Sixteen years ago I was asked by a pastoral search committee to write down a statement of faith. The task felt cold and dry as dust to me, until it occurred to me that I was writing about what I believe on the week before Easter, as a dear friend lay dying of cancer. This is Part 3 of the "very personal statement of faith" I wrote that night.
"Son, you're looking in the wrong place."
Finally, I believe in the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. The personal, visible, bodily, imminent return of our Lord. And I believe in the resurrection of the dead. A pastor friend told me a few years ago that he believes every church should recite the Apostles' Creed every Sunday because it contains the phrase, "I believe in the resurrection of the body." That doctrine is so hard for modern man to believe that we need to repeat it every Sunday to remind ourselves it is true.
I am faced with an awful dilemma tonight. My friend Buddy McCallum is dying and I can't do anything about it. But this is Holy Week and before long Easter will be here. How do those two things fit together?
A few years ago I was asked to perform a graveside service for a man I barely knew. I was young and inexperienced and thought to say a few words of comfort. I fumbled my way through the ceremony and came to the closing prayer. When I got to the part about the resurrection of the dead, the words stuck in my throat. I could barely finish my prayer. I went back home, frustrated and embarrassed. What had gone wrong? Then it hit me. I wasn't sure I believed in the resurrection of the dead. Up until then, it had all been theoretical. But now I had come face to face with death and all my brave words seemed so hollow.
Out of that experience I began to pray and it seemed as if God said to me, "Son, you're looking in the wrong place." There is indeed a grave that's empty, but it's over on the other side of the world, outside Jerusalem, carved into a mountainside. That tomb is empty and it's been empty for 2,000 years.
Several years ago I visited the Holy Land for the first time. During our visit to Jerusalem, we spent an hour at the Garden Tomb, the spot believed by many to be the actual burial place of Jesus. It is located next to Gordon's Calvary, that strange rock outcropping that appears to be worn into the shape of a skull. We know it was used as a burial site in Jesus' day. Many believe it was the spot of the crucifixion.
The Garden Tomb is located about a hundred yards from Gordon's Calvary and is in fact the spot of beautiful garden built over an ancient Roman aqueduct. To your left as you enter is a typical first-century tomb dug into the hillside. A trench in front of the opening was apparently designed for the massive stone that once covered the entrance.
No Body There
Because the opening is very small, I had to duck to go inside. For a few seconds, you see nothing until your eyes adjust to the darkness. Then you can easily make out the two chambers. Visitors stand in the mourners' chamber. A wrought-iron fence protects the chamber where the body was laid. You soon notice that the burial chamber was originally designed for two bodies. However one ledge was never finished for some reason. The other one was. It appears to be designed for a person slightly less than six feet tall.
As I looked around the burial chamber, I could see faint markings left by Christian pilgrims from earlier centuries. After a few seconds another thought enters the mind. There is no body to be found in this tomb. Whoever was buried there evidently left a long time ago. The Garden Tomb is empty!
As you exit back into the sunlight, your eyes fasten upon a wooden sign: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, for he is risen, as he said.”
"Look What I Did For My Son"
We look at our loved ones dying and wonder if the resurrection can be true. But that's backwards. God says, "Look what I did for my Son. Will I do any less for those who put their trust in him?" Put simply: We do not believe in the resurrection of the dead because of anything we can see with our eyes; everything we see argues against it. People die all the time. There hasn't been a resurrection in a long, long time. But that doesn't matter. We believe in the resurrection of the saints because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus. "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him" (I Thessalonians 4:14).
And so tonight I have no doubts about my friend Buddy. He may not make it through the week but he's going to be all right. God has promised to take care of him and he will. And if I preach a funeral this week, I'll do it in full confidence that the funeral is not the end of the story. That's what the return of Christ means to me. The suffering we see around us, the wasting disease, the incredible pain of broken lives—thank God, that is not the end of the story. There are better days ahead—the Rapture, the victorious Return, Christ reigning as King in the very place where he was crucified. And best of all, as the Apostle Paul put it, "We will be with the Lord forever." (I Thessalonians 4:17)
Five Days From Easter
It's late now and the house is very quiet. On this day Jesus cursed the fig tree. Tomorrow he faced down the Pharisees. The next day he met with his disciples in the Upper Room. On the next day he was crucified. The day after that he lay in the tomb. And on Sunday--just five days from now--he rose from the dead.
Someone said, "Wouldn't it be sad if Buddy died this week?" I don't think so. No, it wouldn't be sad at all. I can't think of a better time to die than during the week before Jesus rose from the dead. After all, everything we really believe comes down to what happened this week. If it's true, then we're in great shape. And the good news--the gospel truth, as they say down South--is that it's true, it really happened. And that means that whether we live or die, we're in great shape tonight.
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