The Empty Grave
Happy Easter! Great to be with you on this special day.
A day that I think we have all been looking forward to, but probably because of very different reasons. Some are relieved that their 40 day fasting is over most. Maybe just a nice long weekend. A time when you can finally get some well-deserved rest or catch up on work that has been piling up. Maybe you fasted something and you are happy, that you can finally eat whatever you want or watch Netflix again. Maybe it’s time with family or good friends and good food that you have been looking forward to the most.
Many good reasons to look forward to and celebrate Easter. And when we move into the last chapter of Mark. Take the final step in our 16 week journey through his Gospel. We see that Mark proposes a very different reason for Easter. A reason that has to do with an empty grave, a resurrection and God. Things that pose on the one hand a huge challenge for our understanding. But that have a beautiful message that can make all the difference in our lives.
- The Challenge of Easter
- The Good News of Easter
- The Difference of Easter
Before we start, let me pray with us.
— Prayer —
1. The Challenge of Easter
In case you weren’t here last week, just a quick recap of what has been happening: After 3 years of preaching all over Israel, Jesus was captured by the Romans and sentenced to death on a cross by the Jewish people. After the Romans made sure he was dead, they allowed a follower of Jesus to take his body to a grave.
And all of this shouldn’t have come as a huge shock to the disciple. Because Jesus predicted his death multiple times when he was still with them. He told his disciples he had to die. That there was no way around it. But he also promised to come back to life after 3 days. That he wouldn’t stay dead, but return to them on the morning of the third day.
And I would have assumed them now sitting at home for 2 days excited. Like me as a child on Christmas, counting down the hours until it was time to open presents. And on the third day running to the grave shouting: He’s back! He is finally back! Taking out the champagne or what they used in their time to celebrate. And being over the moon about Jesus being back.
But Mark writes about this third day:
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
So there were people running to the grave but it wasn’t the disciples. It was 3 women that had been following Jesus in his lifetime. And they weren’t coming with champagne, but with spices to show their respects to the deceased. They weren’t coming to see the risen Jesus, but to mourn the death of him. They didn’t believe that he would come back like he said he would.
And the disciples? Well, in John, a different account in the Bible of what happened on this third day, we read, that “the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders.” The disciples are too scared to even go to the tomb. They didn’t believe that Jesus would come back to life either. They knew Jesus could do a lot. Experienced many miracles from him. But this was even too much for them to believe. Just didn’t seem possible.
Yes, the Jewish faith that they came from knows a resurrection, but only at the end of time. Somebody coming back to life after only three days, without the world ending and it being God himself. That went beyond what they could have imagined. Was a challenge to everything they believed in.
And to be honest, I can’t really blame them. Because I don’t know about you, but if someone told me he would come back to life after three days today, I probably would quote an old professor of mine saying: Maybe, probably not. Because that’s just not something that can happen. I guess it’s safe to say, that most of us have not seen dead come back to life. With all our advancement in medicine and biology we know at least that much. People who are proven beyond doubt to be dead don’t come back to life after three days.
But for the women and later the disciples, these doubts were blown away in what we read in verses 4-6:
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
From this day forward, this is the message the women and the disciples would tell everyone who would want to listen. Because what they couldn’t believe before, they now saw with their own eyes. In other Gospels we even read, that later they saw the living Jesus right before them. Could touch him to check that he was really back from the dead. They were confronted with undeniable evidence, leaving them without a shred of doubt, that Jesus really came back to life.
And at this point you might think: Well, I would believe in Jesus too, if he just appeared in front of me. If I could touch him. But what prove do I have today, that this Jesus really came back from the dead? How can I be sure, that I can trust, what Mark is writing here? That it’s not just fake news?
And this is exactly why Mark went to great lengths in his report to assure his readers back then and us today, that this story is not just fiction. Not just fake news. But that this is an authentic and trustworthy report to help us see for ourselves what happened on Easter almost 2000 years ago.
