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The Reopening Of Faith (at an empty tomb!)

Society in America as we knew it has certainly come to an abrupt and screeching halt, a seemingly overnight closing of the country has occurred.  An economy that was thriving just a month ago now has record unemployment, and a virus that seemed like nothing stronger than an average flu has now been held responsible for the loss of over 40,000 American lives.  Thankfully, and mercifully, there have been some positive developments and glimmers of hope in slowing down the pandemic.  If you watch the news at all (and most of you are!—just a word of advice again here-watch enough to stay informed but I don’t think it’s healthy to watch the news programs 24-7), you know there’s starting to be a lot of talk about reopening the country.  No one is exactly sure when that will be or what that will look like.  Local, State, and National Leaders are trying to balance the health risks of reopening too soon with the risks to the economy of staying closed too long.  However, while there may be multiple disagreements about when and how to reopen, I think everyone longs for the day when things can reopen safely and prays for the hastening of the hour when things will be able to get back to at least some sense of normalcy…

Nearly 2,000 years ago the followers of Jesus experienced a dramatic and unexpected “closing” of sorts.  On Palm Sunday they watched as the multitudes hailed Jesus as King with cries of “Hosanna, Hosanna, Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord” during the event we have come to call “The Triumphal Entry.”  Then, less than a week later, they heard the shouts of “Hosanna, Hosanna!” turn to shrieks of “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”  What seemed to be a fast track to a throne swiftly and abruptly turned to the Way of Suffering on a cross.  Jesus died on what we call Good Friday (called “Good” of course because of the benefit of His sacrifice to believers).  However, at the time of the first “Good Friday”, nothing seemed “good” about it at all to those who loved Christ.  Jesus’ followers had believed He was the Messiah; and although He was, He wasn’t the kind of Messiah they had envisioned and heard about all their lives.  The Jews largely thought the promised Son of David would come on the scene and be a victorious champion who would free them from any oppression of foreign powers and who would put Israel on the map as the dominant world power in terms of prosperity and military might.  Their conception was that the Messiah’s kingdom would be of this world.  When Jesus died the cruel and ignominious death on the cross, these sort of hopes and dreams were shattered.  The last miracle had been done, the last sermon had been preached, the last praise had been uttered; their faith had, in some sense and to no small degree, been suddenly and tersely closed!

Christ had predicted (better said “prophesied”) His death and resurrection many times in His ministry.  In John 2:19 Jesus declared to those questioning His authority to kick the money changers out of the Temple, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  The crowd thought the statement foolishness for it had taken many builders 46 years to construct the grand edifice known as Herod’s Temple.  However, Christ was not speaking of any earthly structure, He was speaking of the Temple of His Body!  When the Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus (as if He had not given them ample reasons to believe), the Lord compared Himself to Jonah, stating that the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth for three days and implying of course that then He would rise (Matt. 12:38-42)!  Jesus told His disciples clearly that He would rise from the dead in Matthew 26:32 and even that the resurrection would specifically come on the third day after His death in Matthew 16:21 and Matthew 20:19. Yet, despite all these and likely more prophecies of Christ’s resurrection, not one of His followers believed it on that first “Good” Friday.  How can I say this with such certainty?  Because none of them were waiting at the tomb on Sunday Morning with the expectation of finding a risen Lord.  Those who did come to the grave were expecting to find a dead Jesus, not a live One, and those who stayed away were in fear for their lives and refused to believe until they saw the resurrected Lord for themselves.  Their faith was “closed” (at least figuratively speaking) on Friday.  But thanks be to our merciful Savior, the open and empty tomb brought the reopening of a full and firm faith on Resurrection Sunday.  In this Extra Gracelet (the third one for the month of April), we will take a brief look at John 20 (please read the chapter) to see some of those who had their faith reopened some 2,000 years ago!

