Good News From the Graveyard
Luke 24:1-3Thursday afternoon I took a walk through Forest Home Cemetery. It’s an old cemetery nestled between the Eisenhower Freeway and Roosevelt Road. When I arrived, the place was almost deserted. I drove down one of the winding narrow roads and stopped near a large monument.
It’s a quiet place. You feel very alone even though the cars are whizzing by on the freeway. While I was there thousands of cars flashed by, hurrying on their way to and from Chicago.
It was a cloudy, damp day and no one else was there. I spent some time walking … and looking … and thinking. Forest Home is a good place to do that. It’s an oasis of solitude in the midst of city noise.
As I walked I began to read the markers. Names and dates … 1855 dash 1915. 1904 dash 1976. Two dates and a dash. A day of birth, a day of death, and a little dash representing everything in between.
So many thoughts crowd the mind. I wondered about the hundreds and thousands of people buried there. The markers read “Beloved mother,” “Faithful father,” “Rest in peace.” I saw one marker that read “Baby Marie,” 1910-1911. Another marker said, “We parted in sorrow, we shall meet in joy.”
In one section of the cemetery I came across a grave where a husband and wife had been buried together. He died in 1903, she in 1930. His inscription read,
A friend of children for 30 years,
Sunday School Superintendent
A promoter of kindergartens
And other children’s work.
A beautiful inspiring memory.
Then I found an entire family buried together–seven names with dates of birth and death–and one that read simply, “Faith, 24 Days, 1924.” What a story must lie behind those 24 days.
Some of the names were hard to read, the granite worn away by years of rain and wind and snow. Other graves were only a year or two old.
And the thought came to me that the cemetery was peaceful. Quiet … Beautiful … Peaceful. Exactly what a cemetery should be.
Late on a Friday Afternoon
It was probably very much like a certain cemetery outside Jerusalem. Not as large perhaps, but quiet and peaceful.
It was a garden cemetery … a little collection of tombs dug out of solid rock. There the Jews buried their sacred dead. There they laid their loved ones waiting for a better day.
There very late on a Friday afternoon …
Just before sundown …
They buried the body of Jesus.
The Bible mentions four times that Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb. It belonged to a rich man named Joseph from the city of Arimathea. He was a prominent figure in local society because besides being rich, he was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious body.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John combine to tell us the story.
Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
Pilate was surprised. He didn’t think Jesus was dead yet.
Crucifixion was a hideous way to die.
Strong men sometimes hung there for days before they died.
But Jesus died after only six hours on the cross.
So they didn’t break his legs.
No need to.
He was already dead.
When they took down the body of Jesus from the cross, his body was in bad shape. It bore all the marks of the abuse he had suffered.
He was covered with blood.
There was a hole in his side.
His face was horribly disfigured.
The skin hung from his back in tatters.
Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped the body in strips of linen cloth. Then they sprinkled about 80 pounds of spices throughout the linen strips.
Part of it was a kind of ground powder.
The other part was a gummy substance.
The spices made the linen strips stick together and form a tight wrap around the body.
That was how the Jews embalmed their dead.
Buried Before Sundown
It was getting near sundown now. That created a problem because the Old Testament forbade the Jews to handle a dead body on the Sabbath.
No time to find a new grave.
So Joseph volunteered his own.
The Bible says it was fresh, newly dug out of the rock.
No one had been laid there yet.
Doubtless Joseph meant for his own family to be buried there someday.
But for the moment, everything is put aside.
Joseph and Nicodemus pick up the limp, lifeless corpse of Jesus.
And half-carry, half-drag it to the garden tomb.
Thank goodness it wasn’t far away.
Between the weight of the body …
And the linen …
And the spices …
It must have been almost 250 pounds.
Meanwhile the sun slowly sinks across the western horizon.
Shadows fall across the olive trees.
The two men–secret disciples–carry the dead body of Jesus to the tomb.
Close behind are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary …
The little cemetery outside Jerusalem is still there.
The whole area is filled with little openings dug out of the mountainside.
The entrance to the tomb was very small.
Nicodemus and Joseph had to bend over to get inside.
Inside the tomb … it was dark … almost pitch-black.
Musty and damp.
They laid the body of Jesus on a ledge and turned to go.
When they got outside, Joseph and Nicodemus rolled a great stone over the entrance. The women sat by the side watching.
Then Joseph and Nicodemus left …
Then the two Marys left …
Darkness fell on the garden cemetery.
Everyone had left
Inside the tomb … silence
The smell of death was everywhere.
It is a remarkable fact that the Bible says very little about that Saturday.
We know about Good Friday.
We know about Easter Sunday.
But of that Saturday in between we know almost nothing.
Sometime between Friday and Saturday the Romans put a seal on the stone to keep people away.
