Sunday, April 20, 2014

He is Not Here! He Has Risen!



Matthew 28:1-10 When we plant seeds in our garden we eagerly expect to see, in fairly short order, new life springing up from the ground.  All the way back in Genesis God promised that, While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease”.  Seedtime and harvest shall not cease!
God is faithful to his promises and throughout the years the world he created and called good has performed and provided according to his wise design.  Every farmer or gardener that plants a seed in the ground counts on that promise that seedtime and harvest will not cease.
When Jesus died on the cross, Joseph of Arimethea asked for his body, and along with Nicodemus and the faithful women, prepared his body for burial.  The Bible says that in the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden and in the garden there was a new tomb and they laid Jesus there.  That’s how Good Friday ended…
The Seed of the Woman that God had promised all the way back in the Garden of Eden, the Seed of the Woman who would undo all the destruction that sin and Satan had caused, was laid in the earth—with the harvest God promised still come.  The Bible says that:
…after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
            They went to see the tomb.  Who can blame them?  After we lay our loved ones in the grave none of us returns the next day to see if they have been raised from the dead.  These faithful women remained with Jesus every step of the way that led to the cross and knew he died.
They saw him whipped and beaten and humiliated.  They saw him struggle under the weight of the cross and stumble and fall as he walked through Jerusalem.  They saw the hammer blows drive nails into his hands and feet and they saw a Roman spear thrust into his side. 
They saw him die-- and they handled his dead body and prepared it for burial and watched as it was laid in the tomb and the stone rolled in front of it to seal it off.
There was nothing so certain, so sure in their minds as the death of Jesus.  And early in the morning, on the first day of the week, after the Sabbath rest, they went to see his tomb.  Who can blame them?  Which of us wouldn’t have done the same?  Except…
During his earthly ministry, Jesus told them on a number of occasions just exactly what was going to happen—that his own people would reject him, that friends would betray him, that he would be crucified…and…that he would rise again.  That is a remarkable claim, but…
Had they ever known Jesus NOT to keep his word?  Had they ever once heard falsehood come out of his mouth?  He was faithful to his promises!  And there was more…
A number of times during the previous three years he had raised the dead.  He demonstrated time and again that in his presence death was a defeated enemy. 
In fact, just a week or so before he died, Jesus stood at the grave of Lazarus, dead for days, commanded the grave stone to be rolled away, identified himself as the resurrection and the life and called Lazarus to come forth from his tomb—and he did! 
If anyone had listened to Jesus—if anyone had really thought about his power—if anyone believed in him--they shouldn’t have been traveling to see a tomb—they should have been standing there to welcome their living Lord.  The Bible says that:
There was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
            When God promised that seedtime and harvest would never cease, that promise was true.  But what was also true is that sin has undermined that promise. 
Every year throughout the world, there is seedtime and harvest-- but there are also places where there are floods and hail and droughts.  Seedtime and harvest fail in those places.  Sin has destroyed what was once a perfect creation.  The Bible says that:  the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 
That is exactly what happened early in the morning on the first day of the week.  Creation herself, ruined by Adam’s sin, groaned—she could not remain silent in the presence of her Redeemer just as she could not let the light of the sun shine while the Light of the World died on the cross.  Creation herself testified to the death and resurrection of her Creator.
Along with the earthquake, an angel of the Lord appeared to announce that Jesus had been raised and with his resurrection the defeat of Satan and redemption of man.  How the angels must have longed for this day!
The angels had been there in the garden when God’s judgment was announced—they saw death enter the world—and they were appointed as guards to keep Adam and Eve out of the Garden and away from the tree of life. 
Throughout salvation history the angels executed God’s judgment and comforted God’s people and proclaimed that salvation had come with the birth of Jesus.  They worked with God every step of the way as he patiently carried out his plan of salvation and now they were here in the Garden of Glory to see it accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus. 
After the angels appeared to Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph--after they sang praises to the newborn king--after they strengthened Jesus in the wilderness and comforted him in Gethsemane --what a blessing it must have been to see the Seed of the Woman burst forth from the grave with new life for the world!
They rolled away the stone so that the women- and the disciples who followed them- and every person down through history from that moment on could look inside and see that Jesus had conquered death and the grave just as he promised he would.  The Bible says that at this announcement:  the guards trembled and became like dead men.
