Easter draws closer and closer (April 4), and we're here to help out with sermon ideas to inspire you in your own preaching. This week we're featuring an Easter sermon from Dave Stone, pastor of Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, KY) and editorial advisor to PreachingToday.com. As you read, a few things to notice: First of all, Stone's ongoing wordplay with two ideas many see as facts—"life is life" and "death is death"—is masterful in how it sets up the dominant thought toward the end of the sermon. Second, make note of Stone's use of humor throughout the sermon. This is a real strength of Dave's, because he knows exactly when and how to use it. Finally, in one section of the sermon, Stone deals with all the major theories used to refute the Resurrection. If you're looking to wade into the waters of apologetics at Easter, this is a good example of how to do it succinctly, clearly, and thus, effectively.
If you think about it, so much about Jesus was upside down. With his teaching and his life, he violated every tenet of this world's system. From the moment he came into this world, he lived his life in an unpredictable way. Instead of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," Jesus taught to turn the other cheek. Instead of hating your enemies, his message was to love them. His was an upside-down way of life.
My daughter, Savannah, and her husband were recently traveling north along I-65 in Indiana. At one point they saw a road off to the right, lined with cars. Savannah said, "I'll bet it's a flea market!" But then they saw everyone standing together in front of what looked like rows of boards. My son-in-law, Patrick, glanced over and said, "No, I think they're having a big Corn-hole Tournament. All those boards have holes in them, and the competition tries to throw beanbags through those holes." Patrick, seizing the moment, slows down and starts to honk his horn wildly, trying to get everyone's attention. All the people in unison turn around, and when they do, Patrick and Savannah realize that it's not a Corn-hole Tournament on a farm. It's a funeral service at a cemetery.
Those weren't Corn-hole boards neatly in a row. They were tombstones! What he thought was a group of people celebrating life, turned out to be a committal service remembering someone who had died.
Life is life and death is death
Sometimes things are upside-down from how they originally appear. In Matthew 16:25, Jesus taught this upside-down truth: "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." In other words, it's only through death that we find life. Now, on the surface that doesn't make much sense. How can you find life by losing it? How can you live by dying? It's hard for us to understand because from our perspective, death isn't life. Life is life! That's our perspective. This life is all we have, so we better make the most it. That's how most of us live: Carpe diem. Seize the day. We try to find life in life.
In Mathew 16:26, Jesus asks a question: "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" In other words, if there's nothing beyond this life, then this life becomes a meaningless exercise in futility.
Is it really true that, in the end, the one with the most toys wins? What good is it if you climb the ladder of success and yet in the process of winning the game of life, you lose your soul? The upside-down way of Jesus says there is more to life than life. He teaches that real life is found when we die.
Understanding that paradox is hard for us, not just because we are taught that life is life, but because society reinforces the idea that death is death. Jesus describes death as a goal to pursue, but we see death as an enemy to avoid. We run from death. We don't even like to talk about it. We don't even like to say the word "death." When someone dies, we say, "They've passed," or "They're no longer with us," or "They've kicked the bucket," or "They've bought the farm," or "They're pushing up daisies." We don't like the word "death." It's so final. We don't want to die. We fear death. But it is inevitable. Unless Christ returns before our last breath, we are heading in that direction.
So, let's talk about death. A lot of people believe that when we die, we're buried and our relatives go to our home and eat potato salad and argue over who gets our coin collection. It's over! That's all she wrote! When it comes to a belief in an afterlife, some think hell is a place conjured up by preachers to increase church attendance. They also think heaven is nothing more than wishful thinking—a fairy tale concocted as an eternal coping mechanism.
This is the way we tend to see things: life is life and death is death. But someone came on the scene 2,000 years ago and flipped things upside down. His name was Jesus. He was God in flesh. He fulfilled every Messianic prophecy written hundreds of years before his birth. He worked incredible miracles. He predicted that he would die on a cross for our sins. And get this: on several occasions he even predicted that he would come back to life three days later.
After a brutal execution, Jesus was dead and buried. It appeared once again that death would have the final word. But Luke 24:1-6 records what happened:
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.
In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? he is not here; he has risen!"
Jesus defeated the misconception that death is death. He conquered the grave. Because of Jesus, death doesn't win. That's what Easter is all about. Easter is the difference between life and death, and it all comes down to the Resurrection. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, "If Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless and so is your faith." Jesus' resurrection turns things upside down.
