Sermon: What Really Happened on Easter?

Text: Matthew 28:1-10

Gospel for The Resurrection of our Lord
Listen to the Sermon Here!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

People today like to imagine that they are the very first people in history to notice that dead people stay dead. They like to mock and ridicule Christians by saying that the Resurrection of Jesus only makes sense in a pre-modern, pre-scientific world. Some really imagine that people back then didn’t know better, and were a very superstitious lot. But, on the contrary, ancient people knew just as well as we do that dead people stay dead. They did not think that people might occasionally rise from the dead, and that maybe this Jesus guy happened to be one of them. When Christianity burst upon the Roman world, the claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily after being dead for three days was just as crazy, just as nonsensical to first century pagans as it is to twenty-first century pagans. There’s nothing really new here.

Easter is not, as you sometimes hear, the “day Christians celebrate their belief that Jesus rose from the dead.” Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the empty tomb, the eyewitness appearances, are not matters of faith. They are not metaphors for how goodness can triumph through suffering. They are not about having a spiritualised experience of the Christ-figure rising in your heart. Christians have always claimed that something really did happen on that first Easter. What was it?

Something Happened

It isn’t hard to understand the terror and anticipation that gripped the women who went to the tomb Easter morning. They came to mourn. They just wanted to be there, near Jesus, to pour out their sorrow in as much peace and quiet as possible. Peace and quiet was the last thing they got. “Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.” (vv. 1-2) Something has already happened, and they weren’t ready for it. They weren’t expecting it.

They weren’t expecting angels, neither were they expecting the message they delivered: “He is not here; for he has risen” (v. 6). Dead people stay dead. Dead Messiahs stay dead. Everybody knows that. Yes, Jews believe all will rise again on the last day, but not in the middle of history, not in the middle of the night, not in the middle and the muddle of our twisted and fragmented and puzzling and grieving lives. The undeniable fact is that something happened that first Easter morning.

These two Mary’s saw something they truly did not expect on that first Easter. These same women who came to the tomb watched Jesus die. They saw the spear pierce his pericardium. They knew full well he didn’t pass out, because they saw with their own eyes that Jesus was stone dead. They went with a prominent member of the same Jewish Council which condemned Jesus to death, and saw where he was buried. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, died, and was buried and these women knew it. When they came back on Sunday morning, a risen Jesus was not even close to being on their radar.

The tomb was empty. The tomb remains empty to this day. This is an uncomfortable fact of history that threatens to overturn the very fabric of our perception of the world and our lives. The death of Jesus and the empty tomb on Sunday morning, when viewed as historical events, are as solid and secure as the assassination of Julius Caesar, or any other historical detail from the period. If the tomb wasn’t empty, then all the opponents of Christianity needed to do was produce the dead corpse of Jesus.

Something happened, and now they had to tell the others! “So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Hail!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him” (vv. 8-9). They saw Jesus himself, alive again, and an empty tomb where he had been. In fact, the Apostle Paul writing to the church in Corinth a mere 23 years later, records that many of the people who saw and met with the risen Jesus were still alive to validate the story. There was Peter, the apostles, his unbelieving brother James, and up to five hundred people at once (1 Cor. 15:5-7). Without the appearances, they would have said the grave had been robbed. Without the empty tomb, they would have known it was a hallucination. But if all three things occurred, how do we explain them? What really happened on Easter?

God was at Work.

What happened was that Jesus of Nazareth, rose from the dead. Today, Christians throughout the world are celebrating the Resurrection, not as a product of wishful thinking, not as a beautiful metaphor, nor as an existential experience, but as something that really happened. That Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, is a historically reliable and secure conclusion to the evidence we have. There is only one explanation that can account for the facts. All other explanations fail to account for the reality of what the eyewitnesses said and the change in their lives and their sense of call. Jesus is risen and now lives, and he lives whether you believe it or not. The resurrection of Jesus, though, is far more than a piece of historical data or a random, one-off event. Not only did something happen, but it has meaning and impact in our lives as well.

The point is, this wasn’t just a freak happenstance, or a solitary unexplainable event. What happened was the action of God. He was at work. God raised Jesus from the dead. God, who promised long ago to set this crooked world right again, has finally done so. Instead of all people being raised at the end of history, God has torn a hole in history and raised one man right in the middle of it. This event had changed the world for ever. It announced, not a theory but the fact, that God’s Kingdom, his New Creation, has already begun.

When God raised him, all Jesus’ claims were vindicated. God raised Jesus to prove that he is who he says he is, the very Son of God. This means that Jesus claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. In Jesus, Israel’s God has become personally present in the world, and acted to save the it. Believing in Jesus’ resurrection is not just an affirmation of a historical fact. It means trusting in God, in this God, the God who raises the dead. It means trusting the God who promised in the Holy Scriptures that he will raise us from the dead! “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” and “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). “He is risen, as he said” (v. 6). Jesus speaks the truth; His words are truth; He is the truth. You can have confidence that God will be faithful to his promises in Scriptures. The resurrection is proof that you will not be betrayed. Every word of God is true. His promise of eternal bodily life is certain, “even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus means the dead will live in Christ. This is the Christian hope. Christ is risen, and in Him the dead will rise! Our last and greatest enemy, Death itself, lies conquered, vanquished under the bruised heel of Jesus. There is a cure for Death. It’s the Risen Christ. In Christ, the grave has lost its hold on you. It cannot hold you because it could not hold Jesus. Christ has conquered Death and stole his crown. The reign of Death and Hell is ended; the reign of Jesus Christ has begun. Christ is risen! We need not fear anything in this world, even those things that could destroy the body.

What do you fear? Jesus resurrection provides your hope! Do you fear Covid-19? Do you fear cancer? Do not be afraid. Do you fear death? Then fear it no longer. Christ has triumphed over our greatest enemy. Do you dread the grave? Then dread no longer; Christ has made your grave a place of holy rest for your body, and promises rest for your soul in paradise with him. Do you grieve the death of someone you love? Then grieve in hope and trust in Christ. Christ is risen, and in Him the dead will rise. Are you suffering and despairing in this life? Then hear and believe this, Jesus Christ was crucified for you and now is risen from the dead. His suffering and death are vindicated, and your suffering and death will only be temporary, because he has won resurrection life for you.

The women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning, were seeking Jesus who was crucified. Instead, they found an empty tomb, and a risen Jesus. Absurd? Laughable? Nonsensical? Without a doubt. It was in the first century and it is today. But actually it makes historical sense. The case for the historicity Jesus’ resurrection is remarkably good. The first Christians, and Christians ever since, knew just how outlandish their claims were, but they felt compelled to say that something happened that first Easter. What happened was the very work of God. God raised Jesus from the dead and because of that we can trust his promise to raise us. He is the first-fruits, the first to rise with more to come. Christ is risen, and the future is bright with Him. So, do not be afraid. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.