The Easter Story
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
How many times have you heard the Easter story? I’m guessing most of you have heard it, off and on, all your lives. And that’s a good thing. One should never tire of hearing the incredible story of God’s grace and love … and the Easter story, along with the Christmas story, is the most well-known story of all.
But that can be a problem. Familiarity can numb the senses. After you’ve heard the story repeated for the umpteenth time, it can become routine, so that, if you’re not careful, you can miss the message altogether.
That said, let me borrow a slogan from an old Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial and invite you to “taste it again … for the very first time.” Luke tells the story this way:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn,
they and some others came to the tomb,
bringing the spices which they had prepared” (Luke 24:1).
“At early dawn” equates to sunrise, when the sun is just coming up, when there is just enough light to see by. Think of this, not only as the time of day, but as a symbol for something far greater.
In the Bible, light stands for revelation. This was the first act of creation: “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). To walk in the light is to be enlightened. To walk in darkness is to be ignorant, uninformed, out of touch, and oblivious to God’s presence.
More than once Jesus healed the blind. He gave them eyes to see the world around them and, more importantly, to behold the wonder of God’s love.
And so, what we have here in the opening words of the Easter story is a heads up: A miracle of unprecedented proportions is about to be revealed. Luke goes on to say, “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb….” (Luke 24:2).
This part of the story has always amazed me. What would the women have done if the stone had not been rolled away? The stone was far too heavy for them to move on their own. What were they thinking when they set out that morning?
But let’s not be too critical, for, like these women, we, too, often fail to plan ahead and be prepared for the complexities of life. An old adage says it best: “God takes care of fools and little children.” Truth to tell, God also takes care of responsible youth and adults, who also fail to plan ahead and come up short.
The good news is before the women ever got to the tomb, God had already prepared the way. The stone had been rolled away. The entrance to the tomb was open. We call this “prevenient grace” – how God knows our needs before we ask and looks out for us, even when we’re unaware that there may be trouble ahead.
Sometimes we recognize God’s providence and say thank you, and sometimes we don’t. Either way, God is faithful. God’s love is constant, day in and day out. Jesus put it this way,
“The Kingdom of God is as if a man should cast seed on the earth,
and should sleep and rise night and day,
and the seed should spring up and grow,
he doesn’t know how” (Mark 4:26-27).
But, going back to the Easter story, the story continues. The women who had come to the tomb early in the morning entered the tomb––but they “didn’t find the Lord Jesus’ body” (Luke 24:3).
As much as we may like to jump to conclusions here, this is not the climax of the story. The empty tomb itself is no proof of the resurrection. At this point, all the women know is that the body of Jesus is missing. Who could’ve moved it … and why? They don’t know. They’re perplexed and confused, that’s all. Meanwhile, the story goes on to say,
“While they were greatly perplexed about this,
behold, two men stood by them in dazzling clothing” (Luke 24:4).
The women are frightened. You would be, too. While artists picture angels as saintly, loveable figures with wings on their backs and halos over their heads, the Bible makes it clear: Angels are to be feared. They have the power to redeem or destroy. Angels are messengers, so that, when they speak, you’d better listen. And this is what the angels said:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5b).
Again, let’s not be too hard on the women. They were acting in faith. Their motives were pure. They were devoted to Jesus and going about the business of anointing his body. Where else would they have expected to find him, except in the tomb where he had been laid?
Again, it helps to read symbolically: Jesus is the way, the truth and the life; you can expect to find him where you are – in the midst of your daily activities – not stuck on some empty shelf or put away among the relics of the past.
Remember the song Johnny Lee made popular a few years ago? He sang, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Most of us can relate to that, one way or another. When it comes to matters of faith, we often fail to experience the peace and presence of the Lord because we relegate him to the sanctuary and exclude him from our everyday lives.
This is the point Wil Bailey made in his book, Four Cozy Walls. He criticized folks like us for separating church life from everyday life. He said we ought to deal head-on with the rough-and-tumble issues of the world on Sunday morning, then bring a faithful witness to the rough-and-tumble issues of life throughout the week. He said we need to be looking for Jesus in the faces and places where we work, as well as the faces and places where we worship.
Let’s think about that for just a moment.
• First, there are no holy places, as such. Churches, chapels, sanctuaries, temples are simply buildings built by human hands. They give us a place to meet, that’s all. Any place can be a holy place when we gather in the name of Jesus Christ, and we feel his presence and sing his praise.
