An empty tomb - Luke 24:1-12

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 15th April 2001.

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How would you like to be remembered? Well, an American company based in Utah have come up with an ingenious suggestion- get mummified.So far several hundred people have put money down for the traditional Egyptian-like embalming process.The owner of the company says that his clients don’t want to be ‘covered with dirt and forgotten’.They want to be remembered after death-to live on in some way.

Odd maybe,but when you think about it, what that entrepreneur has tapped into is an innate deep seated instinct that there must be something more to life than death. That if death really is the end,then all our achievements in life are ultimately rendered meaningless.The grave in fact, makes a mockery of all our hopes and ideals.

But what if it could be shown that life can come out of death? What if it is the grave that is made a mockery of by someone leaving it like a prisoner breaking out of the confines of his cell? Then maybe life isn’t so meaningless after all, especially if the person who does this is a kind of prototype for the rest of us.

Well, that is the question we are going to be thinking about over the next few weeks as we take a look at Luke’s account of the resurrection of Jesus.

Now right at the beginning of his Gospel Dr Luke tells us that he has set about to write ‘an orderly account’ of the life of this most extraordinary person Jesus Christ, using the most reliable eyewitnesses available as his sources.In other words he is not in the fiction business but the fact business,he is after all a medical doctor not a spin doctor. However, he is also a communicator of the Christian faith which is based upon facts but which spells out the significance of those events for people everywhere.And in chapter 24 of his Gospel we see him doing just that in the most remarkable way which if only people will take notice will enable them to be freed up from superstition about life after death and have their hopes grounded in breathtaking truth.

What Luke does is to relate three episodes concerning the resurrection,one which takes place in the morning,one in the afternoon and one in the evening of the first Easter Sunday.Like every good preacher he has a three point sermon! And each story follows the same pattern.There is a supernatural encounter, followed by bewilderment, leading on to a rebuke and instruction and then lives which are changed in a special way. Now that means that if Luke has taken the trouble to more or less say the same thing in three different ways what he has to say must be very important indeed, and not surprisingly that is what we shall find. So let’s look at the first episode early on Easter morning with the women in the cemetery. And following Luke’s example we shall consider it under three headings: an unexpected entry, a strange encounter and a transforming experience.

First of all, an unexpected entry -vv 1- 3 ‘ On the first day of the week,very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.’

Now right at the outset let us clear away the idea that some folk have suggested that the women in their grief went to the wrong tomb.Notice what Luke carefully records at the end of the previous chapter in v55 ‘The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph of Arimathea and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.’ In other words not only did they go to the tomb they went inside the tomb.They knew the precise spot where Jesus body was laid out.

So what would these women have expected to find as they made their way into that quiet cemetery as the dawn began to break? Well, exactly what any other rational, sane human being would have expected - a tomb with a body in it, secured by a large boulder placed across the entrance. You see,whatever these women were they were not wishful thinkers or hysterics, they were down to earth and practical. Remember,these women were from Galilee, and as such they formed part of the entourage which cared for Jesus practical needs and here they were simply going to complete that loving service- anointing his body with spices, and so at least giving his gruesome death some sort of dignity.The devotion of these women is really quite moving isnt it?

So they were immediately confronted with two things they did not expect: the stone rolled away and the body gone.Their reaction? -v4 ‘they wondered about this’ or better still ‘were puzzled by this’.They tried to find some rational explanation,going through the possibilities in their minds.I guess graverobbers might have been my favourite choice.But how on earth would they have got passed the guards the authorities had placed in front of the tomb would have perplexed me.Even more would have been the question:where were the guards now?

Now there are two important points which we need to pick up. The first is that the empty grave is the first sign of the resurrection.If you were going to make up a story like this what would you do? Well, you would describe the resurrection taking place itself wouldnt you? Depicting Jesus coming out of the tomb. .But no.We have a physical sign pointing to a physical resurrection.Not a myth but a mystery rooted in history.The second thing is that Luke writes ‘they did not find the body of ‘the LORD Jesus.’ This is the first time this title is used of Jesus in the Gospel-LORD -capital letters.Why? Well, because the resurrection testifies to Jesus Kingship and his divinity. You see, it was God’s original intention to rule the world through a man-Adam.His rebellion in a garden introduced death into this world in judgment.Now God fulfills his original purpose through the God-man Jesus who defeats death in another garden having drawn our judgment to himself on the cross. And the resurrection is God’s public declaration that all of this has been achieved through his Son. Do you not think for a moment that the one who made life cannot restore life?That the one who is master of the universe should not be master over death? So what gave raise to the conviction that this Jesus was no ordinary man but deserved the title normally reserved for God alone-Lord?

