The Great Reversal

By: Robert Heerspink

Scripture Reading: John 20:1-18

April 12th, 2009

THAT TERRIBLE WORD Philip Yancey, writing in Christianity Today, tells of the time when as a child he learned one of the most horrible words in all the English language. It happened on an Easter Sunday. Yancey had just taken outside his new pet, a kitten by the name of Boots. But the next—door neighbor had a dog, Pugs. And when Pugs saw Boots he descended upon him with unleashed fury. Pugs proceeded to grab that kitten by the neck, and shook him like a sock. By the time Boots was rescued, life was quickly slipping out of his limp body. And that day Yancey tells us, that day, he learned a terrible word. A horrible word. It is the word IRREVERSIBLE. Boots was irreversibly injured. As a 12 year old, Yancey so desperately wanted to turn back the clock, to replay the morning over again, minus that one terrible scene. But it could not be done. Boots was dead. Irreversibly dead. Irreversible. What a horrible word. And it seems so descriptive of our lives—in so many ways! We say words that exploit the vulnerabilities of someone close to us. Immediately we regret the words that have slipped from our lips. We apologize. But words have power, and the damage has been done. Our words are irretrievable. Irreversible. We visit a website that we know we have no business visiting. We know when we click the mouse we are violating our moral values. We’re going to regret this. And immediately we feel shame. But images that soil our souls have passed before our eyes. What we’ve done—it’s irreversible. The doctor comes in with the news. He looks grim. "I’m sorry," he says, "It’s a heart attack. I’m afraid the damage is irreversible." We stand beside the casket of someone we love. We can hardly believe what has happened. But death has broken into our lives, and it’s all so irreversible. Irreversible. It was that word that was driven home to Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday afternoon. Psychologists tell us that immediately after the death of someone we love, our first reaction is denial. Certainly, there must have been denial going on in the aftermath of Calvary. No doubt the disciples said to each other: "This can’t be!" Peter, Mary, John, and Joseph of Aramatheia—all these disciples must have been screaming inside: "No, it couldn’t have happened." Yet as the stone—cold body was taken down from the cross, there was the evidence. Jesus was dead. It was all so ’irreversible." REVERSING THE IRREVERSIBLE But that was Friday afternoon. And today Easter has come! And today we discover that irreversible is not a word in God’s vocabulary. For God can do the undoable. God can reverse the irreversible. God makes possible what to the human mind is total impossibility. On Easter the dead live! On Easter, the grave is empty! Christ is alive! Do you believe that? Do you believe the Easter news? There are some who say they can’t believe. They can’t believe for a simple reason: Corpses don’t come back to life. I recently read one critic who pointed out that while gullible people back in the first century might have thought differently, pragmatic scientific thinkers of the 21st century know the truth: corpses rot—they don’t revive. Well, excuse me, but how naïve do you think first—century people were? Don’t you think they knew as well as we that corpses have a rather stubborn tendency to remain lifeless? Why do you think the resurrection story was greeted by the disciples themselves as an "idle tale?" Because first century people knew that a dead body was a dead body. In fact, first century folk were much more aware of the power of death than most of us. They knew the stink of a corpse three days after death. No funeral homes for first century folk! These people cared for their own loved ones in death. No, if you want to know the truth, its 21st century folk like us who tend to gloss over death. We are the ones who comment at the side of casket that our loved one looks ’so good, just like they’re sleeping.’ People who lived in first century Palestine were the hard—headed realists. They had to be in order to cope with the harshness of life. They looked death in the face. They knew the horror of death. But then, why did so many believe that on Easter morning Christ was truly alive? LINES OF EVIDENCE: THOSE REMARKABLE GRAVE CLOTHES There were two lines of evidence that pointed inescapably to the miracle of Easter morning. Two lines of evidence pointed to the great Easter reversal. First, the simple fact of the empty tomb. The gospel writers unanimously declare that on Easter morning the grave held no corpse. Mary’s early morning discovery was soon confirmed by Peter and John. There is no body to be found in Joseph’s sepulcher where Jesus had been lain. Now, this was a claim the Jewish establishment