Remember what Jesus said? He said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)
• Second, there are no holy men or women, as such. Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Pope Francis, the Dali Lama … they/we all bear the taint of original sin. Yet, we’re created in the image of God. Each of us has the potential of being holy and reflecting God’s love.
One of my favorite stories of the New Testament is where the woman who anointed Jesus with costly perfume. The host was incensed: How dare she barge in uninvited? And a sinner, at that! Yet, Jesus said, “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
• Third, there are no holy moments, as such. Somehow, we’ve forgotten this. We think of Sunday morning at eleven o’clock as a sacred hour, a holy moment in time – or 9:30, if you belong to Pleasant Grove!
Have you ever wondered why we worship on Sunday, rather than some other day of the week? After all, scripture says, “Keep the Sabbath holy …,” and we all know that the Sabbath began at sundown on Friday and continued through the next day. So, why do we worship on Sunday morning? It’s because that’s when the resurrection occurred, and we want the world to know that we are people of the resurrection.
Truth to tell, any moment of any day is holy when we dedicate it to the risen Christ.
Let’s move on. It’s at this point the angels proclaim the Good News: “He isn’t here, but is risen” (Luke 24:6).
Looking back, the whole course of civilization was changed by these seven simple words: “He isn’t here, but is risen” Look at the calendar and how we mark the days: Before Christ is B.C.; after Christ is A.D. – Anno Domini, the year of our Lord. That’s not all.
• Before Christ we lived by the legalism of the Old Testament – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
• Righteousness was a matter of keeping the law and avoiding transgressions.
• Forgiveness was conditional and based on prescribed steps of making atonement such as offering sacrifices and gifts.
• Salvation boiled down to a simple question: Am I good enough to go to heaven? Do my good works outweigh my sinfulness?
All this changed with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
• As for the Law, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).
• As for righteousness under the Law, Paul writes, “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-34).
• As for forgiveness, John writes, “If anyone sins, we have a Counselor with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous. And he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2)
• As for salvation, there is the thief on the cross, who said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).
The angels told the women, “He isn’t here, but is risen?” And, since that day, the world has never been the same.
The angels went on to say, “Remember what he told you… that “the Son of Man must be delivered up into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again?” (Luke 24:6-7). Luke says:
“They remembered his words,
returned from the tomb,
and told all these things to the eleven,
and to all the rest” (Luke 24:8-9).
This is where the story becomes deeply personal. It has to do with our response. A church banner says it best: “Someone once told you about Jesus; who have you told lately?”
The essence of the gospel is both proclamation and response. The Good News is proclaimed in scripture, sermon, song and sacrament. We hear it by the inspiration of the Spirit. And then it’s up to us to share it with others in the hope of bringing them into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.
I like the saying that goes, “The church is not a filling station where you go to fill up your tank, but a mission outpost where you receive your assignment for the coming week.”
Once the women heard the Good News of Jesus’ resurrection, they rushed back to the Upper Room to tell the others. Sadly, Luke says, “But their words seemed to them as an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
What we know is that the others will come to faith in time. They will believe in Jesus, not only as Lord, but Savior … Savior of their lives and Savior of the world. They will come to faith, if not now, sooner or later.
What we need to remember is that it’s not up to us to direct the outcome of our witness, only to offer it to others as an invitation of faith. To say, in the words of Jim Reeves,
“It is no secret what God can do,
what he’s done for others he’ll do for you.”
My daughter-in-law, Trina, leads a women’s Bible study in her church in Round Rock, Texas. Understand, Trina has no formal training in theology or the Bible. She does it because she has a passion for what she calls, “broken women,” women who have been abused and mistreated, and she wants to give them the hope she has found through faith in Jesus Christ.
A couple of weeks ago, she told us about a particular woman in her group who had been coming, off and on, for months. She’d come a week or two, then drop off the radar screen, then resurface for another few weeks. But, through it all, seeds of faith were growing in her heart and looking for a way to burst forth and bear fruit.
Sure enough, two weeks ago Trina told us that, if she didn’t back out at the last minute, this woman was going to make a profession of faith and be baptized. It may have taken months to get through to her, but, for Trina, it was worth the effort. Who knows what God has in store for this once broken woman now on the road of salvation?
Here’s the bottom line: Today is Easter Sunday. New life begins, as of now. Claim the gift of life in its fullest and share that gift graciously with others, to the glory of God in Christ. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.