Tuesday, July 25, 2017
"Empty" Sermon: John 20:1-10
July 23, 2017, Second Reformed Church
Do you understand why everything happens the way it does?
Do you understand why evil people rule over nations and wage war? Do you understand why children are abused and murdered? Do you understand why you have had each job and relationship you have had in your life? Do you understand why it is so important that you be here this morning?
Two and three weeks ago, we saw that – at the hands of the Jews and the Romans – Jesus was put to death – and He was very dead – His heart muscle ruptured from the strain of all that He endured. There was no question that He was dead.
And Jesus was buried. He was sealed in a new tomb, in a garden, by the place where He was crucified, and the stone was sealed with wax, marked by the governor, and guarded by a guard of Roman soldiers. At least a dozen of Jesus’ disciples, including the man whose tomb it was, witnessed Jesus being sealed in the tomb. All taken together, it is logically impossible that the disciples could steal Jesus’ body and fake His Resurrection – the Resurrection really happened.
But first, there is the empty tomb.
And as we turn to our text, we see:
First, the women find the tomb empty.
“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, 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.’”
On the third day, the day after the Sabbath, a number of women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, Johanna, and others, go to the tomb to finish embalming Jesus.
We will remember that on Friday, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, and they take Him to the grave Joseph had purchased for himself, and they lay Jesus in the tomb and wrap Him in burial cloths and embalm Him with myrrh and aloes, but they are unable to finish, as the sun is setting – and the Sabbath is upon them. So they leave, and the tomb is sealed. And they, with all the men, go into hiding.
So, they women head for the tomb – filled with love and faith and courage. They were going to see Jesus completely and properly embalmed. They were going to see a dead body, and they did not know who would move the stone and let them into the tomb. But it had to be done, and it would be done, if the women have their way.
As we heard the Scripture this morning, we may have been concerned that it doesn’t sound the same as the history we read in the other Gospels. Don’t worry – remember, Jewish historians were not as concerned about the sequence of events as they were in making the point they wanted to make – and, John knew there were other Gospels that could be read, so, he emphasized and included the points he wanted to set before his readers.
And when we read that that women went to the tomb, we don’t raise an eyebrow, because, I our culture, women are judges and serve on juries, and so forth. However, in first century Middle-Eastern culture, this was not the case: women were not considered credible witnesses. So we need to ask ourselves why would God have such an important event be testified to by women – who were considered unreliable witnesses in that culture?
Paul gives us a reason as he writes:
“For consider your calling, brothers: 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’” (I Corinthians 1:26-31, ESV).
God delights in overthrowing this sinful world by using the very people the world looks at and says, “Loser.” Paul is writes to the leaders of the church and tells them to consider themselves – very few of them were wealthy or wise or powerful. God usually uses the people that the world thinks are nobodies – worthless – unimportant. Why? So the world will understand that the point is not us, but our glorious God! He is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption!
And John tells us that when the women arrive at the tomb, they find that the stone has already been rolled away, and the tomb is empty. So Mary Magdalene runs back to the place where the men are hiding and tells Peter and John that Jesus’ body is missing. She fears that their enemies have taken Jesus’ body and hidden it away in there paranoia about the disciples steal Jesus’ body and faking the Resurrection.
The other Gospels tell us that the women are met by angels who tell them that Jesus has risen from the dead. As we will see shortly, the Holy Spirit had not allowed them to understand the meaning of the prophesies about the Resurrection yet. So, they are afraid and confused and at least Mary Magdalene runs back to where the men are and tells them that Jesus is gone – the tomb is empty.
Second, Peter and John find the tomb empty.
“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.”
There is speculation as to the meaning of Peter and John’s run to the tomb and, also, of the meaning of the placement of the burial cloths. For our purposes, we will not address them, but only look at what the text clearly says:
Peter and John are skeptical of what Mary Magdalene has told them. It doesn’t seem possible that the tomb was empty because Jesus physically rose from the dead. Also, Mary is a woman, and women – at that time – were thought to be unreliable witnesses.
So Peter and John run to the tomb: John gets to the tomb first, but stops short of the tomb and looks in, and sees the burial cloths and the empty tomb just as Mary had said. Peter – in typical fashion – runs right into the tomb – and sees the same thing: Jesus is not there, but the burial cloths are there.
Why would someone steal Jesus’ body and leave the burial cloths behind?
