In one of history's most decisive battles, Wellington faced Napoleon at Waterloo. News of the final results came back to London by semaphore. All England waited as the word crossed the Channel by sailboat and then overland by a relay of these signals.
From the top of Winchester Cathedral a semaphore began to spell out the message, letter by letter, "Wellington defeated..." The next link in the relay caught this message just as dense fog settled in and obliterated the signal. Those two words shrouded Londoners with a gloom and despair thicker than the fog. All was lost. Wellington defeated!
After the mist lifted, the signaler sent his message again, just to be sure it got through: Wellington defeated the enemy! What a difference two words make. Despair became joy. The ego-maniacal Frenchman was defeated. England was safe!
A similar reversal happened between Friday and Sunday of Easter week. On Saturday the message was grim, " Jesus is defeated. The miracle worker is dead and buried. A big boulder seals his body in a rock tomb. It is all over." But Sunday sunrise brought new information, "He is risen. What He taught is true! Death is not the final word."
But it took longer than we might expect for this good news to sink in. Part of the problem was that nothing like this had ever happened before. But there were other issues as well. The Greek world which had some influence on the Jews of Jesus' day found the idea of a physical resurrection not only absurd -- to them it was considered creepy or offensive. To them the physical body was evil, always decaying...at death the decaying process simply accelerated its work. According to Socrates, the faster a person escaped the confines of the body for the freedom of the spirit the better.
Some Jews no longer believed in any kind of life after death; many did, but only at the very end of the age, after final judgement. This may help us understand why Jesus' followers never got it when Jesus talked about His death and resurrection. They presumed it was another complex parable that He frequently used.
When Jesus' followers watched Joseph and Nicodemus bury His body in the tomb, they firmly believed they would never see Him again until Judgment day. This may help us understand why everyone involved in this event was so confused when they discovered an empty tomb on Sunday morning.
Read Luke 24:1-12.
Looking back from our side of the resurrection, and after the whole story has been told, we tend to be a little hard on the disciples and their absence of joy at the empty tomb; especially the men and the mean way they treated the women.
But if we can get into their mindset - on their side of the first report of an empty tomb - it might be easier to understand their dullness. We might even begin to appreciate the steps they went through, going from a total absence of faith to an eventual, full blown confidence in Jesus' resurrection.
To repeat the story (and it's worth repeating) the beginning element that set the whole process in motion was the empty tomb. All four gospels report that the women were the first at the tomb. The women are uniformly surprised that the stone had been moved from the opening. This was unexpected. But much more confusing were the contents, or lack of contents inside the tomb.
Their expectation was that they would complete the burial procedure which had been cut short by the sunset on Friday evening- the beginning of the Sabbath. Because they were planning for this task, several of the women watched Joseph and Nicodemus place Jesus' body in the tomb! They expected to return to this same tomb and finish the funeral arrangements.
They expected to find a body. Not just any body, but Jesus' body. They did not reckon that it would be gone. They were certain they had gone to the right tomb. They were almost certain that no one had stolen the body.
They presumed they would find the "remains" of Jesus. Just as you might expect to find your bed when you turn the TV off after the late news and go down the hall to settle in. Instead all they found were the strangely evacuated grave clothes. It would've been like laying out a man in his suit and hat on a marble slab, then coming back the next day to find the suit still there, with the socks still inside the shoes and running up the pant legs, and the tie still in a double Windsor knot under the starched collar and tucked inside the vest, with the cuffs of the shirt just below the jacket sleeves and the hat laying neatly above the tie knot by about eight inches -- but no sign of the body.
The women wondered at what they saw. The word in verse four translated "wondering" is really a stronger word than that. It's only used four or five times throughout scripture. It is the same word used to describe how Herod felt after listening to John the Baptist preach (conviction, presence of truth, disturbing, yet attractive). It is the word used to describe the feeling the disciples had when Jesus announced that one of them was a traitor (self doubt, yet hard to believe...perplexed).
When Peter saw the arrangement, Luke says he was "astonished." He didn't know yet whether it was good or bad, but he suspected it was not a human scheme. Even if Jesus had not really died (and no one could live through what happened to Jesus) would He have simply gotten up, dusted Himself off and walked away without disturbing His grave clothes? The tomb was empty in an odd way.
On Thursday night and Friday morning the disciples had been unprepared for the horrifying spectacle of Jesus' arrest, torture, and death! This crucifiction event was not a part of their plans, not a part of their faith!
In almost exactly that same way, they were unprepared for what happened Sunday morning. They were like the scientist who recently confessed about the resurrection, "This is the sort of thing I would never believe, even if it really happened."