Well, that question leads us on to our next section- a supernatural experience -v4-8: ‘While they were wondering about this,suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground (maybe in reaction to the stunning brilliance-trying to shield their eyes),but the men said to them: "Why do you look for the living (or perhaps as it should be translated Living One) among the dead? He is not here:he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men,be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’Then they remembered his words.’

If you are looking for a sick person,it would make sense to go to a hospital.If you are looking for a dead person it would make sense to go to a cemetery.But where do you go to look for the resurrected one?Well, as we shall see in our next two stories he is the one who comes looking for us.However, it is obvious that a gentle rebuke is intended here.The women should have known better because they had been around when Jesus had taught them about his pending crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. Now they would have spared themselves a good deal heartbreak had they really worked at what Jesus had been saying. And is that not the case with ourselves? So often when confronted with difficulties and doubts we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed which results us reacting more or less like any non-Christian, instead of going back to the Bible and working through the implications of what God has said and done. Emotional thinking must be replaced with evangelical -gospel thinking. Let me give you a personal example of this which very much relates to this passage. Once I received the news that I had been accepted to train for the ordained ministry in the Church of England for a few days I was weighed down with tremendous doubts.It wasn’t particularly doubts about my ability or whether it was right to go to the Vicar factory.It was something far more fundamental than that.It was the doubt whether Christianity was true.What if I was wrong? What if I was about to give the whole of my life over to something which,to be frank, was a gigantic mistake? And maybe that is the thought that crosses your mind.You see, it was no good me trying to work up some ‘feeling’ about a sense of vocation or even praying some more-because what if the God I was allegedly praying to wasn’t there? Do you know what really settled my mind?It was going back to the evidence for the resurrection and the teaching of Jesus.The one thing I could not deny was the hard evidence that Jesus was raised from the grave and that he had expected it all along.When I had worked through that,it was as if a cloud had lifted and the sunhine of God’s love simply poured in again.Like with these women sometimes our thinking needs to be challenged so that we start to think,feel and act properly.

Now in many ways these angels in the story are model messengers-which is what the term angel-angelos-means. Notice it is not their job to declare something new,some new insight or revelation.We might have expected that though.Given the extraodinary event which had taken place,we might be forgiven if we had anticipated the emergence of Jesus from the tomb to be met with the same angelic fanfare as when he emerged from the womb of his mother,as the shepherds in the fields experienced. But no. They just quietly remind the women of the words of Jesus himself. They simply apply his teaching ,which is Scriptural teaching. When Jesus had said that he ‘must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and raised from the dead’ that was a divine must he was speaking of, a must which God had made known in the OT scriptures, like Isaiah 53 for example : ‘We all like sheep have gone astray, each one has turned to his own way: and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.... After the suffering of his soul he will see the light of life and be satisfied, by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.' In other words, the Easter message is not ‘Jesus is risen’, that was the angel’s announcement, rather it is the Gospel of Jesus which speaks of his substitutionary atoning death,bearing away God’s anger in our place on the cross and that he now lives for ever offering forgiveness and hope and friendship with God to any who turn to him. That is the message of Easter-the empty cross of Christ.

And, you know, we are called to follow the example of these angels-, that is, simply and clearly spelling out what Jesus taught about who he is and what he has done and its earthshattering implications. Whether people believe it or not is not really our responsibility, our job is to witness to the truth. Each time a children’s worker, or homegroup leader, or minister in a pulpit or a Christian talking casually over cup of coffee to a non-Christian friend explains the Gospel, they are re-enacting the first Easter morning-doing the work of angels.Isn’t that an exciting thought?

And as that word of that Gospel begins to take shape in people’s minds -v8- then it shows itself in changed lives proving to be a transforming experience- vv 9-11 : ‘When they came back from the tomb,they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.It was Mary Magdelene,Joanna,Mary the mother of James and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.'