Where is Jesus?
What does this mean?
What would you think? Jesus has been brutally put to death, and on the third day – when the embalming was to be finished, the tomb is found open, Jesus is gone, the burial cloths are there, and the guards have all fainted to the ground.
What’s going on?
What would you believe?
What would your explanation be?
Third, Peter and John believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.
“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.”
Peter rushes into the tomb and stands there with his mouth hanging open. John sees the burial cloths through the opening to the tomb, but hesitates. Then he goes into the tomb, and we are told, “He saw and believed.”
What did he see and believe?
Well, he saw the empty tomb and the burial cloths.
We may understand better if we go with a different translation of the next phrase: “for up until that point they did not understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead.”
Up until going into the empty tomb and seeing the empty burial cloths, they did not understand – but now that they have gone into the empty tomb and seen the empty burial cloths, they understand the Scripture that He must physically rise from the dead.
In going into the tomb, God the Holy Spirit opened their minds to understand the prophecies about Jesus and His Resurrection, and, in that moment, they believed that Jesus did physically rise from the dead. Where He is and what He is up to – they don’t know – but they believe that He is back from the dead – Jesus is alive!
And we may respond to this by thinking them pretty dumb. They knew the Scripture. They spent three years learning from Jesus. How could they be so dense?
Jesus even said to them:
“And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise” (Luke 18:33, ESV).
“that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:7, ESV).
Why didn’t they get it?
It’s easy for us to look back on the biblical characters – especially the apostles – and think they are pretty dull, but we need to understand there are reasons they didn’t understand:
They didn’t have the New Testament – which explains what the Old Testament teaches – especially about the Savior.
They didn’t have the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit at this point to help them understand what the Scripture says.
And, as God says in Luke 18:34, God purposefully kept them from understanding until the time was right – until the hour had come. God reveals what He wants as He wills when He wills to reveal it.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:3-10, ESV).
On the Sunday after 9/11, a number of you asked me why God allowed or purposed or planned the 9/11 attacks to happen. People have explanations about why the people involved carried out the attacks, and some have been bold enough to say they knew why planned the attacks. All I could say is that God is Sovereign, and there is a reason behind all of this, and it is appropriate for us to mourn and pray.
Not having an answer to the things that trouble us is like looking at the empty tomb and not understanding what happened. I’m sure we can all think of things and times when we have struggled to understand why things happened – why they are the way they are – what God’s purpose is.
Moses warns us:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV).
Moses warns us: there are things that belong to God’s secret counsel that we will never know the answer to. But God has given us His Word and the Law in it, and we are called as believers in Jesus Christ to respond to our salvation by showing our love of Jesus in living lives of faith and obedience. We won’t ever understand everything, but we can love Jesus as God has loved us, and obey Him by faith.
When we are standing before an empty tomb and the question of why is eating away at us, how can we accept it and just love God and live lives of faithful obedience?
By the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit and the promise of God.
God the Holy Spirit enables us to understand all that God wills for us to understand and empowers us to do God’s Will.
And He has given us this promise:
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, ESV).
God is Absolutely Sovereign – everything happens according to His sovereign plan – we are just unable to fully understand, because God doesn’t reveal all to us, and we are still blinded by sin in us, and our minds are not infinite – like God’s, so we can’t understand everything.
Yet, in God’s Mercy, we can understand this:
After seeing Jesus brutally murdered and buried in a tomb, on the third day, Jesus physically rose from the dead and walked out of that tomb – victorious over sin and death and the devil – having paid the debt for our sins and crediting us with His Righteousness – to the Glory of God and in love of the people the Father gave Jesus to save.
The tomb was empty, and the burial cloths were empty, because Jesus physically rose from the dead. And God enabled Peter and John to understand that this had been prophesied and is now fulfilled, so they went back to their homes and told the others: Jesus is risen from the dead!
Since that is true, we can leave our unanswered questions and say with Paul:
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV).
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we cannot imagine the confusion and pain that Jesus’ disciples first felt as they found the empty tomb and the burial cloths. We thank You for enlightening them to the truth of Jesus’ physical resurrection. We thank You for choosing us and causing us to believe savingly in Your Son. We ask that You would enable us by God the Holy Spirit to live our lives for You, not being overwhelmed by pain and sorrow and things we don’t understand, but by knowing all You have said and trusting that everything You have promised is true. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.