“The Dawn of Faith”
Text: John 20:1-18
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Life is a series of triumphs and tragedies. Following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, reporters interviewed Senator John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut, and that’s what he said. “Life is a series of triumphs and tragedies!” I think we can all relate to that. We’ve known our share of grief and sorrow. This Easter morning, we ask, “Can triumph follow the tragedies of life?”
If we asked the Lord’s disciples that first Easter morning, “Can triumph follow tragedy?” the answer would have been a definite no! They were overwhelmed with a sense of tragedy. Much as many of us were as we walked out of this very sanctuary on Friday afternoon. Our Master had been crucified and buried in a tomb. None of those disciples were prepared to speak about hope and triumph. Neither they nor we can escape the tragedies and sorrows common to life after the fall. These burdens are extra heavy if we doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.
It was early and dark when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. The sun hadn’t yet risen, neither had faith begun to dawn in her heart. Vivid memories of that dark Friday had to have been still haunting the disciples—the black sky; the Lord upon the cross, bleeding, dying, his cry of agony piercing the darkened sky, his last shout; the soldier’s spear thrust in his side. Surely this nightmare had come to an end. There could not be more. But Mary saw in the distance that the stone had been taken away from the Lord’s resting place. She panicked. Someone had tampered with the Lord’s grave. She turned and ran back to tell Peter and John. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him”
In the midst of the tragic scenes of modern life, some people eye Christians with envy, believing that deeply religious people don’t have to face real grief. If that were the case, everyone would want to become a Christian. We couldn’t build churches large enough to accommodate all who would be drawn to Christ for a trouble-free life. But Christians are not immune to grief. Scripture says even “Jesus wept.” Our Lord knew the feeling of deep loss brought by tragedy. He knew the many obstacles to happiness throughout our lives.
There are gains in life and there are losses. It may be the loss of a beloved family pet that’s been part of the family for years. Maybe it’s gainful employment that’s hard to come by. Approaching the middle years of life alone. The loss of health and mobility. There are so many ways we can feel diminished. And for so many reasons, we feel a deep sense of loss.
And sometimes it feels like we register more losses in life than gains? Think about the Easter Gospel. Imagine those deep feelings shared by the Lord’s disciples before Easter dawned, before faith dawned in their hearts. We’re not strangers to those feelings. We’ve walked in the disciples’ shoes. Peter and John knew the feeling as they responded to Mary Magdalene’s sad report and they ran to the tomb to investigate. John loved Jesus with a love that carried him swiftly that morning and got him there first. And there he experienced triumph in the midst of tragedy, although he didn’t yet fully understand it.
There was a journal article several years ago that had a subtitle which read, “I’ve long since forgotten the Easter sermons!” It’s easy to get into the excitement of Easter on Easter morning, but how much do we forget about the joy of the resurrection once Easter’s over? Like the disciples who ran to the tomb, our excitement should always be to return to the wonder of what Christ accomplished as he conquered the grave. Return to the garden, to His tomb, watch and see, and then believe! Be lifted up this Easter Day! The stone was indeed rolled back from the tomb. And as John stooped to look inside he saw the grave clothes, but the remains of Jesus were gone. The disciple was baffled and all he could do was wonder why even now, they couldn’t allow his Lord to rest.
John’s sense of tragedy is compounded by the mysterious absence of the Lord’s body. The empty tomb is not actually the source of Easter faith, but it is a sign of hope rather than despair? The real source of the Easter faith is the actual, truly resurrected Lord, which Peter and John and Mary haven’t yet seen. But if you think about it, we who are bearers of life’s heavy burdens, can view the empty tomb as a reminder that a vacancy has occurred in the house of death. And with that realization comes the promise that other tombs one day will also yield up their bodies in the final resurrection. While the empty tomb can be a source of worry and fear and concern, as it was for those first disciples who witnessed it, it’s now a sign for us of the eternal life outside the tomb we have to look forward to.
