I was looking over Easter sermons this week, some from other pastors, some I have preached in the past. Sometimes, pastors have difficulty preaching on Easter Sunday. It’s hard to say why. As my friend Will Allen has said, it’s a pastor’s a super bowl. Is that it? Does the pressure settle in and get to us?
Some people advise me to “just tell the story.” They’re not wrong. I remember being a college student and visiting a seminary. We seniors who wanted to go into ministry did a tour of divinity schools in Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia. We got to hear what an actual professor told her students. This is what she said. “If you’re preaching on Easter, talk about Jesus’ resurrection. Don’t get cute or creative. Talk about the empty tomb.” Profound.
Resurrection is the background of every sermon a pastor preaches. Even on Ash Wednesday, when the mood is repentance, and Maundy Thursday when we talk about Judas betraying Jesus, and Good Friday when we focus on the cross; even those times are colored by the resurrection. On Easter Sunday, resurrection is the story. Jesus is alive. We are Easter people!
In 2009, National Geographic released a book entitled The Letter and the Scroll: What Archaeology Tells us about the Bible. Here’s an excerpt from the entry in that volume that addresses on Jesus’ tomb.
[Several] sites in present-day Jerusalem have been suggested for the tomb of Jesus. For believers, the power of the Gospel message lies not in the location of the tomb, but in the words the women heard that first Easter Sunday morning. He has risen; he is not here” (p.285).
How ironic! Bible scholars writing commentaries to help pastors prepare to preach say this about Easter Sunday: “Good luck, pastor. Preaching resurrection is really tough.” But, a secular production from National Geographic with no reason to promote Jesus gets it. We don’t need to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to see the tomb. The tomb is empty. He has risen from death. Jesus is alive.
This is our story, handed down from the very first disciples. In following Luke’s lead, we realize that it was in fact disciples who first knew of the resurrection and their initial reaction to the greatest news in history was to report it. Disciples were the first to know Jesus had been resurrected; not the 12; not Matthew or Thomas, Peter or Andrew, James or John, but other disciples. As we mentioned last week, Luke stresses that there was a community around Jesus and many of those followers were women. Luke mentions them by name.
There was Joanna, a woman of affluence. Her husband Chuza was King Herod’s household manager. When Pilate, the Roman governor examined Jesus, he sent Jesus off to Herod. Herod was the Jewish king, controlled by Rome. He was renowned for his decadence gorging on food, sex, and thrills. He wanted a miracle from Jesus and when Jesus refused to impress him, he sent Jesus back to merciless judgment of Pilate. In the entire story, no one seems farther from the truth than the self-indulgent Herod. Yet in Herod’s own household was a man married to a woman, Joanna, who was one of Jesus most faithful disciples. She was at the tomb.
With her was Mary Magdalene. Luke writes that she had been possessed by seven demons. Jesus exorcised them and she became a follower (8:2). Mark 16:9 corroborates Luke’s report of the seven demons. Extra biblical sources have tried to amplify Mary’s relationship with Jesus. The Bible simply says she was one of his closest disciples. John’s gospel reports on her encounter with the risen Lord. He received her worship, but told her not to hold him, but rather to go to the eleven, the male disciples, and tell what had happened and that the resurrected Jesus would be ascending to the Father.
Some of the other women and their relationships and exact identities are harder to piece together. Another woman called Mary, the wife of Cleophas, is mentioned in John 19:25. We also know from John that Jesus’ mother was at least at the cross.
Luke speaks of Susannah (chapter 8) and of Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses. This Mary is also mentioned by Mark in his gospel. Some Bible interpreters think she might have been Jesus’ aunt. There was a woman named Salome whom the Catholic Encyclopedia concludes was the mother of two of Jesus’ 12 disciples, James and John. There were many women disciples and very little has been said about them. Many were not named. But Luke points out that they provided the financial support for Jesus and the 12 needed (Luke 8:1-3). They were crucial to Jesus’ mission.
On Sunday morning, these women believed Jesus was dead. They went early to be prepared at first light to anoint his corpse. The angels they met at the tomb told them Jesus had been raised. They ran to tell the male disciples who thought it was a foolish tale reported by wishful-thinking women.
Is our claim that Jesus rose from the grave just that, wishful thinking? First Corinthians 1:21 says, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” Disillusioned, the male disciples couldn’t believe it when the female disciples rushed in and disturbed their solemn, defeated brooding.
But Luke tells us that though they thought it was an idle tale, Peter ran to the tomb to verify for himself. In spite of his tears and disbelief, he still checked out their story. We know what he found. Peter was amazed. The word got out, the resurrected Christ himself over 40 days visited over 500 of his followers, and the church was born.
Today millions in nearly every country on earth believe the truth – Jesus rose from the grave. However, many millions more do not. They do not believe the story of Easter because a human being can’t rise from death. They can’t bring themselves to believe in the power of God. Or, they could believe if they heard, but they have never heard. Or, they have heard the good news preached by oppressive, hateful people in overbearing churches that do not reflect God’s love. For numerous reasons, people don’t understand the reality and significance of the resurrection.
Do we? Jesus is alive! He has been raised from death, has ascended to be at the right hand of the Father until the final judgment. He is present among us in the form of the Holy Spirit. Do we believe?
In the past, right here at HillSong Church, the female witnesses were present. I don’t mean Susannah, Joanna, Salome, the different Mary’s and the rest. I mean in 2007, we baptized four women on Easter Sunday. In 2010, we baptized another young lady on Easter Sunday. And this year, 2019, we baptized two young ladies on Palm Sunday. By going to the waters of Baptism, these faithful girls and women repeated the testimony of those women who went to Jesus’ tomb on the first Easter Sunday. In going under the water, they testified that they knew they were dead in sin. But, because they know that Jesus rose, in Him, they have resurrection, life eternal. From the testimony of Biblical women, we hear that Jesus is alive. Do we believe?
From the testimony of baptized HillSong women, we hear the story of new life, eternal life that is had when one believes in Jesus, trusts in Jesus, serves in Jesus’ name, and follows Jesus’ lead in life. From the testimony shared by our sisters here, will we believe?
Rejoice in the story of resurrection. When you put your faith in Jesus, resurrection is not just his story, told Easter Sunday. It is your story. The angels sing songs of joy and laugh until they cry because they are so happy that you have trusted in Jesus.
From Psalm 8
1 O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!
2 Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength,
Because of Your enemies,
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.
Death is the silenced enemy. Easter is our testimony. Those women met two angels, learned of the resurrection, and went and told all that they had heard. Easter becomes Easter when you and I go out and do the same. We add our testimony to the story. Jesus is alive. We say it when we live with a cheerful disposition, even on bad days. Jesus is alive. We say it when we love people around us, even nonbelievers, even the mean ones. Jesus is alive. We confirm it when we forgive without condition, and we welcome people into our lives, even people we aren’t sure about. We welcome them because He welcomes them. Jesus is alive. We know it is true when we surrender to the Spirit of Resurrection, and the Holy Spirit takes hold of us.
This is a day of rejoicing and a day of telling. We say is with our attitude and with our words. So, join the women of the first Easter, go from here and tell all. Join the baptized. Say it loudly. Say it with unbridled joy. Jesus is alive.