Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mark 16:1-8 -- The Resurrection of Jesus

Audio available here

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson completed a book that had been many years in the making, with no intention of ever publishing it. Though he distributed a few copies to friends, this book was not published until long after his death. For many years, this book was given to incoming members of Congress. This book has come to be known as the “Jefferson Bible,” probably because the original title that Jefferson gave it was a bit cumbersome: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. Our forefathers were fond of lengthy and thorough book titles, and I believe we suffer for a lack of them. The Jefferson Bible was compiled from selected verses in all four Gospels and arranged in a chronological order. Jefferson also omitted many passages which he believed were later additions or exaggerations by the Gospel writers as well as those passages which contained supernatural elements. So, for instance, there are no angels, no fulfilled prophecies, no references to the Trinity, no indication of the deity of Jesus, and no miracles in the Jefferson Bible. And so it ends with these words:
61: Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. 62: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. 63: There laid they Jesus, 64: And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
That’s it. The End. Jefferson’s Bible ends with Jesus dead and buried. Thank God, our Bibles do not end there. Mark’s Gospel ends with Jesus dead, buried, and risen to life again! The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the climactic moment of all four Gospels, and the foundation of the rest of the New Testament and the Christian Church. And in our text today there are three important facts about the resurrection of Jesus that I want to bring to your attention today.

1. The resurrection of Jesus brings an end to human despair (vv1-4)

The three women mentioned in v1 did not set out that Sunday morning to witness the aftereffects of the greatest miracle in history. Rather, they had set out to complete the burial preparations that had been hastily begun by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus on Friday. As soon as the Sabbath restrictions were lifted, Mark tells us very early on the first day of the week (Sunday), they had gone to buy spices and came to the tomb. Imagine the disposition of their hearts as the approach the tomb. The one in whom they had placed all of their hopes is dead, having been brutally tortured. They are going to have to go in and view his dead body, not like we see them in the funeral home, but in its natural condition now on the third day. You will recall from the story of Lazarus that on the fourth day, it was said (in the old King James), “by this time he stinketh.”
But the concerns for what condition the body may be in by this time are all premature. Another factor will have to be addressed first: who will roll the stone away from the tomb? If the stone can’t be moved then they will have to go back home unable to complete their task. Not only is this Jesus whom they had loved and trusted in dead, but a massive stone separates them from Him and they have no idea how that stone might be moved for them.

In a sense, the situation these women find themselves in is not altogether different from the experiences of many human beings. It is a case of despair. Despair comes when all hopes are lost, when disappointments are all around, and when the obstacles in life seem too massive to overcome. Do you know anyone like that today? Anyone here like that? All of us have found ourselves in situations that appear hopeless. Everyone of us have tasted disappointment’s bitter waters. All of us have looked at massive stones in our lives that appear to be immovable. And let’s be honest – can any of us say that we have NEVER been disappointed by God? Haven’t you hoped and expected God to do one thing, and in actually it appears that He has done another, or else not done anything at all? Can any of say that we have NEVER felt isolated from God? Have you prayed and felt like a massive stone stood between you and Him? Maybe I am being too honest for some of you right now. You may not have known it, but we have a rule here: “No Perfect People Allowed.” So it’s ok for you to say that you know how despair feels.

But, notice what verse 4 says: “Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away.” LOOKING UP! Despair keeps us looking down at ourselves, our hurt feelings, our fears, our disappointments, and all the things that we can’t do anything about. But when we look up, when we pause in the midst of despair to consider that there is a GOD who can say that NOTHING is impossible for Him, then we are able overcome despair. What has you down today? Taxes? The economy? Your job, or your lack of one? Your marriage, your kids? Despair causes us to live like the God in whom we trust is dead. But God has overcome DEATH in the resurrection of Jesus, so I think He can probably handle your stuff and mine too. So, here’s what you do: think really hard about all the stuff that’s got you down; then say to God, “Lord, this stuff is so huge that I don’t really think you can handle it.” And then think about Jesus dying on the cross and being placed in that tomb and sealed with this massive stone. And then think about those women going there on Sunday morning and finding the tomb opened, and Jesus gone, and being told that He has risen from the dead. And then say, “Sorry, God. I forgot. You really can handle it.”

