(1) But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.
(2) And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
(3) but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
(4) While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel.
(5) And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?
(6) He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,
(7) that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise."
(8) And they remembered his words,
(9) and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.
(10) Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles,
(11) but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
(12) But 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.
On February 27, 1991, at the height of Desert Storm, Ruth Dillow received that most dreaded of messages from the Pentagon. It stated that her son, Clayton Carpenter, Private First Class, had stepped on a mine in Kuwait and was dead. Ruth Dillow later wrote, “I can't begin to describe my grief and shock. It was almost more than I could bear. For three days, I wept. For three days, I expressed anger and loss. For three days people tried to comfort me, to no avail because the loss was too great.
Then the telephone rang. The voice on the other end said, “Mom, it's me. I'm alive.” Ruth Dillow said, “I couldn't believe it at first. But then I recognized his voice, and he really was alive.” The Pentagon was wrong. She said, “I laughed, I cried, I felt like turning cartwheels because my son whom I had thought was dead, was really alive. I'm sure none of you can even begin to understand how I felt.”
I suspect that Ruth Dillow is right, that none of us can understand the emotional roller coaster she was on for three days, but some who walked the pages of the NT would have understood, because they experienced the same emotions themselves. One day they watched as their best friend and teacher was nailed to a cross. They saw his pain. They heard him say, “It is finished.” They watched as his body was taken down from the cross and buried. All their hopes and dreams were buried with him. Friday and all day Saturday they mourned, until finally, on “the first day of the week, early in the morning,” the scripture says, some women made their way to his tomb. It was empty.
Let us consider the promises of the resurrection. There is an old story I have heard in several versions. I think one version even appeared in “Dear Abby.”
A young man from a wealthy family was about to graduate from high school. It was the custom in that affluent family for the parents to give the graduate an automobile. The young man and his father spent months checking out cars, and deciding on that perfect vehicle, but on the day of graduation, the father handed the son not a set of car keys but a gift-wrapped Bible. The young man was so angry that he threw the Bible down and stormed out of the house. He and his father never saw each other again. It was the news of his father's death that brought the young man back home. As he sat one night going through his father's possessions, he came across the Bible his father had given him. He opened it to find a cashier's check, dated the day of his graduation, in the exact amount of the cost of the car that they had chosen together.
As we think about that story, we wonder how many people have done the same thing to God. That is, they tossed aside a wonderful promise, because they did not understand it, or they did not believe that it was possible.
Sometimes, we have been taken in so often by the “empty promises” of the world that we are leery of anyone who tells us we can have something for nothing. TV commercials tell us that we can be happy, sexy, rich, or famous, if we only purchase a certain product; and we may be fooled once or twice, but then we become cautious and cynical. We say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
But God's promises are different. Instead of promises full of emptiness, God gives us emptiness that is full of promise. Easter is about an empty cross, empty tomb, and empty burial clothes.
1. Empty Cross
Let us begin with the cross. Before the resurrection, the cross was known only as an instrument of horrible death. So terrible was this form of execution that the Roman Empire prohibited the crucifixion of Roman citizens. But today, because of the resurrection, we wear a replica of the cross as a piece of jewelry, a thing of beauty. All around the world, the cross is a symbol of hope, a reminder of God's love. And the important thing about the cross on Easter was that it was empty.
Go back to that morning. Early in the morning, as the women were on their way to the tomb, just outside the city, they passed the gruesome reminder of the events of Good Friday they saw the hill named Golgotha. The three crosses were probably still there because Saturday was the Sabbath and nobody removed them.
So there they stand, an empty reminder of the horror of Friday. Jesus hung on the one in the middle. There was blood all over it, from the crown of thorns, which had been forced down upon his head, from his back, which had been ripped apart by scourging, from the nails in his hands and feet, from the spear, which the soldier had shoved into his side to see if he was dead.
They took his body down from the cross, and the place where he died was empty, empty of Jesus body, but it a sense it was full, full of God's promise, full of hope for you and me.
The empty cross changes and transforms time. Before the cross, time was a limited thing. The Bible talks about the breath of life that we have in our nostrils, and then it is gone. And there is no promise that when we exhale that we will inhale again. Everyone says it: Life is short and then you die.
I have noticed particularly in the last year or so that every time I get a haircut as I look at the cut hair on the barber's sheet, it seems a little more grey. Sometimes when I am shaving in the morning, I look in the mirror and think, “Who is that old man? Where did the young guy go that used to live here?” However, I know, and you know, time is slipping by. That can be discouraging, but that is how the world is.
