************ Sermon on John 20:1,18 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 23, 2008
"Darkness and Light"
I The Darkness
A I have read the Easter story hundreds of times. I have laid the four Gospels side-by-side. Yet, I have to admit that this past week I noticed for the first time John's mention of the darkness on Easter morning. John's Gospel is the only one that tells us Mary went to the tomb "while it was still dark" (Jn 20:1).
"It was still dark." Darkness still enveloped everything. Darkness still surrounded the tomb. Darkness still encompassed the disciples and friends of Jesus. Darkness. Darkness. Darkness. Everywhere darkness.
B "It was still dark." It was still dark even though the light was already shining. It was still dark even though the glory of Christ's resurrection has already happened. It was still dark even though light has already burst forth. Mary, you see, did not yet know that Christ has risen. But, then, neither did Peter or John or the rest of the disciples and friends of Jesus. They were still in the darkness of grief and despair. They were still in the darkness of sin and evil. They were still in the darkness of unbelief and doubt.
C "It was still dark." And, "it is still dark." Today, it is still dark though the light is already shining. It is still dark though the glory of Christ's resurrection has already happened. It is still dark even though the light has already burst forth. You see, many today do not know that Christ has risen. And many today do not believe that Christ has risen. And many today reject that Christ has risen. They remain in the darkness of sin and evil. They remain in the darkness of unbelief and doubt. And, when loved ones die, they remain in the darkness of grief and despair.
From the very beginning, the resurrection of Jesus was met by doubt and disbelief. To the Jews of Biblical Jerusalem, it was simply blasphemous for the renegade Christians to claim that a crucified criminal was the Messiah risen from the dead. To the cultivated Greeks, who believed in the soul's immortality, the very idea of a resurrected body was repugnant. Gnostic Christians of the second century preferred the view that Jesus was an immortal spirit Who merely discarded His mortal cloak. Darkness. That's what we see among many of those at the time of Jesus. A deep darkness. A black darkness. A darkness of unbelief and doubt.
Over the past 25 years, scholars have published dozens of books and scores of articles in a fierce debate about the Risen Jesus. Many argue that the Gospel stories of the empty tomb and Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are fictions devised long after His death to justify claims of His divinity. To hear them tell it, the resurrection is an embarrassment to the modern mind and a disservice to the Jewish preacher from Galilee. They tell us that belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is a burden to the Christian faith and deflects attention from His role as a social reformer. Darkness.
For instance, German New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann, calls the resurrection an "empty formula" that must be rejected by anyone holding a "scientific world view." Ludemann argues that Jesus' body "rotted away" in the tomb. The Risen Christ that appeared to the Apostle Peter was a "vision" produced by Peter's overwhelming grief and "guilt" for having denied Jesus. The Risen Christ that appeared to the Apostle Paul was likewise also and only a vision, this time brought on by a "Christ complex." Darkness.
John Dominic Rossan, a former Roman Catholic priest, says the tomb of Jesus was indeed empty. The reason: the same thing happened to His body that happened to most of those crucified by the Romans – His body had already been devoured by wild dogs before Mary arrived at the tomb. Darkness.
Australian author Barbara Thiering uses the Dead Sea Scrolls to argue that Jesus was actually crucified at Qumran and buried in a cave by the Dead Sea. But He only appeared to be dead, thanks to a slow-acting poison given to Him on the cross. Later, Simon Magus, a magician mentioned in the New Testament, gave Jesus an antidote. Thus revived, Jesus went on to marry Mary Magdalene; He fathered 3 children with her; He divorced her; and then He married Lydia. Eventually, He died in Rome. Darkness.
Where do they get such nonsense from? From the darkness. "It was still dark." For many of these so-called Biblical scholars it is still dark. A deep darkness. A black darkness. A darkness of the soul. A darkness of sin and evil. A darkness of unbelief and doubt.
Darkness. That's what I see among so many today.
