‘The Empty Tomb’ – John 20:1-10 – September 20th

Good morning, people of Mount Zion! Thank you for joining us for this week’s Drive-In church service. We are very glad that you are here.

If you would, please turn with me in your Bibles to John 20:1-10. John says:

On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark. She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!”

At that, Peter and the other disciple went out, heading for the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and got to the tomb first. Stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying there, yet he did not go in. Then, following him, Simon Peter came also. He entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. The wrapping that had been on His head was not lying with the linen cloths but was folded up in a separate place by itself. The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, then entered the tomb, saw, and believed. For they still did not understand the Scripture that He must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went home again.

This is the word of the Lord. Let’s pray.

Father we thank you that even as we are temporarily forced to change some of what we do because of COVID-19, you are greater than COVID-19. Not one of us wouldn’t rather be inside that building, sitting in the pews, catching up with the folks who usually sit next us face-to-face instead of simply over the phone. And yet, You are greater than our inconvenience. We thank you for the way that you are with us even in the midst of our social distancing, that you are near us even in the midst of our isolation, and that even as we try to serve our neighbors by distancing ourselves to try and mitigate the spread of the virus, you have given us the profound blessing of being able to look closely at your word together, to learn from it, to be changed by it, and be edified through it.

We pray these things in Jesus’s name, Amen.

*

Well, as you noticed, this is only about half of the Resurrection story. Typically, when you think of the Resurrection story, you think of a little bit more than just this. You think of the story of Jesus approaching Mary, Mary thinking he’s the gardener, until he says her name, and then she recognizes him. You think of Thomas, putting his fingers into Jesus’s wounds. You think of the Angels, saying “He is not here, he is risen.” /

We will get to all of that.

But this week, we want to focus on the very beginning of John’s account of the Resurrection. Because, like almost everything else in John’s gospel, it’s kinda weird.

John starts off with, kind of, a scene out of a sitcom, or something. The women get there to pay their respects, but there’s nobody to pay their respects to. There’s nobody in the tomb. It’s a “case of the missing corpse” type thing. It could be an Abbott and Costello bit.

So she goes and tells the men, “There’s nobody in the Tomb.” And so the men run, to go see if there’s actually a problem at the burial site or if the women are all just riled up cuz there’s nothing on TV that morning.

So they go running, and they can’t even do that normally, they’ve gotta turn it into a race, and so John goes out of his way to make sure everybody knows that he beat Peter there, which is like, “Great job, you want a sticker for your chart, or something?”

And so he gets there, and the women are right. There is nobody in the tomb. And John goes out of his way to say, “We didn’t know what to do with it, because we didn’t pay attention in Sunday School.” He says, “We did not remember the scriptures that told us this was coming.”

That’s what I like about John, and it might be what you hate about John, he’s always very colorful. The Bible is weird, but it absolutely is not boring.

But as strange and colorful as our passage this morning is, even before we get to the more recognizable parts of the Resurrection story next week, there is a wealth of things that we can learn from all of this.

And we want to take a look at 3 major things that our passage tells us this morning.

First things first, we should notice that up until our passage, Jesus was actually dead.

I know that seems like pointing out the obvious, but it’s important to point that out for a couple reasons. Jesus was actually dead. He was in a tomb. He was dead and buried. You’ll remember from last week’s passage that John says

“They requested that Pilate have the men’s legs broken and that their bodies be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man and of the other one who had been crucified with Him. 33 But when they came to Jesus, they did not break His legs since they saw that He was already dead. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.”

That’s from last week’s passage. And those are things that do not happen unless you are dead. They didn’t even have to break his legs to finish the job. They jammed a spear into his side in both blood and water came out.

You know how you get that to happen? You die.

If you’ve been hanging on a cross for hours and they puncture your body and blood and water comes out, it means your number’s up. It means that’s all she wrote. It means you’re not breathing anymore.