Luke says of the disciples … “And on the Sabbath they rested.”
But of Sunday, the Bible is very clear.
Matthew says, “Late on the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week.”
Mark says, “Very early on the first day of the week.”
Luke says, “On the first day of the week, at early dawn.”
John says, “Now on the first day of the week … Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb.”
The women came to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus.
They weren’t expecting a resurrection.
It was the farthest thing from their minds.
But to their shock … and surprise … and utter confusion …
The seal was broken.
The stone was rolled away.
The tomb was open.
They looked inside. It was empty.
Jesus was gone.
The tomb was empty.
An angel stood beside them and said two of the most powerful sentences in all the Bible …
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?
He is not here, for he is risen, just as he said.”
Mary ran and found Peter and John.
She didn’t even believe it at first.
It was too much to take.
Peter and John ran to the tomb.
John got there first.
But Peter went inside.
An Empty Cocoon
The Bible has a strange word about what he found. It says he found the linen cloth lying there. And the head cloth wrapped up by itself.
I think it means the linens were like an empty shell … as if whoever had been inside had simply passed right through them, like a cocoon after the butterfly has flown away.
Then Mary met Jesus … alive from the dead.
Then two disciples on the road met Jesus … alive from the dead.
Then the apostles met Jesus … alive from the dead.
Then doubting Thomas met Jesus … alive from the dead.
Then 500 people at one time met Jesus … alive from the dead.
The message went out: He’s Alive!
An ancient legend says that in the early church a believer was to be martyred for his faith. As they tied his hands and led him to the stake, he was asked if he had any last words. He shouted out, “He is risen.” Unknown to the authorities, in the surrounding hills, the Christians had gathered to watch the execution. When they heard the words, “He is risen” … They cried out with one voice … “He is risen indeed.”
That’s how they greeted one another in the early church.
He is risen!
He is risen indeed!
You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
Fifty days after that first Easter … Peter stood to preach in Jerusalem. He preached to the very people who had crucified Jesus. His blood was on their hands.
In that sermon he said these words …
Jesus of Nazareth … You nailed to a cross … and put to death.
But God raised him from the dead.
Freeing him from the agony of death.
For it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
On the walls of a Sunday School classroom in California, I saw this bit of graffiti: “Christ rose from the dead. You can’t keep a good man down.”
That’s what Peter said … Death could not hold him.
Death cannot keep its prey, Jesus my Savior.
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord.
Up from the grave he arose
With a mighty triumph o’er his foes.
He arose a victor o’er the dark domain.
And he lives forever with his saints to reign.
He arose, He arose. Hallelujah! Christ arose.
A Preacher Who Didn’t Believe
It’s Easter Sunday, 1992. And at Forest Home Cemetery everything is quiet … peaceful … beautiful.
No resurrections there … yet.
I’ll never forget the first graveside service I ever performed. It happened soon after I became the pastor of a small church in California. It was a service for someone I didn’t know.
I stood at the graveside and tried to say a few words.
Then I prayed. In my prayer I said something like, “As we await the resurrection day.” To my surprise, the words stuck in my throat. I barely finished my prayer.
I was humiliated. I called myself a preacher and I couldn’t perform a simple graveside service.
What was wrong? Then it hit me.
I, a minister of the gospel, had come face to face with death for the first time as a pastor. It overwhelmed me. The awful finality of death hit me square in the face.
Then I knew the truth … I wasn’t sure I believed in the resurrection of the dead.
“Son, You’ve Been Looking in the Wrong Place”
I went home and thought about it… . Was it really true? Could I believe it?
Many of you have been to the cemetery … and wondered the same thing.
If you just go on what you see, it’s a hard doctrine to believe.
The odds seem to be against it.
No one here has ever seen a resurrection.
There hasn’t been one for 2000 years.
If you go to the cemetery and wait for one, you’ll have to wait a long, long time.
As I thought on these things, the Lord seemed to say to me,
"Son, you’ve been looking in the wrong place.
Come with me.”
It seemed as if the Lord took me to a great city,
To a grove of trees on a hillside outside the city walls.
Among the trees on the hillside, a cemetery.
The Lord pointed to a certain tomb. The stone had been rolled away.
I looked inside.
I didn’t see anything …
Except some rumpled linens and a cloth folded in a corner.
Then it hit me. The tomb was empty. Whoever had been there was gone.
And he left his graveclothes behind.
Why I Believe
Ladies and gentlemen, I do not believe in the resurrection of the dead because of anything I can see. Everything I see argues against it.
I believe in the resurrection of the dead because I believe in the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning.
The Bible says, “If we believe that Jesus died and rose again … even so God will bring with him those who sleep in Jesus.”
I first met them six or seven years ago. They had moved to Dallas so he could attend seminary. They didn’t know anyone when they got to town, so I’m not sure how they ended up at the church I pastored in Garland, Texas.
