v.1       Remember, there were no chapter divisions in Luke’s original, so we would have just read about the women preparing to do this at the end of our chapter 23. The resurrection is always in the Gospels said to have occurred on “the first day of the week.” That is striking since Jesus had always predicted his resurrection to take place on the third day, not on the first day, as we will be reminded in v. 7. We are being introduced to the Christian Sunday and its place ever after in Christian faith and life.

v.3       They were there to wrap the Lord’s body in additional spices, so, finding the stone moved and the door to the tomb open, they went in. Only then did they find that the body was missing.

v.7       In fact, as we know from our reading of the Gospels,the Lord had predicted his resurrection repeatedly over the last year of his ministry, but the idea was so alien to his disciples that no one paid attention, just as they didn’t take him seriously when he predicted his crucifixion. Perhaps they thought he was speaking metaphorically.No one in the Judaism of that day expected the Messiah, when he came, to die and rise again.And no one expected the resurrection in the middle of history. Many Jews were believed in the resurrection at the end of history but not in the middle.

By the way, no Jew would use the word “resurrection” to describe an afterlife in which the body had been abandoned to the grave. To be risen means in the nature of the case that the body has come to life again.

v.9       Being reminded of his words, the women now remembered what the Lord had said, and began to reckon with the possibility that Jesus was in fact alive again.

v.11     In their depressed and fearful state of mind, it is perhaps no wonder that they were not impressed by the women’s report. These men probably entertained some of the same bias against the intelligence of women then current in their culture. Women were not, for example, allowed to give testimony in a Jewish court. It was easier than it should have been for them to dismiss the tale the women were telling. What is clear is that these were not men poised on the brink of belief in the resurrection! They were positively skeptical. [Morris, 354] And since this skepticism hardly reflects well on them, this is another of those eyewitness touches of which there are so many in the gospels.

v.12     Peter went home not yet convinced, but perhaps realizing that something was afoot. The point of the grave clothes is both that they proved Jesus had been there and, of course, had his body been removed, the grave clothes would have been removed with the body

I want this evening to reflect on a single feature of this history: viz. how startling and how unexpected it was. Ask the average American – for that matter, ask the average human being anywhere in the world – what religion is about and he or she would very likely say something like this: there is a God, he cares about how we live, he takes note of our behavior, and some day he will require us to give an account of what we have done, especially of how we have treated others.

Though Buddhists may be said not to believe in a personal God, God as most people take him to be, even modern Buddhists would probably give an explanation of religion much like that one. So would a typical Muslim and, alas, so would a great many so-called Christians. Most people think of religion in these terms. God wants us to treat others honestly and generously and promises to reward us if we do. He wants us to revere and love him too, of course, and, depending upon the religion, to perform certain acts of worship, but, interestingly, most people would not think to mention that, at least not at first. What God is after primarily is our good behavior.

This is why politicians throughout history and still today all over the world often pay lip service to religion. Not because a particular faith matters much to them, but because they appreciate the motivation religion provides for socially responsible behavior. Atheistic states struggle to motivate their citizens to be good and to do good and it is thought that religion helps to do that. People who believe in God and in God’s judgment are more likely to pay their taxes, obey the law, and so on. If you remember, as soon as the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, Stalin lifted his persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. He needed the church to motivate its members to resist the German advance and knew well enough that religion could do that in a way the atheist state could not.

The surprising thing about this widespread opinion about religion is that it is as likely to be held by highly educated and philosophically sophisticated people as it is by unlettered folk. I sometimes have cited in a sermon something written by the late Neil Postman. Postman was one of the most perceptive observers and critics of modern western culture, in some ways a prophet, describing beforehand the social pathologies that modern culture would produce. He was a learned man. He had written important things about the American experience of religion in several of his books, notably Amusing Ourselves to Death. He was not a Christian; he was born into a Jewish family that still spoke Yiddish; but he did not, so far as I could tell, seriously practice the Jewish faith or any faith. Still he would certainly have been considered knowledgeable about religion, especially the Judeo-Christian tradition. But his view of the teaching of the Bible was not noticeably different from that of the man on the street. Here it is.

