Sermon: Sunday, 9th April, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 24:1-12
On the 15th of May, something is happening which, in some ways, seems unbelievable. There will be a new bus service on the 14 mile stretch from Ferrytoll in Fife to Edinburgh Park and it will be a service run without any drivers. 10,000 passengers per week will be able to use these self-driving single-decker buses. It’s believed that this will be the world’s first type of service. It’s impressive technology, right enough. There are pros and cons to such a service. It will do bus drivers out of a job. It might actually be a safer means of transport, taking away human error. I’m not sure. What I do know is that this world-first probably won’t make too much difference to our lives, and certainly won’t impact life’s biggest questions like: what is the purpose of life? What happens when we die? How can the wrong things in my life be dealt with? Who can I trust? Who is worth following?
In Luke 24, we have another world-first. Someone has come back from the dead, never to die again. He has come back with the first ever resurrection body. Jesus had been crucified on Good Friday and had truly died. When the Roman spear was thrust into his side, blood and water flowed out showing that he was dead. Next, he was buried in an unused tomb, belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. When the women, some of his disciples, journey to the tomb to anoint the body with spices and perfumes in order to honour Jesus they make a shocking discovery. The tomb is empty. Verses 2-3 tell us: ‘They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.’ The angels explain what is happening with the best news in all the world: ‘He is not here; he has risen!’ (verse 6)
Maybe you think this is unbelievable. The dead don’t generally come back to life again. However, if it is true, if it really happened in history (and it did) then it changes everything. It floods the light of hope into this dark world, because it means that Jesus is who he claimed to be, death no longer has the final word, human sin can be forgiven, and eternal life will be given to all those who entrust themselves to King Jesus. Let’s spend some time unpacking just how important this event is, and celebrating its implications for our lives today in 2023.
1. An event in history
Did Jesus rise from the dead or not? This is a crucial question. It’s not good enough to say, ‘You can believe that if it helps you get through life’, as if it doesn’t really matter either way. But Christians are people who worship Jesus Christ, and so if he didn’t really rise from the dead we are wasting our time and are deceiving ourselves and others. There are only 3 possibilities.
- Jesus’ body was stolen by his enemies. This doesn’t make any sense, as his enemies went to great lengths to have Jesus killed and had nothing to gain by taking the body. Plus, when the first Christians claimed Jesus had risen, they could have just produced the body and that would have extinguished Christianity with one stroke.
- Jesus’ body was stolen by his friends. This does not make sense either. Almost all of the 12 disciples were martyred because of their belief that Jesus was alive. Would you give your life for someone you knew not to be true? Of course not.
- Jesus really did rise from again from death to life. This is where the evidence all points. It explains the change in the disciples from timid disciples, to emboldened witnesses of Jesus, ready to die for their faith. It explains the empty tomb and the eye-witness accounts of the women. It explains why Christians today remain full of Easter hope. And it means that Jesus really is who he claimed to be all along, the Son of God and Saviour of the world.
Everyone in the gospel accounts were in agreement that the tomb was empty that first Easter morning. The only question is, why was it empty? It’s really important for us to realise that Christian faith isn’t believing in something just so we can get through life more easily. It is faith in historical events. Things which really happened. If you had been there with the women on the Sunday morning, you would also have been able to see the empty tomb and folded grave clothes.
Why else do I believe the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are true? Because if you were going to invent something like this, you would never have had women as your primary witnesses. Why not? Because in the culture of the ancient near east at that time, the testimony of women was deemed to be unreliable. To make the ‘story’ more believable, you’d have prominent men finding the tomb empty and not women!
The whole gospel account has the ring of truth about it. The women head towards the tomb fully expecting to anoint a dead body and without a flicker of hope. They are dejected and downcast, with hearts full of love and sorrow. And when they see the empty tomb they are perplexed and confused. And when the women tell the apostles about what has happened, they are full of scepticism. The words of the women seemed like nonsense. Maybe that’s where you are at today as you read this account. But then, over time, the apostles meet the risen Jesus, and their doubts are turned into strong faith.
Let’s get back to the question, did Jesus rise from the dead or not? If he did not, Paul says Christians are to be pitied more than anyone else for being taken in by a lie. Listen to the words in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
In a nutshell, if Jesus has not risen from the dead, there is nothing for us to celebrate today. We cannot be forgiven by God. And we have no hope of eternal life. Life is essentially without hope. However, thanks be to God that Jesus did rise from the dead, the sins of those who trust in Jesus have been forgiven, and we shall be raised with indestructible bodies one day, and live forever in Heaven.
