In the year 1922 in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt, an Englishman named Howard Carter discovered the 3200-year-old tomb of King Tut. As the door was forced open and Carter stuck a light inside, his anxious archeological associates asked, “What do you see?” “I see,” he said, “I see things . . . wonderful things!”
Indeed, the treasures of King Tut’s tomb are so vast that the Egyptians have built a huge museum in Cairo to house it all. There one may see gold, clothing, furniture, food, jewelry, art, idols, a throne, and, of course, the mummified corpse of the king himself.
Today we shall look into the tomb of Jesus Christ and see what there is to be found. One normally expects to open a grave and find clothing, jewelry, perhaps a Bible, a casket, and certainly a body. Yet the Scriptures tell us that on Easter morning the disciples entered Christ’s tomb and found there to be no corpse. The stone was rolled away. The guards had fled, the grave clothing was there holding the shape of a body yet strangely collapsed– like a glove from which the hand is removed. And an angel was there greeting the bewildered visitors and inquiring, “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”
Yes, those are some of the physical sights that await anyone who visits the tomb of Jesus of Galilee. But what do these things mean? What is the meaning of the things one finds or does not find in the tomb of Jesus Christ? That is our quest for this hour.
In the text we have the writings of Paul of Tarsus. Scholar, Hebrew, at first a skeptic of Christianity, Paul was converted near Damascus, Syria, and by the time he wrote this letter to the Romans, he’d had more than 25 years to ponder the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. Whereas Luke, John, Mark, and Matthew tell of the facts of Christ’s empty tomb, Paul here tells us the meaning of those facts. And to his words we now turn.
The first thing Paul found in Christ’s empty tomb was hurt. He mentions “the sufferings of this present time,” “creation groaning in travail” and people who “groan inwardly.” And if you look closely this is not just any pain Paul is talking about. It is a creative pain, the pain of childbirth, the pain of a woman in travail.
There is the pain of appendicitis which leaves one with nothing to show for it except a worthless and decaying piece of surgically removed flesh. Then there is the pain of travail, the suffering a woman endures to bring forth a healthy baby. The one pain brings forth nothing but death. The other brings forth new life. And the latter is the sort of pain Paul found in Christ’s tomb.
Consider the agony of Christ’s last week as he rode a donkey down the Mt. Of Olives and into the city of Jerusalem. At one point he stopped to weep over Jerusalem’s hard heart. He went into the temple and found rank profiteering. He endured the whispered plots of the Jewish authorities, the betraying kiss of a false friend, a denial by his beloved Peter, and the shallow questioning of the politically suave Pontius Pilate. He heard a bribed mob ignorantly cry, “Give us Barabbas!” and of himself urge, “Let him be crucified!” He felt the sting of the whip upon his back and the crown of thorns upon his brow. Soldiers slapped him, spat upon him and nailed his wrists and feet upon a cross. He heard a thief whimper as he was capitally punished. All of this pain Paul found in the empty tomb calling it the “sufferings of this present age” which is “groaning in travail” or laboring to give birth to new life.
Eating in a restaurant in Atlanta once, I heard a loud crash and the breaking of glass. The waiter standing nearby looked at me and I asked, “What was that?” “That,” he said, “is the sound of a new job opening up.” And for Paul the groanings of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the sounds of salvation; not meaningless suffering, but new birth.
These same sounds are still about us today. Several years ago I traveled to Israel as a student of the Bible. And the excitement of it all left me sleepless for one long night in Jerusalem. Believe me, as I lay awake in my bed I heard every sound! The sporadic gunfire of Israeli troops moving to crush an Arab riot. The urgent peel of sirens as emergency vehicles raced to pick up human carnage. A rather loud domestic argument going on in a room down the hall. Dogs fighting in the street. Tires squealing. And a Muslim Iman calling the faithful to prayer in the wee hours. Jerusalem, as in Christ’s day, is still a city in pain. And so is our own city!
