THE TROUBLE WITH JESUS

A sermon on Acts 2:14a, 22-32

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

April 23, 2017

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

The great British movie director Alfred Hitchcock insisted that this movie was one of his personal favorites. Ironically, it did not do well at the box office when it received its initial theatrical release in 1955. In fact, it was the only movie that Hitchcock ever made that failed to turn a profit in America upon its release, though it did well in overseas markets.

 

The movie was also something of a departure for Hitchcock—the movie maker known as “The Master of Suspense.” It did not have the tension of some of his better known movies like South by Southwest or Rear Window. Nor did it have the chills of his classics Psycho or Vertigo. Instead this movie was a comedy—albeit a rather offbeat and peculiar comedy. It was the kind of movie that Hitchcock only rarely made. The title of this movie is The Trouble with Harry.[1]  In addition to the master movie maker’s direction, it is also notable for its talented cast. It stars a number of actors whose names you might recognize: John Forsythe, a six year old Jerry Mathers (two years before he became beloved to television audiences as “The Beaver” in “Leave It to Beaver”) and it features the screen debut of Oscar-winning actress Shirley MacLaine.  Is anybody here familiar with the movie?

 

The Trouble with Harry is set in a small village in rural upstate Vermont. At the beginning of the movie, a well-dressed corpse (a man we learn later is named Harry) is discovered in the woods just outside of town. A quirky group of four town residents all believe that each of them is individually somehow responsible for causing Harry’s death from various causes. Though these are all good law-abiding citizens, none of them want to alert the police because they fear that the authorities will try to frame them for Harry’s death. So in the course of the movie, they decide to hide the body. And not just once. They bury it, and then dig it up three times in the course of the film. Each time they do it, it is for a different reason. The “trouble with Harry” referred to in the movie’s title is this: Harry does not cooperate because he won’t stay put in the ground. He keeps coming up out of his grave—to the dismay of the folks who are trying to keep his untimely passing a secret…[2]

 

The scripture passage from Acts contains a portion of the sermon that the Apostle Peter gave to the people of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. This is the time when the Holy Spirit filled all of the disciples. Jesus had been crucified fifty days earlier, and now, Peter and the rest of the disciples were testifying that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Roman authorities who had crucified Jesus, and the Jewish religious leaders who had set Jesus up to be executed, now had a problem on their hands. They had done their best to eliminate this threat to their power by publically murdering Jesus in a gruesome manner. It was their intention to make an example out of him, so that anyone else who might have similar ideas to challenge the status quo would think better of it. In these kinds of cases, publically crucifying the rabble-rousers was usually enough to get the job done. The followers of the movement would then scatter to the four winds out of fear. They would all go into hiding, and nothing more would be heard from them. This is the way that the Romans had effectively dealt with plenty of rebellious troublemakers in the past.  It had so far proven to be a very effective deterrent.

 

The trouble was that it didn’t work this time. The glitch was not in the methods that they had used. No—for the authorities, the trouble with Jesus was this: unlike the others they had killed, Jesus did not stay put in his grave. And on top of that, the disciples did not stay in hiding either. Instead, in Acts 2, the disciples were out in the streets proclaiming that Jesus had literally walked out of the tomb—that they had seen him and had talked with him and had eaten with him. Consequently the Romans and the Jewish leaders now had a situation on their hands. They had their reasons to be concerned. For their part, the Romans were afraid that the Jesus’ followers might cause a riot and lead an insurrection against the government. On the other hand, the Jewish religious leaders were afraid that Jesus’ followers would lead people to conversions and a departure from their religious and national identity. All that spelled trouble…

 

One of the most striking things about this whole story in Acts 2 is that no one is denying that the tomb was empty. Jesus’ body was nowhere to be found. Both in the biblical texts and in other non-scripture First Century sources, the fact that Jesus’ tomb is empty is never really questioned by anyone. Given the circumstances, that is remarkable. This is crucial because the empty tomb is the point upon which the Christian faith either rises…or falls. If someone could give proof that Jesus was still in the grave, then Christianity would be exposed as nothing but a fraud. The Apostle Paul—who was never one to mince his words—bluntly expressed it like this, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”[3] It’s a sobering thought…

 

This raises the question: so what happened to the body? If the body was not in the tomb, then where was it?

 

Over the centuries, a number of different theories concerning the empty tomb have been put forth by those who would question the Christian version of the story. The earliest explanation is found at the end of the gospel of Matthew. After Jesus was buried, Matthew tells us that the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate, the Roman governor, with a request. They told him that Jesus had said that he would rise again after three days. [A side note: Isn’t it ironic that the Pharisees remembered that Jesus said that he would rise from the dead in three days—even when his disciples didn’t?! Hmmm…There’s another sermon in there somewhere for another time…but not today…]

 

Anyway, Pilate tells them to make the tomb as secure as they can. So they secured the tomb by putting a seal on it and posting a handpicked squad of four Roman soldiers to prevent the disciples from stealing the body. Matthew reports that, at the moment of resurrection, the guards shook with fear and then all fainted when Jesus emerged from the tomb. When they came to, the guards immediately went into the city to report what had happened. Matthew tells us that the Jews paid a bribe to the guards to say that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body while they had been sleeping.[4]

 

There are more than a few holes in that story. First these Roman soldiers understood the penalty for falling asleep while on duty. And the penalty was severe—death. Any Roman soldier caught sleeping while on duty could expect to be executed without any recourse whatsoever. It is unlikely that any of them would have admitted to their superiors to sleeping on the job. Even though the Jewish leaders promised to keep them out of trouble, it is doubtful that they could prevent their execution for so grievous a crime…

 

A second thing is this: The soldiers were to tell everyone that the disciples stole the body while they were sleeping. Now…how is it that the testimony of a sleeping man would ever be considered to be reliable? If the soldiers were fast asleep as they were told to say, then how would they have known what was going on—let alone be able to identify the thieves? No one anywhere would ever believe that kind of story… Yet Matthew tells us that this is the story that was circulated widely among the Jews and that many believed it.