The resurrection of Jesus brings an end to human despair. And the most desperate circumstance human beings find themselves in is sin. Sin brings hopelessness, disappointment, and consequences that create obstacles in our lives. Because we are all sinners by nature and by choice, we are cut off from God. The Bible tells us this – our sins separate us from Him and bring death and the eternal separation of hell. Most people would just rather not think about it than to consider the hopelessness of standing before a holy God covered in the stains of our sins. But thanks be to God that the risen Lord Jesus Christ has conquered sin, AND death, AND hell for us, and brought an end to our despair. And this brings us to our next point …

II. The Resurrection of Jesus is a fundamental part of the Good News (v5-7)

It has been noted by many through the centuries that the moving of the stone was not necessary to let Jesus out so much as to let the witnesses in to see that He had risen. Entering into the tomb, the women did not find a corpse awaiting anointing but rather found a messenger with an announcement of Good News. Mark describes this messenger as a “young man … wearing a white robe.” While this is a rather vague description, Matthew tells us that he is an angel. And he tells them, “Do not be amazed.” That seems like a great understatement, doesn’t it? The person they expected to find dead is not there and an angel is instead. Oh no, nothing to be amazed about at all!
The word “angel,” actually means “messenger.” And this angel has a message to announce. In fact, it is not just any message; it is the most important message ever delivered containing the greatest news ever told. It is the Gospel message. Paul summarized the Gospel message in 1 Corinthians 15, saying, “I make known to you, brethren, the gospel … that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time….” If that is the Gospel, then notice that it is exactly what the heavenly messenger pronounces here.
· Paul: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”
o Angel: “Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified.”
· Paul: “and that He was buried”
o Angel: “Behold here is the place where they laid Him.”
· Paul: “and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”
o Angel: “He has risen; He is not here.”
· Paul: “and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (Cephas being another name for Peter)
o Angel: “Go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’”

So, you see that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a central element to the Gospel message, that proclaimed by the angel at the tomb, by the apostles, and by the orthodox followers of Christ ever since. One of the most popular scholars among a new wave of liberal Christianity today is Marcus Borg. Concerning him, the respected Bishop N. T. Wright has said, “Marcus Borg really does not believe Jesus Christ was bodily raised from the dead. But I know Marcus well: he loves Jesus and believes in him passionately.” So, if you will permit me to say so, the Jesus that Marcus Borg loves is a decomposed corpse today; a pile of ashes in the desert. This is not the Jesus of the New Testament. But Borg is, unfortunately, not alone. A few years ago, when a documentary was produced claiming to have found the bones of Jesus in a family tomb outside of Jerusalem, Jewish Rabbi Marc Gellman stated, “Some Christian respondents to this film have said that even discovering the bones of Jesus would not seriously undermine their faith. … I know many Christian clergy who have told me that the main truth of Christianity for them is to love as Jesus loved and that no archeological discovery can change that spiritual lesson.” Do you hear that? The Rabbi claims that many Christian CLERGY(!) believe the resurrection is unimportant to their faith in Christ! The Rabbi goes on to say about these clergy, “I love these folks but, as an outsider, I just don't agree that decisive refutation of Jesus' resurrection would have no effect on Christian faith. Unlike Judaism and Islam and Hinduism and even Buddhism, which are built on God's teachings, Christianity is built both on God's teachings as well as on an historical event proving a transcendental miracle.” This Rabbi, a self-professed outsider to Christianity, understands more so than the clergy he knows how central the resurrection of Jesus is to the Christian faith and the Gospel on which it is built.

To demonstrate just how central the resurrection is to the Gospel, notice what Paul says in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” And he also says in 1 Cor 15 that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching and your faith are vain and worthless and we are all still lost in our sins. Our fellow Christians who have died have perished, and the rest of us are to be pitied more than any other people. I would say that those statements make it pretty clear that the resurrection of Jesus is central to the Gospel message. In fact, if the Gospel is good news, then it requires the resurrection. Had the women come to the tomb only to find a corpse, there is no good news at all. But the fact that He had risen, as this messenger proclaims, means that God has kept His promises, Jesus has accomplished our redemption, and we can be saved from sin. That is not just good news; that is AMAZING news! And Paul says in Galatians 1:8, “even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed.” The Gospel of the risen Christ is the only Good News there is.