That’s where Jesus was. That’s what happened to Jesus. He was hung on a cross until he died, and then that was it, he was dead.

So, then, what?

In itself, the fact that a guy like Jesus got crucified isn’t actually very noteworthy. Rome executed troublesome peasants every day, and while every single death is a tragedy, it probably wouldn’t even have made the news 20 miles outside of Jerusalem.

But this was not just the execution of a troublesome peasant.

Because what Rome didn’t understand and what the Sanhedrin refused to believe is that the man on the cross was the God of the universe. We serve a crucified God.

You ever think about it in those terms? You worship a crucified God.

A God who left the glory of heaven to take on the dirt and grime and cares and troubles and difficulties and uncertainties and weakness and humility of our world.

You serve a very big God who became very small for us. A very strong God who became very weak for us. To use Paul’s language in Philippians, we serve a God who “emptied himself” for us. A God who became nothing for us. Who, “though he was rich, yet became poor for us.” We serve a crucified God.

And, as it turns out, the crucified God is the only God there is.

Think about that.

A lot of “world religions” scholars – like, “comparative religion” scholars – will talk about how unique the Christian gospel is on that point, but they’ll talk about it like it’s just, sort of, a fascinating piece of trivia.

They’ll point out that most of the gods, in most cultures, at nearly every point in time throughout history, look and act more like your angry ex-husband than anybody who ought to be running the universe.

They’ll point out that the gods that most humans believed in were essentially chest-beating thugs, kind of like the bad guys from a Rambo movie, or something. That’s not an insult, that’s just how they described themselves. Kind of like a “My god could beat up your god” type thing.

And they’ll point out that in a world that saw the gods as playground bullies with superpowers, suddenly here came Jesus.

The crucified God. The God who came to Earth to die. Who came to trade himself for his people.

And that’s definitely interesting no matter which way you slice it, but it’s not just a fascinating piece of trivia. It’s not just an interesting tidbit that you can bring up if you want to make friends with a nerd. That is the reality that the entire universe is based around. The universe exists because of this crucified God, and the universe exists for this crucified God.

Including you.

You belong to a crucified God. How often do you think about the fact that you belong specifically to a God who died for your sins? You belong specifically to a God who decided to die in your place.

I know that this language is really weird, but think about what it means.

This is very good news.

Because, among other things, it means that the God of the universe really isn’t cruel. It means that the God of the universe really isn’t petty. You are not an object to the God of the universe. You are not just a chess piece that he moves around. This is not a game to him. You are not just a player on a stage that he uses to amuse or entertain himself.

It’s the opposite.

This is not about to turn into one of those goofy motivational speaker things, but you actually, really, seriously, honestly are the center of God’s attention. He sees you. He knows you. He cares about you. And he put real weight behind his claims to see and know and care about and love you by sacrificing everything, even his own life, on the cross.

This is the God that actually exists. The crucified God. The God who actually exists is the crucified God. And the crucified God is glorious. 

That’s our first point. The Bible tells us that the God that actually exists is the God who gave himself for us fully, and freely, and forever. /

(Pause)

Now, that would be remarkable enough, even if that was the end of it.

But that isn’t the end of it. Not by a longshot. Because before verse 1 is even over, we learn that three days later, the tomb was empty. It says:

“She saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran to Simon Peter and to the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!”

Mary’s at the tomb, and Jesus isn’t there. That’s not normal.

We see the same thing again beginning in verse 5. It says:

“Stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying there, yet he did not go in. Then, following him, Simon Peter came also. He entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. The wrapping that had been on His head was not lying with the linen cloths but was folded up in a separate place by itself.”

Now the disciples are at the tomb, and Jesus isn’t here. We need to talk about that. On the third day after Jesus was very decisively done in, and then permanently sealed into a rock tomb with a massive stone pressed against it, suddenly the tomb was empty and his corpse was nowhere to be found.

