Easter Presents
by Jack Wald | April 1st, 2018

John 20:1-18

When I was a child Easter was a very exciting holiday. We started on Saturday night, coloring Easter eggs. My five sisters and I each had our own Easter basket and we set it on the floor by our bed when we went to bed. It was an empty basket except for the fake green grass in it.

When we woke up in the morning, the Easter bunny had come and the basket was full of chocolate and marshmellow peeps and other candies. There was also one or two small presents. It was magic. We ate Easter candy, searched for the Easter eggs the Easter bunny had hidden, and then had breakfast before going to church. Unfortunately, going to church was not a big deal in my family. We came home from church and had a delicious Easter dinner. Our family traditions overshadowed anything that had to do with Jesus.

It is good to give presents. Everyone loves getting presents. Presents are a great way to express our love and concern for someone.

In Western tradition, Christmas is more associated with gift giving than is Easter. From our Christian perspective, we understand that God gave us the gift of Jesus which we celebrate at Christmas – God became man, Emmanuel, God with us.

That alone would be worth celebrating. God visiting us in the form of a man so we could know him and learn from him. But Easter was the greatest present and so this morning I want to unwrap two Easter presents for us, contained in these eighteen verses from John 20, that let us know how marvelously and wonderfully God loves us and cares for us.

Let’s set the context, although I know you are very familiar with the story. Jesus was crucified on Friday and his disciples were in shock, in panic and in disbelief. How could their leader end up like this? Jesus who was going to change the world with them at his side, was now dead and beginning to rot in his tomb.

On Sunday morning, after the Sabbath, some women went to the tomb to anoint the dead body of Jesus with spices, as was the custom of the time, a little bit like going to a grave and putting fresh flowers on it today.

They came back with some stunning news that the tomb was empty and Jesus was not to be found. The other Gospels report that the women saw some angels, but not Jesus. They ran back to the disciples and told them,
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

How do you handle this kind of news? In this case, John and Peter ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John, being younger and faster, arrived there first. It was true; the stone that had blocked the entrance to the tomb had been rolled aside. John looked into the tomb and saw the strips of linen that had been wound around Jesus lying there but did not go in.

And so we come to Easter Present number one.
Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.

Let’s begin to unwrap this present. The tomb in which Jesus had been laid was probably a tomb carved out of the rock with a shelve carved into the side of the tomb. It was on this shelve that Jesus had been laid.

When Jesus was laid in the tomb, his body had been prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, Pharisees in the Sanhedrin, both were secret admirers and followers of Jesus.

In preparing Jesus for burial, they revealed a great deal of devotion and respect. Joseph brought with him about 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of a mixture of myrrh and aloes which made this a very expensive burial. A piece of cloth was tied around the head of Jesus from the top of his head and under his jaw. This was done to keep the mouth closed.

They then took the body of Jesus with his arms by his side and after soaking rolls of linen cloth in a mixture of myrrh and aloes, wrapped Jesus’ dead body around and around until he was covered from his neck to his feet in this wrap of linen cloth, wrapped up like an Egyptian mummy.

This is how Nicodemus and Joseph left Jesus on Friday, laying on the shelf of the tomb, wrapped up in the linen with a cloth tied around his head.

Now it is Sunday morning and John looks into the tomb to the shelf where Jesus had been laid and he sees the linen cloth that had been wrapped around the body of Jesus but no Jesus. Peter was always the boldest of the disciples – remember that it was he among all of the disciples who dared to get out of the boat and walk on the water to Jesus. So John waited for Peter and after Peter went in to take a closer look, John finally followed him.

What did they see? John writes that Peter saw the strips of linen lying there as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.

This detail was important to John when he wrote his Gospel. Why did he include it? What did this detail mean to him? John wrote that he saw and believed, and then added this parenthetical comment (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) John believed Jesus was alive but how had this happened? Had he never really died?

Luke wrote in his Gospel that Peter ran to the tomb and: (Luke 24:12)
Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

What was it about the strips of linen and the cloth that made John believe that Jesus was not dead? What was it that made Peter go away wondering to himself what had happened?

Let me ask a question: When was there another time in the experience of John and Peter when they had seen a body come out of a tomb? It was not that long ago, just a few weeks earlier in Bethany, when Jesus had called Lazarus to come out of the tomb after he had been dead for four days. (John 11:43-44)
Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

In this case, an experience which was still fresh in their minds, Lazarus had come out and stood there. He was helpless, his arms imprisoned in the strips of linen wrapped around him. Others had come to him to untie the cloth that was around his head and to unwrap him so he could be free.

But this time something was different. After Lazarus had been set free from his graveclothes, they just lay there in a heap where others had helped to remove them. In this case, there was something about the way the cloth and the strips of linen lay there that puzzled Peter and John.

