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Owls and Oaks
February 15, 2004
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
I now invite you to turn to the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, and follow along with me as I read verses 12-20. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:
14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:
17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.
19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.
Do you remember all those old Road Runner cartoons? Wiley E. Coyote always chased the road runner, and always lost. Wiley used all sorts of odd devices that he got from the “Acme Company,” and they always backfired on him in some hilarious way. Is there religious significance to these old cartoons? Henry Allen, writing in The Washington Post (January 14, 2000), thinks so:
“The Road Runner is the impossible dream of Don Quixote, a Platonic goal of goals, a Holy Grail to the Coyote’s Parsifal, God’s blessing to the Coyote’s Job .… The Coyote can stand for a sort of Freudian resurrection. He rises from his deadly plunges, anvilpoundings, truckcrushings and backfires to stand before us as an immortal neurotic who does the same thing again and again, expecting different results. His only joy seems to be in his work and in his faith in the everdisappointing Acme Co. He is Sisyphus sentenced to push the rock up the mountain, and the rock, in the manner of an Acme product, always rolls back to the bottom.”
Like Wiley E. Coyote, we rise from the dead. But we are not resurrected to do the same thing over and over, we are not resurrected to keep on failing, but we are resurrected to glorious eternal life. We are not Wiley E. Coyote because our faith is in something more trustworthy than the “ever-disappointing Acme Co.” Our faith is in an empty tomb.
Owls and Cemeteries
Let us talk about tombs and cemeteries. Owls and cemeteries have been connected for a long time. For centuries, the call of an owl has been linked in mythology with the end of life, and Native Americans have considered the owl to be the bird of the shadows, and the messenger of death. In the British Isles, pagan Celts believed that owls were able to communicate with the dead, and their presence in cemeteries has long been seen as a sign of this supernatural ability.
Now, this is spooky stuff, but the close connection between owls and graveyards is really no myth at all. Fact is, many owls live in the cavities of trees, and old oaks in cemeteries often have the largest hollows. In parts of densely populated India, there is one place you can go to find rare owls: a cemetery. Graveyards that shelter the last of the big oaks with large cavities are life-saving sanctuaries for endangered owls.
Cemeteries, it turns out, are terrific places for animals to live. All around the world, scientists are discovering that graveyards are some of the best homes for endangered plants and animals—because people do not go to cemeteries that much and because we maintain the trees and grasses of cemeteries—so life is teeming among the tombstones. This is a reality being reported by modern science—and by the New Testament. [see Dybas, Cheryl Lyn. “In old graveyards, the dead protect the living.” The Washington Post, May 26, 2003, A12]
Resurrection of the Body
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, he was facing a controversy in the early church: There were Christians who were saying that there “is no resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:12). These members of the Corinthian church were not convinced that the dead would be raised, and for the most part they were simply following the accepted wisdom of the time, which saw resurrection as a rare and altogether extraordinary event. They did not doubt that Jesus Christ himself had been raised from the dead, but that was because they knew he was the one and only Son of God. Most of these believers, though did not believe that ordinary folks would be resurrected.
We should note that the ancient Greek word for resurrection is anastasis, which means literally to rise up or stand up. In the first century, the idea of an anastasis, of a standing up or rising up of the dead was relatively rare outside Judaism, and even in Jewish circles there was some dispute about the matter. For example, the Sadducees, who were a Jewish sect, did not believe in a resurrection” (Mark 12:18; Matthew 22:23; Luke 20:27). In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who listened to Paul’s famous speech on the Areopagus are unimpressed with Paul’s claims about the “resurrection of the dead” (Acts 17:32).
So while it is true that many people in ancient times believed in an afterlife, most often what they believed was the survival of the soul after the death of the body. Christian claims about a bodily resurrection then must have appeared crude and strange.
