Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/12/1996
Luke 24:1 But on the first day of the week at early dawn they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 And it happened that while they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the Living One among the dead? 6 He is not here, but he has risen. Remember how he spoke to you while he was still in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and the third day rise again?” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joana and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. 11 And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. 12 But Peter arose and ran to the tomb. Stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at that which had happened.
For the last month or so we have been studying in detail the darkest, most shameful, and most sorrowful hour of human history. But it was also the hour when the victory was won, the backs of Satan, Sin, and Death were broken, and redemption was purchased. This was already true, though it was not yet evident. But God was about to change that with the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead. This great event was first announced to the Women, who are therefore called by Augustine “the first preachers of the resurrection.” Let us listen to what they have to say, as they first report their experience of the resurrection and show its effects in their lives.
The experience of the resurrection of Jesus for these women began not in joy but in grief, indeed in an anguish whose intensity can hardly be imagined by us at this safe distance from what they were going through. They had just experienced a whole series of the very hardest things for human beings to take. The first was the dashing of their hopes. Nothing is harder to live with, nothing harder to accept. It can be tough to get over even in trivial matters. I remember all too well the Sugar Bowls of 1982 and 1983. After my beloved Georgia Bulldawgs had won the national championship in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, we had a chance at it again the next two years, had it in our grasp, only to be deprived of the prize by last-minute, unbelievably heroic plays by Dan Marino and Todd Blackledge of the Miami Hurricanes and the Penn State Nittany Lions. I could not get to sleep either of those New Year’s nights, with my mind compulsively replaying the games and generating an endless stream of one futile “if only” after another. Well, what if you had, not a mere national championship in college football, but the very Kingdom of Heaven longed for by Israel for generations just within your grasp? Only one week ago it must have felt like it was actually going to happen, like it was actually beginning during the Triumphal Entry. But now, inexplicably but inexorably, it had all suddenly fallen apart. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but hope ripped out of one’s very grasp at the moment when it seemed it was being fulfilled at long last can almost make the heart stop! Such was their experience.
But it wasn’t just the dashing of their hopes. They also had to endure the trauma of tragedy. Nothing is harder to reconcile oneself to than the death of a loved one, especially if that death is totally unexpected. Viola Kilbourne was a missionary to Japan who was on furlough in Atlanta my junior year of high school and attended my church. Having two teenage daughters, she opened her home to our youth group and became for that year a second mother to us all. On her next furlough, she ended up living next door to the campus of Taylor University where I was now a senior in college, because her daughter Kathy was a freshman there, and so my ties to that family were picked up as if no time had intervened at all. One Sunday morning I showed up at their door to pick Kathy up for my church because we were supposed to sing a duet that day. She came to the door in one of those deathly calms that masks a horrible inner turmoil. “I don’t think I can come today. Mother was killed this morning.” She had been out riding her bicycle for exercise and was hit by a drunk driver and thrown 200 feet through the air. It felt like I had just been hit, like someone had just punched me in the solar plexus. There was a literal physical shock, a numbness worse than any pain. It took me weeks to get over it. Imagine how bad it was for the family themselves! And yet it was even worse for these women. They had no idea it was coming, for it is plain that Jesus’ attempts to forewarn them had not registered with them any more than with the male disciples. One minute he seems poised to ascend the throne of David, and then somehow before you know it you are watching him be brutally murdered. How can this be happening? Truly the horror of it is hard to imagine.
Then on top of all of this there came the frustration of the Sabbath. Why is the Sabbath frustrating? Don’t we welcome a day of peace and quiet in which to sort everything out? No! These are those old-fashioned women, like some of our mothers or grandmothers, for whom work is therapy. There is only one way they know how to deal with grief, and that is by preparing spices and anointing the body. But then as soon as they get the spices prepared, boom! The Sabbath comes. And they have to sit on their hands and chew their grief like bitter cud for a whole day in which they can do absolutely nothing about it. The frustration must have seemed intolerable. No wonder they were up at the crack of dawn on the first day of the week. How will they get the tomb open? Never mind! We’ll worry about that later; something will turn up. But right now we’ve got to DO something! And so there they are at the tomb with their spices at the very first moment of anything you would remotely be able to call sunrise, only then to meet the final straw. After all that anticipation, after all that agony of waiting through the exquisite torture of forced inactivity—the tomb is open and the body is gone!!! NOW what? Almost as great a wonder as the resurrection itself is the fact that they survived all this trauma to meet the angels and hear the Good News.
Well, I think we have not paid enough attention to what these women went through. But what is the significance of doing so now? For one thing, it helps us grasp the psychological realism of the narrative. These were real human beings reacting to incredible stress just the way we might have, had we been in their place. If you need any help to believe in the historical reality of the resurrection story and the truthfulness of its narratives, these women are one more piece in that puzzle. When you look at them as real human beings in the context of this narrative, it all makes sense. Not only that, but in Jewish eyes women were not considered reliable witnesses. There is only one reason why the Gospel accounts would make them “the first preachers of the resurrection,” and that is that this is exactly how it happened. It’s not the kind of story anybody would have made up.
