Sooner or later, every one of us will find ourselves in a tomb. I’m not talking about physical death, although that may also be in your future. I’m talking about the tomb of the soul. It may be your own doing, the result of someone else’s careless plans, or a simple accident. But everyone gets there eventually.
Some here today are entombed by the past. Regrets have a way of slipping to the surface and lingering there. Shame over deeds and mistakes long ago etch away at our peace and joy as we lay on our pillows at night. Of course, God does not operate this way; the Lord is not a past-peddler. He is not interested in burying your nose in ancient-history, in messes that He cleaned up and put away a long time ago. There’s no benefit to that. No, it’s just the opposite; God wants you to have life and have it to the full. Jesus is not the one who digs up old skeletons and hangs them around your bed. That is the devil who wants to steal, kill and destroy you. His very name, satan, means “accuser” -- and that’s what he loves to do: dig up the past and accuse you of sins that have been long forgotten by God. Shame and regret over the past can be a terrible tomb.
Some are entombed by the present. Perhaps you are this very moment caught in the riptide of a hidden sin. You found yourself covering up what was a simple indiscretion with what seemed like a few little lies, and then covered those with more lies, foolishly thinking this web of deception would somehow make things better. But it just seems to get worse and worse with each passing day, and now you are so far from shore that you feel helpless to do anything but let the tide drag you further and further out. The harder you struggle to keep your head above water, the further you seem to be pulled from the warmth and safety of the beach. You are tired and the weight is becoming unbearable, as it always does. You need rescue, but you are too proud to call out for help, too proud to admit that you may have been wrong. You have gotten comfortable with the habit of lying to yourself and others, even though it is those lies that are pulling you under. The lifeguard could be there in an instant, but you will not cry out for help. Fear of judgment from others and fear of the consequences you might face are more of the devil’s tools to keep you securely under guard, a prisoner in your own tomb of the present.
Still others among us here today are held captive in the tomb of the future. This tomb is hewn out of one element above all others: fear. Overwhelmed by worrisome “what ifs” and “could bes” about tomorrow, you never seem to find the courage to get out and live today. You desperately want to live -- really live -- but you have been telling yourself not to dream, not to get your hopes up, and not to step out in faith. You know deep in your heart that God is calling you to something so much bigger and better -- His voice is so clear! But you are worried. Worried about your family’s opinions, worried about letting others down, worried about where the money will come from, worried about who will see you and who might laugh at you. For too long now, you have entombed yourself in fear, listening to the devil’s steady stream of lies that no one will support you, no one will believe in you, and that people might talk about you. Without knowing it, your fears and anxieties about the future have become the very thick walls of a tomb.
Whether your tomb is the past, the present, or the future -- or all three -- Easter is great news for you. The meaning of this day is clear: you don’t need to stay in your tomb. The tomb no longer need hold you captive. You see, Jesus was not the only one who was raised on that glorious third day -- you and I were raised too. The scriptures say that Jesus is the firstborn of the resurrection. “Firstborn” meaning others are to follow. Who are those others who are to follow; those who are to rise again? It’s you and me! The resurrection is not just reserved for Jesus, it is for anyone at all who will call on Him. The resurrection is not simply a post-mortem, after-death, sometime-in-the-far-future experience. It is a very real truth today -- and every day. On Easter, we celebrate the day God made good on His promise to raise you and me by raising His own Son first.
And if I may be so bold, right here, right now, the very next person in line for a resurrection is you.
When you call on His name and choose to follow Him, He removes all the stains of the past, uncuffs you from the chains of the present, brings you a hope and a future, heals all the wounds that have held you down in pain, and breathes the power of new life into your soul through His Holy Spirit. But it doesn’t end there. Then He rolls that great big, unmovable, impossibly heavy stone away and beckons you to come forth from your tomb to live anew. And then... And then? And then you have a choice to make. How long will you remain in that tomb?
As a pastor who listen to and prays for a lot of people, I wish I could say that every believer I know is no longer living in a tomb. But I would be lying like a presidential candidate if I told you that. In fact, I am not exaggerating at all when I say that it is a very rare thing to find someone who is living outside of their tomb. It seems to me that nearly every Christian I speak to is determined to remain buried in the tombs of their shameful but ancient past, their sinful and secret present, or their worrisome and fearful outlook for future. Even though God has released every burden and unbound every heavy load, even though He has rolled the stone away completely, many of us dwell among the dead in our tombs.
When God pleads with you, “Come out of your tomb,” I ask you today, what will your response be?
Now, you must understand that there are several interested parties when it comes to your response to His call to exit your tomb, to step out of darkness and into light. In fact, your decision is hotly contested by some very influential players. Let’s see who is going to be trying to shape your response.
First are the “Guards”. These represent those people, sometimes well-intentioned, but most often selfishly motivated, who want you to remain buried. These are external forces that do not want you to taste freedom. This can include friends, family, authorities, and dead religion.
They will tell you that you have no right to leave your tomb. They will mock you and drag up every reason they can to hold you in the ground. The guards might even mean well, thinking they are protecting you by forcing you to live in shame and fear, but they are wrong. Do not let them tie you down and keep you in the tomb.
