Second Reformed Church

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"I Have Seen the Lord!' Sermon: John 20:1-18

“I Have Seen the Lord!”

[John 20:1-18]

April 20, 2014 Second Reformed Church

            Jesus was dead.  One thing that the Romans were very good at was making sure a person was dead.  True, Jesus had not been on the cross very long – only three hours – but, we must remember that He had been flogged so brutally that the writers of the day say there wasn’t an inch of skin on His body that was not torn and bleeding – and He had lost a great deal of blood.

            But there was controversy: 

            “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise.” Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last fraud will be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard” (Matthew 27:62-66, ESV).

            Most of the chief priests and the Pharisees did not believe that Jesus is the Savior sent from God – and they wanted to make sure that nobody did anything to make it look like Jesus had risen from the dead – so they could claim that He is the Savior God sent.  So the chief priests and the Pharisees went to see Pilate on the Sabbath, and they asked Pilate to secure the grave so no one could steal the body and make up a story.  Not unreasonable.

            So Pilate told them to take a guard of soldiers – a squad of soldiers – to guard the tomb until the third day.  And every painting you have ever seen depicting the Resurrection is wrong about the number of guards.  The problem is, we know how many soldiers there were in a Roman legion, but the number of soldiers in a Roman guard or squad varied, depending on the circumstance.

            So, let’s think this through – as the scholars have done:  after the Resurrection, we’re told that “some” of the guards went to report what happened – so that means there were at least three guards.  Yet, we read in Acts 12:4 that a squad of sixteen guards were assigned to watch over Peter while he was in jail – to keep him from escaping – and the chief priests and the Pharisees knew that there were eleven apostles who believed in Jesus and hundreds of disciples, as well.  So how many would have been reasonable to send to make sure the tomb was secure and that they would not be overpowered by believers trying to steal His Body?

            Scholars figure there were likely between thirty and fifty soldiers guarding the tomb – strong, well-trained soldiers – like in “Gladiator,” and “300,” and “Blood and Sand” – to take on any fishermen or women who might try to steal the Body.

            They also had rolled a large stone across the front of the tomb, so that it covered the entrance and sat in a channel in the ground, so it would have taken several strong men to move it – the women noted as they made their way to the tomb that first Easter morning that they didn’t know how they would get the stone moved so they could finish the burial preparations that they couldn’t do because the Sabbath was upon them.

            The chief priests and Pharisees also had the tomb sealed – what that would involve is pouring melted wax along the spot where the stone met the tomb and then pressing Pilate’s ring into the wax, so his mark would be there.  The legal implication was that if anyone broke the seal, they would have to answer to Pilate.

            So, the chief priests and the Pharisees secured thirty or more soldiers and a legal injunction against anyone who even tried to get into the tomb.  The tomb was rather secure.

            But something happened:  Somehow – even with the guards and the seal – the Body disappeared, and we read:  “While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day” (Matthew 28:11-15, ESV).

            The guards knew what really happened, but the chief priests and the Pharisees could not have the guards telling everyone that Jesus had physically risen from the dead – that would prove that they were wrong, and they weren’t wrong – they couldn’t be wrong.  So they told them to say they all fell asleep and the disciples stole the body.  And they offered them all a bribe to stick to that story, and they promised to intercede on their behalf before Pilate, because if they had fallen asleep while they were supposed to be on watch, they would have been put to death – and if their falling asleep made for this rag-tag group of Galileans to cause him more trouble about this Jesus, after all the trouble he had gone through to put Him to death – they would have really have suffered.

            So, yes, thirty or more guards fell asleep at the same time and so soundly that they didn’t hear the disciples sneak past them, push the stone up out of its resting place, out of the way of the opening of the tomb, and stole the Body.  And the Jews believed the story!

            What does our text tell us – and we’ll add some of the details from the other Gospels:

            “Now on the first day of the week [there was a great earthquake and] Mary Magdalene [and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, and Joanna, and other of the women] came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb [by an angel from heaven].”

            Luke records:  “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.’ And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:1-11, ESV).

Returning to John:  “So she [they] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple [John, the author of the Gospel], the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.”

At least six women followers of Jesus went to the tomb to finish anointing His Body for burial.  That morning there had been an earthquake, but they rose at dawn, and set off for the tomb, not knowing how they would get in, but when they got there, the tomb was open, the guards were on the ground, having fainted seeing the angel come down and move the stone away from the tomb, and the angels asked, “What are you doing here?  Don’t be afraid; I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, but don’t you remember that He said He had to be crucified, and on the third day He would rise from the dead?”

They remembered Jesus’ words, but they didn’t quite get it.  They were filled with fear and joy and ran to tell Peter and the other disciples, and when they told them that Jesus was gone – that they had seen angels and the angels had told them that Jesus had risen just as He said, Peter and the others said, “Aren’t women cute?  They’ve got such imaginations.  If the tomb was empty, we men will go check it out and find out what really happened.  You sit down here and rest – you got up too early – you’ve been overwhelmed with grief – you’ve got ‘the vapors.’”

So Peter and John ran to the tomb – they were probably both in good shape, being fishermen, but Peter was the elder statesman, and John beat him to the tomb.  But John stood back and looked into the tomb to see what had happened.  But Peter being Peter – he ran in without any thought – straight into the tomb, and John joined him and looked around.  And the women were right – Jesus was gone.  But they didn’t see any angels.  And they didn’t understand yet what Jesus had told them about His death and Resurrection.

