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Death Working Backwards

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is C.S. Lewis’s classic children’s book and parable of the Easter story.

Many of you know the story, but I’ll give you a quick summary. Edmund, the younger boy, is seduced by the witch’s chocolates and turns traitor on his friends. According to the Ancient Law written on the Stone Table--Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time--the witch now has the right to demand Edmund's blood. As she explains: "Every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and...for every treachery I have a right to a kill."

Edmund is clearly guilty. But in order to save him, Aslan the lion--the central character in the book--offers to die in his place.

He willingly walks into the midst of the witch’s camp.

Horrible, grotesque creatures strike him and mock him.

They bind him, muzzle him, and shave off his glorious mane.

They drag him to a Stone Table.

And then the Witch, who represents death and Satan and evil in this story, kills him with a stone knife.

It’s one of the saddest scenes in children’s literature.

The next chapter--chapter 15, entitled "Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time"--begins with an equal measure of despair. The two girls--Susan and Lucy--come to the body of the great lion and weep over it. Then, as morning is about to break, they go for a walk to warm themselves and to expel some of the grief. When they come back, they make an amazing discovery. I cannot do better than to read the story as C.S. Lewis tells it:
The rising of the sun had made everything look so different--all the colours and shadows were changed--that for a moment they didn't see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.
"Oh, oh, oh!" cried the two girls rushing back to the table. "Oh, it's too bad," sobbed Lucy, "they might have left the body alone." "Who's done it?" cried Susan. "What does it mean? Is it more magic?"
"Yes!" said a great voice behind their backs. "It is more magic." They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself. "Oh, Aslan!" cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad…
"Oh, you're real, you're real! Oh, Aslan!" cried Lucy and both girls flung themselves upon him and covered him with kisses. "But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer. "It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."
Death started working backwards. The Lion was raised. The power of the Witch was broken.

I love that phrase. Death working backwards. That’s what Easter is all about.

The story of Aslan and the children mirrors ours in so many ways.

Our greatest enemy is death. We have all turned traitor on the God who made us and we all deserve to die. But even though we are guilty, Jesus offers to take our place. He goes to take on our greatest enemy. And then Jesus defeats death by dying. He makes death work backwards.

This is the remarkable thing about the Easter story, this is what’s so amazing! Jesus uses death to defeat death. He takes our greatest enemy and makes it serve our purposes.

Picture it like this: death is a ravenous beast, it gets hold of Jesus, opens up its gaping mouth and swallows Jesus whole.

And death thinks it has won. Death thinks it has defeated God’s own Son.

But then, death finds that Jesus gives it indigestion. The grave can’t hold Him.

Jesus defeats death by dying.

Death works backwards.


Jesus, this is YOUR day! You have defeated death. You are alive! We are here to worship you today. We are here to celebrate your resurrection! And we long, Lord, to join with you in your new life! Help us this morning to bow our knees to the greatness of your name and to confess with our tongues that you, Jesus, are the way, the truth and the life. Jesus, you are LORD! AMEN

The gospel of Luke. Chapter 24. Verses 1-12.

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. 5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” 8 Then they remembered his words.
9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. 12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
There it is: the crucial moment in history. The reason we are all here this morning. The story of Jesus’ resurrection. Death working backwards.

I’d like to invite you to consider this passage with me. And then, after we’ve dug into it, we’ll make some observations about the great reversal Jesus achieved on that first Easter morning.

So, verse 1:

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.

It’s the first day of the week—Sunday—and it is early in the morning. We’ll say it is right at daybreak. 6:00am. Here’s the end of the 60 hour period we’ve been looking at for the last 7 weeks. 60 hours that changed the world.

And some of Jesus’ closest followers—a group of women—are coming to His tomb to honor Him.

Notice, they are carrying spices. This is significant. In that culture, they didn’t embalm dead bodies. One of the ways they tried to fight against the odor of decomposition was with very strong, very expensive burial spices.

It was a gesture of great love and great respect. Often, spices for burial would be one of the most expensive items a Jewish family would own. And the fact that these ladies are now coming to Jesus’ tomb to pack his body with these spices shows just how much they loved and cared about Him.

But it also shows something else: these ladies most definitely—emphatically—expect Jesus to be dead. That’s what the spices are for. They’re for a dead body.