            Mary Magdalene…As a whole, American Christians probably don’t think as much about demonic possession as we should.  We are far more likely to see someone acting in a certain devilish way or speaking some particularly devilish words or thinking certain devilish thoughts and attribute it to the influence of some substance or the presence of some mental affliction than we are to think of the devil being at work.  Now, while we should not be looking for a demon behind every bush and while substance abuse and mental illness are real issues, the possibility of demonic possession and satanic influence cannot be discounted by the Bible believing Christian.  One day Lucifer and his minions will be bound, but for now there is still a devil loose, just as there was in the days of the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The gospels record Jesus often casting out demons from people.  One beneficiary of His deliverance ministry was a woman by the name of Mary Magdalene.  The physical bondage, the mental anguish, the emotional torment of having one demon would no doubt defy full description, but Mary had been held captive by seven!  Thanks be to God the power of Satan is nothing compared to the power of Christ!  One glorious day the Lord came and set this beloved woman free from her spiritual prison!  And Mary never forgot!  She was faithful to follow Jesus, hearing His preaching and financially supporting His ministry (Luke 8:1-3).  And she wasn’t just faithful in the “good” times, she was faithful in the “bad” times.  She was no bandwagon believer or fair-weather friend.  When all of the “official” disciples except John fled from Friday’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene was one of the few believers who stayed close by.  She remained near Christ as He was buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus later on that evening.  And when Sunday morning dawned (Saturday was the Sabbath so no one was out and about too much that intervening day); you guessed it, Mary came to honor Jesus with burial spices.  It’s important to note that she came looking for and dedicated to a “dead” Jesus.  Yet, she ultimately was consoled by a Lord Who was very much alive.  You probably know the story, but it bears repeating.  While close to the tomb Mary encounters Someone she thinks is the gardener.  She asks the Man to please tell her if He has seen where the body of Jesus has been taken.  Then the “gardener” speaks her name and she instantly realizes that this is no gardener, this is Jesus risen from the dead!  She goes and tells others!  Her faith was reopened indeed!

            Peter and John…These fishermen were two of the three disciples often found in Jesus’ inner circle (James, John’s brother, being the other).  In addition to the miracles the 12 disciples witnessed as a whole, they had the special privilege of being in the room to watch Jesus take Jairus’ daughter by the hand and speak life into the dead body of that precious 12-year-old.  They were there when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, appearing in brilliant light with Moses and Elijah, and they heard the Father speak of the superiority of His Son over all!  The duo was also part of the closest group in proximity to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night in which He was betrayed.  On the morning of Resurrection Sunday, after Mary found that the stone was rolled away and Jesus’ Body was not in the tomb but before she had her personal encounter with the Risen Lord, she ran to tell Peter and John.  These two disciples went running to check out the scene.  John was the faster of the two but, although he saw the empty graveclothes, was hesitant to enter the tomb.  Peter arrived and went inside and John soon followed.  Scripture records that John’s faith was reopened right then and there in that empty grave.  Peter’s doubts continued until sometime that afternoon when Jesus graciously appeared personally unto the disciple who had denied Him.  Indeed, as the famous song says, the rugged fisherman found that Jesus was alive and Heaven’s gates were OPEN wide!

            Thomas…Just mention the name of this disciple and the word “doubt” comes to mind.  In fact, we hardly reference his name without his infamous adjective, we nearly always speak of him as “Doubting Thomas.”  It wasn’t always so.  John 11 begins with Jesus receiving word that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was sick.  Jesus loved this family and we would expect that the Lord would immediately embark on the one-day journey from where He was to get to Bethany where Lazarus was.  However, Jesus tarried two days longer.  His disciples were glad that Jesus wasn’t going towards His sick friend right away.  Why?  Because the Jews of that region had just recently been seeking to stone Jesus (and probably would stone His disciples as well!).  When the Lord does ultimately decide to go to Bethany, the disciples are understandably hesitant.  They care about Lazarus, but they want to spare their own skin as well!  But one voice out of the twelve rises to declare his allegiance to Christ stating, “let us also go, so that we may die with Him!”  You might expect that statement to have come from the lips of Peter, but it wasn’t the rugged fisherman this time.  No, it was the voice of Thomas, whom most have come to call “Doubting Thomas”, that stood up in devotion to our Lord!  Of course, John 11 goes on to tell us of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  John 20, where Jesus does something greater than raising someone else from the dead by raising Himself from the dead, is where Thomas got his negative moniker.  On that Resurrection Sunday Jesus appeared personally to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to the two followers on the Road to Emmaus, and to 10 of the 12 notable disciples in the gospels (except Judas who had hanged himself and Thomas who was absent from those initial post-Resurrection appearances).  When Thomas’ compatriots told him that Jesus had appeared unto them, he stubbornly refused to believe until he could see the imprint of the nails in Christ’s hands and place his hand into the spear wound in the Lord’s side.  One week passed.  Thomas’ faith still “closed” (figuratively at least).  Then, graciously, our loving Lord appeared unto this doubter and he confessed Jesus as “my Lord and my God!”.  His faith now fully reopened!

            So How About You?…You may read John  20 and say, “where am I mentioned?”  After Thomas professes Christ in such a powerful way, Jesus responds to him by saying, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed?  Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”  None of us in 2020 have seen the Risen Lord in His glorified Body.  But if by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone you have received salvation, then you are blessed, very blessed indeed.  Your faith is not closed, but is OPEN, just like the empty tomb!