In the classic movie A Christmas Story there is a scene in which Ralphie receives a decoder in the mail to decipher the encrypted messages at the end of the Little Orphan Annie radio show. Ralphie tears open the package, turns on the radio, and waits in great anticipation for the secret message at the end. With the untranslated note in hand, Ralphie runs to the one room a 9-year-old can decode in secrecy, the bathroom. He locks the door and feverishly deciphers… The background music and the pounding on the door by younger siblings urgently needing in crescendo as Ralphie reads the covert message: “Be. Sure. To. Drink. Your. Ovaltine.” The camera closes on Ralphie’s disappointed face as he says, “A crummy commercial!”
Ralphie is not the only one who has been played. The world has perfected ‘the empty promise”- the exploitation of our deepest desires: our need to “be in the know,” our need for relationships, financial freedom, health, security… the world twists our desires back on us, promising us that for a few easy payments we can have, have, have. But over and over the world’s promises prove empty.
One researcher when hearing that people with a 500k net worth defined, “financial security” as 5 million dollars, asked people with a net worth of 5 million dollars to see what they thought financial security looked like. Their answer: 50 million. Cadillac, knowing that if we do “arrive” it only highlights the emptiness of the promises, is pitching the idea that we should never arrive, just “Maintain The Pursuit.” The world has sold us the empty promise, the “crummy commercial,” that if we only had 10x more emptiness that would somehow equal satisfaction. The math doesn’t add up, but we keep debiting our bank accounts to litter the doorsteps of our souls with packages full of empty promises.
But here is the good news: God doesn’t play that game. Instead of empty promises, Easter is God’s emptiness full of promise.
Consider the three empty promises of Easter in Luke 24: An empty cross, and empty tomb, and empty burial clothes.
That first Easter morning our text joins grieving women on their way to finish the traditional burial rituals and pay their last respects to Jesus.
v.1 “on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.” Coming over a rise the women see three crosses silhouetted against the rising sun. They draw near and gaze upon the center cross, the one that had held Jesus. Dark stains mark where his hands had been affixed. Splotches where the thorns had cut into the back of his head. Streaks down the rugged cross reveal the scourging of his back. They pause silently before the large dark patch on the ground where Jesus had bled out when a soldier ran the spear into his heart to confirm his death. In the starkness of that bloodstained wood lies our first promise: Sin is forgiven.
Our problem, God tells us, is not that we need to achieve more of the empty promises we seek, but that we are looking look for life apart from God – to use God’s simpler word, our problem is “sin.” Isaiah had written “your sins separate you from God.” (Is. 59:2) Sin was why Jesus said he went to the cross – As Paul said, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)
Our first promise, the promise of the empty cross, is that you and I have a substitute – One who was “pierced for our transgressions.” (Is. 53:5) Our women, in their grief, have not yet connected that Jesus was the Passover lamb slain for the sins of the world. The empty cross, though, is the promise that sin is, once for all, forgiven.
The ladies continue on the short distance to Joseph of Arimathea’s family tomb. They had removed Jesus’ lifeless body from the cross, and placed it in their influential friend’s nearby family burial cave on Friday afternoon. They had completed as much of the burial ritual as they could before the holiday began. Several days later and still devastated, they return. v.2 “they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.”
Nothing is as it should be: No stone, no seal, no guard. And looking inside, no body. They double-take to make sure they were at the right place. They have found the second empty promise of Easter: the empty tomb.
The emptiness of the tomb is disorienting because Jesus’ executioners made quite sure this particular tomb could never become empty. While Jesus’ disciples hid for their lives, the religious leaders and their Roman overlords, knowing Jesus’ predictions of an encore, had prematurely covered the tomb with the large stone door, sealed it with the imprint of the emperor, and stationed a unit of Roman soldiers, the most skilled, highly armed killing machines the world had yet seen. They inadvertently gave posterity a gift: a clear evidence trail. But the women are not conducting an investigation, they are grieving their slain master. Confused, their minds attempt to piece together the emptiness…
v4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 … frightened they bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” The most “perplexing” part of this for our ladies, isn’t seeing angels but their even more unlikely message: He “has risen.”
Speaking of “empty,” these days many offer empty accusations: Jesus wasn’t really dead, they went to the wrong tomb, the disciples (eleven terrified, hiding dudes) took it. One modern scholar even suggests they never did put Jesus in a tomb, he was eaten by dogs. No rats. No dogs. Implausible excuses manufactured by those ignoring the evidence, like a sophomore trying to explain why they showed up without their Algebra homework. One wonders if they dost protest too much. Or perhaps they simply realize what the apostle Paul realized in the first century: that if Jesus did walk out of that tomb, then he is the Son of God and death itself has been conquered (1 Cor. 15). If Jesus is “Risen indeed,” then I must lay down my empty excuses and follow him…If the tomb be empty then I must drop the charade of hoping the world’s empty promises pan out…the illusory charade of ownership to a life that was formed by another and bought with a price by One who, “gave his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45)
Where the empty cross tells us sin has been paid for, the empty tomb tells us that death itself has been defeated. And if the grave cannot hold Jesus Christ, neither will it hold those who are his.
And so our women, their grief interrupted… v.8“remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. … v.11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Unsurprisingly, the dead returning to life seemed as tragically absurd to the disciples as it would to you and I. …except for one who had been surprised by Jesus before. v.12 “Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves;
Peter found the tomb as advertised: empty. Then he saw the surprise inside: The clothes Jesus had been buried in – cloth that John chapter 19 tells us had been glued to Jesus’ body with aromatic spices, were lying neatly folded. This is the third promise out of emptiness: Empty grave clothes. If someone had stolen Jesus’ body, why pry off the burial clothes and fold them neatly? What burglar makes the bed? What Peter saw convinced him forever – Jesus has risen. “… and he (Peter) went home marveling at what had happened.”
Before long Jesus would appear to Mary Magdalene, then to rest of the Apostles, and eventually to more than 500 at one time. He walked with them. Talked with them. Ate with them. They saw him and touched him and talked to him. Once again, they had fellowship with their Lord. That is the promise of the empty burial clothes – Jesus’ presence: his desire for real relationship with you and I. The Christian faith does not promise a vaguely present “force” to be with you. The Christian faith offers a living Savior who desires personal presence with each of us – just as he did 2000 years ago.
Consider Jesus Christ: The cross couldn’t stop him. The tomb couldn’t hold him. Burial clothes couldn’t restrain him – He is risen indeed!
So while the Romans and religious leaders failed to produce a body that looked enough like Jesus to fake anyone out, Jesus walked, and talked, and touched, and loved, and healed. He did it that first Easter and he does it today. And he wants to do it with you and I.
The Christian message is that you and I can know Jesus Christ. We can know his love and care. We can know his healing and forgiveness. We can know his power over sin. We can know his victory over death. We can know him, closer than a brother, present within you.
The women approaching the tomb had no idea the wonderful promises that awaited them:
The empty cross – the promise their sins were forgiven.
The empty tomb – the promise of their eternal life.
The empty burial clothes – the promise they would once again walk with Jesus Christ – their living Savior.
The empty promises of Easter are given freely, “to all who receive him.” As St. John wrote, “To all who receive him, even to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” The question is will you receive the living One? Will you allow his grace to cover you? Will you allow Him whose promises are demonstrated through emptiness to be your fulfillment?
The Christian faith is much more than a single simple decision, but who you entrust your life too does start there. We can either entrust our lives to the empty promises of the world or the One delivers promises from what appears to all the world to be emptiness. You choose.