I will never forget walking into the funeral home several years ago to meet with the family who had just lost a 40-year-old son and husband. He was not dressed in a typical suit, but a pair of bib overhauls and a dirty ball cap. He had died of a heart attack, but in the pocket of his overhauls was a pack of Camels cigarettes, and in his hand was a can of Mountain Dew. The family explained that these were his loves. He smoked three packs of camels a day and drank a half case of Mountain Dew. That was about all they could tell me about his life, and they wanted the service to be brief without anything religious. As I was leaving, the funeral director pulled me aside and said, “Now, Rod, the family has requested that when you are through speaking that, instead of the usual hymns at the end of the service, we play ‘Wipe Out’” (a rock and roll song from the 60’s). Actually, it was quite appropriate.
I was reminded of that service recently when I read about a company called “Whitelight” which specializes in customized funerals. You can get an “art casket” for those who want to be caught dead in something unique. The idea is that you get your choice of mural by a famous artist. Golfers can choose the “Fairway to Heaven” model. Others choose a beach scene or a view of the New York skyline. They even have a model which says in bold red letters: “Return to Sender.” I suppose you could have that song from the 60’s as well. It is all about having a personalized funeral which makes a “final statement.”
Actually, this is not too different from the way it was many centuries ago in Egypt. The pyramids were elaborate tombs which made a final statement about the person inside. The walls were covered with art and writing, telling of the accomplishments of the person. Personal items surrounded the mummified remains, and valuable articles of gold were stored in the tombs. It all told the story about the person.
The tomb of Jesus also told a story. But it was not what was inside his tomb that told the story, it was what was NOT in his tomb. There was nothing there. The tomb is empty — and that tells it all. The angel said to the women at the tomb, The bones of the Buddha are on display. The tombs of world leaders are full of the remains of death. But the tomb of Jesus is empty because he is not there. He has risen — just as he said. On a dreary little patch of land called Judea, God appeared. He lived and taught and loved, and they killed him. It was the worst kind of death ever devised by the human mind. And before that they hung him on the cross, they beat him and stripped the flesh from his back with glass embedded whips. Bludgeoned and bleeding he hung on the cross in terrifying pain. But through it all he thought of his mother, his disciples — and he even thought of you. I believe that during that time Jesus did something that only God could do. I believe your name crossed his mind in those moments. Your face flashed before his eyes. Your sins were washed away as he said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). And then it happened. With an agonizing scream he gave up his spirit and died. After his lifeless form hung there for a time they took him down and put him into a borrowed tomb. Friday passed. Saturday passed. And when Sunday morning came, his disciples arrived to find an empty tomb. The stone was rolled away. But it was not rolled away to let Jesus out — he had left the tomb before they came — the stone was rolled away to let the disciples in. They had to see what God had done. God had to show them something that would change them forever and tell them something that would change the world forever.
What was God telling them? I believe Easter tells us many things, but it first tells us that: What God does is eternal — We are surprised by significance. A lot of theories about life and death floated about in those days. Some believed that when a person died that was it. Life was over and everything ended. Soon even the memory of the person would be gone. Others believed in a sort of shadowy underworld where spirits drifted about. Many others believed that those who died came back as an animal or another person. But what the resurrection of Jesus was saying to the people of the world was that life is eternal and we were meant to live forever in a glorified existence that is beyond anything we could imagine. Jesus stepped into time and opened eternity for us. He came to the world and offered us heaven. He came in a human body and rose as a spiritual body. Jesus said to his disciples: “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). This is the incredible message of Easter. What this means is that our lives have significance. We are important to God. Our lives are not lived merely strutting across the stage of life — we will live eternally. Our lives have meaning and purpose. God has a plan for our lives and calls us to live out that plan. Our lives mean something. We will not be “wiped out”; we will be raised up!
They say that when Winston Churchill planned his funeral to take place in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he wanted to have the great hymns of the church and the elegant Anglican liturgy for the service. But one of his requests was very untraditional. He asked that a bugler be positioned high in the dome of Saint Paul’s, and after the benediction the sound of “Taps,” be played, which is the universal trumpet call indicating that day is over. But then he planned a dramatic twist. As soon as “Taps” was finished, another bugler, placed on the other side of the great dome, played “Reveille” — “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning.” The great message of Easter is that at the end of history, the last note will not be “Taps,” it will be “Reveille.” God will say, as the trumpets sound, “It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. It’ time to get up in the morning.” The Bible says, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53). What better news could there be? What could give our lives more significance?