The transformation was this, and we see it in each one of the stories, - mourners are turned into messengers. When you come face to face with the living God through the word of God you cannot help but become a messenger of God- you have to tell someone. These people didn’t have to attend a course on evangelism- telling the gospel, it was spontaneous.Now the fact that it is these women who are given the task of bringing this message might well be a rebuke to the other disciples who also should have known better. They were the one’s to whom Jesus had given this teaching directly. Notice that Luke calls them ‘apostles’ in v 10-not disciples, a term which means that they were the ones who in theory had been ‘sent out with a commission’-that is what ‘apostle’ means.But those who should have been sent out were sent to. And what was their reaction? ‘Marvellous news, of course we should have seen it,yes Jesus did tell us didn’t he.’? Not a bit of it. ‘They did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.’ Luke uses a medical phrase here. It is a term normally used by Greek medics to describe the ramblings of fevered and insane mind.That is how much they rated their message. ‘After all they were women’, they would think, ‘what else could you expect?’.Inspite of all that Jesus had taught and the dignified place he gave to women,the cultural correctness of the time still held sway.Women were considered to be so unreliable that they were not permitted to give evidence in a Jewish court of law. And yet it is women God uses to bring evidence before the apostles.

But isn’t this always God’s way, to use those who are despised and weak to put to shame the so called able? How does Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1:27? ‘But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong..so that no one may boast before him.’ When eventually these disciples did believe,they did so reluctantly and shamefully. Having deserted Jesus,having failed to listen to his teaching,having failed to believe his messengers, they were in no position to give themselves a self congratulatory pat on the back for being exemplary believers.They were humbled-no boasting for them

And the same holds true today.We are not to think that because we consider ourselves to be particularly clever or sophisticated or spiritual that God is going to treat us in any special way, deigning to pander to our pride-he will not. You find the truth of God’s rescue in the same place that anyone else will find it,in the Bible, a despised book in many ways,but the only book which will bring any of us into contact with ultimate reality and eternal life.Close this book and you close all hope you might have of knowing God.

Neither are we to think that if only the church had more intellectuals or politicians or clever and more impressive communication techniques we will impress more people with the Gospel-get on Telly,on the radio,in the charts, at the movies and the world must sit up and take notice.That is not God’s way.Certainly, we want to support Christians in these fields as in any other to do their best for Christ,but none of these provides the short cut into people’s hearts.It is the most unpromising little situations working through what seems to be the most unexpected people,like these women,that God’s kingdom is extended.One of the greatest intellects and preachers of the 19th century was C.H.Spurgeon. And he was not saved by hearing the arguments of some great university professor, but by an almost illiterate country farmer stumbling his way through the preaching of God’s Word. And while I do not profess to be a prophet or a son of a prophet, if God chooses to bring about a true revival in this country it will not be through the rich and famous mega churches of this world, it will be in what some would consider to be a social backwater -like Hull perhaps. But that is God’s way.

However, there was at least one who, while not particularly believing, did at least do the sensible thing and check things out for himself-Peter, v12 ‘Peter ,however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away wondering what had happened.’ Maybe the light was beginning to dawn after all.Notice he ran to the tomb, indicating some sort of expectancy,perhaps hope.And what does he see? A very significant detail- the strips of cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus body lying by themselves- that is, not unwrapped and lying in a pile in a corner,but lying flat,like an empty chrysalis as if the body had miraculously passed through them. Of course Peter went away scratching his head trying to figure that one out. But do you see how detail after detail provides clue after clue pointing towards one inescapable conclusion?- Jesus rose bodily from the dead.The death process had been set in reverse,the damning effects of sin had been undone. No other philosophy or religion in the world has a message like this.Sure, there is all sorts of speculation and wishful thinking about being re-united in the great by and by,but nothing based upon hard evidence, with good solid reasons to believe. Of all the people on this planet we have cause to be joyful people for we do not walk through this life alone-we have a risen Saviour and we need not fear death alone -for we have a conquering Saviour who will transform the lowly bodies of our to be like his glorious resurrection body to be with him for all eternity.And that is very Good news.

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