A New Beginning

            As I do research for my sermons, I often come across different polls that are taken on a variety of religious topics, and some of the results of those polls I find rather disturbing.  It can be discouraging to see what people around us actually think about God or Jesus or moral issues.  But I don’t think the results of any poll have ever disturbed me as much as one that was taken in Great Britain last month.

            The BBC conducted a poll in March.  What they found is that among those British adults who call themselves Christians, less than half of them believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead.  Only 46% of the Christians in Great Britain say they believe that Jesus died for our sins and that he rose from the dead.

            I don’t even know what to make of that.  Apparently, there are large numbers of people who want to live their life the way Jesus did (loving everyone, fighting injustice, following the Sermon on the Mount), but, at the same time, reject the notion that Jesus was God and that he actually rose from the dead.

            It reminds me of the problem that Paul was facing in Corinth, where there were a number of Christians there who rejected the idea of the resurrection.  And Paul was very adamant about the importance of the resurrection when he said. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (I Corinthians 15:17,19).

            There have been times throughout my ministry when I have questioned the need to preach on something as basic as the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but the results of that poll in Great Britain lead me to believe that maybe we need to spend more time focused on the resurrection.  There are a lot of things that we talk about and discuss that are of relatively minor importance, but there is nothing – there is nothing — more important to our Christian faith than the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

            And Easter is certainly an appropriate time to talk about that because, ultimately, Easter is not about bunnies or brightly colored eggs or candy.  It’s about Jesus, and specifically, it’s about the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he was crucified.

            In just a few minutes, we’ll get to our text in Luke chapter 24 if you want to be turning there, but first, I want to invite you to watch as some children tell the story of Easter in their own words.

            Show VIDEO

            Luke opens his resurrection story with these words – “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.” (Luke 24:1).  It was, as we would call it, the crack of dawn.  The sun was just beginning to creep over the horizon.  I’m normally not an early riser, but whenever I do get up early, I truly do enjoy that time of the day.  The air is calm, everything is quiet and peaceful as one by one the birds begin to sing.

            On this early morning, this first day of the week, I don’t imagine there were a lot of people stirring.  But there was a group of women who got together and they made their way to the tomb of Jesus, “taking the spices they had prepared.”  To find out which women these were, we need to go down to verse 10 where we read that it was “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them.” (Luke 24:10).

            And if you go back to chapter 23, you’ll see that these were “the women who had come with [Jesus] from Galilee” (Luke 23:55).  These were women who had been Jesus’ disciples from the very beginning of his ministry.  They had followed Jesus from Galilee into Judea, to Jerusalem, to the cross, and now, they were still following him even after he’d been taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb.

            There was a fellow by the name of Joseph, from a Judean city called Arimathea, who had gone to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.  Luke tells us that Joseph was “a good and righteous man… and he was looking for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 23:50,51).  Like the disciples of Jesus and many of the other Jews, Joseph had been eagerly waiting for God to send the Messiah and to save his people. And he seems to have believed that Jesus was the one he had been looking for.

            But Joseph spent much of his life trying to hide the fact that he was a follower of Jesus.  Luke tells us that he was a member of the council, the Sanhedrin, that group of Jewish rulers who hated Jesus, so that had to make it difficult for Joseph to admit that he was a follower of Jesus.  But he finally got to the point where he couldn’t hide it any longer.

            When the Sanhedrin met to condemn Jesus and turn him over to Pilate for execution, Joseph of Arimathea couldn’t go along with that, so he expressed an opposing view.  Luke tells us that Joseph “had not consented to their decision and action.” (Luke 23:51).

            And then, after Jesus died, Joseph got his body from Pilate, “wrapped it in a linen cloth, and placed it in a tomb cut out of the rock, where no one had yet been buried.” (Luke 23:53, NET)

            Luke then tells us that those faithful women who had followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry now followed Joseph.  “And they saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.  Then they returned and prepared aromatic spices and perfumes.” (Luke 23:55-56, NET).