From the television we see the hopeless plight of refugees. We see in living color the painful results of acts of terrorism, unemployment, tornadoes and war. Our children come home from school smarting from the stab of racism, drug abuse and indiscipline. In our neighborhoods we hear the groan of divorce, bankruptcy, and nervous breakdowns. And right in our very homes we agonize with quarrels, fatigue, disappointments, illness and death. Paul found such pain, and worse, in Christ’s empty tomb. But he also found a way of thinking about it. “It’s travail,” he wrote. “It’s the pain of a whole new creation coming to birth.”
Passing on from the hurt Paul discovered in the tomb, the text tells us Paul also found the help of God there as well. In verse 34 he mentions Christ’s body was raised from the dead; evidence enough someone more able than man had been in the tomb. And Paul in the text explains that as God was there in power to help Christ with his travail, so He is there to help us as well! The gallant apostle explains the intervention of God in our painful lives by saying such things as, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” “The Spirit intercedes.” “If God did not spare us his only son will He not then give us all things as well?” The idea of Paul here is this: as we writhe in the birth pangs of a coming new age, we are not left alone. The very presence of God is with us as a mid-wife. “Interceding.” “Helping us in our weakness.”
Do you see the comfort of the gospel here? Our greatest fear is
that we will suffer meaninglessly and alone. But Paul, in sifting through the meaning of the empty tomb, says that our pain has the creative meaning of giving birth and that the Holy Spirit is with us in our pain to give us a safe delivery.
During World War II, certain persons of the British army were captured by the Germans and kept in a P.O.W. camp. For three and a half years they never saw another Englishman. No outside news was to be had. The Germans told them the British were defeated. Alone, ill-treated, starving, the British soldiers agonized, “Does anyone know I’m here? Does anyone care?” Depression and uncertainty ended all sharing, all eye contact and every song. Mostly the men lay in their bunks and waited for whatever was going to happen to happen. Then, early one morning, a bomber flew low over the camp. Its United States insignias were clearly visible. A shout of triumph went up. Then another and another. The barracks emptied. Laughter was heard. Help was on the way. “We are not forgotten!” And inside of 20 minutes the sound of hymns was heard.
In the empty tomb Paul found the same sense of help on the way. No longer did he live in a big old lonesome world that did not need him very much. No longer was he a sinner facing an interminable and intolerable imprisonment. Into the “suffering of this present age” God had “interceded.” He had become a man, shared our bread, endured our suffering, and more, on the cross; and by rising from the dead proved that he was stronger than all sin, all of death and Satan combined.
If you look here in Romans 8:27 following it tells us just how effective Christ’s intervention is on our behalf. It says in verse 28 that God is able to work for our good in any and all circumstances. Then in verse 29 and following, we are assured God is conforming us into the image of Christ, justifying us and will one day glorify us.
All of this hurt and all of this help Paul found in Christ’s empty tomb. And these things led him to a third thing– hope. In the text Paul points out how God has allowed the world to exist in a sinful state while He works out his divine redeeming strategy in every generation. He mentions a creation “that will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” He points to Christ as having been born out of travail, a travail we still suffer through. But Jesus is the “firstborn among many brethren.” He sees that one child has already been safely born through sin and death and redemption. And many more will be sure to follow, us included! In just a few short verses Paul uses the word “hope” six times. “In this hope we were saved,” Paul affirms.
A thirteen-year-old school boy walked up to his father after viewing the nuclear holocaust film, The Day After. He said, “Gee Dad, I don’t know about this homework anymore. It just seems so useless. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be any world left by the time I get out of school.” A long time ago we quit building houses and cars like we believed in the future. Our art galleries are filled with absurdities, our symphonies cacophony and our philosophies selfish despair. We are without hope and heartsick.
Yet Paul, pondering the facts of the empty tomb for over 25 years, comes up with hope as a reasonable response to the hurt and help found in Christ’s grave. Sure he speaks of the “sufferings of this present age.” But he also points out the Holy Spirit’s interceding power to call us from sin, justify us, and glorify us with God. And this opens the door for hope.