There is a lot of debate about the detail of John’s description of the cloth and strips of linen with every word examined for its meaning and interpretation. As I understand it, the cloth that was wrapped around the head of Jesus lay on the stone shelf just where Jesus’ head had laid. The strips of linen were laying just where they had been wrapped around the body of Jesus. The cloth was still knotted as it had been when Joseph and Nicodemus had tied it around the head of Jesus. The strips of linen were still layered as they had been when Joseph and Nicodemus had wrapped them around and around the body of Jesus.

It was as if the body of Jesus had just evaporated and the wrappings around him had been left undisturbed.

What did this mean? What they did not see was Jesus. That much is clear. So where was he? Had someone stolen his body? Had he not really died and later, in the coolness of the tomb, regained consciousness?

You can imagine that Peter and John were puzzled. If Jesus had woken up, not having died, he would have struggled quite a bit to squirm his way out of the strips of linen wrapped around his body. Finally when his hands were free, he could have taken off the cloth from around his head.

If thieves had taken the body, they would have had to tear off the graveclothes. Was it possible that the strips of linen had been removed and then carefully arranged to look as if they had not been disturbed?

When Peter and John took a closer look, did they see something that made them even more puzzled? Did they see that where the blood and other fluids had soaked through the linen strips and coagulated, the dried blood and fluids had formed a kind of seal and that seal had not been broken? It used to be that when a letter was sent, a seal was imprinted in wax on the flap of the envelope to prove that the letter had not been opened. In this case, the strips of linen had not been unwrapped and then re-wrapped. They were in the same condition that Joseph and Nicodemus had left them. The seal made with the dried blood and other bodily fluids of Jesus had not been broken.

You can take an egg and blow out the contents of the egg, leaving the egg looking as if it had never been disturbed. But how do you blow a body out of graveclothes that has been tightly wrapped around the body?

Peter and John knew Jesus was no longer in the tomb. They suspected he was alive, but that he had resurrected and lifted up out of his graveclothes, was beyond their comprehension at this point.

When Peter went away wondering, do you think he tried to figure out the difference between the experience they had witnessed with Lazarus and this baffling experience in the tomb?

The difference is the first present of Easter from this passage. John puts this detail in his Gospel because he wants to make absolutely sure we see the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. There is no explanation for what happened to Jesus other than that he died and was resurrected. He lifted right out of his graveclothes with a new resurrection body.

When Lazarus was raised from the dead, he was raised to life, still facing his physical death. Death was still the enemy of Lazarus. Someday he would die and be put in a tomb and his life would be over. But when Jesus resurrected from the dead, he demolished the power of death. He blew open the doors of death and walked into eternal life. He met death and defeated it so it is no longer to be feared. It is no longer the final enemy.

So Paul could write in I Corinthians: (I Corinthians 15:54-56)
“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.

This is our first Easter present this year. Jesus offers us, through his death and resurrection, the hope of eternal life that allows us to live this life without fear of death. We will all die a physical death, but because of Jesus, we have no need to fear that death because we know eternal life with Jesus awaits us. Our physical death is not the end but a glorious beginning.

In 2010 when some of our Moroccan Christian brothers and sisters were threatened with being beaten, they made this clear to their interrogators, “I am not afraid of being taken to your prison or of being killed.” They made clear that for them, as followers of Jesus, they have a certain hope of a wonderful future and are not afraid of what men can do to them.

Will you take this present that is offered to you? Are you content to watch someone else open this present or would you like it for yourself?

Jesus said, (Revelation 3:20)
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

This is a present meant for you, will you take it this morning? Will you pray this morning to God and offer to him your life, confessing your need of him? Perhaps it has been many years that Jesus has stood knocking at the door of your life and you have resisted him. This morning, will you accept this Easter gift? Jesus waits at the door for your response.

Jesus said (Matthew 7)
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Pray and he will answer. Surrender your life and your will to God and receive from him new life and the hope of eternal life with him.

That’s our first present this Easter. If that were the only present we received, it would be more than enough. But we are so blessed, there is more.

As we move along in this passage, we come to our second present to unwrap.

When Jesus resurrected, his body was in some way different than it had been. His followers, who saw him after he resurrected from the dead, did not know that it was him – at first. There is complete unanimity about this in the resurrection accounts of the four Gospels. This has given some conspiracists the opportunity to advance theories that Jesus did not rise from the dead but that some pretender passed himself off as Jesus. But this is absurd, because not only would this person have to fool the disciples, he would also have to walk through doors and walls and put on himself the terrible scars of crucifixion.

The truth is that Jesus was changed in appearance and not immediately recognized. In John’s account, after Peter and John had left, puzzled and perplexed, believing but not really understanding, Mary remained in the garden in the area of the tomb. She remained, grieving for Jesus and thinking that his body had been carried away by thieves. In her tears, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels, one at the head and one at the foot of where Jesus had been laid.

One of the angels spoke to her, “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

With all the astonishing things taking place that morning and with all the intense emotions being experienced by the followers of Jesus, Mary does not seem to be too mystified at the appearance of angels. What normally caused people to tremble in fear and fall to their knees, seemed to be taken by Mary as just one more extraordinary event on an extraordinary day.