            And then, on the Sabbath, they rested.  Because, after all, they were good Jewish ladies.  But I’m sure that even as they rested their bodies, their hearts, souls, and minds weren’t at rest.  All of their hopes, their dreams, everything they had lived for, was now buried in that tomb with Jesus.

            A new morning, on the first day of the week, should signal the beginningof something.  But, for those women on that early Sunday morning, I’m sure it felt more like the end of something.  Those women came to perform one final act of kindness for Jesus — anointing his body.  And after that, what then?  Where would they go?  What would they do?  It must have felt like everything that made their life worth living had died along with Jesus.

            But Luke tells us that when the women came to the tomb of Jesus, “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb.” (Luke 24:2).  Which raises the question, if the women had already been to this tomb with Joseph, and they had seen how Jesus’ body was put in it and how the entrance was sealed with a stone, how had they planned on moving that stone when they got there?

            It turns out I’m not the first person to ask that question.  There were actually some scholars in the 16th century who wondered the same thing, and they came up with some answers.  Unfortunately, their answers weren’t very kind.  In fact, they were downright sexist.

            John Calvin said that the fact that the women were even coming to anoint Jesus’ body that morning showed that they were faithless, and not very smart. Or, as he put it, “we are taught that … they had made poor progress in the teaching of Christ.”  In other words, if they had only listened to Jesus when he said that he would be raised from the dead, they wouldn’t have been at the tomb that morning. They wouldn’t have been worrying about anointing his body or how the stone was going to be moved.

            John Donne went even further.  He said they were so flustered that “they discerned nothing clearly, did nothing orderly.”  And he quoted someone else who said that “no faculty of theirs performed its normal function.”  In other words, these women were out of their mind.  They were crazy and they were acting irrationally.  Like women do.

            It didn’t seem to register with those two guys that when they dismissed these faithful women as being weak-minded and irrational, they were treating them pretty much the same way that the men of their day did.  Because when those women went back and reported what they had found to the eleven apostles, those guys –the ones who had deserted Jesus and now were in hiding — Luke tells us that the women’s “words seemed like pure nonsense to them” (Luke 24:11). 

            Those men thought these women disciples were talking crazy talk.  They refused to believe their testimony that Jesus really had risen from the dead.  They were probably all trying to figure out how they were going to make it back to Galilee and go back to whatever it was they were doing before.  Their fishing boats, their tax collector’s booth, their plots to overthrow the Roman government. They were probably worried that they might not even be able to get their old jobs back, and how everyone would make fun of them the rest of their lives for believing in Jesus.

            But you know what?  Maybe they were right.  Maybe those women were crazy.  But they were the ones who stuck by Jesus.  They were the ones who were strong enough to witness the brutality of the cross.  And they were the only ones who bothered to show up and do anything kind for Jesus after he died.

            Those women were the faithful ones. They showed up and they stuck it out when no one else would.  And because they were faithful — even if their faithfulness was a little bit crazy, and they didn’t quite get everything yet — because they were faithful, they were rewarded.

            They were the first ones who got to see the empty tomb.  They were the ones who got to hear the good news from the angels, saying, “He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:6).  And they were the first ones to go and to share this good news, even though no one else believed them and thought they were out of their minds.  If that isn’t faith, I don’t know what is.

            Despite what their critics have said through the years, those women weren’t oblivious to the fact that there was a stone in front of the tomb that needed to be moved.  In fact, Mark tells us that while they were on their way to the tomb they discussed, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3). 

            It’s possible they agonized over that all weekend.  All the male disciples had run off and were probably trying to lay low.  Maybe Joseph of Arimathea also needed to be discreet — he’d already taken a huge risk by putting Jesus into his tomb.

            But there were three women — Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James—as well as an unknown number of other women with them.  This wasn’t a group of women who had failed to plan ahead because grief had addled their brains.  This was a determined group of brave and faithful women who were going to get that stone moved one way or another.

