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"MESSAGE FOR RESURRECTION SUNDAY 2012"

The account of the resurrection is rightly known as a crucial pivot point in redemptive history. The resurrection marks the end of an era where Satan had, for four millennia had his boot on the neck of God’s people and when Christ emerged from the empty tomb, his victory on the cross over death and hell was vindicated.  In the resurrection, all the work has been done so that the poor can hear the good news, the captives can be liberated, the blind can recover their sight and the oppressed can be set at liberty.  But in spite of the absolutely unique nature of this narrative, there are several strong lines of continuity between this story and many of others in the gospels.  That is—the interpersonal dynamics and evil elements that have been present since the time of Jesus’ birth remain consistent in this resurrection account.  This morning, let’s see some of these and the main message they conspire to bring us this Resurrection Day.

The first element of continuity in this story that strongly connects it with the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry is—the element of humility that marks the gospel accounts. You might not expect humility to show up in this narrative about the death-conquering power of God, but it’s very much a part of the story.  From Jesus’ humble birth, to his lack of social standing and formal education, his growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, to being a man who had no place to lay his head—one of the dominant themes of Jesus’ life in the gospels is humility.  There are at least two elements to the resurrection narrative that drip with humility.  First, is the fact that: It is women who are the first messengers of the resurrection.  How that fact conveys humility we will see in a moment.  Matthew 28:1 tells us, “1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.”  These ladies had kept the Sabbath and at the break of dawn—the earliest possible moment, they are down at the tomb.  In Mark’s account, he tells us, “1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”  They go ostensibly to anoint the body of Jesus—this was done to take the edge off the smell of the soon-to-be-rotting corpse.

There’s nothing unusual about women visiting the tomb of a loved one.  What was highly unorthodox is what is recorded beginning with verse five.  Matthew records, “5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”  To the first century reader, this account would have seemed very odd because it records that the first commissioned messengers of the resurrection… were women—one of them a formerly demonized prostitute.  The most important event in human history occurs and the first messengers of this event were people whose word in this culture was considered unreliable.  Like the mistrusted shepherds who announced Jesus’ birth, in the Ancient Near East women were viewed as worthless witnesses.

On a human level, it would have made much more sense to send Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus to discover the empty tomb and become the first heralds of the resurrection. They were respected men of God and it would have added some symmetry to the narrative because they placed Jesus’ body in the tomb.  Their witness would have been considered much more reliable than these women.  So why does God choose women here?  Probably several reasons.  First, the culture was evil in its disdain for women but Jesus knew that women were, like men created in the image of God and just as reliable as witnesses—despite what a fallen culture would say.  He was not going to conform to a bigoted culture.  Second, it’s clear that God’s driving purpose behind this is NOT to get as many Jews as possible to believe this account.  Like just about everything else in Jesus’ life, there is an understated element to the resurrection . The number of witnesses—which Paul places at over 500, was certainly adequate legal witness to hold up in any court.  A final reason is—if you were making up the story of the resurrection as a fraud, you would never have the first messengers be women.  That would not be seen as wise given the cultural norms. You just wouldn’t make this up this way and so it strongly argues for its authenticity.

 A second element of humility is the fact that –It is Galilee where Jesus makes his first appearance to the witnesses.  This announcement by the angel probably wouldn’t have been surprising to these women because in chapter 26 at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples in verse 32, “32 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”  Again, an unassuming Galilee does not seem an obvious venue for the resurrection appearance of Jesus.  It was in the backwash of Israel – remote.  Those who lived there had an accent that identified them as uneducated or what we might call “hicks.”  Nathaniel spoke for many about this region.  When he was told that the Messiah had been found, Jesus of Nazareth, he asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  If your goal was maximum strategic exposure of the risen Christ, Galilee was a horrible choice.  A friendly stroll down the main street of Jerusalem would have seemed more logical—maybe a well-publicized visit to Calvary to walk on the hill where he had been crucified—that would have been much more dramatic.  Why Galilee?  One reason is because it was where most of his ministry occurred—especially in the last year, specifically around the Sea of Galilee.  Second, this was the place that had been most receptive to Jesus’ ministry—it was friendly to Jesus.  Third, this would have been seen as the home base for Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus was a Galilean and most of his disciples were as well.  The goal here was clearly not strategic—Jesus wasn’t like a politician with handlers telling him how and where to get maximum exposure.  As astonishing and miraculous as the resurrection is—there is absolutely nothing pretentious about the way Jesus presents himself to the world after he had risen.  It’s amazingly UNpretentious. Like everything else in his life—there is a strong element of humility running through even his resurrection.

