What is Easter About?
(1) Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
(2) And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
(3) His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
(4) And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.
(5) But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.
(6) He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
(7) Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you."
(8) So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
(9) And behold, Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.
(10) Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me."
Even if you are not a sports fan I think you will appreciate this story about a college football team whose starting quarterback had just been injured. Their #2 quarterback was sick, and had not even dressed out for the game. All the coach had left was a third-string freshman who had been a quarterback in high school, but who was currently being used on the college team as a punter.
To make matters worse, they were backed up on their own three-yard line. It was a desperate situation, and the coach’s only thought was somehow to get a little farther from their goal line to give them room to punt out of danger.
Sending in the third-string quarterback, the coach said, "Son, I want you to hand off to the big fullback Kowaski for the next two plays. Let him run right into the middle of the line and get us a few yards of breathing room. Then, on third down, I want you to punt."
The young quarterback did as he was instructed. On the first play, he handed off to Kowaski, but, almost miraculously, Kowaski found a hole off tackle and ran for 50 yards. The young quarterback called the same play again. Once more, miracle of miracles, the hole opened again and Kowaski gained another 45 yards. The fans went crazy. In two plays, they had gone 95 yards. The ball was now on their opponent’s two yard line. It was first down and goal.
Confidently the team lined up once again. The young quarterback received the snap, stepped backward ten yards, and, to everyone’s amazement, punted the ball into the end zone. As his stunned teammates came off the field, the coach angrily grabbed the quarterback and demanded, "You dumb cluck, what in the world were you thinking about when you called that last play?" The quarterback answered, "I was thinking what a dumb coach we have."
Well, someone was dumb that is for sure. However, when it comes to Easter, sometimes Americans are also pretty dumb.
I still remember as a kid how outraged I was when I learned that rabbits do not lay eggs. How then I wondered can anybody be dumb enough to believe in an egg-laying Easter bunny. Do not get me wrong. I like the dumb Easter egg jokes as much as the next person. What did the egg say to the clown? You crack me up. Why was the father egg so strict? Because he was hard-boiled. And, how about this one, why was the little girl sad after the race? Because an eggbeater. Then there is always: Why did the egg roll across the road? Because he was not a chicken yet. There are also Easter bunny jokes: What is the difference between a crazy bunny and a counterfeit banknote? One is bad money and the other is a mad bunny. Say that very fast. Or how about, what do you call ten rabbits marching backwards? A receding hareline. Then there are the church bulletin bloopers, like this one: “This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Cusworth to come forward and lay an egg on the altar.” I wonder is Mrs. Cusworth a chicken?
That reminds me my brother-in-law sent me the following story, which he claims is true. After Hurricane Katrina, many houses of worship along the Gulf Coast were flooded, blown away, or broken up. One of the local television stations in South Louisiana aired an interview with a black woman from New Orleans. The interviewer was a woman from a Boston affiliate. She asked the black woman how such total and complete devastation of the churches in the area had affected their lives. Without hesitation, the woman replied, “I don't know about all those other people, but we haven't gone to Churches in years. We get our chicken from KFC.”
I guess that story says worlds about the current state of Christianity in America. Let us get serious. Last year (2010) during the Easter season the Barna group, which is a Christian polling organization, did a survey on what Americans think about Easter. Most Americans identified Easter as a religious holiday, but many had no idea what Easter is about. The poll said, “Two out of every three Americans (67%) mention some type of theistic religious element. Common responses included describing it as a Christian holiday, a celebration of God or Jesus, a celebration of Passover, a holy day, or a special time for church or worship attendance.” So, 67% of Americans know that Easter is about religious stuff, but it gets worse. When questioned further, only “42% of Americans said that the meaning of Easter was the resurrection of Jesus.” Did you hear that? The Barna poll indicates that less than half of the American people know what Easter is about. This is not about belief. This is just knowledge. Only 42% of American adults know that Easter celebrates the resurrection of Christ. It gets worse. Only 2% of Americans say, “That they would describe Easter as the most important holiday of their faith.” I was stunned when I read that figure. 2% of Americans think that Easter is important. All the rest think that Easter is a time to dye and hide eggs and talk about the Easter bunny. Or it is spring break, a time to go to Myrtle Beach, or any beach and celebrate.
[Above quotes from Barna are from: http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/13-culture/356-most-americans-consider-easter-a-religious-holiday-but-fewer-correctly-identify-its-meaning]
Well, let us make a resolution today. We are going to be in that blessed 2%. Easter is important. It is the most important holiday. On this day, Christ rose from the dead. This is resurrection day.
