Easter Sunday| Rev. Rolf Preus| April 20, 2014| St. Mark 16:1-8
Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, “Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away; for it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples; and Peter; that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” So they went out quickly and fled from the tomb, for they trembled and were amazed. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. St. Mark 16:1-8
Christ is arisen from the grave’s dark prison.
We now rejoice with gladness; Christ will end all sadness.
Lord, have mercy.
All our hopes were ended had Jesus not ascended
From the grave triumphantly,
For this, Lord Christ, we worship thee.
Lord, have mercy.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
We now rejoice with gladness; Christ will end all sadness.
Lord, have mercy.
During the 1968 – 1969 school year my family spent the year in Strasbourg France as my father earned his second doctor’s degree at the University of Strasbourg. We lived at #1 Rue de Palerme. The younger children stayed with Mom and Dad in an apartment on the tenth floor. We older boys stayed in the sixth floor apartment of Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, a friend of my father’s.
Montgomery started out as a brilliant and arrogant young lawyer who took it upon himself to disprove the Christian religion. He thought that to do that he had to disprove a fundamental truth of Christianity. You cannot disprove something like the Holy Trinity. You cannot prove or disprove that God justifies sinners freely by his grace through faith for Christ’s sake, or that babies are born again in Holy Baptism, or that the elements of the Lord’s Supper really are the body and the blood of Jesus. While these are all important tenets of the Christian religion, none of them is subject to empirical proof or disproof.
But the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a different matter. Christians claim that this happened in space and time. The same Jesus who was crucified on Calvary on Good Friday rose from the dead early Sunday morning. We claim that when the women went to anoint Jesus’ dead body the tomb that held Jesus’ dead body was empty and that Jesus later showed himself alive by many infallible proofs. Christ’s resurrection supports what we teach about a number of things. Jesus preached the truth. He is who he claimed to be. His sacrifice on Calvary took away all sin. We shall rise on the last day. All this depends on his resurrection from the dead.
So this bright young lawyer set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Montgomery reasoned that if he did so, he would be disproving the Christian religion. He applied the standards of legal evidence to the claims of the Gospels about Jesus’ resurrection. As he did so something strange happened. He found that the more he tried to disprove it the more he proved it. He finally had to acknowledge it as true. This didn’t make him a Christian. But it did permit him to consider the claims of Jesus and the teaching of his apostles. John Montgomery became a Christian, and a strong defender of the Christian faith.
You cannot prove the Christian religion. But you can disprove attacks against it. The attacks against the Christian religion often take the form of bogus claims about alleged errors and myths in the Bible. Men with a bias against the supernatural attack the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. They argue from their own prejudice and ignorance. An honest and fair-minded analysis of the biblical reports of Christ’s resurrection from the dead will lead a fair and honest person to conclude that it happened just as the Bible says. After all, this was eyewitness testimony by people who, when they first heard it had happened, denied it was possible.
It doesn’t require faith to believe in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. And believing in his resurrection is not yet faith. The women saw the empty tomb and they didn’t believe. We need more than the events of Christ’s death and resurrection. God has to tell us what they mean. The bare fact of the resurrection does not elicit faith. God has to speak. Faith comes from hearing the Word of God. Faith requires more than facts. It requires the divine interpretation of those facts.
Consider the crucifixion of Jesus. What does it mean? That depends on who is doing the teaching. In the comedy movie, “The Blues Brothers,” two brothers are on a mission from God. In a scene that features a stern nun striking them repeatedly with a long ruler, we are shown a huge crucifix – almost life size – hovering over these men. Clearly, the crucifix was interpreted by the movie director as a symbol of judgment evoking fear. Is that what you think of when you see Jesus on the cross? Don’t you rather think of how he suffered and died for you? The crucifix is for us a symbol of God’s forgiveness. We see Jesus on the cross taking away our sins by dying our death in our place. We look at Christ’s suffering, not as judgment against us, but as judgment against Christ instead of us. If God punished his Son for my sins he isn’t going to punish me. This is God’s interpretation of the crucifixion. Isaiah writes:
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6
St. Paul puts it succinctly: “He was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” (Romans 4:25) If he had not taken away our sins on the cross he would have stayed dead. His resurrection means that the sins he bore were borne away. They are gone, forgiven, washed away. The proof is that Jesus rose from the dead.
The women didn’t believe that. It was true, but they didn’t believe it. They were trembling with fear. Jesus had died and risen again. The tomb was empty. Death had been swallowed up. Good had triumphed over evil. Life and immortality had been brought to light. Righteousness had destroyed sin. God in the flesh had crushed Satan’s lying head under his heal. And the women were filled with fear. Why? They were unbelievers.
Surely, I’m being unfair. Unbelievers? Look at their devotion! Look at their love! There hadn’t been the time to anoint Jesus’ dead body properly after he died because the Sabbath came on too quickly. So here they were, at first light, to pay their respect to their teacher and Lord. Surely, I am being too tough on them to call them unbelievers! But that’s what they were! Jesus said he would die and rise again. They heard him say it. They just didn’t believe it. The reason they didn’t believe is because they permitted their feelings to replace God’s word as the source of their faith. The angel gave them God’s word. He said:
Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples; and Peter; that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
But they were stuck in their unbelief. St. Mark records for us that they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. Their hearts were set on death. They rejected the word of the angel in favor of the feeling of their hearts.
So it goes. God says one thing and people feel something else. They presume to correct God’s clear Word with their own feelings. They are deceived by their own feelings as if faith is a matter of feeling. It’s not. Faith isn’t feeling. Faith isn’t love. Faith isn’t devotion. Faith isn’t respect. Most of what we associate with religion isn’t faith. The faith through which we are delivered from our sins, through which we inherit eternal life, through which we find ourselves reconciled to God and enjoy his eternal loving care for us is the faith that believes what God says in his gospel.
We don’t look for evidence of a place called heaven. About every decade or so a new book or a new movie recounts someone allegedly returning from heaven. We don’t seek out religious experiences to validate our hope for a better future. We don’t examine our hearts to see how sincerely or devoutly or passionately we love God. We listen to what God tells us and we believe what he says.
God says that Christ’s death was because of our offenses. He died to take them away. God says that Christ’s resurrection was because of our justification. In the resurrection of Jesus God has declared us to be righteous. There is no sin for which he did not suffer. There is nothing lacking in the redemption price he paid. He paid it in full. He gave his life, crying out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” He said, “It is finished.” His resurrection from the dead is God accepting the offering he gave. It is God approving of his sacrifice. All sins he bore are forgiven. That’s God’s interpretation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Our sinful flesh hangs on to us, infecting our feelings, causing us doubt, leading us into sins of thought, word, and deed. We become spiritually lazy; skipping church, preferring our own notions to God’s revealed Word, and caring more for the stuff that perishes with this world than for the treasures of heaven. And then trouble strikes, our sins are exposed to our conscience, we face sickness, loss, and death. Our sinful neglect of God’s Word bears its deadly fruit of confusion and doubt as our deceitful and fickle feelings contradict God’s Word and leave us afraid to confess anything at all.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is new and eternal life for us all. It is God’s absolution. It is God forgiving us all the sins for which Jesus died – and Jesus died for all sins. And because our hearts would reject it and descend into sorrow and self-pity, God keeps on telling us this gospel. In our baptism he tells us. Every Sunday he tells us. When we eat and drink at his altar he tells us.
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands for our offences given;
But now at God’s right hand he stands and brings us life from heaven. Amen.