David Jeremiah - The Emptiness of Easter
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It was the week before Easter and a Sunday school teacher gave the children in her class this assignment. She said, "Next week, on Easter Sunday, bring a plastic egg with you to class and in that plastic egg put something that's meaningful to you about Easter". So Easter came and the teacher took each child's plastic egg and opened it, held it up for the class to see. The first egg she opened had a little flower in it and she talked about how Easter is the beginning of a season and things are blooming and it's a sign of new life. The teacher opened the second egg and it had a picture drawn in crayon of Jesus and, as she held it up, she talked about how Easter was the story of Jesus's resurrection. The third egg had a little nail in it.
The little girl had brought a nail in her little Easter egg to be reminded of the nails that were placed in the hands and feet of Jesus when he hung on the cross. And then there was an egg with a little pebble in it. This child used the pebble to remind everyone of the stone that was rolled away in front of the tomb when Jesus was buried there. The last egg that came to this teacher's desk that day was brought by a 7-year-old boy with a mental disability. His name was Brian and when the teacher opened his egg and held it up, the whole class laughed. There was nothing inside. But not to worry, Brian himself spoke up and said, "My egg is full of emptiness, just like the tomb of Jesus," amen.
And his was the best lesson of all for Easter, because the reality of life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of world history, and the core of our Christian belief. It's the nexus of our hope and happiness, it's the most compelling truth any human being has ever heard or could ever conceive and, yes, that message is all about emptiness. In the upside down economy of God's kingdom, the emptiness of Easter is the doorway to eternal life, a life without futility, a life full of meaning and purpose. If you read closely, you will notice how emptiness is everywhere in the Easter story. That is especially true in John's account which is in the 20th chapter of his Gospel.
So the title of my message today is "The Emptiness of Easter". First of all, is the expectation of emptiness. Before we can deal with the resurrection, we must reckon with this fact, that Jesus was dead. He had died in a very horrible manner on a Roman cross. His death which took about six hours was witnessed by thousands of people. We know he was dead from both the sacred and secular writings. He had not swooned and then revived in the cool of the tomb, as some critics have suggested. When they laid Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, he was dead. The Jews were very careful about not having Saturday, Sabbath Day, defiled by having dead bodies hanging on crosses in their city.
The Romans knew better than to leave anyone hanging alive on the Sabbath hours, so they took Jesus down from the cross because he was really dead. It was the procedure of the Romans, you see, to ascertain the death of their crucifixion victims by taking a hammer and breaking their legs. I always wondered why they did that. Well, I found out in my research that this would end any attempt on the part of the crucified to extend his life for, in crucifixion, the victim would push himself up on his legs so he could inhale, but when his legs were broken, he had no way to do that and so he would die of suffocation.
John tells us that Jesus's legs were not broken. John 19 says: "Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should 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. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who was crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs".
One of the soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus's side. Had he been alive, bright arterial blood would have come out of the wound. But read with me what the Scripture says occurred: "One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe. For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled, 'Not one of His bones shall be broken.'" I am told that the separation of blood from serum is one of the strongest legal medical proofs of death. No, Jesus was dead. His body was given to two of his followers for burial and before you can have a resurrection, you must have a death. Jesus died.
John 19:38-42 records the events of Jesus's burial in a borrowed tomb. Three days passed and the dawn of that fateful Sunday appears. John chapter 20 records most of the events in the sequence in which they occurred. As we follow the women to the tomb on that early morning, we can understand the emptiness of their hearts. This Jesus was the most powerful person who had ever entered their lives and they had such great hope for life because of him. One of the disciples who was traveling away from Jerusalem certainly spoke for all of Jesus's followers when he said, "But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all of this, today is the third day since these things happened". The women who came first to the tomb of Jesus were not expecting a risen Lord. They were not coming to celebrate a living Savior. They were coming to anoint a dead Savior.
