Celebrating the Empty Tombs of Jesus

Mausoleum_MuhammadThe Empty Tomb(s) of Jesus

Medina, Saudi Arabia is the 2nd holiest city in Islam. It is where Muhammad went during his flight from Mecca, and in this city he received portions of the Quran. In the heart of this city is the Mosque of the Prophet, a place of worship established by Muhammad in 622 CE.

At the Mosque is the Green Dome, which marks the burial tombs of many Islamic leaders. Muhammad is buried there, along with the first two caliphs or leaders of Islam (Abu Bakr and Umar). There is also an empty grave next to Muhammad, which is reserved for Jesus. Yes, even within Islam there is an empty tomb for Jesus.

Significance of the Empty Tombs in Islam and Christianity

Islam rejects the belief that Jesus, an important prophet of God, was killed. Instead, they believe that Jesus will return and be buried next to Muhammad in Medina.

On the other hand, Christianity teaches that Jesus did die on the cross, and he was buried in a borrowed grave. While there might be some debate over the location of that tomb in Jerusalem (either the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Garden Tomb), the essential truth is that Jesus was buried by his followers after the execution, and Roman centurions guarded the tomb, and early on the third day, the tomb was empty and a risen Jesus began appearing to his followers. For Christians, this isn’t just an interesting story or feel-good ending; it is the fact upon which all our hope and faith is based.

Importance of the Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a core tenant of Christianity. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul makes clear how crucial this belief is to the rest of his teachings. We believe that Jesus died for the deliverance of our sins, and that he was buried in a grave (1 Corinthians 15:3–4a). But Jesus did not remain in that grave; on the third day he was raised (v. 4) and appeared to hundreds of his followers and skeptics alike (v. 5–8).

Paul goes out of his way to say that this belief in the death and resurrection of Christ lines up with the ancient prophecies and teachings preserved in the Old Testament, with his frequent refrain “in accordance with the Scriptures” (vv. 4 & 5).

He also argues in the following verses that the entire trustworthiness of Christianity resides on whether Jesus rose from the dead. In verses 13–17, he explicitly states:

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:13–17, emphasis mine).

In the death of Jesus, the sins of mankind are paid for and the evil forces of this world are put to death. In the resurrection of Jesus, even death and the grave are shown to be no match for God’s love. By raising Jesus, God is reversing the effects of the fallen world and beginning his process of renewing and redeeming Creation, which will eventually result in New Creation.

Celebrating the Empty Tombs of Jesus on Easter

Today, as we celebrate Easter with our church, family, and friends, let us remember that the god that we worship is the one who has conquered death and sin forever. What started with Jesus that Easter morning will continue into New Creation, so we will all taste the glory of resurrected life.

Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen (Luke 24:5b-6a)

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The Power of Story from Back to the Future

The Power of Story from Back to the Future

I am a die-hard Back to the Future fan. I have watched all three movies dozens of times, can quote most lines from the movies1, and I have my own Marty McFly outfit. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Back to the Future, as well as the future date Marty & co. travel to in Part 2.

In preparation for that date in October, I recently read We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy. Getting unparalleled access to the director, writers, cast, and crew behind the trilogy, author Caseen Gaines provides a compelling read on the long and complicated journey these movies took to get to the screen.

In the chapters describing the first movie, I was impressed by the significance everyone put on the strength of the story. Steven Spielberg, a producer of the trilogy, loved it immediately upon first read; so did many of the cast and crew. But what impressed me the most was the reaction from the movie’s first audience.

As Gaines describes, the film the audience saw was a “work-print,” meaning it had rough transitions, lacked most of the visual and sound effects, and was without the soundtrack. This viewing took place in May 1985, less than a month after shooting wrapped on the movie. The audience was told little about the movie they were about to see, only that it starred Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

For the first 20 minutes, the audience seemed unimpressed; some thought there was too much dialogue and buildup, and they couldn’t see a purpose or direction for the movie. But, with that famous scene in the Twin Pines Mall parking lot, when the DeLorean rolls out, the audience was sucked back in. Over the next few minutes, when the DeLorean actually goes back in time, the audience was hooked.

