Robert Russell, pastor of Southeastern Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, told about sitting behind a 5-year-old boy at their church's Easter pageant a few years ago. The boy was enthralled.
Russell said, "When the crucifixion scene took place, he got real quiet. But then Jesus came back from the grave, and there was a song of celebration, and his eyes lit up. He looked at his mother and said, 'He's alive, Mom. He's alive!' and began to clap. And he hugged her around the neck."
Wouldn't it be great to see the resurrection with new eyes?
When Matthew wrote his account of the resurrection of Jesus he emphasized two groups who watched. His account of Easter morning is framed by two different kinds of watchers. Open your Bibles to Matthew 27. At the end of his account of the crucifixion, look what it says in verse 55: "Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs."
The next paragraph tells how Joseph of Arimathea had Jesus' body placed in his own rock-hewn tomb.
Look at verse 61: "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb."
Now fast-forward through Saturday to Sunday morning in Matthew 28:1: "After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb." Those watching women provide one set of eyes on this story.
The other watchers are the guards. Verses 62-65 explain that they were posted to be sure the disciples didn't steal the body. Matthew 28:4 says when they felt the earthquake and saw the angel they "were so afraid of him that they shook and become like dead men." And verse 11 says, "Some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened." The upshot was that they were persuaded by a handsome bribe to say that, in fact, they hadn't seen a thing.
Two sets of watchers. Which watcher are you?
Some watchers refuse to believe the resurrection even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
There are two incredible aspects to this story. The first, of course, is the resurrection itself—a dead man alive, and alive in a new way altogether. The other incredible thing, though, is the response of the unbelievers in this story. The guards decided to deny an experience so terrifying it very nearly killed them.
We get our word "seismic" from the Greek word Paul used for earthquake. He used another form of the same word to describe the guard's fear: "they shook" means "they quaked." They were the aftershocks! Now look at verses 13-15: "'You are to say, "His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep." If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.' So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day." They denied it ever happened! I don't have much trouble believing that people would lie for money, but I can't understand how those guards lied to themselves!
And then there are the chief priests and elders. Did you notice that when the guards showed up to tell them the story of what happened, they didn't go, "No way, Jose! Nyuh-uh! You guys are out of your mind!" There's no suggestion that they doubted the guards, or that they believed their own lie that the disciples stole the bodies while the guards slept. Pilate's guards didn't sleep on the job unless they wanted to sleep forever, if you get my drift! The religious leaders simply refused to admit the obvious.
Two incredible aspects of this story: the resurrection itself, and the stubborn refusal of the guards and leaders to believe the evidence. Here's the point:
The evidence for the resurrection was and is overwhelming.
First, there was that violent earthquake. This was the second earthquake in three days, the other happening at the moment of this same Jesus' death and now this at the moment his tomb opened.
This wasn't random seismic activity. It was a message. Later they would claim they had fallen asleep, but the very earth beneath them had made sure that wasn't the case! God himself shook them awake to say, "Listen, I'm speaking!"
Secondly, there was the appearance of God's own shining angel agent rolling back the tombstone. People then were no more accustomed to seeing angels then than we are now. Suddenly in that eerie hour just before dawn, "an angel of the Lord came down from heaven!" He was like a lightning man, wearing snow-white clothes. The guards were dazzled and dazed. Then, as if it were Styrofoam, the angel pushed the massive, sealed stone back from the mouth of the grave. Surely there was no doubt in those guards' minds that this angel came from God on an assignment from God!
Thirdly, there was the empty tomb. Maybe you imagine the scene like this: this bright angel appears in front of the stone, leans in and whispers, "Are you ready in there?" and then, with a flourish, rolled back the stone, and there stood Jesus, smiling and bright, waiting for the door to open. That's not what happened. Jesus was already gone. They didn't move the stone to let Jesus out, but to let the disciples in, to prove that Jesus was truly resurrected. I don't know if the guards saw that the tomb was empty before they passed out, but I'm certain they checked when they came to! They may not have not known what happened while they were out cold, but it was a safe bet they knew that God and his angels had something to do with it. They knew this was not the work of grave-robbing disciples.
So how in the world could they pretend that nothing had happened but a body snatching?!
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is equally overwhelming today. It takes an act either of ignorance or a determined will to deny it. A turning point in my own life came when I realized how incontrovertible the proof of the resurrection is.
Maybe you know the story of Frank Morrison, a lawyer who was certain that the resurrection was nothing more than a fairy tale and set out to prove it. But in the end, he was forced to the unexpected conclusion that the story is true. His book, Who Moved the Stone, is a best-seller. B. F. Westcott, an English scholar, wrote, "Indeed, taking all the evidence together, it is not too much to say that there is no historic incident better or more variously supported than the resurrection of Christ. Nothing but the antecedent assumption that it must be false could have suggested the idea of deficiency in the proof of it."
A woman wrote J. Vernon McGee: "Our preacher said that on Easter Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?"
McGee replied, "Dear Sister, beat your preacher with a leather whip for 39 heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for six hours. Run a spear through his heart. Embalm him. Put him in an airless tomb for three days. Then see what happens."
There comes a point when unbelief is not the product of a rational, thoughtful mind but of a stubborn heart. People who pooh-pooh the resurrection as a myth portray themselves as the real thinkers. But they are heirs of these guards and priests whose minds were so made up, who were so determined not to believe, that they stopped thinking.
There is always a great deal at stake when someone has to seriously consider the resurrection of Christ.
