He really does live, doesn’t He? He’s not there in that tomb, is He? Thank God He’s not there! Thank God He’s here – with you and me. There is no question about it. There’s no doubt in my mind. The tomb was empty on that first Easter morning. Jesus was resurrected. He’s not there, but thank God He’s here! That really is the powerful message of Easter Sunday.
And it is a message that needs to be heard again and again. For we are all like the three women, described here in Mark’s account of resurrection in Mark 16 – the earliest Gospel account. Early that Sunday morning, they were going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, wondering how the massive stone would be rolled aside so they could enter. Upon arrival they observed that stone sealing the tomb had already been rolled away. Upon entering it, they saw a young man – an angel, to be exact, who told them not to be alarmed since they were. You and I would’ve been alarmed too, by the way. He knew why they were there: to anoint Jesus’ dead body, which would have been a very noble thing to do. But the body wasn’t there. The young man told them He had been raised. Even though the angel reminded those three ladies that Jesus had told them all this was going to happen, it still didn’t make sense to them.
This guy instructed Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger or as I call him, “Little Jimmy,” who was one of The Twelve, and Salome to go and tell the other disciples, especially Peter – that miserable failure whose denial may have been worse than Judas’ – something very important. Jesus was going to Galilee and would wait for them there and they were to get up there as quickly as they could. Mark then says those gals got out of there as quickly as they could. When you think about, their departure may have been somewhat comical.
Jackie will tell you that I can get tickled at just about anything and laugh almost uncontrollably. Yesterday morning as I was reading over this text, I thought about Mary, Mary, and Salome leaving the tomb. I started laughing as I pondered the scene. I can imagine the three of them attempting to exit the tomb at the same time, bumping into each other, knocking each other down, getting up, tripping and falling down again. I can envision one about to exit and the one behind her grabbing her, pulling her out of the way and attempting to make her own exit, while the third one grabbed her, pulling her out of the way, seeking to be the first to get out of there. I should think the angel was amused as he watched the scene unfold. It’s the stuff that makes for a good cartoon or Three Stooges episode.
Let’s face it. You and I would have been doing the same thing. These girls had been seized by terror and amazement. They had just seen an angel in a graveyard who had literally spoken to them. Jesus was not in the tomb. As they listened to this young messenger from God they must have thought, “Gone to Galilee? But He died on Friday. We saw Him die on the cross. We watched Joseph of Arimathea take Him off the cross and wrap Him in a linen cloth. We watched Joseph put Him in this tomb. He’s risen? He’s gone to Galilee? An angel is talking to us? We’re out of here!” And then Mark concludes: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
On this Easter morning I remind you as I remind myself, He’s not there in the tomb. Thank God He’s here. And because Jesus is there’s encouragement to move beyond the terror and amazement. As I look into your faces this morning, I see in all of us some fear. We’ve come into this Worship Center with a host of fears – the fear of dying, the fear of financial failure, the fear of a marriage collapsing to name a few. Because Jesus is here, we can rid ourselves of all those fears whatever they may be. Mary, Mary, and Salome did. The truth is, they all did eventually. You see, because He’s not there, but is here, there is power that will enable you and me to say something and not be afraid. More often than not, though, we’re like those three women: we say nothing to anyone for we are afraid.
Our fear, perhaps, is justified. It is a scary world out there, isn’t it? If you don’t believe that then watch the news on television sometime today. Pick up The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and peruse it. Pick up our local daily The Times Georgian. Can you believe all the things that have happened in our city and county in the past two weeks? The world, even here in Carrollton, is scary. There’s a good reason why the desk sergeant on that early ’80s prime-time TV drama on Thursdays, Hill Street Blues, always told everybody after announcements, roll call, and assignments just prior to their departure to serve and protect, “Let’s be careful out there.” We can’t exercise enough care. Every day seemingly brings new terror and so in our “being careful out there,” we tend to clam up. Maybe we’re exercising too much care out there.
Dana Harman sent me an email on Wednesday making an observation about April 20 – specifically, that many people identify April 20 with evil. On April 20, 1889 Adolph Hitler was born. On April 20, 1999 the Columbine High School massacre, in which two students shot and killed twelve of their fellow students and two teachers before killing themselves, took place in Littleton, CO. There are 420 student groups associated with drugs. And then Dana observed that since it’s Easter how great it would be if all Christians would allow God’s miraculous love to so overwhelm us because of our belief in the resurrection that the world would be inclined to forget the evil associated with April 20.
Dana’s right, you know. Resurrection is evidence of God’s love and it is precisely because Jesus Christ has been resurrected that evil can be overcome on April 20 or April 22 or September 20 or September 22 or on any day. The tomb is empty. He’s not there, but thank God He’s here!