When the movie finally ended, the audience erupted into applause. Response cards filled out by this first audience reported that 90% of them thought the movie was “excellent” or “very good;” and that was without any special effects! As Neil Canton, a producer on the film, later said:

It was still a work in progress at the time of that screening… visual effect shots weren’t done, and the music wasn’t done, but the audience was just so into the story. (Quoted in Gaines, We Don’t Need Roads, 107).

In an age where special effects, graphic designs, and pretty typography can add a lot when done right, the core thing that matters is a good story. Too many movies2 have had massive budgets for special effects, but because they were lacking in story, they ultimately failed. And yet, partially based on the strength of its story, Back to the Future was the highest-grossing film of 1985. Moreover, the movie has endured for a long time; so much so that a person like me, who was only born in 1985, still loves it.

  1. To the annoyance of my wife. 

  2. See G.I. Joe or any of the later Transformer movies. 

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The Power of Story

creativity incRecently I read Creativity, Inc, the memoir of Ed Catmull. You might not recognize the name, but you are familiar with the company he runs: Pixar. Catmull is co-founder of the studio, and has been overseeing it since the early days as part of George Lucas’ empire.

In the book, Catmull describes the unwavering dedication to story as a fundamental belief of Pixar. Sure, they are also on the cutting edge of computer graphics—having the honor of releasing the first computer animated movie—but slick animation means nothing if the story is flawed. He notes several times when a movie’s development had to be paused or scrapped due to a weak story, costing the company millions. That is how important story is to Pixar.

Power of Stories

A story is a powerful thing. It can bring us to tears, have us cheer with joy, and move us to do mighty things. And some of the best stories are ones that are long-lasting: fairy tales we tell children, the works of Shakespeare, and classic movies of the 20th century. Box office sales and popularity don’t make something a great story; rather, it is the emotions you feel after you hear or read or watch the story.

Stories make us want to be better, to live better lives, and to do heroic things. They enable us to quit our job, to succeed in our career, and to pursue our dreams. They inspire us to love our families more, stand up for truth, and to seek justice.

Good stories are hard to come by today. Some stories rely too much on CGI effects, slick marketing, or celebrity endorsements. But the meat of the story is weak, convoluted, or redundant. And when a good story is discovered, it is milked for all its worth with sequels, movie rights, and merchandising.

inside outInside Out

Fortunately for us, Pixar remains dedicated to the power and impact of story. Sure, they still put out sequels and overdo the merchandising opportunities1 But Pixar is consistently creating original stories that move both the heart and the imagination.

Last night, my wife and I saw Inside Out. This movie will likely go down as one of the top Pixar stories ever, and by far the most emotional. Director Pete Docter—who also helmed 2009’s Up—has a true gift for making animation not only come alive, but to make the animation truly emotional. Who knew that you could come up with a compelling story, and then present that story, almost all of which takes place inside a tween’s mind?

And the Pixar short that came before the movie was just as good. Called Lava, it is a love song from one volcano to another. In just a few minutes, Pixar makes you care for and cheer for a dormant volcano to find love. I never thought I would ever write a sentence like that, but that is the power of story, and ultimately the gift that Pixar has with stories.

lava pixar

  1. After all, they are part of Disney. 

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Living a new life in the midst of the old

Living a New Life in the Midst of the Old

The turning point of the New Testament—and the entire Bible—is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It completely changes things: fishermen turned into preachers and healers; men who once fled now stood up bravely; and Jews and Gentiles are willingly being arrested and killed for their faith. The resurrection of Jesus changes things.

N.T. Wright notes how this change looked for the first century Christians, who were living in the midst of the Roman Empire:

Jesus the Messiah is risen from the dead! A new world has come into being, and within that new world all kinds of new possibilities are now open.