The hope is in the message of the angels, who later appeared, and whose first words were a reference to the empty tomb? They exclaimed, “He is not here!” That’s part 1 of the angelic sermon that first Easter. And part 2 followed as they proclaimed, “He is risen!”
While John was standing there collecting his thoughts. While the first rays of the dawn of new faith were breaking within his grief-stricken heart, his friend Simon Peter comes and boldly walks right into the tomb. He looked around. The grave clothes, the linen wrappings belonging to the Lord’s body, were there. But that was all. The body of the Lord was gone. John entered the tomb a second time and saw the covering for the Lord’s head, neatly folded in a corner by itself, separate from the grave clothes. There was no sign of haste. Grave robbers wouldn’t be so neat. What did it mean? Mary Magdalene had exclaimed in frantic tears, “They have taken him away.” What if it wasn’t they, but He? Could Jesus himself have laid aside the garments of the grave as though He needed them no more? Could he have set aside the clothing of the dead? Could he have risen from the tomb? Could he be alive?
You have to wonder what was happening to these disciples as they pondered what they saw? John and Peter stood there for a moment, bewildered. Had they forgotten some things Jesus said that would make all this make sense? In Luke’s account of the resurrection, Peter saw and wondered. John relays his own thoughts and feelings. He’s standing in the Lord’s tomb. It’s empty. He sees the grave clothes, discarded because they were no longer needed. He sees the linen shroud, the headpiece, lying neatly to one side. And then, the text relates, “He saw and believed.” Suddenly, that heavy burden of grief was much lighter and easier to carry. He saw and believed! There came to his mind and heart the memory of the Lord’s faithful Word. John had forgotten. Grief forgets so many things, and John’s grief had made him forget. But, in that moment within the empty tomb, he remembered how Jesus had said so many times, “The Son of God will rise again!” That Word was true! Faith dawned in the disciple’s heart, and with faith, there also dawned a sense of triumph and victory!
Friends, especially you who bear heavy burdens of grief, and you, who feel a deep sense of loss, can you on this Easter Day “see and believe”? Can you stand next to John and Peter within the Lord’s empty tomb. Look around. Remember the Lord’s great Word and promise. He would rise from the grave. He said it plainly, and now so clearly, his Word is true. Behold, “He is risen!” You know that your Redeemer lives! Whatever has happened in your life, or is now happening, if the very foundations are shaking, even crumbling beneath you, not everything is lost. The Lord lives! You can tell him your griefs and sorrows and disappointments. The great enemies, sin and death, have fallen defeated before the glory of the risen Christ. And your troubles are not too great for him. Go to Him for comfort and help and direction in your life.
“Comfort one another with these words!” That was the encouragement for early Christians as they battled the odds of sorrow and tragedy. What strength, what comfort there is in these words of Paul. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. . . . Therefore encourage one another with these words.” These powerful resurrection words are the greatest balm for grief and sorrow this side of heaven! No vague or empty promises here, but solid answers and certain assurances. Later that first Easter, the Lord appeared and showed himself risen and alive to the disciples on the road and in the breaking of bread with them. He dispelled gloom and sadness. The Lord stood in the midst of the Twelve behind closed doors. Later he joined them in Galilee for breakfast along the seashore. The risen Lord stood in a crowd on one occasion and confirmed the faith of more than five hundred people. And this risen Lord stands behind all his words to help you in this hour of your life, this time of crisis or grief. You can experience great relief and help and comfort from him who says, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
I don’t know what’s waiting for you today outside these walls. Perhaps you’re living in a season of joy and triumph. But maybe it’s an empty house, full of loneliness, pain, and sadness. Whatever it is, the Lord goes with you. He’s there every step of the way. He who vanquished sin and conquered death is there with you. “He is risen!” Allow that glorious message to spark faith in your heart this Easter Day! Jesus lives! He lives to turn tragedy to triumph! Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus.