"Hope From a Tomb"
(Delivered Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
The message of Easter is a message of hope. It's the greatest message of hope the world has ever heard. We should always seek to keep it's hope fresh in our hearts, and never let ourselves get used to it!
Many years ago, Billy Graham was holding a crusade in Germany. While there, he was invited to visit the office of then chancellor Konrad Adenouer. Chancellor Adenouer asked him, "Young man, do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus?" "I most certainly do" was Billy's reply. "So do I," said the chancellor. "If Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, there is not one glimmer of hope for the human race. When I leave office, I'm going to spend the rest of my life studying and writing about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's the most important event in human history" (from Just As I Am, p. 689).
Our world is in desperate need of hope. Some folks - like Dr. Graham - who are close to the leaders and rulers of this world testify that such rulers are gripped with a prevailing sense of hopelessness about the future. Violence is on the rise in our cities and neighborhoods; and in spite of all the years of talk about 'peace', nations still seem poised to destroy one another. Hostilities between racial groups and religious factions appear to be growing. One political leader said many years ago that, as he watched the things going on in the world, he felt as if he were watching two locomotives on the same track about to wreck into one another; and that he felt helpless to do anything to stop it. And since he said those words, things haven't improved much - if at all.
Though many of the rulers and leaders of this world wouldn't recognize it in these terms, the core problem is sin. Our first parents introduced sin into the human family through their disobedience to God; and with that sin came death. And the introduction of sin and death into the world through Adam and Eve has brought untold misery and suffering upon all of their children ever since.
But the message of Easter introduces hope into this world that has been so plagued with the consequences of sin and death. The message Easter is that God loves people; and that He has done something victorious concerning man's desperate situation. He has broken into this world in a clear and visible way by sending His Son - Jesus Christ - to die on the cross for the sins of mankind, to be buried in a tomb just outside Jerusalem, and then to be raised again in glorious victory over the terrible curse of sin and death and to be seen by the eyes of men.
One of the first lines from the first song that the choir sang this morning says, "No more weeping! Joy has come into the world! He is risen!" And that is the reason why the message of Easter is a message of hope! Yes; there are tears and sorrow and suffering in this world; we don't deny that. But because of what has happened on Easter, we can affirm that the weeping and suffering of this world - the weeping and suffering caused by sin and death - is now no longer permanent. It has an end. We can put away weeping! We have a sure, unshakable reason for hope in this world. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and He is alive. Hope - sure and certain - has been introduced into this world by the event of Easter!
As I was getting ready for our celebration of Easter, I was drawn to a story from the New Testament that illustrates Easter's great hope. It's the story of Mary Magdalene, and of how she met the resurrected Lord at the tomb on Easter Sunday. It's a unique story for several reasons. For one thing, it's found only in the Gospel of John. Many of the Easter stories found in the New Testament are commonly reported in all the Gospel accounts; but this one story is given to us only by John in his gospel account. That alone makes it unique.
But it's also unique because of the nature of the story itself. Other Easter stories seem to be concerned with giving us proofs of the resurrection of Jesus; but this one isn't concerned so much with proving the resurrection as it is celebrating it. It gives us a "slice-of-life" glimpse into the love and happiness that was shared between the resurrected Lord Jesus and one of His precious disciples on the day that He emerged from the tomb.
I believe that, finally, this story is unique because its intention is not so much to inform our minds as it is to move our hearts. I believe God wants us to be thrilled with the same sense of hope that thrilled Mary when she met the resurrected Lord at the tomb. We need Him and should love Him just as much as she did; and the good news is that He's just as alive to us now as He was to her then!
Mary Magdalene is one of the most important people in the New Testament, and yet, we know so little about her. There at least an five important "Marys" in the New Testament. There was, of course, the Mary who was the mother of Jesus. But there was also Mary of Bethany, who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, the precious friends of Jesus. There was another Mary in the New Testament who was the mother of the disciple James and his brother Joses; and there was also a Mary who was the mother of John Mark - the author of the Gospel of Mark.
There's been a lot of confusion at times because people haven't always been careful to distinguish one Mary from another. This morning's story concerns Mary of Magdala- a completely different Mary from the others. "Magdalene" was not her last name; rather, it was the name of the place she had lived. Magdala was a community all along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and it was Mary's home-town.