“There is one God, who created the universe and all that is in it. Although humans can never fully understand God, he has revealed himself and his will throughout history, particularly through his commandments and the testament of the prophets as recorded in the Bible. The greatest of these commandments tells us that humans are to love God and express their love for him through love, mercy, and justice to our fellow human beings. At the end of time, all nations and humans will appear before God to be judged, and those who have followed his commandments will find favor in his sight.” [Technopoly, 78]

Pretty predictable stuff. But really? It is so predictable that there is nothing distinctively Christian in his summary of the Bible’s teaching. For that matter, there is nothing distinctively Jewish either! In fact, there is nothing there that is distinctively biblical! You find the same thing in the holy books of other religions.

What Prof. Postman left out was the heart, the genius, and the authority of the Christian message as it is taught in the Bible. There was nothing in his summary of the Bible’s teaching about man’s inveterate sinfulness and rebellion against God since the fall; nothing of God’s gracious choice of a people for salvation, nothing of the mighty exertion on God’s part to redeem his people from their sins and so nothing of the Redeemer himself, nothing of the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, Pentecost, the Gentile mission, or the Lord’s Second Coming. In Postman’s account the Bible is all about what we do for God and others; there is nothing of what God has done for us and certainly nothing about what God must do for us lest we perish in the judgment.

I accept that other religions do fundamentally agree in their basic message. They are all about the same thing: our behavior. They may differ in what particular behaviors they expect. A Buddhist does not worship as a Muslim does, a Muslim does not pray to or for his ancestors as Shinto requires its followers to do. None of those faiths teach their practitioners to worship trees or the moon or stars as animists still do. But, at bottom, they all teach the necessity of human beings doing certain things for certain rewards that God will bestow on those he favors.

But not the Christian faith. It is an outlier among the world’s religions and philosophies of life. It is unique in the fundamental character of its message. True enough, it teaches us to behave in a certain way, and speaks of rewards for good behavior, but that behavior is the after-effect or the result of something else; it is everywhere our response to something that God has done for us. Only the Christian faith teaches that God himself has sought out his people, unworthy as they are, and made terrible sacrifices to redeem them from sin and death. Only the Christian faith teaches that the only people who can love God are those who know themselves to have been loved by God in the first place. Only the Christian faith concentrates so exclusively on a single person, the God-Man Jesus Christ who is not first a teacher, or even a Lord and Master, with authority to command and to judge our lives, but the Redeemer who gave himself for us, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God.

The other religions have teachers, to be sure: Buddha or Mohammed, for example, or, for that matter, Kant or Nietzsche, but none of them has a redeemer, none has an incarnation, none has a cross, none has an empty tomb, and none has a returning Lord and Savior. When Paul summarized his entire message he did so by saying that what he preached was “the word of the cross.” Paul apparently didn’t think the Bible could be summed up as Prof. Postman summed it up: as ethics, as a program of human behavior. For Paul theology came first, and Christology supremely. The ethics came later and found both their motivation and their unique character – for Christian ethics are also unique – as a grateful response to God’s mighty love.

If a person thinks that Christianity is about being good and doing good, then he or she has missed the point, the main point of the Bible. We are not good and we can’t do good, not without the dramatic intervention of God. That is the uniquely Christian understanding of both human life and religion. It is precisely Christianity’s distinctness that explains why, throughout history, there have been people in the Christian church who have staggered under the weight of that radical uniqueness and sought to turn Christianity into a more comfortable message about behavior, in other words, into a religion like all the others. That is always the direction infidelity takes in the Christian church – toward a religion like all the others. Christ becomes an example for us instead of our Redeemer.

So don’t let anyone including a philosophy of religion professor at the university tell you that Christianity is simply one more example of man’s search for God. It has none of the marks of such man-made religion. It is in its fundamental, its essential message utterly unique and utterly unpredictable. It runs against the grain of all human religious thought. The Bible is not an account of man’s search for God! It is an account of God’s search for man!  

Now, what is of the greatest interest is that the Gospels tell the tale of men who were utterly unprepared for what happened, who did not expect and, at first, could not believe that events had unfolded as they had. They had been told that Jesus would die and rise again, but they hadn’t believed it, even on the Lord’s own lips. Why? Precisely because it wasn’t the predictable, boilerplate religious message they were used to. They were mesmerized by the Lord’s miracles and inspired by his teaching, but they were not prepared to believe that their salvation, that any possibility of their becoming truly good, absolutely depended upon the death of the God-Man, who had come to suffer in their place the penalty their sins deserved. Still less did they expect their friend, once he had been so cruelly put to death on Friday, to be alive again the following Sunday.