Paul says we are right now like a mother in the throes of birth pangs with a mid-wife helping. But what is it God is birthing in us? Throughout this long passage Paul constantly tells us– God is birthing “sons of God,” “creation set free,” “no bondage to decay,” “glorious liberty,” “redemption of our bodies,” “justification” and, yes, “glorification.” You may be hurting, Paul says, but God is intervening; he’ll bring you through! So, hold on! There’s a new life and a new world coming! Wait for it in faithful and patient hope!
Hurt, help, hope– all this is some of the meaning Paul found in an empty grave. But one thing more did he discover and that was a rousing, joyful hallelujah!
In verse 31 after examining the travail, the divine intervention of the Spirit, and our hope in Him, Paul inquires of his Roman readers, “What then shall we say to this?” And then Paul promptly leaves off the prose and starts with the poetry of praise.
“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, will He not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do you hear the shout of “Hallelujah!” in Paul’s words? It’s a shout the world is hard put to understand.
When Paul told King Festus of his resurrection hope Festus ridiculed Paul as being “mad” (Acts 26:24). When Peter preached on Pentecost there was such an effervescent hallelujah about him that others said he was simply “drunk” (Acts 2:13). Again and again in Scripture those who walked out of the empty tomb walked out of their hurts and into the help and hope of God shouting one long hallelujah that left the world questioning their sobriety and sanity.
Today in the nation of Ethiopia Christians rise at dawn on Easter and begin to look in closets, under beds, in sacks and along the riverbanks. “What do you seek?” One might fairly ask. “I seek the body of our Lord Jesus,” is the solemn reply. This searching goes on for hours until the church gathers for worship and the pastor asks, “Did you find our crucified Lord’s body?” “No, we did not,” is the cry. “For He is risen from the dead!” Whereupon there is a joyous outburst of laughter and dancing and shouted praise called, “The Holy laughter.” And that is Paul’s response. And it is ours as well today.
When Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb he found “Things, wonderful things” like gold and art, jewelry, furniture and a mummy. All this was removed and placed in a Cairo museum.
When Paul looked in Jesus Christ’s tomb he found even more wonderful things. He discovered hurt, help, hope, and hallelujah! And he promptly took it all into his heart by faith and began to share it with others. And that’s not a bad way for us to celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Christ this Easter.
One final word in closing. In this text Paul looks into a grave and sees not death but birth, and he weaves into this long narrative the language of new life. Paul begins this passage with the suffering of this present age. He ends it with our inseparable fellowship with the risen Lord in glory. In between he talks about hope and patience and the help of God which sees us safely from here to eternity. With this in mind note the beginning verses of this passage.
“I consider the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” Note the phrase “waits with eager longing” in particular. The Greek word here is “apokaradokia” and it literally means “To scan the horizon eagerly searching for the first sign of dawn.” You see, in this world of hurt, of decay, of loneliness, of death, God has successfully intervened in our behalf. The cross was but half the story. The resurrection was the other half. And Paul is saying here that in a world like ours in which we wait in travail for the birth of the new age, we don’t wait with gloom, cynicism and despair. We wait with joy, with eager expectation. Because Christ has triumphed, the Christian doesn’t wait for death. He waits for life.
Lord, forgive me for living as a pre-Easter person; if my message is the defeat of the cross without the victory of the empty tomb, if I emphasize life’s gloom without seeing its brightness, if I speak only of sunsets while ignoring the sunrises, if I can only grieve in the face of death failing to find comfort in the promise of resurrection, if I complain about the power of evil and lack confidence in the power of good, if I cower in fear instead of marching forward in confidence, if I say, “It can’t be done!” instead of affirming that with God all things are possible. Forgive me, Lord, for living as a pre-Easter person. For Christ’s sake. Amen.