Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
April 21, 2019
1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
— Luke 24:1-12, ESV
We Christians are an argumentative lot, so it should be no surprise that for two thousand years we have disputed over the date and name of our most revered annual celebration. The Apostle Paul simply and eloquently wrote:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (ref. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).”
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! But on what date, and when should it be commemorated, and what shall it be called?
The first Christians understood the intrinsic connection between Christianity and Judaism. After all, they were all Jewish. They established the indisputable truth that Christ was crucified on the day after the Passover. Passover that year fell on a Thursday; therefore, Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose again on Sunday.
Early Christianity drifted away from its Jewish roots by expulsion and compulsion, but for the first three centuries Christians commemorated the resurrection of Christ on the first Sunday after Passover. To this day in Greek and Latin speaking cultures it is called Paschal Sunday, Paschal being the word for Passover, sacrifice, and substitutionary atonement.
When Christianity went mainstream under Constantine, a total break with Judaism was sought. It was declared at the Council of Nicaea that the resurrection should be disconnected from the Passover and observed on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. To this day, Holy Week culminates on this calculation and can fall on any Sunday between March 22 and April 25, depending upon the moon. It is ironic that we allow the moon to dictate when we celebrate the Son.
Eventually Christians wanted a name apart from Judaism, too, so in the eighth century a revered British saint named Bede suggested “Easter,” after the Anglo goddess of spring. Since pagan Anglos had largely converted to Christianity, Christianity converted the name of its most holy day to reflect an outdated pagan deity. This seems to bother some Christians, but calling the day Easter no more honors a false god than the name of our days of the week “Thursday” or “Sunday,” which were derived from the pagan gods Thor and Sol the sun god. As another Englishman would later write, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Then along came the Reformation, and Reformers ran from Roman Catholicism faster than medieval Christians ever thought about running from Judaism. Easter Sunday became Resurrection Sunday, and to this day Reformed churches prefer this banner. I rather like it myself, but in preparation for this sermon I learned it may not be the most fitting title.
Looking at Luke’s account, the prevailing attitude around the resurrection of Jesus would mark the day as “Surprise Sunday.” For, everything about it came as a complete surprise to the first followers of Christ and it completely transformed their lives.
The Resurrection was a Surprise to the Women at the Tomb
Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James the Less (a most unfortunate suffix) were overcome with grief. They, along with mother Mary and the beloved Apostle John, had stood near the cross and watched Jesus die on Friday. They watched Joseph of Arimathea and the former Pharisee Nicodemus prepare the body for burial, and noticed they had not done a very thorough job. They could not do anything about it on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, for violating the Jewish Sabbath (according to legalistic Pharisaical standards) is precisely what got Jesus killed. So they came to the tomb on the first day of the week, Sunday, with hearts far heavier than the seventy-five pounds of spices the men had carried. They would do the job right, for anything a man can do a woman can do better. After that, they thought, they would put Jesus’ lifeless body to rest for good.
Grief promotes unbelief. It does not believe things can change, fortunes can be reversed, or that which is dead can live again. We go to funerals with this grief all the time. When was the last time you confidently expected your loved one to jump up out of the casket before the funeral was over? We absorb all sorts of bad news and swallow it with grief, unbelieving any change will come. Grief lays our faith to rest, puts it in a tomb, and leaves it there.
Grief blinds us until we are surprised by good news, especially the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Surprise, the stone was rolled away. Surprise, the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. Surprise, the angels said, “He is not here, but has risen.” All of a sudden, surprise made sense. “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise. And they remembered his words.”
Remember the gospel, the messengers said. Jesus had preached it to them for three years. He even told them specifically what would happen in the end, that it would not be the end, only a beginning of abundant and eternal life with God in Christ. “And they remembered.” Their grief was swallowed by surprise and their lives were transformed. Change had come. God was not dead. Jesus is alive. The great movement of gospel Christianity would then spread across the world, and these women had walked in on the ground floor.