2. A saving event explained by an angel
The central events in human history are the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These are all supernatural events, involving the plan and action of almighty God. Whenever God acts significantly in human history, he doesn’t leave us to guess why he’s done what he’s done. He gives us a verbal explanation, and often uses angels to do that.
At Jesus’ birth, the angels explain the significance of the birth to the angels. We read in Luke’s gospel: ‘But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’ (Luke 2:10-11)
Once again, with Jesus rises from the dead, it is an angel who gives the explanation: ‘Why do you look for the living 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 over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ Then they remembered his words.’ (Luke 24 vs 6-8)
My dog Skylar has pretty good recall when we’re out in the park. She’ll come back to the sound of my voice and a dog whistle, except when other dogs are there. Then she suffers from ‘selective hearing’. She hears the whistle and she hears my hollering, but she doesn’t hear. That’s the way the disciples were when it came to Jesus repeatedly telling them, at least three times, that he was going to die and rise again on the third day. They heard Jesus’ words, but they didn’t really hear them. They didn’t understand them or absorb them or consider them. They should have. The angel says in verse 6: ‘… remember how he told you…’
We, right now, need to pay attention and really listen to the angel’s explanation. The crux of it is this: Jesus had to die and then rise again. It was the only way he could pay the price for the sins of his people. It was the only way he could save us from our guilt and rebellion. Notice the word ‘must’ in verse 7: ‘… the Son of Man must be delivered over…’ In other words, it was necessary for Jesus to die. It was essential for our salvation.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus was delivered over into the hands of sinners. His message is an unpopular one for many and arouses anger and hatred back then and also today. He tells us that we have something wrong with our hearts, and that we are separated from God because of the wrong things we do and say. Most people want Jesus to tell them how good they are, that they ‘do their bit’ and have lived a good life. He does not. He says we’ve spectacularly failed in loving God.
That’s why we need God’s forgiveness. That’s why we need someone to pay our moral debt. We’ve spectacularly failed in loving God and in loving other people too. In order to receive God’s forgiveness, we must humbly accept this truth, the truth that we have failed morally.
The angel says that Jesus had to be crucified (verse 7). He had to be. Why? Because God is a holy and just God, and cannot leave our sins unpunished and unpaid for. Rebelling against the Creator is not something which will be ignored. It’s a serious business. To put it bluntly, God cannot ignore my pride and the times I’ve been selfish or have been quick to anger. He cannot ignore the ways I have let down and hurt my family and friends. He cannot ignore how cold-hearted and thankless I’ve often been towards God. The only way for me to find peace with God is for God to find a solution to my enormous moral debt. His solution was to send his Son to die on a Roman cross in order to pay for that debt. It was necessary for my salvation. But a dead Saviour is no use to us. We need a Saviour who is stronger than death.
That’s why Jesus also had to be raised again on the third day (verse 7). Why? This was the proof that God the Father had accepted the sacrifice of his Son. This was the proof that God would not allow Satan to have the last word. And this was the proof that Jesus truly is the eternal Son of God. I love how Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans: ‘[Jesus] through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (Romans 1:4) In other words, the resurrection proves that Jesus is the Son of God who has defeated sin and death. It proves that there is eternal life beyond the grave for those who trust in Jesus’ death for their forgiveness; we too shall rise with immortal and imperishable bodies. It proves that all the claims and promises of Jesus are totally reliable, especially his claim to be the resurrection and the life, and that those who believe in him will live forever, even though they die.
3. An event to be shared
I love the role of the women on the first resurrection morning. Like the men, they should have believed Jesus’ prophetic words about dying and rising again. They do not. The angel’s question ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?’ is probably a gentle rebuke. However, these woman have hearts full of love for Jesus, even though they believe he is dead. They want to do what they can for him in order to honour him. And as they serve the Lord the receive enormous blessing and privilege, being the first in all the world to know that Jesus is alive. They are the first to hear this news and also the first to share this news. In verse 9 we read ‘…they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.’ So often we find that when we seek to serve the Lord, the Lord ends up blessing us in all kinds of ways.
Remember that these woman had no status or credibility in that culture and so were unlikely candidates for being witnesses. But they are exactly the people God chooses to be his primary witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. And they share their message of hope. Today, we are also ordinary folk who carry this good news. We might feel we are unlikely witnesses. Who will listen to us speaking about Jesus? And yet we are exactly the people that God has chosen to carry the life-changing news of the resurrection across Fife and beyond. These women were willing to do what they could for what they thought was a dead Jesus. What are we willing to do to serve our living Saviour? Let’s celebrate the good news: ‘He is not here; he has risen!’ (Luke 24:6)