Message from the Garden Tomb
by Michael Ramsden
(delivered at the Garden Tomb
in Jerusalem on Easter Sunday, 2016)
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The place we’re in, in many senses, is remarkable, because graveyards are not places we normally associate either with hope or with justice. Graveyards are places that we associate with tears, and in our reading today we read of those tears, as Mary herself wept out loud.
At best, graveyards are places where we have a sense of joyful remembrance, maybe of a life well lived, but now of someone whom we have lost. And it’s not just the physical loss of a body, it’s the relational loss, that we mourn, that we miss the most, the fact that we no longer talk with them and enjoy their company
But the death of Christ has a bitter sting in the tail for those first people who knew Him because there’s also a deep sense of disappointment. You hear of that disappointment when Jesus later appears on the road to Emmaus on the same resurrection morning, and He asked them “Do you know what has happened?” He talks with them and they say, “We thought He would redeem us. We thought He would rescue us. But actually, He has been killed. And now we don’t even know where the body is.”
And Mary’s tears, as she bursts into floods of tears on that day when she wants to bring more spices and herbs to the tomb, she weeps now because that possibility of being physically close, the one thing she could cling onto, the one thing she could hold onto, that memory of Jesus Christ, His body, knowing where His bones were, even that now has been taken away from her. So for her the loss feels total. She has lost everything.
She comes early in the morning when it’s still dark. Now Jesus has already been crucified, at a place possibly not very far from here, and has been laid to rest just a short walk away. And they would come and they would take 75 pounds, that’s about over 30 kilos, of special herbs and aloes, and they’d put them in linen strips and they’d wrap Him up and they’d put a separate one around His head and they’d lay Him in the tomb.
Now if Jesus had been buried in the ground, and then covered with soil, with a marker placed over the top of it, as you will see from opposite on the way from the Mount of Olives, you don’t get any smell coming up. But when you put the body in a stone tomb, and you roll a large rock in front of it, then the odor will come out. And so she is coming, in order to make it possible that people may come and visit and pay their respects, and she’s bringing more herbs and spices to make sure that the aroma of the tomb is just as pleasing as it can be, given the incredible aroma of Christ’s life. And as she comes, she sees that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is now empty.
So she runs and she finds Peter and John. And we now discover that John is fitter than Peter. Because they have a race and they went running to the tomb. Now John gets there first and he stops and he stares. Peter catches up and he goes flying into the tomb. But it’s John who’s more observant. John looks into the tomb, and the first thing that strikes him is how orderly it is. The fact that the headcloth has been removed, folded neatly and put to one side. The fact that there are all of the linen strips still in place, in almost like a body-like shape, as if somehow the body just came out of it, just lying there. And we read, in this reading of John, if you go home to read it, we read that John believes. Believes what?
Now what is said next is very interesting. It says, “He didn’t yet understand the scripture.” In other words, John, one of the first disciples of Jesus Christ, believed in the resurrection, not for scriptural reasons, not for theological reasons. He had yet to understand exactly what the scripture had to say about the death and the resurrection of the Messiah. He believes because of the evidence. If someone had simply stolen the body, or even moved the body, they would not leave the grave clothes behind. If they had moved the body, they would have picked up sheet with the body in it, and they would have dropped it somewhere else. If they had stolen the body, no thief would take time to remove all of the linen strips and carefully reassemble them, and leave the headcloth neatly folded up. They would have taken it and ran.
And as John processes this, because of the evidence before him, because of the historical reality of it, he is convicted of its truth, and he knows that Christ has risen from the dead.
Now in a day of science, we sometimes find it difficult to believe that God does miracles today. But it is because of science, and it’s because we understand the science, that we can conclude that a miracle took place.
The well-known author C. S. Lewis put it like this: He said it is ridiculous to argue that because we know the laws of nature and maths, that we cannot have miracles. He said, imagine the following scenario: He said, imagine you were to go out into Jerusalem one day (I’m culturalizing it to this place) and you take a couple of hundred shekels with you, and when you get home you haven’t spent any money. And so you put 200 shekels in the bedside table in your hotel room. The next day you go out.You take another couple hundred of shekels with you, another 200 out of the cash machine. You don’t spend anything. You put it in the drawer next to your bedside table. On the third day, when you open the drawer, what should you find?
Well, 400 shekels. 200 plus 200 is 400. Let’s suppose you open the drawer, you look inside and you only find 100 shekels. What do you conclude? I was sharing this illustration last year in Hong Kong and a businessman from the back of the room yelled out in a loud voice, “My wife has gone shopping.”