            They had no idea how they’d get a stone like that moved out of the way.  But these were women who had walked with Jesus. And a stone standing in the way wouldn’t keep them from making their way toward him.  So, they kept walking with their spices, with their heartache, with each other, on a mission.  That stone would be taken care of one way or another.  And God made sure that it was.

            And here’s what we learn from those women: Sometimes faithfulness is just showing up and doing the right thing, even when it feels meaningless and crazy.  Those women had followed Jesus from the beginning and they stayed faithful to him to the very end.  And their faithfulness was rewarded.  Early in the morning on the first day of the week, they discovered that this wasn’t the end.  This was actually a new beginning.  A new creation.

            Getting back to the text, I want to point out something in Luke’s gospel that you may not have noticed before.  If any of you are familiar with video games, you know that very often the creators of those games will put what they call Easter eggs into their game.  An Easter egg is something cool that the designers have hidden somewhere in the game.  And if you go to the right location and you push the right buttons, you get this neat little surprise.

            I think Luke hid an Easter egg inside his gospel, and it seems only appropriate that we would go looking for that Easter egg on Easter morning.  As we’ve already seen, Luke tells us in his resurrection story that Jesus was wrapped in linen cloth, and that he was laid in a borrowed tomb that was carved out of stone.  To Luke’s earliest readers, this would have sounded familiar. 

            You see, way back at the beginning of Luke’s gospel, when Jesus was born, Luke tells us how his mother Mary “wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).  Luke is the only gospel writer to give us those details.  He’s the only writer to tell us that Jesus was placed in a manger.  He’s the only writer to tell us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths.

            And what you may not realize is that, back then, mangers were often carved out of stone.  So, when Jesus was born, he was wrapped in cloth and laid in someone else’s stone cave.  And then, when he died, Jesus was once again wrapped in cloth and laid in someone else’s stone cave.

            And I think it’s possible that Luke was hiding an Easter egg here in chapter 2.  Right in the middle of his story of Jesus’ birth, he gives us a glimpse of the resurrection story that’s going to take place at the end of his gospel.  

            In Luke chapter 2, Jesus was born.  In Luke chapter 24, Jesus was reborn. On the night that Jesus was born, there were angels who told some nearby shepherds the good news about the newborn King.  And on this resurrection morning, the angels tell these women the good news that their King has been reborn. “He is not here, but has risen.” (Luke 24:6).

            It’s a new beginning.  It’s a fresh start.  The story that began in Luke chapter 2 begins all over again.

            Since these women disciples had come with Jesus from Galilee, that means they must have been around Jesus when he first announced that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9.22).  He told his disciples this right before they began their journey toward Jerusalem, and these women had heard him say that.

            But, like all the other disciples, these women didn’t fully understand.  So, when they discovered the empty tomb, the angels had to remind them, “‘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.” (Luke 24:6-8).

            Some of the early theologians used to describe Christianity as “faith seeking understanding.”  What they meant by that is that obviously knowledge of God must come before we can have faith in him, but faith in God brings with it a constant desire for deeper understanding.  We have a faith that is seeking understanding.

            As we’ve seen this morning, these women proved themselves to be women of faith by going to the tomb. And because they demonstrated their faith, they were rewarded with greater understanding.

            When Luke says the women remembered Jesus’ words, that ties their experience to Peter’s. In Luke 22, Jesus told Peter, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:34)

            And, sure enough, when the rooster crowed, Peter had denied that he knew Jesus three times. Luke tells us that, at that moment, Jesus turned and looked at Peter.  And Peter rememberedthe Lord’s wordsAnd Peter went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22.61).  For the faithful women disciples, remembering the Lord’s words was a joyful experience.  For Peter, it had been a painful and bitter one.

            But Jesus hadn’t just foretold Peter’s betrayal.  He had also said, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32).