But there is more to it than that, as we think about the implications of their anguish. What these ladies have been through up to this moment is a picture of what human life is without the victory and hope that the resurrection brings. They had known their hopes dashed, and all our hopes are groundless if indeed Christ did not rise. It really does not matter what we do with our lives because once we are dead we won’t remember any of it, and it will be just as if we had never been. All they could think of was their grief at their loss, and as we stumble through life toward death, that loss is the definitive story of our lives, death the final word about us. How tragic! What they thought was meaningful action was frustrated by the intervening Sabbath, and everything we do is equally meaningless and pointless if this life is all that there is. But the resurrection puts an end to all of that! Sorrow is turned to joy, despair to hope, defeat to victory, frustration to fulfillment! Christ is risen.
I also want us to look at the effects of the resurrection on these early Christians. These are the first such effects reported, and they remain definitive for valid and normal Christian experience two millennia later. Their presence in you is the sure sign of the reality of the resurrection in your life; their absence raises serious questions about whether you really believe the words that come out of your mouth. What are they?
First, they rejoiced. This is not explicitly stated. It does not need to be. Death has been defeated! The final Enemy has been neutralized! The one you love most in all the world has been restored to you! Why do you seek the Living One among the dead? Belief that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead is the starting point of all true Christian faith. So how could joy not be the characteristic note of those who believe in him? The fruit of the Spirit is love, JOY, peace (Galatians 5:22). Why? Because it is the resurrection of Christ that unleashed the power of Pentecost. We count it all JOY when we encounter various trials (James 1:2). Why? Because it is the resurrection that guarantees ultimate victory over those trials. We rejoice if we are counted worthy to suffer shame for his name (Acts 5:41). Why? Because it was in the resurrection that God gave him a name that is above every name and declared him to be both Lord and Christ. In 2 Corinthians 6:10 we are sorrowful yet rejoicing. In 1 Peter 1:8 we have joy inexpressible and full of glory. In Philippians 4:4 we are exhorted to rejoice always, and again I say rejoice! This is the characteristic note of the life that believes what these women have to tell us. What else could it be? How could it be anything else? Is your life full of this joy, or are you living as if Christ were still in the tomb?
First, they rejoiced. Second, they remembered (vs. 8). They remembered that Jesus had told them what was going to happen. We know that he had done so repeatedly and insistently. But this message was so far outside the framework of his disciples’ preconceived notions, so far outside the framework of their expectations, so unconnected to any of their plausibility structures, that they did not know what to do with it. They must have spiritualized it in some way and then forgotten it. But now it all came back to them. The resurrection was what made it all fall into place. Its effect was to focus their attention anew on the words of Jesus. For now they made sense. Now they were the words not of a would-be Messiah but of the risen Lord. Many people had noticed before that Jesus spoke with authority, not as the scribes. But now his words resonated with authority and truth in a completely new way. This is one sure mark of whether you really “believe in your heart that God hath raised him from the dead”: Do you remember his words?
First they rejoiced; second, they remembered; in the third place, they returned (vs. 9a). Whenever we have a fresh experience with the Lord, the natural temptation is always to try to prolong it, or, worse, to reproduce it. Neither ever works. This is what caused Peter to want to build those tabernacles on the Mount of Transfiguration. But the Lord knew why that mountain-top experience had happened: because they were needed down in the valley. Paul Stookey says it so well:
And I wonder have you ever been to the mountain To look at the valley below? Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley? Did you know which way to go? Oh, the mountain stream runs pure and clear And I wish to my soul I could always be here, But there’s a reason for living way down in the valley That only the mountain knows.
The temptation is to hang around the tomb, to try to prolong the experience. But the resurrection is a call to action! The focus of ministry is there.
What were the effects of the resurrection in the lives of these women? They rejoiced; they remembered; they returned. And finally, they reported (vs. 9b). They reported what had happened to the apostles. Who cares if they don’t believe us at first? Who cares if they think we are crazy? News like this has to be told! To really grasp the reality of the resurrection is to be a witnessing Christian. How could it be otherwise? Imagine this scenario. Everything happens just as Luke tells it through verse 8—and then nothing else follows. Finally, about three weeks later, Peter and John happen to run into Mary Magdalene. “Hey, Mary, what happened to you after the death of the Lord? Did you ever get to anoint the body?” “Oh, yeah,” Mary replies. Didn’t I tell you? Jesus rose from the dead that morning!”
It is harder to believe in that scenario than it is to believe in the resurrection itself! Let me be very plain. If you can keep news like that to yourself, you raise serious questions about whether you really believe it is true. So why are most of us acting more like the Mary Magdalene of my version of the story rather than the much more believable one in Luke’s? There is something seriously amiss here. Don Francisco certainly hit the nail on the head: “You got to tell somebody!” Don’t you?
Listen to what is surely one of the clearest and most definitive statements in all the New Testament about how one becomes a Christian: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved. For with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation” (Romans 10:9-10). Do you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead? If you did, you would certainly confess it with your mouth. In fact, you would do just like these women did: you would rejoice, you would remember, you would return, and you would report. Your reporting would be given credibility by your rejoicing and authority by your remembering, and they would all then give point to your returning. Isn’t that what the Christian life should look like? I’m not talking about that mythical state, the “deeper Christian life.” This is what life should be like if it is Christian at all. So listen to the testimony once again of the first preachers of the resurrection, and may God grant you faith to believe it now if you never have before. Is he risen? Then rejoice, remember, return, and report, to the glory of our risen and living Lord. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams