Sermon: The Resurrection: Hoax or Hallelujah?
Scripture: Luke 24:1-8
Date: March 27, 2016 (Easter)
On July 20, 1969, I was 13 years old, and like most Americans my eyes were glued to my tiny T.V. Screen. It was a 13 in black and white T.V. that I had rescued from the trash pile, replaced a couple of tubes (remember tubes) and gotten working again, though not very well. The picture tended to roll but if I hit my fist on the top of the set just right, and adjusted the rabbit ears to point in just the right direction, I could get a grainy black and white image, especially in the evening. It was about 7:00 in the evening in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where we were living at the time, as I watched Neil Armstrong climb down the ladder of a spaceship and become the first man to step on the surface of the moon. Soon after he was joined by a second Astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, and the most expensive rock collection ever was begun. But did you know that before Neil Armstrong ever climbed out of that little ship, Buzz Aldrin, asked Mission Control in Houston for a moment of silence and he took out a little prepackaged set of Communion elements and before stepping on to the surface, Aldrin and Neil Armstrong shared in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The first meal that was consumed on the surface of the moon, was the last supper of Jesus on earth. It’s a great story. A preacher was relating using that story in one of his messages and at the end of the service an older man, well into his eighties came to the preacher and said he liked his sermon, but that the story about Buzz Aldrin wasn’t true. “I know that,” he said, “because the whole story of landing on the moon was a hoax.” The man didn’t believe that human beings ever landed on the moon and he went to his grave believing that the first moon walk and all subsequent moonwalks really took place on a movie stage in Hollywood. And there are still those, now almost 50 years later, who believe it was all staged. Buzz Aldrin was once asked about this and he responded: You can believe whatever you want. Whatever you happen to believe about the moon landing makes no difference to me. I was there!
And then there are some who believe that the Holocaust was a hoax – that the Germans never mistreated the Jews during World War II. The statistics were wrong. The photos are doctored. It never happened. I heard once a survivor of one of the Nazi camps respond to the hoax theory by rolling up his sleeve and showing the tattooed number on his arm and say: Whatever you may believe about the Holocaust makes no difference to me. I was there.
And then there is the Flat Earth Society that is dedicated to overcoming the politically correct view that the earth is round. They claim instead that the earth is flat and has five sides. And for added measure they believe that every place on earth named “Springfield” has a mystical connection to some higher order of reality.
You can’t make these things up.
And so I got to wondering how we separate truth from hoax. And I was wondering how good you might be in separating truth from hoax. So I’m going to share some obscure events in history and I want you to tell me if they are truth or hoax.
For instance, there is a story that the great Mexican general Santa Anna, who was responsible for the American defeat at the Alamo, was later wounded in the leg during a battle, and the leg had to be amputated. And so the great general ordered an elaborate state funeral be conducted and his leg buried with full military honors.
What do you think, truth or hoax?
Or what about this one. In 1969, Rolling Stone Magazine reviewed a debut record album by a group called the Masked Marauders. The members of the band remained anonymous, but were rumored to be Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They could not, however, reveal their true identity because they were all under contract to other record labels. That debut album sold 100,000 copies and is available on Itunes today.
What do you think? Truth or hoax?
And then there is the case of British Private Henry Tandey who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery. In September, 1918, he was in a battle of World War I in France and in the course of the battle, a wounded German soldier came limping right into his line of fire. But Tandey couldn’t bring himself to shoot a wounded man, and let him go. Many years later he discovered that he had spared the life that day of an Austrian Corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler. Truth or hoax?
In fact, when Allied forces found Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchesgaden, they found on the wall a portrait of Tandey carrying off a wounded allied soldier from the battle field.
And then there is this story.
There was a man named Joseph, a member of the ruling council, a good man, who had not consented to their decision and action. Going to Pilate, he asked for the body of Jesus. He took it down from the cross, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock. On the first day of the week some women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. But they found the stone rolled away that had been used to seal the tomb. And while they were wondering about this, two men in clothes that gleamed with bright light were suddenly standing beside them. The women were terrified and stared at the ground, but the men said to them, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? There is no one here who is dead. The one you seek is not here; He is alive again! He told you this would happen when you were traveling through Galilee together. Remember He said that the Son of Man must be delivered to sinful men who would crucify Him, as they did. But on the third day He would live again. Remembering His words they left the cemetery and returned to the others to share with them the truth.