Mark 16 tells us that "when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Jesus's body". Luke says these women were afraid and greatly perplexed. John says that Mary was weeping. The emptiness in the hearts of these women was the emptiness of hopelessness and despair. Everything for which they were living had now been taken away and they were filled with despair. And then we have the encounter with emptiness in John 20. It's just one thing after another. First of all, the place where the stone had been, the place was empty. The Bible says that "when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed".
In Mark's account of this particular event, we are told that those who came to the tomb that morning were concerned about the stone. I mean, how would they roll a stone like that away from the tomb so they could anoint Jesus's body. Mark 16:3 says: "And they said among themselves, 'Who will roll the stone away from the door of the tomb?'" And John 20, verse 1, says: "Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb". Mark says that the stone was extremely large. Some manuscripts describe the stone as a stone which 20 men could not roll away. The tomb in which Jesus was buried was a new tomb that had been hewn out of solid rock. Jewish tombs usually had an entrance of 4 1/ 2 to 5 feet high to get into the tomb.
Remember, when Peter and John ran to the tomb, the Scripture says that John leaned over and looked in because the opening of the tomb was not high enough for him to walk in. He had to lean over and look into the tomb. Several studies have been done to determine how big a stone would be needed to cover an opening the size of the door to the tomb. The conservative estimates are that such a stone would have had to weigh in at 1 1/2 to 2 tons. And on that Sunday morning, the first thing that Mary encountered was an unprotected tomb. The place where the stone was supposed to be was empty. All four of the Gospel writers mention the removal of the large stone, and the words that are used by Matthew and Luke to describe the position of the stone are pointedly clear.
Not only was the stone not in place in front of the tomb, it had been moved and it was some distance from where it would have been had it been moved in a conventional way. Here in John's Gospel he uses a word that means to pick something up and carry it away. A 1 1/2 to 2 ton stone was carried away and put in another place. It was so obvious that that couldn't have happened any normal way. So where the stone was supposed to be, it was empty. And the place where the soldiers had been, that place was empty too.
Believe it or not, it says in Matthew 27: "On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying, 'Sir, we remember that when Jesus was still alive, how that deceiver said, "After three days I will rise". Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, "He has risen from the dead". So the last deception will be worse than the first.' And Pilate said to them, 'You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.' So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard".
Now let me unpack that. A Roman guard unit was 4 to 16 men and each man was trained to protect 6 feet of ground. They were standing guard when the resurrection occurred, and verse 4 of chapter 28 tells us what happened when the angel came to remove the stone from the mouth of the tomb. Matthew 28:4 says: "And the guards shook for fear, and became like dead men". When the women arrived at the tomb the first Easter morning, there weren't any solders there. They were all gone. The place where the soldiers were supposed to be was empty. No soldiers were standing guard over the body of Jesus or the tomb where he had been buried. They had obviously vacated their place of duty, so what happened to the Roman guard?
We get a little hint of it in Matthew 28. Some of them went to Jerusalem, collaborating with the priest, to figure out how they were gonna explain the fact that there was no body in the tomb where they were supposedly guarding the body. This was a very difficult moment for the Roman soldiers. Matthew 28 says: "Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, 'Tell them, "His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept". And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will appease him and make you secure.' So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day".
So the place where the stone was supposed to be, that was empty. The place where the soldiers were supposed to be, that was empty. And the place where Jesus had been, it was empty too. Matthew 28 says the angel answered and said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified," listen to this. "He's not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay". Mark says it this way: "But he said to them, 'Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He's not here. See the place where they laid Him.'" Luke says the same thing: "And they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 'He is not here, He is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee,'" and John says: "Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and said to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, 'They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.'"
All four Gospel writers give testimony to the emptiness of the tomb. Where Jesus was supposed to be in that stone cavern, there was nothing. Jesus was gone. The tomb of Jesus was empty. That had been the Christian claim and no one has ever been able to deny it. The Jews couldn't deny it, although it caused mayhem in the streets of Jerusalem. The Romans could not deny it, though it was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to them during Pilate's reign.
