Rev. D. K. Schroeder
John 20:1-8 Sermon
March 27, 2008
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
103 "Now Let The Vault Of Heaven Resound"
92 "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today"
99 "Christ The Lord Is Risen Today"
105 "The Day Of Resurrection"
387 "I Know That My Redeemer Lives"
THE ROAD TO AND FROM THE TOMB
TEXT: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!’ So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.”
This morning, I’m going to share an experience with you that actually happened to another pastor during his ministry. I don’t often use experiences from another pastor’s ministry; however I think this story is one that bears repeating.
This particular pastor was born and grew up in the suburban Chicago area. He attended primary and secondary school there. He moved away for his tertiary education years at college and seminary, which were located in another large city. And then when it came time for him to train for a year as a vicar or intern in a congregation, the place he was assigned to was a large inner-city congregation in Detroit.
This pastor knew virtually every aspect of city life, and he was extremely capable in conducting his ministry in that setting. However when it came time to get his first pastoral assignment from the seminary, he was sent to a moderate-sized congregation in a small Florida city. There were a lot of retirees in his congregation. It was different than what he had been used to, but he soon learned to enjoy the slower pace and the more laid-back atmosphere amongst the Floridians. He wound up staying there ten years.
It was then he received his second call, this one being to a couple of smaller congregations located on the plains of South Dakota. After deliberating over the call for a couple of weeks, he decided to accept it for several reasons, none of which are really germane to this story.
It was a real shock for him and his family to suddenly be thrust into the middle of a way of life which had been foreign to them. For the most part however, they adjusted well and the congregations loved the pastor and his family very much and helped them get situated the best they could.
His first real shock came on one lovely spring day when he conducted his first funeral at his new church. Now, he had conducted many funerals before in Florida, so that part wasn’t new to him. The service in the church went pretty much as expected, with no major differences from what he was accustomed to.
But then it came time for the committal service at the cemetery. After it was over, the people started to file past the casket perched over the open grave. But much to his amazement, everybody stopped and looked—not at the casket, but at the open grave underneath. One by one, in a kind of solemn procession, they would stop, look, and continue on. Some people even got down on their hands and knees to look into the grave. It was a very strange custom indeed.
When it was all over and the pastor was riding back to the church in the empty hearse with the mortician, he asked about this strange new custom he had just witnessed. Why was everyone so interested in that open grave?
The mortician chuckled. “It’s obvious that you are new around here,” he said. And then he continued, “Most of the people around here are farmers. What they were doing was checking the sub-soil moisture level.” Most certainly in this pastor’s way of thinking, this was a new way of looking at an empty grave.
Today is Easter, and we along with millions of other Christians around the world are gathering together to look at an empty grave. We know this as the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where they laid Jesus’ lifeless body after he was taken down from the cross.
Now we’re not sure exactly where this tomb is located today. There are two probable locations, and we aren’t even one-hundred percent sure about those. Christian missionaries have been ridiculed and heckled by the Muslims about that, so they say: “We have the tomb of our great prophet Mohammed, and you Christians have nothing.”
And that’s the whole point. That’s why we’re here today. We have a different way of looking at an empty grave. We have nothing; but that “nothing” means the world to us. Because Christ’s grave could not hold him, we know without a doubt that our graves cannot hold us either. Because his grave was empty, we know that death has been forever conquered for us as well. That’s our sure and certain hope for the future.
Our text for this morning from John’s gospel focuses upon three individuals who go to the tomb that first Easter morning. There was Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and John. These were all very devout followers of Jesus, and each had their own unique reactions.
Let’s start with Mary Magdalene. Amidst all of the rumors spread about her in today’s circles, we know from what the Bible says that she was a committed follower of Jesus and supported his ministry. Jesus had cast seven demons out of her; therefore Jesus had entered in and completely changed her life.
She was on her way to the tomb to complete the burial process, which had been hastily done before the Sabbath. She was grieving for the loss of her Lord. And her main concern was trying to figure out how to move the stone so the work of embalming could be completed.
But when she got there, she found the stone removed and the tomb empty. This certainly added to her grief. So she tells Peter and John: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.” Flooded with grief and sorrow, all Mary could do was sit outside the tomb and flood the earth with her tears.
Then we have Simon Peter. He probably took Jesus’ death harder than anybody. Not only did he have to deal with the grief and sorrow of losing a mentor and close friend, he had the millstone of guilt and shame hung around his neck. He had left his Saviour’s side after promising allegiance to the point of death. He buckled under the pressure of a servant girl’s interrogation and denied knowing the one who knew him so well.
Imagine the knife in Peter’s heart when he heard the rooster crow and was on the receiving end of Jesus’ disappointed glance. Peter didn’t walk with the Lord who had let him walk on water. Peter abandoned Jesus in the darkness of Calvary’s mountain. Peter wasn’t there to comfort Jesus’ mother, even though Jesus had once healed his mother-in-law. Peter went to the tomb with guilt and shame.
