Note from Rick Ezell: In the introduction of this sermon, I use three examples of recent deaths. To make it more current and relevant to your situation, you would be advised to identify examples that your congregation can relate to
Death has been knocking on the door lately.
Brian Nichols, on Friday, March 11, commandeered a gun from a Sheriff's Deputy leading him into the Fulton County courtroom in Atlanta, Georgia. He killed the deputy, a judge, and a court reporter before escaping. On Monday, March 21, a Red Lake Minnesota High School student, Jeff Weise, went on a shooting rampage killing his grandparents, then seven people at his school before turning the gun on himself. Closer to home, on Wednesday, March 16, a friend to several in this church, Steve Setliff, 47, died of cancer in his home.
The word death has finality to it, doesn't it? Death is a scary thought. It's a dark valley that those left behind have to walk through. It brings on grief, despair, depression, and a sense of hopelessness.
The friends and family members of those people killed by Brian Nichols and Jeff Weise know those feelings. So do the friends and family of Steve Setliff. So do the friends of Jesus.
Jesus died on Friday. He was laid in a borrowed tomb. The entrance was sealed with a massive stone. It was over. His life finished. His time on earth spent. The party ended.
That's why when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early that Sunday morning. She was confused as to why someone would have taken Jesus' body. She ran back to tell Simon Peter and John. They were angry and bewildered, too. They raced to the tomb to check it out for themselves. John, who won the race, didn't step in at first, but peered in and saw the strips of linen and the head cloth lying in the tomb, but no body. Peter, finishing a close second in the race, entered the tomb at once. Then John followed Peter in. John recognized the significance of the vacancy. This was not a grave robbery, this was not the wrong tomb, this was not a myth, this was real. Jesus was not dead. As a result, John "saw, and believed" (John 20:8).
We peer into the empty tomb, from a perspective of knowledge, history, and tradition, 2,000 years removed. Not so with Mary, Peter, and John. Read closely John 20:9: "For they still did not understand the Scripture that He must rise from the dead" (John 20:9). They did not understand. Often, neither do we.
Jesus had to rise from the dead? Had to? Yes, had to! Why?
I. To break the bonds of death
Funerals will be held for the people that Brain Nichols and Jeff Weise killed, just as a funeral was held for Steve Setliff. Funerals are sad events. As a pastor I have stood at countless grave openings where caskets with human remains have been lowered into the ground. If that act marked the end of life, how hollow would be the words I speak, the scriptures I read, the prayers I pray. The saddest funerals of all are for those who did not believe in Jesus Christ. Yet, for those who believe, like John on that first Easter morning, that God raised Jesus from the dead, the funeral, though sad, reminds us of the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
Jesus broke the bonds of death on resurrection morning.
Robert Hughes tells of his father, a coal miner in the northeastern hills of Pennsylvania. He had a precarious job to check the mine for methane gas before the rest of the men entered the bowels of the mine. Each morning he took his safety light and descended alone into the mine. Every tunnel and shaft would he check to make sure that no deadly methane gas was present. If the safety lamp's light flickered, he would run as fast as he could because an explosion might happen due to the presence of that gas. After checking the mine, he would walk up to the surface and the miners would gather around expectantly waiting for him to announce, "It's ok, it's safe; you can now go down into the mine."
That's what Christ has done for us. Coming up out of the depths of death, he has announced to all who are gathered here in this life on earth: "It's safe; it's ok. You can enter into death, into the darkness and the unknown. It's safe because I have been there and checked it out. I have overcome it. I have broken it chains and its stronghold for all who believe in me.
II. To give us victory over death
Former pastor and author Warren Wiersbe writes, "A dead Savior cannot save anybody. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is as much a part of the gospel message as his sacrificial death on the cross. . . . The resurrection proves that Jesus Christ is what he claimed to be, the very Son of God." If Jesus were not bodily resurrected, he was not God, nor Savior, and Christianity is a lie.
Because Jesus rose from the dead we have victory over death, our final enemy. The empty tomb declares the hope we have in Jesus. Jesus' victory over the grave empowers the believer to face the uncertainties of life with confidence. And perhaps the biggest uncertainty is death. It creates a lot of fear.
But knowing the outcome calms our fears. May I let you in on a secret? Actually, it's not a secret anymore. Those who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead know how the game ends. We win. The resurrection of Jesus Christ takes the unknown out of death. The hope of the believer in Jesus Christ is that death is no longer a giant to fear.
Jesus rose from the dead so we can have victory over death.
III. To give us new life in the face of death
People around Jesus were all changed because of the resurrection. Mary's tears of heartbreak turned to speechless celebration because of the resurrection. Peter, John, and the other disciples, once fearing for their lives as they huddled in the locked room, were transformed because of the resurrection. Thousands believed, and then millions, because of the resurrection. In time, over the last 2,000 years, entire governments, cultures, and educational processes have been changed because of the resurrection.
Spiritually, because of the resurrection our sins are forgiven, our life is renewed, our hope is permanent, and our eternity is secured. We are given a new start, a new life, and a new tomorrow.
During World War I a group of wounded men were huddled together in a dugout. One of the men had been terribly wounded, and he knew he had only moments to live. He had a friend with him, one who had already seen a bad start to a bad life. He'd made wrong decisions. He'd already served time in prison. In fact, the police wanted him when he returned home.
The dying man pulled the wanted man down, close to his face. He took his dog tag, his ID chain, and pressed them into his buddy's hand. "Listen, Dominic, you've led a bad life," he said. "Everywhere you are wanted by the police. But there are no convictions against me. My name is clear, so, here, take my dog tag, take my wallet, take my papers, my identity, my good name, my life and quickly, hand me your papers that I may carry all your crimes away with me in death."
Jesus took our sins, our past, our failures, our hurts with him in death. He took our place.
But on Sunday he rose from the dead, triumphantly. Now he makes a life-changing offer to us: "I've taken your sins; my life was sacrificed for your old life. Now I want to give you a new life."
Will you accept that offer?
Like John, it's not enough to run to the tomb, to peer into the tomb, to enter the tomb, or to see the evidence that Jesus is not in the tomb, you have to believe. As Paul wrote, "if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9). Are you willing to believe?
Must you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ? Is it really that important? A survey conducted by Barna Research group found that 30 percent of professing Christians do not believe that Jesus came back to physical life after he was crucified. Thirty percent! Can you really be a follower of Jesus Christ and not believe in his physical, bodily resurrection from the dead?
The answer is no. Like John, Peter, Mary and every follower after them, one must come to the tomb, look in, and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, then and only then, will you be saved.
An interesting twist to the Brian Nichols story occurred early on Saturday March 12, when Ashley Smith, a single mother, returned to her suburban Atlanta apartment from a nearby convenience store. Nichols ambushed her at gunpoint. During the seven-hour ordeal Ashley cooked him eggs and pancakes, shared her life story, read to him from Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, listened to him, and talked about God. At one point, Ashley looked into his face and told him he needed hope for his life. Nichols responded, "Look at me, look at my eyes. I am already dead."
Ashley countered, "You are not dead. You are standing right in front of me. If you want to die, you can. It's your choice."
The fact is, you are not dead either, but one day you will be. Right now you have a choice, too. Will you choose to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead or not? My hope is that the people that Brian Nichols and Jeff Weise shot believed. I know that Steve Setliff believed. My desire is that you believe, too.