            Peter may have thought that his relationship with Jesus ended after he denied him.  As far as Peter was concerned, his discipleship was over.  Jesus had called him a “rock”, but he wasn’t much of a rockwhen his friend needed him most.  But Jesus had promised him a new beginning.  Which may explain something else in our text this morning.

            On that Sabbath day when Jesus was in the tomb, I would imagine the women disciples spent that day thinking back and remembering all the wonderful ways that Jesus had changed their lives.  There’s no way they could possibly go back to the way things had been before.

            But that Sabbath was a difficult day for the eleven apostles.  They were in hiding and were ready to give up.  They were ready to go back to the way things had been before they ever met Jesus. 

            And when those women came and told the apostles how Jesus had been raised from the dead — just like he’d said — the men thought they were crazy and they refused to believe. But there was one exception, and that was Peter. He was the only one who bothered to investigate the women’s claims. Luke tells us that “Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.” (Luke 24:12).

            Which is not the best reaction. The women saw the empty tomb and went and they told the other disciples.  Peter saw the empty tomb, and he just went home.

            But anyone who knows the rest of the New Testament knows that’s not the end of Peter’s story. It’s just the beginning. Peter will go on to preach with great authority the good news that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  Just as Jesus prophesied, Peter returned and became a rock for the other disciples.

            When we read Luke’s account of the resurrection, you might expect that there would be a happy ending.  After all the betrayal and abandonment and rejection.  After all the torture and terror of the cross.  Perhaps you expect a resurrection story where all the loose ends were tied up, every wrong was made right, and they all lived happily ever after.

            But if you come to Luke’s resurrection story hoping to find a happy ending, you may be a bit disappointed.  The women disciples found the tomb empty. The angels told them Jesus has been raised from the dead.  But the women didn’t get to see Jesus.  They went and told the apostles, but the apostles thought they were talking nonsense.  Peter, to his credit, actually went and confirmed that the tomb was empty. But instead of joining the women in proclaiming the good news, he just went home, confused.

            And I don’t know what you’d call that, but I don’t think you’d call it a happy ending.  But that’s okay, because I don’t think Luke was going for a happy ending when he told his resurrection story.  For Luke, the story of the resurrection is all about new beginnings.

            Because remember, Luke still had another story to write — the book of Acts. The story of the birth and growth of the early church in the days and years after Jesus was raised from the dead and returned back to heaven.

            The resurrection isn’t a happy ending, but rather it’s a new beginning, full of hope and promise. And it’s not just a new beginning for Jesus, or his apostles, or the early church.  It’s a new beginning for all humanity and all creation and all of us here today.

            As so, we now follow in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women.  Like them, we believe that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  And now we are witnesses to his resurrection to an unbelieving world.  And just as the apostles didn’t believe the women at first, the world around us is not going to be eager to believe us.  

            And so, our new, resurrected lives must testify to the world that Jesus is risen.  Because just like the women in our story this morning, we can’t go back to our old lives, the old ways.  The fact that Jesus was raised has changed everything.

            As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

            It seems so very appropriate that Jesus was resurrected in the springtime.  Spring is a beautiful time of the year, the grass is turning green, flowers are blooming, trees are budding.  I love springtime because it reminds me of renewal.  Everything that has been dead for the past few months suddenly comes to life.  There is visible evidence of the power in fresh starts, new beginnings, new life.

            As Christians, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus throughout the year.  But today, on Easter Sunday, we put an extra emphasis on it.  We are reminded that on Friday, Jesus was crucified and placed in a tomb.  And it looked like hope was gone.  But on Sunday, everything changed.  What was once dead was made alive.  Jesus was raised from the dead!  And we rejoice knowing that death did not have the final say!

            The same thing is true for us when we become a Christian.  We put to death our old self, we are buried in a tomb of water and we are resurrected out of that water as a new creation.  We’re given new life in Christ.  And just like every spring when plants that were once dormant come back to life and have a new beginning, we too have a new beginning in our walk with God.

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