Today we’re beginning a new mini-series titled A.D. based upon the TV series which begins tonight. This series will be looking at the first followers of Christ as we follow them through the first 10 chapters of Acts in what was and is the most powerful global movement in the history of the world. You could say the characters in this story really are action figures, but they’re not musclebound caped heroes, they’re just ordinary, everyday men and women, like you and I, filled with the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. The things they did and the things they said have reverberated through the centuries; and their obedience to Christ shaped the church and changed the world. It was they who made it possible for the message of Jesus Christ to reach you and I more than 2000 years later.
This morning, this resurrection morning, we will begin, not in the book of Acts, but at the very end of the gospel according to Matthew. And I think it’s important that we begin here, because as much as they had learned from Jesus, as much as they’d walked through the trauma of his suffering and death, they still didn’t get it. They had walked with the son of God, they had sat at his feet, they had learned from his teaching, and they had witnessed his miracles. But now they have discovered an empty tomb and life which in many ways had unraveled before their very eyes, now was unfolding before them moment by moment. They just like us had to live life day by day… like us they had to respond, to obey, and to move forward even when the path was unclear. They modeled for us, what it’s like to put our faith into action, one step at a time.
There is much we can learn from these early followers of Christ as we join with them at the tomb of Jesus. It truly was a day that rocked their world. You know, suddenly their Master, their Lord, and their teacher was gone. Every hope had been destroyed leaving them with that hollow sickening feeling of dread… you know the one that you feel in the very pit of your stomach. Now the Lord was gone and they were left empty, shocked, and grieving in disbelief.
Can you imagine their confusion? They had left everything. They had literally followed Jesus around the country. They believed in him. They depended on him. And now what? Jesus was gone! Now their hearts were broken, their hope was gone, and it was over... or was it?
No… Easter was just the beginning. Let’s read together at Matthew chapter 28, in verse one:
28 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 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.' Now I have told you."
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." NIV
One of my earliest memories of going to the movies, was back in the 70s, going with my brothers and sisters to see Superman starring Christopher Reeve. And I remember in the movie, Lois Lane was driving through the desert when an earthquake causes the ground to open up swallowing her car. Superman can’t get there in time to save Lois because he is busy saving the world. When he discovers that Lois is dead, he’s devastated and gets so angry that he flies around the earth at supersonic speeds, reversing its rotation, and supposedly turning back time.
Of course, in reality, scientifically this concept is a little weak, you know, considering that the earth rotates according to NASA at 1037 mph. So if in fact Superman had reversed the rotation of the earth, if in fact he was able to turn back time, he may have saved Lois Lane, but everyone else on the planet would have died of whiplash! But is still a cool concept. Don’t you wish you could turn back time right after saying or doing something you shouldn’t have?
The problem is what’s been done is done. Some things in life are irreversible. You know, it’s like you can’t un-bake cookies, you can’t uncut hair, undelete documents, or un-run red lights. And it’s often those very things that we’ve learned the hard way..right? You know, some of life’s lessons are laughed off; but there are those other irreversible moments that leave a hole in your heart forever… Like standing at the foot of the casket. Like the feeling following a statement like… “It’s cancer…” or “I don’t love you anymore…” or “We’re letting you go…” or “I’m sorry, there was nothing else we could do…”
The women who had been there at the cross and had watched Jesus die came early to the tomb bringing spices with which to anoint his body. They thought he was dead. They came looking for a dead body. In fact, it is recorded that they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" (Mark 16:3) They were discouraged, they were without hope, and they were looking for a body.
The angel said to those women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here…” (Matthew 28:5-6).