When Ken and Ann Hynes came to the church, they had two little boys–Paul and Daniel. A year or so later they added a daughter and then another daughter in 1988. Ken worked at Interstate Battery to help pay his way through seminary.
Everyone who knew Ken and Ann Hynes knew two things:
Ken was a truly nice guy.
Ann was the spark plug of the family.
I can still see them on Sunday morning coming to church at the old furniture store on First Street.
Ann was first, always smiling and chatting with people. Then a line of two or three or four children. Then Ken bringing up the rear.
We lost track of them after we moved to Oak Park in 1989. I had no idea whether Ken was still in seminary or if he had graduated. It turns out that Ken kept plugging away, taking a course here and a course there, and is scheduled to graduate on May 4.
Meanwhile Ann busied herself with her four children, her friends and her ministry at church. They were a happy family looking forward to serving the Lord together.
Only one tiny cloud crossed the horizon. About two years ago Ann began having headaches–not migraine headaches–but sharp pains in her head. The attacks would last for a day or two, then disappear for several months. They went to several specialists who put her through a battery of tests. The results were inconclusive.
Last weekend Ann had another attack. At first it seemed like all the rest, but it wasn’t. The pain persisted through Sunday, Monday and into Tuesday. Eventually Ken took Ann to the hospital but they sent her home because they couldn’t find anything wrong. That night she got worse as the pain became unbearable. Finally she was unable to speak.
She died in his arms Tuesday night about 9:30 P.M. Ken and Ann were planning to leave for a second honeymoon in Hawaii on Friday morning.
They buried Ann yesterday.
What do you say when your wife dies suddenly, leaving you with four children under the age of 9? How could God let this happen when you were fully dedicated to serving Jesus Christ together?
When I talked to Ken on Friday, his voice was weak but his faith was strong. He said, “I don’t blame anyone. She’s in God’s hands now.” Then he said, “I told my children that Mommy had gone to heaven to be with Jesus.”
Think about that. Losing your wife five days before Easter. It’s a heavy, heavy blow. Since I heard the news, I’ve been pondering to myself what the Christian faith has to say at a moment like this. I can only think of one thing that gives me any hope at all. If you’ve got to die, the best week of the year to die is Easter week. It always ends in a resurrection.
Just before I hung up, I told Ken, “We love you. And remember, our faith is not in Ann’s death. Our faith is in Jesus’ resurrection.”
There’s good news from the graveyard this morning.
Good news that the tomb is empty.
Good news that Jesus rose from the dead.
Good news that the Devil couldn’t hold him.
Good news that death has lost its sting.
Good news that the grave has lost its victory.
Good news that we need not fear death any more.
As far as I know my heart this morning, I am not afraid to die.
Not because I am especially brave. For I am not.
But I know what’s on the other side.
My Lord has come back and told me what I can expect.
I don’t have anything to worry about.
If you hear that I have died tonight, when you bury me,
Stick up a sign that says, “Temporary residence.”
I’m coming back up. You can count on it.
I say that without any sense of pride or boasting. For my resurrection does not depend on me.
It does not depend on my good deeds.
It does not depend on any merit in me at all.
It depends solely and wholly on my Lord Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning. He promised that if I would trust in him, someday I would rise with him. I’ve staked my entire life on that promise. If it’s not true, I have no other hope.
But it is true. That’s why I don’t plan on staying dead forever.
Don’t Look in the Graveyard
Good news from the graveyard? That’s a strange place for good news. But that’s what Easter is all about. If you’re looking for Jesus this morning, don’t look in the graveyard. He isn’t there. He left the graveyard 2000 years ago and never went back.
The really good news is this … If you are looking for Jesus today, you can meet him right here. May I introduce you to him this morning?
His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He is called the Son of God. God so loved you that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for you. He was buried in Joseph’s tomb. He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning. He paid for your sins so that if you believe in him you will never perish but have everlasting life.
That’s good news, my friend. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you met Jesus on Easter Sunday?
You can. He’s waiting for you. The living Lord Jesus Christ would like to meet you this morning. Simply say in your heart, “Lord Jesus, I want to meet you right now. Thank you for dying on the cross and rising from the dead. I put my trust in you as my Savior. Amen.”
Heavenly Father, We thank you for the wonderful message of Easter. That Jesus who died now lives again, nevermore to die. The birds this morning join the chorus. The sunlight shouts the message. All creation proclaims, “Jesus is alive.”
Living Lord, be born anew in our hearts today. Lead us to the empty tomb. Let faith rise to banish our fears. Grant that we might leave this place singing, with Easter joy in our hearts.
Through him, and to him who is the Resurrection and the Life, even Jesus our Lord, Amen.
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