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Questions Jesus Asks Us: “Why Do You Seek the Living among the Dead?”

April 8, 2012

Sermon:  Questions Jesus Asks Us:  “Why Do You Seek the Living among the Dead?”
Text:  Luke 24:1-12

Today in our series Questions Jesus Asks Us, our Scripture comes from Luke 24:1-12.  Hear now the Word of God.

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8 Then they remembered his words.

9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Last Christmas after I told you that the geraniums on my front porch were still living, some of you actually drove by to see them.  Then they died.

I have been able to winter-over some geraniums only a few times.  I usually have to start over every year.  I know that the secret to keeping geraniums over the winter is to dig them up just before the first frost, before the cold damages them.  Next, you must shake off all dirt from the roots, put the plants in a paper bag, and hang them upside down in the basement over the winter.  Once winter ends and the last frost has come, take the bags out of the basement and look at those geraniums.  Next, throw them away and buy brand new plants at the garden store.  Geraniums are once again on our front porch.  If you open a bag of dead geraniums, you are seeking the living among the dead. 

It will not surprise you to know that I spend a good bit of time at Greenlawn Memorial Gardens.  My grandparents, an aunt and uncle, my parents, and our son Erik are buried there.  The little cluster of blue granite tombstones marked with the name Neely all look pretty much the same.  If I went to Greenlawn to visit the grave of someone I love very much but found it open and the body gone, I doubt my first reaction would be one of joy.  My first reaction would probably be similar to the shock, disbelief, and maybe even fear of the women who came to the tomb of Jesus.  We read in the Scripture that these early morning visitors experienced fear and fell face-down as angels asked the important question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  Though this question was not posed by Jesus, as the other questions in this series were, it is one we need to consider this morning.

The physical reality here is that the body of Jesus was gone.  Of course, we might think in terms of CSI:  Jerusalem – The Missing Body.  The women saw the burial shroud inside the tomb, as did Peter at a later time.  The angels’ message asserted that this was not just the case of a missing body.  The question they posed was not only one about the reality that Jesus was dead but now alive, just as he said he would be.  The angels’ question was also one of a spiritual nature.  They were asking, “Why do you focus on death, especially when life must be lived?  Why do you look to the past when you could look forward to and anticipate the future?  Why would you indulge in overwhelming grief when all signs point to new life, new life abounding?”  The angels’ question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” deserves our attention this Easter morning.

Jesus’ death, caused by the Roman method of crucifixion, was so brutal that it ended all hope. After Jesus died late on Friday, his body was removed from the cross and delivered to Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin.  Rather hurriedly, he and Nicodemus placed the body in a tomb that had never been used.  These women who have returned to the tomb, these faithful and devoted disciples, were certainly grieving.  Unable to properly prepare the body before the sun set on the Jewish Sabbath, they wanted to pay final their respects to Jesus by anointing his body with spices.  They had not forgotten Jesus.

Grief is hard.  I know that.  You know that.  A person does not have to live very long before experiencing real grief.  I knew a widow, when I served a church in North Carolina, who so deeply grieved for her husband after his death that for more than a year she went every single day, rain or shine, to his grave.  She somehow thought she was paying him the respect he was due.  She did not forget her husband, but she did forget to live her life to the fullest.

We all have the tendency to cut ourselves off from life after experiencing tragedy.  Sorrow and despair can become our constant companions, even more so the older we get.  At some point, we need to make a decision that though we are grieving, though we are experiencing loss and difficulty in getting over the pain, we need to move on with life. The angels’ question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” emphasizes this need to continue with life, a life that is pleasing to God.  We will not forget the person we love.

Some years ago, I traveled with our son Kris to the Holy Land.  He and I were the only Christians in a tourist group that was almost all Jewish.  The other travelers were a little leery of us at first, but Kris quickly won over all the old women.  They began treating him like a grandson.  I suppose that because Kris and I were together, they took me in too.  We visited sites in the Holy Land that were special to the Jewish people, places like Masada and the Tomb of David; but our tour guide was insistent on taking us to places that were specifically Christian.  Our Jewish companions simply waited quietly while Kris and I visited these places of great importance to our faith.

Almost everyone agrees that two sites in the Holy Land in particular – the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Sepulcher – were built either over the place where Jesus was born or over the place where Jesus’ body was placed.  I will never forget the day that Kris and I walked into the church built over the burial tomb.  Though it had been ornately decorated, we still had the sense that we were in the empty tomb.  Our faith is not just one of the empty tomb.  Our faith goes way beyond that.

The disciples knew the terror of crucifixion.  After Jesus’ death they were afraid, so they hid in an upper room.  When they encountered Jesus, walking in the garden along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, breaking bread in Emmaus, and telling them to continue his ministry, they experienced the resurrected Christ as a reality.  They experienced the reality of the risen Christ, not just a vision, not just a dream, not just a story.

