Summary: The same joy that surprised the followers of Christ in the upper room that first Easter can bring us joy that is permanent, powerful, and plentiful.
Near the end of the nineteenth century a little church high on the cliffs at the entrance to the English Channel was destroyed by a hurricane. A few weeks later, a British Admiral came to ask the pastor if they intended to rebuild the church. The clergyman explained that they were a poor congregation and they couldn’t afford to rebuild. "Well," said the Admiral, "if you can’t rebuild, our seamen will do it for you. That spire is on all our charts and maps as the landmark by which our ships steer their course through the Channel."
On this Easter Sunday, 2001, I remind us that Easter is the landmark by which all other Christian doctrines sail. The spire of the cross and the hill of the empty tomb stand to this day in the chart of God’s Word as the confirmation of our faith. But, it was not so in the beginning. The night Jesus was arrested brought fear and sorrow to his followers.
After his Last Supper in Mary’s upper room, Jesus and all his disciples except Judas walked toward his favorite place of prayer, a private garden called Gethsemane. It was on the side of the Mount of Olives, among olive trees that were 1,000 years old then; and many of them still stand today. As they walked, Jesus said, "In a little while you shall not see me, and in a little while you shall see me." His disciples didn’t understand what he meant; so Jesus, knowing their thoughts, spoke the words of John 16:19-20. Let’s read that as one of my texts for today.
Now, keep your finger at John 16, but turn to Luke 24. The title of my Easter sermon, "Surprised by Joy," comes from Luke 24:41. It tells of the fulfillment of the verses I read from John. After Jesus appeared to some of his family members in Emmaus, they rushed back to Jerusalem to tell his disciples they had seen Jesus. While they were talking, Jesus appeared. He showed them the nail prints in his hands and feet and allowed them to handle him to see that he was not a ghost. Then, Luke 24:41 makes an unusual statement: It says, "they believed not for joy." Surprised by Joy!
You might think John 16 is an unusual text for an Easter sermon. It’s certainly not the usual sunrise-at-the-tomb setting. But, it contains all the elements of the Easter story and much more. Even though he had told them of his coming death and resurrection, when it happened it slipped up on them. Luke said, "They believed not for joy." That’s not unbelief, but disbelief. There’s a difference: Unbelief means they didn’t believe in Jesus, but they did! Disbelief means what was happening was so incredible, it was hard for them to accept it. Then, in the midst of their disbelief, they were surprised by joy - not just any joy, but the greatest degree of joy. They realized the "Easter Miracle," our children sang about last Sunday night. I want us to think again about the implications of Easter joy.
I. They Would Not See Him: His Death
In John 16:19, Jesus said in a little while they would not see him. Sometimes, when Jesus spoke of "a little while" or "soon" he spoke in the light of eternity. What is a little while for him is a long time for us mortals! Many of his predictions of things that would happen "soon" are references to the last days before he comes again. But, this time when he said, "in a little while" twice, he was speaking in earth-time! He said in a little while they would not see him. That was a reference to the very next day when he would be put to death and laid in a borrowed tomb.
That night, while he prayed in Gethsemane, Judas came with a band of temple soldiers and arrested him. He was hastily tried by Caiaphas and the Jewish Sanhedrin. Then, he was put in the dungeon prison beneath Caiaphas’ house and kept until the early morning when he was taken to Pilate. On our Holy Land trips we have visited the prison where Jesus was kept. I thought it was strange when our guide told us this was the place Jesus was kept in prison. The gospel accounts don’t mention his being in prison. However, I found that Isaiah 53:8 predicted that Messiah would be taken from prison and his judgment cut short because he got such a hasty trial.
About 9 o’clock the next morning Jesus was being put on the cross and by 3 PM he was dead. It usually took much longer to die by crucifixion, but it wasn’t the cross that killed Jesus. Men cannot kill God! While on the cross he commanded himself to die. The King James records him as saying, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." But, a better translation would be, "I command my spirit." Jesus had said no one would take his life; he would lay it down. And, he did just that when he commanded his spirit to leave his body. He voluntarily died to pay our sin debt.