They were women, though, first century women, so they felt it their duty to report the surprise to their inferiors, the men.
The Resurrection was a Surprise to the Eleven Apostles
Simon Peter and the other Apostles were overcome with confusion. They were down a man at this point, numbering “the eleven.” The past seven days had their heads spinning. There was the triumphal entry the week before, when Christ came out as the Messiah. There were those confrontations in and around the Temple, when Jesus put the religious rulers to shame. There was the Seder, celebrated with Jesus in that upper room, when that last supper was transformed into the Lord’s Supper.
Their last days with Christ has been so exciting and wonderful, like a script from a heroic movie. Then the screen turned to black. Then came Judas, then the soldiers, then the arrest, then the trials, then the crucifixion, then finally, the tomb.
The tomb was a trip they could not take. Women could be fearless but men would be held accountable. If they went to the tomb they, too, could be arrested, tried, convicted, crucified. “Should I stay or should I go?” They were confused, and confusion stymies sincere belief.
They needed a surprise. But at first on that first day of the week, they did not believe the testimony of the women. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Simon Peter, the leader, said he’d believe it when he’s seen it, so “Peter rose and ran to the tomb … and he went home marveling at what had happened.”
People get caught “marveling” (or, “wondering”) when they are confused, surprised, or excited. The first Christians were all of the above, in that order. Jesus had preached the gospel to the woman and the men. Jesus had fulfilled the gospel with His death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus was about to commission them with this gospel, to live it every day and share it all over the world. Look at how surprise transformed their lives.
The surprise of the gospel always transforms lives, but it requires a resurrection.
The Resurrection is a Surprise To All Believers
People living in the world today, like the woman and the men of the empty tomb, seem to be overcome. There is too much grief in the world that hides the love of God. There is too much confusion in the world that distorts the truth of God. There is too much activity and technology in the world that overshadows the simple meaning of the gospel, grace, faith, and the lordship of Jesus Christ.
What people need is a surprise that leads to transformation. The gospel, carved out by the crucifixion of Jesus and capped by the resurrection of Christ, is the greatest and most surprising news God has ever given to man. It is full of surprises.
Tim Keller said: “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
You may be surprised to know how sinful you are, and the degree to which it can alienate you from God. We live in a day when everybody is good. Andrea and I typically watch the evening news. Almost every night there is a shooting in our state’s capital city. Often they interview the family or neighbors of the suspect, who is always described as a really good person with a good heart. The evidence would argue differently. However, bad hearts are not the exclusive property of murderers and thieves (ref. Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10, 3:23).
You may be surprised to know how loved you are. Why in the world would God condescend to become a man and live a low income life in Galilee? Why in the world would he live in obscurity for thirty years, burst onto the scene for only three years, intentionally alienate the Jewish religious establishment, threaten the Pax Romana, and get Himself crucified on an old rugged cross? Why in the world? Because of the world, the people of the world, red and yellow, black and white. Need I quote John 3:16?
You may be surprised to know how easy it is to be a Christian, to ensure you will to go to Heaven when you die. Grace is absolutely free. Grace totally removes the sin barrier between you and God. Grace gives you the righteousness required to be a child of God, forever. It is all of grace, and grace comes with faith.
You may be surprise to know how hard it is to be a Christian. Grace is free but the faith it brings is costly. Faith is not attending a church service once a year. Neither is faith assured by attending a church service every Sunday of the year. Faith is the surprise that the life you hold so dear now belongs to someone else, to the Lord Jesus Christ, every Sunday and every day of the year because you, too, have been resurrected from the dead, by grace, through faith, in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John Newton, author of the most famous hymn of all time, said there will be three surprises in Heaven. The first is that he would see people he did not expect to be there. The second was that he would miss some people he thought would be there. The third and biggest surprise was that he, a sinner and former slave trader, would be there at all. That’s “Amazing Grace,” and amazing grace, like the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is always a surprise.
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Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org