In an attempt to persuade the naysayers, Paul launches into an argument intended to show the logical necessity of the resurrection. “How,” Paul asks, “can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead, if Christ is proclaimed as having risen from the dead?” (15:12). The basic thrust of Paul’s argument is that the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection is contradicted by the claim that there is no general resurrection of the dead. Paul employs two simple logical conditions in order to construct his case. The first is that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. He says that in v13; he repeats it in v16. The second conditional statement follows from the first; if in fact Christ has not been raised, then “our proclaiming has been vain and your faith has been vain.” He says that in v14 and repeats it and expands upon it in vs17-18. To state it plainly, Paul is asserting that the Corinthians cannot have their cake and eat it too. If they want to maintain that the dead are not resurrected, then they cannot claim that Christ was raised from the dead.
Now Paul spends a lot of time writing about the resurrection and repeating himself, because to his mind this is the most important doctrine in the Christian faith. In v15, he says, if there is no resurrection, then “we are found false witnesses of God.” In the resurrection, we find all our hope beyond this present life, so that if there is no resurrection, then Paul says, in v19, that Christians are pathetic people—because they are people who have founded their hopes on something that is not going to happen.
But the Resurrection did happen, so Paul can say confidently in v20, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (15:20). In other words, Christ’s resurrection marks the beginning of a great harvest season during which those who have died eventually will also be resurrected.
The Unknown Doctrine
Now this is basic Christian doctrine, and you might be thinking, everybody knows this, but unfortunately they do not. In fact, I doubt that most people realize how important Christ’s death and resurrection are for Christians.
A movie, I Beheld His Glory, tells the story of Jesus. According to Mark Hadley [“Forget the rabbit,” Anglican Media Web Site, Anglicanmedia.com.], a man attended the movie on opening night in Australia. He was sitting behind a young couple as the life of Jesus unfolded on the screen. As the movie moved toward the climax, it portrayed the arrest and trial of Jesus. The young man viewing all this became very excited and turned to the young woman and asked, “Do they kill him?”
That little incident illustrates how little people today know about Jesus. Almost 2,000 years ago Jesus was crucified and died outside the city of Jerusalem for crimes he never committed. Jesus (being uniquely God and man) lived a perfect life. In one day he suffered for all the evil thoughts, words, and deeds committed by his people. Yes, they killed him, but the story does not end there. At Easter, Christians celebrate that Jesus not only died but rose from the dead.
At Easter, Christians rejoice that death and pain have not had the last say, that God has given us new life and new hope. Without Easter, Christianity is a weak, powerless thing. After all, our founder was executed as a condemned criminal. If there was no resurrection, there is not much in Christianity. Thus, 1 Peter 1:3 says we “have been born anew to a living hope” not through the death of Jesus, but “through his resurrection.” For Christ, in rising again, came forth victor over death, so the victory of our faith over death lies in his resurrection alone. In Romans 4:25, Paul says: “He was put to death for our sins, and raised for our justification” In effect Paul says, Sin was taken away by his death; righteousness was restored by his resurrection.
Understand this point though: It was not just by dying that Christ freed us from death. After all, everyone dies. To say that someone died is not big deal. Well, it is a big deal for that person. Statistically speaking, people die every day. Some die horrible deaths. So how can we say that Christ in dying won a victory over sin and death for me—because he was resurrected on the third day.
The resurrection shows two things about Christ. It shows who he was. Only God can raise the dead. The resurrection displays the heavenly power and divinity of Christ. Secondly, the resurrection is my hope for eternal life. As believers in Christ, we participate in his cross and in his resurrection. Romans 6:4 says: “We were engrafted in the likeness of his death, so that sharing in his resurrection we might walk in newness of life”.
Death Guards Life
In the city of Falls Church, Virginia, there stands the largest white oak tree in the state. It grows above a headstone that is marked with Civil War musket ball holes, a stone which marks the grave of a man named John Carolin, who lived from 1764 to 1805. Now you might look at Carolin’s grave and think, “Death. Nothing but death. John Carolin is dead, and he’s been dead for almost 200 years.” But what you should think is … “LIFE.” The largest white oak in Virginia is alive and well because of John Carolin. Without his historic gravesite and the preservation of the grounds around it, the white oak would be gone. Cut down. Chopped up. Paved over. Carolin and the oak tree are connected, in a surprising and sustaining way. “John Carolin guards the tall white oak,” says Bette Marchant, a historian, “not the other way around.” Death guards life. That is what Christ does. His death guards our life.