The Bible tells us that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her. We're told very little about this; only that she was among certain women that Jesus had healed of evil spirits, and that then followed and cared for Jesus' needs and the needs of the disciples (Luke 8:1-3). Some people have suggested that Mary Magdalene was the woman caught in adultery whose story is told to us in John Chapter 8; but there's no biblical evidence for this. Others have suggested that she was the sinful woman who came to Jesus and anointed his feet with fragrant oil in John Chapter 7; but there's no reliable biblical evidence for this either. All we know for certain about Mary is that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, and that she served Jesus from then on.
There's one more thing we can know for certain about Mary; she had an intense and devoted love for Jesus. In fact, the greatest characteristic of Mary was her love for Jesus. Her devotion to Jesus were was shown in how she was among the last to leave the scene of the cross after Jesus died (Matthew 27:55-56), was among those who lagged behind and carefully observed where Jesus' body was buried (v. 61), and was among those who came early to the tomb on Sunday to help anoint his body (28:1). She was also a "first" in a couple of other outstanding ways: she was the first to see Jesus alive; and she was the first to be given the privilege of announcing his resurrection. Mary Magdalene was, if you will, the first "evangelist" in the church's history. What a wonderfully privileged woman she was! I believe Jesus bestowed this great honor on her because she loved Him so deeply and so devotedly!
Mary's story teaches us how to respond to the great news of Easter, and to the great hope it introduces into the world. I believe Mary story can be summed up for us and the three phrases that the choir sang this morning: "No more weeping!" "Joy has come into the world!" "He is risen!"
First, notice how the story of Mary illustrates to us that there should be ...
I. NO MORE WEEPING!
Our story begins by telling us that Mary was at Jesus' tomb weeping. To help us appreciate why there was "weeping" in the first place, look what it says in verses 1-10;
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him." Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, and were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first. And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again to their own homes (John 20:1-10).
Imagine Mary coming to the tomb early in the morning to anoint the body of Jesus. Imagine her surprise at finding the stone not only rolled away from the tomb entrance, but - as the Greek word that John used implies - lifted up out of the tomb entrance and set off to the side! Imagine the distress at finding the tomb empty! Imagine her confusion - along with the disciples - as they found the burial cloths lying intact, but emptied of a body! Not only had His tomb been opened, but there wasn't even a trace of His body to be seen!
This tells us something of the stress and emotional strain poor Mary was under. She loved Jesus so much, because of what He had done for her, that she longed to serve Him. And if she couldn't serve Him in life, she was determined to serve Him even in His death. And yet, His body was missing. It had been taken; and she didn't know where it had been placed. Imagine what it would be like if someone you loved that much had been brutally put to death; but before you could perform your last act of love upon Him, His body was stolen, and you didn't know where the body was.
Three times, she had made the trip between the tomb and her home town. And nothing had resulted from it all but confusion and sorrow.
But notice what happened then.
But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him." Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, "Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him, "Rabboni!" (which is to say, Teacher) (John 20:11-16).
Twice at the tomb, Mary was asked the same question; "Woman, why are you weeping?" Why do you suppose she was asked this question? After all, she was asked this question first by angels in the tomb; and then, she was asked by Jesus Himself. They obviously knew why she was weeping? Were they teasing her? Why ask such a thing?
I don't believe Mary was asked this question in order to tease her or to play games with her. Rather, she was asked why she was weeping in order to make her think carefully about her sorrow in the face of the evidence of the resurrection. She had said herself why she was weeping: she wanted the body of Jesus, and yet couldn't find it. She was seeking a dead body; and yet the One whom she was seeking was alive! She was being asked that question, I believe, in order to show her how inappropriate her weeping was; because the Object of her heart's affection wasn't dead anymore, but was wonderfully alive.
And by the way; Mary's behavior illustrates, sadly, the way many people live out their Christian faith today. Many professing Christians live as if the Object of their faith was still in the tomb. Think of how inappropriate Mary's tears were. She was weeping, and yet, her Savior was alive and standing right there beside her! I can't help but wonder how many times we ourselves behave just as inappropriately - weeping, sorrowing, mourning and complaining; all as if Jesus were still in the tomb; while, the whole time long, the resurrected Lord is right there in our presence, holding out His hands to us, ready to comfort us and give us joy and victory if we would only turn around and pay attention to Him.