Another strong line of continuity between the resurrection narratives and the rest of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life is: The vile wickedness of the Jewish religious leaders.  We don’t have to look far in this narrative to find this—it’s in the first verse—verse 62.  Matthew says, “The next day [after the crucifixion] that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir we remember who that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.” It may not be immediately apparent, but this is one of the most hypocritical acts committed by the Pharisees in the gospels and that is saying something.  Their wickedness is seen in their blatant hypocrisy.  You’ll recall how concerned these Jewish leaders were about Jesus not violating the Sabbath during his ministry.  “Is it lawful for a man to heal on the Sabbath?”  Every time Jesus healed on the Sabbath, these men became Sabbath policemen—condemning Jesus for blessing people on the Sabbath.  We see this same kind of nitpicking legalism in the account of Jesus’ passion.  In John 18:28, when the high priest was ready to present Jesus to Pilate, we read that “28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?”  They forced a Roman governor to come out to meet them because they believed that going into his Gentile headquarters would defile them for the Passover—what fastidious upright, Jews these were! 

Finally, we see this same “devotion” to keeping holy days in chapter 19 at the crucifixion of Jesus.  In 19:31 we read, “31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.”  These devout Jewish leaders don’t want the bodies of these crucified men to remain on the cross over the Sabbath so they ask the Romans to expedite their death by breaking their legs.  Again, these men must be very strict in their adherence to Sabbath laws. …No, not really.  Like every hypocrite—and we are all recovering hypocrites in the church—their application of the law was selective.  When it suited their purposes—they were as rigid as steel in their interpretation of the law and their observation of the Sabbath.  But when it didn’t suit their bigger agenda, they were willing enough to break the Sabbath.  When they come to Pilate—a Gentile to ask him to let them secure Jesus’ tomb—it’s right smack in the middle of the Sabbath. This is a clear and indefensible violation of the Sabbath. 

A sure marker for all us Pharisees is the inconsistency with which we apply God’s Word.  We can easily look down our noses at someone who is doing the same thing we have done many times.  We hit the reject button on people who do certain things or speak in certain ways or look a certain way that, if we would just remember—at one time—we very closely resembled.  The hypocrite (and that’s all of us at times) always manages to either forget his own sinfulness as he sits on his throne judging others, or she figures out why her sin is different than the one she is currently condemning in someone else.  The old saying is often sadly true—we judge others by their actions—we judge ourselves by our intentions.  If a particular person fails to contribute to a special offering for starving children and we’re counting the money, we sneer inside at their stinginess.  When we discover that our spouse didn’t contribute either as we thought he would and therefore we haven’t given anything either—we comfort ourselves with the notion that we had intended to, but there was a communication lapse between you and your spouse.  We don’t easily consider that the same kind of reason may lie behind the other person’s lack of generosity.  Jesus knows it’s part of our fallen nature to judge others like this. That’s why he warns us in Matthew chapter seven, “1 Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”  That should really sober us because—Jesus is saying that if we tend to grind others into the dust or treat them poorly for their sin or perceived sin, God will treat us that way. Jesus continues, “ 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 you hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

If we see someone sinning and are tempted to judge, condemn, look down our nose, show contempt or disgust, Jesus says in effect, “Before you do that, check out your own mess, first. When you do—you’ll discover that you are probably more guilty than the one you are judging.  After you’ve taken a tour of your attic and see the mess that is there, confess it to God—THEN, you will be in a humble enough position that, instead of trying to sit in judgment of the person, you will want to just help the brother as a fellow sinner to get free of his sin.”  Every year some research group does a study on why people don’t go to church and the results are always the same.  At or near the top of the list is—“because the church is full of hypocrites.”  Do we really need a study to tell us that the church is full of hypocrites?  That should not be at all surprising to us.  A hypocrite by definition is “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”[1] The church is one of the few remaining institutions that HAS a clearly stated set of beliefs and what’s more--the standards of moral conduct embedded within those beliefs are the highest on the planet.  No other religion calls you to love your enemies.  No other religion teaches the golden rule—“do to others what you would have them do to you.” 