Let us go back to that first Easter, as the gospel of Matthew describes it. It was dark as they arose that Sunday morning. They were the two Marys--Mary of Magdala and the other Mary. We wonder who the “other Mary” was. There is debate about that, but I suppose it is not really important. They got up and put on their garments, grabbed their spices, and headed out on the dirt road that led out of the city. The sun was rising; the path was lined with many dark shadows, but no shadow or darkness could compare with the darkness in their souls. As they walked the path towards the tomb, thoughts and sights of the last week flowed through their minds. They had been there when Jesus made his triumphal entry on Palm Sabbath, with thousands shouting his praises. What an incredible moment that was. Unfortunately, after that beautiful beginning, everything had gone horribly wrong. Again, in their mind's eye, they saw Jesus tied to a post and brutally whipped. They remembered the purple robe, the cruel mocking, the crown of thorns. They had seen it all. They had seen Jesus, their teacher, their friend, their Lord, scourged, tortured, and crucified. These two women, these two Marys, were there at the cross. They saw Jesus hanging on the tree. They saw him struggle with the pain. They were there when Jesus cried out, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46), and they saw his head fall as he said with a sigh, "It is finished." They were there when Jesus died, and when he died they died also. They were still alive physically, but their hopes and joy died on that cross, on that dark Friday nearly 2,000 years ago.
So, what are they doing up so early on this Sunday morning? Why are they not lying in bed, wallowing in their misery? What was it that drove them from their beds before dawn, and put them on a dark hillside outside Jerusalem? The thing that drove them was their love for the Lord, their devotion to Jesus.
According to Matthew, they went to “see the sepulcher,” to see if everything was all right, to see if the stone was still in place. Mark and Luke tell us that they wanted to anoint the body with spices. Someone had to prepare the body for burial and no one else had volunteered. None of the male disciples were going to do it, not Peter not Andrew nor James nor John, so it was up to these two faithful followers, two women who had never left the side of Jesus, who were with him until the end.
The task they were going to perform was a solemn task, a sad task. They would be the ones, who would wipe the blood from the brow, from the legs, from the sides. They would be the ones to clean the blood from the body of Jesus. They would be the ones, to remove the blood that had matted in his beard. They would be the last ones, to touch his face and close His eyes.
We might wonder how they thought they were going to get into the tomb. How did they think they were going to roll away the stone? But that was not a problem because we are told in v2, “Suddenly there was a violent earthquake; an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled the stone away, and sat on it” (Matthew 28:2). We are accustomed to hearing about earthquakes these days, and we immediately ask what magnitude this earthquake was. However, the word that is translated as “earthquake” could also be “commotion” or “shaking.” It was probably only a local disturbance cause by the descent of the angel. The angel is somewhat described in v3: “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow”--a dazzling white figure that is charged with power. The guards were terrified; they were so stunned that they were unable to move. Now apparently this all happened before the women got there, because when they arrived the angel was sitting on the stone.
We might ask the question, why was the stone rolled away at all? Jesus, when he appeared to the disciples in his resurrection body, could pass through walls. He did not need the stone to be rolled away in order to rise from the dead. Why then? For the two Marys and for us.
It was rolled away for the women, so they could see that the tomb was empty. It was rolled away for us, so that we would know that the tomb was empty. That is important. That changed everything. That changed all of history.
If you like the comic pages in the newspaper, you probably remember Johnny Hart who did the cartoon B.C. Hart died in 2007, but he left us a great legacy of humor, and some very Christian cartoons. Johnny Hart was a devout Presbyterian, and he is remembered specifically for the controversy of Easter 2001. B.C., on that Sunday morning, depicted a Jewish menorah being transformed into a Christian cross as each panel shows words of Jesus from the cross. It was a powerful statement, but people protested and it was not carried in many newspapers because some folks said it showed a lack of respect for Judaism.
To me, it seemed like a straightforward statement of faith. For Christians, Easter is the focal point of history. Everything changed after that. You even see it in our Bible. The OT is a different atmosphere from the NT. It is obvious that something has happened. The way we relate to God changed. In the OT, they had the temple, the priesthood, and the sacrifices. If you wanted to please God you went to the temple with an animal, a sheep or goat or something, and the priest slit its throat, spilled blood everywhere, and burned it. That way of thinking is totally foreign to us as NT people--because we have only one sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross
Then in the OT you pleased God by keeping a day holy to him; the day was Saturday. In the NT, we learned that every day is equally sacred to God, but you are not saved by keeping any day, you are not saved by any works you do. You are saved only by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Therefore, we keep Sunday as resurrection day in remembrance of him.
Think back with me to that first Easter. When the two Marys saw that the tomb was empty, what do you think they were thinking at that moment? How do you think they felt? Did they just look in, or did they stay awhile? Did they touch the linen that had been around Jesus? Did they shed tears of joy? Actually, Matthew says, “They departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
Once they found that the tomb was empty, once they believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, these women were on a direct path that would ultimately lead them to the risen Lord. As they were running down the road back to Jerusalem, suddenly Jesus appeared to them. They fell down and clasped His feet, and worshipped Him. They had loved him through it all. We do not know how long they had known him, but they had been faithful followers. They loved him even when they did not understand him or what was happening to him. They never wavered or faltered in their devotion. They are our example. What does Easter demand of us? Unwavering devotion to Jesus. What is Easter about? Hope and joy. The resurrection gives us hope for life beyond this life. The empty tomb is the conquest of death. Jesus conquered death. Through Jesus, we conquer death. That is something to rejoice about. That is why, to God's people, the best news of all time is Christ has risen. Christ has risen indeed.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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