The angel told them Jesus wasn’t there. The evil of death had been conquered so why hang around a tomb? The angel told them He was going to Galilee. On this April 20, a day many associate with evil, maybe we need to go back to Galilee, the place where it all started.
David Garland was my New Testament professor in both my master’s and doctoral studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. David taught there for twenty years. A wonderful friend, he now teaches New Testament in the George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, TX where he is currently Associate Dean. David observes that all Mark gives us is simply the news that Jesus has been raised. If anybody wants to see Jesus, they will have to leave the tomb and follow Him since He has gone on ahead – to Galilee, where it all began.1
As I contemplated my former professor’s insight, I was reminded that Jesus really is always a step or two ahead of us. He is always out there beckoning us to come to where He is. He’s not there in the tomb. That was the black of Good Friday and quiet of Holy Saturday. He’s not there, but thank God He’s here! He’s here, in Galilee, the place of beginnings. That’s where it all started in Galilee. That’s where Jesus began preaching the kingdom of God. That’s where He called some guys to follow Him, joining Him in taking to task the evil of the world.
Easter calls us to start again by going back to the place of beginnings. We are to learn to follow Him all over again. That’s what Easter Sunday concerns: learning to follow Jesus Christ all over again. Christ is always out there ahead of us – leading and guiding His followers into new lands, new ventures, and new challenges. He’s not there in the empty tomb. He’s on the move. Anywhere persons are compliant to His charge to go to Galilee, He’s there. I’m glad He is for many reasons, but especially because there is evil in the world. Galilee really can be a rough place at times.
April 22, 1973. It was Easter Sunday. In the African country of Uganda – a nation at the time under the absolute rule of Dictator Idi Amin – Kefa Sempangi was a pastor in that tortured land. Under the growing shadow of Amin, Uganda was becoming a land of terror. Still fresh in Sempangi’s memory was a face burned beyond recognition, the sight of soldiers cruelly beating a man, and the horrible sound of boots crushing bones. Sempangi was exhausted and wondered what difference his sermon that morning could make. He prayed for wisdom and strength and then delivered his sermon to 7,000 people.
Afterward he made his way to the vestry, tired but joyful. Five men followed him into the small building and closed the door behind them. Sempangi turned around to find five rifles pointed at his face. He had never seen any of them before, but immediately recognized them as the secret police of the State Research Bureau – Idi Amin’s assassins. Their faces were full of pure hate and rage. “We are going to kill you,” said the leader. “If you have something to say, say it now.”
Sempangi stood there feeling himself lose control. He thought of his wife and child and began to shake. Somehow he managed to speak. “I do not need to plead my own cause,” he said. “I am a dead man already. My life is dead and hidden in Christ. So if I die, I’ll be alive. It is your lives that are in danger; you are dead in your sins. I will pray to God that after you have killed me, He will spare you from eternal destruction.”
The leader looked at him with curiosity. Then he lowered his gun and ordered the others to do the same. “Will you pray for us now?” the leader of the assassins asked. Though fearing it was a trick, Sempangi asked them all to bow their heads and close their eyes. “Father in heaven,” he prayed, “You who have forgiven men in the past, forgive these men also. Do not let them perish in their sins but bring them unto yourself.”
Sempangi lifted his head, waiting for the men to pull the triggers. But then he noticed their faces. Gone was the hate and rage, and when the leader spoke, it was without contempt. “You have helped us,” he said, “and we will help you. We will speak to the rest of our company and they will leave you alone. Do not fear for your life. It is in our hands and you will be protected.” Relief and joy flooded Sempangi’s heart. God’s love had given him the strength to say a simple prayer – one that changed the lives of those five men forever. 2 No, six men for Kefa Sempangi’s life was changed forever. No, a church of 7,000 people was changed forever.
I’m glad Jesus wasn’t there in the tomb on Easter Sunday 1973. I’m glad He went on to Galilee in Uganda. I’m also glad Kefa Sempangi followed Him to that Galilee in Uganda. I’m glad lives were changed that day. Easter always grants us strength to change.
Now thirty years later on Easter Sunday 2003 I believe at least one life, my life, will be changed. No. I believe the lives of these 100 souls in this choir behind me will be changed. No. I believe the lives of every person in this Worship Center can be changed forever. No. I believe lives all over this planet in all those Galilees can be changed forever.
Oh, I’m so glad Jesus is still in Uganda and right here in Carrollton, Georgia. That’s the Good News of Easter and it’s news worth telling. The tomb? The grave? He’s not there, but thank God He’s here! And on this Easter His Presence, well, it’s enough. It really is enough.
Jimmy Gentry is Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton, GA.
1. David E. Garland, “Mark” The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), p. 624.
2. This story appeared in Weavings 3 (May/June 1988) 3, pp. 33-36.
All scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version, 1989.