If Jesus had not been risen, and if His body were still in the tomb, then we would have ample reason in this world for tears. We would have no hope. But since Jesus Christ is alive, then we can really, truly say, "No more weeping!" The time for weeping is over! We have every reason in the world to be joyful! We have substantial hope at the deepest levels of human experience!
We have hope times of grief; even when deaths strikes down a beloved brother or sister in Christ. Paul wrote, "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus" (1 Thess. 4:13-14). The weeping that comes with death will come to an end, because Jesus conquered death on Easter!
We also rejoice in a glorious hope of an eternity in heaven, that no amount of trials or trouble on this earth will ever take away. The apostle Peter wrote, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you" (1 Pet. 1:3-4). This hope is sure and certain for us. Death itself cannot keep us from it, because Jesus rose from the dead on Easter!
We even have a hoped that transcends the things of this earth; because, as Paul affirmed; "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:19-20). Now, nothing in this world can defeat us or overshadow our hope; because Jesus has gained the victory over this world by His resurrection on Easter morning!
What we sang earlier is wonderfully true and wonderfully appropriate! "No more weeping! Joy has come into the world! He is risen!" It's true that, in this world we will have tribulation; but weeping has an end! Jesus has conquered and is victorious! He is risen
Second, Mary's story illustrates to us that ...
II. JOY HAS COME INTO THE WORLD!
I love to imagine the scene. Mary was weeping. Her eyes were filled with tears, her mind was stirred into confusion, and her heart was broken with sorrow. And yet, as she wept - perhaps hearing something within the tomb, or perhaps seeing some movement out of the corner of her eye - she stooped down and looked inside. The Greek word used to describe the manner in which she saw the angels basically means that she "perceived" them - as if she could only barely make out the fact that two persons were in the tomb sitting inside, one at the head and one at the foot of where Jesus' body had lain. Perhaps her eyes were blurred because of her tears; or it may be that the early flash of sunrise blinded her vision. That might be why she didn't seem to recognize at first that they were angels. After all, everyone looks a little 'angelic' when your eyes are wet and blurry.
I imagine that, as she spoke to these angels in the early morning sunrise, she perceived the shadow of a figure. It passed along and come to a stop in the center of the circular patch of sunlight reflected on the back wall of the tomb. I like to suppose that she saw the angels suddenly bow in reverence; and she sensed that someone very important was standing behind her in the sunrise. The Bible tells us that she turned to the Person standing behind her; but it then implies that she turned away again. Perhaps the sunlight blinded her; and all she saw was the silhouette of a figure that she assumed was the gardener
All her fear and sorrow were broken in a mere second's time however. All her confusion and bewilderment was instantly forgotten. She heard the familiar voice of her beloved Savior calling her by name. "Mary!" She knew instantly who it was; and she was overcome with joy. Jesus - her precious Savior, whom she loved so much - was not dead, but was very much alive! She was looking at Him with her own eyes; and He was wearing a broad smile of love for her on His wonderfully living face.
In the King James Version, Jesus is presented as having told Mary, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father ..." It almost sounds, at first, as if Jesus were prohibiting her from touching Him before she was even able to do so. In fact, there have been some who have suggested that Jesus was being presented here as our great High Priest who paid for our sins with His own blood, and was now about to go to the Father and present His blood as the atonement for our sins. Those who say this suggest that Jesus was ceremonially 'holy'; and should not be touched by Mary until He had presented His blood as our atonement before the Father.
Jesus certainly is our High Priest; and His blood was certainly the atonement for our sins. But the Bible nowhere clearly teaches that He needed to ascend to the Father in order to offer His blood on our behalf. Instead, it was on the cross that Jesus said, "It is finished!" (John 19:30). He had made a complete atonement for us on the cross; and there remained nothing more for Him to do. We're told of no other "ascension" to the Father than the one He made forty days after His resurrection (Acts 1:9).
So then; what did He mean by this strange phrase? I suggest that the best way to understand what Jesus said is by translating it as we have it in the New King James Version; "Do not cling to Me ..." Mary loved Jesus very much; and if He had not told her to let go of Him, she might never have done so! But He assured her that He had not yet ascended to the Father. She would have many more times to be with Him before He returned to heaven.
