March 26, 2016 / Dallas Baptist University Pilgrim Chapel
Easter Before Easter
Lizzy Myers is a five-year-old girl living in Bellville, north of Columbus, Ohio. She suffers from Usher syndrome, an incurable genetic disorder that leads to blindness and hearing loss.
Her parents have made a bucket list of things for her to see before she loses her eyesight. Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon are on it. But at the top of her list is seeing Pope Francis. This Wednesday, Lizzy and her family will get her wish. She will meet the pope at the end of his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square.
Who would you like to meet before you die? A great athlete? Musician? Movie star? Political leader? The president?
Several years ago, our family went to Washington, D.C. on summer vacation. The highlight of the trip for me, I was sure, was going to be our visit to the White House. After waiting in the rain an hour the night before to buy tickets and two hours the day of our tour, finally we entered the most visited site in America. And left nearly as quickly as we entered. Four rooms and a souvenir shop at the end. That's all the White House tour sees.
So we cannot see the office of our president—perhaps we can call him. Not really. The White House switchboard answers around 3,000 calls and 100,000 emails every day, along with 65,000 letters a week. Not to mention the hundreds of people who try to get a personal appointment with the president. Of all these requests, the president personally sees only a small number, and of these he actually deals with only a few.
By comparison, our Father in heaven receives multiplied millions of prayers daily, millions at this very moment, in hundreds of languages. And yet he is able to hear and answer every one of them. Why? Because of the events that happened on this weekend, twenty centuries ago. More specifically, because of Easter before Easter.
Let's explore three miracles together and see what they mean to you today.
Tearing the veil
First, "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom" (Matthew 27:51a).
This curtain was the great veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Jewish temple. Sixty feet high, thirty feet wide, as thick as a man's hand, the veil was so heavy the Jewish Talmud says 300 men were required to move it. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, describes it as "embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful" (Wars 5.5.4).
Now, in the moment of Jesus' death at 3:00 that afternoon, as the priests were gathering in the Temple for the customary evening sacrifices, "the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom." This was in every way a miracle. An earthquake would have shredded the veil, not torn it. Even if men could have torn the thick, heavy veil, they would have done so from bottom to top, not top to bottom.
This is a fact of history, not religious myth. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record it, writing at a time when the eyewitnesses to the torn curtain were still living and could easily have refuted them if they were wrong. The Roman historian Tacitus, Josephus, and the Jewish Talmud all refer in various ways to the event as well.
But there's more.
Shaking the earth
Our text continues: "And the earth shook, and the rocks were split" (v. 51b). This could have been a natural earthquake, as the area stands on a fault line where earthquakes were and are quite common.
However, verse 54 points to a different conclusion: "When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, 'Truly this was the Son of God!'" Matthew seems to indicate that the earthquake was a direct result of Jesus' death, as though God were shaking the earth at the suffering and tragic death of his "only begotten Son" and showing his universal power.
We should not be surprised that God would shake the earth when Jesus died, since he will shake it again before Jesus returns: "And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake" (Revelation 16:18).
But there's more.
Opening the grave
Here's the third miracle of our text: "The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many" (vs. 52–53).
After Jesus "yielded up his spirit" (v. 50), they "were raised." Note the passive. They did not raise themselves. Rather, they "were raised" by the same God who would raise Jesus on the third day. And after his resurrection, they demonstrated their own when they "went into the holy city and appeared to many."
So we have a torn curtain, a shaken earth, and emptied tombs. All three were so significant that they were recorded by the Holy Spirit in Holy Scripture for us. Why?
All for us
By tearing aside the veil separating humanity from the Holy of Holies, God gave access to his inner sanctuary to all of mankind. Now, for the first time in Jewish history, anyone could come to God. Anyone could see into his presence. Anyone could speak to him. Anyone.
For the first time, women could come into his presence. For the first time, Gentiles. For the first time, men besides the one High Priest chosen for each generation. For the first time, you and me.
Today the veil is gone, the Holy of Holies is gone, the very Temple itself is gone. Their purpose is done, their work completed. Now the veil separating you from your Father is gone, forever.
By shaking the earth, God showed his sovereignty over it. His Son's death was not a violation of God's sovereignty, but an expression of it. Jesus was the lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). Our Father chose to send his Son to die for us, and that Son chose to die so we could live. God was never more on his throne than when Jesus died on his cross.
By opening the graves, God showed that Easter is for us all. If the sinless, perfect Son of God was raised from the dead, we would not be surprised. But when sinful, imperfect men and women were raised from the dead, we can know that we will be, as well.
The curtain shows our access to the Lord of the universe; the earthquake shows his sovereignty over our fallen planet; the emptied tombs show that Easter is for us all. Put the three miracles together, and here's what you can know: You can come to the sovereign God of the universe, now and forever. You can be with him this very moment, even as you will be raised to stand with him one day in paradise. The King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16) is as close as your knees.
Now, you knew these facts before today. Whether you connected them to these three miracles or not, you knew that you can come through the torn curtain to the sovereign King of the world and will one day be raised to be with him forever.
So here's my question: Are you experiencing all that these miracles offer you today?
In recent days I have come to this sobering conclusion: Far more of us believe in Jesus than experience Jesus. He is an object of worship for us. We know that he is our Savior and are grateful for his sacrifice. We want other people to know about him and trust in him.
But do you know him today? Is he real in your life this moment?
When last did you hear his voice speak to your mind and soul? When last did you sense his presence in your spirit? When last did you spend an hour or even a few minutes listening to him? Worshiping him? Just resting in him?
Are you experiencing Jesus today?
One day you will. One day, every day will be Easter. But here's the point: It already is. The curtain is still torn. The earth still shakes under his sovereignty. The tomb still opens at his call. All that Jesus has ever been, he is right now.
Because of Easter before Easter, every day is Easter. Is it so for you?
Noted Episcopal priest Harry Pritchett, Jr. told one of my very favorite Easter stories. It centers in an eight-year-old boy named Philip. Philip was born with Down Syndrome. He went to Sunday school along with nine other eight-year-olds. But he never really fit in.
The teacher had a great idea for the Sunday after Easter. He brought ten empty pantyhose eggs to class and gave one to each child. They were to take them outside and put something in that would symbolize new life. The children were thrilled and did as asked. Then the teacher opened them one by one.
The first held a flower. Another held a butterfly. Another held a rock; the boy who found it explained that he wanted to be different from the other kids. And on it went.
Then the teacher opened an egg, but there was nothing inside. The kids began complaining that someone was stupid and didn't do it right. Then Philip tugged on the teacher's sleeve. "It's mine," he said. The children, being eight-year-olds, said, "You don't ever do things right, Philip. There's nothing there." "I did so do it," Philip said. "I did do it. It's empty. The tomb is empty!"
It was a miracle that day. From that spring day on, Philip was part of that group of eight-year-old children. They took him in and set him free from the tomb of his differentness.
That summer, Philip died. An infection that most children would have shrugged off took his life. At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar. Not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death. Nine eight-year-olds, with their Sunday school teacher, marched right up to the altar and laid on it an empty egg—an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg.
Because Jesus' tomb is empty, so is ours. Glory be to God.