Text: Luke 24:1-12
Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’”
And they remembered His words. Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them. But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.
The biggest emotion in Luke’s version of the Resurrection story is that of surprise. There are several instances where the characters can’t believe what they are seeing. The women go to the tomb with a clear intent to anoint Jesus’ body. They expect the body to still be there. But they are surprised. The stone is rolled away and the body is gone. Verse 4 says, “they were greatly perplexed by this.” Then they encounter the angels. And what’s interesting is what the angels say. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!” (vs. 5-6)
It’s almost as if they are rebuking the women for being surprised. They should have known this was coming, and they should have expected it. “Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee?” (vs. 6) He told you this was coming. Why are you acting like things are normal? Why are you going about your business as usual? You should have been expecting to be surprised!
This morning, as we remember that first Easter, I want to encourage us to allow ourselves to be surprised, especially when it comes to our expectations. The death and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything, and we need to actually believe this. In the eyes of the world, this is very foolish advice, and it might well be the case that most people you meet still act like the world. Apart from the Spirit of God working in them, that will continue to be the case. Still, I want to ask you to try to let yourself be surprised, especially with fellow Christians, because our entire religion is predicated upon the great surprise of all. Jesus rose from the dead. Everything else has to be redefined by that. In light of the Empty Tomb we need to stop thinking “normally.” Dead men now live, after all. We need to put aside our old worldly expectations, assumptions, and perceptions, and allow God’s miraculous grace to surprise us again.
Easter Broke the Rules
What’s obvious is that Easter broke the rules. Dead men don’t come back to life. They just don’t. And yet Jesus did. The fact that He did confirms all that He said about Himself. It confirms that He is the messiah, and He is the One whom the Scriptures prophesied. But there are more broken rules at Easter as well.
For instance, the first witnesses are women. Mark’s gospel tells us that these women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1). Luke adds “Joanna” to the list (Luke 24:10). This is important to point out because women in the first century were not permitted to be legal witnesses. In a Roman court of law, women had no standing. They could not be called in to prove that an event did or did not happen. And yet God, in His sovereignty, chose women to be the first witnesses of the most important piece of evidence for Jesus’ ministry. He broke the rules.
And which woman actually got to see Jesus first? Why it was Mary Magdalene! She is important because she has quite the story herself. Later Christian tradition identified her as having been a prostitute. This may well have been true, though the New Testament does not say it explicitly. But it does tell us that she had seven demons cast out of her by Jesus (Luke 8:2). She was a woman with a history. She would have been very easy to dismiss, if one were using the wisdom of the world. Yet God chose her to be the first witness, and to be the one who told the rest of the disciples about the resurrection.
It’s also important to note that the disciples, though believers, did not believe Mary and the other women. Luke 24:11 says, “And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.” Even the disciples were still thinking “like normal” at this time, and so they had to get further confirmation. Verse 12 continues, “But Peter arose and rant to the tomb; and stopping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.” Peter and the other disciples were surprised by Easter, even though they had had Jesus’ teaching. Still, they were thinking normally, like the world. They had to be surprised in order to think differently. Easter had to surprise them.
The Problem of Perception
We are often surprised in life, not simply because we don’t expect something, but because we have a significant set of other expectations that control our perception. Philosophers call this having a paradigm. Theologians of recent years have described it by the name “presuppositions.” We all have our paradigms and presuppositions, and these things set our expectations and control our perceptions. They dictate how we think. And surprises—big, powerful, meaningful surprises—occur when these expectations and perceptions are proved wrong.
Saying that is not terribly profound. It’s just a fact of life, and most of you have probably thought about that before. But what I would like to add to this point is the fact that even though we are often controlled by our perceptions, we don’t have to be. We can, by God’s grace, play an active role in the shaping and reshaping of our perceptions. And I think Easter compels us to do exactly that.
David Foster Wallace was an influential writer during the 1990s and early 2000s. He wrote one giant work of fiction in his life, but he was mostly known for his non-fiction essays. Several of these now routinely appear on “must read” lists around the world. One of them is a 2005 graduation speech where he got into the problem of perceptions and how we need to take control over them rather than just falling into our default settings. Wallace began by describing the every-day irritations of being stuck in traffic or having to go shopping in a busy supermarket. He talked about all the ways in which we can look at other people negatively at those times, assuming all kinds of nasty things about them. And he explained how we tend to do this naturally, by default. But, and this was his main argument, we don’t have to. Wallace explained this in a powerful way. He said:
I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, …and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are… and so on and so forth… thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall. …most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options.
