It’s been a busy week, so in order to keep myself moving I started consuming more sugar than usual. I have so much sugar in me that I haven’t slept since Tuesday – and I feel great. If you were here for the Easter egg hunt yesterday and enjoyed that nice, sweet lemonade, it was totally unsweet until I put my fingers in it. So if you enjoyed that lemonade yesterday, you’re welcome.
I enjoy the pictures that can be seen as more than one object. You know the kind – one person sees an object or person, and another person sees something different. These types of pictures reveal more about the observer than the picture itself, so they become a Rorschach test.
What do you see when you look at a picture of the empty tomb? The empty tomb becomes a Rorschach test as well, because what one sees reveals much about them. Do we see nothing more than an empty hole in the ground or do we see the place from which Jesus rose from the dead?
Our Scripture passage this morning, not surprisingly, is the resurrection story. We will read Matthew’s version – Matthew 28:1-10 –
1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.
10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
I like the last phrase of that passage – there they will see me. I like that phrase because it can be understood in more than one way, just like a picture of the empty tomb. When Jesus says they will see me it refers to more than just their ability to physically see him, but really stands as a way of placing a challenge to all of humanity, for all time – can all those who come after see him as well?
For the next few minutes I want to take the three great affirmations of the Christian faith and apply them to what we see about the empty tomb, and they are the affirmations that Paul makes in that famous chapter from I Corinthians 13, verse 13 – now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. These are what allow us to see Jesus.
I get a lot of emails, like most of you, and the other day one came into my inbox that had links to many articles about Easter. All of them were written from the point of view of faith except for one, which was titled Why No One Should Believe In the Resurrection of Jesus. The subtitle was Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence. I’m not sure how that article managed to get in with the others.
I didn’t read past the title and subtitle of the article. I didn’t read any further because I’ve read a lot of writing from that perspective over the years. I’ve read all of the claims of unbelief and all of the reasons why we should not have faith, and here is my basic response to the claim that Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence – no they don’t, at least not when the claims have to do with matters of faith. It’s called faith for a reason!
I think I have taken the time to consider the evidence from both sides of the faith equation and, obviously, I come down firmly on the side of faith. But it’s not because I’ve been convinced by overwhelming evidence or because I haven’t asked enough questions. I’ve asked a lot of questions over the years. I also get asked a lot of questions, and as I’ve aged here is a determination I have come to – I have fewer questions now to ask and the ones I do ask I don’t worry about as much. I don’t know what the latest upset in the Middle East means in light of the book of Revelation, and I’m not sure anyone else does either. I don’t know how detailed God’s plan is for each person’s life. I don’t know why bad things sometimes happen to good people and why good things sometimes happen to bad people. I have my theories, but I don’t know. What I do is accept a couple of basic truths – God exists, God loves us, and God demonstrated that love in Jesus.
I don’t wander around worrying, wow, I don’t have many answers. I believe I have the answers I need, and the rest I’ll take on faith. In fact, when someone tells me, as the author of that article wants to do, that I need to present some extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claims of faith, it only makes my faith stronger. I have considered the alternative to faith and I have stayed with faith. In fact, the more I have considered the alternatives to faith, the stronger I have become in my faith. Though I don’t have the answer to every question, I will always choose faith.
I visit a lot of hospitals, and sometimes, as I visit, someone in another room or another part of the hospital will find out I’m a minister and ask me to pray with them. At one hospital, some months ago, in the short distance from the entrance of a hallway to a nurse’s station, five people stopped me and asked me to pray for them. The other day someone stopped me at a hospital and asked me to pray with them. Interestingly, they did not ask me to pray for healing. Most people would assume that a prayer for healing would be the most common prayer in a hospital, but that has not been my experience. The most common prayer I am asked to offer in a hospital is to help find a sense of hope.
In visiting hospitals, sometimes you also see extraordinary things happen. And maybe extraordinary things happen because it is in places like hospitals that people are so desperately searching for hope, which allows them to be open in a greater way to God’s moving in their lives. Some months ago, as I visited with a patient in the hospital, I was standing at the foot of the bed, and in the middle of our conversation they pointed at the chair next to me and said, very calmly and matter of factly, Jesus is sitting in that chair. You might be surprised at how often those kinds of experiences happen in hospitals. And I know there are those who will offer scientific explanations for those events. Tanya recently recorded a segment of the Dr. Oz show for me, in which he offers all the scientific explanations for near-death experiences, but here is the truth, as I have experienced it – there is so much more to us, to life, to the universe than what can be explained by science. We are spiritual beings, not just flesh and blood, and we are people who possess souls and those souls need something and the something they need is hope.
We hear more and more these days about the loss of faith in our culture. I don’t know how much that is true, but if it is I can’t help but wonder about the connection between a loss of faith in our culture and the rise of addiction and the terrible toll is has, and is, taking on so many lives. If faith is diminishing, even in small ways, that means, I believe, that hope is diminishing with it, and what can you offer if you have no hope? As people lose hope they begin to self-medicate, as a way of coping with a loss of hope.
There are so many people who need hope. The resurrection brought hope to the disciples. They did not expect to find life in that tomb. They did not expect to find the tomb empty. Even though Jesus told them he would rise after three days it was beyond their comprehension such a miracle could be possible. When hope came to them, everything changed. Hope always changes everything.
The gospel is a message of hope!
I am often amused at the productions we do here. I want to clarify the way in which I am using the word amused. I think they are great productions – Christmas, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Easter, and other times. But if you could experience things behind the scenes, you would get an idea of what I mean. Things never go as planned, but here’s what else I think. That’s okay. In fact, that’s more than okay, and with apologies to Jane, Tanya, David, and all the others who work so hard on those productions – it’s okay if things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes, I think, we seek to make church too perfect. Church should be reflective of life, and life is chaotic. Life is disorderly. Life is messy. And when life is all of those things – and more – we attempt to bring order and control into life. We seek to control people, we seek to control events, we seek to control worship, and we even seek to control God. Stop trying to control things. Let go. When we are trying to control every facet of our lives and the lives of others there’s very little room for allowing God to move in our lives. It’s scary to let go, but if we can’t let go there is little or no room for love.
It is under the affirmation of love that our question of what do you see really comes to us. I believe, as Paul says – that the greatest of these three affirmations of faith, hope, and love – is love. And that is what I see when I look at the empty tomb. The empty tomb is the evidence – the great evidence – of God’s love. And without God I don’t believe love can really exist, because love is a spiritual experience and proves that we are spiritual beings.
No one reduces life simply to the level of what can be tested in a laboratory. Everyone recognizes that life is much more than the sum of its physical parts; it also includes the metaphysical components, and the ultimate evidence of this is our recognition of the existence of love. To me, the ultimate evidence of transcendence, and thus faith, is that of love. In a universe without faith, love cannot exist, because love is a transcendent quality, something that takes place in the brain but possesses a quality that takes us into the realm beyond, into the spiritual. If God did not exist, if faith did not exist, what we call love would amount to little more than a feeling of pleasure generated by some chemicals in the brain and neural activity or, perhaps, biological determinism. Love is a transcendent, spiritual quality, and it is one that points to something equally transcendent that is the underlying force of our universe, and I believe that is God.
Mother Teresa said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread. All of us long for love and, I believe, faith and hope as well. These – faith, hope, and love – are the gives that come to us because of the empty tomb. That’s what I see in the empty tomb.
What do you see in the empty tomb?