No, if you open your bedside drawer and you only found 100 shekels there, you wouldn’t go “I don’t believe it! The laws of mathematics have been broken!” No, the laws of the land have been broken. Someone broke into your hotel room and stole 300 bucks out of your drawer! Why can we reliably detect the presence of the thief? It is because we know science, we know math, 2 and 2 is always 4. If there’s only 1, someone has come in form the outside and intervened. That is how you can detect the presence of a thief.
How do we detect God’s presence and intervention? It isn’t because we don’t understand math and science. It is because we do!
God stepped in and intervened. We know what happens when you die and bodies decompose, decay and smell. But the body is gone. It isn’t there. John sees the evidence, and he believes. His faith is based on fact.
John leaves and Peter leaves and now we’re left with the reading we started with today. Mary stays behind, weeping. She looks back into the tomb, and she sees two angels. You would think that a couple of angels would be enough to awaken her. But it’s not. They ask her a very powerful question. It’s such a powerful question, Mary has to be asked it twice before she understands its significance. They say, “Whom are you looking for?” and Why are you crying (that’s the question that will be asked twice).
And instead of simply stopping to think about why they may be challenging her grief at this point, she simply explains it. “Someone has taken my Lord’s body away. I don’t know where it is.” I have lost everything, that last thing I could cling onto, that last physical piece of Jesus I could hold onto in order to have relationship with Him, to enjoy some kind of ongoing connection. It’s gone.
And at this she turns around, and there’s someone standing behind her. Now if you’ve ever wailed and cried out loud, with tears streaming from your eyes, you know how hard it is to see. She cannot recognize who’s standing behind her, partly because of the tears, and partly because, although she is looking for the right person, she’s looking in the wrong place. She is looking for a body, for a corpse. So it cannot possibly be that Christ is standing behind her. So when she sees Jesus, He now asks her the question again, “Woman, why are you crying?” What is the cause of your tears?
And the answer seems to be obvious. And she’s going to answer it. She is going to say, and indeed does say, “Did you take Him?” Notice she’s not at all interested in blame. She’s not interested in retribution. All she wants is the body back. And this is part of the problem Mary has at this point. It’s not that she’s asking for too much in getting the body back. She’s actually asking for too little. But she doesn’t’ know that. How often we come before God in our prayers, thinking that we’re asking for too much, when actually we’re asking for too little. All she wants is the body returned.
“Did you move Him? If you moved Him, I will go and get Him.” She just wants the body back, just for that physical remembrance that she may have to enjoy some form of connection and relationship. And Jesus then speaks one word. And that one word transforms everything.
I have the privilege of traveling around the world and speaking in lots of different places. It’s a huge honor and I always learn so much more and receive so much more than I ever am able to give away. And as I travel around, due to the wonders of modern technology, I can ring home. And when I ring home, I don’t have to introduce myself and explain to my children who I am. I earn a million miles a year, but that’s not enough that they can’t remember my face or my voice.
So when I ring them up, and my youngest daughter picks up the phone and she says, “Hello?” All I have to do is say, “Emilia,” and she will go, “Dad!” because she recognizes my voice.
And Jesus now uses one word: “Mary.” He calls her by name. And as He calls her name, her tears of grief are transformed into tears of joy.
And Jesus Christ calls every single one of you by name. He calls your name. Do you recognize His voice?
The mission of Christ had not failed. They hoped for redemption. Now the greek word for redemption refers to an ancient process that would have been well-known within Jerusalem in its time. During battles, if some significant generals or fighters were captured, someone would come along. The word lutron is to exchange, or to pay a price for something. But the word for redemption literally means to pay a price, by agency of someone, to take away from somewhere else. And so the process of redemption described an entire process in which someone would come, negotiate for the release, pay a price, go over, bring the captives and restore them back. And that whole process was referred to as redemption. You’ve now been redeemed. You were captive and are now saved.
And on the death of Christ on the cross, He pays the price for our captivity to sin and to death. He goes to the cross, and every sin we have committed, He takes onto Himself. Christ who was betrayed by those closest to Him, disavowed, disowned, denounced, all the names and insults which were hurled to Him, against Him, when Christ goes to the cross, He takes every sin, including yours and mine– all the times we’ve disowned Him, when we’ve disavowed Him, when we’ve betrayed Him, when we have failed Him, when we have ignored Him, when we even deny His existence or His rightful claim over our life, and all of the consequences that deserve, Christ takes on, into Himself, and on the cross He pays the price. He becomes a curse for all that we have done and failed in our life.
And He doesn’t just pay the price for it. Through the resurrection, He conquers over the forces of sin and of death, and He comes and brings new life and offers every one of us new life, redemption, because He has paid the price, because He offers it to us.
