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April 1, 2018

Sermon EASTER Mark 16:1-2 . . .“Bible places: the open tomb”

“Bible places: the open tomb”

Mark 16:1-2

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

At the time of his death in December of 2011, at the age of sixty-two, Christopher Hitchens was the most well-known atheist in the world.  He wrote more than thirty books, as well as numerous essays, on politics, literature, and religion.  In 2005, he was named fifth on the list of the “Top 100 Public Intellectuals.”

And he loved to debate.  In 2007, he debated Alister McGrath at Georgetown University on the topic, “Religious Belief in the Modern World, Poison or Cure?”  In 2008, he debated Douglas Wilson at The King’s College on, “Is Christianity Good for the World?”  And in 2010, he even debated former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But over the years, Hitchens developed an unlikely friendship with a Christian named Larry Taunton.  And not only did they debate each other, they travelled across America together.  

In his book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens:  The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, Taunton writes:  “My mind goes back to the Shenandoah.  The skies are clear, the autumn leaves are translucent in the early afternoon sun, and the road ahead of us is open…In a strong, clear voice, Christopher is reading from the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John.”

What did he read?  He read the words of John chapter 11, where Jesus said to Martha, at the grave of her brother, Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”

Then, taking his reading glasses off, Hitchens turned to him and said in his own sarcastic way, “Do you believest thou this, Larry Taunton?”

Taunton answered, “I do.  But you always knew that I did.  The question is, do you believest thou this, Christopher Hitchens?”  

And in a moment of unexpected transparency, Hitchens hesitated for a moment, then said, “I’ll admit that it is not without appeal to a dying man.”

Today we celebrate Easter day, the most vital day, the most important day there ever could be.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”  And he wrote:  “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Listen again to the words of our gospel reading for today, from the book of Mark chapter 16:  “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Him.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.  And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’”

It had been a hard week in Jerusalem.  The chief priests plotted to get rid of Him.  One of His own betrayed Him.  And the rest ran away.  Then in a mock trial before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas demanded, “Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”  And Jesus answered, “I am.”  In disgust, Caiaphas tore his clothes, charged Him with blasphemy, and handed Him over to be crucified.

At first, it wasn’t easy to get Pilate to agree.  But with trumped up charges of treason and opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, not to mention a more than cooperative crowd shouting, “Crucify,” what could he say?  And by 9:00 Friday morning, their plan was accomplished and the deed was done.  Jesus was right where they wanted Him—nailed to a cross and waiting to die.

Finally at 3:00, at the very moment He died, an earthquake rattled the foundations of Jerusalem.  The dead rose from their graves and the temple’s veil tore in two from top to bottom.  And a Roman commander of a hundred men couldn’t help but say, “Surely, this Man was the Son of God.”

That was Friday.  Now it’s Sunday.  And together those three women set out, at the break of dawn, for the tomb, to anoint the body of the One they loved.

And as they came within sight of the tomb, they prepared themselves for the most difficult task of all—to move the stone.  There were three of them, but they were weak and they were women.  If only one of the disciples had come, one of those big strong fishermen, but they were too afraid to be seen by anyone.

But when they came to the tomb, they stared in awe and disbelief.  The stone was face down on the ground.  Overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, anger, sorrow, and grief, they looked at one another and asked, “Who moved the stone?”

The closer they came, the more their hearts pounded and their knees trembled.  And mustering all the courage they could find, they approached the unguarded, open tomb.

Their worst fears were realized.  Jesus was gone.  And worse still, an intruder suddenly appeared, a strange, young man wearing a brilliant white robe.  What would he say?  What would he do?

Yet it was in that moment that he spoke the most profound truth they could ever know.  “Don’t be afraid,” he said.  “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified.  He’s not here.  He’s risen, as He said.  See where His body was laid.  Now go and tell His disciples and Peter, that He is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see Him, just as He told you.”

And dropping their spices and perfumes, they ran to tell the others.  And as Jerusalem began to stir, people stopped and stared at the sight of three women, dressed in mourning clothes, running at full speed, bearing strange, amazing, fantastic, earth-shattering, incredible news.  Jesus was risen from the dead.

A little over a hundred years ago, author Guy Thorne wrote a book called, When It was Dark.

And in his book, he tells the story of a man named Constantine Schaube, a wealthy and powerful English Jew, who plots to destroy Christianity by proving that the resurrection isn’t true.  So he coerces an English archaeologist to write an inscription at the entrance of an ancient tomb.  The inscription, supposedly written by Joseph of Arimathea, said that Christ didn’t rise.  Instead, it said, he took His body and hid it there.

In the words of the book:  “Archaeologists have made a startling and remarkable discovery.  They have found recently, in a newly unearthed tomb in the suburbs of Jerusalem, the remains of an ancient man who quite evidently died of crucifixion.  On the walls of the tomb they found also a plaque written in ancient Hebrew, which translated reads thusly, ‘Here lies Jesus of Nazareth, the great and good teacher.  We secreted His body away in order to place Him beyond the reach and rage of His enemies.  He was the best of men.  May He rest in peace.’”

As you can imagine, what happened next was catastrophic.  Spirits flagged like the branches of a willow tree.  Hope went out like a candle in the wind.  Joy disappeared from life, for all of Christianity was a lie.

Thousands of missionaries returned home.  Lights in the churches went out, and their doors were locked for good.  The Law of Sinai was exchanged for the law of the jungle.  The Sermon on the Mount gave way to savagery in the street.  And as nation rose up against nation, the whole world soon became one huge, blackened, smoldering ruin—all because Christ didn’t rise from the dead.

You can go to the tomb of Mohammed, and they’ll tell you, “Here lie the bones of the great prophet.”  You can go to the tomb of Napoleon, and they’ll say, “Here lie the bones of the emperor of France.”  You can go to Moscow and see the tomb of Lenin, and they’ll say, “Here lie the bones of the great founder of Soviet Communism.”

But go to the tomb of Jesus, and they’ll tell you, “Here lie the bones of no one.  He is not here.  He is risen as He said.”

How blessed we are, how thankful we are, for Easter Day.  

As Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As another author put it:  “Resurrection makes Christianity the most irritating religion on earth.  You can argue about ethics, doctrines, and rituals until you’re blue in the face—people are free to believe what they want.  What does it matter?  But the resurrection means everything is changed.  If God is not raised, Christians are to be pitied for wasting their lives.  But if Christ is raised, then it would be insane to ignore Him and His claims.”

One more thing.  Late in 2004, author Joan Didion wrote a book called, The Year of Magical Thinking.  It’s a memoir, telling first of the loss of her husband, and second, the loss of her daughter.

In December of 2003, her husband, John, suddenly collapsed from a fatal heart attack.  Then her daughter, Quintana, at the age of thirty-nine, died of acute pancreatitis.

So she wrote a book to tell her story.

This is what she said:  “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.  We anticipate that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death…we expect to feel shock.  We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.  We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss.  We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”

And she wrote:  “We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.  As we were.  As we are no longer.  As we will one day not be at all.”

But because of today, Easter day, we have hope.  We have strength.  We have the promise of resurrection and eternal life.

All thanks be to God.

 

Heavenly Father, God of all mercy, we believe that Jesus is alive and is the Lord of life.  Through His death and resurrection, He destroyed the power of death.  Grant us the peace of Your presence that we may know You are with us.  And because You are with us, we will not be afraid.  This we ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen

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