 

Others have speculated that grave robbers took the body. This isn’t much more believable. In order to do that, the thieves would first have had to overpower the four armed Roman guards standing watch over the tomb and roll away the massive stone from the tomb’s entrance. That is hard enough to believe. But then, the robbers would have taken the body—and left the grave clothes intact. In fact, the gospel of John says that some of the grave clothes were left neatly folded up in the tomb. That does not suggest a crime done in haste. Besides that, what motive would thieves have to steal Jesus’ body? There wasn’t anything of value to steal in the tomb and a dead body would not have been worth anything. It just doesn’t make sense…

 

Perhaps the most fantastic of all the theories concerning the empty tomb is what has become known as “the swoon theory.” This explanation is of fairly recent vintage and did not appear until the last 150 years or so. It is entirely perverse…

 

In this scenario, it is proposed that Jesus really didn’t die on the cross. Instead, he just “swooned”—that is, he lost consciousness from the lack of blood and dehydration. He just passed out. After being taken down from the cross and wrapped up in some cloths, he was then laid in the tomb. Eventually the cold stone slab of the tomb revived him and he was able to make his escape.

 

This is what would have had to have happened for this to be true. Jesus would have had to “come to” in the tomb after the ordeal he had suffered. He had been beaten, bloodied, flogged and then nailed on a cross for six hours. After that ordeal, he laid in the tomb for thirty-six hours. He had received no food, no water, or no medical attention for his wounds—wounds in his hands, his feet, and the gaping wound that he sustained when he was stabbed in the side with a spear.

 

In order to make good his escape, he would have first had to extricate himself from his burial clothes. This was no easy feat—it would have been something akin to escaping from a straitjacket Houdini-style. Then he would have had the superhuman strength to move the enormous stone that sealed the tomb out of the way. And then—unarmed—he would have had to take on, fight and overcome four armed Roman soldiers. All of this had to happen in order for him to drag himself away in his weakened condition. Honestly, I think that it takes a whole lot more faith to believe a story like that than it does to believe that Jesus arose…[5]

 

It seems to me, though, that the best proof of the resurrection is found in the passage in Acts 2. You remember that, in the wake of the awful events of Good Friday when our Lord was crucified, the actions of the disciples were anything but courageous. They laid low to avoid being found out. John’s gospel tells us that, in the days that followed, they went into hiding. All the doors were locked wherever they stayed. They were frightened. They were fearful that, if they were discovered to be a part of the Jesus’ movement, the Roman authorities and the Jewish leaders would give them the same treatment that the Lord had received—arrest, torture, punishment and ultimately crucifixion. None of them wanted any part of that. They had seen what the authorities had done to Jesus. There was no reason to think that the same things could not happen to them.

 

And yet here they were a few weeks later in the city of Jerusalem. The disciples were no longer cowering behind walls and locked doors in fear. NO—this time, they were out in the streets, boldly accusing both the Jewish leaders and the godless Romans of murdering the Son of God. The disciples were fearlessly confronting the very same people who had tried to kill Jesus by telling them the news that he is alive. What could cause such a dramatic change as that? Where did this sudden surge of courage come from? How could the disciples be suddenly filled with such audacity—if not because of their encounters with the Risen Christ? That is the only answer. Their lives were changed completely by Jesus who had been raised to new life through the power of God. Caution was thrown to the winds. They were never to be the same…

 

The authorities who crucified Jesus recognized that “the trouble with Jesus” is that he did not stay in the tomb. He defied their expectations. And he confounded them through the power of God.

 

The Risen Lord is doing the same thing today. Jesus is alive today to disturb and to trouble us when we get complacent in our spiritual lives. He comes to us to entice us to be the people he calls us to be. He disrupts our notions of who we are to lead us into new ways of understanding and relating to ourselves…and to each other…and to God. He uncovers our false sense of righteousness and exposes it as a sham. He unsettles our ideas of what it means to serve God by transforming our ways of thinking and of our understanding of the world—and then he replaces it with a new vision for the Kingdom of God.

 

That’s the trouble with Jesus. He wants to renew and remake us more into his image—more into the person that God created you to be. He wants to put you on the path the abundant life that he has promised his followers—a life that is over and above your expectations—an extraordinary way of life that he offers. He does not want to leave you the same way he finds you. And you won’t be the same—if you open yourself up to his gentle promptings and leading…if you attune your ears to hear his voice…if you resolve to follow his truth…if you live in his grace…and if you rest in his love…

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] There is a good quality video of the complete movie at www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-OU435MAFQ (Accessed April 18, 2017). I heartily recommend it!

[2] Info about the movie is taken from www.the.hitchcockzone/wiki/The_Trouble_with_Harry and www.cinema.wisc.edu/blog/2014/10/17/trouble-harry-hitchcocks-surreal-romance (Both accessed April 18, 2017).

[3] 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17, 19.

[4] Matthew 27:62–28:15.

[5] This is a distillation of some of the arguments put forth in John R. W. Stott, Basic Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), 46-53.

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