Into that context of uniquely high standards, you inject selfish sinners who are not fully sanctified.  Of course we don’t always live up to what we believe.  It’s ironic that those who are often most worked up about the hypocrisy of the church are those who basically believe people can do whatever they want to—live and let live.  Boy, isn’t that the Mount Everest of all moral paradigms—how do they possibly manage to live that out!?  It’s much harder for those people to be hypocrites because their standards of moral conduct are so abysmally low, it’s nearly impossible to act in ways that are inconsistent with them.  My observation is that when most people stay away from church allegedly because it’s full of hypocrites, they are really much more bothered by the high moral standard the church teaches, than by those in the church that fail to keep it perfectly.

The point is—we are all recovering Pharisees, but their hypocrisy in this episode is epic in scale even for them.  Another expression of the Jewish religious leaders’ wickedness is in their frantic obsession to eliminate any report of a resurrected Jesus.  They take at least two measures to do this.  First, they go to Pilate and repeat Jesus’ promise to rise on the third day and tell Pilate in verse 64, “64 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.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.”  It’s ironic that Jesus’ prediction that he would rise on the third day seemed to have made a deeper impression on these Pharisees than it did on the disciples who were all shocked to discover that Jesus rose from the dead.  They clearly don’t believe Jesus’ prediction—the evidence that Jesus would stay dead seemed undeniable. The death rate of those who were crucified was 100%--there were no crucifixion survivors and his death had been explicitly proven by the tip of a Roman spear.  And the rate at which dead people remained in that condition was also 100%.  They surely believed that even this miracle worker from Galilee could not beat those odds.  Jesus caused them no end of trouble, but in the end they prevailed—he was dead—they had won—he was finally out of their hair.  But even still--they are willing to violate the Sabbath to get Pilate to secure the entrance to a tomb because of their fear the disciples would come and steal the body.  As it turned out, they were absolutely correct in their fears that Jesus’ resurrection would be for them—far worse than his claim to be Messiah.  There were plenty of false Messiahs in Palestine, but only one who proved it by not staying in the grave.

Pilate grants them permission to use a detachment of Roman guards that had been assigned to the Jews who would stand watch over the tomb and seal it with wax.  The wax seal was not primarily intended to keep the stone in place—it was only wax.  The wax was applied to indicate whether anyone had tried to tamper with the stone which would break the seal.  A second frantic attempt to eliminate any possible report of a resurrection is seen in their attempted cover up after Jesus is risen.  After the resurrection, what remained of their ridiculous wax seal clung to the entrance as a testimony to their foolishness.  This was clearly not the work of the disciples, who John tells us were huddled together in fear.  The leaders never give any indication of considering that this resurrection validated Jesus as Messiah.  They weren’t driven by a hunger for the truth, but by their own selfish agenda.  The presence of Jesus as a possible messiah threatened their power, but a risen-from-the-dead Jesus could very well bring the curtain down on the bankrupt religious system they ruthlessly ruled over.  Verse 12 says, “12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” 

Money plays a diabolical role in the passion of Christ at both ends.  First, the religious leaders use money to bribe Judas into betraying Jesus and here at the other end, these leaders return to this strategy.  They bribe the guards to lie—“they had fallen asleep”-- and if the governor heard about it—(they could have been executed for sleeping on their watch)—these Jewish leaders would take care of it.  A final point of continuity here with the rest of Jesus’ ministry is the overwhelming nature of the victory he wins over his opponents.   During his ministry, Jesus humiliated the Pharisees so often in his debates with them that they finally decided they wouldn’t even engage him—he overwhelmed them with his superior knowledge of the Law and the air-tight logic of his arguments.  They never laid a glove on Jesus in those discussions.  The resurrection was also overwhelming in its scale.  Jesus didn’t just come alive again—he blasted out of that tomb like an M-1 tank—absolutely unstoppable.  Do you suppose the earthquake clued-in these guards that they were in over their heads?  It’s probably a safe assumption that if your opponent can cause the earth to move, you are badly out-matched. 