Skepticism over the Resurrection
I know there are some of you who are skeptical of this resurrection story. You appease the family and come to church on the holiday. I'm glad you're here! But maybe on the inside you doubt the validity of the Resurrection. Let me take a few minutes to address some of the theories people have used to explain away Christ's resurrection.
One such explanation is the hallucination theory. This theory supposes that Jesus stayed dead and never resurrected—that the people who claimed to have seen Jesus' resurrected body were all suffering from hallucinations. They only saw him because they really wanted to see him. But it wasn't just one time that Jesus was spotted. Jesus taught groups of people, ate food with people, and touched people (and they touched him). Over time, he was seen by over 500 people. If this was a hallucination, it was "mass hallucination" on a scale unseen.
Other critics question the resurrection of Christ with the wrong tomb theory. They say the disciples and the women went to the wrong tomb Easter morning. It's understandable that men wouldn't stop and ask directions—but not women! In fact, this theory would be much more compelling if Jesus would have been buried in a public cemetery. It could have been confusing for someone with all of those tombs, but Jesus wasn't buried in a public cemetery. He was buried in a private tomb owned by a wealthy man. There was no other tomb with which it could be confused, because it was the only burial site in town that had soldiers guarding it. Besides, if they'd gone to the wrong tomb, the religious leaders would have just silenced them by taking them to the right tomb so they could see Christ's body.
Still others—including some Orthodox Jews—refute the Resurrection by the stolen body theory. As the name indicates, this is a theory that says the body of Christ was stolen by his disciples to convey the idea of resurrection. The Bible even tells us in Matthew 28 that this was actually the first attempt or theory concocted by the enemies of Christ in an effort to explain away his resurrection. But the details surrounding Christ's burial create some serious problems with this theory. In Matthew 27, after Christ's death, the Pharisees went to Pilate and insisted that he post guards at Christ's tomb because he had predicted his resurrection. Pilate agrees to do so. In fact, his words are: "Make the tomb as secure as you know how."
Here's the irony in the story: while the chief priests have the Resurrection on their minds, the disciples don't. They are terrified. They're hiding for fear that there is a cross with their name on it. Pilate even had his seal placed on the tomb, because breaking that seal meant death to the culprit and death to the Roman soldiers guarding it. On Sunday, after an angel rolled away the stone, the soldiers were in shock at what they were seeing. They went to the chief priests and told them what happened, and each soldier was paid a large sum of money to promote the story that the disciples stole the body.
If the disciples did steal the body, why were the soldiers still alive? Why weren't they put to death? There's only one logical explanation: the truth. He was alive, and they needed someone who seemed credible to refute it.
But there's another theory—the swoon theory. This is the idea that Jesus was crucified, but he never really died. Jesus was a master actor. He faked his death and somehow the cool air of the tomb revived him. But what about the Roman soldier who declared him dead at Calvary? What about the soldier thrusting a spear in Jesus' side to assure he was dead? The Bible says that when that happened, both blood and water rushed out. Medically speaking, this substantiates that he was dead.
A woman once wrote a preacher named J. Vernon McGee, asking, "Our preacher said that Jesus didn't really die, he just swooned on the cross and then the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?" McGee wrote in reply: "Dear sister, beat your preacher with a leather whip covered with sharp bones and glass with dozens of heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross and hang him in the sun for six hours. Then, run a spear through his heart. Embalm him and wrap him in linens with 75 pounds of spices atop him, put him in an airless tomb for three days, and see what happens."
In the end, none of these theories hold water. There's plenty more evidence we could consider, but what's most compelling to me is the fact that the closest followers of Jesus were so convinced of the Resurrection that they were willing to die, rather than deny it. There are plenty of people who have died for a lie. For example, martyrs have died for something they believed to be true. But here's the difference: No one dies for what they know is untrue. No one dies for what they know is a lie.
I want read to you an assortment of descriptions that different historians tell us about the deaths of Christ's closest followers because of their belief in the resurrection. James was beheaded in Jerusalem. Matthew was killed by a sword in Ethiopia. Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, after being dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead. Luke was hanged in Greece. Peter was crucified upside down. Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India during a missionary trip. Jude, the brother of Jesus, was killed with arrows when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. If Jesus didn't conquer the grave, don't you think all of them—or at least one of them—would have waved the white flag? Not one of them did, because they didn't just believe Christ had risen. They knew. They had spent time with the resurrected Lord.