dearly wanted to refute but couldn’t. The only explanation they could dream up was that the disciples themselves stole the body. What do you think of that explanation? Do you think it might contain a shred of possibility? Let me just point out that it wasn’t just the enemies of Jesus who considered that explanation—it was Mary Magdalene herself. When Mary first meets Jesus she mistakes him for the gardener, and asks whether he has moved the body to a different gravesite. Now there is simple evidence that blows a hole in the suggestion that the grave was robbed. It’s the discovery John makes when he investigates the tomb. The grave clothes are lying on a stone slab inside the tomb, undisturbed. Grave robbers do not take pains to leave grave clothes behind. In fact, grave robbers would find it physically impossible to leave the grave clothes behind. We probably think of these grave clothes as something like a shroud loosely wrapped around the corpse. But when a body was wrapped for burial, the layers of cloth would be interlaced with spices. John tells us that there was already a hundred pounds of spices that had been used to anoint the body of the Savior. Those sticky spices would create a virtual cocoon around the corpse. No, there was no way for grave robbers neatly to leave the grave clothes behind. But as Peter and John look into the tomb, they see those grave clothes undisturbed. It was clear to these disciples that something staggering had happened. The corpse of Jesus hadn’t been unwrapped. Instead, the body of Jesus had passed through those wrappings. But that could mean only one thing. A miracle that defied comprehension had taken place. Jesus was alive. LINES OF EVIDENCE: RESURRECTION APPEARANCES There is another line of evidence which the first Christians took seriously. It was the appearances of Jesus to his disciples. They begin immediately on Easter morning. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene near the empty tomb. And over the next few days, those appearances just keep peppering the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. Paul gives us the church’s summary: Christ "appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of his brothers at the same time. . . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, he appeared to me also." The church proclaimed that Jesus was alive because they had seen him alive. Now, those appearances are sometimes explained on the basis of psychological suggestion. It’s argued that the disciples so want a living Jesus that they project their own delusions upon the screen of reality. These appearances, some say, are nothing other than wishes that somehow have taken concrete form in the disciples’ overactive imagination. But the facts are otherwise. Frankly, the disciples did not expect to see Jesus alive again. In fact, when he first appeared to them, they are every bit hard—headed skeptics. It took empirical evidence to convince the disciples that Jesus is really alive. Jesus will need to invite his disciples to touch the nail prints in his hands. Then Jesus will have to dine on a piece of broiled fish in order to convince them that he is truly risen! No, a hallucination doesn’t explain the appearances. The evidence points to the fact that Jesus is bodily alive! YOUR PLACE AMONG THE WITNESSES But, maybe today there is one thing that does disappoint you. It’s that you are not among the Easter witnesses. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have been at the tomb this Easter morning? Wouldn’t it have been overwhelming to have been among the 500 who saw the Lord together! What a worship service THAT must have been! And perhaps because you were not there on Easter morning, you have some doubt today about the resurrection. Maybe you are a teenager, just reaching the point of asking yourself whether this faith that mom and dad believe—whether this should be your personal faith as well. Or perhaps you are much older. And you’ve been sitting in church for years. And you still have these lingering questions as to whether an Easter faith is truly creditable. Can you be an Easter believer in a scientific world like our own? In a world that asks for ’just the facts?’ Can you trust the Easter story in a world of deep skepticism where sometimes it seems that everything is perpetually up for grabs? You say—"If only I had been there too! Then my doubts would vanish into thin air! Then I would simply know the truth about the Easter message!" BY FAITH NOT SIGHT Really? Do you think that is so? Does even being a witness to the resurrection on Easter morning dissolve away the need to believe?! It would be good to remember that both John and Peter saw the grave clothes—but as they walked from the tomb, only JOHN believed! It would be good to remember that Mary was the first to see Jesus alive in the garden—but she at first mistook him for the groundskeeper. What had to happen before Mary recognized Jesus? Jesus had to call her by name. "Mary!" he said. Mary has searched for Jesus—she has consulted the disciples—she has even asked directions to where she can find him. But Jesus must speak her name before she sees the truth. As Jesus himself had declared during his ministry: "The shepherd calls his sheep by name, and leads them out." This morning, for Easter faith to be born in us, we need to hear the living Christ, the risen Christ, call us by name. He is doing that this morning, as you listen to the Easter message. Jesus is saying to each of us today, "I am the resurrection and the life—do you believe?" You see, we have the testimony of the Easter witnesses.
Mary who takes hold of the risen Savior’s feet. John, who sees the grave clothes and believes. James, Jesus’ own brother—who goes from scoffer to pillar of the church because of an Easter meeting with Jesus Thomas, whose skepticism and cynicism is blown away in a moment of stunning revelation when he is challenged by the risen Christ.
We have their testimony. They stand declaring that Christ’s resurrection is creditable. They stand as witnesses to the truth—that while Easter certainly is beyond reason it is not against reason. THE FINAL WITNESS Still, there is one more witness who is needed if we are to believe—the supreme witness to the resurrection. Do you know who that is? It is the witness who convicted all those first century disciples. It is the Spirit of the Risen Christ himself. The Spirit of Christ, who inspired faith that first Easter morning, is among us still today. He is at work so that you might have confidence and trust in this Risen Lord. He is at work in you so that you may hear Jesus say to you, "Fear not, I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine." Do you hear the voice of the Risen Savior speak to your spirit? And do you answer back with the voice of believers down through the centuries: "Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed!" THE EASTER CALLING Christ is risen indeed! If Easter is true, then the world has been turned upside down. Then the word ’irreversible’ is qualified in ways that we never thought possible. If Christ is risen, then the stain of my guilt doesn’t need to cling to me forever. For Christ not only went to the cross bearing my guilt. But he is risen to declare me pardoned by God. Says Paul in Romans 4:25, "He was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification." If Christ is risen, then I’m no longer trapped in chains of disobedience. I’m no longer need to live addicted to patterns of behavior by which I keep shaming myself. Says Paul in Colossians 3, because we’ve been raised with Christ, we set our minds, not on earthly things, but things above! (Colossians 3:2). If Christ is risen, then the world itself is no longer trapped in corruption and decay. Christ’s resurrection is why Paul can declare in Romans 8:21, that the hope of creation itself is to ’be liberated from the bondage of decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." Indeed, it is because of Christ’s resurrection that Paul can speak of our own personal triumph over the grave: ’…the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed." (I Corinthians 15:52) Irreversible? It’s not a word in God’s vocabulary. And for those who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, it doesn’t need to be in their vocabulary as well. For yes, Easter changes everything!
Our irreversible guilt—undone Our irreversible past—undone Our inescapable death—undone The grip of evil upon our world—undone
That is the Easter message. What God did in Palestinian graveyard twenty centuries ago has given nothing less than LIFE and HOPE to us and to our world.

About the Author

Robert Heerspink

Rev. Robert Heerspink is a native of west Michigan. He completed his undergraduate studies at Calvin College and holds the degrees of Master of Divinity and Master of Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. He has also received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Bob was ordained a minister of the Word in the Christian Reformed Church of North America in 1979, and has 26 years of parish experience, having served four churches throughout west Michigan. He was appointed the Director of The Back to God Hour in 2006. Bob has written several resources related to congregational stewardship, including the book, Becoming a Firstfruits Congregation. He is a regular contributor to TODAY, the monthly devotional of The Back to God Hour. Bob is married to Edith (Miedema) and they have three children. His hobbies include reading fictional and historical works, watersports, and occassional golfing.

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