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, Christopher Hitchens was the best-known atheist in the world. He wrote more than thirty books, not to mention essays on politics, literature and even religion. In 2005, he was named fifth on the list of the top 100 public individuals.
And he loved to debate. In 2007, he debated Alister McGrath at Georgetown University on the topic, Religious Belief in the Modern Word, Poison or Cure? In 2008, he debated Douglas Wilson at The King’s College in New York 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 one another, they traveled across America together.
And 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.”
So 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, the most important day, the most vital day there could ever be. As the apostle Paul once 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” (I Corinthians 15:17-18). And he wrote: “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Corinthians 15:20).
I’ll read the words 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?’” (Mark 16:1-3).
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 had run 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. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62).
In disgust, Caiaphas tore his clothes, charging Him with blasphemy, then handed Him over to be crucified.
At first, it wasn’t easy to get Pilate to agree. But with trumped up charges of treason, sedition and rebellion, not to mention a more than cooperative crowd shouting, “Crucify,” what could he say? And by 9:00 Friday morning, they had Him right where they wanted Him--nailed to a cross and waiting to die.
Finally after six agonizing hours, at the very moment He died, an earthquake rattled the foundations of Jerusalem. The dead rose from their graves and the temple’s thick, heavy curtain shrouding the presence of God, the Most Holy Place, 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 Twelve had come, one of those big, strong fishermen, but they were too afraid to be seen by anyone.
But as they came to the tomb, they stared in awe and disbelief. The stone was rolled away. And 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 that unguarded, open tomb.
Their worst fears were realized. Jesus’ body was gone! And worse still, intruders suddenly appeared, strange, young men wearing brilliant white robes.
What would they say? What would they do?
Yet in that moment, one spoke the most profound truth they could ever know. He said, “Don’t be afraid! You are 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” (Mark 16:6-7).
And dropping their spices and ointments and perfumes, they ran to tell the others. And as Jerusalem began to stir, people stopped and stared at the sight of three women, all 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, back in 1903, author Guy Thorne wrote a book called, When It was Dark. Years later, in 1919, it was even made into a silent movie.
And in that 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 a catastrophe. Spirits flagged, he said, 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 nothing more than a lie.
Thousands of missionaries returned home. Lights in the churches went out, and their doors were closed 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 visit the tomb of Mohammad, and they’ll tell you, “Here lie the bones of the great prophet.” You can visit the tomb of Napoleon, and they’ll say, “Here lie the bones of the emperor of France.” You can visit Moscow’s tomb of Lenin, and they’ll say, “Here lie the bones of the great founder of Soviet Communism.”
But if you’d visit the tomb of Jesus, they’ll tell you, “He is not here. He is risen as He said!”
So how blessed we are, how thankful we are, for Easter Day!
As Paul once 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” (I Corinthians 15:55-57).
As one 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 has 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 Easter Sunday afternoon, pastor and author Jay Sawrie was sitting in the light of his living room, with his dog resting quietly on his lap. Though he said he had often longed for some still and quiet moments to unwind and recharge, that day brought him pain instead of solace.
You see, his young, 25 year-old wife, Allyson, had died just a month before, his ever-faithful companion and encourager, who always pointed him to Christ, who was always longing to be like Christ.
And as he sat reflecting on Christ’s resurrection, he thought of those words, “O death, where is your sting?” (I Corinthians 15:55).
He said, “The sting is in my heart. It’s in my side where it feels as if my rib has been ripped from my chest. It’s in the quiet of this apartment as the sun streams in and the dog dreams. It’s in the vast emptiness that is our bed where we would lay on Sunday afternoons and waste the days laughing. It’s in a cigar box where I’ve tucked away my wedding ring.”
He always thought she would go before him, maybe at 58 or 78. Not at 25. Parents shouldn’t bury their daughters, and young husbands shouldn’t bury their wives.
But since it was Easter, he said there were two things he knew for sure. One was that there is an empty tomb. And the second was that his wife, even in her worst days of battling depression and anxiety, looked to Christ, by grace through faith, for her salvation.
And because Christ was pierced and crushed for our sins and because He rose on the third day conquering the grave, he knew that grief would not have the last word, that death is dead for all people for all time, and that someday, all tears will be gone.
And so, by the grace of God, even we are bold to say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!”
Heavenly Father, God of all grace and 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 our Savior’s name. Amen