Owls, oaks and graveyards are tied together in an altogether amazing and life-giving way. Old cemeteries are places of unusually high levels of biodiversity, due to the fact that they are holy places that are being preserved and protected for all time. In the case of graveyards, the burial of human bodies leads not to death, but to life — to new life for birds, trees and other living things.
Something similar happened after Jesus was laid in his tomb. You know the story: After the crucifixion, his dead body is wrapped in a clean linen cloth and placed in a brand-new tomb, which has been hewn in the rock. A heavy stone is rolled to the door of the tomb, and the stone is sealed by a group of soldiers so that the disciples cannot steal the body. Everyone assumes that the story of Jesus is over. He is crucified, dead, buried, the end. In fact, his life is just beginning. And so is ours.
On Easter morning, new life appears in the graveyard, and Jesus shocks Mary Magdalene and the disciples when he stands in front of them, raised by God from the dead (Matthew 28:1-20). Jesus comforts them and teaches them, and gives them his peace and his power. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to the disciples, giving them the power from God that they need to continue Jesus’ work in the world (John 20:22). This gift of the Holy Spirit is nothing less than a gift of new and unexpected life, a second birth that is given to all who follow the risen Christ in faith.
Now you know about owls and oaks receiving protection from tombstones. But this is even better: people receiving power from an empty tomb!
That’s what we get when we look to Jesus for new life. The good news for us is that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (v. 20). Jesus is for us the first fruits of the resurrection harvest, the first example of the amazing new life that comes to us now and after our days on earth are over. This is a rock-solid reminder to us that nothing in all creation, neither illness nor crying, neither pain nor dying, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
Thomas Long brings this into focus [Long, Thomas G. “Empty tomb, empty talk.” The Christian Century, April 4, 2001, 11]: He says, “Many years ago, a friend told me that his young son was a great fan of both Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. The boy faithfully watched both of their television shows, and one day it was announced that Mister Rogers would be paying a visit to the Captain Kangaroo show. The boy was ecstatic. Both of his heroes, together on the same show! Every morning the boy would ask, ‘Is it today that Mister Rogers will be on Captain Kangaroo?’
“Finally the great day arrived, and the whole family gathered around the television. There they were, Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo together. The boy watched for a minute, but then, surprisingly, got up and wandered from the room.
“Puzzled, his father followed him and asked, ‘What is it, son? Is anything wrong?’
“‘It’s too good,’ the boy replied. ‘It’s just too good.’”
Long goes on to say that “maybe that’s it. Maybe the news of the empty tomb, the news of the resurrection, the news of Jesus’ victory over death is just too good to believe, too good to assimilate all at once.”
In Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, God showed his power over death, not only for Jesus, but for all of us, for me. God has brought life and light where there was only death and darkness. He has given us the good news of resurrection. Christ is alive in the power of the Holy Spirit, therefore we shall be alive forever. Yes, that is almost too good to understand, and yet that is what we must at least begin to understand, right now.
Motorcycle riders say that one of the keys to survival is “looking through the curves.” This means keeping your head up, and looking not only at the path in front of you, but also gazing a good distance down the road, so that you can see what’s coming at you and be alert for potential hazards.
The very is true for Christians. When we believe that Christ, in fact, has been raised from the dead, we are able to look through the curves and see that God is leading us to victory.
This life may sometimes be a curvy bumpy road. We may face the curve of divorce, or of job loss. We may face the curve of failure in school. We may face the curve of illness, or of the death of a loved one. We face the curve of our own sinfulness. Through all of this, through all of life’s struggles, God is with us. God has proved he is with us in the resurrection. And when I come to that final struggle, when it is death itself that I face, then God is with us. God has proved that he is with us in the resurrection. That is what I need to know. That is what you need to know. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 03/23/04