No one was expecting this. No one would ever have invented this. It was counter-intuitive in the most profound way. It was not the way men thought; nor is it the way people think today. It is not what they believe. The events upon which the Christian faith is founded startled and shocked everyone. God coming into the world to suffer and die for his people? There was no preparation for this in any other religion and no expectation of it whatsoever in the Judaism of the first century, no matter how clearly Isaiah had prophesied the coming of God’s suffering servant who would be punished in the place and for the sake of God’s people.

Near the end of the 19th century, the German theologian and historian Adolf von Harnack wrote in his influential book, What is Christianity? that the Christian message reduced to two parts: the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Harnack, was wrong on both counts. The Bible doesn’t teach that God is the father of every human being; he is only the father of those who come to him through faith in Jesus Christ, a point made very explicitly in the Bible. Nor does the Bible teach a universal brotherhood of man. There is in the Bible a universal neighborhood, all men are our neighbors, but no universal brotherhood. The only true brothers and sisters in mankind are the children of God, introduced to his family through faith in Jesus Christ.

But, quite apart from the fact that the Bible obviously and emphatically doesn’t teach what Harnack said it did, who could possibly have thought that such a religious commonplace, such a conscience-quieting message could conceivably be the message of a religion that had at its center the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of the Maker of heaven and earth? Who would ever have thought to call a message about the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man good news, the term everywhere used in the Bible to describe its message? Good news, the gospel is the sort of news one shouts from the housetops and is willing to risk every peril to take to the ends of the earth because it is news everyone needs to hear. But who would ever think to describe the message taught by most religions and philosophies good news? If that had been the Christian message – the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man – who would have thought to say, “The people sitting in darkness have seen a great light?” If that had been what people learned when Christ came among them, would they have fallen at his feet for joy or run to tell others what they had seen and heard?

Can we imagine someone breathlessly telling his friend, “I have found the truth and it is this: if we are nice to people God will approve of us! Hallelujah!” That is what everyone already thought and what today almost everyone still thinks. They didn’t need and don’t need today a prophet to tell them that. And it would occur to no one to “rejoice and be exceeding glad” to hear that! Indeed, if Jesus had preached that message, why the controversy? Why the outrage? Why the plot to kill him? As Archbishop William Temple, the stoutly evangelical Anglican archbishop of the mid-20th century once put it: “Why anyone would have troubled to crucify the Christ of liberal Protestantism [– that is the Christ of Adolph von Harnack and his ilk –] has always been a mystery.” [Readings in St. John’s Gospel, xxiv]

But, then, that is not at all what we find in the Gospels or, for that matter, anywhere in the Bible. What we find is God himself, the Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, making himself known to certain ones among his creatures. We find God himself visiting the world, being born to a virgin mother, growing up in obscurity, exploding on the scene as a thirty year old man, turning the country upside down with his works of power, electrifying the people with teaching they had never heard the like of before, and finally provoking a confrontation with the religious leadership and being put to death – precisely as he had predicted – and then, again as he had predicted, appearing alive again a few days later, appearing to his disciples and explaining to them all that they had failed to understand before about him, about the salvation of sinners, and the meaning of human life. No wonder then that the dispirited men, uneducated for the most part, without title or reputation or influence, who huddled in fear of the authorities that Friday night and Saturday, took Jerusalem by storm a few weeks later proclaiming in Christ the resurrection of the dead.

That is good news! You can live forever. You can live after you die even though your life is a moral affront to the one who is going to judge you at the last. You can live forever as a human being but without the moral defects that dog your every step in this world. You can live in the very presence of God, which will bathe all your life forever in a warmth of peace, love, and joy. You can live such a perfect human life forever even though you are now dead in your transgressions and sins. All because of what Christ did for you when you were helpless and hopeless. I say, that is good news!

And that it was this that happened and this that the apostles proclaimed is both explained and proved by the fact that even they were not expecting anything remotely so wonderful. So little were they expecting this, that when the women came to report to them that the tomb was empty, it still didn’t occur to them that Jesus had risen from the dead, no matter how many times he had told them he would do precisely that! That is how far removed from their expectation the resurrection was! That is how little they were thinking of what was to become the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ!

