“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.” (John 20:1)
Mark is a young pastor in his first church, and is still laboring under the back-breaking, death-defying habit of getting up on Monday morning and deciding what he will preach the following Sunday. That’s why today, Monday before Easter, when I threw out my weekly question to him and the other two pastors–Jim and Carl–he had only a partial answer.
“I knew you were going to ask that,” he laughed. I had said, “What are you preaching this Sunday?” This is the one Sunday of the year that almost no preacher varies from the subject on everyone’s mind, the resurrection of Jesus. But Scripture has so much to say on the subject that a pastor can pick a text and head out in a hundred directions.
Mark said, “All I have is an idea. In Easter, we have the open tomb, right? Well, it seems to me that that’s not all that was opened on Easter Sunday morning.” He paused and said, “I haven’t figured out what, but I know there has to be an answer to that!”
I said, “All right, guys. We have our assignment. Mark wants our help with this sermon.”
They laughed. We were seated at a table in the rear of the local McDonald’s drinking iced coffee and with our books spread out before us. These weekly sessions have been going on over a year now. These guys are all about the same age, each is married to a pretty wife and has outstanding children, but otherwise their circumstances are very different. One regularly preaches to a couple of hundred each Sunday morning, while the other two are excited if they hit sixty. One lost his building from Hurricane Katrina and is constructing a new one, slowly, depending on when money is available for the next stage. One is enrolled in the baccalaureate program at the seminary, one the doctoral program, and the other has his master’s and no desire for anything more.
“What else opened up on Easter Sunday morning when the Lord came out of that tomb?”
“The hearts and minds of the disciples,” said one. “Their minds had been closed before. They had everything figured out, they thought, until suddenly Jesus was arrested and everything started to unravel. Now, with the Lord out of the tomb and alive and well, they are seeing everything in a new light.”
“That’s good,” said one. “How about this: the eyes of the opponents–the Jewish leaders and the Romans–were opened. They saw what God had done and had to make new plans to deal with it–or get on board. Which some of them did. Acts 6 says a lot of priests were converted.”
“Something else. The possibilities for the future were opened up, as far as Jesus’ followers were concerned. From then on the sky was the limit.”
“That explains how Jesus could give such a staggering command to that little bunch of disciples before He ascended to Heaven. The Great Commission–‘go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations’ (Matthew 28:19)–could only have made sense if Heaven was going to be cooperating with them. They certainly could not have done such a thing on their own.”
“Here’s one. Their mouths were opened. Think of Peter at Pentecost, standing before crowds of thousands, looking them square in the face and preaching about Jesus. He told them, ‘You did it!’ He was gutsy! Could this have been the same person who denied Jesus three times a few days earlier when He was on trial?”
“I have one, but I’m not sure how it fits. The ears were opened. Whose ears, I’m not sure.”
“Well, we’re combining the resurrection with Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled them, but that’s all right because we have both today–the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and the power of the indwelling Spirit. But, you remember that when the Holy Spirit drove the disciples out of that upper room–Brother Joe says God blew that door off its hinges–and they began to speak to the crowds on the street in the various languages, the Bible says each one heard them in their own language. (Acts 2:11) So, their ears were opened.”
“Yeah, sometimes in the gospels people would shut their ears. They didn’t want to hear what the Lord was sharing.”
“Where is that?”
“One place is Luke 4 where Jesus is preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth. He’s going along, doing just fine–local boy makes good, that sort of thing–then suddenly He says, ‘There were many starving widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when everyone was suffering from the famine, but God sent him only to the foreign widow up in Sidon.’ They didn’t much care for that.”
“Then, Jesus rubbed it in a little more. ‘There were plenty of lepers in Israel during the days of Elisha the prophet, but only Naaman the Syrian was cleansed and healed.’ The point being that sometimes the believing Gentiles go to the head of the class and God’s chosen people get an F for their unbelief!”
“Okay, as a result of the resurrection, God opened the ears of a lot of people, right?”
“He sure did.”
“I can think of one more, but I’m not sure how to say it. The resurrection opened something for the devil and his angels. Opened up their fate? Opened up their ugly future? Opened up the certainty of their defeat? Hell? Something like that.”
“Wait, I have two more.”
“Good. Let’s have them.”
“The resurrection of Jesus opened up life for everyone who believes. And, it opened up the gates of Heaven for ‘whosoever will.'”
“That’s good. In Revelation 4:1 John says, ‘I looked and behold, a door was opened in Heaven.'”
“Don’t forget the veil of the temple was torn in two when Jesus died. Heaven’s door was opened and God was receiving company!”
“I’ll tell you one more thing that has opened up,” said Mark as we were bringing this to a close and beginning to move on to other subjects. “This has opened up a world of possibilities for my sermon! I couldn’t think of two things when I walked in here, and we must have come up with ten ‘openings’ as a result of the resurrection of our Lord!”
We cautioned him not to preach a sermon with ten points next Sunday! I said, “Mention all of them if you want to, but pick out a couple of the most important ones and spend your time there.”
Note to pastors: Have you ever planned your sermon this way, sitting down with several friends and tossing out an idea and getting their thoughts? It’s a great thing to do. However–and this is a biggie–I don’t recommend you do it the week of your sermon. You do this sort of thing a month in advance. You take good notes on the best ideas your friends gave, and as soon as possible–I mean, the next hour–get alone with the Lord while everything is still fresh and write as much as comes to your mind. Now, you’ve got a good start. The Lord and you can take it from here.