HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Isaiah 53
GOSPEL LESSON Matthew 28:1-10
SERMON: “A Crib, a Cross and a Cave”
I have it on good authority that the story I am about to tell you is true. A United Methodist pastor was asked to conduct a graveside service for a member of his church. The only problem was, the cemetery was more than an hour and a half away from the church and the pastor wasn't feeling well. The funeral director offered to drive, so they traveled together.
By the time they arrived at the cemetery, the flu had invaded completely and the minister said he felt like the Chinese Army was having a pogo stick derby on his head and stomach. In spite of feeling feverish and sick, he made it through the service, but he was starting to look like most flu victims, like death warmed over. As they headed back home, the funeral director suggested the pastor stretch out in the back of the coach. He would pull the curtains closed and nobody would see him. The pastor thought it was a good idea and promptly fell asleep.
He awoke when the vehicle stopped. Taking a few minutes to fully awaken, he slowly sat up and drew the side curtain to see where he was. He was face to face with a gas station attendant, who was surprised and shocked to see a body in the back of the hearse staring back at him.
With all the color drained out of him and his eyes as wide as saucers, the gas pump flew into the air, and the attendant ran on shaky legs back into the gas station, while the funeral director tried to catch up to explain the whole situation.
I'm pretty sure that's how the women who came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning must have felt. They had to have run on shaky legs back to the disciples, their hearts pounding with both shock and excitement.1
The news on that first Easter morning was startling, and so powerful that it changed the world. This story actually begins in a crib. We all know that the empty cross is a symbol of Easter and that the empty tomb was discovered on that first Easter. That’s why over the years I’ve done children’s messages that featured empty eggs and hollowed out loaves of bread. But this story began 116 days ago when we celebrated the birth of the Christ child. When we were singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” we were preparing for today’s celebration. The manger-made-into crib wasn’t just about a miracle birth. It was the opening move in a series of events that brought us to the moment when we know we were right to sing, in Charles Wesley’s words, “Glory to the newborn King, Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled.” Martin Luther said, “Christ became what he was not – sin – in order that we might become what we were not – “the righteousness of God.
Without the crib, we never get to the cross. One of our Christmas Eve readings is always from Isaiah 9:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
Without the crib, we never get to the cross. And without the cross we never get to the empty tomb.
In a certain church marketing newsletter, called the Church's Advertising Network, a campaign has been developed to attract people to church during the season of Easter. In this public relations campaign, it is suggested that the cross be removed from the altar. According to the author, a survey has revealed that the cross is one of those symbols that the new generation of church goers considered too "churchy " One pastor interviewed for the campaign gave his whole hearted endorsement. "We are going to attempt to concentrate on the resurrection, and not the death of Jesus.
Easter without the cross. Rather an interesting thought. Is it possible to have resurrection without crucifixion? It distorts the entire gospel if crucifixion is separated from resurrection. The road to the empty tomb will always pass by a cross. The one who is raised from the dead is none other than the crucified God. Easter without a cross is a fraud.
What began in the crib was perfected on the cross, and what was perfected on the cross was validated in the empty cave.
Of course, we started with only the women’s testimony that the tomb was empty. Why am I convinced it is true? In part because the gospels record that the women were the first to see the empty tomb. Had the tomb not been empty and the gospel-writers just made up the story, they never would have had the women be the first witnesses. Remember we are talking about a highly patriarchal society, one in which the testimony of women was essentially legally meaningless.
Just because the tomb was empty doesn’t prove to some people that there was in fact a resurrection. What are the possibilities?
1. His enemies stole the body. If they had, and they never did claim to have done so, they would have produced the body to put an end to the talk of resurrection and the beginnings of our Christian faith.
2. His friends stole the body. Had they done so would they might have begun preaching the risen Lord, but they never would have continued it. A person may die for something they believe to be true, but rarely will a person die for something they know to be false. That all the disciples ultimately died proclaiming Christ risen from the dead tells us they did not steal the body.
3. Some have put for the theory that Jesus wasn’t actually dead, but just fainted when he was placed in the tomb. Don’t believe that science and faith are not compatible. Luke, the physician, tells us that when Jesus went to pray on the Mount of Olives, “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22:44) This suggests a condition called hematidrosis, a rare condition, usually brought on by extreme stress, in which a human literally sweats blood. With modern medicine, it can be treated, but at the time of Jesus’ passion, untreated, he was already a dying man.
There are more ‘proofs’ for the resurrection than I have time this morning to share. But the only possibility that cannot be disproved is that the tomb was empty and that God vindicated his sinless life and his sacrificial death by raising him from the dead. In a nutshell this is the Christian faith, that Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call the Christ, was uniquely the Son of God and Son of Man, that he paid the price for human sin through his suffering and sacrificial death and that the empty tomb testifies to his glorious resurrection.
Does that change our lives? Each one of us must answer that for ourselves. John’s gospel consistently urges us to choose the redemption won for us by Christ. If he is the Savior, how can we not listen to and apply to our daily living what he taught? If he is the risen Lord, who promised that through him we too shall have eternal life, then how can we not be filled with joy and gratitude?
Do you fear that Jesus may have died for others, but not for you? Remember, “Jesus didn’t die on the cross for the perfect. Jesus didn’t die for the ‘godly.’ He didn’t die for the good. If so, none of us would have a chance. Jesus died for the imperfect, ungodly sinners like all of us. The crib, the cross and the cave are empty, and the hope is for each and every one of us.”1
Thanks be to God. Let all God’s people say “Amen.”