April 12, 2009
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Astronomers have found a big empty place in the universe, a massive void. This hole is nearly a billion light-years across. No planets, no stars, no galaxies, no gases exist in that big empty.
It boggles our minds to think of the incredible distances between stars in the sky. You might be aware that a light-year is a unit of distance, the distance that light can travel in a year. One light-year equals about six trillion miles, which is a long way. Our nearest neighbor in the galaxy is a star called Proxima Centauri, which is about four light-years away, or twenty-four trillion miles.
And how about that massive void, that huge cold spot in the sky? It is between six and 10 billion light-years away from us, and it is nearly a billion light-years across. I cannot even begin to comprehend a hole that gigantic. Originally detected by scientists from the University of Minnesota back in 2007, who were studying radiation emitted by the Big Bang which spawned our universe, this hole is described as a big bubble in the cosmic pancake batter. It is a massive void, a billion light years of absolutely nothing, just an empty place.
This morning I want to talk about another empty place. It is not a billion light years across, just a few feet, but the significance of this empty place is just as mind-boggling as that big empty out in space.
The apostle Paul was no astronomer, but he knew the story of this other empty place. He had heard that on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and two other women encountered a massive void when they showed up at the empty tomb. It was early when they arrived, and after meeting a young man and hearing about the resurrection “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
Can you imagine how empty Mary is feeling at this point? She has already suffered through the crucifixion of her friend and teacher, Jesus, and she is mourning his death. She goes to his tomb to pay her respects, and what does she find? Nothing, a big empty. She did not know that we must pass through some empty tombs on the way to resurrection life.
We know what this feels like, don’t we? Each of us, at some time in life, comes face to face with a massive void, a big empty.
when you give your heart to someone who does not accept the gift,
when you learn a sport, practice hard and still do not make the team,
when you study and pursue a profession, only to find you hate your work,
when you create something beautiful, and discover that no one cares,
when you try to resist a temptation, but then give in to it again and again,
when you jump to a new job, then lose it in a downsizing,
when you put money into a home, only to see your equity disappear,
when you retire from a long career, and wake up with nothing to do,
when you lose a spouse to cancer, and find yourself all alone in the world.
These are huge cold spots, massive voids.
Mary and her companions are seized by terror and amazement, and they retreat into silence, saying nothing to anyone. Their world feels like a billion light-years of empty space, but to their everlasting credit they take some time to ponder this strange set of events.
Yes, the mysterious young man in the tomb said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16:6). This is the good news, the Easter morning good news of resurrection life, but the women cannot grasp it, at least not yet. Now, they are still terrified and amazed. How can they not be alarmed, when they are standing face to face with an empty tomb?
Sometimes, we try to pretend that no empty places exist in our lives. Sociologist Jean Twenge observes that young adults in particular have been told things such as “believe in yourself and you can do anything”—which is bad advice. The truth is, bad things can happen to good people, and not every goal in life is realistic. You may believe that you are going to earn a graduate degree and have a great job, get married and have a perfect family, and own a beautifully decorated home, and the latest model car, but life does not always give you what you want. Twenge thinks that overblown expectations are largely to blame for the recent rise in anxiety and depression in young adults. She says, “It’s depressing to realize that your unrealistic dreams are never going to come true.”
We are all going to face some empty places in life, and we need to take them seriously. You cannot expect to step into a dream job immediately. You cannot expect to find your dream girl or boy immediately. Loss and rejection are a part of just about every life story. You must pass through some empty tombs on the way to resurrection life.
Mary and her companions make this journey as they flee from the tomb. They do not fall into the trap of thinking that if they believe in themselves, they can do anything. Instead, they feel a blast of alarm and amazement, and these emotions prepare them for the surprising reality of the resurrection. They discover that Easter is not about them. Easter is about God. Easter is about God filling the empty places in our lives with new and unexpected life.
The apostle Paul picks up this thread when he reminds the Christians in Corinth of the good news that he proclaimed to them. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” he writes: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time .… Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (15:3-8). The various appearances of the resurrected Jesus are of central importance to Paul, and he sees this new life of Christ as being at the heart of Christianity. In fact, just a few verses later, he says that if Christ has not been raised, “then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (v. 14).
The scientific details of resurrection are a mystery. The event is entirely God-generated. The Greek verb Paul uses here is in the passive tense. Jesus does not rise; he “is raised.” If it were true that Jesus rose — that is, if he simply sat up and put the grave clothes off, as a person does on arising from sleep — then he could not have been truly dead. His agony of decision in the garden would have been play-acting, and his pain on the cross would not have been ultimate, soul-wrenching suffering (for he would have been able to comfort himself with the knowledge that he would be up and around in a few short days).
No, when Jesus rose, God raised him. The Son of God had so identified with this human life, had so thoroughly emptied himself of divinity, as Paul writes in Philippians 2, that just before he bowed his head and died, he gasped, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” That was his final act of self-emptying: placing all in the hands of God, and God did raise him from the dead. Paul lists some of those who saw the resurrected Lord, and attaches his own name at the end of the apostolic roll call: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (v. 8).
The phrase, “one untimely born,” translates an especially coarse and earthy Greek term that essentially means a miscarried or aborted fetus. The translators chose a more gentle expression to protect our sensibilities. Last of all, Paul says, “as to an aborted fetus,” The Risen Lord appeared also to me. This gives us some idea of the conflicted feelings that the Apostle Paul has about the life he led before coming to Christian faith.
Paul does not regard himself as a legitimate son of the gospel. He is rather a twisted, broken wreck of a human being. He deserves only to be cast out, rejected by the body of the mother who bore him. We may frown at the earthiness of Paul’s words, but remember that Saul of Tarsus had not been merely indifferent to Christianity; Saul actively persecuted the church. He was a religious bounty hunter. He rounded up Christians for execution.
“But by the grace of God,” Paul writes, “I am what I am.” He is an apostle of Jesus Christ, not by his own merits, but by the power of the living Lord who called him on the Damascus Road, who plucked him out of his hate-filled life of ingrown legalism, and transported him into the light of the gospel. Paul is an unlikely saint. Paul’s life story bears witness to the power of the resurrection. Once he had been spiritually dead, a persecutor of Christians. Now, by God’s wondrous and inexplicable grace, he is alive.
Through the resurrection, God fills the empty places in our lives. God did that for Paul and for the Christians of Corinth. God will do the same for us. The good news is that we do not have to earn or deserve this gift of new life. What we have to do is believe and be willing to follow Jesus into the future he is preparing for us. Mary and her companions felt a disorienting mixture of amazement and fear on Easter morning, but they responded when the young man gave the command, “[G]o, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7).
That is the lesson to us. Believe in the resurrection. Follow Jesus into the future. These are responses we can make, responses that can fill our massive voids. Think again about that enormous empty place that was recently discovered by astronomers—a gigantic hole, nearly a billion light-years across. That space is not nearly as cavernous as a heart without God.
About 350 years ago, Pascal, mathematician, philosopher and physicist, observed that the human heart is like an “infinite abyss.” He discovered that we human beings try in vain to fill our hearts with everything around us—jobs, homes, money, but none of these earthly things can help, “since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Pascal realized that life apart from God is empty. He found refuge in Christ alone.
If you are
feeling a massive void in your life, the same will be true for you. Your
emptiness will not be eliminated by a new career, or a new spouse. Instead, the
hole in your life can be filled only by Jesus. The good news of Easter is that
Christ is risen! He has been raised from the dead, and is waiting for you. He
will fill your emptiness. Believe in the resurrection. Follow Jesus.
Kaufman, Mark. “Astronomers find massive void.” The Washington Post, August 27, 2007, A6.
Oldham, Roger S. “Resurrection — ‘heart’ of gospel.” Baptist Press, March 20, 2008. www.bpnews.net.
Vencat, Emily Flynn. “Narcissists in neverland.”
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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