Rome was powerless to erase the memory of Jesus.  These Easter people knew that Jesus was alive.  We gather here today to affirm that very fact.  Jesus was dead and buried, but we believe in the miracle of the resurrection.  The Apostle Paul asserted that Christ died to defeat the power of sin and death.  Jesus has delivered us from the vicious cycle of sin and death.

It is no accident that more people attend church on Christmas and Easter than on any other two Sundays.  I never fuss about people who attend church only twice a year.  When you are absent, we miss you.  We are glad to have you at this family reunion today.  People do not come to church on these two days just to sing.  Nor do they come just to show off a new outfit.  People come because Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem – celebrated at Christmas and his resurrection in Jerusalem celebrated at this time of year – are the bookends for Jesus’ earthly life.  You pretty much knew that the Easter message would focus on the fact that Jesus has risen.  You have all come here this morning because you know that this is a day of hope.  We have every reason for hope, every reason to anticipate the gift of new life.

Mark Twain wrote a story about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, two boys who were missing in the town of Hannibal.  Concerned about the boys, the townspeople dredged the Mississippi River, looking for their bodies.  Though unsuccessful, the town decided to have a memorial service, nonetheless.  On the day of the service, the judge delivered the eulogy, making glorious statements about these two boys that were probably undeserved.  All of a sudden, Tom and Huck walked in the back door.  Not many people get to attend their own funeral, but those two guys did.

We have the same kind of experience on Easter.  We celebrate the very idea that Jesus was dead but is now alive.  What a startling revelation!

Clare and I celebrated our forty-fifth class reunion at Furman several years ago.  My part in the program was to read the list of classmates who had died.  Getting ready for the worst job at a reunion, I commented, “There must be some way to make this meaningful.”

One fellow sitting nearby, a man who had actually graduated the year before us but married a woman in our class, said, “Kirk, let me tell you what happened last year at our reunion.  As Jack was reading the list of the deceased, this guy raised his hand and said, ‘Hey! You called my name, but I’m here!’  A moment of awkward silence followed, but everyone was glad to know he was not dead.  He received the award for having traveled the farthest to get to the reunion.  There was no word about where he came from.”

The same kind of thing happens at Easter.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead when so much life is to be lived?”

When I go to Greenlawn Cemetery, I often see some interesting sites.  Teenagers, with a nervous parent sitting in the passenger’s seat, learn to drive their automobile among those graves.  What better place for a teenager to learn?  A widower I know often walks through the cemetery with his adult daughter.  One day while talking with him, he said, “Kirk, we like to come here to walk.  No one bothers us, and seeing these graves at Greenlawn gives me great incentive to stay in good health.  Nothing helps me appreciate just how precious life is than coming here to walk.”

Greenlawn offers hope.  Twice I have seen rainbows in the sky over the cemetery at the conclusion of a funeral.  I have seen butterflies flitting around, symbols of resurrection in the early church.  I have also seen bluebirds, one of my favorite symbols.  The truth is that we are Easter people.  We are people of the resurrection faith.  We do grieve, but we do not grieve as people without hope.  We do not become maudlin because our hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of his resurrection.

A good friend, a man diagnosed with terminal cancer, was very close to death soon after the first of the year.  When the doctors changed his medications of chemotherapy, his health improved.  Once able to get back on his feet, he told his wife, “I really want to go to church Easter Sunday.”

On Easter morning when he saw his wife, who was decked out to the nines, wearing in a brand new dress.  Puzzled, he said, “You haven’t had a chance to go shopping since I mentioned attending church on Easter.  When did you get that dress?”

The wife explained, “The truth is that I bought it for your funeral.  When you said you wanted to go to church today, I thought I would wear it.”

The husband answered, “I’m so glad you’re wearing it.  I’m glad I got to see you in that beautiful dress.”

My friend died not long after that.  His wife wore the dress again, this time to his funeral.  Her dress was a symbol of life, a symbol of hope.

The story in Luke 24 does not end with an empty tomb.  Jesus died but rose from the grave.  We serve a risen Savior.  It is incumbent upon us to live as people who believe that Christ Jesus has given us abundant life.  He does not just offer only life beyond death.  He also offers abundant life, here and now, because he has conquered sin and death.

Near the end of his life, Moses preached a sermon to the people of Israel.  I have used his words, especially at times when a person has committed suicide.  I have also recited his words when people seemed to be in such despair that they felt they could not continue.  Listen to these words from Deuteronomy 30:19-20:  “This day I call heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing.  Now choose life, so that you and your descendents may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.  For the LORD is your life.”  These words speak the truth.  We must not seek the living among the dead.  We must seek life from the living Savior.  Consider these lyrics:  “Because He lives I can face tomorrow; Because He lives all fear is gone; Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living just because He lives.”  The words of this song express our Easter faith, our reason for celebration.

Do you know the living Savior?  If not, could I invite you to accept the Lord Jesus as your Lord and Savior today?  Some of you have other decisions to make.  You know what those are.  We invite you to respond on this Easter Sunday.

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2012

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