John 20:1–18 (NIV) 1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying. 11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
My dear friends in Christ,
Today is Easter. It’s also April Fools Day. The origin of April Fools Day isn’t clear, but a lot of people have fun pulling pranks on unsuspecting friends and coworkers. The April Fools joke I remember best was the April 1st, 1985 Sports Illustrated article about a mysterious baseball phenom named Sidd Finch. Sidd wore overalls, a work boot on his right foot, and could throw a fastball 168 mph. It was a great story—and everyone believed it, until Sports Illustrated revealed that it was an elaborate April Fools joke! Sometimes the students here at Salem come up with some pretty good April Fools pranks. One student scraped frosting out of Oreos, replaced it with toothpaste, and gave them to the teacher as a gift! The teacher thought they were pretty good, although they tasted a little minty fresh...
There weren’t any April Fools jokes on that first Easter morning, but does it seem like there were some Easter Fools going on? John told us that Mary Magdalene went out early to Jesus’ tomb. Mary had a close relationship with her Savior. Seven demons had possessed her before Jesus cast them out. From that point on, Mary and several other women traveled with Jesus and made sure he was fed and cared for. Mary stood with several other women at Calvary and witnessed Jesus’ death on the cross. She watched Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepare Jesus’ body for burial on Friday afternoon. Mary returned on Sunday morning as soon as she could! She wanted, like the other women, to finish caring for Jesus’ dead body.
When she arrived, “Easter Fools!” Someone had removed the stone from the entrance to the tomb. Mary fell for it without even looking inside. She ran back to tell Peter and John, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2 NIV). Mary thought someone was playing a trick on her. Peter and John may have wondered if Mary was trying to play a trick on them. Is this all some sort of Easter Fools prank? As Peter and John got up to leave, they must have wondered what was going on. Who were “they”? Who could have possibly taken Jesus’ body? They knew that on Saturday the chief priests and the Pharisees had asked Pilate to secure the grave so the disciples couldn’t steal Jesus’ body and claim he had risen. Pilate gave them permission, “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard” (Matthew 27:66 NIV). “They” couldn’t be Jesus’ enemies. They wanted him dead and quiet in the tomb.
Where was Jesus’ body? Peter and John ran to the tomb. John arrived first. When he looked inside, “Easter fools!” The tomb was empty! Was Jesus setting them up? Was someone trying to play a cruel joke giving them hope, only to snatch it away again? There was nothing there, nothing except some empty grave clothes.
Peter finally arrived at the tomb. He went straight inside. It was empty. The two of them found nothing—no body, no evidence left by grave robbers.
“He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen” (John 20:6–7 NIV). Could this be an even bigger “Easter fools” joke? Who would steal a body and carefully leave behind two neat piles of grave clothes?
Does the story of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection feel like some sort of cosmic prank? Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26 NIV84). Who would fall for that promise? We have all been to funerals. We have seen our loved ones lying there. No matter how much we hope it’s just a bad dream, we are at a funeral. How can Jesus’ words be true? It’s pretty obvious that there’s no life there—just death. Is Jesus playing some sort of Easter Fools prank on us?
Maybe Jesus is trying to fool us in our prayer lives. He said, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24 NIV). Is he serious? We have prayed. We’ve asked for some pretty serious answers. We have placed health, and life, and happiness, and success in his hands. Easter Fools! Jesus must have pulled a prank on us. There’s no answer, no solution. Jesus got our hopes up. We counted on his answer, but he didn’t come through like he promised!
Sometimes, we end up Easter fooling ourselves. We are convinced that God wants us to have happiness and success all the time. We make our plans, set our goals, work hard, and achieve them, only to find that the satisfaction doesn’t last. We aren’t as happy as we thought we’d be! Things didn’t go the way we wanted them to go. What happened?
Here’s the biggest Easter Fools prank of all—Easter is scientifically impossible! No one can rise from the dead. Therefore, Jesus is still in a grave somewhere—someone must have stolen his body and hid it!
