Luke 24:1-12. Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, 3 so they went in; but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They stood there puzzled about this, when suddenly two men in bright shining clothes stood by them. 5 Full of fear, the women bowed down to the ground, as the men said to them, “Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive? 6 He is not here; he has been raised. Remember what he said to you while he was in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and three days later rise to life.’”
8 Then the women remembered his words, 9 returned from the tomb, and told all these things to the eleven disciples and all the rest. 10 The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James; they and the other women with them told these things to the apostles. 11 But the apostles thought that what the women said was nonsense, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; he bent down and saw the grave cloths but nothing else. Then he went back home amazed at what had happened.
Have you ever tried to look up your family roots? In the last few years, you might have seen several TV shows encouraging people to do that. If you’re up to it, you can pay for a subscription that will help you see certain records. You might find some relatives you didn’t know you had. There is actually quite a lot you can find out about your ancestors on-line these days. Maybe that will shed some light on how you and your family turned out the way you did. You can submit your DNA and find out some deeper secrets – like where your people were really from.
But for some things, you still have to the places where the history happened. So, a number of years ago, I made a trip to rural Wisconsin, to look for the farm of my Norwegian great-grandfather. It took me two trips, and I finally found it by matching up the line of the hills on an old picture. It was still rural countryside, but nothing else looked familiar.
I found a cemetery buried in weeds, where some of our family members were buried over a hundred years ago. It was as if time and everyone else had forgotten about the family farm and the cemetery. In country places there are small cemeteries like that one – grown over with bushes and trees, in a place you would go to only if you knew someone buried there and you knew exactly where to go.
I went to the farmhouse, and the elderly man who answered the door knew who my great grandfather was. He had bought the place from someone in my family many years before. I gave him a copy of the ancient picture of the farm and he said, “I have something for you, if you’re interested.”
In the basement, he had a couple of the family tombstones. That was a mystery until we realized that these stones had been over graves in the cemetery that were now marked by one big stone with all the family names on it. So, these tombstones in the basement weren’t necessary anymore. He was offering these stones, and I had to think about it. Did I really want a used tombstone? I decided to pass.
Try to imagine that. What would you do with a used tombstone? You could put it in the house somewhere, but even if it was out of sight in your basement, your friends and family might think it’s a little odd. Kind of creepy. You could put it out in the yard somewhere, but that might not go especially well with your landscaping and your neighbors would probably have opinions. If you were selling your house, your realtor might suggest removing it. It implies that someone is buried underneath, but it would be a false grave.
In the same way, for someone who believes in the resurrection of Jesus, there is probably nothing more unnecessary or irrelevant. It was a false grave. “…the men said to them, ‘Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive?’” (Luke 24:5) Those women who found the tomb empty probably never looked at tombstones or cemeteries the same way again. And neither should we.
The story about the resurrection of Jesus we hear most often is the one from John: Mary Magdalene comes to mourn at the tomb and finds Jesus standing outside (see John 20:1-18). At first, she thinks he’s the cemetery gardener. But in Luke, he’s not there at all. They don’t know where he is. They see angels, but no Jesus. Peter goes to look, but he only sees an empty tomb and doesn’t know what to think. Eventually in the story, Jesus goes to Peter and appears to him.
When the disciples first heard it, they thought it was nonsense – the normal response to a story like this. We are so used to hearing and telling it that we don’t stop anymore to think about how incredible it sounds. Illogical. Crazy! Nonsense. But we are here today, in fact, we are here every Sunday because a man was executed on a Friday and came back to life two days later. We say we believe this. It’s a stretch. It takes… faith.
I’ll confess that I was a serious doubter. I also thought that it was fairytale-nonsense, until I had my own infusion of faith in the middle of one night, about halfway through college. Giving a silent cry out to God, asking God to be real to me, to help me, God answered by changing me in ways I still find difficult to describe. I lost my compulsion to worry, and I never doubted this story about Jesus again. It happened in a moment. He is alive; I know it personally.