Mary was asking for too little when she wanted the body. When she goes to Jesus to hold onto Him, literally in the Greek, to cling onto Him, Jesus says, “Do not cling onto me.” He will ascend to the Father, and we can have relationship with Christ, with God, through the cross, by His Spirit, as He says that to each one of us. We don’t need a memorial. That is why there is so much debate about where exactly is the location of the tomb, because so many things were venerated in the time of Christ–but not Christ–because no one would ever come to the garden again, looking to meet Jesus there, to remember Him there. He was available to Him, they could meet Him, and You can meet Him today. That’s what it means to be a Christian, to know that redemption, of having the curse of sin and of death broken over your life, to know the power of the resurrection, to be forgiven. And when forgiveness comes, relationship is restored. The thing that Mary thought she had lost, she actually gains in a whole new way through the cross and the resurrection. And she can now celebrate it, and so can you, because He has conquered over sin and death itself.
Several years ago, I heard the story of a Welsh pastor who told me the true story of a man he knew very well. This man had lost his wife and children in tragic circumstances in a car crash. They were driving up the brow of a hill at night. And a car driven by two young men who had been drinking, with no lights on, came over the top of the hill in the opposite side of the road and they had a head-on collision. His wife and children were killed outright. The two men driving the car weren’t wearing seat belts. They were thrown out of their seats, through the windscreen of their car, over the roof of the car that they hit, and into a ditch, and they both actually survived.
But neither of them went to prison. Neither of them would confess to driving the car, and because they were both thrown out of the vehicle, there was no way of knowing who had been driving. So not only have this man suffered the physical loss of his wife and children, there was also this collapse of justice, because there had been no righting of the wrong he had suffered.
He was staying at his sister’s house and he fell asleep in the chair and he had a dream, really almost a waking nightmare. He dreamt that the sun was setting in the distance, and he wanted desperately to remain in the light. So he started running towards the horizon, trying to catch up with the setting sun. But the sun was setting at a rate far faster than he could reach it. And the harder he ran, the darker it got, until eventually he was engulfed in complete darkness, and at this he literally sprang out of his chair. His sister looked at him and said, “What’s the matter?” and he explained this dream that he had.
And after he finished the sister looked at him and said, “You know, if you wanted to be in the sun, what you should have done is turned around, ran into the darkness, and you would have met the rising sun as it came over the horizon behind you, and then you would have been in the light sooner.”
Whatever the darkness in your life, if you will turn and run to Christ this day, you will meet the risen Son and enter into His warmth and His light, because of what He has done, in order that you may have peace.
He is able to turn tears of grief into tears of joy. Through the pain of the cross, He has won our salvation.
In a few moments we’re going to sing again, and sing gloriously. But before we do, I want to ask the final question that Jesus put to Mary. What are you looking for? Who are you looking for? Now in the Greek, the verb “to look for” means more than just to look at something. In the same way, if I were to say to you, “In life, what are you looking for?” I don’t mean “What are you looking at?” I mean something much more profound than that. What are you looking for? It entails the idea of desire. What is is that you desire?
When Jesus says, “Who are you looking for?” He is saying, “Whom do you desire to meet?” When you came here today, what was your desire? Whom were you looking for? For an experience in an historical setting? To be here with friends? The most incredible thing this day is that you can meet with the risen Christ, who loves you, gave His life for you, and is desirous for a relationship with you.
Mary was crying because she thought she had lost her relationship with God. The truth is, God weeps over humanity because we have lost our relationship with Him. And when He went to the cross, He paid the price to restore that relationship. And when He rose from the dead, that wasn’t the reversal of a defeat, it was the manifestation of a victory. That we could win a victory in our own life to draw us back to Him, that we may be one with Him.
And as you sit here today, if you know that you need to say Yes to Christ in your life, maybe Christianity is something that has been only a name to you, you don’t know the reality of the relationship of having intimacy with Christ, and you know this day that you need to say Yes to Him, You need to turn to Him, that the relationship simply isn’t there anymore and you need it to be there now, I’d like to lead you in a simple prayer of acknowledgement of what Christ has done and forgiveness of sin. And if that is you, I’d like to ask you to just raise your hand up high wherever you’re sat, so I can see as a sign that as you sit in this place, you need to pray that prayer, and I will pray it with you.
So if that is you, just raise your hand that I can see. So please pray this with me.
Lord, Jesus Christ, we thank You that You love us. We thank You that You are the risen Lord. You came into this world. You paid for our sins. You made forgiveness possible. You have broken the power of sin and of death. We want to receive Your forgiveness. We receive and welcome You into our life. May we follow You Lord Jesus whatever it may cost us and wherever you may lead us. And we pray this in Christ’s precious name, Amen.