II Peter, John, and Mary
A I am afraid that even though the light has come we even see the darkness among the three witnesses of the empty tomb. Even Peter, John, and Mary do not at first believe. Ever Peter, John, and Mary remain in the darkness of grief and despair. They come to the empty tomb and are still in the darkness of unbelief and doubt and sorrow.
B Look at Peter. Mary tells him the news that the tomb is empty and Jesus' body has been stolen. So Peter runs to the tomb. He goes straight in. He sees the strips of linen that had been round the body and the cloth that had been on the head of Jesus. "The cloth," says John, "was folded up by itself, separate from the linen" (Jn 20:7).
Does this sound like a grave robbery to you? John is describing an orderly scene, not one of wild confusion. This means the body has not been taken by grave-robbers. For they would never have left the cloths wrapped neatly. In their haste, they would have taken the body, cloths, and all, or would have torn the linens off and scattered them.
Peter does not know what to make of this. In his Gospel, John tells us that Peter "did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead" (Jn 20:9). Though the light has come, Peter is still in darkness.
That Peter is still in darkness is confirmed by the very next verse. What does Peter do after he sees the empty tomb? Does he run and jump and leap for joy? Does he start shouting and cheering? Does he praise God? Does he rush off to tell everyone else the Good News? That's what you would expect. But no. Peter goes home (Jn 20:10). That's it! That's all! Nothing more!
C Next, we want to look at John. He also goes inside the tomb. We are told that "he saw and believed" (Jn 20:8). We are not told what he saw. And, we are not told what he believed.
It is fairly safe to assume it is the grave clothes that John saw. After all, these are the center of attention in the grave. But what did he believe? He believed that some sort of resurrection had taken place. But – did you notice this – with Peter "he did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead" (Jn 20:9). And, like Peter, he went home after this (Jn 20:10). The light may have come and John is no longer in darkness, but he is not in the light either; John appears to be in a kind of twilight.
D The third person we want to look at is Mary. She sees the stone has been rolled away and concludes that Jesus' body has been stolen. What else could have happened to it? The thought of a resurrection does not even enter her mind. Though the light has come, darkness still has a grip on her.
After Peter and John leaves, what does Mary do? As she is weeping and crying and mourning, filled with darkness, she looks in the tomb. She sees two angels (Jn 20:12). Presumably she sees the burial wrappings too. She hears a sound behind her and thinks He is the gardener (Jn 20:15). Though the light has come, darkness still has a grip on her so she fails to recognize Christ.
III No Witnesses
A To a certain extent I can understand the darkness. You see, in the resurrection of Jesus, God performs a hidden work. No one is around to see it happen. There are no witnesses to the resurrection. Jesus "rises in the silence of God" (Ignatius of Antioch said this less than a century after Easter). None of the New Testament writers are able to describe for us what actually happened.
Easter Sunday, "the first day of the week" (Jn 20:1) reminds me of the very first day of the very first week. Back then at the beginning of time God also performed a hidden work. At the time of creation no one but God and (maybe) His holy angels witnessed what took place. Who was present at that time to hear the Almighty say, "Let there be light" (Gen 1:3)? It is the same at the resurrection of Jesus. Here again is a hidden work. Only God and His holy angels witness what takes place. And, God does with Easter what He did with the first day of creation: He brings light to a darkened world with no one to see Him doing this.
B Easter Sunday is a hidden work. But we can make an informed theological guess as to what exactly happens.
In my mind I imagine the tomb. It is dark and quiet. Christ's body is wrapped in cloths and lying on a stone ledge a foot or two above the ground. First one toe wiggles, then another. The fingers start to flex. The eyelids blink. The body stirs. A sneeze is heard from under all the wrappings – don't forget, the body is wrapped in a seventy-five pound mixture of myrrh and aloes. Jesus is alive. Suddenly His body passes through the wrappings. He climbs off the ledge and stands in the middle of the tomb. He takes the head cloth and neatly folds it and puts it to the side. He takes one more look around and walks straight through the wall. In the first rays of the morning sun He sees the angels roll away the stone. He sees the soldiers standing there, frozen with fright.