If these women really believed they were going to greet a recently resurrected Savior, they would NOT be carrying burial spices. I don’t know what they would be carrying. If you believed you were going to meet somebody just raised from the dead, what would you take? A warm blanket? A cup of chicken soup? A Birthday Card? It could read something like: “Happy 1st Day of your new life!” And the inside would say: “Congratulations on cheating death!” I don’t know what they would be carrying, but I’m certain burial spices are the last thing these women would have had if they really believed they were going to find Jesus alive.

But that’s not what they expected. Do you know why? Because dead people stay dead!

They knew that. They saw Jesus die on that cross. They stood at a distance and watched Joseph of Arimathea put His body in the tomb. They knew Jesus was dead and they knew dead people stay dead and so at the first light on this first day they were going to pay tribute to their dead friend.

And this is significant, because if this whole thing were all made up—if this whole notion that Jesus came back from the dead is just some elaborate lie stitched together by the disciples—then this is not how the story would go.

Remember, if this is a lie, then it is the disciples who have to sell the story. Getting people to believe this is going to depend on people believing them, liking them. They’re going to have to look like they’ve got it together in the story. They are going to have to look reliable, intelligent.

Again: if they are making this whole thing up then they can tell the story however they want—and they can paint themselves however they want. So wouldn’t they want to have at least a couple people in the story going: “I knew Jesus was coming back! I knew he’d beat the grave!” Wouldn’t they want to picture themselves as sort of expecting this to happen?

But they don’t. Every disciple in the story—consistently—thinks Jesus is still going to be dead. Why? Because dead people stay dead! And so the disciples tell a story where everybody expects Him to be in the grave—with women carrying spices to anoint His body—because that’s the way it really happened!

Now, Verse 2:

2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,

Here’s another important detail: the tomb was sealed with a stone.

Grave robbers were a common problem in the ancient world. Because of the valuable spices used to anoint dead bodies as well as the expensive linen the corpses were wrapped in, many were willing to desecrate and plunder tombs in order to make some money. So to stop this, expensive burial places would use heavy stones to seal the entryway to the tombs carved like caves into the side of a hill.

The stone could be moved of course--many tombs became the final resting place of entire families, not just one person—the stone could be moved, but not easily. It would have been big, and heavy.

This is an important detail because some people might suggest that Jesus never actually died. “Maybe,” some people will say, “Jesus survived the crucifixion. He was only passed out when they took Him off the cross. They buried a living man.”

Let’s consider that idea. Let’s say that somehow, Jesus did survive. The question then becomes: how does Jesus, after being beaten and scourged and hung on a cross where his shoulders were undoubtedly dislocated and where he had iron spikes driven through his wrists and ankles and a spear driven through his side—even if, somehow, miraculously, He did survive all that—how’s he going to move that stone and get out of His tomb? (Like Matt Chandler says, if you believe that, then you believe Jesus is Wolverine!)

It just doesn’t make sense.

So the women come into the cemetery and they find the stone already moved. Immediately they must think: grave robbers. But verse 3:
But when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
Here’s the thing, if it were grave robbers, you would expect Jesus’ body to still be there. Thieves plundered graves for spices and linen. Why would a thief want to walk around with a rotting corpse?

So it’s not grave robbers. But who else might have taken the body? Who would have a motivation to come and take Jesus’ corpse away? The Romans? They killed Him. Why would they want His body? The Jews? They wanted nothing to do with Jesus.

Besides, even if one of these groups wanted to take the body just to taunt the disciples or something, why wouldn’t they produce the body once people started saying Jesus was alive?

So, who does that leave? The disciples? They might have the motivation to take the body. But if they are perpetrating some sort of hoax, they did an amazing job of keeping the secret. They all endure persecution and many end up dying for this story. How does that work if they know it is all a lie? If they know they have the body stashed away somewhere, how is it that not a single one cracks and admits to what they are up to? Who willingly dies for a lie?

Verse 4 gives a different explanation:

4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.

Luke doesn’t name them as such, but these two men are obviously angels. Angels were there to announce Jesus’ birth. Now they are back to announce His re-birth. Verses 5 through 7:

5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 7 ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ”

Like everybody else in scripture who sees an angel, these women collapse in fright. But the angels don’t even bother with the customary “Do not be afraid!” They don’t have time for that. The news they’ve been sent to deliver is just too good. It’s the best possible good news ever.