The resurrection takes religion out of the realm of the abstract, of "believe what you want, so long as you're sincere." The resurrection removes the possibility that we can each believe whatever we find good. The resurrection actually happened, and it defined Jesus as the great Truth Teller, the Lord of Life, the Judge of the living and the dead, One who must be reckoned with on his terms, not ours. The resurrection takes away all our religious options, but one.
Like those chief priests or guards, surrendering to the resurrected Christ is costly—it requires humility and maybe more. It means saying you were wrong and bowing to what the Bible itself calls "the foolishness of the cross." And a lot of people would rather lie to themselves than face the fact and the meaning of the resurrection.
To deny the resurrection of Christ is to play into a great deception. That's one of the themes of Matthew's story. Remember how the leaders set the guard lest the disciples steal the body and "the last deception be worse than the first"? But in the end, where is the deception in this story? Settled deep in the heart and testimony of the stubborn unbelievers. It is a travesty that their lie was and is perpetuated, but even more that they succeeded in lying to themselves. I don't know how much those soldiers were paid to lie, but whatever the price, they were swindled. After all, "what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?"
The great American novelist, John Updike, wrote this profound poem:
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
make of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
In the face of overwhelming evidence, it is not safe to stubbornly deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Some watchers see in the resurrection the reason to trust Jesus Christ for life.
But there are other watchers. The women watchers were silent, unobtrusive, "watching from a distance." I wonder if there are not some people here this morning who are like those watching women.
There are still watchers who are drawn to Jesus. Maybe you've been watching and thinking about Jesus from a certain respectful distance for a long time. Perhaps, like them, you have watched the crucifixion from a distance, sobered and sad about Jesus' sacrifice. You don't doubt that he died for sin—even your sin. Maybe you came to this service like they went to the tomb, looking for Jesus, hoping you're not at the end of the story, hoping there's more. I think there was something dead within them that morning that the risen Christ brought to life. And I think you might like that life, too.
This story reminds us that Jesus meets such thoughtful watchers and becomes the Savior they worship. Matthew 28:8-10 reads: "So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. 'Greetings,' he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, 'Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.'"
Don't you love that line, "Suddenly Jesus met them. 'Greetings—Good morning,' he said." Just like that! Wouldn't it be wonderful if Jesus would meet you in such a real way?
Listen: Jesus will always meet anyone who wants to live as he lives. You meet him in prayer, telling him of your need—of the dying that is happening in you—the sin and the weakness and the hurt. And then you ask him to give you the same life—resurrection life—he has. And there, in that moment, he will meet you and you may worship him.
Let me conclude with two watcher stories: The first is related by a friend of mine, Kevin Miller. He says that on November 9, 2003, a 19-year-old woman was baptized in his church and gave the following testimony:
"I choose this day to love and serve Jesus Christ as the Lord, the Messiah, the rest of my life. My name is Humaira Kahn Kabir (not her real name). I became a Christian 5 months ago. When I was 7 years old, I moved to Pakistan. I was injured, and I was in a coma. After 8 months, I came out of the coma. I was in a wheelchair, my eyes were open, but I couldn't move, and I couldn't talk to people at all. At this time in my life, I saw my 18-year-old brother die in front of me.
"Every Friday, I went to the mosque and slept there because I didn't have any hope from the doctors that I could walk again or talk. One night I was really upset. I went straight to the picture of Jesus [who is recognized as a prophet in Islam] and started talking to him: 'Why did you keep me alive? Why didn't you just kill me? Why did you keep me alive so I could see my 18-year-old brother dying in front of me?' My head was on the floor, and I was crying.
"Suddenly somebody squeezed my shoulder and said, 'I kept you for something special.' I looked back, and it was the same person who was in the picture. I fainted.
"In the morning I woke up—my grandpa woke me—and he said, 'You fell asleep all night on the floor.'
"I looked at him and said, 'He was here. He was right here.'
"My grandpa said, 'Who?' Then he said, 'Oh my gosh, you're talking again.'
"I said, 'He was right here. Where is he now?'
"My grandpa said, 'Who?'
"'This guy [pointing at the picture of Jesus]. He told me he kept me for something special.'
"'Sweetie, that's not true, because he died a long time ago. Remember, I told you that story.'
"I said, 'No, I saw what I saw,' and I stood up.
"My grandpa had a hard time believing me, but there was a part of him that wondered because he saw me talking and walking again.
"I kept that memory in my heart, just a vision, and no one believed me at all. Everyone kept laughing at me. So that's why I chose to get baptized in the name of Jesus, but in my heart I am already baptized in the Holy Spirit."
A watcher of whom we may well say, "Suddenly Jesus met her … and she came to him and worshiped him."
My other story is about Virginia Best, a saintly and elegant woman from my former church in Pennsylvania. A few weeks ago some mutual friends wrote to tell me that Virginia was dying and had decided after one treatment to refuse any further chemotherapy. She said she didn't want to prolong the inevitable.
Our friends wrote, "She told us God has given her such a peace she just could not describe it but she is surely praising God. You can feel God in her room."
I wrote Virginia right away; told her I would soon be preaching about heaven. About a week and a half ago I got a letter. The return address said, "Dictated by Virginia Best." She wrote, "This is an exciting time for me and I look forward to going home…As I draw near, I keep thinking 'absent from the body—present with the Lord.' It amazes me that I will get rid of this package and see Him face to face." Another watcher who has found life.
Can I ask you, could you face your death that way?
The resurrection of Jesus matters. It changes both life and death. Would today be the day for you to stop watching and come to Jesus and worship him?
Last Monday Virginia got her wish. She got rid of the package and sees Jesus face to face.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.