Now if you ever been on the receiving end of divorce papers, if you’ve answered that frantic phone call in the middle of the night, or gotten those lab results from the doctor that affirmed your worst fears, you know that feeling all too well. It’s like the bottom just dropped out of your life…
Just days before, the women had been there, they had seen the Lord Jesus Christ hanging on the cross. They had seen his face bruised and swollen… his body torn and bleeding. They had seen him give up his spirit and die. For that matter, as evening approached on Friday, the men on either side of him were still alive, so the Roman soldiers broke their legs to speed up their deaths. Jesus it appeared was already dead so they didn’t break his legs; but just to be sure, one of the soldiers thrust his spear into Christ’s side. He was dead! …and his followers were discouraged and defeated.
And Jesus followers weren’t the only ones struggling with the events of this famous weekend. The high priest Caiaphas is questioned by his fellow priests about whether executing Jesus had been the right thing to do. One named Joseph of Arimathea was especially remorseful, feeling sorry for Jesus and his family; and so he took custody of the body, placing it in his own burial chamber, so as to give Christ a proper burial; fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, “He was assigned a grave… with the rich in his death” (Isaiah 53:9). Caiaphas hoping that he had the Jesus problem solved was infuriated and convinces Pilate to place soldiers and a Roman seal over the tomb where Jesus is buried; remembering that Jesus had claimed that he would rise again after three days. Now he began to breathe easier. This man Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, was dead and out-of-the-way. It would all die down in a few days and things would soon return to normal.
But you may have heard the phrase “it’s not over until God says it’s over…” and strange things began to happen. The soldiers that had been hired to stand guard at the tomb came back into the city shortly after dawn on Sunday, trembling in terror. They went to the chief priests and reported that at dawn a violent earthquake had shaken the ground and from the sky an angel whose appearance was like lightning and whose clothes were white as snow, came down, rolled that huge stone away from the tomb and sat on it!
The religious leaders were shook up. They couldn’t deny the eyewitness report of these Roman soldiers. They had obviously been quite frightened by this sudden demonstration of supernatural power and there was no doubt they had seen something that had terrified them. But the bottom line is this: either the body is there or it isn’t; and even the enemies of Jesus had to agree that the tomb was indeed empty. His body was not there.
I’m reminded of the children’s story, Winnie-The-Pooh. Pooh runs into his friend, Eeyore the donkey, and asks him in surprise, “Why, what’s happened to your tail?
Eeyore replies, “What has happened to it?”
Winnie-The-Pooh responds, “It isn’t there!”
“Are you sure?” asks Eeyore and Winnie-The-Pooh says something really profound: “Well, either a tail is there or it isn’t there. You can’t make a mistake about it; and yours isn’t there!”
The angel said to the women, “He is not here; he has risen...”
To apply the words of Winnie-the-Pooh, either Jesus is there or he isn’t there, either he is alive or he isn’t. So the angel says, “Come and see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28:6). Now Matthew doesn’t tell us what they saw… he just said in verse eight, “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy…” But I believe God wanted us to know… So, the disciple John tells us in his Gospel that Mary came running to the disciples, crying out, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb” (John 20:2). He and Peter took off running for the tomb. When he got to the open tomb, bent over, and looked in, “He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen” (John 20:6-7).
In other words, the grave clothes were lying there on the stone shelf where Jesus had been laid. They were still wrapped, yet deflated like an empty cocoon and even the cloth that had been around his head was still in the place where his head had laid. Jesus resurrected body had passed through the grave clothes just as he had passed through the stone walls of that tomb. And when Jesus walked out of the tomb, the word impossible was removed from our vocabulary, because He is alive again! He is risen indeed! And His resurrection isn’t something we celebrate one day a year on Easter Sunday. It’s something we celebrate every Sunday and every day in every way. You see, news of a great victory is always exciting, but news of a victory after news of what appears to be a great loss is even better. It’s like a last second field goal or the buzzer sounding as the basketball is in the air a second before it drops through the hoop.