Now, that blew me away when I first read it. It was just so true, and it exposed me as being judgmental and hard-hearted. In Biblical terms, we might think of the famous, “Judge not.” Of course, that’s a verse that is often misused. Perhaps a better verse would be, “Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7). We should think the best of others, especially in difficult times of frustration.
But we usually don’t do we? And why not? I think it’s because we think we know what’s going on. We judge the situation based upon what comes “naturally” to us. We assume everyone else is like us. We think “like normal.”
As Christians, we shouldn’t think “like normal” any more. No, Easter has changed all of that. Jesus has risen from the dead, and He is making all things new. He has sent us His Spirit now, and He has promised us His grace. Why are we still acting like dead men don’t rise? Why are we looking for the living among the dead?
Remember How He Spoke
Of course, living lives that are inconsistent with what we are supposed to believe is nothing new. The disciples and early followers of Jesus had the same problem we do. They should have known. They should have expected Jesus to rise again. They shouldn’t have had to have been surprised. But they were. They had to have their expectations corrected, and this was done at least twice—first by the angels at the tomb, and then by the risen Jesus Himself.
The angels at the tomb corrected the women precisely for being surprised:
“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’” (Luke 24:5-7)
Here the angels are appealing to Jesus’ own words, words He spoke to the women earlier. But later in Luke 24, Jesus Himself appears to two other disciples, and He explains that they should have known, not only from Jesus’ spoken words but also from the Old Testament Scriptures which they had read and studied:
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24: 25-27)
Jesus was telling these men that they really shouldn’t have been surprised at all. They had the information they needed. But they didn’t actually believe it. If they had, then they wouldn’t have been surprised. But they were surprised, just like we continue to be surprised in our lives today.
Think of the sorts of things that surprise us in the church. They are always things which the Bible has warned us about. They are always things which shouldn’t surprise us. How about the old line, “The church is full of hypocrites.”? Well, what did you expect? It’s full of people isn’t it? In fact, it’s full of sinners—totally depraved sinners at that! Things happen which bring us strife. Why are we surprised?
1 Peter 4 puts it this way:
Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. (1 Peter 4:12-14)
Are you going through really hard times right now? Well, what did you expect?! That’s exactly what the Bible said would happen. Why are you acting like things are still “normal”? They’re not. We are living on the other side of the resurrection.
When I have been in counseling situations and things have gotten really gnarly—I mean really bad—it’s easy to lose hope. It’s just obvious that no one is going to give in, nothing is going to get fixed, and we’re just all going to have to hate each other and go our separate ways. That’s a natural way to think. That’s normal. And it’s at just those times that I’ve said to people, “Do you believe the gospel?” “What?” they’ll usually ask. It’s as if I’ve changed the topic. Sometimes they even get insulted—“What kind of question is that?” But I mean it. “Do you believe the gospel?” If so, what is it? Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven by grace, without deserving it. And He rose from the dead so that we can do the same thing and live with Him forever. Do you believe that?
Now, let me ask you the same question but with a different emphasis. Do you believe that the gospel works? Do you really think that Christ’s death does forgive your sins and others? Do you think it sets people right with God? And do you believe that Christ’s resurrection gives us power over death and the old man? Do you believe it works? If so, then why are you surprised at the thought that it might fix your current problem? Why do you seek the living among the dead?
What’s really important here is that this does not mean if you believe hard enough—or if all parties are sincere enough, honest, hard-working, etc.—then it will work. That’s an easy mistake, but it would still be works righteousness. It would be legalism. If you wait for the other guy to get his Christian act together first, then you’re still thinking according to the flesh. What you have to do is believe that Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection works—period. You have to believe that Jesus’ sacrificial work is what will fix you and your neighbor, and you have to believe that it will continue to be the only way to fix your current and future problems as well. Do you believe the gospel?
If you do, then don’t be surprised when you are surprised. Don’t hang on to what’s natural or normal. Trust God. Let Him work in the way that He has promised. Believe. Hope. Love. And when it gets hard to believe, look back to the cross, and look back to the resurrection. Remember the surprise of the first Easter. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. And aren’t we glad it was. That Easter surprise changed everything, and it allows us to continue to change today.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Let us pray.