If the events described in Luke 24:1-11 appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal, the headline would read, “Garden Tomb Found Empty.”
Then the story, like all good stories, would give us the 5 W’s: Who, What, Where, When, Why?
The first W is who. Who is it about?
St. Luke tells us that at least five women were involved. First, there was Mary Magdalene. Luke has written about her before. In an earlier story, he told us that she is the one from whom seven demons had gone out. If any woman ever had reason to be grateful to Jesus, it was her. The second woman was Jo-Anna, who was the wife of Chu-za, Herod’s steward. Her presence in the story hints at why Luke alone tells us that on the night he was betrayed, Jesus appeared not just before Pilate, but also before Herod. The third woman was Mary the mother of James. We assume that he is talking about James the younger—whom Mark also names, not James the brother of the Lord. If Mary the Mother of Jesus had been present at the empty tomb, St. Luke would have made that clear, as he did when he named her in Acts 1, as being with the disciples in the Upper Room some little while after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. Luke tells us that at least two other women were present at the empty tomb, but he does not identify them. Perhaps, because he knows of other traditions, and he does not want to contradict them.
I think it is interesting that though the four gospels name different women, and different numbers of women, it is always the women who discovered the empty tomb.
It is interesting because in those days, every male Jew greeted the morning sun with a prayer, “O, Lord, I thank-you that I am not a Gentile, a leper, or a woman.” Women were not even allowed to bear witness.
Jesus raised the status of women; but few men were of his mindset.
The man we call Luke was a almost certainly a Gentile, and he may not have known that. However, scholars tell us that the gospel according to St. Mark is older than that by St. Luke, and St. Luke almost certainly followed him. The man we call St. Mark was Jewish, and he would have known better.
In his Cambridge Commentary on St. Mark, C.E.B. Cranfield says that making the women the primary witnesses to the empty tomb was not a choice for Mark. He had to work with the facts. He may not have liked them, but he had to work with them. He adds that if Mark had set out to create a legend, he did a poor job of it.
The second W is what. What happened?
That is easy enough. The women went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. They found the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but they did not find the body. And while they were perplexed about this, two men dressed in dazzling apparel, stood by them, and the women were frightened, and bowed their faces to the ground. And they said to them:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.”
And the women “remembered his words,” that is, they remembered the words of Jesus, and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. But, according to the text, “…these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
William Barclay comments that, in the original language, the women are compared to men sick with fever, babbling strange words, that could not be comprehended.
If St. Luke was trying to create a legend, he, too did a terrible job, because he tells us that the women had faith, while the disciples remained skeptics. In the gospels it is never the empty tomb that produces faith in the disciples. They are all like the man we call Doubting Thomas. They did not believe until the Risen Christ himself appeared to them, and led them into belief.
The third W is where. Where did all this take place?
Where else, it took place in a graveyard. Sooner or later all human stories end in a graveyard. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Show me a hero, show me a heroine, and I will write you a tragedy.” In this life, there are no stories that end, “and they lived happily ever after.”
Tolstoy tells the story of a young man who inherited a considerable property from his father. At once he determines to enlarge it at every opportunity. One day a distinguished stranger happens by. He is obviously a man of wealth and power. The young man tells him of the plans he has for his land.
“Well,” says the stranger, “here is what I will do to help. Whatever land you can cover by the end of the day tomorrow, I will give to you, but you must finish at this spot where you now stand.”
The young man is very excited. First he plans to walk a two mile square, a total of eight miles. Then he determines that he can do a four mile square, a distance of sixteen miles. Then it is ten miles, a forty mile run. At last he sets his goal at 15 miles, a 60 mile run. That is more than two times the distance of the Boston Marathon, on the same day, with no training before hand.
The next morning the young man sets out before the sun is up. He runs, or walks, as hard as he can go all day long. He ignores his need for food, for rest, for water. As the day closes he stumbles back to the stranger’s feet, where he pitches down, dead.
The stranger, who is revealed as Death, smiles and says, “There, you have what I have promised, all the land you can cover—-six feet by two feet.”
It does not matter where our human story begins. It does not matter how well we train, or how well we run the race that is set before us. Our stories always end in a graveyard.
All but one, that is. The world crucified Jesus, and, thanks to the generosity of a friend, they laid him in a borrowed tomb. They sealed it with a stone. And on the third day, the stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty. And the real story of Jesus had begun, and now it covers the Earth. You may not believe it, but billions of people have, and do. And the Risen Christ with power to save is the single, best hope of humankind.
The fourth W is when. When did it take place?
Well, it took place early in the first century of what is called the Common Era. It took place on the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet, full of the Holy Spirit, and mighty in Word and in Deed. He was the one that many hoped would redeem Israel.