This angel that looked like lightning overwhelmed them to the point of causing them to tremble and become like dead men—a fitting metaphor for men guarding a tomb.  They were cowering at the sight of this angel who was clearly capable of dispensing with as many Roman guards as he willed.  It’s important to note that there is no indication in any of the gospels that the stone was rolled away for the purpose of allowing Jesus to exit the tomb.  There is no report of Jesus exiting from the entrance of the tomb after the stone was removed.  The resurrection accounts seem to  imply that Jesus was already out of the tomb when the angel came.  The reason the stone was rolled away was not for Jesus’ sake—as if he needed someone to let him out of a locked closet. No, the stone is rolled away for the benefit of the witnesses.  They needed to see an empty tomb, so the angel obliges by moving the stone so they could see one.

This overwhelming victory is consistent with every other incident in the Bible where men actively oppose God.  In none of those contests is there anything other than a complete and overwhelming route.  You can go back to the conquest of Canaan when, after 400 years of waiting for them to repent, God used the Israelites to destroy the pagans in the Promised Land—when God was engaged in a battle, it was always a slaughter.  In Daniel 4:35 one of God’s defeated foes, the great king Nebuchadnezzar testifies, “35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”  Isaiah 14:27 says, “27 For the LORD of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”  Psalm two portrays a hypothetical situation involving God’s human enemies and asks, “1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” 4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”  The consistent message of the Bible is that those who oppose God end up crushed like grapes as God laughs at them in derision.  In Revelation chapter six as God is judging this world we read, “15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”  In the end, the most powerful people on this planet will be reduced to cowering in caves, certain of their own impending destruction.

In Revelation 19, at Jesus’ second coming, there is no battle—the enemies of Christ are defeated by the word of his mouth—his robe is drenched with their blood before they can mount one attack.  There is no contest when a rebel human faces down God and when humanity tried to stop the resurrection; they were met with this same overwhelming defeat.  They discovered that what they were trying to prevent was unpreventable and what they were trying to obscure after it occurred was unobscurable because when finite humanity challenges an infinite God, the result is always the same—overwhelming defeat for humanity. One of the main messages of this resurrection text is—Nothing is able to stop God from accomplishing his purposes.  This should sober everyone here today who is not rightly related to God through Jesus Christ—everyone who has not accepted Jesus and his death on the cross as payment for their sin penalty.  A just and holy God demands payment for sin and there are two choices—either you trust in Christ and he pays your penalty for you, or you reject Christ as we find him in Scripture and you will pay your own penalty.  If you are in the second group, you will find that at your death you, like every other enemy of God, will taste his overwhelming power.  Humility has vanished at this point. There will be no fight—your screams for mercy will have no impact—as you plead, even the most well thought out defensive arguments will not even be heard.  You will simply be taken to hell with overwhelming force—no appeals, no second chances—it’s over…eternal condemnation will be your inescapable fate as you reside eternally in torment with the Pharisees and all the other enemies of God.

The same awesome power we see in this narrative as Jesus defeats the power of death and the grave—as he overwhelms all those who would try to prevent or obscure his resurrection—that same power will be manifest in his judgment of unrepentant sinners.  But this does not have to be your fate.  The Bible says, “Today is the day of salvation.” Come to Christ—put away your objections and your charges that the church is full of hypocrites and bow in repentance before Jesus.  Confess your sins to him and accept his death on the cross as the payment for your sin. Receive as a free gift the new heart that Jesus will give you that will cause you to love him and want to serve him.  Allow the overwhelming power of Christ’s victory in the resurrection to jolt you into the reality that you too will one day face this omnipotent King who sits in the heavens and laughs at all who seek to oppose him.  Come to Christ so that you might know the power of the resurrection in your own life as God brings resurrection life to your dead soul.  Come to Christ so that the One with this awesome power will be your Father and not your conquering enemy.  May God grant all of us grace to see and respond to God’s overwhelming resurrection power.


[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hypocrite

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