That’s what you would call a question mark, because it poses a question. What happened? Where’d the body go? And why?

We know what John’s gonna tell us: That the tomb was empty because the Lord rose from the dead.

But for 2000 years, people have been looking for a different explanation.

People have been looking for ways to explain away the empty tomb. Throughout history, different folks have looked for alternative explanations for why the tomb was empty on the third day, explanations that don’t involve a dead guy coming back to life. And we wanna talk about a few that have gained the most traction through the years.

The first “alternative explanation” that really gained traction in history was the “stolen body” theory. And it says pretty much what you would expect. It says that the body of Jesus was stolen. Not long after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the same Pharisees and Saducees we see causing trouble throughout the gospels and the book of Acts apparently started spreading rumors to discredit the disciples, and a lot of those rumors and propaganda are collected today in an ancient book called Toledot Yeshu.It says that Jesus was an illegitimate child, and that he grew up to be a sorcerer, and that after he was executed, the disciples stole his body from the tomb and then made up stories saying that he came back to life.

That was, probably, the earliest “alternative explanation” that people put forward to explain away the empty tomb.

But it’s certainly not the only one.

In recent years, one very common “alternative explanation” is what’s called the “Swoon theory.” It says that Jesus never actually died when they crucified him. It says that while was being crucified, that he went into a comatose state of some sort, and was buried, but that he regained consciousness while in the tomb and then escaped, which led his fanatical followers to believe that he must have risen from the dead.

I’m gonna run through that one again. The “Swoon Theory” says that Jesus was crucified, and then buried, but that he never actually died in the process. That he just went unconscious. That he went comatose because of his injuries. And then he was mistakenly buried, then woke up, and made his way out of the tomb, so that people saw him alive again and assumed he must have risen from the dead.

Now, I probably don’t have to tell you this, but that is ridiculous. That’s what you would call “a theory so ridiculous that only a scholar would believe it.”

I apologize, this might get a little gruesome – which is inevitable, because we’re talking about a Crucifixion – but, imagine with me that somebody drove a set of nails that were nearly a foot long through your wrists and your ankles. Which would have broken both your wrists and your ankles and maybe even separated them from the bone. Then they left you on a cross for hours. A cross where, because of the angling of your body, you can’t breathe.

You can try to take a breath in, but no air is going to enter your lungs. So you have to use every ounce of your strength to lift yourself up so that you can inhale, before collapsing back down into not being able to breathe again. Over that process, fluids from your body start to enter into your lungs and pool up at the bottom. As the hours go by it pools up even higher.

You are drowning. On the cross, you are literally drowning.

You lift yourself up again to take another breath, but you can only take half a breath because half of your lungs are filled with fluids. As the hours go you get more tired. Your body starts to give out. You dip in and out of consciousness. The fluid raises higher in your lungs. Eventually you can’t breathe and your lungs are filled with fluid and your muscles don’t work anymore and your bones are chafing against each other and there is just no more life in your body.

That’s what happens when you get crucified.

Even if you don’t die from that, you are never walking again. You’re probably never moving again. You’re functionally paralyzed. You are done. Your wounds are infected. Your lungs are useless. Your muscles are jelly. The only way for you to get from point A to point B would be for somebody to cart you around on a furniture dolly, or something. That’s the state that Jesus would have been after a few hours on the cross.

And so even if he didn’t die, which he almost certainly did, there is no way that he is getting up three days later, pushing a gigantic stone out of the way of the rock tomb by himself, and then walking to the house of the disciples, opening the front door, sitting down, and having dinner. That is not going to happen.

More than that there’s no way that he’s going to make his way out to the beach, and join his disciples around the campfire like we see in John 21.

And, even more, there is no way that he is going to spend a month teaching small crowds of people, like the gospels tell us.

There is absolutely no version of this where that is even remotely within the realm of possibility. There is nothing realistic about the theory that says that Jesus survived the cross and then made his way out of the tomb. It’s almost insultingly stupid.