The second feature in the process of a new "boring" faith was the witness of angels. I wonder if those two messengers were a part of the choir that announced the good news to the shepherds at Jesus' birth? Whether they were or not, someone's witness is usually a part of our growing faith.
The angel's message is "Wake up, you don't go to a cemetery to find a living person!" They asked the women to remember the kind of person they had come to believe Jesus was: remember the words He spoke about His death. If they could make themselves remember, they would recall that there was always a harmony between who Jesus was and the things He said. If they remember who Jesus was and what He said, the empty tomb will begin to make sense.
Luke says of the women, "they remembered." Their faith was becoming real. The men in this episode were a little harder to convince. Like the women, they were not expecting this. Clearly the men were not back at headquarters posturing themselves to move out into the world as the vanguard of a new faith. Instead of telling the excited women who rushed back to the house with the news of angels and an empty tomb, "Oh sure, of course, we figured it would turn out like this!", they insulted them as if they had gone insane...they showed no sympathy! Each of them was as skeptical as "doubting Thomas" until they had personal evidence.
The truth of the resurrection was not something that exploded full grown in their minds on Sunday morning. Many times, saving faith starts with small steps- like a baby learning to walk. There may be some hesitancy, uncertainty, some stumbling, but these faltering steps can lead to full blown adult walking, mature believing.
Listen to these two sentences: The resurrection is a vast watershed in history, or it is nothing. Once accepted as fact, it tells more about the universe, about history, and about man's state and fate than all the mountains of other facts in the human accumulation of information.
You might not guess that these words were written by the editors of Life Magazine. Of course they were penned in 1956, before Time-Warner became one of the many apostles for a godless secular society. They were written at a time when thinking straight (not violating rules of logic to satisfy a wish), when thinking reasonable was expected for leaders to have influence. These words were written in a time when "the way you want life to be" is not more profoundly influential then the way life really is.
A few years ago a history book in the old USSR referred to Jesus as a myth, a non-person. The communists were notorious for rewriting history the way they wanted it to be. Legitimate historians from a variety of faiths laughed at this infantile projection of a wish into a text book. There is more historical data for the person of Jesus, the carpenter/rabbi from Nazareth, than there is for Julius Caesar and Charlemagne. Today you can't even find raving atheists on NPR denying the historical existence of Jesus. I hope I didn't go too far with that claim.
However, most non-believers have become comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a real person and lived an interesting life and died...period.
The church is alive today to say with the angels, "Do not get comfortable with the idea that Jesus is dead." Do not try to reconcile yourself to eternity in a cemetery. Because of Jesus' victory over death Christians are not defined by the past or a future in a grave yard. We are marked by the Spirit of Jesus and eternal life.
A few generations ago Simon Greenleaf, professor of law at Harvard, wrote about the reliability of the disciple's witness to the resurrection of Jesus. He made several points:
The great truths which the apostles declared, were, that Christ had risen from the dead, and that only through repentance from sin, and faith in Him could men hope for salvation. This doctrine they asserted with one voice, everywhere, under the greatest discouragements.
He pointed out the unpopularity of preaching the necessity of the cross to remedy every person's moral corruption, then said:
The laws of every country were against the teaching of His disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, bitter persecutions, imprisonments, and cruel deaths. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith. If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error.He goes on for several paragraphs thinking logically.
The church was founded on this one fact: Jesus defeated death. If the enemies of the apostles were serious about destroying the church all they had to do to be successful was disprove the resurrection. Failing this, all they could do was threaten, beat, flog and kill the followers of Jesus. Their impotence and the Apostles power to die both speak volumes.
The resurrection endorses the work of Jesus on the cross. The cross was not an accident of history that God set right by raising Jesus to life. The resurrection assures us that we can find spiritual life a the cross. Sin has a cure.
The cross is not medicine to deal with self-doubt or low self esteem. The cross is not an analgesic to help us deal with a slumping stock market or the high cost of college tuition (not that these are small issues). Yet the burning core of the gospel message is that : As we stand before God we are morally corrupt, sin-filled people facing eternal damnation, but, in the shed blood and broken body of Jesus we can find the cure. The resurrection is God's ringing endorsement of Jesus' work for us!
The cross reminds us of our spiritual bankruptcy. The resurrection assures us of God's power. The resurrection is God's bold print on history telling us there is victory already achieved over sin and death and hell. You and I must decide if we will exchange ungodly loyalties for a sold out loyalty to Jesus. It is not required that this faith explode full blown in your mind and heart the first time you hear it. But something this important, must be thought about and meditated on and given an opportunity to grow into the benchmark, the most basic part of our life that God intends it to be.
The resurrection of Jesus is God's good news for us, "This is what I want to do for you. Will you let Me?"