Text: Mark 16:7
Date: Easter + 4/12/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
This is Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The resurrection of Christ is the central and most important doctrine, for without it there would be nothing to believe, nothing to hope for, nothing of any real help to our daily lives surrounded by sin, separation and death. But because Christ is risen there is faith, there is hope and there is love to be found, to be had, to be preached and to be learned and believed both for our eternal destiny beyond death as well as for this puzzle we call life. Easter! Though the world around us languishes in the darkness and shroud of hopelessness, hatred and death, for us this is the day the Lord has made. For us Easter is a matter of life and death. And today we proclaim for all the world to hear, Life wins out.
It was the appointed task of the Holy Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to document the events of our Lord’s suffering, death, burial and resurrection as they happened. Each of their accounts relates the facts of the case. Some people, through the ages, even to our own day, driven by rank unbelief, attempt to twist the facts claiming there are contradictions between the accounts at least, or that the account of the resurrection is a total lie at worst. In a recent book by a Mr. Bart Ehrman called “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,” Mr. Ehrman says, “It’s very hard to base belief on the Bible if you don’t have the words of the Bible.” But he claims that we don’t have those words at all, that, as he says, no two of the thousands of manuscripts of the Bible are alike and attempts to cite contradictions “any layman can read for himself.” This is nothing new. What’s worse, of course, is that some may just believe him!
As the Gospels tell the story, isn’t it interesting that those who should have remembered and believed Jesus’ predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection didn’t at first, but his enemies did? Thanks be to God, however, that his enemies, the chief priests and the Pharisees, remembered and convinced Pontius Pilate to make Jesus’ tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. They said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 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” (Mt. 27:62-66). Not to worry. The thought to fake the resurrection never even entered the disciples’ minds. But God moves in mysterious ways, and thanks to their suspicion we have not only the belief and witness of the disciples to the resurrection of Jesus but even the validation of it by the Roman government’s own certification that no one stole his body! In the face of these facts, however, other unbelievers theorize that maybe Jesus never really died, as in the other recent books “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Jesus Papers.” You’d think that all this ink and effort at disproving the Bible and the resurrection would have been settled long ago, if it were a matter only of historical fact-finding and evidence. The “problem” (and blessing!) is that the historical facts and evidence always only become stronger the more they are attacked. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead, while only a God-given faith can receive the benefits of it, is the most well documented fact of the history of the world.
Jesus’ enemies remembered. His disciples didn’t. Just this fact supports the reliability of the sacred record as no mere piece of propaganda. After the Sabbath had passed the women went shopping for the needed burial spices so that they might go and finish the job of giving Jesus a proper burial. Why? They did not remember Jesus’ words about his resurrection. The reality of his cruel death and the fact that they saw where he was buried (Mark 15:47) contradicted in their minds any such fantastic hope.
“And very early on the first day of the week,” that is, Sunday morning, “when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” Why were they going to the tomb? Because they did not remember. “And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’” Why were they worried about rolling the stone away? Because they were sure his body was still there—they did not remember. That’s why when they found that the stone had been rolled back they were alarmed.
They saw “a young man sitting on the right side dressed in a white robe.” That this was an angel is noted by Mark because no one else except Jesus at His transfiguration is set apart as dressed in white in his entire Gospel. It is apparent, also, because he knew who the women were looking for. He said, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Then he announces the fact: “He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.” They looked at the vacant stone slab. They saw that Jesus was not there. Was that enough evidence, finally, for them to believe the first thing the angel said, namely, “He has risen”? Then the command: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” They obeyed the first part all right, “go!” “They went out and fled from the tomb.” But, Mark tells us, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Why? They didn’t remember Jesus’ words. They couldn’t believe it. And neither would anyone else if they didn’t say anything to anyone.
Now our friend Mr. Ehrman might raise his hand here and say this is a contradiction. For St. Matthew says the women “ran to tell his disciples” (Mt. 28:8), and St. Luke says they “remembered his words, and…told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest” (Lk. 24:8-9). Mark even seems to contradict himself as in the very next verse he says Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and “she went and told those who had been with him” (Mk. 16:9-19). The simple and obvious answer to this criticism of an apparent contradiction, however, is that the women at first said nothing to anyone else but the eleven!
Now, enough for our defense against the unbelieving, ignorant and impious. What is most important for us are two things—first, that our attention be directed not to the women or the angel or the disciples but to the one Person who is not in the tomb, and, secondly, to faith that remembers, relies on, trusts and believes the Word of God, that Jesus died and is risen “just as He told you!”
That Christ rose again from the dead should not be so surprising given Who he is. When he raised Lazarus from his grave it was truly an awesome, even fearsome miracle. For Lazarus was a human being as we are. Though the final curtain of death is drawn at different times and for apparently different so-called causes of death, eventually, drawn they are over every human being since the Fall of Adam. “Because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man” (Rom. 5:17), for all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). You sin, you die. The wages of sin is the root cause of death (Rom. 6:23).
But here is One, Jesus, who had no sin, indeed, who could not sin. For this One is true God and man in one person, without sin, holy, full of grace and truth according to both his divine and human natures. Death and the devil made a huge mistake in striking this One, for this One could not die. Rather, as St. Paul says it, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities [that is death and the devil] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). Christ allowed himself to be beaten and pierced, nailed to the cross and killed. Yet, though death and devil struck down his humanity, the Person lives Who at the same time is God and man. Because the one Person Who is both God and man is eternal and cannot die, so his human nature cannot remain in death. The only way of truly understanding the resurrection of Christ is by tenaciously clinging to a proper understanding of his Person as the Divine Man, the God-Man, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Because death and the devil could not hold him, he burst the bonds of the grave, defeated the power of death and now ends the slavery of sin for all who trust in him.
How we can know this, how we can receive deathless, eternal life and how we can now live in the forgiveness of sin is only by faith in the Word and promises of God. As our heretical friend said, “It’s very hard to base belief on the Bible if you don’t have the words of the Bible.” If you come to the Bible from unbelief and with the intent of disproving it, you get what you ask for. If, however, you allow the Bible to speak for itself, the Holy Spirit works faith through the scriptures, faith that sees, remembers and believes. Believes what? Well, just as Jesus said, “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk. 24:44). St. Matthew was at pains in his Gospel to show how the Old Testament scriptures were perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. St. John writes the purpose of his Gospel in the words, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:30-31). The angel summoned the women to remember Jesus’ words and believe. So St. Paul says to us, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:14-16). Besides the scripture and preaching is the visible, sacramental Word of God in Holy Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Holy Absolution. Through all these means of God’s grace, the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel. That God-given faith brings all the promises of the Gospel and personalizes them so that the words of the angel are also for you, that you will always remember our Lord’s words and find them true, “just as he told you.”
Because of Easter I can declare to the penitent sinner, your sins are forgiven just as he told you. Because of the open tomb you are justified just as he told you. Because the Lord lives you will live also just as he told you. Because Christ went to prepare a place for you he will come and receive you to himself so that where he is you may be also just as he told you. Oh, let us proclaim with joy the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. And let us remember and believe his promise, “I am with you always to the end of the age.”