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Message From an Empty Tomb

The resurrection of Jesus offers us a message of hope, love, and grace.

I'm not quite sure how to say this. We have always said in the church that our faith was based upon facts. It was a faith built upon evidence that led us to the facts.

My friends, something has come to light just this past week that is out now in the professional journals and will be out shortly in magazines and newspapers, I'm sure. I felt it best that it come from me. At least I may make some consolatory comments with it. Let me simply read the announcement.

I quote: "Archaeologists have made a startling and remarkable discovery. They have found recently, in a newly unearthed tomb in the suburbs of Jerusalem, the remains of an ancient man who quite evidently died of crucifixion. On the walls of that tomb they found also a plaque written in ancient Hebrew, which translated reads thusly, 'Here lies Jesus of Nazareth, the great and good teacher. We secreted his body away in order to place him beyond the reach and rage of his enemies. He was the best of men. May he rest in peace.' "

That is a scene from a recently published novel in England. It is, I'm happy to say, pure fiction. I hope, however, that it had its impact in your heart this day. The author of When It Was Dark describes a situation in which a wealthy atheist, a skeptic, an unbeliever, decides to destroy Christianity. So he hires a venal archaeologist to create this fraudulent find in Israel, to bring to light this contrived discovery of supposedly the remains of Christ.

The result in the novel is catastrophic. It seems as if a new Ice Age has descended upon the earth. Spirits flag like the branches of a willow tree. Hope goes out like a candle in the wind. Joy disappears from life. Men seek for mirth, saying, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." It is all a lie. Thousands upon thousands of missionaries return to their native lands. The lights in the churches go out, and the doors are locked for good. The Law of Sinai is exchanged for the law of the jungle. The Sermon on the Mount gives way to savagery in the street. The hand of every man is raised against his neighbor. Soon nation rises against nation, and in a while the whole world is one huge, blackened, smoldering ruin—because a few bones were discovered in a tomb in Jerusalem, and with that discovery, hope died.

The resurrection is a message of hope

The message that comes from the empty tomb—indeed the tomb is empty—is that there is hope. There is an everlasting hope. There is a certain hope of life eternal in Jesus Christ.

For many centuries the men and women in Europe looked out upon the western sea, what we call the Atlantic Ocean, and they saw the sun coruscating upon the glittering surface of the waters, and they wondered. They wondered if there was anything beyond. Scholars said that you could sail off the edge of the world—there was nothing out there at all. In fact, inscribed on the escutcheons of the coat of arms of the nation of Spain was its national motto, Ne Plus Ultra, meaning, "There is nothing beyond."

One day Columbus went westering on the shiny waters. He sailed off into the sunset as people waited expectantly, and finally after a long time the sails reappeared and the crowds were exultant. They shouted with joy, and Columbus announced that there was a land beyond the sea that was rich beyond their dreams. It was a glorious paradise. The king of Spain changed the motto of that land until it reads as it does today, Plus Ultra, meaning, "There is more beyond."

For many centuries innumerable people stood beside the dark hole that we call a grave and watched the remains of their loved ones lowered into the earth, and they wondered: Beyond the dark waters of death, is there anything beyond?

Then one day, a young explorer went westering into the setting sun and descended into the blackness of the pit. He sailed off the edge of the world and crashed into hell. People waited expectantly. Finally on this Resurrection morning, as the sun arose in the east, the Son of God stepped forth from a grave and declared, "There is something beyond. There is a paradise beyond your greatest expectations. And there awaits a heavenly Father, waiting with outstretched arms to wipe away every tear from your cheek."

Yes, my friends, there is something beyond the black hole in the earth. But oh, how tragic it would be if this were not the case. "If Easter be not true, / Then faith must mount on broken wing. / Then hope no more immortal spring. / Love must lose its mighty urge. / Life prove a phantom and the dirge, / If Easter be not true."

But I am delighted to announce that it is true. No bones have been or ever will be discovered, for Jesus Christ on the first day of the week arose from the dead. And with a mighty stride he came forth bursting the bonds of death. He is alive forevermore!

The greatest historical evidence for any historical fact is that an institution be built upon that fact. Any secular historian will tell you that the church of Jesus Christ began in the year 30 A.D. in Jerusalem, when the followers of Jesus of Nazareth began to proclaim ... what? That he had risen from the dead—that's what! The church was built on an empty tomb. The greatest institution the world has ever seen, the largest institution that has ever existed on this planet, was built on a hole in the ground with nothing in it.