            Such are the enemies of God in the face of the risen Christ.  The world’s most powerful rulers.  The fiercest pagan tribes.  The most evil empires.  All of them have been conquered one by one by the humble, gentle man of Galilee—simply by his almighty Word of life. 
What was the Roman Empire or the barbarian tribes or Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union compared to the risen Christ?  They had soldiers- and the weapons of war- and the power of the law- and the media on their side- but one by one they were conquered by the message of the cross and empty tomb:  it is finished and Christ is risen!
            It is this Good News of Christ, crucified and risen, that still has the power to defeat our enemies and conquer our fears and give us a new life filled with witness and worship and hope.  The angel said:
Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
            From that moment on every one of us has been commissioned to be a witness for Jesus Christ, telling what we have seen and heard and its power in our lives. 
The faithful women told the disciples and the disciples shared that message, beginning first in Jerusalem and then throughout the Roman Empire.  Those who followed the apostles have shared that message wherever they have gone down to this place and the people assembled here today.
 The faithful women never made it Kingsville, Texas.  But we have-- and we are commissioned in exactly the same way as they were to tell those around us the Good News that in Jesus Christ we have forgiveness for our sins and the promise of a new life that death will not end so that those who hear us can worship the Lord.  The Bible says that:
Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him.
            The response of the faithful women was the most natural thing in the world.  How could they not worship the One who died for them and conquered death for them by his own resurrection?  Could anything be more important in that moment than their worship?!
For those who have put their faith and trust in the work of Jesus Christ—for those who find their salvation at the cross and empty tomb--how can we not worship?  How can we not cast ourselves at Jesus feet to thank and praise him for who he is and what he has done? 
We were made for the worship of God and he is worthy of that worship and his people will spend eternity worshiping in his presence.  Jesus said to them:  “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
            That is a promise for us too!  We will see Jesus just as surely as did the faithful women and we will see our fellow Christians who have gone before.
Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, death and the grave have no power over us!  He is the first-fruits of an entire harvest of people who will rise from their graves to live new and glorious lives like his own, never to die again. 
            Here is the Garden of Glory there is an incredible harvest of God’s blessings for us.  There is the assurance that Jesus will keep his promises to us.  All of them!  There is confidence that, just as God has wisely worked out his perfect plan of salvation for the world, so he is wisely working salvation in our lives, no matter what hardship we endure.  There is a life of meaning and value here on earth that is filled with the worship of Jesus and our witness to him.  And finally there is the hope we have of another life to come. 
            Everything that was lost in the Garden of Eden has been regained here in the Garden of glory by the one who conquered death and the grave this Easter Day.  Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Golgotha



Matthew 27:33 In the beginning there was a garden.  It was a place of beauty and wonder and goodness.  It was fresh and new.  There was no ugliness.  No lack.  No hunger or violence or want.  In a world that God called into being and called “good”-- this garden was even more.  It was the place where God dwelt with man.  They lived in perfect fellowship with one another.  No barrier between them.  No hard feelings, guilt or shame.
            In this garden were two special trees.  There was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And there was the Tree of Life.  Both of these trees worked in perfect agreement with their names because God himself promised that they would.  The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil provided that knowledge-- and the Tree of Life gave life, full, unending, eternal life.  God’s Word attached to those trees gave them their power.
Dwelling there with God in the garden was man:  Adam and Eve.  God loved them.  He provided for them.  He wanted to protect them from anything that would harm them.  And so he gave them his law:  you must not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil for the day you eat of it you will die. 
You know the rest of the story.  You can tell it as well as I can.  What we struggle to understand is what they did what they did.  In a perfect world, where they dwelt with God, when they had everything they could possible need, why on earth would they reach out their hand to what God had forbidden, take of it, and eat? 
Part of that answer of course is the devil.  He was there at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, contradicting everything that God had said.  “There is no curse here!  There is no loss here!  There is only gain!  You will be like God!”
That is part of the answer of why Adam and Even did what they did—but it is only part.  The other part of the answer is found in themselves:  ears that were willing to listen to the devil, eyes that were willing to look on forbidden things, hands that were willing to take what didn’t belong to them, and hearts that strayed from a God who loved them and desired to bless them.