And the same issues are there with that first theory – the “stolen body” theory – the one that says that the disciples came and stole the body of Jesus so that it would seem like he had been resurrected.

This one sounds good but falls apart pretty quick. Because if that’s what happened, then so much of the suffering that they went through because of their faith in the Resurrection was totally unnecessary. Because, like, if the disciples stole his body, then they know the Resurrection was fake. Right?

They know it. And if they knew the Resurrection was fake, why did they subject themselves to constant, absolutely unthinkable degrees of torture and abuse as they trying to spread the message of the Resurrection?

We see throughout the book of Acts, the disciples will go from town to town preaching the Resurrection of Jesus, the crowds will go nuts, and they’ll stone them, or beat them to a bloody pulp, or worse. John, the author of this gospel, was literally boiled in a pot for hours. Like, they made John soup. That’s a thing that apparently happened. Specifically, because he preached the Resurrection of Jesus.

So if the Resurrection was fake, if John stole the body of Jesus and then lied about it, he really didn’t need to get boiled. They really didn’t need to get beaten black and blue in one town after another, they didn’t have to have large rocks thrown at them until they died, because they could have just dropped the act.

They could have just said, “You know what, you’re right, Jesus died, and then we stole his body.” And that would have been the end of it. They would have put away their water boarding equipment and either thrown them in jail or sent them home.

But they didn’t. Instead, they went through sufferings we can’t even Imagine because they continued preached the Resurrection. And why did they continue to preach the Resurrection even as The Roman government and the chief priests ratcheted up the persecution again and again?

Because they actually believed it.

And they actually believed it because they saw it.

They saw him. They witnessed a very dead Jesus become a very not dead Jesus. They put their fingers into the wounds of his resurrected body. They watched him eat. They went fishing with him. They spent a whole month with him after he rose from the grave. They preached the Resurrection because they witnessed the Resurrection, because they know it was true. And so absolutely nothing could get them to drop it stop proclaiming it.

These are just three of the ways that people try to explain the Resurrection away, we won’t dive into anymore because this is a sermon, not an apologetics conference, but you could do a similar thing with basically every other theory that people have put forth to explain away the Resurrection. Whether you believe in the Resurrection or not, one of the things that you will find if you seriously look at the alternatives is that none of them even come close to working./

And so what we have, then, is an empty tomb that is difficult to explain without diving into the supernatural. So we are in a position that is basically like the position the disciples find themselves in our passage this morning.

Picking up in verse 8, it says:

“The other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, then entered the tomb, saw, and believed. For they still did not understand the Scripture that He must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went home again.”

Like the disciples, we have an empty tomb we don’t really know what to do with. We can ignore it, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. The empty tomb is staring in our faces as a question mark, and we gotta put some answer to it. We don’t know what it means. But we know it means something.

And yet, in my experience, it seems like where you land on this issue actually has less to do with what your brain determines is true than it does with what your heart decides it wants.

I’m gonna say that again: Where you land on this issue has less to do with what your brain determines is true than it does with what your heart decides it wants.

To quote the old, dead German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg – he is not an evangelical by any stretch of the imagination – he very famously said:

“The evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”

That’s pretty candid. Right?

Like, 90% of the time, we don’t say what we mean. Most of the time, we dress up what we actually mean with euphemisms and reasonable sounding excuses and so on and so forth, but every once in awhile, we accidentally slip up and say the quiet part out loud. Wolfhart Pannenberg says the evidence for the Resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for the fact that if you believe that it happened, you have to change the way you live.

(Pause)

I think that’s about right.

I saw exactly that with a friend of mine, named Stephen.

One time we were talking a couple of years ago, and he was talking about why he left the Christian faith when he was younger. There were a lot of reasons. But I noticed that he didn’t say anything about the miracles in the Bible. I thought that was kinda strange, because usually people bring that up pretty quick.