So what do you say? Truth or hoax? Hoax or Hallelujah? Would it surprise you to know that there are millions in our world who even now, 2000 years later, believe that the resurrection of Jesus was a hoax? And it might surprise you even more to know that a substantial portion of those who don’t believe it will gather in churches all around the world today to celebrate Easter. And that really should not be that surprising either. Immediately the conspiracy theorists went to work. The tomb was empty because the Disciples, remembering His words, took the body to prove the validity of His message. After all, if Jesus was at the most a liar, or at least delusional, what was going to happen to them. They had given up their livelihood and families and homes to follow Him. Their identity was now intertwined with His. And if He did not come back from the dead, then everything else He had said would be exposed as a lie. Some religions of the world teach that Jesus was a prophet, a teacher and a good man. But how can that be if He did not come back from the dead, as He said He would. He was either right and truthful, or He wasn’t. It’s hard to see the middle ground when it comes to resurrection. And so the Disciples took the body and claimed He had risen in order to prove the truth of what He said. But that conspiracy falls apart in the light of the way that most of the Disciples died. Horrible, painful deaths. Peter crucified upside down. Stephen stoned to death. Paul beheaded. You see it’s one thing to live a lie, but it’s another all together to die for a lie. And then there were others who claimed that the Romans took the body from the tomb because the priests had gone to them with the rumors that He would rise and so to prevent unrest among the people, they took the body and hid it, and when the time was right, they would produce the body and turn the people against His followers, thereby destroying the movement once and for all. But that conspiracy falls apart because they were never able to produce His body. This movie, Risen, that has been in the theaters, picks up on this conspiracy in telling the tale of a Roman officer who was given the task by Pontius Pilate to find the body of Jesus, and instead He finds Jesus alive and begins to follow Him. And then some said it was common grave robbers who took the body, probably looking for wealthy trinkets or perhaps a ransom. It was not uncommon in those days. But there were soldiers guarding the tomb, and Jesus had nothing of value, and no ransom was ever asked.
Even Thomas one of the twelve at first believed that the news of Resurrection was too incredible to be true. He essentially accuses his brothers and sisters in the faith of perpetuating the hoax and says, “Unless I see and touch the nail wounds, and can put my hand where the Roman spear entered his side, I will not believe that Jesus is alive again.” In essence Thomas was not only questioning the truth of Resurrection, but doubting that Jesus had really died in the first place.
And the idea that this was all just an elaborate hoax evidently was still present in the church when Paul was traveling through the known world proclaiming Christ alive. The Corinthian Church evidently wrote to him and asked him if the resurrection was true because there were some who had come amongst them saying it was a hoax. And Paul wrote in response:
Let me remind you of the truth that I shared with you when I first came to you, a truth which you believed and indeed based your life on. And that is that Christ died as the atonement for our sins, and that He was buried according to the law, but that God raised Him on the third day. And after He was raised He appeared to Peter, and then to the other apostles. After that He appeared to more than 500 hundred, most of whom are still alive and witnessing to what they saw. Then he appeared to James, and finally, some time later, He appeared to me. This is what I preached when I first came to you and what you believed. What you staked your life on. So why do you let others come now and say that there is no resurrection, that even Christ was not raised. Because if that is true, then you who are alive in Him, would still be dead in your sin and those who have already died are lost forever. If we follow a dead Messiah, then we, above all are most to be pitied. The truth is that because Christ is alive, we all will be alive forever, in Him.
So believe what you want about Resurrection. It makes no difference to my faith. Because I’ve seen the risen Lord.
So let’s cut to the chase. I believe that there are times when all of us, even the most devout among us, wonder whether resurrection is a hoax or hallelujah?
For instance, in the course of my ministry I have talked with a lot of persons who were trying to cope with the imminent death of a loved one. And often times the most devout believers reach that moment when they wonder if eternal life is real or if life in this world is all there is. Is resurrection real? When I was pastor in Harrodsburg I got a call from one of the local funeral home directors one day, asking me if I would be willing to come and talk to a family whose loved one had passed away and who had no connection with a church, but yet wanted a Christian burial for their loved one. So, of course, I went. It turned out that it was a man somewhere in his 40’s whose wife had died suddenly, leaving him with two teenage children to care for. And so I asked what he had in mind as far as the funeral was concerned. And he said to me, “I don’t really know. We were never believers, but we always hoped to be.” Even in those moments when we wonder whether resurrection is true, we hope it to be true don’t we. We seek the living among the dead. Resurrection is the hope that the prospect of death often takes from us. Resurrection transforms the cross from an instrument of death on a barren hill, to a beacon of hope rising above what is sometimes a barren countryside. But so many continue to struggle to believe in the truth of the resurrection because from the very beginning we have made it more about death than life. Now that may seem like an odd statement but stick with me here. It is incredible to me that more Christians believe that Jesus died on the Cross, then believe He rose from the dead. But it should not be so surprising. Because the truth of the matter is that human beings have come to understand the process of death, but we have never been able to grasp a process of regeneration of a dead body. Death is the stuff of science but regeneration is the stuff of science fiction. And so down through history, what people of faith have failed to understand is that resurrection in Christ is all about new life rather than the regeneration of old life. And so we interpret the statement that the Angels make at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” as a statement about regeneration of the dead, rather than about new life. And when we think about resurrection in relationship to Jesus, we tend to think in terms of regenerating life from that which was previously physically dead on the cross. And so we point to Gospel accounts like the raising of the daughter of Jairus, and His friend Lazarus and His own emergence from the tomb, and say now that’s what resurrection is all about. We might not be able to explain it from a scientific perspective, but we can point to those three incidents and say, see it does happen. But there have always been so many like Thomas, who say “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself.” But you see, I think that such an attitude is based upon the understanding that resurrection is the regeneration of old life, rather than new life. I would contend that Jesus’ entire ministry was really about resurrection, about new life. And every stop we have made on this journey with Him to discipleship, has been ultimately about resurrection. Beginning with the waters of Baptism, where we die to the old self and embrace new life. I would assert that everyone who was touched by Jesus along the road, experienced resurrection. A blind beggar whose life was made completely new by the touch of Jesus. That’s resurrection. A woman sick for 13 years with a blood disease. Healed. Resurrected. Life made new. A man crippled for 37 years, healed of his infirmity, leaving behind the miserable life he had always known. Given new life. Resurrected. A woman guilty of adultery. Zachaeus the corrupt tax collector. A man possessed by a legion of demons. Forgiven. Finding new life in Jesus. Resurrected. Peter and his brothers. Struggling to make it in life. Fishing with nets that are often empty. Filled to overflowing in Jesus’ presence. Called to New Life. Resurrected. Nicodemus, a prominent man, but living in a darkened world. What must I do Jesus? You must be resurrected to new life. The Gospels don’t reserve the discussion of resurrection for three isolated events culminating with the empty tomb. The Gospels are all about resurrection – from beginning to end. They are all about new life. One preacher puts it this way: The Gospels do not explain the Resurrection; Resurrection explains the Gospels. Read the Gospels and the Book of Acts and you cannot help but see that Resurrection is the foundation of everything those disciples did. The journey to discipleship is a journey of resurrection. It is not a journey of transformation, of regenerating life from the old life we have led. It is a journey in which time and again we embrace new life in Christ. When we are tempted. When we grieve. When we sin. When we stray from the path. When crosses loom before us in this world, and we find ourselves dwelling on the dead things rather than seeking the living, we are resurrected. Given new life in Christ. You may have come here this morning, weighted down by all of the dead places in your life. Let me ask you, “Why do you continue to seek the living among the dead?” Because this can be your Easter Day. This can be your day, when the tombs that seek to hold you are broken wide open, and you receive new life in the Living Christ. May He be risen in you this very moment. No hoax. Only Hallelujah. You see, I don’t know what you came here this morning thinking about resurrection. Hoax or Hallelujah? All I know is that every time life has been drained from me because of grief or pain or illness or sin, He has emptied my tombs and offered new life. And He’ll do the same for you. So stop seeking the living among the dead and embrace the new life that only Jesus can offer His disciples. Hallelujah. He’s alive and so can you be. Amen