The Empty Tomb & The Fulfilled Promise

Luke 24:1-12; 44-49

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / March 27, 2005


            People who have known me for a longtime know that I sometimes get carried away when watching hockey. Back in the days when the Toronto Maple Leafs actually played hockey, I would get carried away and make all sorts of outrageous predictions.


            Caught up in my own excitement, you could always count on me to predict that the Toronto Maple Leafs would win the Stanley Cup. Any friends who happened to be present for such a prediction would usually end up in hysterics, and then question my grip on reality. And, of course, my predictions in this regard have been wrong—100% of the time.


            This morning we are gathered here to celebrate the fulfillment of a much bolder prediction than the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. Nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus predicted that He would rise from the dead.


            Before His betrayal, He took His twelve disciples aside and said to them, “(The Son of Man) will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again” (Lk. 18:32, 33).


            Luke tells us that the disciples “understood none of these things” (18:34). Perhaps they thought Jesus was speaking allegorically. Since dead people don’t normally return to life, the disciples were reluctant to interpret Jesus’ prediction literally.


            The disciples had the ‘inside scoop’ on the Resurrection, and yet, not understanding Jesus’ prediction led them to scatter and hide.


            The Resurrection of Jesus may not have been on the minds of the disciples, but it was very much on the minds of Jesus’ enemies. Matthew’s Gospel explains how the chief priests and the Pharisees petitioned Pilate to make Jesus’ grave secure “for fear that the disciples would come and steal (Jesus) away and say to the people, '(Jesus) has risen from the dead'” (Mt. 27:64).


Interestingly enough, the disciples never visited the tomb. Perhaps they were too ashamed after deserting Jesus (Mt. 26:56). Or maybe they were just too afraid to venture into public view (Jn. 20:19).


In any event, it was not the 11 disciples, but a group of devoted women who came to visit Jesus' grave early Sunday morning. Luke’s Gospel names Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James as having been among the group (Lk.24:10).


When the women arrived at the grave, however, the massive stone had already been rolled away. Jesus was not there; “He has risen” declared an angel of the Lord (Mt. 28:6; Lk. 24:6).


In Matthew’s Gospel, the angel instructs the women to “go quickly and tell (Jesus’) disciples that He has risen from the dead” (Mt. 28:7).  And what was the response of the women? Matthew says they ran; they ran from the tomb "with fear and great joy"(Mt. 28:8).  In other words, the women were quick to believe—at least they were sufficiently convinced that they ran to report their experience to the disciples.


The Eleven were not as quick to believe as the women were.  Luke tells us that the report from the women “appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them” (Lk. 24:11)—at least not right away.


As with most things in Jesus' life, His Resurrection drew forth contrasting responses. The women were quick to believe, sufficiently convinced by the testimony of the angel. The disciples, however, were slow to believe, dismissing the testimony of the women and ignoring the evidence presented to them.


Today, in 2005, there are many who discount the Resurrection of Jesus. The skeptics generally fall into two categories: The first category are those who tend to think of the disciples as a bunch of gullible followers—a group that was easily influenced by rumours. The second category are those who portray the disciples as shrewd conspirators—a group that contrived the Resurrection plot to attract support for their movement.


Now there are serious difficulties with each of these portrayals. The primary difficulty is that the Bible presents a radically different picture of the disciples. The Bible portrays the disciples, not as gullible followers, not as shrewd conspirators, but as a highly skeptical group.


Peter and John were apparently more open-minded than some of the others, since John’s Gospel tells us that they ran immediately to the tomb (Jn. 20:3,4). John is also careful to note, however, that the two disciples did not yet comprehend that Jesus had risen, but only that Jesus was no longer in the tomb (Jn.20:8,9).


Far from contriving a plot to promote their movement, the disciples of Jesus were among the slowest to believe in the Resurrection.