They’ll say, “The Bible is full of talking donkeys, talking snakes, miraculous healings, virgin births, and a Resurrection. And those are things that don’t happen.” I hear a lot of that from people when I talk to them about faith. So I’ve just kind of come to expect it most of the time when I’m sharing the gospel.

But I didn’t hear it from Stephen that day. He had plenty of objections to other parts of the Christian faith. He didn’t like what the Bible says about sex. He didn’t like what the Bible says about marriage. He didn’t like what the Bible says about how we’re supposed to use our money. The list goes on. But the Resurrection didn’t really come up.

So I asked him if he still believed in the Resurrection.

And he said, “No, not really.”

So I asked him why, specifically.

And he didn’t really have an answer.

He said he just kind of stopped believing it along with the rest of the faith, which makes sense. I think that’s really usually how it goes.

And so I asked, “Just outta curiosity, if Jesus said, ‘Thou shalt do whatever sex stuff you want, with whoever you want, whenever you want,’ would you still be this confident that the Christian faith is fiction?”

And he said, “Probably not.”

He probably wouldn’t doubt the Resurrection so much if believing it didn’t require him to change his life. /

I think that’s what Wolfhart Pannenberg is talking about. The evidence for the Resurrection is so strong that we probably wouldn’t question it except for the fact that if we believe that it happened, we have to change the way we live.

So if you are sitting in the audience today, and you’re not so sure about the Resurrection of Jesus, or you’re not so sure about the Virgin birth, or you’re not so sure about any of the other miracles. Or, in general, you’re just not so sure about the divine inspiration of the Bible. Or you’re not so sure about the existence of God. Or any number of other issues that you might have with the faith, just out of curiosity, would you still feel this way if the Bible didn’t require you to change the way you live?

Maybe you would. Maybe your doubts about the faith come from a very genuine place. Frankly, a lot of folks who leave the church leave the church because they were abused in or by the church. Or they leave because they saw an unbearable degree of extreme hypocrisy in the people in the church. And frankly I get that.

I don’t fault them for that. That could end up being any of us one day.

And yet, assuming that’s not the case with you, ask yourself, “How much of my doubt boils down to the fact that I don’t want to be told that I have to change the way I live?”

I’m not gonna push that train of thought any further down the tracks, ’cause we gotta move on, but I do want you to think about that. Because no matter how we slice it what we have is an empty tomb that we have to do something with.

But I think that there are very good reasons to believe that the empty tomb that we see in John chapter 20 really is the result of the Resurrection that we see in John chapter 21.

And one of the reasons is that this is exactly the kind of thing the Old Testament told us to be looking for.

In Isaiah 53, Isaiah prophesies about the coming Messiah. He says:

It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.”

That’s just one example, but the scriptures testified that a Messiah was coming, that the Messiah would be killed, and that the Messiah would rise again.

Next week we will talk in depth about what that means for us. But this week I just want to get us on the starting line.

I want you to look at Jesus, look at his death, look at the prophecies about the Messiah to come, whom God told us was going to die and then rise again in order to heal and forgive us, and then look at the empty tomb.

Because when you take everything together, what you find is that Jesus is the Messiah.

Specifically, Jesus is your Messiah. Jesus is the one who came to “bear your iniquities,” the scriptures say. He’s the one who came to be “wounded for your transgression.” He’s the one who came to take every last bit of your sin and unworthiness and crucify it in himself. And then, he rose again. He buried your sin in a garden tomb and then rose from the grave and brought you back with him.

That is the truth about Jesus. And that is the truth about you.

This is the point in the service where, typically, I would give something that we refer to as an “altar call,” but that’s not quite possible this morning, for obvious reasons. What we’re doing instead, is that as we respond to the Lord through song, we invite you to text or email me with your prayer requests, or decisions, or burdens, and we can set a time to sit down over the phone sometime the week and talk or pray through whatever is on your heart.

Let’s pray.

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