a waste. The perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. And listen to what the bible then says:
"He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it" (Jn 12.6).
Within no time, Judas was going to the chief priests. And for 30 silver coins he was willing to betray Jesus, which he did with a kiss. So the greed and materialism of Judas, in part, was responsible for Jesus' death. But money doesn't guarantee happiness as Judas tragically found out. Paul Getty, one of the richest of men, died this week. He said that he only began to be happy once he gave his money away.
Then there were the Chief Priests. Matthew tells us:
"all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death" (Matthew 27.1).
So the Chief Priest had Jesus arrested. Christ was crucified as a result not just of a man whose God was money, but because of the ideas and plans of senior clergy who hated the real Christ. Beware of false religion. And test everything religious leaders say against the Bible.
Then there was Pontius Pilate the Roman governor. He, too, was responsible for Jesus death. Why? Because he was morally weak. He knew that Jesus was innocent. But he gave in to the crowd. Then he thought he could free himself from guilt by washing his hands. How foolish! So Jesus was crucified because of greed, false religion and moral weakness. But that is only half the story. We have been looking only at half of verse 23. For the verse begins like this:
"This man [Jesus Christ] was handed over to you [Men of Israel] by God's set purpose and foreknowledge."
Nothing happened - and nothing does happen - without Almighty God's sovereign permission. God was in control at the time of the crucifixion. It all happened by his "set purpose and foreknowledge." The Cross of Christ was his great plan of salvation. On the Cross Christ out of his love, was bearing the sin of the world. He was dying for your sin and my sin - all our greed; all our false religion; and all our moral weakness and much else besides. The Cross was a truly supernatural event. Amazing things accompanied the death of Christ.
There was darkness. There was an earthquake. And the great temple curtain was split from top to bottom. This was God's symbolic way of saying that the old order of sacrifices and temple rituals had come to an end. For Christ was the perfect sacrifice. He once for all bore our sins. So that is what happened and that is why Jesus was crucified and then buried. But what happened next? John 20 verse 1 - the first verse of our Bible reading this morning - says:
"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw the stone had been removed from the entrance."
And the tomb was empty, we were told, because Jesus had risen.
What does it all mean? First, it means that Jesus is alive and his message is true. He is "the way, the truth and the life". The bones of Mohammed are in Medina. The bones of the Buddha are in India. The bones of Karl Marx are in Highgate Cemetery in London. But in Jerusalem is the empty tomb. The Resurrection sets Jesus apart from every other religious or political leader. The Christian faith which is faith in the person of Jesus Christ and a faith in the Resurrection of Christ, rests four square on facts, not theories. It is like a solid four legged table.
The Empty Tomb is fundamental [and I have written more about that in this month's Coloured Supplement which you are free to take at the end of the service].
But the appearances of Jesus to Mary and the other disciples are also fundamental. Nor were they cases of wish fulfilment or hallucination. It would have been a wish fulfilment if Mary had seen the Gardener and thought she had seen Jesus. But it was the other way round. She saw Jesus and thought she saw the Gardener. And Jesus appeared to others - this was not just "one off". He appeared, we know, to over 500 all at the same time on one occasion.
Then there were the changed lives. Peter at the time of the trial of Jesus couldn't admit, even, to some girls that he knew Jesus. He was so terrified. But here in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost after he had met with the risen Jesus, he is speaking to thousands openly about Jesus and the Resurrection and speaking fearlessly.
And then there is the Church down the centuries. For all its faults and failings, it has grown to be the only truly global faith. It has brought hope and new life to millions. So Easter means that Christ truly is who he said he was, the Son of God. The Resurrection confirms that truth. Peter said at Pentecost (Acts 2.24):
"God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."
Easter is the time for outdoor activities to begin in earnest. If you go to parts of the Cheviots you will see some hang-gliding. Larry Walters, an American, tried his own version of hang-gliding. He flew in a garden chair that was suspended by 42 large helium filled balloons. When he got to an altitude of 16,000 feet, be began popping the balloons with a pellet gun, so he could descend to the ground again safely. If you have helium in a balloon it is impossible for it not to rise. In a way infinitely more profound, the divine Son of God, the one through whom this world came into existence, could not be bound by death. It was impossible for Christ not to rise from the dead.
So Easter and the fact that Jesus is alive means the Christian faith is true. It also means that there is hope. Listen to what Peter said in his epistle:
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1 Peter 1.3).
There is hope for the present as you live your life confident of Christ's presence and power. There is hope for the future - in heaven, with Christ, beyond the grave.
Another rich American was William Randolph Hearst, newspaper billionaire. He, like Paul Getty, loved beautiful paintings. One day, Mr Hearst saw copies of two paintings he particularly wanted for his own collection. He summoned his staff members and told them to locate the originals and buy them regardless of the cost. They spent weeks trying to find the paintings. Eventually they were found - in a warehouse on the other side of town in the very city where Hearst worked. Hearst was thrilled. He was filled with anticipation as his staff took him to view the paintings. When they arrived at the warehouse Hearst was suddenly confused. "Is this where the paintings are located?" "Yes," replied his staff member. "Is something wrong?" "Well, I already own this warehouse and everything in it! Those paintings were mine all along!"
Someone here this morning may still be looking for hope in the wrong place, when all along it is nearer home like Hearst's paintings. For you will find it when you respond to those promptings of God's Holy Spirit that you already have - through your conscience, through the remarks of a friend, even through coming here this morning. Perhaps you are trying money, false religion, or popularity - like Judas, the Jewish religious leaders and Pilate. But that is not the way to true and lasting hope. Listen to how Peter ended his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2.38):
"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
So why not pray for forgiveness? Then open your life to the risen Lord who wants to give you new spiritual life and so hope by his Holy Spirit. If you have already done that, thank God for Easter and then commit yourself to telling others about the great truth and hope of the Resurrection of Jesus.