Well good morning everybody and a very Happy Easter!
Let me give you a quick 'What Happened Next?' quiz. We're heading back 2,000 years ago to that very first Easter and we find there that Jesus has been crucified – and as we read earlier on from Luke 23 he's been taken down off the cross, wrapped in linen and buried by a guy called Joseph in his own personal tomb. So… What Happened Next? Now I'm not going to take answers – because if you remember your R.E. lessons from school or you've had a lifetime of coming to Easter services – then you will know that Jesus rose from the grave! Jesus rising from the dead will probably not be nearly as surprising to you, but as we dive into Luke 24 this morning we find some women going to visit Jesus' tomb – and we have to remember… that they had never come to a service like this, let alone eaten an Easter egg or done an Easter egg hunt! So let's step into their shoes and we will see that:
1. The Resurrection was a Massive Surprise
Here's what Luke tells us happened next (Luke 24.1-4):
"But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [that's the women] went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel."
Now please imagine how these women felt as they came to Jesus tomb. Imagine their sense of loss as they mourned – they would never again share in the joy of Jesus' friendship, his wise advice or loving care that they had come to treasure. All they were left with was the horrific memory of his suffering and death. And all of their hopes for what Jesus was going to do for them and for God's people were dashed. If you have ever lost a loved one, or had a hero of yours prove to be a fraud, then you will know how they felt. And so as dawn broke that first Easter Sunday they came to Jesus' tomb carrying spices to anoint Jesus' body, so it wouldn't smell. This is what they did when burying folks in those days. But do you see what that means? They are planning for a dead Jesus. It is early in the morning and the sun is rising, but it's the darkest day of their lives. But then, when they arrive they find three surprises…
- The heavy stone which would have taken at least two strong people to budge it – it had been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. Strange?
- And then they go in and see that Jesus' body is not there!! Dead bodies don't tend to get up and nip out to shops for a pint of milk, do they?!
- But then comes the third surprise: As they are standing scratching their heads over all this, two angels appear and give them the fright of their lives. It was so stunning that the women in their fright hit the floor and then heard the angels say these amazing words:
"Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen."
Now, normally we don't enjoy being proven wrong do we? I know that I sometimes go to great lengths to avoid having to admit that I've made a mistake. But for these women, being wrong was the best thing in the world. These women thought the death of Jesus was the end. It was the burial not only of their friend, but of their hopes. And they were totally and gloriously wrong! You see, the Resurrection turns everything we 'think' we know on its head. That death actually leads to… Life! Weakness and suffering… give way to Glory. And those crushed dreams give way to… living Hope.
Folks, lots of great stories have some big moment that makes you rethink everything that you thought was true before, don't they? Like in Frozen when we find out that Prince Hans is not actually in love with Anna – but hidden beneath his charming disguise is a sinister plot to rule Arendelle as king. Or in Star Wars when we discover that Darth Vader is actually Luke Skywalker's Father (…and of course Princess Leia's too). When you have those pieces of information in place, you see the entire world of the film differently, don't you? Well the Resurrection of Jesus is no made up story – but it is THAT moment in human history. It's the big reveal… that flips everything on its head. Before you have eyes to see the risen Jesus, death is the end of everything; your hopes, your dreams, your relationships, your life – all gone! But once you can see him risen from the grave, death is not the end but merely the beginning. Just think about that for a second: one of the most obvious and (let's face it) painful facts of human life – that death is the end – turns out to be gloriously wrong!
For anyone who puts their faith in Jesus and follows him – death is not the end, but simply a door at which they leave behind sin and suffering and weakness and struggle – and enter into eternal life to be transformed with resurrection bodies and minds, to be with Jesus and become more like Jesus; to finally become the very best that we could ever be. The Bible only gives us some sneak previews of what heaven will be like, but it does tell us more than enough to help us see that life there with the risen Jesus will be better than anything we could ever experience in this life. C.S. Lewis puts it well at the end of The Last Battle – his seventh and final book in The Chronicles of Narnia series. He writes there:
"The things that began to happen... were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before."