Before he died, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. C. S. Lewis said, “Jesus is either the Son of God or he is in the same category as a man who thinks he is a poached egg.” But then, he proved he is the Son of God. Because he is alive. He is risen. Truly!
I would have to assume that someone here is doubting. This is fairy-tale-crazy-stuff. The thing about the Easter story, this Jesus rising from the dead story, is that when you hear it, when you really listen to what’s being said, you have to decide whether it’s true or not. It’s a leap. It takes faith.
It’s a risk to believe this story, and the only real proof that it’s true is the power of change it has over us. The living Christ changes us, and we change our world – not because we have good morals on our side, but because Jesus rose from the dead. We believe it, and the power of God makes us alive. The living Jesus is the one who can set us free from the tombs we live in, and give us life, and give us eyes to see the world in whole new way. That’s the power of God at work when we believe in Christ.
A story is told of a rabbi in a European village, who one day summoned the townspeople to the village square. He said he had an important announcement. The people gathered, but not without much grumbling at the inconvenience. The merchant resented having to leave his business. The wife complained because she had so many errands to run. But, out of respect, they went unwillingly to the town square.
When all were present, the rabbi said, “I wish to announce there is a God in the world.” That was all he said. But the people understood. They knew they had been acting as if God did not exist.
I would like to announce that Jesus is alive… even though sometimes, we act as if Jesus weren’t alive. Sometimes, we forget.
I don’t think you have to be physically dead to be in a cemetery. We have opportunities every day to give up hope. Every day we have temptations to think that life has no meaning. Chances to believe that no matter what you do, it will never be enough. That is living in a cemetery. And Jesus sets you free from that tomb.
All of that thinking, all your sin, your separation from God, died on that cross. Faith in the living Jesus, giving yourself to the living Jesus creates a kind of life in you that you can’t get any other way. Your tombstone is unnecessary, because he is alive.
Where were you when you first heard, or understood, that Jesus is alive? Some people remember that day. For other people it’s more of a process and it’s hard to nail down a specific moment. The point is, it can happen.
If you have believed, you know what I’m talking about. This news is too good to keep to ourselves; we have to give it away! It’s not as hard as you think. It could be as easy as telling somebody you learned some Greek in church today. You can do it. We all can do it together. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
On this day, God turned all our thinking about cemeteries and about death upside down. Because of what happened on this day, at that cemetery outside the city wall in Jerusalem, for Christians, death is nothing more than a transition. It doesn’t matter that there’s life at the end of the tunnel or even that there is a tunnel. Death is the next step in living. I said living. On this day, God changed the meaning of death by changing what it means to be alive. God sent Jesus to change life – your life, right now.
On this day, God turned living upside down. That’s what happens to anybody who meets Jesus. They begin to live. Physical death is just a moment of transition for those who are alive in Jesus. That is the point of this story, and that is the point of our being here today.
The Apostle Paul makes it simple:
‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ (Romans 10:8-11)
We are here together because of our faith in something supernatural that happened in a cemetery. Don’t be confused – it’s our faith in that living one that makes it all work. Find a moment to tell God you believe, then tell someone else. It’s not as hard as you think.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.
O God, on this day you amazed the world. You took the worst that the human race had to offer and turned it into the best thing that ever happened. You saved us. You make life out of death. Now bring life to us. Make the living Jesus real to us in ways we’ve never experienced or expected. Help us make him our Lord.
Bring us out of the tombs we live in and send us on a mission. Take away our desire for the things that kill us and bury us, and use us to bring life to the world you love and sent Jesus to die for. Give us opportunities to show people that Jesus lives in us. Heal our relationships, give us a greater ability to love and forgive. Make us like him. Give us eyes that are sensitive to pain and injustice, and hands willing to do something that makes a difference.
We pray with faith that as we give ourselves to you, you will give us the kind of life that never dies, because of the risen Jesus. Amen.