Just before his death, his followers were flying high. Two of them asked, “Can we sit one at your right hand, and one at your left when you come into your kingdom?” They knew his kingdom was coming, and they would reap the benefits.
Then their Master was crucified, dead, and buried, and the kingdom was only a bitter memory. For two long, terrible, dark days, a fog of depression and despair settled over them. It looked as if the Enemy had won.
Those two terrible days put me in mind of something that that happened in London after one of Lord Nelson’s fiercest sea battles.
After the battle a ship—which could hardly be spared, was dispatched to England with news of the conflict. When it arrived at Gravesend, a rider was sent to London. When the rider arrived in London, he went immediately to St. Paul’s, where he gave the curate signal flags to be placed in the church tower.
In those days, whether at sea, or on land, the news was communicated by flags.
The first two flags went up—Nelson Defeated…
Then a literal fog settled on London. Nothing more could be seen. The people filled the streets, and then the taverns. Their hopes were dashed to pieces. Nelson defeated! If Nelson could not stop the enemy, who could. London itself would soon be at the mercy of foreign invaders. Then the fog lifted. Other flags had been added.
Now the message read—Nelson Defeated the Enemy!
Jesus defeated the enemy, too. For two days he lay in the garden tomb, then, on the third day, God raised him from the dead. He defeated sin, death, and the devil. Mighty forces stood against us, but he stood for us, and he is the Victor.
Hail, all hail victorious Lord and Savior,
Thou hast burst the bonds of death;
Grant us as to Mary, the great favor,
To embrace thy feet in faith.
Thou has for us the curse endur-ed,
And for us Eternal Life procur-ed,
Joyful we, with one accord, hail Thee as our risen lord.
And then there is the final W, Why. Why did it take all this take place?
There are several different ways to answer that question.
The first answer is that God wanted to make it plain that Jesus was not a shade, or a ghost, or a spirit. His body was sown a physical body; it was raised a spiritual body; but it was his body that was raised. He was transformed into a whole new order of being.
The second answer to that is that God raised Jesus from death, to vindicate him, and put God’s stamp of approval upon Jesus and his ministry. Tradition says that St. Luke was a companion of Paul. In Romans 1:4 St. Paul says that Jesus was “designated son of God, in power, though a Spirit of holiness, by his resurrection from the dead.”
If Christ has not been raised, then the cross is the bad end of a good man, nothing more, and we are still in our sins. But if Christ has been raised from the dead, the cross was a road traveled once, for all, by our now victorious Lord and Savior. As Paul says in 1st Corinthians 15, “He died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.”
The third answer to that question is certainly that the empty tomb stands as the massive sign that God has not abandoned us in our little world of time and space, but penetrated it, shattered it, and begun its transformation.
Because he lives, we know that we will live also.
Max Lucado tells the story of a missionary in Brazil who discovered a tribe of Indians in a remote part of the jungle. A contagious disease was spreading across the village. People were dying daily. The tribe was in need of medical attention. A hospital was not too terribly far away — just across the river, but the Indians would not cross the river because they believed the river was inhabited by evil spirits. For them to enter the river would mean certain death.
The missionary explained how he had crossed the river in his little boat, and was unharmed, but the people did not believe. He then took them to the river, and washed in it, but the but the people did not believe. Then he walked into the water up to his waist, and then up to his neck, but it did not matter. The people did not believe; they were still afraid to enter the river. Finally, the missionary took a deep breath, and plunged to the depths. He swam beneath the waters until he emerged on the other side. He raised a triumphant fist into the air, and the Indians broke into a cheer and then they followed him across the river.
Jesus has taken the plunge. He entered death’s cold and sullen stream, once for all, and he emerged on the other side, triumphant and victorious, that death might no longer hold us in fear.
Now let me quickly ask a final question, lest some of you, who sometimes despair of life, plunge quickly into the stream. This is a question that newspapers used to leave to Time, and Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. The question is how? How was Jesus raised from the dead?
The answer is quite simple. He was raised by the power of God.
Some would say, “Oh, that is impossible.” They should read about the creation of the universe. How everything that now is was collapsed to a point that was so infinitesimally small, that it was nothing, a singularity. Then, there was a Big Bang, and less than a minute later the universe filled a million billion miles and it was still growing.
If God can do that, then raising a man from death is small potatoes indeed.
And here is the good news. The same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to you, today, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.
The Risen Christ with power to save still walks among us, and he still offers his solace and help, to all who call upon his name. He may not deliver you from your trouble, but he will deliver you through you trouble, until you come at last to stand before him, in that day which has no sunset and no dawning.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.