Because on the one hand Mark gives us the names of the eye witnesses. Two times in chapter 15 and once in chapter 16 he mentions the women Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. And he is so keen on giving us these names over and over again, because in the ancient time, naming eye-witnesses worked like our footnotes when we write scientific papers today. If you wanted to claim your story to be true, you had to show your sources, give prove. And since they didn’t have cameras or anything to record events with, the testimony of living eye witnesses was regarded as the most trustworthy source.
And if Mark wanted to make up a story, he chose the worst footnotes to do it with. Because in ancient times, women weren’t regarded as reliable sources. Women were usually not well educated. And that’s why many thought of them as the Greek writer Celsus writes: to be hysterical and easily susceptible to religious madness. If Mark and the other Gospel-writer wanted to fake a story to safe their movement, they would have certainly chosen more convincing sources than these three women. The only reason why anyone would have ever chosen to mention women in his report would be, if they were actually the eye-witnesses. If God chose people who society deemed unworthy as his worthy witnesses.
And we can be sure that with this story and these kinds of witnesses, people immediately started to question them. And if they would have found any contradictions in the reports, this Jesus movement would have been finished. There are many examples of these kind movements before and after Jesus, collapsing, when the leader died and the followers either confessed it was all a lie or killed. But after this day, the number of disciples exploded. We can find more than 500 people attesting that they witnessed Jesus being back from the dead. There is not a single event in history that is better proven than the resurrection of Jesus.
And Mark tells us these things. Is so keen on giving us all the reasons to trust his story. Because he knows, that if Jesus really came back from the dead, it meant great news for all of us.
2. The Good News of Easter
And in verse 6 we can see why:
“You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
In a few words, the angel that the women find at the grave sums up what we call the Gospel. The core of why Jesus came to earth. The core of what we as a church believe in and the reasreader celebrate Easter.
Because on the one hand Jesus was dead. He really died. And to some extend what Nietzsche once so famously said was true for a moment:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned, has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
It’s true, Jesus died because of us. But not because we killed him, but because he deliberately came to this earth and chose to die the death that we would have deserved for turning our backs on God. Because the Bible says, that with our choice to live our lives apart from God. Follow our own rules, instead of God’s will. We destroyed the relationship we once had with God and chose a road that leads away from him. A road that ends in our own death. A life away from God and everything that is good. A choice that Nietzsche understood correctly, is too great of a debt for us to ever repay.
But this is exactly why these three words “He has risen” are so important. Where Nietzsche, I believe, was terribly mistaken and what is so good about the news that Mark is bringing us. It is that in Jesus’ resurrection we have final prove, that our debt has now been paid in full.
It is like a prisoner in jail. The only way he would walk out of prison a free man would be, if he has completed his full sentence. If he paid what he owed. And the same is true with Jesus in the resurrection. If death could no longer hold Jesus, it could only be, because it had no more reason to do so. That there was no sentence left to fulfill. No more debt that needed to be paid.
The resurrection is the ultimate prove that Jesus really paid the price for our shortcomings. That we no longer need to be separated from God, but can return to living our lives with him. Not only here on earth, but even beyond that.
And it also means, that in order to do so, we do not have to become gods ourselves like Nietzsche thinks. Don’t have to earn our way back to God by being a morally good person. Jesus’ death was the only possible and necessary solution to us being separated from God. And because God loves each and every one of us, he was willing to sacrifice his only Son to get us back.
But I don’t know about you. I sometimes notice that this is just as hard to accept as the resurrection itself. I talk to many people who tell me: Even if Jesus did all of that, he definitely didn’t do it for me. I don’t know enough. I might accept him out of the wrong reasons. Or they say: I am a lost cause. I have done too many things even for God to forgive. We can’t believe that this gift is something we could just take the way we are. Without deserving it or needing to be perfect, gods as Nietzsche calls it, before we receive it.
And if you know these thoughts, I hope that verse 7 encourages you to take whatever holds you back and just go to Jesus like the women did.
Because in verse 7 the angel says: But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.
There is a specific reason why the angel singles out Peter. Because Peter more than any of the other disciples, swore before Jesus got arrested, that he would not leave Jesus. That he would stick by his side and that he would even die if he had to. But when it came to it, he fled just like the rest. And when Romans caught him he denied Jesus three times. Swore that he didn’t even know this man, just to get away from them.