When we think about what happened in the garden that way, then it begins to make a lot more sense.  We begin to see our story in their story.  Eyes and ears—hearts and hands-- that disobey.  We understand THAT story, don’t we?  We know how that story goes.
Adam and Eve took fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and ate.  The tree worked just exactly how God promised it would:  there was knowledge of good and evil but what a terrible curse that knowledge was! 
They knew that God was good in a way that they could never be—in a way they never could have imagined.  And they knew that they were evil—evil in a way they never could have imagined—evil-- like the one who tempted them, promising that they would be like God—but giving them instead a hateful, evil image like his own. 
Their disobedience destroyed God’s creation.  Life was replaced with death—beauty with ugliness.  Fellowship with God became fear of God.
There was another tree there.  The Tree of Life.  That tree had a promise of God attached to it as well.  It would give life.  Eternal, unending life.  If Adam and Eve had eaten of that tree they would have lived forever-- for God’s promise is true.  But they would have lived forever as they were:  broken, sinful, alienated from God and allied with the devil.
And so God cast them out of the garden to keep them from that terror.  You see he still loved them.  Despite their sin.  Despite their disobedience.  Despite what they had done to his world.  God loved them.  He cast them out from the garden to keep them from the tree of life and he promised that he would make things right once again—that he would send the Seed of the Woman to save the world.  He sealed that promise with the shedding of blood.
We can picture Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden.  But what I want you to picture, is the line of people who followed them.  Their children, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and more and more.  An unimaginably long, sad line of people going forth throughout history, bearing Adam’s curse, cast out of God’s presence.
That sad line of people, if we are following it in our mind’s eye, brings us to another place—a place called Golgotha.  We call it a garden in keeping with our theme—but it was nothing like the Garden of Eden.  It was a place of ugliness.  A place of death.  A rough, rocky outcropping shaped like a skull where crucifixions were carried out. 
Golgotha is where that sad like of broken humanity stretching back to Adam and Eve had finally come—a place of death—just like God promised.
There was a man in this Garden of Golgotha—a man who looked nothing like Adam in all his glory.  This man had suffered such a horrendous beating that no one could bear to look at him.  His face was so disfigured by the blood from the thorns on his head and the brokenness of his beating that even his friends could not recognize him.  Nails had been driven into his hands and feet.  Every breath was agony.
There were other people there too.  That long, sad, ugly line of people that went all the way back to Eden had continued along the Via Dolorosa and then out through the gates of Jerusalem and made its way up to this hill of death called the skull. 
There were religious leaders who should have had words of life on their lips but were agents of death.  There were soldiers whose life’s work was death.  There were criminals whose deeds were worthy of death.  There were loved ones of the condemned whose broken hearts already mourned his death.  Death.  Death.  Death.
What made this scene even more horrible was that the One who was beaten and shamed and crucified was completely different than every other person in that sad line of humanity stretching forth from Eden. 
He was innocent of any wrong-doing.  He was holy and sinless.  He deserved nothing that had happened to him.  It was the height of injustice that he had been sentenced to death.  He shouldn’t have been in that line of broken humanity at all—except that he chose to be there. 
As we gaze upon that scene—as our eyes follow that sad line of broken, sinful, dying humanity that stretches forth from the Garden of Eden throughout history right up to the cross and the death of this holy, innocent, sinless man—we might think to ourselves:  this is the end—it simply cannot get worse than this--this is the culmination of ugliness and sin—this is the undeniable fulfillment of God’s terrible wrath over what man has done.
And we would be right.  The death of this holy, innocent man is the culmination of evil.  It is the fulfillment of God’s wrath.  It is the inescapable end of human sin. 
But that is NOT ALL it is!  It is also a beginning.  This place is a new start for mankind.  You see, the one who hung there on that cross, the innocent, sinless man who shed his life’s blood there, is the Seed of the Woman that God promised back in the Garden of Eden.
Into the ground of Golgotha (whose very name means death) Jesus Christ, the Seed of the Woman, the One who is life in himself-- was planted into a place of death.  He is that single grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies—and yet—from which, springs abundant life.
That is why we CAN call this place of death the GARDEN of Golgotha—because the beginnings of a new Eden were planted there.  In this Garden of Golgotha there is a tree—the tree of the cross.  Back in Eden there were two trees:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life.  Here in the Garden of Golgotha only one tree is needed for both.
