Summary: A sermon prepared for "Easter" Sunday and compares the reasons folks came to the tomb where Jesus was laid to rest and our reasons for assembling to worship on the first day of the week.
MercyMe first released their hit song I Can Only Imagine in 1999. Since then, I’ve heard this song played numerous times at funerals as one imagines being in heaven and in the presence of God. The movie by the same name was released last month with much greater success than ever expected. While there are times we should lose ourselves in thoughts about heaven, this morning I want us to imagine being one of our Lord’s disciples in Jerusalem when He was crucified. What would we have done on that somber Friday as our Messiah was crucified? Well, we probably can get an indication from what we read in scripture. Comparing what is recorded in Matthew, Mark and John, we know there were many women who followed Jesus from Galilee looking on from afar that day. But, we also know that Mary the mother of Jesus was there as well as her sister whom we believe was Salome, the wife of Zebedee and the mother of James and John. And, Mary, the wife of Clopas, is most likely the mother of James the Less and Joses or Joseph. We also conclude from The Gospel According to John, chapter 19, that the disciple whom Jesus loved – John – was present. Before we remove ourselves from our imaginations of Golgotha that day, I want to draw our attention to an oft-neglected verse – Luke 23:49 – which reads: "But all His acquaintances, and the women who followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things." This is Luke’s only mention of Christ-followers at the cross. Luke uses this same Greek word for “acquaintances” one other time in this gospel – in Luke 2:44 – to distinguish folks from the relatives of Jesus. The word derives from the Greek verb meaning “to know” and refers to friends or those well-known by someone. While some have suggested this may have included some of the eleven, it is more likely that Luke would have used the terms “apostles” or “disciples” if they were indeed present. By the time we get to the cross, Jesus’ words of Matthew 26:31 and Mark 14:27 have been largely fulfilled: Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written:
‘I will strike the Shepherd,
And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ ” So, I imagine most of us would have avoided the crucifixion. But, this brings us to the rhetorical question that forms the title of our lesson this morning: “Why do we come to the tomb?” I hope you’ll open your Bibles and imagine with me for just a few minutes. I realize I am using the word “imagine” but, as always, we want you to be like the Bereans and search your Bibles daily to make sure I’ve told you the truth.
I wish we had the time to read all the accounts of how Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus hurriedly buried Jesus in the tomb before the Sabbath began that Friday evening. But, we will read the two verses that precede our text – Luke 23:55-56 – "And the women who had come with Him from Galilee followed after, and they observed the tomb and how His body was laid.
Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment." Let me mention two other important details about the burial. Both Matthew and Mark record that Joseph rolled a large stone across the door of the tomb. And, Matthew also writes that the Jewish leaders posted a guard the following day and sealed the tomb. Every detail raises the anticipation with which we read our text which begins on the first day of the week. With the Sabbath rest over, some of the women return to the tomb and they remain unnamed until verse 10. Notice verse 1 again: "Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared." These ladies didn’t go to the tomb to visit the risen Lord – they went to honor His body with spices. Since He was hastily buried, they wanted to make sure His body was anointed properly with fragrant oils and spices. Despite our Savior’s foretelling His death and resurrection, none of the women came to the tomb on this Sunday morning expecting to find anything except the body of Jesus. Why do we go to the cemetery? We go to pay our respects to the dead. Not too long ago, my grandson and I went 90 miles south of where we live to visit one of my dying cousins. And, while we were nearby, we went to the cemetery where so many of my relatives are buried. We went to pay our respects to my parents. My grandson had not been there since mom died in 2009 so it was fitting for us to pay our respects while we were there. As we notice the first application to our text – specifically with the women who came to the tomb, they came out of respect to the dead, but we come out of respect for the risen. In a few minutes, we will gather around the Lord’s Table to remember the death of God’s only beloved Son as we do every week. We do this – not because He remains in the tomb. No, we do this because of the resurrection and because we know He’s coming again! We recall that the two men in shining garments had reminded these women at the empty tomb of Jesus’ words about being crucified and rising again the third day. Verse 8: "And they remembered His words." I hope you still have your Bibles open to Luke 24 as we pick up our reading in verse 9: "Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them. But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened." When the apostles heard what the women had to say about the empty tomb, they thought it was nonsense and did not believe them. John’s account reveals that John and Peter raced to the tomb. Undoubtedly, Peter and John came to the tomb out of curiosity, but we come with confidence. The unbelief of the disciples cannot be emphasized enough. Both John and Mark tell of the risen Jesus appearing first to Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Let’s read from Mark 16:9-11 – "Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons. She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe." Despite what Jesus had already told them about His death, the disciples refused to believe He had risen from the dead – until they saw Him as Mary Magdalene did. We’ve talked about everyone who came to the tomb except one group other than the angels. Since none of us can really qualify as heavenly beings, we’ll skip over them to the one group we briefly mentioned earlier – the guards. In Matthew 27:65-66, we read how Pilate refused the request of the chief priests and Pharisees to secure the tomb. Rather, he instructed them to use their own guards – probably, Jewish temple guards – to secure the tomb. These men were commanded to go to the tomb. Listen to the words of Matthew 28:1-4 – "Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men." Matthew goes on in verses 11-15 to relate how these guards later told the chief priests what had happened and were bribed to invent a story that the disciples came and stole the body of Jesus. Now, here’s the application: While the guards were forced to come to the tomb, some of us are coerced to come to the tomb. I won’t ask for a show of hands but some of you – literally – would rather be somewhere else. You’re here because of parents or another family member. Or, maybe you’re here to keep up appearances – to make people think you’re good. Perhaps you’re here as a routine or habit but, after all is said and done, you really don’t believe in the tomb – empty or not. Everyone here this morning should fit into at least one of these categories – and, hopefully, the first two. I want to suggest one other possibility about the ladies who came to the tomb as well as Peter and John. To them, their teacher for the past three years was dead. Their Messiah – their hope for a better tomorrow – was dead. May I suggest that they had nowhere else to go. You may recall one of the saddest verses in the Bible – John 6:66 – "From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." Jesus then asked the twelve if they wanted to go away also. Now notice the response in verse 68: But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I believe those faithful disciples came to the tomb that first day of the week because they had nowhere else to go. But, to tell you the truth, the same is true for us – we have nowhere else to go if we desire eternal life. And, the other option is no choice at all!