So what Jesus is saying here is: Tell my disciples, although they left me, I will not leave them. Although they denied me and doubted what I said to be true, I will stay faithful. For Jesus it doesn’t matter how strong our faith is, how much we can understand or what we have done in the past. All Jesus wants from you and me is to trust him enough to take that first step towards him. Just the way we are. Because once we take this step. Put our faith in Jesus. That’s where he wants to show us, like he is now showing the women, what a difference the Good News of Easter, of his resurrection, can make in our lives.
3. The Difference of Easter
In verse 6 the angel says: “Don’t be alarmed,”
Because if we truly understand and believe what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean. If we know that we are headed towards a wonderful life with God in eternity. Then this can be a huge comfort in our lives already.
I will never forget the story of an old woman. This woman was getting weaker and the doctors were telling her that she only had a few weeks left to live. So she called the pastor to talk about the funeral. She picked out the songs she wanted to be sung during the service. The passages that she wanted to be read. And then she looks up and says: And I want to be buried with a little fork in my hand. The pastor looked at her a little puzzled and asked: Why that? To which she only replied: See pastor, I love desert. The whole meal I always look forward to it and when I hold that little fork in my hand, I know the best part of the meal is still ahead of me. I know I need to die, but I also know, that the best is still ahead of me. So I want to have a fork in my hand to let everyone know that the best is still to come.
Maybe you are here tonight and you are facing challenges in your life as well. Maybe you, a friend or a family member are struggling with an illnesses. Maybe your plans for family or your career so far haven’t panned out the way you hoped they would. Or they did, but you are worried it won’t stay that way.
In all this pain and uncertainty Jesus wants you and me to know: I am alive. And I would love nothing more than to be by your side during these difficult times. To take care of you. Be your shoulder to cry on and the hand to get you back up, even when you were knocked down.
Not to misunderstand Jesus here. He doesn’t promise, that there won’t be any more reasons to be scared. This week a guy at the office asked me if I have been praying for him. And when I said: I did, he said: Well its not working. Business is still difficult and exhausting. With Jesus, our life won’t get instantly easier. We will still encounter hardships. Sometimes especially because we believe in Jesus. This is not what the angel is talking about here.
But with Jesus in our life, we can have a hope, that can’t be shaken, no matter what challenges we face. The hope of knowing that even if our life does not end up being the perfect Instagram story. We don’t end up reaching the position we always dreamed about. Don’t make the money we wanted or get the children you and your partner hoped for. In those times we can find comfort in knowing, that the best is yet to come. That when we follow Jesus, we will one day be resurrected just like he was and live in his wonderful kingdom. Where all the hurt, all the pain, all the disappointment will be forgotten because of the beauty we will experience there.
A comfort with which we can stay calm and friendly at work, even if everyone in the office is stressed out because of an upcoming deadline. Can love and serve my partner just for her sake, no matter how much I will get out of it. Can be brave in making decisions, because we know that God will take care of us no matter how it turns out. Give a part of my valuable time or even money to God without fearing, that I will come up short because of it.
And when we have seen this difference that Jesus can make in our lives, the angel adds in verse 7: Then go and tell. Go and tell the people around you about what you have experienced with jesus. Your friends, your family, the people at work. Because when you live with Jesus. Because you and I are now living eye-witnesses just like these women were back then. An eye-witness to the fact that Jesus is alive. And although we don’t see him physically like the disciples did. Our lives now become a chance for others to see Jesus living, being active in our lives. Can get to know him through our testimony. But for that to happen we have to be ready to go and tell.
But maybe this is meaning of Easter is all new for you tonight. Something where you still have a lot of questions about. Where some things don’t fully add up for you yet. Or where you feel inadequate to come to God. And then I want to invite you on the one hand to ask these questions. To voice your doubts. I will stay up here after the service. If there is anything you want to talk about, I would love to talk to you about it. But not only to stop there. But I would encourage you to take this step of faith towards God. Like the women did. Trust him with your live and accept his wonderful gift to see, what a difference the good news of Easter can make in your life as well.