And we come now to the third point …

III. The Resurrection of Jesus demands a response (v8)

Any time there is a revelation of God’s truth, there is the expectation of a response. And typically that response is to be one of faith and obedience. If one does not believe the report, then one will not obey the report. And if one does not obey the report, then it indicates that one does not truly believe the report. So faith and obedience go hand-in-hand, as our old hymn says, “Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey.”

The women have been given a message to believe: Christ is risen. And they have been given a commission to obey: Go and tell. And their response is seen in verse 8. They went out and fled from the tomb. That is the right thing to do. They acted with swift haste. And then it says that they were gripped by trembling and astonishment. That is an appropriate reaction. To receive so great an announcement should astonish us cause us to tremble. In Isaiah 66:2, the Lord says, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word.” So far, so good. But then notice that verse 8 concludes with “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Uh-oh. This is no good! Instead of faith we find fear, and instead of going and telling, they are silent! This is a highly unusual way to end this passage, but even more unusual is that according to many ancient manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel, this is the way the entire story ends. You probably notice some indicator in your Bible that verses 9-20 are of questionable authenticity because they are not found in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. (I will discuss this on the Sunday following Easter, 2 weeks from today in our final message on Mark). This fear and silence seems like a very strange ending to a story that is supposed to be filled with good news.

We must remember however that there are two senses in which the Bible speaks of fear. First and most obvious is that normal sense we think of, like a dread or horror. But secondly is that very frequent kind of fear that is a sense of awe and reverence before the power and holiness of God. And in Mark’s Gospel, whenever there is a profound revelatory miracle, this kind of fear is usually the reaction of those who witness the miracle. For instance, in 4:41, when Jesus calmed the stormy sea, the disciples “became very much afraid.” In 5:33 the woman who had been healed of the blood disorder fell down before Jesus “fearing and trembling.” In 6:51, after seeing Jesus walking on the water, the disciples were “utterly astonished.” These are just a few of the many examples of this kind of response to God’s powerful acts of revelation throughout Mark’s Gospel. In addition to these, we would note that in each of the three times that Jesus clearly predicted His suffering, death, and resurrection, the disciples responded with fear and misunderstanding. So it should not surprise us that when the reality occurred, these women were confused, afraid, and dumbfounded into silence.
But here is the important thing to remember – they did not stay that way. In fact, from the other gospels we know that they did believe, and they did go and tell. The entire history of the Christian church is a testimony to the fact that these women told the story of the risen Jesus that they heard from the angel in the tomb, and that Peter and the twelve, and countless others since them have believed and told this story as well.

We preach Christ and Him crucified, and Him risen from the dead as a fact of history and as a miracle of God. This God accomplished for us and for our salvation. If we could travel back in time to that empty tomb so long ago, we would find ourselves in the same state as these women were in. We would fear the awesome holiness and power of God which has brought these things about. And that fear can paralyze us into unbelief and inaction, or it can lead us into faith and action. The choice is ours to make. Redemption has been accomplished through Christ’s death and resurrection. Forgiveness of sin and eternal life are offered to us as a free gift of God. This message has been proclaimed by His messengers coming down to us through the ages. And each of us has a choice to make. Will we believe? Will we go and tell?

In a week we will gather here in the sanctuary again and have a very special celebration for Resurrection Day. So between now and then, it is my hope that these words spoken today will be a foundation for meditation in our hearts. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. His resurrection brings an end to our despair. What worries, struggles, or situations have you feeling hopeless, fearful and desperate today? Do you believe that God who conquered DEATH in Jesus Christ can handle them? I believe He can, and I would challenge you even as I am challenging myself to put those things into the hands of our risen Lord. Ask Him to move the stone. Ask Him to lift your eyes to Him; rather than dwelling on the your inability to handle these things, consider His ability to do all things. Nothing, not even death, is impossible for our God.

And as you consider these words in the days to come, remember that our belief in the resurrection is not a fairy tale, nor is it an optional feature of Christianity. It is a historical event that actually happened. It is a central component of our Gospel. And the proclamation of that Gospel sets before us a decision – to believe it or not. Undoubtedly many if not a vast majority of those of us present here today have made the decision to believe in this risen Christ and to trust Him for our salvation. But perhaps others have not. We would welcome you to make that decision today as the Holy Spirit prompts your heart and convinces you of the truth of this message. And those of us who have received Christ are commissioned like those women at the tomb to go and tell. So who will you tell this week that Jesus is alive? Who will you tell that Jesus is waiting to meet them? Who will you tell that He lives to save them?

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