I don’t do 5:30 am. Although I had to, today. Easter Day began with a 7 am ‘sunrise service‘ at Bisley Clock Tower, the highest piece of land locally. It’s part of the National Shooting Centre, so what better place to celebrate the resurrection of the Non-Violent One?
We gathered to sing three traditional hymns that we couldn’t include in the later 10 am All Age Communion, all to the accompaniment of a melodica. During the hymn before my talk, I felt prompted to change what I was going to say. Working from Matthew 28:1-10, I spoke about the women, the angel and Jesus. The women are the first apostles – they are the first witnesses to the resurrection. Effectively, they are the apostles to the apostles. You would not have chosen women as witnesses in the first century if you wanted to be believed – this is a hint of the account’s veracity. And God is always choosing unlikely people as his witnesses.
As for the angel, I loved the piece where – after rolling away the stone, he sat on it. The very object that had contained the imperial seal of Rome. For the Resurrection shows God’s conquest of all powers and authorities. Whatever we see today in terms of opposition, the Resurrection guarantees that principalities and powers will be ‘sat on’!
And Jesus – whereas later I was to talk about meeting him, now I emphasised him going ahead. Not only is the risen Lord always with us, he also goes ahead of us. Wherever we have to go in our life’s journey, we can find that Jesus has gone ahead of us to meet us there.
From that service to Addlestone for an 8:30 am communion, singing our hymns to the backing of CDs ripped to a laptop. And then it was back to the church building at Knaphill, where our wonderfully creative all age worship team had devised a service featuring scents and spices, an earthquake sound effect, drama, dance and Noel Richards‘ recent Easter hymn ‘Because He Lives‘. Back in February you could email Noel for a free MP3 of the song – not sure if that offer is still available, but in case it is, the link is here.
By the end of the morning, I was exhausted. No stamina, me. I didn’t go to the united service in the evening. But it struck me that on the original Easter Day, at least two disciples moved from exhaustion to energy – right at the end of the day. I’m thinking of the Emmaus Road story. Cleopas and his companion are downcast, discouraged and without hope. But when they recognise the risen Jesus in the breaking of bread, they hurry back to Jerusalem from Emmaus, late at night – even though they have invited the stranger (Jesus) in, because it’s late and you shouldn’t be travelling. The Good News that Christ is risen gives new energy – may it do so to us, too.
If you want someone to find an object that’s missing … don’t ask me. Debbie will tell you I am constitutionally incapable of even seeing something that is right in front of my nose. It’s not about the strength of the prescription for my glasses, nor is it my jealousy that Debbie still (just about) doesn’t need specs, I simply don’t seem to notice detail.
And we come to Matthew 28 on Easter Day, with a word that frequently appears in the Greek but doesn’t always make it into modern English translations. That word is, ‘Behold’. Behold: look closely, look carefully, pay attention. The places into which Matthew inserts ‘Behold’ into his text give us a way into appreciating the Easter story. He wanted his original readers to sit up and take notice. And the Holy Spirit wants us to do the same, I’m sure.
The first ‘Behold’ is to behold the earthquake. ‘And behold there was a great/violent earthquake’ (verse 2). An earthquake would certainly make you pay attention. Given the few earthquakes and the relative weakness of them that occur in the UK, it’s something we know very little about. But watch video of people in the middle of a quake or take in news reports, and you’ll know that one thing you can’t do with an earthquake is ignore it. You must pay attention and do something about it.
Now Matthew has a thing about earthquakes. This isn’t the first mention of them in his Gospel. He has recorded an earthquake that happened at the time of the crucifixion, and when Jesus is prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem (and possibly his own Second Coming, too) he speaks of earthquakes as being a sign of ‘the end’.
Put this together and you see the earthquake on Easter morning as God saying, wake up! Listen! I am doing something of world-shattering importance here! It’s not just a by-product of the angel rolling away the stone, it’s God grabbing our attention.
For on Easter morning, we are in the presence of power. God’s power. God at work powerfully in his world. Easter Day is not simply a happy ending after Good Friday: this is about the holy power of God at work. This is God at work in our world, and we stand in awe. The earthquake is there as a marker to say, never forget that God is at work in resurrection power in the world.
I came across a testimony from a man called Gary Habermas. He is a Professor of Philosophy whose lifetime calling is to promote the Christian faith by defending the historical truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. However, he lost his first wife, Debbie, to cancer when she was just 43. While she lay dying, he had an argument with God in prayer. He asked the Lord how he could let this happen, when he and Debbie had young children. If she died, how could he both follow his call into ministry and take care of the children?
He felt that God said to him, I’m not asking you to go through something that I myself haven’t. God reminded him that he watched his only begotten Son die on the Cross at a relatively young age. He promised Gary Habermas that he would be with him every inch of the way. And when Professor Habermas complained, saying, what kind of world is this in which you allow a young mother to die?, he felt God say, This is a world in which I raise people from the dead.