If all of this is true, then we don’t have much to celebrate today. Easter becomes a day we dutifully go to church, listen to some good music, eat a big breakfast, and go home. It’s a day to hide Easter eggs and eat lots of candy. Then there’s no reason for us to be here this morning! The apostle Paul said it like this: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17 NIV). That’s no joke.
Let’s go back to the garden and the empty tomb. There was no Easter Fools prank, just the reality of life where there had been death. After Peter and John left, Mary remained, crying in her grief. She stooped down to look in the tomb again. Maybe she would see Jesus’ body and realize she had only imagined that he was gone. Instead, “[Mary] saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him’” (John 20:12–13 NIV). Mary was so upset that she barely noticed who was speaking. She could only blurt out the problem. She turned and saw someone standing there. Mary begged him to tell her if he had taken Jesus’ body and where he had hidden it.
Before she could continue, the man spoke one word. “Mary” (John 20:16 NIV). As soon as Mary heard the voice, she recognized its owner. It was Jesus! “Teacher!” she shouted. Suddenly, everything fell into place. No stone in front of the tomb ... no body inside ... Jesus’ promise, “After three days I will rise again” (Matthew 27:63; Mark 8:31; Luke 18:33) ... Two bright, shining strangers suddenly sitting where Jesus’ body should have been ... grave clothes carefully left behind as if to say, “Not needed anymore!” This was no Easter Fools joke. It was the incredible, impossible truth—Jesus is alive! This wasn’t a temporary resuscitation or the result of an accidental burial. The crucified, dead and buried Jesus stood alive in front of Mary. Jesus had done exactly what he promised. He defeated death itself. The tomb couldn’t hold onto him. Jesus rose from the dead! That’s no Easter Fools joke, and there’s no Easter hoax. Just reality. Just life. Just hope.
Hope? What kind of hope? I am so thankful that we are here today, because Jesus has some incredible, life changing news for all of us! “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Corinthians 15:20,55–57 NIV). Here is our Easter truth! Jesus is the first to rise from the dead, just as he promised. His resurrection guarantees that every other promise he made is true! Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven!” (Matthew 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20 NIV). It’s true! Jesus doesn’t hold our past against us. His grace covers every part of our lives, every sin we’ve ever committed, even the guilt and shame that still bothers us. His grace calls us back day after day.
Jesus’ grace promises that he will never make Easter Fools out of any of us. Jesus promised to hear our prayers and answer them. He is doing that right now, even when it doesn’t seem like it. Jesus doesn’t promise us the perfect life, then yank it away just for fun. In fact, he said exactly the opposite: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV). Jesus promises that even when life stinks, he is right here, walking with us and giving us the victory.
What about those funerals? Jesus understands the pain and sorrow we feel. He’s been there. When he attended the funeral of his good friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 NIV). Jesus wants all of us to know today that he did something about death. He destroyed its power over us. There’s a good reason the stone was rolled away from the tomb—it could NOT hold Jesus in! The grave couldn’t contain the Lord of Life! I love the way the hymn, In Christ Alone, expresses that truth: “Then bursting forth in glorious day, up from the grave he rose again! And as he stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me. For I am his, and he is mine—bought with the precious blood of Christ!” (CWS 752). So, when Jesus promises, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die,” that’s not an Easter Fools joke. Yes, our loved ones die. It hurts, deeply. But remember, whoever believes in Jesus lives! They live forever with him. We have hope that goes beyond the funeral, beyond the grave into eternal life.
There’s even a promise for these sin-corrupted bodies that eventually die and turn back to dust. Remember what Paul said in our second reading? “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52 NIV). These bodies that are planted in the ground will rise. Not like the “Walking Dead” zombies rise. These bodies will be changed, glorified, made perfect. We will, as King David once sang, “dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (Psalm 23:6 NIV).
Does all of this sound like a big joke, a prank for Easter Fools? To some people it is. As we leave this morning, we have the confidence that Easter is no joke. God hasn’t played a prank on us. Jesus is risen. We have forgiveness. We have the hope of eternal life. Like John, let’s look at the empty tomb and believe! Like Mary, let’s go back and tell everyone about the hope Jesus has given this Easter morning! Amen.