At the tree of the cross is the knowledge of good and evil.  We see there, as in no other place, just exactly what our sins have done—their evil—their ugliness.  We see there, as in no other place, the goodness of God and the holiness and sinlessness of Jesus, that even when he was being treated in such an evil fashion the only words that came from his lips were words of forgiveness- and care-and trust in his heavenly Father.
The tree of the cross not only shows us good and evil.  It is also the tree of life.  Life is promised there.  Rich, abundant, everlasting life that comes through the promises God has attached to the cross.  Where before man was forbidden to touch the tree of life because of his sins, now God invites us to lay hold of it by faith and live forever because we are forgiven. 
We should also be aware that just as in Eden so at Golgotha, the devil is there with his lies.  His voice is heard in the scorners and mockers who stood there at the tree of the cross.  “He saved others, let him save himself!”  “If you come down from the cross, then we will believe!”
The devil’s mocking, scornful voice is heard throughout the world today, tempting us this time to refuse to take hold of the tree of life that God calls us to in the cross.
The Bible says that:  They came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull).  There was a procession of people who walked with Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, out through the city gates, to the place called the skull. 
Some of them ridiculed him.  Some mourned him.  Some would not desert him even in death.  Some crucified him.  One helped him carry the cross. Some who left Golgotha that day remained unbelievers.  Some who came there as God’s enemies left as his children.
That procession of people is part of the great stream of humanity that came forth from Eden and through Golgotha.  We too are a part of that group.  We came out of the Garden of Eden but what matters now is who we are when we leave the Garden of Golgotha.  Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The True Vine and His Fruitful Branches



John 15:1-5 When we think about Maundy Thursday we naturally think about the institution of the Lord’s Supper and it is right to think that way.  How can we ever thank God enough for the gifts of forgiveness and salvation that Jesus gives to us with his body and blood?  But there is much more that happens in the Upper Room than just the Lord’s Supper. 
Before the supper began, Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.  And when he had finished he asked them,
Do you understand what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.
The disciples were willing enough call Jesus Master and Teacher but they constantly struggled with what that meant in terms of their life with others.  They were concerned for themselves and their honor and place and status more than they were concerned for others. 
By washing their feet, the One they called Master and Teacher was trying to show them that acknowledging him as their Savior and Lord meant doing good for others.  Serving others was what he had come to do and those who were his disciples were to follow his example.
But where would they find the strength to live that kind of life that was concerned for others and full of good works? 
That is why Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper—so that his life would become a part of our life—so that his body and blood shed on the cross for the sake of others would strengthen us to offer our lives to serve others—so that we could receive his forgiveness for all those times we are more concerned about ourselves than those around us.
To understand the connection between his life of sacrifice and our life of service Jesus promised to pray for all who would follow him as Lord and Savior and he told them a parable about how our lives that are connected to his life produce the fruit of good works.  Jesus said:  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser…and you are the branches.
The picture that Jesus paints is simplicity itself and if you have ever been to a winery or driven past an orchard one you can picture in your mind’s eye exactly what Jesus is talking about.  There is a sturdy root stock planted in the ground from which grow lush green branches and hanging on those branches are bunches of grapes.  The disciples were surrounded by this very thing as they went from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane.  
But Jesus is not just one among many vines—he is the true vine.  It has become popular in our day to talk about many ways leading to God-that what really matter is the destination-- and there are many ways to get there.
The Bible knows nothing of this.  Jesus is the True Vine.  He is the way and the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father apart from him.  The Father is the vinedresser or gardener or farmer.  We who believe in Jesus Christ are the branches.  We draw our life from Jesus and we are only a part of the God’s kingdom because we are connected to Jesus.
And because we are connected to him, God expects that our lives would be fruitful unto good works.  Jesus says:  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit the Father takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
When we plant our gardens and when a farmer plants his fields the entire point of the endeavor is fruitfulness.  Nobody plants a tomato cultivar that is fruitless.  Nobody plants cotton for the foliage.  The purpose is fruit.