You may go to the tomb of Mohammed, and they will tell you, "Here lie the bones of the great prophet."

You may go the tomb of Napoleon, and they will say, "Here lie the bones of the emperor of France."

You may go to Moscow and see the tomb of Lenin, and they will say, "Here lie the bones of the great founder of Soviet Communism."

But you may go to the tomb of Jesus, and they will tell you, and you may walk in and see for yourself, "Here lie the bones of no one. He is not here. He is risen, as he said he would." The message from the empty tomb is a message of hope.

The resurrection is a message of love

Secondly, it's also a message of love, because we should never forget though the tomb was empty, it was a tomb. It wasn't an empty house, an empty palace. It was an empty tomb. And that empty tomb speaks a message of love.

Eight years ago I shared a true story with this congregation which I think bears repeating. John Griffith grew up with one dream in his heart—a dream of travel. He wanted to travel to faraway places and see exotic sights. Those strange-sounding names of strange-sounding lands—that's what he dreamt about and read about. That was his whole consuming passion of life. But that dream crashed with the stock market in 1929.

The Great Depression settled like a funeral cloak upon the land. Oklahoma, his native state, was turned into a swirling dust bowl by the dry winds, and his dreams were swept away with the wind. So he packed up his wife, his tiny baby boy, and their few meager belongings in an old car and drove away to find greener pastures. He thought he might have discovered those on the edge of the Mississippi, where he got a job caring for one of those great, huge railroad bridges that cross the mighty Mississippi.

It was in 1937, Dennis Hensley tells us, when this true story took place. For the first time, he brought his 8-year-old son, Greg Griffith, to work with him to see what Daddy did all day. The little boy was wide-eyed with excitement, and he clapped his hands with glee when the huge bridge went up at the beck and call of his mighty father. He watched with wonderment as the huge boats steamed down the Mississippi.

Twelve o'clock came, and his father put up the bridge. There were no trains due for a good while, and they went out a couple of hundred feet on a catwalk out over the river to an observation deck. They sat down, opened their brown bag, and began to eat their lunch. His father told him about some of the strange, faraway lands that some of these ships were going to visit. This entranced the boy.

The time whirled by, and suddenly they were drawn instantly back to reality by the shrieking of a distant train whistle. John Griffith quickly looked at his watch. He saw that it was time for the 1:07, the Memphis Express, with 400 passengers, which would be rushing across that bridge in just a couple of minutes. He knew he had just enough time, so without panic but with alacrity he told his son to stay where he was.

He leaped to his feet, jumped to the catwalk, ran back, climbed the ladder to the control room, went in, put his hand on the huge lever that controlled the bridge, looked up the river and down to see if any boats were coming, as was his custom, and then looked down to see if there were any beneath the bridge. And suddenly he saw a sight that froze his blood and caused his heart to leap into his throat. His boy! His boy had tried to follow him to the control room and had fallen into the great, huge gear box that had the monstrous gears that operated this massive bridge. His left leg was caught between the two main gears, and the father knew that as sure as the sun came up in the morning, if he pushed that lever his son would be ground in the midst of eight tons of whining, grinding steel.

His eyes filled with tears of panic. His mind whirled. What could he do? He saw a rope there in the control room. He could rush down the ladder and out the catwalk, tie off the rope, lower himself down, extricate his son, climb back up the rope, run back into the control room, and lower the bridge. No sooner had his mind done that exercise than he knew—he knew there wasn't time. He'd never make it, and there were 400 people on that train.

Suddenly he heard the whistle again, this time startlingly closer. And he could hear the clicking of the locomotive wheels on the track, and he could hear the rapid puffing of the train. What could he do? What could he do! There were 400 people, but this was ... this was his son, this was his only son. He was a father! He knew what he had to do, so he buried his head in his arm and he pushed the gear forward.

