Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easter: Did He Rise? What Does It Matter If He Did?

[This was prepared for delivery during the worship celebrations of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday, April 20, Easter Sunday.]

Matthew 28:1-10
On this Easter Sunday morning, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, I want to consider two simple questions:
  • Did Jesus really rise from the dead on the first Easter? 
  • And what difference does it make to us if He did?
We live in a skeptical age. The so-called “New Atheists,” people who not only adamantly reject the existence of God, but also reject all truth claims made by the Bible, are given great prominence these days.

Even within the Church, there are theologians who claim that Jesus was not physically raised from the dead, that what the first disciples called “the resurrection” was only their subjective experience of the dead Savior’s presence in their memories. Or, they say that the early disciples experienced a mass hallucination even though psychology tells us that such a phenomenon is impossible.

And truth be known, even the most pious and convinced of believers have their moments of doubt.

But let’s be clear: If Jesus didn’t actually physically rise from the dead, we may as well pack up, go home, and eat our Easter dinners right now.

And if we're part of the church just to feel good or to help us through this life, we've got it all wrong.

In the first century, the apostle Paul wrote this to church members in the Greek city of Corinth: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”

Through the centuries and still today, some read or hear the words of Paul or those of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and dismiss it all.

A then-fifth grader in my former congregation told me once that a classmate of his, no doubt echoing words he’d heard at home, didn’t believe in God or in Jesus. The kid said that Christianity was all a big conspiracy.

So, what do we say to such assertions? Is Easter and the faith that is built on it all a big conspiracy? Or is it the truth?

Let’s consider the evidence. Please look at our Gospel lesson for today, Matthew 28:1-10. (You’ll find it on page 698 in the sanctuary Bibles.)

Anyone who takes the time to lay out the four Gospels’ different accounts of the first Easter side by side will see differences: different women are named among those who went to the tomb; Matthew says that the women simply went to see the tomb, while other gospels say they went to anoint Jesus’ body; and there are other differences. But these differences shouldn’t bother us. They should, in fact, help convince us that the report of Jesus’ resurrection was no conspiracy, but the truth. As one New Testament scholar has said, “a calculated deception should have [caused the conspirators to agree on the details of the resurrection story]. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: 'I saw him first!' 'No! I did.'” That makes their common story that Jesus rose from the dead more likely to be true!

Now look at Matthew 28, verse 1, please. It says: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”

The Jewish sabbath, of course, runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. As our lesson begins, the sun is rising.

The women went to the tomb with no expectations of finding any good news. They had watched Jesus die. Like billions of people who have lost good friends or loved ones, they went to the cemetery only to pay their respects, to grieve and, maybe, to remember together. Jesus’ promise that He would rise again, if they thought of it at all, would have seemed like a fairy tale memory to them.

The fact that the women who went to the tomb didn’t expect to see evidence of Jesus’ resurrection ought to make us give credibility to their later saying that Jesus, once dead, was alive again.

Now look at verses 2 through 7. It says:
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. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 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."
Notice to whom this news—the greatest news in the history of the world—is being given: women. In patriarchal, male-dominated first century Judea, the testimony of women wasn’t considered valid. A woman couldn't testify in court, because women were deemed by that society to be unreliable.

If the first Christians had made up the story of Jesus’ resurrection—if Easter was one big conspiracy, they certainly would have been shrewd enough to say that men were the first to meet the angel at the empty tomb and not women whose word would be automatically dismissed by that society.

It was poor marketing in the first century world for Christians have to admit that, in fact, women were the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. This too, is a powerful proof that there was no Easter conspiracy.

Please see what happens next in Matthew 28:8-10:
So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
None of Jesus’ first followers ever claimed to have seen the precise moment when the corpse of Jesus came back to life. Instead, they all said that they were shown an empty tomb and like us, were asked to dare to trust that the Savior Who had never once lied to them was good for a promise He had made, that He would rise again.

It was only after the women at the empty tomb chose to be open to believing and chose to act on the angel’s message that they saw the risen Jesus.

When it comes to faith in God, you and I cannot fold our arms and demand that God prove Himself to us.

Nor will God ever force us to trust in Him.

We must be willing to believe. It’s then and only then that we will begin to believe. It’s only then that God’s Holy Spirit can build faith within us.

In faith, seeing is not believing; believing is seeing!

So, did it really happen? Did Jesus really rise from the dead on the first Easter Sunday? The evidence, I think, indicates that He did.

But, even if we find the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection convincing, the resurrection will still be nothing more than a bit of trivia or a blip on our calendars unless we, like the women met by the angel at the empty tomb, dare to believe—to trust our whole lives to Christ—and dare to act on that belief.

And listen: As a former atheist myself, I can tell you that God will give you faith in the risen Jesus if only, like the women at the empty tomb, you are willing to believe.

In his book, The Power of a Whisper, Pastor Bill Hybels tells of being with a group of pastors and asking them how they had come to faith in the risen Jesus. One pastor said that he grew up in an non-churchgoing home, his parents deeply hostile to Christ and the Church.

Next door was a couple who believed in Jesus, were active in a local congregation, and sensed that God wanted them to invite their neighbors to church.

So, one day, they came to that young boy’s home and invited his family to worship with them. The parents were venomous in their response to the invitation, “We want nothing to do with your God…[or] your church…[or] you.”

But their son said, “Hey, Dad. I’ll go.” The parents thought to themselves, “Free babysitting!” So, they let junior go to church.

All through that boy’s junior high years, the neighbors took him to church Sunday in, Sunday out. While in high school, he surrendered his life to Christ.

Later, he became a pastor and started a church on the East Coast, which today welcomes thousands of worshipers each week, changing lives and bringing the peace of the risen Jesus Christ in facing and living in this world this world and the hope of eternity with God beyond the grave through the risen Jesus.

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! It really happened and He can change the lives and eternities of all who repent, that is, turn from sin, and believe in Him.

If you’ve come here this morning, not really certain about what you thought of Jesus and His resurrection, and you find yourself wanting Him in your life, I promise you that He wants the same thing. He wants life with you.

If you’re willing to let Him in, He can be right there with you in all the times of your life--the good and joyous, the hard and sad, and every place in between. He can give your life meaning and purpose.

And, when, like Jesus Himself, you cross the threshold of death, He will be holding you and He will raise you to life again to be with God for eternity. If you want Jesus today, just tell Him.

If you’d like a little help in either getting started in a life with Jesus or in renewing that life, you’ll see people with blue lapel badges around today. They will be happy to pray with you, share a bit with you. They’ll also ask you if you’d like a call from me this week. If you’re not a Living Water member or you don’t live in this area, please know that I won’t be phoning you to try to get you to join this church, though people are certainly welcome to take instruction and check us out. Instead, we simply want you to experience the power and blessings of the risen Jesus every day of your life, the way we do day in and day out. We want you to have eternal life with God. It happens through Jesus, the One Who rose on the first Easter.

To paraphrase the angel at the tomb, “This my message for you,” the message of new life through the risen One, Jesus. It’s God’s message for you and all the world. It can change a life for eternity. Let it change yours. Amen!

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