Posted by: Johnold J. Strey | April 1, 2018

Sermon for the Festival of the Resurrection of Our Lord (2018)

APRIL FOOL OR EASTER FACT?

Sermon based on Mark 16:1-8

Introduction

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! … Or is he? I suspect that if you are here this morning, if you went through the trouble of dressing up in your Easter best and driving to this building on a morning that is far too cold for the beginning of April, you must have done so because you believe that the resurrection of Jesus is true. But let us not be so naïve as to think that there isn’t another opinion on the subject. More than a few skeptics of the Christian faith will look at all these Easter morning gatherings around our nation and throughout the world and laugh at the millions and millions of people who have bought into what they perceive as the greatest April Fool’s lie that people have bought—the physical resurrection of a human being from the dead.

How does a person approach the claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead? On one hand, the skeptic could simply argue that he has never seen a resurrection and that he’s never heard of anyone else who has risen from the dead, so why should he believe that Jesus rose from the dead? On the other hand, a religious person could respond that this is what he believes and this is what the church has always taught, so why shouldn’t I believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Perhaps both sides have a little fear about this discussion: What exactly will I discover if I take a closer look at Jesus’ resurrection?

We will do well this Easter morning to step back from assumptions on either side of the debate and to undertake a fresh study of the record of Jesus’ resurrection that has come down to us today. In fact, that is the only responsible way to find out if we are dealing with an April Fool’s Day joke or an Easter resurrection fact! In the verses that preceded today’s Second Reading, the apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The Bible itself says that if Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen, then there’s no point for us to even be here. If Jesus didn’t rise, you should have gone out to an early brunch instead of coming to church! So have Christians believed the biggest April Fool’s joke in history for two thousand years, or does the account of Jesus’ resurrection present us with a historic Easter fact? 

I.

We have a festive and celebratory tone this morning, but there appeared to be nothing festive or celebratory when the first Easter morning began. “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” The faithful female followers of Jesus were not expecting a resurrection on early Easter morning. The Jewish Sabbath day ended at sunset on Saturday, and so did the Jewish Sabbath mandate forbidding work. So this small group of women purchased the necessary spices and supplies in the few moments of light that remained on Saturday night so that they were ready to go and finish the burial tasks for Jesus’ body at dawn the next day.

Have you ever been so filled with emotion that you didn’t realize the obvious? Have you ever been so distracted that you couldn’t find your glasses on top of your head? That seems to be the state the women were in at this point. They were so distraught that they didn’t realize an obvious obstacle until they were journeying to the tomb Easter morning: “Who will roll the stone away?” The words of Jesus predicting his resurrection were not echoing in their minds because those words were muted by the sight of his beaten and bloodied body that was hastily buried 36 hours earlier. They did not anticipate the shocking scene they were about to encounter. They didn’t expect a resurrection.

Did you expect a resurrection this morning? That’s an honest question. Is the phrase, “Christ is risen!” an expression of Easter truth, or does it reveal the foolish beliefs of people that have bought into the world’s greatest April fool’s joke? Let’s be honest; there is plenty of skepticism in our world about Jesus’ resurrection; the skepticism can even sound compelling. We are looking at the Easter account in Mark’s Gospel, which many believe to have been the first Gospel written in the New Testament. There is an odd quirk at the end Mark’s Easter account; it may be that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel was lost, because it has a grammatically strange way of ending in the original language, and it doesn’t mention a visible appearance of the risen Jesus before that point. But a skeptic could point to this and say, “See, where is the risen Jesus in the earliest Gospel?” And plenty more theories abound: Did Jesus not actually die, but fall into a comatose state and then become conscience again? Were the deeply grieving disciples victims of their own visions of grief that led them to believe they had seen the risen Jesus? Was Jesus’ dead body stolen, resulting in an empty tomb? Was there a person who looked similar to Jesus that some of his followers mistook to be the risen Jesus? How can we know that any of these explanations isn’t what really happened on the first Easter?

Several years ago, a scholar named Gary Habermas spent about three years surveying historians and scholars about the resurrection of Jesus. He surveyed scholars across the spectrum, from the most traditional Christians to staunch atheists who denied Jesus’ existence. From that survey, he drew up a list of five facts about which the vast majority of these scholars agreed. Ninety-five percent or more agreed to the first four of these facts, while about 75% agreed to the final fact in this list:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. Jesus’ disciples believed that they saw him alive after his death
  3. Paul came to faith in Jesus after he claimed to see him
  4. Jesus’ brother James came to faith in Jesus after he claimed to see him
  5. Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty shortly after his burial