Later on that night, John's Gospel tells us that some of the disciples huddled together in a room and locked the door (Jn. 20:19). Jesus appears to them and, finally, the disciples recognize that He has indeed risen from the dead (Jn. 20:19,20).


But notice that it took a personal, in the flesh, appearance before any of the disciples believed in the Resurrection. They wouldn't take Mary's word for it. Not even the empty tomb was enough. They had to see Jesus for themselves.


Many of us are familiar with the account of "doubting Thomas". Thomas wouldn't even take his fellow disciples' word for it! In the same way Mary's testimony wouldn't convince the disciples, Thomas insisted that he had to see "the imprint of the nails" and that he needed to "put (his) hand into (Jesus') side" before he would believe that Jesus was risen from the dead (Jn.20:25).


What is amazing is that Jesus painstakingly condescends to meet their level of skepticism. Even the doubtful Thomas gets an invitation to touch Jesus' scars with his fingers (Jn. 20:27). And what is Thomas' response? . . . "My Lord, and my God!"(Jn.20:28).


Mary Magdalene had a personal encounter with the risen Jesus. The eleven disciples all got to see the risen Jesus. And many others, we are told, saw the Resurrected Jesus. To them, Jesus said, "Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed" (Jn. 20:29).


The disciples did not invent the idea of Jesus' Resurrection—for a time, they rejected it . Perhaps you were once a skeptic. Maybe there was a time when you doubted that Jesus actually rose from the dead in bodily form. Perhaps you still have some doubts. The trouble is, we will not get the same evidence that the disciples got. That is why Jesus said, "Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed" (Jn. 20:29). You see, there remains an expectation to believe in the risen Jesus—even without the physical evidence.


The disciples would not take Mary's word for it. Thomas would not take the disciples' word for it. But we MUST take their word for it, if we are to ever believe. To do so is not naïve—we have much more than the words of a small clan of disciples—we have their legacy. We have the ability to examine how their faith, and their lives, radically changed after the Easter event. After seeing the risen Jesus, the disciples were never the same.


Most of us are familiar with the final commissioning from the risen Jesus, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you" (Mt.28:19, 20).


For some of us, such a statement is so familiar that it strikes us as ordinary. But remember their skepticism. Remember how, for days, the disciples huddled together in locked rooms. They were frightened for their lives. But Easter changed that.


Seeing and believing in the risen Jesus gave them courage. They left the comfort of their locked rooms and they literally went to all the nations proclaiming the death and Resurrection of Christ. They proclaimed Christ with such vigour and conviction that nearly all of them were killed for it.


After the Easter event, they could not keep still. They could not keep quiet. They were convinced that sharing the gospel was more important than life itself.


Now, what about us? Are we quick to believe? Or, are we unduly skeptical? Do we resemble the disciples when they doubted and locked themselves away? Or do we resemble the disciples when they believed and shared the gospel with everyone they encountered?


We have a choice to make. This church building can be our "locked room"; this can be our place to hide from the outside world. Or, this building can be our training ground; this can be a place for us to better prepare ourselves to face the outside world.


Clearly, Christ wants us ‘out there’. Yes, Christ wants us out there, in our religiously diverse, and our politically correct society, and He wants us to unashamedly declare that ‘He is risen from the dead and He is Lord’.


Some will reject the message outright. Some will be skeptical. But some will have their lives forever transformed by the life-changing news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.


Most of you are going to leave this building very shortly; you are going to gather with family and have a pleasant dinner with the people you love. I beg you: Do not end your celebration of Easter when the last slice of dessert is consumed. Do not end your celebration of Easter when you return to work on Tuesday morning.


Easter is meant to transform us. Our lives should be irreversibly different because of what Christ has done for us. Our lives should testify to others that Easter is more than a chocolate-filled holiday weekend. 


What will it be for you? Back to the same-old, same-old? Or will the reality of Easter radically change your approach to life?


I pray that Easter will change you—now, and forever. Amen.