The Empty Gift
My friend Alan Smith likes to tell the story about an older lady that was struggling one Christmas season to get out and buy gifts for all of her friends and family. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, so she decided that she would simply send Christmas cards and include a check with each one so that her friends and family could purchase their own presents. So, one night she sat at her kitchen table and wrote each friend and family member a card with a short note of Christmas cheer and ended the card with "Buy your own present" after her name, then sent them off.
She thought that it was quite odd that no one ever made any mention of having received a card. When some of her family visited her during Christmas, she asked them if they received her cards. They were polite but not enthusiastic and didn’t even thank her. She thought that maybe they were a little sad that she didn’t buy them gifts and she resolved to do better next year.
After the Christmas festivities were over she began the process of cleaning up and putting away her Christmas decorations. Her heart sunk while cleaning up her desk and she made a horrific discovery of a pile of unsent checks! Everyone had got a Christmas card from her with "Buy your own present" written inside, but not a single card had a check!
One more story to begin with today: my mom has more Christmas Spirit than anyone else I know. A few years ago she decided that it was getting to be too much trouble to spend two full weeks decorating and then another two full weeks taking down all of her Christmas decor. So when they were adding on to their home, she included space for a Christmas room. 365 days a year she she can open the door and enjoy her tree, lights, Santa Claus figurines, and village scenes.
After she put the room together she asked Trista to wrap some empty boxes and place them under her tree. I told her I though that wrapping empty boxes were a bit over the top if not just weird. In typical mom fashion, she replied that those boxes that I see as empty were actually filled to the top with love. She said “Sometimes your greatest gifts come in empty spaces.”
Today we come to the end of our year long look at The Story. As we have made our way through this study we have been able to focus on some of my favorite parts of what God has done and continues to do in our world. There have been so many times that God has shown His power and control. The creation of the world, the flood, the plagues in Egypt, parting of the Red Sea, the walls falling in Jericho, Jonah and the Whale, Jesus walking on the water, claiming a storm, and raising the dead are all examples of God’s presence and His power.
But as we sit here at the end of our study of The Story, I am a bit concerned that by focusing on the big stories that I have left you with the impression that there are big displays of power whenever God shows up. I am afraid that I have left you with the impression that God only shows up BIG! We expect God to do something huge, in very much the same way we expect when someone gives us a gift there had better be something in the box or a check in the card.
What we oftentimes miss is that some of God’s greatest work happened in those quiet moments that many folks just overlooked. Three travelers visit Abraham outside his tent. A woman named Mary has a baby in a small insignificant town called Bethlehem and a few shepherds show up. A scandalous woman trying to hide meets a thirsty stranger at a well and has an odd conversation about living water. Another Mary travels with a group of women to a tomb before the sun comes up.
God doesn't always announce His presence with pyrotechnics. Usually God shows up in our lives in the very same way He appeared to Elijah on Horeb in 1 Kings 19. Do you remember that story? Elijah goes to the mouth of a cave to see God; a hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks but God wasn’t found in the wind. After the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. And after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. Finally after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper and that was where Elijah found God.
Mother Teresa was once asked, Why do you spend your life working with people who are poor and sick? In a very typical Mother Teresa way she answered, Because I come face to face with Jesus 24 hours a day.
I need you to hear me say, that God is not always found in the huge moments. As a matter of fact, I usually find Him in the most insignificant ones: dropping kids off for school at 7:30 in the morning, in the aisle at Shop and Save, at the dinner table on Tuesday night, or during the Lord's Supper on Sunday morning.
The three greatest moments in all of time happened in a quiet, unassuming way. When Jesus was born the only fanfare was the angels announcing the birth to some poor and unimportant shepherds. The redemptive work of the cross was largely ignored. And in our text this morning, Jesus wins the greatest battle as He declares victory over death. For the most part no one notices, and those who do notice are more confused than reassured.
It isn't difficult to understand the mixture of terror and delight that gripped the women who gathered at the tomb that morning. Luke explains that they had brought spices; the burial had taken place in such a hurry because of the Sabbath Day. So in the early morning these women gather to mourn, just wanting to be there, near Jesus, to pour out their sorrow in as much peace and quiet as possible. In the darkness, eyes red from weeping and a sleepless Sabbath night, the women arrive at the tomb because there was nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, nothing else that mattered or would ever matter.
My first cousin lost his 11 year old son in a 4 wheeler accident two years ago on Thanksgiving day. The text that was read for us this morning was the passage that I used to preach his funeral. I believe there is a certain beauty in the gift of tears. They have their own rhythm, and are cathartic in a way that no other action can be. I have quit offering folks tissues when they come to talk, share, and cry. I believe that we need to learn how to embrace the gift of grief.
These women have gathered in the quiet of the early morning in their grief, looking for closure and peace. And peace and quiet was the last thing they got. Matthew's graveside scene is easily the most dramatic of the four: earthquake, angels, the guards stunned into a coma, and messages about Jesus going on ahead to Galilee. But every scene includes these women wrapped in their grief who can only show up and nothing more.
The second gift these women receive in the garden is the appearance of the angels. In the Bible, angels have a way of showing up. When people are afraid, angels tell them not to be. When people are in tears, angels ask why. These women are mourning because we live in a broken world. That brokenness steals our homes, our husbands, our children, our rights, our dignity, our hopes, and our lives. The angels arrive not only to bring peace in the midst of their fear, but to serve as a visible reminder of God’s presence.
The angels arrive on the scene and point to the third gift these women received that morning in the garden. The gift of the Empty tomb.