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

She turned around and saw someone she supposed was the gardener and he spoke, using the exact same words as had the angels.
“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

She was sharp enough that morning not to ask the two angels what they had done with Jesus, but she thought she might ask the gardener. This was his garden, surely he must know what had happened to the body.
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

And now we come to our second Easter present.
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Names are very important to us. I have the same name as my father and grandfather and have books in which they wrote their names that have special meaning to me. I like my name.

When parents pick a name for their child, they reject names because of someone they knew with that name that they did not like. The father may like a name but the mother says, “Absolutely not! I knew a boy with that name and he was a jerk!” And so they go through name after name until they find one they both like. But the truth is that whatever name you give to your child, your child will give meaning to that name, not the other way around. Jack the Ripper, who was a serial killer in England, does not make Jack, the pastor of RIC, less of a person.

When someone calls out our name, we sit up and pay attention. I can greet the congregation of RIC and that will include you. But when I call out, Ayad, Valerie, Nathaniel, Haft, Alex, Charlotte, Rejoice, Lakie, Juan, Joohee, Rebecca, Paul, Henrietta, Nina, Daniel, Nick, David, Tomas, Emmanuel, or Felix – each of you with one of those names hears what I say more clearly.

Your name makes you an individual. It separates you from others. When I call out Poppy, Poppy is separated from all others. If I call out Kenza or Samuel, there may be some confusion as there are at least two Kenzas and four Samuels.

When someone knows our name, they begin to know who we are. When someone takes time to learn our name it makes us feel important.

We can see the importance of this by the way prisoners are treated. As part of their punishment, they lose their name and are known only by a number.

In an orphanage, children want to be assured that people working there know their name. The children of the Village of Hope wanted me to know their name. We don’t want to be one of a faceless mass of humanity. We want to be known as individuals. This is especially important to us when someone we respect and look up to knows us by name.

So it is significant that Mary recognized Jesus only when he called her by her name, “Mary.” She did not recognize Jesus by his appearance. She did not recognize Jesus by his voice. She recognized Jesus when he spoke her name.

One of the more preposterous beliefs of Jews and Christians is that God knows us by name. From the outside of Christian faith, this is egotistical thinking. God, the creator of the universe, creator of billions of stars far larger than our own star; this God came to be born as a man on the third planet orbiting this little star, suffered and died for the sake of an individual creature who is less than a speck on this third planet of the little star called the sun?

This is really incredible thinking. And yet it is true. The history of God’s interaction with men and women on this planet is one in which he shows concern for individuals.

When Jesus died on the cross, he died for each one of us, individually, by name. Jesus did not die for mankind in general. He died specifically for you and specifically for me.

When the disciples returned from their first mission trip, they were excited about all they had experienced, but Jesus told them (Luke 10:20)
“However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Jesus died for you and me by name and when we accept his gift of salvation, the first Easter present we unwrapped this morning, our name is written in the Book of Life and it is on that list that you want to find your name.

When Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, he said: (Matthew 20:30-31)
And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

We are not anonymous creatures in a sea of humanity. How many of us know how many hairs we have on our head? (Easier for some than others) Jesus made the point that God knows us even better than we know ourselves.

Jesus taught in John 10:2-3
The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

He calls his own sheep by name. Not, “Come sheep,” but individually by name.

When Moses asked God for a sign, God responded: (Exodus 33:17)
“I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”

Jesus called to a tax collector up in a tree trying to catch a glimpse of him, (Luke 19:5) “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus called to a Pharisee on a trip to Damascus with the mission of persecuting Christians, (Acts 9:4) “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

The second Easter present for us this morning is that Jesus knows you by name. When he died on the cross, he died for you. When Jesus said, (Matthew 11:28)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
He invited you to come to receive his rest, his care, his love, his concern.

At our Good Friday service we nailed our names to the cross that we decorated this morning with flowers. Jesus’ sacrifice was made for us because he loved us and loves us by name.

Are you feeling lonely this morning? Discouraged? Worried? Afraid? Anxious? Grief stricken? Jesus calls you by name. Why are you crying? Why are you discouraged? Why are you feeling so alone? Why are you feeling so overwhelmed? Why are you worried?

Come onto me John and Dante and Joshua and Angelina and Benedict and Vanessa and Geri and Louie and Mira and Victor and George and Catherine and Myung Jin and Simon and Sarah and Eric and Cynthia and Jeremiah and Connie and Nelson and Felicity and Bridget.

Come unto me and receive my love and care.

Two Easter presents, both available for you. Both of them have your name written on them. They are yours to open. They are presents given in love.

Allow this Easter to be a blessed one for you. Open the first present and accept God’s free gift of salvation. Allow the fear of death to fade away as you embrace the hope Jesus offers with his resurrection from the dead.

Open the second present and rejoice that your name is written in the book of life. As amazing as it seems, God knows you by name and cares intimately for you. Go to Jesus with your worries and fears and concerns and he will give you peace and rest.