In our culture we are so attached to this world, with all of its good things, that we think very little of eternity and value it even less. But eternity was very important in the mind of Jesus. It was so important that he said, “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter [eternal] life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire” (Matthew 18:8). Jesus taught us that eternity is everything.
Whenever God does something, it lasts forever. The life he gives is eternal life. Be sure not to miss it, for the Bible says, “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17). Paul wrote to the people of his day and said, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). This is the promise of Jesus himself, who said, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). This not only gives us hope, it gives us significance because it means we matter to God.
Dr. Gary Habermas is a professor of theology and the author of numerous books and articles. His friend, Lee Strobel, asked him about his thoughts concerning the resurrection of Christ, hoping to get some insights for a book he was writing. Habermas went into a reflective mood in which he referred to the death of his wife Debbie in 1995 of stomach cancer. This is how Strobel describes it: “‘I sat on our porch,’ [Habermas] began, looking off to the side at nothing in particular.... ‘My wife was upstairs dying. Except for a few weeks, she was home through it all. It was an awful time. This was the worst thing that could possibly happen.’ He turned and looked straight at me. ‘But do you know what was amazing? My students would call me... and say, “At a time like this, aren’t you glad about the Resurrection?” As sober as those circumstances were, I had to smile for two reasons. First, my students were trying to cheer me up with my own teaching. And second, it worked. As I would sit there, I’d picture Job, who went through all that terrible stuff and asked questions of God, but then God turned the tables and asked him a few questions. I knew if God were to come to me, I’d ask only one question: “Lord, why is Debbie up there in bed?” And I think God would respond by asking gently, “Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?” I’d say, “Come on, Lord, I’ve written seven books on that topic! Of course he was raised from the dead. But I want to know about Debbie!” I think he’d keep coming back to the same question — “Did I raise my Son from the dead?” — until I got his point: The Resurrection says that if Jesus was raised 2,000 years ago, there’s an answer to Debbie’s death in 1995. And do you know what? ...If the Resurrection would get me through that, it can get me through anything. It was good for A.D. 30, and it’s good for 1995; it’s good for 1998, and it’s good beyond that.... I believe that with all my heart. If there’s a resurrection, there’s a heaven. If Jesus was raised, Debbie was raised. And I will be someday, too. Then I’ll see them both.’”
The poet, Ida Norton Munson, wrote:
Because upon the first glad Easter day
The stone that sealed His tomb was rolled away,
So, through the deepening shadows of death’s night,
We see an open door... beyond it, light.
The second thing that Easter tells us is: What God does is impossible — We are surprised by power. We serve an all-powerful God for whom it is no problem to do what we consider impossible. He created the cosmos with one word. He holds it all together by his omnipotent hand. He gives everything and everyone life. He is a God of miracles. His supernatural power is displayed in every area of the world. The Bible says, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth....” (Acts 17:24). He lives beyond time and space and yet he visits us in time and enters our space. Raising someone from the dead is no more difficult than creating that life in the first place. If he can speak the world into existence, he can certainly say, “Arise! It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up. It’s time to get up in the morning.” If he can create something out of nothing, then he can transform something that was once living. Jesus said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
God is always doing what we think is impossible. When God shows up, a crowd of five thousand is fed with a small boy’s lunch of a few loaves and fish. A widow’s small coin becomes the greatest gift in the temple treasury. The smallest seed becomes the biggest tree. The kingdom of God is like a seed hidden in the ground or leaven hidden in the dough. What appears to be is not always what is. The ones who are first will be last and the last will be first. The one who serves is the one who leads. The greatest among us is the least among us. A crown of thorns becomes a crown of glory. The dead live.
I recently read a story about a cemetery in Hanover, Germany. In the cemetery there is a grave with huge slabs of granite and marble cemented together and fastened with heavy steel straps. The grave belongs to a woman who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, but in spite of her unbelief she took precautions just in case such an event might take place. She had it written in her will that her grave be made secure so that if there were a resurrection, God could not get to her. She even had her marker inscribed with the words: “This burial place must never be opened.” However, as time passed, a seed from a nearby tree, which had been covered over by the stone slabs, began to grow. Slowly it pushed up through the soil and out from beneath the slabs. As the trunk enlarged, the great slabs were gradually shifted so that the steel straps were torn from their sockets. A tiny seed had pushed aside the stones all by itself, exposing the grave. As surely as that tiny seed had the power to open the woman’s grave, God is able to raise her at the resurrection, and she will stand before him face to face — as will all those who lie in their graves.