My advice to you is this: don’t listen to anyone on earth more than you listen to God.
The next party interested in keeping you buried in your tomb is, surprisingly, yourself. That’s right -- there are deeply complex internal forces that compel you to stay in the tomb. Shame, guilt, and regret all play a part, but the most toxic internal force of all is fear.
My advice is twofold: 1) never believe your own hype, and 2) be ruthless about destroying old habits.
We all play messages in our minds about ourselves. Psychologists call this “self-talk.” Self-talk is almost always untrue -- filled with lies. But because we say these messages about ourselves in our minds over and over again -- lies like “nobody likes me,” “I’m useless”, “My life doesn’t matter,” “God will never forgive me” -- we slowly begin to believe the lies are the truth. Negative self-talk is incredibly dangerous. But it can be overcome by truthful, healthy self-talk.
This is where scripture memory is a wonderful therapeutic tool. For example, instead of worrying about things we cannot really control, we can remember Philippians 4.6-7:
"Do not be anxious about anything,
but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving
present your requests to God.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That simple, healthy, scriptural message replaces the negative, anxiety-producing self-talk that says “things are spinning out of control,” and turns it into a positive affirmation and a clear reminder that God really IS in control of the world, and that all of our worries should be brought to Him.
Here’s another example of healthy, scriptural, self-talk. Many of you wonder if God loves you. You need assurance that He hasn’t given up on you. Maybe you’ve taken some wrong turns and think there is no hope for a soul as lost as yours seems to be. But there are wonderful scriptures that promise you God has not forsaken you, and that He will complete the work He began in you. Here’s one: 1 John 5.11-12:
“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
He who has the Son has life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
If you have Jesus, you have life. That’s all there is to it. Never doubt it -- that is a promise from God who doesn’t break promises. Do you see how your own hype -- that destructive self-talk can let you down, and how healthy, scriptural self-talk can bring you hope and overcome the power of your tomb?
Now, the second bit of advice I gave you is to be ruthless about destroying old habits. What do I mean by that? Simply this: whack bad habits dead the first time or they will make your life miserable. When I was a boy, I used to fish a lot. The first time I caught a catfish, I learned two things: First, they have incredibly sharp barbs up by their gills, and you don’t want them flopping around when you are trying to get the hook out. Second, they are nearly impossible to kill. My friend had a small baseball bat for catfish -- the catfish bat. When he caught a catfish, he whacked him on the head as hard as he could, one big thump -- and that was it for the catfish. I thought that was a little cruel, so I lightly tapped my catfish on the head -- just a “take a nap” tap -- and went to work pulling out the hook. Was that ever a mistake. About ten seconds later, he woke up from whatever bad dream he was having to the even worse one of me trying to unhook him, and --- flap flap flap -- my hand was impaled on a catfish barb. I gathered myself, then quietly asked my friend for that catfish bat one more time. You can guess how hard I swung the second time. I learned the hard way -- go for broke and whack that sucker dead the first time.
Do you need to quit something? Cut it off, and cut it off all the way. I have watched many, many dear friends begin a new life of sobriety or purity, but then walk right back into their tombs because they tried to “taper off” of something that had far, far stronger barbs than they realized. There are some habits and some relationships that you just can’t play around with.
That’s right, I also said relationships. Some people are just plain bad for you. They will drag you down to the gutter, then leave you there. When Brian, Kim and I were working with at-risk teens here in our neighborhood, we heard several former gang members all say the same thing -- the gang is there for you -- until you actually need them. When you are in trouble and about to get caught by the police, they will always run away and watch you fry. What kind of family is that? Some relationships are poison, and the only wise option is to cut them off. You’re worried about their salvation? Who made you their savior? Let God use someone else to bring them home. He can take care of that, and He definitely doesn’t need your help. He has someone lined up for that job already, and you can bet it probably isn’t you.
You have to go for the throat right away, or those old habits and friends will return with a vengeance and roll the stone right back onto your tomb. Jesus advocated for this approach, by the way. He said, and please forgive me for paraphrasing here, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter into eternal life with some really nasty scars than to land in hell with silky-smooth skin.”
May we turn from the darkness of our own voices and the voices of others, and listen to the only voice that matters: the Lord Jesus Christ.
Which brings us to the last -- but most important -- party who is interested in how you respond to Jesus’ call to exit your tomb: the very one who is calling you out, your Heavenly Father; the greatest lover of your soul.
With power greater than your grave, He beckons you to rise again. He paralyzes the guards, rolls the stone away, but leaves the final choice to you. Your past is no match for Him. Your present is not a challenge to Him. Your future doesn’t worry Him in the slightest. God is not intimidated by the guard who are trying to keep you in the ground. And He is not convinced by your attempts to keep yourself locked in the grave. He is the one person who is genuinely interested in bringing you new life, a life outside the tomb, a life unchained by the past, unphased the hidden secrets of your present, and unfettered by your fears of the future. He stands outside the tomb, in the glorious light of a new day, and He is calling out to you, “Come out from that tomb!”
What will you decide? Will you remain in the tomb? Or will you join Him, and rise again?
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43.18-19)
“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God,
to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh,
nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1.12-13)