This was the mood in which the early Christians—despite the Roman Empire’s best effort to persecute them and stamp out the movement—began to live lives of generosity, caring for the poor, and tending the sick, including people with whom they had no connection either through family or through work. They realized, as they worshipped the God they saw in Jesus and celebrated his good news, that a new way of being human had been launched. They looked at impossibilities and prayed their way through them. They were mocked and vilified, attacked and driven out of communities. But the work went on. New things happened. People saw the difference. The resurrection of jesus launched a new, and newly integrated, way of life. (Wright, Simply Good News, p. 116, emphasis original).

The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus calls for a new way of living for his followers. There are to reflect new behaviors, living out the character traits of love, compassion, and forgiveness. They are also to put aside the character traits of the former way of living. As Write notes:

All that stood in the way of justice and peace—all the selfish concerns, petty jealousies, ambitions and rivalries and sheer human nastiness—belonged to the old world, to the old age that had been superseded by the new world of Easter. The power of evil that had lent its weight to injustice and oppression for so many centuries had been defeated on the cross. (Wright, 116).

Christ calls his followers to put away the old manner of living and to embrace a life filled with love and compassion. This is what Paul is presenting to his readers in Colossians 3, and it will be the focus of this Sunday’s sermon at North Baptist Church. I’d love for you to join us at 9 am as we look at The Identity & Mindset of a Christian from Colossians 3:1–4.

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Pastoral Thoughts from Binge-Watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Earlier this month Netflix released the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a comedy by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock (the team behind 30 Rock). The show stars Ellie Kemper as Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who was abducted and forced into an apocalyptic cult for 14 years. The first season traces her journey from the bunker—her prison/home for 14 years—to her attempts at fitting in with 21st-century culture in New York City.

My wife and I watched all 13 episodes in the matter of a week—not quite as fast as our binge of Broadchurch—which lead to a few pastoral thoughts. Here’s what I thought after binge-watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:

Our past does not define us.

The whole season revolved around Kimmy Schmidt trying to be known for something other than her past. Refusing to let others know she was one of the Mole Women, she changed her name and hid her past. And on this journey, she learned that she could move on from her past and the sins committed against her. She could live a normal life—or at least attempt to live a normal life.

We have to deal with consequences.

While Kimmy learned that her past did not have to define her, she also learned that she could not completely abandon her past. Towards the end of the season, the show focuses on the trial of Richard Wayne Gary Wanye, the cult leader and Kimmy’s kidnapper. Kimmy wanted no party of the trial, but eventually realized that she had to deal with the consequences. So she went back to the community and testified against her kidnapper.

We need community to survive.

Probably the most endearing attribute of this show is the emphasis of community. In the bunker, Kimmy served as a mother/big sister to the other 3 captives; it was their relationships with each other that allowed them all to endure and survive. Once she got to New York City, Kimmy was removed from that support community. But as the episodes progress, we see that a new support community organically develops around Kimmy: her landlord Lillian, her roommate Titus, her employer Jacqueline Voorhees, and her friend Dong. Together, this community provides Kimmy with the support and love that she needs to survive.

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Journey of Jesus to Jerusalem

Every year I like to read the Gospels in the weeks leading up to Easter. I find this helps me get my focus on the cross and the empty tomb—both of which are central to the Christian story.

As I read through Mark—which reads like an action novel—I noticed how Mark spatially describes Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.

Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27) when he tells his disciples that he will be killed (Mark 8:31-32). This begins the trip to Jerusalem. They head to Capernaum (Mark 9:33) and then made their way south to the region beyond the Jordan (Mark 10:1). The group stops in Jericho (Mark 10:46) and Bethphage (Mark 11:1), before entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mark 11:7-11).

In Luke 9 we see a short yet powerful verse describing this journey:

[Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51)

What both gospel writers are doing—in their own way–is showing that the cross was always a part of the story. It didn’t surprise Jesus; he knew it was his mission and went to Jerusalem willingly.