It is this extraordinary character of our Christian faith that is both its burden and its glory. It is its glory because there is something here that is surpassingly wonderful, that is truly good news, indeed, the greatest conceivable news. It is not the insipid, banal, uninteresting fluff that people imagine religion to be, which is why most people would live pretty much the same lives if they abandoned their religion or took up another one. The Christian message is inspiring, thrilling, heart-rending, life-changing, and exquisitely beautiful! That is its glory.

But its burden is that this message must be controversial. For the same reasons that the disciples themselves, who had lived with Jesus for three years, who had witnessed his miracles, who had heard all his sermons, not once but many times, couldn’t themselves believe it, the world has struggled to believe it as well. God becoming man, dying on the cross, rising from the dead, summoning all men to believe in him and in no other, requiring of all human beings a radical readjustment of their entire outlook on themselves and on life, I say, this was always going to be a hard sell. Paul would later describe the Christian message as foolishness to the Gentiles and a scandal to the Jews. There is something in everyone’s worldview that makes them profoundly skeptical of the Christian proclamation! It is like nothing they have ever themselves experienced. It requires a radically negative judgment to be passed upon themselves as helpless sinners. Human pride is greatly offended by this message. It requires the surrender of their independence and absolute submission to God, come wind, come weather. It summons them to a life of love whose obligations far surpass anything anyone else would require of them. It requires them to part company with those who will not confess Jesus as Lord and to make common cause with Christians, Christians who aren’t, let the truth be told, always the most attractive people. As someone observed, “Christians are an acquired taste.” No wonder there are so many non-Christians in the world!

But then, among the great of this world and the lowliest of men, among the learned and the illiterate, among the old and the young, among people of every tongue, tribe, and nation on the face of the earth, there have been those, multitudes of those who, by the grace of God and the working of the Spirit of God, came to understand that Jesus really is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that no one can come to the Father except through him. And who turn to Jesus Christ and say, as the disciples did, “You, O Lord, have the words of eternal life, and we are sure that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Deep within every human being is the recognition of his or her profound moral fault. That’s why human beings are as defensive under criticism as they are, we all are.  Deep within is also a sense of eternity. C.S. Lewis said that before he became a Christian he used to try to feel as if his life, his own existence as a human being, his own personality would simply disappear, be extinguished at death. He thought that he should think this way, if that is what he believed, but try as he might, he could not succeed. We read in Ecclesiastes that God has placed eternity in our hearts. We do and must have a sense of eternity as those created in the image of an eternal God. Add those facts together and only the Christian faith, only the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, can possibly address the great need of human life or fulfill the great longings of the human heart.

That is why Christianity is not like other religions; it is far more radical because it addresses the real problems of human life: sin and death, or, in other words, alienation from a holy God. Only God could bridge the distance that separates sinful man from him and that is what he did. And to do it required the most startling, the most shocking, the most amazing things. No “be nice to people” here. No predictable banalities here. Take a long hard look at the great canyon, so deep and so wide, that separates you from God because of your sin and his holiness. Far too great a distance from one side to the other for you ever to make it across by your own effort. But you must get across for on your side a consuming fire is sweeping toward the canyon edge, where you stand; it is growing closer to you by the day. To remain on this side is certain death; but life, life with a capital L, beckons from the other side. Does it merely mock us in our helplessness? What can we do? Where can we turn? Listen to this from Charles Spurgeon:

“Ah! The bridge of grace will bear your weight, brother. Thousands of big sinners have gone across that bridge, yea, tens of thousands have gone over it. I can hear their trampings now as they traverse the great arches of the bridge of salvation. They come by their thousands, by their myriads; e’er since the day when Christ first entered his glory, they come, and yet never a stone has sprung in that mighty bridge. Some have been the chief of sinners, and some have come at the very last of their days, but the arch has never yielded beneath their weight. I will go with them trusting to the same support; it will bear me over as it has borne them.”

You didn’t see it at first, you couldn’t see it; but there is a bridge across; the only possible way across. God must open your eyes to see it. Christ made it for his people to use in coming to him to find that abundant life that he gives to all who trust in him. That is astonishing, heart-breakingly good news!