Habermas, who himself is a convert to Christianity, points out that these facts, which are widely accepted not just by Christians but by non-Christians as well, answer the skeptical theories that try to explain away Jesus’ resurrection. The claim that Jesus was only in a comatose state doesn’t stand because Jesus’ didn’t survive that brutal crucifixion. The claim that Jesus’ disciples stole his body doesn’t make sense because that means they all died to preserve a lie that they all would have known to be false. The claim that the disciples saw visions of Jesus in their grief cannot explain how the apostle Paul, who once persecuted Christians, would have come to faith in Jesus. The claim that Jesus’ followers saw someone who looked similar to Jesus would not explain how Jesus’ own brother, James, who previously thought that Jesus was out of his mind, would have come to faith in his own brother Jesus and subsequently became leader of the church in Jerusalem.

A sermon does not offer sufficient time to discuss everything that could be said about the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. But this brief survey helps us understand that there are widely accepted facts that respond to every theory that attempts to deny Jesus’ resurrection. The apostle Paul, who wrote the New Testament book called 1 Corinthians even before Mark’s Gospel was written, couldn’t have said it better than he did in today’s Second Reading: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:19-20). When the Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to lead you to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, you have not fallen for an April Fool’s joke. Rather, you have been brought from unbelief to faith and from spiritual death to life!

II.

When the women first went to the tomb Easter morning, they were still filled with grief and confusion. But their grief and confusion soon gave way to flurry of emotions that resulted from the Easter facts they were about to discover. When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”’ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Suddenly, everything turned around! The women expected a dead body. They encountered a living angel who told them the Easter facts: Jesus had risen! Those facts meant that the women had a new task before them: not to embalm a body, but to inform Jesus’ disciples that he rose just as he predicted. The angel mentioned Peter by name, probably because Peter had shamefully denied that he even knew Jesus and was probably wracked with guilt over his bold denial. This Easter empty tomb discovery also turned around the women’s emotions. They came dejected. Now they have a combination of fright—after all, it’s not every day of the week that one sees and angel—and also amazement. The word translated “bewildered” in our reading is sometimes translated “amazed,” and the other Easter Gospel accounts show us that the fear of this unexpected sight was soon accompanied by the Easter amazement and joy that their Lord was not lying in a grave but risen as he said!

He is risen! He is risen indeed! That’s no joke. It was the fact that the women discovered when they came to the tomb, and that fact turned their life around. It is the fact we celebrate this morning in this church, and that fact turns your life around too.

We have come to church today dressed in our Easter best—and for good reason! But 17 years of pastoral ministry have taught me that donning our Sunday best and displaying our churchy smiles doesn’t change the fact that everyone has skeletons in their closet and struggles in their autobiographies. You still feel the shame of past sins. You still fight to struggle against the same temptations, and you don’t always win those battles. You face the sad reality of sickness and disease and eventually death. You feel loneliness and disappointment haunting your soul. Whatever it is, the effects of sin in our hearts show up in our lives despite our outward Easter appearance.

I have no doubt that the women at Jesus’ tomb had their own skeletons and struggles to deal with. But the resurrection of Jesus turned their lives around, because nothing they had done or could do would change the fact that Jesus had risen. It was no joke! It was the fact they discovered when they arrived at the tomb, and it changed their lives. Jesus’ resurrection is the fact we rediscover in the pages of his Word today, and do not doubt that it changes your life too! The Easter facts have major ramifications—eternal ramifications. God does not want you to be on the wrong side of these Easter ramifications, and so he tells you about the Easter facts not through the voice of an angel but through the voice of his Scriptures.

The Easter fact of Jesus’ resurrection gives us faith in the risen Lord Jesus. Near the end of the Easter account in John’s Gospel, he wrote, Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). The Easter fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection gives us the forgiveness we need to clear the skeletons from our past record in God’s eyes. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans, “[Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25)—in other words, we are no longer guilty in the eyes of God because of Jesus’ resurrection! The Easter fact of Jesus’ resurrection means that after this life, we too can look forward to our own resurrection to eternal life in heaven. Jesus himself said, “Because I life, you also will live” (John 14:19). The Easter fact of Jesus’ resurrection gives us fulfillment in this life as we live to honor God and serve others. St. Paul wrote in Colossians, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2). Faith, forgiveness, a heavenly future, and fulfillment in life right now—all these things are yours because Jesus actually, factually, historically rose from the dead on the first Easter morning.

Conclusion

Dear friends, Easter is not a story that begins, “Once upon a time.” Easter is a fact that begins with God’s eternal plan to rescue and redeem you, a fact that culminates at a cross and empty tomb outside Jerusalem, and a fact that concludes with you at your Savior’s side for all eternity. All that is true, because this is true: He is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

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