“Those poor women.  Something happened – the Body is gone, but they’re such a nervous gender – they thought they saw angels who told them that Jesus was alive.  What wishful thinking!”

So, they went home.  They told everyone that the women were right – the tomb was empty, but that’s all they knew.  There were no angels.  And now, some of the guards were spreading a rumor that some of Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body during the night.  It was best that they go home and see if this would all blow over – or perhaps if someone would come forward.  It would take some time for them to make sense of what had happened.  So, they went home.

But Mary Magdalene went back to the tomb.

            “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she 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 in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her.”

            Mary went back to the tomb, confused.  She wasn’t sure about what she had heard and experienced before.  We’re the disciples right?  Had they imagined the angels?  Had it been wishful thinking?  Had it been a delusion?

            Jesus was gone.  There was no body in the tomb.  What had happened?

            Mary stood weeping and wondering.

            Just then, the angels returned – and they asked why she was crying – and she said she didn’t know where the Body of her Lord was.

            Just then, she turned and saw the Gardener – so she supposed.  She didn’t recognize Jesus – not because He didn’t look like Jesus any more, but because God kept her eyes from seeing for the moment – just as the disciples on the road to Emmaus we initially kept from seeing Who Jesus was.

            And so Mary asked Him to just tell her where the Body was so she could take it and tend to it and lay it to rest.

            But then Jesus spoke to her – and God pulled the blinders back – she heard His Voice and recognized Him, and she cried out “Rabboni!” and hugged Him.  And Jesus told her not to “cling to” Him – not to “clutch on” to Him – because He had yet to ascend to the Father.

            Many fanciful reasons for this have been put forward, but quickly, understand that Jesus was raised in the same physical body that He died in, but glorified.  He could be touched; He could eat – as we see in the Gospels.  What Jesus was telling Mary was not think that He was lost to her because He was not physically there – He was yet going to ascend back to the Father, and His Physical Body would remain with the Father.  And so we understand that Jesus is spiritually with us through the reading and preaching of His Word and through the Sacraments.

            Jesus told Mary to go and tell the disciples that He would soon be ascending back to the Father – having completed His work in the flesh on earth.

And, “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’—and that he had said these things to her.”

The disciples still weren’t convinced – not until Jesus Himself came into their midst and presented His wounds to them.  And this is one of the greatest and most striking evidences that the history of the Physical Resurrection of Jesus is true.

Did you miss it?

The first, primary, and largest witness to the Physical Resurrection of Jesus is the testimony of a bunch of women.  Today, we turn our noses up and say, “Humph, women are just as reliable as men.”  And that is absolutely true – however, that was not the prevailing opinion in the first century Middle East.  Women were not allowed to give testimony in court, because women could not be trusted to get the facts right.

Margaret Manning writes, “Women were the witnesses because no man in his right mind would give credence to a woman’s testimony in the first century.  They simply were not credible witnesses in court, or anywhere else, for that matter.  Why then did the gospel writers report them as witnesses?  If women were not credible witnesses, why would the gospel writers insist that they were witnesses, indeed, the first witnesses for the resurrection?  Wouldn’t it have made more sense to offer some credible, male testimonial?

            “Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne answers this question with a resounding ‘No!’  He writes:  ‘Perhaps the strongest reason of taking the stories of the empty tomb absolutely seriously lies in the fact that it is women who play the leading role.  It would have been very unlikely for anyone in the ancient world who was concocting a story to assign the principal part to women since, in those times, they were not considered capable of being reliable witnesses in a court of law.  It is surely much more probable that they appear in the gospel accounts precisely because they actually fulfilled the role that the stories assign to them, and in so doing, they make a startling discovery’”  (http://www.rzim.org/a-slice-of-infinity/unlikely-witnesses/).

            Women are the first, primary, and largest witness to the Physical Resurrection of Jesus.  The testimony of women was not admissible in courts when the Gospels were written.  If the disciples were making up a story – if the Physical Resurrection is a lie – in first century Israel – they would have written the story so men brought the evidence – influential men – like Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus – not a group of women!  The fact the women are the ones who discover the tomb empty, and women go and tell everyone that the tomb is empty, and women report that they have seen the risen Christ before any men come on the scene – make the whole story much more believable.  It would have been absolutely foolish to make up a story about Jesus and have the testimony of women be the evidence.

            But that is how God tends to work, isn’t it?

            As Paul explains:  “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

            “For consider your calling, brothers [and sisters]: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, ESV).

            God has commanded that His Gospel be preached to the whole Creation – and He began by putting the witness of the Truth of the Gospel in the hands and mouths of women who would not be believed, due to the sexist views of the courts in the first century Middle East.  And now He uses you and me.

            Surely, salvation is of the Lord!  So let us boast in Him.

            Let us pray:


            Almighty God, we thank You for coming to earth to save us and make us Your children.  We thank You for being willing to come to earth, live, die, rise and ascend – and this is all to Your Glory.  Thank You for using us to spread Your Gospel.  Help us to believe that salvation is Your Work and pray for Your saving power as we proclaim the Gospel.  For You have chosen us – the foolish – to proclaim Your Salvation to the wise.  In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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