The women weren't expecting this gift. They weren't going to the tomb thinking we've got the spices just in case Jesus is still dead, but let's hope He's alive again. They knew well enough that dead people remained dead.
The apostles certainly weren't expecting it. Even though Jesus had spoken of His own resurrection at various times, they never heard what He was saying. They were puzzled, and understandably so. Everybody knew that resurrections were the exception and not the rule. Sure they had witnessed the time that Jesus raised Lazarus, and The widow of Nain’s son. They had heard the stories about Elisha and the one about his bones, but who was going to do the work of resurrection for Jesus?
God who remained silent on Friday is having the last word on Sunday. He is answering the unspoken questions of Jesus' followers, and the spoken question of Jesus on the cross. What God is doing is not just an extraordinary miracle, or a display of power for power sake, or a special favor to Jesus. God is starting something new, it’s the beginning the new world promised long ago.
Jesus' resurrection is not about proving a point, or offering people a new spiritual experience. It is about God's purpose. This event changed the world forever. It announced that God's kingdom had come. Take away the resurrection of Jesus and you take away the gospel. The cross is the climax of His story, but it only makes the sense in light of the resurrection.
I would imagine if you we're to ask people around the world what they think is the biggest day of the year for Christians a huge majority of them would say Christmas. The true answer, and I wish we would shout this from the rooftops, is the most important day of our year is Easter. We received the beautiful empty gift on that morning in the garden almost 2,000 years ago. If it hadn't been for Easter, nobody would ever have dreamed of celebrating Christmas. What happened in the garden was the first day of God's new week. The darkness has gone, and the sun is shining.
Very quickly I want to end our study of The Story with the text we used to begin back in January. Let’s read the rest of the story in Luke 24. (Read 13-31).
The resurrection proves that God is working in the quiet, and the journey on the road to Emmaus proves that He is found in the insignificant and makes it magnificent.
After His resurrection and visit with Mary in the garden, Jesus chooses to visit with two men that were struggling in their faith. At first glance this visit doesn’t make a lot of sense; the promise has been kept, God has begun something new. If it were up to me, Jesus would have visited with Mary to give her comfort, and then to the 11 Apostles to reassure them. Then I would have Jesus just pop in on Caiaphais the High Priest, Pilate, and Herod. You know, just kind of appear with a BOO! I told you I was the Son of God! But thankfully God’s ways are not my ways.
I love that God is often found in what we would call an insignificant moment. Two men are walking home, dejected and confused. A fellow traveler joins them and asks, What are you discussing. And while Jesus asked the question to engage the men in conversation, Luke shows us the irony in Cleopas’ answer. Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem who does not know what just happened? Of course, if anyone knew what had happened, it was Jesus. But like the apostles and the women before them, they were struggling with unbelief and this cause a couple of skewed perspectives.
You see, their own agenda determined their expectations. The Jews failed to acknowledge Jesus as the Promised Messiah because they were expecting someone that would come in and recapture the glory days of King David. It’s a problem that we are still struggling with today. Not that we expect Israel to become a world power, but we expect Jesus to be something different than what He is.
Secondly, they failed to acknowledge the resurrection. If these two men had believed that Jesus really had risen from the dead, they would have been walking toward Jerusalem to see the risen Lord, not away.
If these two men had believed that Jesus really had risen from the dead, they would have seen the trials, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus as the fulfillment of all He promised, not as the end of their hopes.
In verse 17, we are told that they were looking very sad. In verse 21 we hear these words of despair, We had hoped. That is past tense talk. They have lost all hope. At one time they had hope, but now they find themselves without hope. That’s when Jesus steps in.
My favorite part of the Emmaus story is that Jesus shows up. Not because these men deserved to see Jesus, or they were holy and righteous. Jesus shows up because whether or not they realize it, they need Him. And not the earthquake, storms, tidal wave appearance. Jesus shows up in the mundane insignificant parts of their lives and brings with Him hope and peace.
These men had their hopelessness turn to hope when they learned that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It threw everything they had experienced into a new dimension. If Jesus was alive, then the future was assured. If God had raised Jesus, then God would raise us as well. They were in a new ballgame. Life was radiant with hope! Jesus hadn’t been defeated, He won! The resurrection had changed the insignificant to the magnificent.
A little while ago I was in the Doctors office with a dead phone, so I was reduced to reading a magazine found on one of the tables in the waiting room. The closest magazine to me was a two year old Guideposts magazine, and inside there was a story of a woman who was turning forty and not dealing well with growing older. One day while cleaning the house she ran across a little booklet her daughter had made entitled "The ME Book." It was about the daughter's life up to that point. There were eight pages, one for each year of her life, and on each page there was a photograph of the girl at that age.
Slowly, the mother turned the pages, looking at her daughter's pictures. It made her sadder than ever. Her daughter was so young, and she felt so old. The years were passing to quickly. Then she came to the last page. She expected it to say The End. But it didn’t. It said The Beginning.
It took a moment for the meaning to sink in. The teacher had had the students write the beginning on the last page instead of the end because every new day is a chance to have a new beginning in this life. Suddenly the sunshine broke into the mother's life again. Her own life wasn't at the end, it was at the beginning! Her whole attitude changed.
That’s an important lesson for the Children of God, because of the Resurrection we are constantly living at the Beginning of something new, something greater that God is doing in our lives. Even our death is the beginning of eternal life. That’s the promise of the Resurrection.
Whatever happens to you, whatever disappointments may come your way, if you will only stop to remember that Christ has been raised from the dead and that we are promised resurrection and eternal life with Him, it sets everything in a different perspective.
Today is your beginning….