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Empty Promises of Easter

I heard another one about two brothers who were getting ready to boil some eggs to color for Easter. "I’ll give you ten dollars if you let me break three of these on your head," said the older one. "Promise?" asked the younger. "Promise!" Gleefully, the older boy broke the first egg over his brother’s head, then another one. The younger brother braced himself for the last egg, but nothing happened. "Ain’t ya gonna break the third egg?" the boy asked. His brother replied, "Nah, if I did that I’d owe ya ten dollars!"

Life is full of empty promises like that. Often, if something sounds too good to be true… it probably is. Marketing experts create commercials and advertisements that tell us that we can be happy, sexy, rich, or famous, if we only purchase a certain product. The government promises that if only we’d support this bill or elect this representative, then everybody would be healthy and wealthy. It doesn’t take long before we have been fooled enough to know that the world’s promises are full of emptiness.

Some people may wonder if the same is true of God. Our God is a God of promises. In fact, the Bible records over seven thousand promises from God to his people. We live in a world of broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. We make commitments and don’t follow through. We make plans and promises that we never even intended to keep. Not God. God is different. On the first Easter Sunday, instead of promises full of emptiness, God gave us emptiness that is full of promise.

This morning, I’d like us to think about the promises of Easter. There are at least three of them. Each promise is marked by something empty—an empty cross, empty clothes, and an empty cave. It is the very fact that each of these is empty that assures us that God’s promises are not. First, let’s examine the empty cross.

If you were to return to the scene of Christ’s execution that Sunday morning, you’d find relics of his death. A braided crown with scarlet tips. Three iron nails covered in dirty and blood. And an empty cross tinged red with the blood of God.

Bizarre, isn’t? The thought that this blood is not man’s blood, but God’s? To think that these nails held your sins to the cross? But that’s what they did.

Sin led Jesus to the cross. Lies. Jealousy. Anger. Betrayal. Not the lies of his accusers, not the jealousy of chief priests, not the anger of the crowd, not the betrayal of Judas. But our sins—our lies, jealousy, anger, betrayal.

A mother noticed her daughter, Sarai, sitting at the table in our living room with a pencil and paper and a look of deep concentration on her face. After several minutes she sat her pencil down, picked up her paper and walked soberly toward her mother. In all seriousness, Sarai said, “Mom, would you like to see my list of sins?” Curiously timid, Ashley took the paper and read the list: “Jacksin, Jaysin, Maysin, Simsin, Carsin…” Sarai giggled uncontrollably.

We all have a list of sins, don’t we? Only our sins aren’t a part of someone’s name. What sins make your list? Is it anger or maybe addiction? It could be pride or prejudice. Perhaps lustful eyes or a lying tongue. Maybe it’s selfishness or sexual promiscuity. My sins may be different from yours, each of us a rather long list.

Every sin on your list comes with a price tag. A lifetime of sin is enough to rack up some major debt in heaven.

You yell at your kids, cha-ching.

You lie, cha-ching.

You lose control, cha-ching.

You give in to temptation, cha-ching.

Further and further in debt. Initially, we might try to repay what we owe. We figure our account balances as long as our good deeds outnumber our bad. But that isn’t the way it works. The Bible tells us: “The payment for sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NCV). Simply put, the cost of your sins is more than you can pay. But the grace of God is more than you can imagine. Do you know what God did with your list of sins? Listen to what Paul writes:

“You were dead in sins, and your sinful desires were not yet cut away. Then he gave you a share in the very life of Christ, for he forgave all your sins, and blotted out the charges proved against you, the list of his commandments which you had not obeyed. He took this list of sins and destroyed it by nailing it to Christ’s cross.” (Colossians 3:13-14 TLB)

The empty cross promises forgiveness. After six hours of agony upon the cross, Jesus whispered “It is finished!” (John 19:30). What makes these words so meaningful is that the Greek word translated “it is finished” is tetelestai, an accounting term that means “paid in full.” When Jesus uttered those words, he wiped all the debt racked up by your sins and mine. He paid the debt that we could never pay. That’s why the empty cross promises forgiveness for all our sins. But that’s not all. Next, let’s examine the empty clothes.

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were both Pharisees who secretly believed in Jesus. Reluctant during Christ’s life, but courageous at his death, they requested permission from Pilate to bury the body of Jesus. They ascended Golgotha bearing burial clothes—long stripes of linen cloth. Pilate supplied permission. Joseph supplied a tomb. Nicodemus supplied the spices. Then the Bible says, “Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth” (John 19:40 NLT). For John, who witnessed all of this first hand, the arrival of the burial clothes represented the departure of hope. These linens were a tangible reminder that his faith and future were wrapped in cloth and sealed behind a rock. John didn’t know on Friday what you and I know now. In fact, John would later confess that he and the others “still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9 NIV). John and the others believed in Jesus. They put their faith in Jesus. All their hopes and their dreams rested in a man they believed was God in human flesh. But then He died. The ground beneath the Old Rugged Cross was moist with blood. The body wrapped in strips of linen and laid to rest. All of Jesus’s followers were discouraged and disillusioned. Doubt swirled about. Jesus’ death dealt a crushing blow to John’s faith.