The great bridge slowly lowered into place just as the express train roared across. He lifted up his tear-smeared face and looked straight into the flashing windows of that train as they flashed by one after another. He saw men reading the afternoon paper, a conductor in uniform looking at a large vest-pocket watch, ladies sipping tea out of teacups, and little children pushing long spoons into plates of ice cream. Nobody looked in the control room. Nobody looked at his tears. Nobody, nobody looked down to the great gear box. In heart-wrenching agony, he beat against the window of the control room, and he said, "What's wrong with you people? Don't you care? I sacrificed my son for you. Don't any of you care?" Nobody looked. Nobody heard. Nobody heeded. And the train disappeared across the river.

The mills of God grind slow but exceedingly fine. God the Father cast his Son into the mills of his justice, bearing upon himself all of the sin of the world, and in the great gears of God, Christ gave up his life for us. The remains of that were placed in a tomb outside of Jerusalem, a tomb that has a message for us of unspeakable love: that God should thus love us, that I should gain an interest in the Savior's blood. "Amazing grace! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"

The resurrection is a message of grace

It is a message of hope and a message of love. But it is also a message of grace—of amazing, astounding, astonishing grace—that the Creator of the universe would come and die for the creatures' sin. The wages of sin are death, we are told. And there at Calvary, and there at that tomb, those wages were paid in full—signed, sealed, and delivered. Signed in blood, sealed with the Roman seal, and delivered into the pit of hell. Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe.

O, my friends, how tragic it would be that on this Easter day, even when we think of the great death and resurrection of Christ, that we fail to grasp its meaning—that he did all of that for us, that he endured it all in our place that we might have the gift of eternal life! Did you get that? Could I underline it for you again? That we might have the gift of eternal life! Listen, it is free. The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Paid for by Jesus Christ our Lord. Purchased by Jesus Christ our Lord. Paid in full. And offered freely to all of those who will receive him into their hearts and trust in his atoning death as the payment for their sins.

Theologians divide the work of Christ into two parts: the humiliation of Christ and his exaltation, or glorification. The first he did for us; the second we do with him. He left heaven for us. He left the ivory palaces and came into this world of woe. He endured the mockery of men. He endured the pain and agony of the spikes upon the cross. He endured death and hell and the grave for us. He descended into the pit for us. All of this he did for us, in our place, as our substitute. Vicariously in our stead, he did it all for us.

But now in his exaltation, he rises from the dead with us, he calls us to rise with him. He ascends into heaven and calls us to do the same. He sits at the right hand of the Father and invites us to take a seat. He judges the world and invites us who believe to have a part in the judgment of the world. All of these things, including our glorification, we have with him.

Ah, but there are those right here who know none of this. For them it's an ancient event that happened long ago, far away. and does not touch them. That is because they have never yet experienced a resurrection in their own soul. Did you know that you can experience a resurrection right in this life, right here, today? "You have been quickened which were dead," the Bible says, quickened, zoopoieo, made alive, which were dead in trespasses and sins.

You can experience a spiritual resurrection. Many years ago I experienced that resurrection, and my life was transformed. "Ye shall be changed," the Bible says. "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away. Behold, all things are become new."

Have you experienced that transformation? If you do not know that spiritual resurrection in your life, you will never know the resurrection of the body unto eternal life that Christ offers you.

O my friends, you'll never know life till you really know him. May he come into your heart as Savior and Lord. May you roll away from the door of your heart that heavy stone and ask him, who came out of an empty tomb, to come into an empty heart and to fill it with his love, with his joy, and with his hope. And you can know that when they lower you down into that hole in the ground that you'll already be in mansions above. You already will have crossed the sea and will have been taken into the Father's arms. You will have met your blessed Redeemer, who said, in fact, that those who trust in him shall never die.

I want you to know that I will never die. Now some of you might think I did. But when you think I did, let me tell you right now, I will be more alive in that day than I have ever been in my life. And I will be with Christ, my Savior. "Because I live," he said, "ye that trust in me shall live also."

Have you received him? Have you trusted in him? Have you repented of your sins? Or do you have the poor and beggarly outward elements of religion alone? O dear friend, you're missing the greatest thing in all of the world. Your Creator came that you might have life and have it abundantly. Open your heart and let him come in. Do it today!

D. James Kennedy is pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His books include Why I Believe, (W Publishing, 1999).

(c) D. James Kennedy

Preaching Today Issue #66


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Sermon Outline:


I. The resurrection is a message of hope

II. The resurrection is a message of love

III. The resurrection is a message of grace