Dr. Paul Maier writes: "Where did Christianity first begin? To this answer, there is only one spot on earth: the city of Jerusalem. But this is the very last place it could have started if Jesus's tomb had remained occupied, since anyone producing a dead Jesus would have driven a wooden stake through the heart of Christianity. If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable, according to the canons of historical research, to conclude that the sepulcher of Joseph of Arimathea, in which Jesus was buried, was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no thread of evidence has yet been discovered in literary sources or archaeology that would disprove that statement".
Just like Brian told his Sunday school class, Jesus's tomb was full of emptiness. The emptiness of the tomb is a silent testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ that has never been refuted to this day. The place where the stone had been was empty. The place where the soldiers had stood was empty. The place where Jesus was placed was empty. Here's one you may not have thought of: the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped, they were empty too. This is one of the most amazing things of the whole story. Listen carefully to John's recording of this: "Peter therefore went out, and the other disciple, who were going to the tomb. So they both ran together, and the other disciple outran Peter and came to the tomb first".
I always love that thing. This is John writing and he wants everybody to know he's faster than Peter, so he put it in the text. "And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying there; yet he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen clothes lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. And the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and he believed".
Let me tell you why he believed. When John leaned over and looked into the grave, he saw something so startling that he did not even enter the tomb. He looked over to the place where the body of Jesus had been laying and there were grave clothes in the form of the body, slightly caved in and empty, like the empty chrysalis of a caterpillar's cocoon. The Bible says that the evidence in the tomb was so convincing that it caused the apostle John to believe. In order to understand why this was so convincing, a proof of the miraculous resurrection of Jesus, we need to know a little bit about the burial practices of the Jews. The Egyptians embalmed their dead. The Romans and the Greek cremated their dead. But the Jews neither embalmed nor cremated. The Jews wrapped their dead in linen bands that enclosed dry spices and placed the body, face up, within the tomb that were generally carved out of the rock in the Judean or Galilean hills.
In a book by Henry Latham, he entitled, "The Risen Master," he calls attention to the nature of Eastern burials. The bodies were wrapped in linen cloths in such a manner as to leave the face, neck, and upper part of the shoulders bare. The upper part of the head was covered by a cloth that had been twirled around like a turban. The body of Jesus was removed from the cross before the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, washed, and wrapped in linen bands. One hundred pounds of spices were carefully inserted into the folds of the linen. These were dry spices. Aloes were powdered wood like fine sawdust with an aromic fragrance. Myrrh was a fragrant gum that would be carefully mixed with the powder.
Jesus's body was encased in these, his head, neck, and upper shoulders were left bare, and a linen cloth was wrapped around the upper part of his head like a turban. The body was then placed within the tomb where it lay until sometime early Sunday morning. What we would have seen had we been with Peter and John on that first Easter, we would have seen the linen cloths caved in once the body was removed because the weight of the spices were in them, and they would have been lying undisturbed where the body of Jesus had been. The cloth which surrounded the head without the weight of spices might well have retained its concave shape and have lain by itself, separated from the body.
No wonder we read: "And the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, when in; and he saw and he believed". That was enough to make a believer out of anybody, to see that. Don't you see, no one has moved the body or disturbed the grave clothes. They're lying exactly as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea left them on the eve of the Sabbath, yet the body is gone. It's not been stolen, it's not been moved. Clearly, it must have passed through the clothes, leaving them as we see them now. Jesus must be risen.
This sign of Easter destroys the idea that the body was stolen. The linens would not have been there. This sign of Easter destroys the idea that Jesus resuscitated himself and walked out of the grave, leaving the grave clothes in the shape of his body in the tomb? Come on, a glance at these grave clothes proved the reality of the resurrection. Jesus came out of the grave, he came up out of his grave clothes, and when he walked out of the tomb, the grave clothes were there in the shape of his body, but he wasn't there. He was risen from the dead.