However, Jesus changed all that. Yes, Life is short and then you die, but Jesus gave us the promise of a new kingdom where life is eternal in the presence of God. The “empty promise” of Easter is the empty cross, filled with the promise of eternity.
2. Empty Tomb
What about the tomb? Before the resurrection, for most of the world, the grave was looked upon as the final bad news, the last chapter in an ugly book.
Have you been listening to the messages of the world lately? Have you heard the voices of hopelessness and despair that seem so pervasive? For example, we have become painfully and personally aware of terrorism. The men and women of our armed forces are spread across the globe engaged in a prolonged battle against the forces of hared and evil. There was another terrorist bombing this week in Russia. Then we were vividly reminded that not all terrorists are towel headed Moslems as this week nine members of the Hutaree “Christian” militia were arrested for plotting to kill local officers of the law. One thing is for sure, they are not Christians.
I have never understood the mindset that says I am angry so I have the right to kill innocent people. Somebody done me wrong, and so I have the right to drive a plane into a building or ambush a local police officer. Where does that kind of thinking come from? Not from Jesus, not from God.
Of course, there is much that is wrong with the world. There are diseases for which we have no cure. Children are abused. Women are abused. The elderly and the handicapped are often mistreated. If you watch and listen to the troubles of the world very long, you can be filled with despair. We seem to have no hope.
However, the world is not the source of Christian hope. Jesus is our hope. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He came to show us how to live; he came to bring us joy and peace.
Let me tell you about Susan. Susan was severely handicapped, both physically and mentally, but she came regularly to her Sunday School class for eight year olds. She was on the edge of the class. She did not exactly belong. On Easter Sunday, the teacher gave every member of the class an empty plastic egg and told them to go outside, find a symbol of life, and put it into the egg.
Enthusiastically, the class responded. Back in the classroom, the eggs were opened one at a time. One child had a tiny flower. Another had an acorn. Most had grass. Finally, the last egg was opened. There was nothing.
“That's stupid,” said one child. Another grumbled, “Someone didn't do it right.” But Susan said, “That/s mine, and I did do right. It's empty, 'cause the tomb was empty.” There was an unusual thoughtful silence, and, strangely enough, from that time on, Susan was accepted as part of the group.
That summer Susan picked up an infection that her severely weakened body could not survive. At her funeral, seven eight-year-olds with their teacher brought their symbol of remembrance and placed it near her coffin. It was an empty egg, a symbol of new life and new hope.
3. Empty Burial Clothes
There is one more promise. The burial clothes were empty. The burial clothes symbolized death. Death itself had been transformed, and therefore life had been transformed. Our ideas about what is important in life have been transformed.
In Henry Garrity's book, Portraits of Perseverance, Carl was a rich man who owned a great estate. One of his favorite pastimes was riding horseback through his valley, looking at everything he owned and congratulating himself on his wealth.
One day, as Carl was riding along, he saw one of his tenant farmers, an old man named Hans. It was lunch time, and Hans had set a little table under a shade tree and was getting ready to eat, but before he ate, he bowed his head and folded his hands in prayer to thank God.
Carl looked at the old man's meal: a slice of coarse bread and a piece of cheese. With a sneer, Carl said, “If that was all I had to eat, I would not even bother to pray.” Hans replied humbly, “It is enough, and I am thankful that God has provided.
As Carl turned his horse to ride away, Hans said, “I need to tell you something. I had a dream last night. I saw a beautiful scene, and I heard a voice saying, “Tonight the richest man in the valley will die.”
“Poppycock,” said Carl, as he rode off toward home, but the words of old Hans haunted him: “Tonight the richest man in the valley will die.” Up until then, he had felt quite well, but now he began to experience pains in his chest. He wondered, “Could it be true? Am I going to die tonight?”
When he reached home, he called his doctor and told him of old Han's dream and of the pains that he had been feeling. The doctor said, “Just to put your mind at ease, I will come over and examine you.”
So the doctor did. After the examination, he said, “Carl, you are strong as a horse. There is no way you are going to die tonight.” Carl said, “I feel foolish that I paid any attention to that old man's dream, but I just wanted to be certain.” Reassured, Carl went to bed. The next morning there was a knock on his door, and the messenger said, “Old Hans died last night.”
How “rich” are you today? You have some empty promises: an empty cross, an empty tomb, empty grave clothes. Those promises are your true riches.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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