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The Importance of Story from Shark Tank

Recently I have been getting really into Shark Tank, the reality show where entrepreneurs pitch their business to several billionaires in hopes of getting capital. I enjoy watching the over-the-top personalities, hearing the amazing products and business ideas, and even the bizarre things people do for money. But what I enjoy the most about the show is the importance of a story.

The entrepreneurs that come on this show need to have a viable business—something worth investing in. But increasingly it seems as though the billionaires are investing in the entrepreneurs themselves. And one of the ways these people show they are worth investing in is by highlighting their own story.

Many provide a compelling narrative: filled with perseverance, fortitude, and ingenuity. And many are coming with passion for what they believe in. For these entrepreneurs, they are in the middle of their rags-to-riches journey, and just need some help from one of the sharks to make it.

Here is one of my favorite stories from Shark Tank:

Johnny from Tree-T-Pee provides a very compelling story. Sure his presentation needs work, and he needs guidance from a Shark for running the business, but his story is what is so powerful.

In his presentation, he highlights his inspiration, his motivation (“these are farmers…this is their livelihood”), and his goal (“every tree that goes into the ground should have a Tree-T-Pee”). This story is sticky, tangible, and filled with emotion—all key features to a great and compelling story.

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Pastoral Thoughts from Binge-Watching Broadchurch

This past Saturday afternoon, my wife and I discovered Broadchurch was on Netflix. Broadchurch is an eight-episode BBC television series. This crime drama traces the journey of two detectives as they seek to solve the murder of a young boy in a small, coastal town in England.

Ten hours later, we finished the entire season in one great binge-watching session. Not only is the story good, but the mystery surrounding who killed the little boy is gripping. This small town, rocked by this shocking and senseless murder, grieves even more as seemingly every person in town becomes a suspect at some point

As I watched this season, I couldn’t help but think of a few lessons we could learn from Broadchurch:

Evil is everywhere.

Broadchurch is a small, pleasant coastal town with a very low crime rate. Murders don’t happen in Broadchurch. Everyone in town is shocked when they hear something like this happened in their beloved town.

So is pain and suffering.

As the investigation spreads, we find that everyone is dealing with some form of pain: broken relationships, affairs, drug and alcohol abuse, and significant past mistakes. People are hiding these pains publicly, all while suffering privately.

Accusations and hatred can drive people mad.

Each day the police fail to discover the killer, the town grows increasingly restless. Rumors and false accusations sprout, leading to hatred by the town—and even one angry mob seeking justice (though without the proverbial pitchforks). These accusations and hatred destroyed relationships, drove people mad, and had the possibility of dividing the town forever.

Role of the church.

As a pastor, I was very interested in how the show would portray the local church and vicar (pastor). The vicar was a likable person, and at the beginning of the show he served a central, but minor, role in the town. As the season progressed, the vicar—and the church—took on a more central role in the story. Both provide the community with an opportunity to mourn, to confront, and to begin the process of healing. Without the church in Broadchurch, there would have been a void in the community. That in itself is a great testimony to the role of the church in the 21st century.


Overall, what is most remarkable about Broadchurch is how it captures the human experience. It is not overtly pessimistic or optimistic; it shows the pain and suffering of ordinary life, even if dealing with a extraordinarily tragic event. If season two (premiering in 2015) is anything like this first one, we are in for another good look at the story of this town.

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The Neurology of Stories

neurology of stories

Over at Lifehacker, there is a good post entitled The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains. Written by the co-founder of Buffer, this article pulls together research on neurology of stories, trying to explain how and why stories impact us so much. He sets the stage by posing this simple question:

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie, or simply something one of our friends is explaining to us. But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events?

While much of the research is based on neurology, the impact of stories is not new. A main tenet of Jesus’ teachings was to do it in simple stories that his whole audience could understand. And God’s main form of communication to us today is through the grand storyline of the Bible. He continues to use this story, calling us to play a part. Go figure, the God who wired our brains together knows best how to communicate to those brains for maximum impact!

Be sure to read the whole article to learn how stories impact the brain, as well as how we can use this to better communicate.

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