This is only a guess, because no one is there. No one sees it except for God and His angels.
IV Why We Believe
A If there is so much darkness why, then, do we believe? If there are no witnesses to the actual resurrection why, then, do we believe? Why do we believe that Jesus has risen from the grave? And, how can Patti and Jonathon stand before all of us this morning and tell us they believe in a risen Savior? How can they tell us that they have given their heart and life to a risen Lord?
Take a look at Mary again. She sees the empty tomb. She sees the risen Lord; "I have seen the Lord!" (Jn 20:18) she says to the disciples. And she believes.
The empty tomb and the risen Lord. The New Testament offers these two items as signs that point to the truth of the resurrection.
What is true for Mary is true for Peter and John too. When they see the empty tomb and the risen Lord they also believe. As Jesus says in verse 29, "Because you have seen me, you have believed" (Jn 20:29).
B Unlike Mary and Peter and John, we do not have the benefit of sight. We can not look into the empty tomb and see the burial wrappings. Nor are we favored with a post-resurrection appearance of Christ. So how then can we believe? With so much darkness, how then do we believe? Why do Patti and Jonathon believe?
No one was around to see what God did the first day of the first week. None of us saw or heard Him call light into being. Yet we believe that He did. Why? Hebrews 11:3 answers this question for us:
(Heb 11:3) By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.When it comes to God's act of creation we believe by faith, not by sight.
And, it is by faith that we believe God raised Christ from the dead. It is by faith that the darkness of grief and despair are removed from us. It is by faith that the darkness of sin and evil are erased from us. It is by faith that the darkness of unbelief and doubt are dislodged from us. It is by faith that we accept the light of Christ's resurrection.
Ours is a faith that believes without seeing. A faith that believes without seeing the empty tomb. A faith that believes without having a visible encounter with the resurrected Christ. That's the kind of faith you and I have. We don't have the benefit of seeing and hearing the resurrected Christ the way Thomas, Mary, John, and the other disciples did. You and I and Patti and Jonathon are called upon to believe without seeing.
The Apostle Peter talks of this kind of faith in his first letter to God's elect:
(1 Pet 1:8-9) Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, (9) for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Your faith and my faith, my brothers and sisters, can not depend upon sight. As Paul tells us in his letter to the Christians at Corinth, "We live by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7). We can not even depend on eyewitnesses and the apostles for they have long since passed from the scene. We have to live by a faith that does not see what we believe. We witnessed neither the empty tomb nor the resurrected Christ, yet we are still to believe that Christ has risen, He has risen indeed.
Topic: FaithLike the little girl, we have to believe without seeing. We have to believe in the risen Lord without seeing the risen Lord.
I told you once before about a preacher's 6-year-old daughter in Paduka, Kentucky. She was admonished by her mother not to stick her finger in the lamp socket because electricity could hurt her. She dropped a cookie on the floor and was admonished by her mother to put it in the garbage because there now were germs on it. The preacher's little daughter stomped her foot and said, "Electricity, germs, and Jesus. That's all I hear about and I have never seen any of them."
Faith without sight – that's what you and I are called to have. Believing without seeing – that's what you and I are called to do.
Not easy, is it? But it is NOT up to us. Every week in Pastor's Class – whether we were talking about the Bible, Christ, repentance & faith, the Christian life, the church, growth, missions – we talked about the Holy Spirit. We need to believe without seeing but we have something Peter, John, and Mary did not have. We have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit fills us, He makes us born again, He blesses us so we believe without seeing.
Because of the Spirit's presence, in spite of the darkness that surrounds us, we are able to believe without seeing. Because of the Spirit's presence, in spite of the darkness, we are able to believe that Christ has risen, He has risen indeed.
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