And then there was John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. They were very close friends. How did he come to the tomb? He would have felt grief and sorrow because he lost his friend. And I would suspect that he bore guilt and shame as well. He too had fallen asleep while Jesus prayed in agony. He too had deserted Jesus in the garden. But humanly speaking, he could soothe his conscience by the fact that he had been with Jesus before the high priest and had consoled Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross. What sticks out about John is his guarded skepticism. Elsewhere we’re told that the disciples did not believe the women’s report. It was “nonsense” to them that Jesus was gone.
I think that we, along with the entire human race have looked at this account with a certain amount of skepticism. Can all this really be true? Satan tries to convince people that it isn’t. So often we hear “alternative theories” about what might have happened to explain away the resurrection of Jesus. After all, none of us have ever seen anybody rise from the dead. How do we know what God tells us in the Bible is sure and certain?
John was the voice of guarded skepticism about all of this; he had his doubts. But like John, it’s not important how we come to the tomb but how we leave the tomb, the empty tomb. That empty tomb has life-changing power. Let’s look at what it did for John and the others too.
After John went inside the tomb and saw the burial cloths arranged as they were, John himself reported, “He saw and believed” (20:8). The empty tomb converted John’s guarded skepticism into guaranteed certainty. And it does the same for us.
If we take a brief look back at some of the gospel lessons we’ve studied during this past season of Lent, we can see a logical progression of miracles leading up to this event. Jesus heals a man born blind, which was something nobody had ever done before. This was absolute proof that Jesus was the Messiah, like he said. This infuriated the Pharisees, but news about him spread like wildfire.
And then a couple weeks ago, we studied the raising of Lazarus from the grave. Jesus brought Lazarus back to life after being dead for four days, even with the odor of death in the air. He did this in front of many witnesses, and his popularity grew even greater. Of course this infuriated the Pharisees even more, to the point of plotting his death.
But people knew who he was, and they believed. His popularity was at an all-time high when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He was doing things only God could do. Should it have surprised anybody, especially those closest to Jesus that he should be able to raise himself from the dead, just as he had promised?
Think of what it did for Simon Peter. Here was a man who was really feeling distraught because of the guilt of sin that he was bearing. He had not acted as a disciple should act. He denied and deserted his Lord. After realizing his sin, the Bible says in Matthew 26 verse 75, “He went outside and wept bitterly.”
God used the empty tomb to assure him of his forgiveness. In Peter, here’s a guy who turned his back on Jesus more than once, yet Jesus went out of his way to say, “I forgive you. Your guilt is gone.” That’s why Peter could later write in I Peter chapter 1 verse 3, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
The empty tomb gives us hope. The Bible says in Romans chapter 4 verse 25, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” The empty tomb declares us to be innocent. The empty tomb guarantees that our sins are forgiven and forgotten.
Man, what a concept! Think of what that specifically means for you and for me. That means that although we stumbled to the empty tomb with guilt and shame yoked over our backs this morning—guilt over our sporadic worship, shame over our frequent denials of Christ and failures to stand up for others—we can leave here, we can leave the empty tomb, without guilt and shame. Jesus has forgiven you. The empty tomb gives us grace and comfort.
And last but not least, there’s Mary Magdalene. Her life had been a complete mess. She had been in the fast lane to self-destruction. But when Jesus came into her life, she was completely turned around. The power of God himself turned her life of sin into a life of grace and service to her Lord.
Of course she grieved. But Jesus appeared to her, thereby proving that he had risen from the dead. Her tears of grief turned into tears of joy. Her Saviour was alive! Her tears of sorrow were only short-lived; but her celebration of his resurrection would last an eternity.
So what does the empty tomb prove? It validates Jesus’ promise in John chapter 14 verse 19, “Because I live, you also will live.” The empty tomb guarantees that we will walk away from this life of grief and sorrow into a new life where there are no more tears, no more pain, no more sorrow. And when we realize this big picture, indeed it changes our perspective on the grief and sorrow we brought to the tomb today. We realize they’re but temporary; God’s peace will be ours for an eternity.
A congregation of farmers out on the prairie in South Dakota looked at a grave in a new way. One by one, as they peered into that hole in the ground, they weren’t contemplating the place where a dead body would be interred. They were looking for sub-soil moisture content in the earth as it related to their farming operations. They didn’t see death in that grave; rather they saw life-giving water.
When we see the empty tomb on Easter, we don’t see death; rather we see the life on the other side. God guarantees us eternal life beyond the grave through faith in Jesus Christ our resurrected Saviour. Through faith, Jesus gives us the true living water from that life-giving stream. Through faith in Jesus, we have complete forgiveness for all of our sins, assurance for all of our doubts and fears, and a joy which calms all earthly sorrow.
That’s what those three people in today’s text experienced, and we shall too. Each and every week we come here to celebrate our Saviour’s resurrection. Therefore we can confidently exclaim: “He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”