Empty: Thoughts On Resurrection
This week I'll be preaching a different sort of sermon.
The text that I'll be preaching from is John 20:1-18, which you can read by clicking here.
I realized something this week when I was talking to my son about why I believe in God. Yes. I do that.
It's a pastor thing, you wouldn't understand.
Here's what I realized. On Easter Sunday morning there will be probably 300 people in worship at my church---most who don't attend church all that regularly, and some not at all. Then there are my regulars, who would have been their regardless of the day, but are even more fully present because it's a Christian High Holy Day and all that.
Interestingly, they all fully expect me to read the Resurrection story from the Scripture and then expound on it, say a few hopeful things and then get them out the door in time to make their lunch reservations.
Then I started thinking about this...
Out of all of those people---the occasional, hardly ever and consistent---there are undoubtedly quite a few folks who secretly, and perhaps not so secretly, wonder if the Resurrection of Jesus Christ actually happened.
And because they also know that the Christian faith hinges upon the Resurrection of Jesus as a reality, they are probably aware that by wondering about this one part they might also be casting doubt on the whole.
Which it does, almost assuredly.
So, if you find yourself wondering those things and facing those realizations, I want you to hear this: You are not alone.
There are lots of people who have struggled with doubts when it comes to the Resurrection. I am one of them. And they have struck me at the most inopportune moments. On one occasion, as I was reading my Bible I remember feeling a multitude of doubts wash over me like a cold, dark wave. "What if this isn't true? What if I'm believing a lie? What if..."
A pastor I know was driving to church early in the morning on Easter Sunday when he was struck with one of those dark night of the soul moments. The mystical and miraculous nature of the story of the Resurrection and all that depended on it just hit him like a ton of bricks. And he had to preach on that very thing in a couple of hours.
So take heart. Your doubts are not the end of you, or your faith.
I believe that the tomb Jesus was buried within that Friday evening over two thousand years ago is empty. I believe it's empty because he rose from the dead. I believe that Jesus is risen, and that he does---as the ancient Christian confession states---sit at the right hand of the Father Almighty.
I will tell you why I believe this.
I believe it because the God who lays claim to that promise---to the promise of that empty tomb and all that it represents--has been faithful to me in ways that defy logic, challenge reason and are just as mystical and miraculous in their own right. The God who I know beyond a shadow of a doubt has had his fingerprints all over my life is not the kind of God who would allow me to put my faith in trust in something that wasn't true, real and transforming.
I could tell you about all of the miraculous things that happened to me in my childhood----but that would probably take all day, and maybe even bore you to death.
I could tell you how I was nearly blinded by glaucoma as a child---my sight was saved just barely because my mother took me to the right doctor at the right moment.
I could tell you how I was nearly shot to death once. My parents were not in the house and I was showing my buddy my dad's gun, when it fell out of my hands and went off---the bullet barely missing my head.
There are more stories... Maybe some other time.
What I really want to share with you is something specific. It's the story of how I arrived here---in this place, at this moment telling you why I believe that the Tomb is empty because Jesus stepped out of it.
Thirty years ago, my father was offered a job to teach history in a small Christian school in Altamonte Springs Florida. We lived in Colorado at the time, where I was born and raised. My parents visited the school, picked out an apartment and returned to Colorado ready to pack and move. Inexplicably, my father received another offer from a school in Winter Garden Florida, and out of courtesy went and visited it alone while my mom and I packed the house. When he returned, he told us that he'd changed his mind and was taking the second position. I am sure he had his reasons, and looking back on how things turned out for him, I imagine he wished more than once he'd taken the other job.
But he didn't. We moved to Winter Garden in August, and just a few weeks later I was standing on a football field in full on football regalia, waiting for a game to begin when a beautiful blonde cheerleader walked up to me and introduced herself. She stuck out her hand and said, "I'm Merideth."
(for those not following along with my life----she's my wife)
When I sit and think about how that happened---how narrowly things came to my wife, the love of my life, and I probably never meeting---it floors me. And it's then that I can almost audibly hear the voice of God whispering in my ear.
"The Tomb... is... Empty."
Years later, I found myself barely twenty two years old, divorced, broken, struggling with addictions to alcohol and bad relationships. One night I went to an Arena Football game at the Orlando Arena. I was drunk. But I wasn't too drunk to look down two rows below me in a crowd of thousands and see my Merideth's best friend from high school. She was only visiting for a few days from Michigan and two of her friends convinced her to go to the game. Her tickets were two rows below mine. She was so worried about me afterward that she actually called Merideth, who she hadn't spoken to in years. She told Merideth that she had seen me, that I was divorced, broken, struggling with addictions and bad relationships---because I basically revealed all of this to her when we talked.
Merideth didn't have my number, but called my mother, who gladly gave it to her. She called me that night and we talked for three hours.
Six months later we were married. When I think about all of the things that had to happen for that that phone call to occur---I know...
The Tomb is Empty.
My wife and I had been married less than a year when we were driving home from the very first church we attended as a couple. I couldn't wait for church to end because I had to light up a cigarette as soon as it did. I was puffing away and blowing smoke out the window of the car as I drove back to our apartment when I looked over and noticed my wife staring at me in a weird way with this little smile on her face.