Maybe you can relate to that. Tragedies often dent and sometimes destroy our faith. Maybe it’s the loss of a job or the loss of friend. Maybe God didn’t “show up” when you thought he should have. When life gets hard or hopes are shattered, our faith can suffer a devastating blow. We begin to wonder why God lets bad things happen or if God’s even really there. What we learn from John, however, is to just hang in there a little while longer. We don’t know what John did on Saturday. We have no passage to read; no insights to share. All we know is—when Sunday came, John was still present.

What about you? When you’re in John’s position, what you do? When you’re somewhere between yesterday’s tragedy and tomorrow’s triumph, what do you do? Do you leave God—or do you linger near him? John chose to linger. And because he lingered on Saturday, he was around to see the miracle on Sunday.

Very early on Sunday morning Mary bust through the door and delivered the news: “Jesus’s body is missing!” Mary was urgent, both with her announcement and her opinion. She thought Jesus’s enemies had taken his body away. Instantly Peter and John hurried to the tomb. John outran Peter and arrived first. What he saw so stunned him, he froze at the entrance.

What did he see? “He stooped and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there… while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying apart from the other wrappings” (John 20:5-7 NLT).

John’s mind began to race. If someone had stolen the body, he must have thought, wouldn’t they have taken the grave clothes too? Why waste time unwrapping a body only to steal it? He knew there was only one answer. The Bible says, “He saw and believed” (John 20:8 NCV). The empty clothes promise faith.

On the first Easter Sunday, God took burial clothing—a tangible reminder of Jesus’s death, a symbol of tragedy—and made it a symbol of hope, a birthplace of faith. A pile of empty clothes restored John’s faith. God wants to do the same for us. The next time your faith is shaken, when doubts or fears well up inside, remember the empty clothes. Don’t leave God. Linger near him. You might just be one day away from a miracle. For John, the empty clothes were proof positive that Jesus had risen and because of that John’s faith was renewed and restored. Yours can be too.

Finally, we come to empty cave itself.

The tomb in which Jesus was laid to rest belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. It was a newly carved crypt cut into the side of a rock wall—essentially a man-made cave with rock slab benches inside. I heard this week, that a friend later pulled Joseph aside and said, “Joseph, that was such beautiful, costly, hand-hewn tomb. Why on earth did you give it to someone else to be buried in?” Joseph just smiled and said, “Why not? He only needed it for the weekend.”

That conversation may never have happened, but it’s true nonetheless.

After Peter and John discovered the empty clothes, they returned to town. But Mary and some of Jesus’s female followers lingered at the empty tomb. Suddenly angels appeared to them and announced, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus, who has been crucified. He is not here. He has risen from the dead as he said he would. Come and see the place where his body was!” (Matthew 28:5-6 NCV).

The tomb of Jesus remained empty as a symbol of life that outlasts the grave—life everlasting. In other words, the empty cave promises forever. Forever. Our minds can hardly grasp the concept, yet Jesus promised it over and over. He told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NIV). He assured the woman at the well, “those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:14 NLT). He announced to the crowds, “For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:47 NLT).

Most people today hope for a long and happy life, but Jesus offers so much more. He offers forever. He offers eternity. The promise of eternal life is the heartbeat of hope. It’s what we, as Christians, long for and look forward to. As we grow to feel more and more in life the limitations of 24 hours and the limitations of a seven-day week, and the limitations of a month and the fact that there are only 12 months in a year through which to distribute the demands being made upon our time, we should marvel at the gift God has promised us. Because of his promise of eternal life we have an unshakable hope and a bubble of delight within—we are heading for forever!

The apostle Paul put it this way:

And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God.

The empty cave serves as a powerful reminder that Christ rose from the grave, never to die again. He promises that if we believe in him, then we will live with him… forever! As Edwin Excell put it in the unforgettable final verse of Amazing Grace: When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing his praise than when we first begun.

The empty cross promises forgiveness for all our sins. The empty clothes promise faith for those who stay close to God during those dark days. The empty cave promises forever to those who put their faith in the One who conquered death. Like I said in the beginning, our God is a God of promises. He always keeps them! The very fact that the cross, the clothes, and the cave were found empty assures us that God’s promises are not!

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