Good News from the Graveyard
April 1, 2018
A few days ago I took a walk through Greenwood Cemetery in Dallas. It’s an old graveyard not far from North Central Expressway. Many of the early leaders of Dallas are buried there.
When I arrived, the place was almost deserted. I drove down one of the narrow roads and stopped near a large monument. A few blocks away hundreds of cars hurried on their way to and from downtown. From the sky came the sound of planes making their final descent to Love Field.
I spent some time walking and looking and thinking. Greenwood Cemetery is a good place to do that because it’s an oasis of solitude surrounded by city noise.
As I walked, I read the markers. As cemeteries go, Greenwood is an intimate place, taking up only a few blocks in the Uptown neighborhood. Each stone marker summed up a whole life in a kind of obituarial shorthand: a name, two dates, and a dash. I happened to find the gravestone for Jesse Spray, about whom I know nothing except for the inscription on the granite: “Jesse Spray, Nov. 12, 1845-Dec. 20, 1925.” Below was this lovely tribute:
A kind wife mourns in thee
A husband lost
The poor a friend who felt
What friendship cost
Civil War generals and titans of industry are buried next to those who in this life were relatively unknown. But the engraving on the stone is the same for all of them: 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 thousands of people buried there. The markers read “Beloved mother,” “Faithful father,” “Rest in peace.” Several quoted the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
I came across the grave of a man who had been a billionaire when he was alive. Not 30 feet away, I saw the marker for a young woman who died at the age of 30 in 1914. The inscription reads,
Just when we learned to love her most,
God called her back to heaven.
I found numerous markers for children who died in infancy. One marked the burial spot of “Little Sydney” who lived nineteen months. Another memorialized Dora Lee Schram, who lived only 28 days before she died September 3, 1890.
As I walked among the gravestones, alone with my thoughts, it occurred to me that the cemetery was quiet and peaceful. Exactly what a cemetery should be.
Late on a Friday Afternoon
It was probably very much like a certain cemetery outside Jerusalem. It was a garden cemetery, a little collection of tombs dug out of solid rock. That’s where the Jews buried their sacred looking forward to a better. In that cemetery, last on 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. He was surprised because he didn’t think Jesus was dead yet. Crucifixion was a hideous way to die. The Romans used it to send a message to onlookers, “Behold the power of imperial Rome!” Strong men sometimes hung on the cross for several days before they died. But Jesus died after only six hours. They didn’t have to break his legs (a form of torture intended to hasten death) because he was already dead.
When they took Jesus down 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, and 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 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. Because there was no time to find a new grave, 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, half carrying, half-dragging it to the nearby garden tomb. Between the weight of the body and the linen and the spices, it must have weighed almost 250 pounds.
Meanwhile the sun slowly sinks beneath the western horizon, and 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, weeping.
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 so low that you had to lower your head. Inside, 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 and the two Marys left as darkness fell on the garden cemetery.
Inside the tomb . . . silence.
The smell of death was everywhere.
The Bible says very little about that Saturday. We know about Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but of that Saturday in between, we know almost nothing. At some point the Romans put a seal on the stone to keep people out of the tomb.
Luke summarizes that day very simply: “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 anoint the body of Jesus. They weren’t expecting a resurrection. That was the farthest thing from their minds. But to their shock and surprise and utter confusion, when they got to the tomb, the seal was broken, the guards had disappeared, and the tomb was empty.
What had happened? No one could say for sure.
Two angels stood beside them and uttered two of the most powerful sentences in the Bible: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:5-6). Mary ran and found Peter and John. Despite what the angels had said, she didn’t believe it at first. After the horrific events on Friday, it was impossible to imagine Jesus coming back from the dead.
When they got the news, Peter and John ran to the tomb. John got there first, but Peter went inside.
An Empty Cocoon
The Bible tell us what he found (John 20:6-7). When Peter entered the tomb, he saw the linen cloth lying there, and the head cloth wrapped 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 to Emmaus 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 the resurrection of Christ, Peter stood to preach in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14-41). He preached to the very people who had crucified Jesus. His blood was on their hands.
In that sermon he said these words:
You nailed Jesus of Nazareth to a cross and put him to death. But God raises him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death because 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. At Greenwood Cemetery everything is quiet, peaceful, beautiful. There are no resurrections–yet.
I’ll never forget the first graveside service I ever performed. It happened soon after I became the pastor of a 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. When I prayed, 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?
I 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.
Looking in the Wrong Place
I went home and thought about it. Was it true? Could I believe it? Many people 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 living today has ever seen a resurrection because 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 about 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 a grove of trees on a hillside outside the city walls. Among the trees on the hillside, I saw a cemetery. The Lord pointed to a certain tomb. The stone had been rolled away. “Look inside.”
When I looked inside, I didn’t see anything except for 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 grave clothes behind.
Why I Believe
My friends, I do not believe in the resurrection of the dead because of anything I can see with my eyes. Everything I see argues against it. On every hand, I see death and decay. If you go only by what you see, you’ll end up believing that death wins in the end.
But that’s not what the Bible says.
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” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
There’s good news from the graveyard today:
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 anymore.
As far as I know my heart, I am not afraid to die. Not because I am especially. I’m not brave or courageous. I do not make light of the awesome power of death. Not because I am especially brave.
But I’m not afraid to die because 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 I have died tonight, when you bury me, Stick up a sign that says, “Temporary residence.” I’m coming back. 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 wholly on my Lord Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning. He promised 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.
There’s a reason the Bible says, “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Death will not have the last word. We think we are going from the land of the living to the land of the dying. No! We are going from the land of the dying to the land of the living!
I ran across a wonderful phrase from the Pulpit Commentary that lifts my heart every time I read it. There will be “victory on the last battlefield.” Life is a series of battles for all of us, and we all “take it on the chin” sooner or later. But in the last battle, the struggle with death, there is victory for the children of God.
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 on Easter Sunday, don’t look in the graveyard. He isn’t there. He left 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 now. May I introduce you to him?
His name is Jesus of Nazareth. He is called the Son of God. God loved you so much 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.
You can have eternal life.
You can know your sins are forgiven.
You can have victory on the last battlefield.
The living Lord Jesus Christ would like to meet you right now. Will you give your heart to him? Will you trust him? Will you come to him.
I pray you will. This could be the happiest Easter of your life if you will come to Jesus.
The next move is up to you.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that Jesus who died now lives again. Living Lord, be born anew in our hearts today. Lead us to the empty tomb. Let faith rise to banish our fears. For those who doubt, help them to believe all over again.
Thank you that we do not worship a dead Jesus.
Because of Easter, we worship a living Christ.
Glory to his name forever!