Mary loved Jesus because of what He did for. Jesus said once that "to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little" (Luke 7:47); and the implication is that our sense of how much Jesus has done for us is revealed in how much we love Him. Jesus saved Mary from her sins and delivered her from seven demons; and she loved Jesus very much for what He did for her. And that's why she rejoiced so much at seeing Him and wanted so much to cling to Him; because of her love for the One who was raised from the dead.
Do you love Jesus too? Do you rejoice in His resurrection? If you want to experience sincere joy this Easter, you must first experience thankfulness in your heart for what Jesus did for you on Good Friday. You can't rejoice in Easter and with anything like true joy or true hope, until you have first fallen at the foot of His cross and placed your trust in the sacrifice He made for your sins. Sorrow and grief over our sins at the cross must proceed the joy of the Easter. And if you will say to Him, with full sincerity of heart, "Dear Jesus; I'm a sinner. My sins deserved death. But You have died for me. I thank You; I trust You; and I love You for what you have done for me" - if you will do that, I believe you will hear His gentle voice call your name, as if to let you know that He is alive and loves you too. Jesus said, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:27-28).
If you truly love Jesus for what He did on the cross for you, you'll have no difficulty rejoicing in His resurrection on Easter with great joy. How could you help but rejoice in the prospect of fellowship with Someone who loved you so much that He died for you?
And this leads us, finally, to the great affirmation ...
III. HE IS RISEN!
Mary had been weeping because she couldn't find Jesus' body. But she had been mistakenly searching for the living among the dead (Luke 24:5). She was overcome with unspeakable joy when she saw that her Savior was alive - risen from the dead, just as He had promised. And when she saw Him, she clung to Him.
But however long Mary may have clung to Jesus, He didn't let her cling for long. He didn't want her to hold on to Him; and you can be sure that it wasn't because He didn't love her. He loved her very much. Instead, Jesus told Mary to stop clinging to Him because He had a job for her to do. The time for weeping was over; and so was the time for clinging. Jesus wanted Mary to go and tell His disciples the wonderful news that He was alive.
Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, 'I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her (John 20:17-18).
What a great privilege Mary had. And notice carefully what it was that Jesus wanted His disciples to know from her. First, he wanted them to know that they were now His brothers. There was a new relationship between them. He once told them that He no longer called them "servants", but instead called them "friends" (John 15:15). But now, we see that He no longer calls them "friends", but instead calls them "brothers".
Jesus, by His death, has made us brothers and sisters together with Him! "Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17). What a great love Jesus has for us! He died for unworthy sinners like us in order to make us into family members with Him!
And Jesus not only wanted the disciples to know that they had a new relationship with Him, but also that they had a new relationship with His Father. Jesus' words were very careful. He didn't say, "I am ascending to our God and to our Father." He still retains a unique relationship with the Father, one that is His alone as the only begotten Son of God. But now, He says, " I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God." Jesus Father loves Him infinitely as His own precious Son; and now Jesus' Father loves us as His own precious sons and daughters too!
Jesus sacrifice for us has made us the children of God. The Bible says, "To as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name" (John 1:12). The favor in which Jesus stands before God is now the favor in which you and I stand by faith in Christ. Jesus said, "For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God" (John 16:27). He rejoiced over us before His Father in prayer, affirming, "You ... have loved them as You have loved Me" (John 17:23).
And Mary did what Jesus told her to do! At the end of the gospel of Mark, we read that Mary did, indeed, go and tell Jesus' disciples that He was alive and that she had seen Him. We read that she told them as they mourned and wept (Mark 16:10); and though, at first, they didn't believe her, they eventually shared in her joy because He appeared to them as well.
* * * * * * * * * *
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; it's Easter. Jesus is as much alive now as He was when He appeared to Mary. He loves you and me very much; and He longs to have our fellowship. He is very glad to bear our burdens; and to walk with us through all our trials; and to share all of the treasures of His Father's rich love with us. And, when death finally come to our bodies, He will be very, very glad to take us into His fellowship in heaven; and - one day - to resurrect our bodies to be like His glorious body, so that we can share in His glory on earth. What a hope we have!
And so, let's not celebrate this uncommon holiday in a common way. Let's celebrate it as Mary celebrated it. No more weeping! Joy has come into the world! He is risen! Let's go and tell others the good news about Him today!!
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)
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