What are we to make of an empty tomb?
The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!
It is estimated that the stone rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb might have weighed between 1-2 ton. Once in place the stone is almost impossible to move no matter what shape of stone it was. The seal around the tomb was the Roman seal. Such a seal said that the tomb was occupied. The power and authority of Rome stood behind the seal. Anyone found breaking the seal would suffer the punishment of an unpleasant death. It was most likely a Roman guard (not a Jewish one) at the tomb. If so, it was a unit of 16 soldiers. Each soldier was responsible for 6 square feet of space. The guard could sit or stand, but he had to remain awake at all times. If one fell asleep, he was beaten and burned fully clothed and all 16 men in the unit were executed as well. You could not have made the tomb that held the lifeless body of Jesus more secure than that!
This is the day that validated the words and promises of God! Christ had said that his Father would not abandon him to the grave nor would he let his body decay (Ps 16:10). This is the day the Lord has made! The battle over the body of Jesus was not as the Jews thought a battle between Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees and Sadducees. The battle was really between Satan and Jesus. Jesus announced the victory over Satan on the cross. But the proof of the pudding is whether or not his body is still buried in a cave in Israel somewhere.
Recently archaeologists have opened the floor of the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to do some repair work on what is believed to be the remains of the tomb that once held the body of Jesus for those three days. Lest anyone be confused, the tomb is still empty. The question for us today is …
What do you make of an empty tomb?
If you had been brave enough to go with those women to the cemetery very early in the morning when it was still dark, I am pretty sure you would have been as afraid and confused as they were. Our text focuses on one of those women, Mary of Magdala. She was one of the women who watched how the body of Jesus was laid in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. When the Sabbath day ended at 6:00 pm Saturday night, she and other female followers of Jesus prepared spices to embalm Jesus’ body and brought them to the site at the crack of dawn. It was the greatest act of respect they could show to their master.
Along the way, the women talked about the large stone in front of the tomb. They wondered how they could possible remove it to embalm the body. But that very large problem didn’t prevent them from continuing on their way. Imagine their surprise to arrive at the tomb and find the stone rolled away and, according to Matthew’s account, an angel was sitting on it and all the guards were so frightened that they lay on the ground as though dead as the earth quaked beneath their feet! But Mary’s eyes were focused on the stone. Its removal revealed an empty tomb!
What is she to make of an empty tomb? Human reason would say that someone must have stolen the body. No one can fault Mary for assuming what anyone would naturally assume! We are told: “So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!’” We know from the other gospel accounts that the angel had told her that Jesus had risen from the dead. But that didn’t make sense. Mary knew Jesus had died. She saw his lifeless body laid in the tomb. The only explanation that made sense to her was that someone had taken the body out of the tomb. Where is the body? Why would anyone steal the body? Nothing that morning made sense!
In so many ways God compels us to believe things that don’t make sense. He asks us to believe that he is three persons, but still one God. He asks us to believe the water of baptism forgives sins. He asks us to believe that Christ’s body and blood is present in the bread and wine of holy communion. He asks us to believe that our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. He asks us to believe that we will live even though we die. He asks us to believe that we are children of God and heirs of heaven. None of that makes sense! How can an infant receive the renewing of the Spirit in baptism? If Christ shed his blood once for all on the cross, how can his body and blood really be present in the Lord’s Supper? If I am forgiven because of Christ’s resurrection, then why don’t I feel forgiven? If I’m a child of God, why do bad things happen to me? Human reason is blown away by the truths of Scripture.
Skeptics refuse to submit their reason to the Word of God. Faith takes God at his Word whether or not we can understand it. No one stole the body! That was impossible! The body is risen because God says so! That is amazing!
Listen: “So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally, the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside.” The “other disciples” was John. No one knew Jesus better than Peter and John. John always referred to himself as “the one Jesus loved” in his gospel. No doubt John was amazed that the Holy One would love a sinner like him! Peter longed to confess his sins to his Savior after his terrible denial of him in the courtyard. He longed to hear the words of absolution! No two-people wanted to see Jesus more than they did!
Even they wondered what had happened. St. Paul once wrote, “We preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” We preach this foolishness because God has opened our hearts to know and believe that Jesus rose bodily from the grave! We wouldn’t reach this conviction on the basis of human reason. No! This confidence is the product of faith worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. John says in our text that he “saw and believed.” Thomas wasn’t the only doubting disciple of Jesus. Peter and John were too! They wouldn’t believe that Jesus was alive until they examined the contents of the tomb and concluded that no grave robbers would have left things so neatly in place. When Jesus said to Thomas a week later: “Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed” applied just as surely to Peter and John as it did to Thomas.
Then we are told “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” They believed the evidence of a risen Savior, but they didn’t understand that the Scriptures spoke of this again and again. That understanding would come to them after the day of Pentecost. Then Peter would say, “God raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” The Holy Spirit had to open up their minds and hearts to believe the words and promises of God.
So, what do you make of an empty tomb? It is April 1st! Scoffers and skeptics till think it is a big joke. But here are the facts: Jesus raised his body from the grave just as the Scriptures say! Think of what that means for you. That means God’s Word is true. Jesus said he would do that and he did. That means that Jesus really is the Son of God. No mere man can go to his grave and walk out of it again! It means our sins are really forgiven. St. Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile. You are still in your sins. But Christ has been raised!” The risen body of Jesus means that we will rise from the dead too just as he promised when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Absolutely.