Debbie died. But this is a world in which God raised his Son from the dead, and one day he will do the same for us. Behold the earthquake, and the resurrection power of God that makes us stand in awe and live in hope.
On to the second ‘Behold’. It’s in the words of the angel when he says, ‘Come, see the place where he lay’ (verse 6). Or to give it its context, he says to the frightened women:
Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. (Verses 5b-6)
Behold the empty tomb is how you could paraphrase it. It is the first sign to encourage faith. The women will begin their journey to faith in the Risen Christ by witnessing the absence of his body from the tomb.
And, ultimately, there are no convincing explanations for the empty tomb other than the Resurrection. If the body had been stolen, someone could have produced it. If the body had been buried elsewhere, all you needed to do was go to that grave and – hey presto – end of the Jesus movement before it started.
It may not be proof, but it is evidence. The empty tomb is a sign that faith in the Risen Christ is not irrational. It has a basis in history. It may not be strictly scientific in one sense, namely that scientific experiments assume that you can repeat what has happened in order to verify the truth or prove it to be false. Here, though, we are dealing with the one and only example of someone being raised from the dead so far, and therefore it is not a scientifically repeatable experiment. But – it does come with circumstantial evidence from history.
So take a good look at the empty tomb. It means that all those ideas that faith means believing something you know not to be true are nonsense. After all, what is faith if not a matter of trust?
Think of it this way. When two people marry, they do not know everything about each other – and they never will! My sister once told me that her decision to marry her husband meant entering into a lifelong process of trying to understand this mysterious male person, whom she knew she would never completely come to terms with! But when people marry, I think it’s reasonable to assume they have come to a point of trust: they have experienced enough of the one they love to know that they can be trusted.
I suggest to you that Christian faith is a little bit like that. God doesn’t give us overwhelming, incontrovertible proofs of his existence, because if he did then there would be no room left in the relationship for trust, and that would diminish any hope of love. But here as we behold the empty tomb, we get that first sign that God says, “I keep my word. Won’t you trust me?”
This Easter Day, then, let your mind be reassured that what we believe is no falsehood, but based in truth. Let the evidence of the empty tomb witness to the possibility of trusting Christ.
However, you can’t stop there. It doesn’t fall into place finally for the women until the third ‘Behold’. In verse 7, the angel instructs the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is risen and that he is going ahead of them to Galilee to meet them there. This instruction ends with the words, ‘This is my message for you’ (NRSV) or ‘Now I have told you’ (TNIV). But what it actually says is, ‘Behold, I have told you.’
So the third ‘behold’ is to take the angel’s words seriously and meet Jesus. And – lo and, er, behold – Jesus meets the women as they run away from the tomb. Beholding the earthquake can make you realise that God is at work. Beholding the empty tomb can put you on the journey of trust. But until you behold Jesus and it becomes personal, it’s not real faith.
You can be convinced that Christianity is true, you can be convinced that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world, but unless it becomes personal between you and Jesus it counts for nothing. It has to go from theory to commitment.
I used to work with a lady called Doreen. Her best friend was a Christian, who used to invite her regularly to church. Doreen became inquisitive and spent many Sundays in church. One weekend, she and her friend came to hear me preach. They gave me a lift. In the car on the way back, Doreen spoke wistfully about faith. Her friend said, “I hope one day it will become an affair of the heart.”
Well, one I came back from some sick leave to find that Doreen had been reading a book I had thought of lending to her but never had. What a mistake. Her friend had lent it to her, Doreen had read the story it told of a man who found faith in Christ, and she had made her own decision to follow Christ. Her friend’s prayer had been answered: now it was an affair of the heart. Doreen ‘beheld Jesus’.
And I plug this theme, because quite often in our churches I find people who are devoutly committed to church work, who are deeply religious, and yet who have never met Jesus. They are often ‘pillars of the church’ and we would miss their efforts when they move or die, but actually they are all about doing things and very little about prayer, Bible study and deep fellowship. Why? Because they haven’t discovered that the essence of Christianity is actually about relationship with Christ, and that everything spiritually healthy flows from that relationship.
So what to do? Well, note how in the reading the risen Jesus seems to appear out of nowhere to meet the women. Well, just as he ‘suddenly … met them’ (verse 9), so he is ready to do exactly the same today. We don’t have to go seeking him: because he is risen, he is present.
And so he is here now, greeting us by his Spirit, waiting for each of us to say ‘yes’ to him. Yes to his forgiving love. Yes to enjoying his company. Yes to following him. Yes to living for him in gratitude for his love, rather than out of duty.
We’ve beheld the earthquake and known that God is at work in our world. We’ve beheld the empty tomb to know that God gives us reason to trust him and his word. Will we also behold Jesus, give him our ‘yes’