John says: "Mary stood outside the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping?' And she said to them, 'Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don't know what they've done with Him.' And when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. And Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?' And she, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, 'Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take care of Him. I will take Him away.'"
All of the emptiness of the things we have seen so far is nothing compared to the emptiness of the experience of Mary when she went into the tomb and did not find the one she loved. One dramatic writer captures this powerful moment in the gospel story.
"For Mary Magdalene, the hobnail boot of the Roman Empire had crushed her hope and ground it into the dirt with its iron heel. Her hope was Jesus. Jesus had changed her life and she had followed him ever since. He had cast seven demons out of her, freeing her from untold torment. He had given her life, a reason to live, a place in his kingdom. He'd given her worth and dignity and understanding, compassion, love, and he'd given her hope. Now that hope was at the bottom of her heart, flat and lifeless. Something helps her survive the cruel boot, something resilient like a blade of grass that springs up after being stepped on. That something is love, and love brought Mary to his cross and love brought her now to his grave. But as she wends her way along that dark garden path, she stumbles upon a chilling sight. The stone is rolled away, Jesus's tomb has been violated. Just when she thinks it couldn't get worse, it gets worse. The night gets darker, her hope dimmer. Not even a pinpoint of starlight shines for her now. Painfully alone, Mary walks toward the sepulcher. Giving way to anguish, sobs for her crucified Lord and his empty grave. Feeling compelled to look inside, she stooped down, suddenly blinking away her tears as she saw two young men in white, sitting where the head and the feet of the body would have lain. As if they had been waiting for her, they spoke: 'Woman, why are you weeping?' 'Because they have taken away my Lord and I don't know what they've done with him.' Receiving no answer from the mysterious young men, Mary turned away and another man, standing nearby, echoed the question she had been asking. 'Woman, why are you weeping?' Perhaps he knows something. 'Sir, if you've carried my Lord away,' no answer. Completely defeated, she looked down, empty hands, empty tomb, empty life".
Pause for a moment in the story and let me tell you that what Mary felt at that moment, the emptiness without Jesus is what is true of all of us until Jesus becomes our Savior. Our lives are empty. We may be in all kinds of things that we think are exciting, but at the very core of life, where life matters, something's missing. Because you see, men and women, when God built us, when he created us, he created all of us with a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts. And until God is at home in that place, there can never be anything but emptiness.
"The end of the emptiness is the end of the story. In verse 16: 'Jesus said to her, "Mary"! and she turned and said to Him, "Rabboni"! (which is to say, Teacher).' An electric thrill passed through her body. That voice saying her name with the same gentle firmness he had used the day she met him. How could she have thought that he was anyone but Jesus. The emptiness of the tomb became the fullness of Mary's life, and that magnificent exchange has been going on ever since. Because Jesus died and is alive, we who put our trust in him are alive and will never die".
That's what Jesus said. That's exactly what Jesus said. That was his explanation of the resurrection of Lazarus. In John 11 Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this"? That question is in the Bible. "Do you believe this"? And we answered it out loud. We do. Did you hear Jesus's question? Did you hear it carefully? Do you believe this? Yes you do, or you don't. But Jesus says if you put your trust in him, you may die physically but you won't die spiritually. Death is just a word that means separation.
When you die physically, your body is separated from your soul and your spirit. If you die spiritually, your soul and spirit are separated from God. You don't want that. The Bible says if you put your trust in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord who came out of the grave victorious over death, and shut down the emptiness for the whole world, if you put your trust in him, he will come and take the emptiness away from your heart, and you will never die. That means you may die physically, but when you die physically you just transits into a kind of life you can't imagine. Greater than any life you've ever known. "Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die". Because Jesus died for our sin, we don't have to die for our sin. We have to put our trust in him who took our place on the cross.