"You would make a great minister." She told me. I laughed---the kind of laugh that two pack a day smokers laugh. What she saw in that moment... why she chose to say it... How she even knew...
It defies imagination. But ten years later, we were driving to Chicago in a rental truck with all of our worldly goods so I could attend seminary... and become a minister.
The Tomb is Empty.
We stood over the hospital bed of my oldest son when he was seven after he had been rushed to the emergency room for surgery resulting from apendicitis. During the operation, they discovered a heart murmur and told us that they were going to have send us to a cardiologist. Merideth and I stood over him and cried. He looked so small and sick. I prayed to God a silent, furious prayer. "God, don't let anything be wrong with my son... just don't."
Nine years later I stood on the sidelines while my son played football--captain of the team, starting quarterback---and I watched him score two rushing touchdowns and throw for a third. The memory of that hard day in the hospital was a distant one, but I could still hear whispering in my ear...
The Tomb Is Empty.
The doctor told us that our baby was not going to live. It was going to be second miscarriage in a year, and almost more than we could bear. You can't prepare yourself for that kind of hurt. Apparently the baby's heart was not beating strong enough, and they told us on a Monday that Friday we would need to return for a procedure to remove his lifeless little body from Merideth's. My mother-in-law flew up to Chicago from Florida to be with us and to help her daughter through another numbing disappointment.
We soberly went into the doctor's office for the required sonogram that preceded the procedure. The sonogram technician began her work and then cheerily exclaimed. "The baby's heartbeat is strong, he seems to be doing really well. There's his heart if you want to see it." I swayed a little and felt like the earth was going to dissolve beneath me. I stared at the sonogram and at the strong, steady heartbeat that pulsed in the screen. The baby was alive. He was alive.
And this is how Jackson was born. Our little Jackson Lee---a little boy named after Civil War Generals because his father was a Southerner in the land of Lincoln and thought it was cute when names were being chosen.
Only it fit him. And always has.
And when I see him doing his thing, playing soccer, building legos and I hear him singing in that beautiful voice of his---I know...
The Tomb Is Empty.
I stood in the delivery room moments after my youngest son had entered into the world. One moment my wife was smiling and crying and the next she was bleeding to death. The doctor had begun frantically trying to stop the bleeding, but to no avail. I asked him, "Is she okay?" He looked at me for a split second, "No." he told me. The hurried all of the family members out of the room and rushed my wife away to surgery. I remember looking down at her while I was holding our baby, and I told her that I loved her, that I had always loved her... I thought it might be the last time I would ever see her alive.
Then I sat down in that room with my newborn son, and I looked into his face and prayed. "God, don't you take her from me. Don't you dare take her from me."
There was a doctor in the cafeteria who just happened to be an expert in this particular procedure that had to be done in order to save Merideth's life. She just happened to be there on her day off eating lunch with a colleague. And this doctor heard what was happening and rushed up to the operating room, and looked into my wife's eyes as she prepared to do that thing she was an expert at doing. "I will not let you die," she told her.
And she didn't... let her die. When I think of what happened on that day, and all that could have happened. I feel so deeply in my heart that...
The Tomb is Empty.
My wife and I came home from work one day this summer and we started cooking dinner together and sharing the details of our day like we normally do. Our little boy Jacob was playing in the living room and watching one of his little kid TV shows. We were going in and out of the sliding glass door that leads to our outdoor patio and the pool. I was talking to my wife about some dumb thing or another, when I suddenly realized that I couldn't hear Jacob playing any longer. For some reason I ran immediately to the patio and toward the pool. He had fallen in. I could only see his shirt sticking up out of the water---the little shirt that Merideth had dressed him in that morning---the one he was wearing when I kissed him goodbye.
It felt like the world was in slow motion then, but in reality it only took me a split second to reach the pool. He was completely under the water, and was not breathing. His mouth was open and he had a look of terror on his face that was slowly slipping into something else. I pulled him from the water and turned him over, ready to do CPR, ready to do anything that I could do in case my worst fears had been realized.
He coughed, and spit up water, and began to cry.
A few seconds more, and... I don't want to think about it.
Only I do think about it. And when I do, like I did on that day---I cry to God and I thank him from the bottom of my heart for giving my little boy back to me.
On that day, when it happened... I felt this knowledge wash over me after the whole thing was over. I said to God, "You gave him back to me. You gave him back to me." And God said back to me in that voice in my head that he uses to speak to me so often...
"I know what it's like to lose a Son... and then to have him returned... I know what it's like..." And when I hear this voice, I know.
The Tomb... is Empty.
This is my story. There isn't any reasoned logic in it. There isn't even a detailed breakdown of the Greek words used in the text, or an explanation of the symbolism contained in the story. If you were expecting that, I am sorry. I can do those things. I have done those things. But this time I wanted you to know how I know... how I know in my heart of hearts, with all that I am, with no doubts in my mind...
That the Tomb is Empty.
May you see where Resurrection is happening all around you. May you finally realize that God really does keep his promises---that his claims are true, and real, and offered in love. May you know that...
The Tomb is Empty.