Death is life
Christ's resurrection is the difference, not just for his life but for ours as well. The Christian need not fear death, because although death may take you, it cannot keep you. But if you are not a Christian, it will keep you.
In her book It Had to Be a Monday, Jill Briscoe writes about the death of a Christian friend. During the funeral visitation, the deceased man's wife and sister stood by the casket, greeting people. The sister kept motioning to her brother's body, saying to each person who came to greet her, "There he is. There he is." After some time, when the wife could stand it no longer, she turned to her sister-in-law and, in love, said, "If I believed, 'there he is,' I would be miserable." Then she added, "Do you know what enables me to get through this day? What gets me through is that I know the truth: 'There he isn't.'"
In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul writes, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." That's what keeps us going. Our hope for a physical resurrection is a byproduct of Christ's resurrection. The upside-down way of Jesus was working overtime on that first Easter weekend.
Matt Proctor, president of Ozark Christian College, paints a picture of what Christ's resurrection means for us and our physical death. He writes:
In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul pictures Christ in hand-to-hand combat with death. On Good Friday, the battle was joined and, at first, it looked like death had triumphed again. At the end of the day, Christ was dead—no pulse, lifeless, laying there rigid and cold. He lay there dead Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday night.
But then … then came Sunday morning. As the first rays of dawn broke over the horizon, a voice came rumbling in on the wind—a whisper from God himself pierced the walls of that garden tomb: "Arise, my Son." As those words echoed deep inside that cave, something happened—a heart that was still as the grave suddenly began to beat again. Blood, thick and cold, rushed warmly through the veins. A chest heaved upward, taking in a great breath. Stiff fingers moved, eyes opened, arms raised, legs swung off the table. He was standing again, life radiating from him as heat from the sun. He was alive! Christ had risen!
The world had never seen anything like this. All previous raisings in the Bible were resuscitations more than resurrections. They came back to life only to die again. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ was not a temporary victory. Christ "destroyed death." He had broken its power. Christ's resurrection was a preview of coming attractions. If we belong to him, we will live, never to die again. For the Christian, death is no longer the end of the road, but a bend in the road. Death is no longer the period at the end of the sentence of life, but a comma transitioning us from this life to the next.
Paul put it well in 1 Corinthians 15:55: "Where, O death, is your victory? Where O grave, is your sting?" I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The message: "Death is swallowed by triumphant Life! Who got the last word? Oh, death? Oh, death, who's afraid of you now?"
On that first Easter morning, death was robbed of its victory. Here's what that means for Christians on this Easter, 2,000 years later: Life isn't really life, and death isn't really death. But death is life.
Jesus said, "You save your life by losing it." In other words, when we die, we find life. This is actually true physically. You're not there in that casket. Now, you might be thinking, Okay, I understand what you're saying. Someday I'm going to die, but on that day I won't really die. I will find life. You're right, but that falls short of all of the implications. The message of Easter is that death is life. This truth doesn't just comfort you for the day you take your final breath. This truth is confidence for today. Jesus isn't saying, "Someday when you die you'll find life." Jesus is inviting you to find life today.
Death is life not only in a physical sense—that you're not in the casket—but death is life in a spiritual sense. Remember: "If anyone is in Jesus Christ, they are a new creation. The old has gone the new has come."
The apostle Paul constantly addresses Christians in the strangest way—he speaks to them as people who have already died and yet they're alive. An example can be found in Colossians 3:3-4: "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory." Paul is talking to Christians who are alive, yet he speaks of their death in the past tense. Do you realize why he does that? It's because their death is something that already happened. When they became a Christian, they died to themselves.
What does that look like—dying to self? In your marriage it means instead of getting into a verbal sparring match with your spouse, you choose to die to yourself by biting your tongue and saying kind words. In the end it brings life and transforms your home. In your job it means that what you do is not all about you. Instead of bossing others around, you die to self and begin to find fulfillment through serving others, which is more fulfilling than anything you've done before.
Dying to self leads to life. That is the invitation of Easter. Your hope isn't in you. Your hope is in him. That's why Jesus Christ made it clear that whoever loses his life will find it.
Did you know that 71 different times in the New Testament the word "hope" is used? Seventy-one times! But get this: only one time is it found before the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I'm no rocket scientist, but even I can conclude that God wants us to see that the Christian's hope is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is the question, then: Who is Jesus to you? Is he a liar, a lunatic, or Lord? You know what I think? I think whoever walks out of his own grave is whoever he says he is!
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________