Easter tells us that what God does is eternal, and we are surprised that our lives have significance. It tells us that God does the impossible, and we are surprised by his power. But, finally, Easter tells us that: What God does is unexpected — We are surprised by joy. Too many times in my life I thought I had God all figured out. I had him in a neat little box and I knew exactly what he was going to do. But just when I thought I had God figured out, he did something totally unexpected and burst out of the little box I had him in. Have you ever had that experience? I felt like Charlie Brown who said in a cartoon strip, “Just when I think I have all the answers, someone changes all the questions.” When the kings of Israel tried to build a temple for God to live in, he said: “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?’ says the Lord. ‘Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’” (Acts 7:49-50). Just when you think you have God dead and buried, he is going to raise up out of the box you have put him in and look you right in the eye. He always does the unexpected, and when he does, we are surprised by joy. God comes into our monotony, into our despair and hopelessness, and changes everything. Just when we think that nothing new will ever happen — God shows up. And when he does he brings his joy with him.
Ben Patterson, the dean of the chapel at Hope College, writes about a group of people who were surprised by joy: “Imagine the mystery and delight of not just hearing, but seeing the story of Jesus for the first time, almost as an eyewitness. That’s what happened to a primitive tribe in the jungles of East Asia, when missionaries showed them the Jesus film. Not only had these people never heard of Jesus, they had never seen a motion picture. Then, all at once, on one unforgettable evening, they saw it all — the gospel in their own language, visible and real. Imagine again how it felt to see this good man Jesus, who healed the sick and was adored by children, held without trial and beaten by jeering soldiers. As they watched this, the people came unglued. They stood up and began to shout at the cruel men on the screen, demanding that this outrage stop. When nothing happened, they attacked the missionary running the projector. Perhaps he was responsible for this injustice! He was forced to stop the film and explain that the story wasn’t over yet, that there was more. So they settled back onto the ground, holding their emotions in tenuous check. Then came the crucifixion. Again, the people could not hold back. They began to weep and wail with such loud grief that once again the film had to be stopped. The missionary again tried to calm them, explaining that the story still wasn’t over, that there was more. So they composed themselves and sat down to see what happened next. Then came the resurrection. Pandemonium broke out this time, but for a different reason. The gathering had spontaneously erupted into a party. The noise now was of jubilation, and it was deafening. The people were dancing and slapping each other on the back. Christ is risen indeed! Again the missionary had to shut off the projector. But this time he didn’t tell them to calm down and wait for what was next. All that was supposed to happen — in the story and in their lives — was happening.”
May the great surprise of Easter overtake us as well and fill us with joy.
Rodney J. Buchanan
April 23, 2000
Mulberry Street UMC
Mt. Vernon, OH
1 John 1:1-4
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).
Easter tells us that:
1. What God does is ________________________________ We are surprised by ________________________________ .
2. What God does is ________________________________ We are surprised by ________________________________ .
3. What God does is ________________________________ We are surprised by ________________________________ .
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION (Apr 23, 2000)
1. What are Easter’s surprises, and which is most meaningful to you?
2. Share your feelings about funerals.
3. What does the resurrection of Christ mean to you? What would the world feel like without this event?
4. Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. What does the promise of your resurrection mean to you?
5. Read Daniel 12:1-3. These verses tell us that the righteous and unrighteous will both be raised from the dead. What will this mean? Now read 2 Corinthians 5:10.
6. Read 1 Corinthians 15:51-53. The best you can, describe what this will be like. Why does this make a difference in our lives here and now?
7. Read Luke 1:37. How does this affect your attitude toward life?
8. Read John 11:21-43. What did Lazarus’ sisters expect from Jesus? What did they not expect? Did he meet or exceed their expectations?
9. What if you were brought up in a remote corner of the world with no instruction about God or eternal life; what would surprise you most as you heard the Christian message for the first time?
10. If you were God, how would you go about saving the world?