We must never underestimate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The world is looking for the body, but we know that “He is risen.” In this series, we’re going to follow the movement of these first followers of Christ through the book of Acts and we are going to see firsthand the significance of the resurrection. Because when Paul wrote to the Corinthians in chapter 15, he pointed to the changed lives of those who had actually seen the risen Christ. From the moment the women came face to face with Christ, when He appeared to the disciples in Jerusalem, and then again beside the Sea of Galilee, their lives were transformed. When He appeared to Peter and James, to more than five hundred people at one time, they confirmed Paul’s claim, and refused to give up their testimony that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and that He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried,” and “that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
And what more shall I say? There were those who by faith conquered kingdoms, shut the mouth of lions, and even raised the dead back to life again. Those who believed, found their weakness turned to strength as they were tortured, faced jeers, floggings, and imprisonment. They were stoned, persecuted, and mistreated; yet the church has withstood the hatred of its enemies, the rejection of family, the unfaithfulness of friends, and exists today as a triumphant witness to the power of the Resurrection. It may appear for a moment that the cause of Christ has been defeated, but when the early dawn darkness is broken by those first rays of sunlight and the empty tomb is exposed, the angel’s words resound, “He is not here; he is risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:6).
This morning, you and I cannot examine this evidence in the same way the believers did on that first Easter Sunday. But we do have the evidence of the Word of God and this is awesome, because it’s just as he said. He promised to rise from the dead and His Word was never broken.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us in chapter 16, “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). Again in chapter 17, “they will kill him and on the third day he’ll be raised to life” (Matthew 17:23). In Matthew chapter 20 Jesus says, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" (Matthew 20:18-19). And then in chapter 26, Jesus said, “but after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Matthew 26:32).
It’s amazing that they did not expect his resurrection or believe in his resurrection when he had taught this truth repeatedly. These events of this weekend happened just as he said. And the fact that Jesus Christ has risen from the grave is as significant today as it was 2000 years ago. The resurrection proves that Jesus is God’s Son and as he said, “He had the authority to lay down his life and to take it up again” (John 10:17-18).
Because it’s just as he said, his resurrection verifies the truth of Scripture, assures our own future resurrection, as well as our future inheritance. The Bible says, “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, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade — kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5).
It’s just as he said… yet somehow when Jesus was crucified, it came as a shock to his followers. They didn’t understand that he had to be crucified, that he would rise again the third day, and so when the crucifixion actually took place it shattered their faith, they fled, and even denied him, yet the Lord did not write them off as unfaithful. And there was even a saying in the early church: “If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:11-13). And in spite of their fears, their doubts, and their disbelief; after his resurrection the Lord sought out the disciples to encourage them, to restore them, and to re-commission them.
In verse eight, when Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb, she and the other Mary “ran to tell his disciples.” Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said”. As they fell at His feet in worship the Lord re-commissioned them, “Go and tell my brothers” (Matthew 28:8-10). They had experienced the grace of the living God who restores both hope and purpose to our lives.
Maybe today, you have fears and doubts. Let me assure you he is risen just as he said. And the same Jesus who restored Mary, the disciples who fled like Mark, the disciples who denied him like Peter, the disciples who refuse to believe like Thomas, will also restore your faith. You too can discover that God is the God of second chances.
The tomb is empty and that makes all the difference in the world because either Jesus is there or he isn’t there!
As we close there are two things I want to mention. Two things that stand out this time of year as we reflect on the death and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. One is that when Jesus was crucified he was nailed to a cross; signifying the fact that he died. You see you don’t just hang out on the cross; and neither do you get down and walk away. So Jesus is not still hanging there, suffering, and dying. He was dead and buried. The cross is empty!
The second thing which stands out is that when Jesus was buried, he was placed in a tomb which had never been used before. And that tomb today is empty and like new, because the grave could not keep him captive. The Bible tells us, “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” (Acts 2:24). This morning both the cross and the tomb are empty… and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
The tragedy is that there are still so many empty hearts and lives which Jesus longs to fill with Himself. The Apostle Paul writing to the church said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Today, won’t you surrender your emptiness to Christ so that the risen Lord might fill you with himself?
Pastor John Talcott
Christ's Community Church
303 West Lincoln Avenue
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
April 05, 2015