Standing in the Empty Tomb

Philippians 3:10-11

If you and I could choose the setting of our death, it would probably be after a good, long life, lying peacefully in bed surrounded by our family and closest friends with a few well spoken words of encouragement to our loved ones, then confidently closing our eyes in passing. I don’t know of any statistics on how many experience this kind of parting, but my suspicion is that the numbers are very low.

I suspect that many more face death with fear and dread. Even if we believe in God, many of us still have no confidence in our salvation and view the promises of God as contingent on whether we have lived up to our part of the contract and we’re pretty sure we haven’t. The prospect of judgment leaves us frightened and apprehensive and unable to look at death as anything more than the end of everything we have ever loved, and the afterlife as boring at best, and at worst – terrifying beyond words.

We reject the dubious theology of “once saved always saved” and embrace the uncertainty of “if saved barely saved.” And that is a terrible way to live and an even worse way to die.

There is a way to die that transcends the circumstances of our death and places our feet firmly in the center of the empty tomb of Jesus. Whether you die peacefully of old age, tragically in a terrible accident, or agonizingly from cancer; young or old; at home or in a hospital; surrounded by loved ones or all alone, you can know the power of the promise of heaven and know that your death is merely the transition into the next part of eternal life.

Only a few weeks ago, Billy Graham died at the age of 99. But several years earlier he had spoken these words: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

I hope you and I can live and die with that kind of confidence.

The apostle Paul wrote: I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11)

For Paul, the resurrection was not just an historical event that punctuated the life of Jesus, it was the door through which every one of us who follows Jesus enters into the power of a resurrected life – here and now. It is not just the promise of eternal life, though it is certainly that, it is the power to live life to the fullest in this life.

Listen to Paul’s description of our entry into a resurrected life: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:3-11)

The resurrection of Jesus is the foundational cornerstone of our lives. It is the heart of, not only who we are, but why we are. When Paul wrote about the importance of the resurrection of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15, listen to what he says: If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Cor 15:13-19)

The resurrection isn’t some nice little legend that was made up to make us feel better about Christ’s crucifixion. The resurrection is absolutely, undeniably necessary to understanding who Jesus was and why he came. The cross would have had little meaning apart from the resurrection. Thousands upon thousands died on Roman crosses. Dead messiahs were a dime a dozen. Jesus himself said that many would come proclaiming, “Here he is, or there he is!” Many died a martyr’s death – but only one was raised from the grave – only one whose tomb is empty – only one whose blood can wash our sins away.

And if you relegate the resurrection to a nice little fairytale you have gutted the gospel of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus isn’t good news without the resurrection. The crucifixion is a tragic ending to a pointless life if there was no resurrection.

And so, Paul writes, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead!”

And if Christ was raised from the dead, you can stand in the center of that empty tomb and celebrate that you also will share in his resurrection. And that changes everything.

It changes who you are, because you are not just the end result of an evolutionary process that will live a few years and then end in a graveyard. Jesus said “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24) Jesus’ resurrection means that you have crossed over from death to life. And that life is eternal life. No grave can hold you. The moment you came up out of the water of baptism you were living eternal life. And remember, eternal life is not so much about the length of life as the quality of life. When you live eternally, yes you will live forever, but when you live eternally, your heart is no longer bound by this world, held captive by its priorities and values, seduced by its temptations. When you live eternally, you are living a Jesus-centered life.

It not only changes who you are, but why you are.

When you stand in the center of the empty tomb, you no longer have any fear about death. The Hebrews writer tells us: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)

If your life is lived in the power of the resurrection, death has no power over you. Death is no longer final. Someday my name will be etched on the face of a gravestone in a cemetery somewhere, but because my name is written in the book of life, that will not be the end for me. If you think about it, Jesus interrupted every funeral he ever attended, and he has already preempted yours and mine.

We don’t live in fear of death, because Jesus exposed it for what it really is – an imposter who has been acting like a bully, but whom Jesus backed down and ran out of town.

And because we no longer fear death, we can have hope. Not the whistling-in-the-dark, hope it turns out all right, but the confident knowledge that God’s promises are true because Jesus’ tomb was empty. Remember what Paul wrote in Romans 6: If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.

Hope is a powerful force in our lives. It imagines our future as everything that God promises it will be. When our children were growing up they would play dress up. They would get into our closet and the boys would put on my too-big shirts and clomp around in my too-big shoes and pretend they were as big as me. Our daughter would put on mom’s dress and jewelry and imagine she was grown up like her mom. That’s hope – that out there somewhere in the future, that’s who they will become.

And for us, we put on the attributes of God – love, joy, peace, patience… – knowing they don’t really fit us – but we keep putting them on and imagining that one day they will. Until one day they do. And we keep stepping into the empty tomb, accepting that, from a worldly point of view, it doesn’t make sense, but imagining that it does. And one day it will.

And that is the day Paul writes about: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:51-57)

Hope is putting all our eggs into that one basket, believing that God’s promises are true. And if we live that way – every day stepping out into a world that steadfastly denies that God exists – but every day pushing back with our belief that he does, and keep putting on his clothes, acting like he would act if he were here, then that hope becomes reality as Jesus really does live in us and through us. And if I die with Christ, and live with Christ, then I will also be raised with Christ.

His empty tomb becomes my empty tomb. Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. That is the power of the resurrection. And that power changes how we live and who we are in this life, but even more than that, it changes who we will be and how we will live in the life to come. My life is more than the accumulation of a few days lived in a mortal life that ends at the grave, it is the preparation for an eternal life lived in the presence and glory of God.

What difference does the resurrection of Jesus make to you? It makes all the difference in eternity. If it is just a fairytale, then, as Paul says, our faith is futile and we should be pitied. But if the resurrection is true and his tomb was empty, then we can live in the hope and the confidence that our lives really do matter and our future is secure. And when your time comes, whether it is comfortably in a bed surrounded by family, or tragically in an accident or by a disease, God will be with you every moment of the way. That is the power of a resurrected life.

That first Easter morning, when the women came back to the upper room and told the disciples that they had been to the tomb and found it empty, Peter and John ran to the cemetery, and Peter rushed headlong through the entrance and into the tomb and stood staring at the burial linens and the folded head covering, and wondered what this all meant.

Twenty centuries later, I invite you to stand in the center of the empty tomb of Jesus, not with confusion and wonder, but with the realization that this changes everything. I want you to know the resurrection, not simply as an historical event in the life of Jesus, but as the power of God to transform your life. The empty tomb means that life is not futile, death is not final and the future is filled with hope.