Our heavenly Father expects the fruit of good works from the lives of his people.  Those branches that do not bear fruit—the Father removes and piles together to be burned.  But those branches that do bear fruit, God continues to prune and shape us so that we become even more fruitful in lives of service and sacrifice and good works. 
That pruning takes place as we hear his Word.  It takes place as God directs and shapes us through the circumstances and struggles of life.  Pruning is necessary for fruitfulness.
If you have ever been to an orchard you see just how true this is.  Fruit producing trees and grape vines are dramatically pruned each year.  To the untrained eye it may seem as if the trees have been harmed.  But that pruning is necessary if the plants are to be fruitful. 
We see this principle at work in the disciples.  Judas was one of the twelve but he did not produce the fruits of faith and he was removed.  Peter and the others would undergo severe pruning in the hours and days that followed as they discovered that they were not as fruitful as they thought they were.  As we look at what they became after the Pentecost we can see the value of this work in their lives and their fruitful ministries.
When we undergo that pruning in our lives—whether it is by the word that rebukes us for our sins or whether it is by the circumstances of life that shape us into to better Christians-- we ought not give into despair or think that somehow God has abandoned us. 
In those moments he is continuing the work he has already begun when he declared us his own.  Jesus promises us that:  Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.
            The Bible uses all kinds of different words and pictures to describe our relationship with God.  We are right in his sight.  We are forgiven.  We are his children.  We have peace with God.  And here Jesus says that we are clean. 
All of these words and pictures are simply ways to talk about our life with God and they all describe the same thing:  that by virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection our sins have been taken away.  Our selfishness.  Our lack of good works.  All of it is washed clean by the shed blood of Jesus on the cross. 
That Good News was first spoken about us when were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.  We hear this Good News preached in church.  And we hear it as we receive Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. 
Faith comes to us and is sustained in us by hearing this Good News that we are cleansed by the blood of Jesus and forgiven of our sins and members of God’s family.  This is our status before God and Jesus wants to make sure that we remain that way.  He says:  Abide in me, and I in you.
            The Gospel Word that has promised us that we are the forgiven children is the same Gospel Word that keeps us connected to Jesus.  Through Word and Sacrament the Holy Spirit has cleansed us of our sins and through Word and Sacrament the Holy Spirit continues to work in our lives, strengthening our faith and empowering us for good works.
When Jesus says “abide in me” he is not just saying stay close to me—but stay connected to me—live in me and me live in you.  That “connectedness and life” we especially experience in Holy Communion where we not only hear his promise that his life is given and his blood is shed for us—but we also receive his real presence.  That can only be found in Holy Communion. 
It is not an accident that these words about vines and branches and the fruit of good works and living in Jesus and Jesus in us are spoken in connection with the Lord’s Supper for this is the means of grace that Jesus himself instituted so that we can remain fruitful Christians throughout our life.  Jesus says:
As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches.
            It is self-evident that if a branch is no longer connected to the trunk and the root it cannot bear fruit.  It has to stay connected to its source of life.  So it is in our life of faith. 
Far too many people think that if they were confirmed once upon a time or attended Sunday School as a child or even attend church on Easter or Christmas, that this is enough to keep them fruitful Christians.  But that is simply not so!  Branches don’t bear fruit if they are cut off from the root and Christians don’t bear fruit if they are cut off from Christ. 
We must stay connected to Christ to bear the fruit of faith and good works and that happens as we hear his Word and receive his real presence in Holy Communion.  Only in this way can we have the rich, abundant life with God that Jesus came to give.  He says:
Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
            All of us want to live a fruitful Christian life.  We want our faith to be strong.  We want the peace that passes all understanding.  We want to have a deep prayer life and less worries and more courage to face the challenges of life.
            That is exactly what Jesus promises.  Whoever abides in me and I in him bears MUCH FRUIT.  That promise encourages us to attend worship and study our bibles and receive Holy Communion and pray regularly so that we live in Christ and Christ lives in us.
But there is also a warning here.  Failure to abide in Christ doesn’t just undermine our Christian faith—it kills it.  Jesus says:  the one who does not abide in me can do nothing!  Nothing.  Not even believe-- much less live a fruitful Christian life.
Tonight we have an opportunity to receive Jesus Christ who comes to us under bread and wine, giving us his own body and blood so that our lives would be like his life—fruitful unto good works.  Amen.