Jesus is alive! He doesn’t hang out with the dead anymore! He’s risen!

Then the angels give a little lecture. Basically they say: “You shouldn’t be surprised. He told you this would happen. Don’t you remember how He said He’d be raised again?”

Again, this story is told in a way that reminds us how slow to believe Jesus’ followers were. Jesus told them over and over again that He was going to die. And He told them over and over again that He’d be back on the third day. And they just didn’t listen. They didn’t want to hear it.

And do you know why? Because dead people stay dead! They just couldn’t comprehend that something like that was possible.

Verse 8 is the emotional center of the passage:

8 Then they remembered his words.

“They remembered.” That means more than just: “Oh yeah, He did say that didn’t He?”

I think it means: they got it. Like the answer to a riddle, it suddenly made sense to them. They are starting to believe. For these women, at that moment, they are starting to believe Jesus really might be alive.

So now, they go to tell the others. Verses 9 and 10:

9 When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. 10 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles

For the first time, we learn the names of these women. This is important. This is a way for Luke to say: “Look, these ladies are still around. Look them up. Ask them what happened. Find out for yourself.”

But the women are not immediately believed. Verse 11:

11 But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

The men do not immediately believe what the women say. Why not? Because, again, dead people stay dead!

But more than that, women weren’t considered the most reliable sources in that culture. You sort of get that from the word Luke uses: “nonsense.” Women were not allowed to testify in court. They were considered incurable tale-bearers. Chauvinistic, I know. But it lends credibility to the story.

Because, again, if you’re making the whole story up, you are free to tell it anyway you want. So, if this is all a hoax, why would the disciples choose to make women the star witnesses in their story?

The only explanation? Because that’s the way it happened.

Verse 12:

12 Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

Peter at least goes to check things out. And when he gets there, he finds the tomb just he way the women described it. The angels are gone but the stone is still rolled away, Jesus' body is still absent, and the empty grave clothes are still lying in a heap.

Peter gets up and wanders away, wondering to himself what happened. Maybe the women are telling the truth. Maybe the empty tomb and the linen strips mean what they appear to mean. Maybe Jesus really is risen from the dead.

And as this section of scripture closes, we too are left to wonder.

But not for long. For as Luke continues the tale, we no longer have to rely on the evidence of an empty tomb or a couple of angels or some abandoned grave clothes. In the next two stories Luke tells us exactly what it all means.

Jesus really is alive. He walks and talks with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He appears in the middle of the upper room. The disciples see Him and they talk with Him and they touch Him and they eat with Him.

It really happened, just as He said. There is no sense in looking for the living among the dead. He's alive! He's risen! The resurrection is a reality!

So what difference does it make? What should the resurrection mean to you and me?

Going with the theme of death working backwards, I see three great reversals in this story that can be applied to you and me. Three great reversals.

First, we see movement from unbelief to belief. The resurrection gives us reason to believe in Jesus.

Obviously, nobody in this story expected Jesus to be alive. Why would they? Dead people stay dead. Even if they understood what Jesus was saying when He predicted His resurrection, it would still be pretty hard to believe.

But when they saw the evidence, it started to make sense. The empty tomb, the abandoned grave clothes, the angels, meeting Jesus Himself. When they saw the evidence, they moved from unbelief to belief.

I wrote in the pastor’s column for the newspaper this week that the resurrection is the intellectual reason I’m a Christian. There are other reasons I believe—spiritual, relational, emotional reasons that Christianity makes sense to me. But from an intellectual stand point, Christianity hinges for me on the resurrection.

I just don’t see any other way to logically explain the evidence. If Jesus was dead, why didn’t somebody produce His body when the disciples started claiming He was alive? How did Christianity gain so much traction in the very city in which Jesus was killed? If the disciples are making it all up, why do they look so consistently bad in the story? And if they knew Jesus was still dead, why were they so willing to die for something they would have known to be a lie?

No other explanation makes sense to me. As hard as it is to believe—and trust me, I know it is hard to believe that somebody came back from the dead—as hard as it is to believe, Jesus rising from the dead is the only explanation that works.

So, look. I know that there are some things about Christianity that are tough to swallow. A virgin birth. Miracles. The idea that Jesus dying on the cross somehow pays for your guilt. A lot of that stuff runs counter to “modern, informed” thinking. But if Jesus is alive, then you have to take Him seriously. If He really did come back from the dead, then those other things seem a lot more likely too.

