When I was an atheist, as some of you know, one of the hardest things for me to understand about Christian faith was the resurrection.
I had known people who died. None came back from the grave.
I thought that the Easter proclamation that Jesus had risen and the Christian message that all who repent and believe in Jesus have eternal life seemed fanciful. I was a resurrection skeptic.
So, it turns out, were the first disciples of Jesus.
They’d heard Jesus say more than once that He was going to be crucified, then rise again. But when they heard Jesus speak this way, they seemed to ignore His resurrection talk, because they were horrified at the thought of His crucifixion.
So, on the Sunday after His death, Jesus’ disciples weren’t even thinking about resurrection. Jesus was dead and they were grieving.
This is what lay in the background of our gospel lesson for this Easter Sunday morning, Matthew 28:1-10. If you’re skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection or if you’re skeptical that a risen Jesus can give you forgiveness for your sin or life beyond the grave, nothing I say will make you believe.
But if you’re willing to listen to the experiences of those first skeptical disciples and note the way in which Matthew tells us about the first Easter, the Holy Spirit may pry open your heart, mind, and will to believing that the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that only He can give you are true.
Our lesson begins: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”
Unlike the other gospel writers, Matthew doesn’t mention the women going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. That doesn’t mean that Matthew and the others disagree; Matthew just doesn’t think it’s important to how he wants to tell us about the first Easter.
In fact, the way Matthew opens his account of the first Easter, almost makes you think that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary didn’t know what they were going to do. This jibes with Mark’s account of the resurrection. On the way to tomb, Mark says, the women asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3)
Under normal circumstances, you’d want to say, “Well, they should have thought of that in the first place.”
But, as I’ve learned first-hand again this past week, when you grieve, you aren’t in normal circumstances. It’s hard to concentrate. You can’t decide what you should do next. So, you just do stuff, including, sometimes going to the loved one's burial place.
That’s what Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom Jesus had cast seven demons, and another of Jesus’ disciples, identified only as “the other Mary,” seem to be doing on the Sunday after Jesus’ death. The last thing they imagine is that they’ll see the risen Jesus.
Verses 2-4: “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.”
“That seems pretty far-fetched,” we might say. You can bet that the people in the first century who first heard Matthew’s gospel would have had the same reaction. It would have seemed just as crazy as it does to us. An angel descended from heaven, rolled away a burial stone, and struck dumb armed soldiers who were overwhelmed by the appearance of the angel.
If Matthew had been most concerned with convincing skeptics, he may have been well-advised to leave out all the details--earthquakes, angels, heavenly luminescence.
But Matthew isn’t interested in making an impressive argument. He’s only interested in telling you the truth.
It’s up to you to decide whether you’re willing to believe it or not.
And, if you are willing to believe, God’s Holy Spirit can help you to believe despite your skepticism.
This is exactly what happened to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. They come to the tomb convinced that Jesus is dead. Soon though, open to the angel’s message about Jesus rising melts their skepticism into faith. This happens even though they have yet to set eyes on the resurrected Jesus! Watch out: That can happen to us when we attend to God’s Word with an open mind!
When I started going to worship just to get my wife off my back for sleeping in on Sundays, Jesus grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Listen, you! You have no idea what you’re talking about when you say I don’t exist, when you say that the resurrection is hooey. Listen to the witnesses to My resurrection. Listen to the people who risked their earthly lives, honor, and income to proclaim the truth they knew and experienced!”
As Romans 10:17 teaches us: “...faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”
That’s what happened to me: I let the truth in God's Word do its life-giving, faith-creating work in me, the truth about a God Who loved me so much that He sent His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not be killed off by death, but will rise just as Jesus rose to live with God for eternity.
Folks, good news like that will change not only your eternity, it will have a direct impact on how you live right now. Verse 5: “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.’”
In the Bible, the first thing an angel almost always says to the people they encounter is, “Don’t be afraid.” That’s because angels reflect the perfect righteousness and glory of God Himself. The angel says that the women shouldn’t be afraid and then says that, just as He’d foretold, Jesus was risen.
And then, the angel commissions the two women to teach the Church that Jesus was risen from the dead. “Go,” the angel says, “tell the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Then, they need to race to Galilee to catch up with Him!”
I’ve wondered why Jesus chose to meet the apostles sixty miles from His burial spot. Maybe this is the reason: After Jesus’ resurrection, some people said that Jesus hadn’t really died on the cross, only fainted or “swooned.” Muslims still say this. But try imagining a man who has fainted after being severely beaten and wounded, waking in a cave. He would still be weak, near death. Can you imagine such a sick, wounded person then tearing up to Galilee on His own?
Wounded men don’t run.
Dead men don’t run.
But Jesus, once dead, apparently now can do more the run. Jesus was living out the promise of the prophet Isaiah: “...those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
“I’m running to Galilee,” Jesus is saying through the angel messenger, “tell the eleven to follow Me there and catch me if they can!"
I love verse 8: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
The women didn’t have all of their questions answered. They hadn’t seen Jesus face to face.
But they had heard the Word about Jesus and they were running to tell the skeptics what they now knew by faith in Jesus.
Listen: Faith isn’t knowing every answer. Faith is knowing the One Who is the answer.
And here’s what I have learned: When I act with faith in the risen Jesus Who I cannot see, He shows Himself to me in ways I could not have imagined.
The women have no thought of actually seeing the risen Jesus; they simply believe in Him and are intent on proclaiming Him.
But look at what happens next! Verse 9: “Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said.They [the women] 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.’”
When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” here, they are the same words spoken by the angel to them a few moments before. But I agree with Dr. Jim Nestingen that when Jesus says these words to the women at this moment, He means something different than the angel meant.
From what Matthew tells us, the appearance of the angel would have been terrifying. But from what Matthew says here, the appearance of Jesus seems to have been as understated and matter of fact as His greeting, just as it had always been throughout His earthly life.
That makes sense: When God the Son took on human flesh, He laid aside His glory. He entered the world as a baby. Jesus came into this world not to overwhelm us but to save us, true God AND true man.
I think Jesus is telling the women this: "Do not be afraid...of death; I have conquered. I have killed off its power over you. I’m alive and when you turn from sin and trust in Me by faith, you are alive! I give you a full share in My victory. Death can’t separate you from the resurrection life I have for you. Neither can sadness, adversity, family feuds, career setbacks, poverty, disease, instability, politics, economics. None of these things can separate us from God. This world may do its worst to you. But when you believe in Jesus as the risen King of your life, God will always have His best in store for you!"
So, are you willing to believe in the resurrection?
Then, militate against your doubt and your skepticism.
- Act on your belief, however faint it may be.
- Run (or walk, or hobble, or crawl, or drive) from this place and, today, this week, find someone to tell or some way to act that shows the truth that Jesus is risen.
- Read one of the gospels and let their witness help you to know the risen Jesus intimately and well. If you will do this, I feel certain that you will do exactly what I did when I first started taking the gospels seriously and what I keep doing as I dig into them each day, you will fall in love with Jesus. To know Jesus is to love Him...because you know that He has loved you first.
Don’t be afraid! Run with Jesus...you will never run alone. Happy Easter! Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for today's Easter services.]