I remember talking to a man at church who had cancer a few years ago. The doctors had stopped his treatment as there was nothing more they could do and he was dying. So with typical pastoral sensitivity as I talked to him I found myself blurting out: "Are you worried about death?" To which he said: "Why should I be? Jesus rose from the dead Ken. And in lots of ways I can't wait to meet him. Of course I want to stay for my family and friends, but I'm ready to go… because He lives!" Do you see folks? This is why we sang at the start of the service: "Let the Church with gladness Hymns of triumph sing, For her Lord now liveth, Death has lost its sting!" As for the Christian there is now no fear of death. No fear! Because Jesus is risen. So the resurrection is the most amazing surprise. And yet, as we follow these women to Jesus' tomb we also find out that…
2. The Resurrection Shouldn't have been a Surprise (v.5-8)
Folks, here's a little riddle for you: When is a surprise not a surprise? Answer: When you should already know! For example – Can anyone tell me what the surprise is inside this Kinder Surprise Easter Egg? Inside the egg is a toy. And to be honest – that's not really a surprise. Everyone knows there is a toy inside! And speak to most grown-ups and they will tell you that it is no surprise that the toy will either break or becoming boring about 5 minutes after it's opened. And what the Angels tell the women next is that Jesus' resurrection should have been like a Kinder Egg – It shouldn't really have been much of a surprise. Why? Because he'd already told them it was going to happen. As the Angels say:
"'Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.' And they remembered his words…"
Three times in Luke's gospel Jesus had told his followers that after he was betrayed and crucified, he would be raised again on the third day. In fact, if we read the other gospels too we will hear him make these promises thirteen times! Here's one example from Luke 18.31-33 – as Jesus says to his followers just over a week before he was killed:
"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spat upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise."
And now these women had:
- Followed Jesus to Jerusalem
- Seen him handed over to the Roman governor to be sentenced to death
- Watched the mockery, rage and spittle rain down on him
- Seen the whip on his back
- And then they had seen him killed.
That was the Friday. And as Jews they would have counted part days as a day – so now it was Sunday… the third day. And they had forgotten the one thing that had not yet happened that Jesus said would happen:
"…and on the third day he will rise."
But now corrected by the Angels, they have their 'Ah-ha!' moment – Verse 8:
"And they remembered his words…"
You can imagine all of the pieces falling into place like the numbers in a combination lock. Now everything makes sense to them.
Folks, we are in a different position from these women. We stand on the far side of the cross and resurrection. So it's much easier for us to step back and see how those events fit in with the bigger picture of Jesus' life and teaching. But my guess is that there are times and situations in our lives where we can understand a little bit of what these women were feeling. As the pain of the crucifixion caused them to forget and ignore the promises of the resurrection.
Perhaps you have felt such a loss, and experienced such pain that it seemed – or still seems – impossible to remember and believe God's resurrection promises. Maybe there have been seasons in your life where it felt like God's plan had gone wrong and that any talk of hope seemed like nonsense to you. Maybe you are even very aware of the reality of death – you stare at it, but you can't stare through it.
In those times… Remember the resurrection of Jesus. He has risen! Trials and problems do not take him by surprise. The darkness at midnight does not mean that dawn is never coming – in fact the longer we been in the darkness the closer we are to the daybreak in those times. Remember the resurrection of Jesus. He has risen! Jesus kept his word to his followers – he suffered, he died and then he rose again just as he said he would. And if he was able to keep that promise… you can be sure that he will keep all of his promises to you.
So often we approach the circumstances of our lives like the women approached that tomb, don't we? Only seeing darkness and despair; planning for a dead Jesus. We look at our broken world with all its hurt and pain and evil and think that it's all too much for Jesus to fix – even though he has promised that he is coming back (Luke 12.40, 17.22-24) and that when he does he will make sure justice is done and make everything new (Luke 18.7-8). Or we look at the cost of following Jesus in a world that stands against him and think that for us to do that it's relational or social or maybe even economic suicide – even though Jesus has promised us that whatever we give up in order to follow Him, we will receive far more in this life, and infinitely more in the next (Luke 18.29-30). Or we look at our struggles with doubt, or habitual patterns of sin, or how far we have run from him and think that Jesus is defeated – that we are too hopeless for him ever to forgive, let alone turn around – even though Jesus promised the thief on the cross "today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23.43) and he promises anyone who turns to him a fresh start with a clean heart (Luke 11.13).
It is easy to think that everywhere we look Jesus seems dead and defeated. But he is not! He has risen! So you can trust Jesus. If he kept his promise to rise from the dead, you can be sure that he will keep every other promise as well. Whatever situation you find yourself in, whenever hope seems gone and the future looks bleak: "Remember how he told you…" Look at your own life – but also look back at the empty tomb. Jesus always keeps his promises. Folks, let me pray for us:
Father God, we thank you so much for what Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other woman who were with them found that first Easter Sunday – an empty tomb pointing to a risen Lord! We thank you that Jesus is not dead, but alive and is now seated at your right hand in heaven, so that we can come to him in faith and forgiveness from our sin; help in our time of need; mercy when we are struggling; strength when we are tempted and comfort when we're afraid. And most of all we thank you that we can know hope in the face of death – even our own death – because he is not in his tomb; he has risen. So we pray that you would take these truths deep into our hearts, and that they would change us to be more like Jesus. We pray in his name. Amen.