You have to deal with the resurrection. And if you can’t find a better explanation, then you have to believe He’s alive. And if He’s alive, then you ought to believe in Him.

Second. The resurrection moves us from fear to courage. The resurrection gives us reason to be confident.

The thing about this story is that the disciples were scared. They were whipped dogs. From falling asleep at Gethsemene to fleeing at the arrest to Peter lying through his teeth to a servant girl—“No, I don’t know the man”—Jesus followers consistently come off as frightened. Even when Jesus appears to them for the first after the resurrection, they’re huddling behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. (John 20:19)

But, just a few months later, they become absolutely ferocious. You just can’t shut them up. They keep talking about Jesus. They keep insisting that Jesus is alive.

I think of the story of Peter and John in Acts 4. They heal a crippled man and when they get questioned about it they say Jesus did it. So they get hauled into court and they get brow-beaten and threatened. They get told, basically, that they need to shut up about Jesus. And their answer? “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. But we can’t help speaking about what we’ve seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

That’s courage! The members of the court get it right when they take note that these men have been with Jesus! (Acts 4:13)

Or, jump ahead to Acts 7 and the story of Stephen. Stephen’s not one of the 12, but he was probably a witness to the resurrection. And now he’s out in the streets of Jerusalem preaching about Jesus. Saying that Jesus is alive. And the people don’t like it. They want him to take it back. Dead people stay dead!

So a mob descends on Stephen. They pick up rocks and start stoning him.

And Stephen, taking the hits, probably with blood streaming from his scalp and ribs already busted, with this mob screaming for his head, says: “Look! I see Jesus!”

That’s guts. That’s courage.

Where does it come from? It’s because these guys know that Jesus is alive. They know that Jesus has defeated the grave. And they know that Jesus has their back. So they can trust in Him.

And the same goes for us. You might have something really hard in front of you right now. You know the right thing to do, you know what Jesus wants you to do, but it’s hard. It’s scary. You’re afraid.

Maybe it’s your marriage. You might be in a marriage that’s on life support. You’re plotting ways to get out. You know there are things that need to be addressed, but you know it would be hard. You’re afraid it might upset the balancing act you’ve established. You know it’s going to mean admitting to your own contributions to the problem.

But Jesus says you’re marriage is worth the effort, worth the turmoil. And because he’s alive, you know He’s got your back.

Or maybe it’s getting more involved in the church, or answering his call to mission or ministry, or become more ethical in the way you do business, or stepping up as a parent, or more. Because Jesus is alive, we can move from fear to courage.

He Gives Us the Victory
Third, the resurrection transfers us from despair to hope. The resurrection gives us reason to expect more than just this life.

The dominant emotion at the beginning of this story is despair. These women are coming to the tomb of the One they had put all their hopes and dreams in. They’re bringing spices to anoint His dead body. They’ve seen Him tortured and killed. All of their dreams died with Him,

Death is terrible. It really is our worst enemy. Our bodies were made to live and when death comes it is incredibly sad.

But then Jesus defeats the grave. And suddenly the women and the disciples are filled with hope. Death works backwards for Jesus, and that means it can work backwards for us as well.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been walking with Doug and Marilyn Gathman as Marilyn fights cancer. These are Mike Gathman’s parents. They winter down in Arizona, and that’s where their pastor is. But about 5 weeks ago she was diagnosed with liver cancer and they came back home to be with family. Since their pastor isn’t here, Mike asked me if I could meet with them. She’s in Hospice now. The cancer is too aggressive. She’s dying.

So I met Marilyn for the first time a couple of weeks ago in the hospital. And I didn’t have a business card with me, so I took one of these Easter invitation cards and wrote my number on it.

I’ve been back to visit several times since, and each time I’ve noticed the card on her hospital tray, propped up so she can see it. Doug told me that if it falls down flat, she wants him to prop it back up so she can see it.

She’s dying. But she keeps looking at that picture that says “Discover Hope this Easter.” Because that’s what Easter is about. When Jesus walked out of the tomb, it was to give us all hope that death doesn’t need to be the end.

Death sucks. Cancer sucks. But Jesus’ resurrection shows us that there can be life beyond the grave.

Here’s a verse that I read at my dad’s funeral. I think it captures the hope of Easter:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.