Saturday, March 26, 2016

He Is Not Here, but Has Risen!

Luke 24:1-12 I remember when my son Jacob was little, he climbed into my lap and asked me, “Dad, how old will I be when you die?”  That’s the world we live in, a world in which little boys have to worry about their dad dying.  And I remember thinking to myself, “Dear Lord, I hope that’s the way it goes!  I hope that I am the one who dies first!”  Because that’s the world we live in—a world where parents have to mourn the loss of their children.
Ever since God pronounced death as his judgment on our sin in the Garden of Eden, there has been an unending stream of humanity being carried along to the grave. 
The Bible says in Romans that “death reigned” from the time of Adam.  But on this Resurrection Sunday, we know that the reign of death has come to an end because Jesus has been raised from the dead and is alive at this moment and promises each of us:  Because I live, you shall live.  The Bible says that:
On the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
            Every funeral is sad.  Jesus wept at the graveside of Lazarus.  Paul says that even we Christians grieve.  But for me, the saddest part of a sad day is when the family and friends of the deceased have to walk away from the grave, leaving their loved ones behind.
That’s where we left these faithful women on Friday evening.  They saw Jesus die a violent, unjust death.  They heard his cries at being forsaken by his Father.  They experienced the most sobering reality of living in a broken world:  watching a chest rise and fall with every breath and beat of a heart—and then, finally, nothing at all, any more. 
Because they were forbidden from caring for Jesus’ body by the Sabbath, they were there at the grave, early in the morning on the first day of the week. 
They loved Jesus.  They wanted to do everything for him that could be done.  Anyone who has planned a funeral knows that feeling—of wanting things to be right—of wanting to show our love, one last time.
And so like every other person who has ever lived, grief marked the lives of those faithful women, death cast its dark shadow over their morning walk, the grave had swallowed up their loved one. 
They came there that morning to do that one last thing that we can do for our loved ones and that is to care for their mortal remains. 
We know from the other Gospel accounts of our Lord’s resurrection that they were worried about who would roll the stone away from the entrance so that they could care for the body of Jesus—but when they got there—the stone was rolled away—and no body was found.  The Bible says that:
While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground,
            I guess they were perplexed about this!  We know how the story goes and so it doesn’t hit us with the same force as it did them.  But imagine going back to the graveside of a loved one whose funeral was the day before, maybe you wanted to retrieve some of the flowers—and not only is there no big pile of dirt, the casket is open and no one is inside! 
Perplexed!  Astonished!  Amazed!  Appalled!  Who can even imagine the range of emotions these women must have felt because if there is one thing we know—one thing that has the witness of countless billions of examples over thousands of years:  those who are buried, stay buried.  But not this day!  The Bible says that:
The men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
            What has been true billions of times over for thousands of years--what every person in the world has experienced—what we know to be true—has been changed forever by the resurrection of Jesus Christ!
Death is no longer an unvanquished enemy.  The grave is no longer the final destination for us.  Futility is no longer the verdict on our lives.  The Suffering Servant who died for our sins on the cross-- is now-- and forever-- the victorious Savior and King.
Thirty or so years before this moment, angels had promised Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth that a Savior would be born—that God himself would come to the aid of his people and that God himself would abide with them forever. 
On the night of the Savior’s birth angels sang his welcome into the world and now on this day when his mighty, saving work was complete—the angels told the simple, earth-shattering message that changes the entire direction of the universe:  He is not here, but has risen.
What Satan and sin destroyed—life and fellowship with God—Jesus restored by his death and resurrection—and with his mighty, nail-scarred living hands he laid hold of the cosmos he created and moved it away from death and destruction and set it on a new course of life.  That is exactly what he promised to do.  The Bible says:
Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.”  And they remembered his words,
            Those wonderful women, as faithful as they were, as much love as they had for Jesus—were just like the disciples and they simply did not believe what Jesus had said. 
Anybody who had been paying attention—anyone who had taken his words seriously and at face value—would have been there at the tomb early on the morning of the first day of the week—not to anoint a corpse—but to welcome a conquering king. 
Jesus had told them what would happen again and again:  rejection, betrayal and death to be sure—but also victory and resurrection. 
Over the previous week they had seen just exactly what Jesus had prophesied:  rejection by his people, betrayal by his friends, death and the hands of his enemies.  Every moment foretold by the Lord.  Faithful, faithful, faithful to his promises as he always is.  But not one of them believed that he would rise from the dead, such is human certainty that death is the end.
But death is not the end!  Not for Jesus and not for us!  Yes, we will experience the separation of our body from our soul just as the Lord did on the cross (unless the Lord comes first).  But the grave did not have the victory over Jesus and the grave will not have the victory over us. 
That was the promise of Jesus and as the angels preached that sermon one more time, the Bible says that the women “remembered” Jesus’ words. 
That doesn’t mean that they had forgotten those words (Jesus had said them on a number of occasions) but in that moment they understood them and called them to mind and they became a new reality in their lives.
So it must be for us!  We have heard the good News of Jesus’ resurrection since we were children but it must become new for us again and again—laying hold of our heart and mind again and again—and moving us to new life again and again-- just like it did for the faithful women that day.  The Bible says that:
Returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
            The greatest story ever told—the story that has the power to change lives for time and eternity-- is told to us one more time so that we would be moved to tell that story to others. 
The Bible says that the Good News of the resurrection is the power of God unto salvation—that if we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him form the dead we will be saved.
So it is for us and so it must before every person in the world if they are to be saved.  The example of the faithful women is a true picture of the church in action, sharing the Good News that sin is forgiven and death is conquered because we have a living Lord.
And yes, just as it was for the women that day so it will be for us.  The Holy Spirit had to do his work in their hearts because they came to the tomb expecting a dead teacher and it was not until the gospel was preached to them that they believed.  When they travelled to tell the disciples the Good News they encountered the same lack of faith.
But there is power in this message of Christ’s victory over the grave---life changing, life giving power—and it is our privilege, our calling, our responsibility to share that Good News even in the face of rejection and ridicule-- for the power of the resurrected Christ is infinitely greater than the unbelief that reigns in men’s hearts.  The Bible says that:
Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
            So it would go over the next hours and days and weeks as hearts that were dead in sin-- and minds that were darkened in unbelief-- were made alive and changed forever by the resurrection of Jesus. 
One by one Jesus’ disciples and friends and family members came to faith—not in a dead teacher—but in a living Lord --and by the time of Pentecost fifty short days later, thousands and thousands of people had been born again to a living hope. 
            Here in Peter we see how that change happened:  Is it possible?  Is it true!  It is!  Why look for the living among the dead?  He is not here because he is risen!  And Peter marveled at this Good News.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we hear this Good News of our Lord’s resurrection, I pray that for each and every one of us today that same amazement and wonder and awe would be restored to us anew and that we would never cease to marvel at the resurrection of Jesus Christ!  Amen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

After Three Days I Will Rise

Matthew 27:62-66 At about 9:00 A.M. on Friday morning nails were driven into Jesus’ hands and feet and he was lifted up upon a cross planted deep into a hill called Golgotha—the place the of the skull.  During the hours that followed he was mocked and ridiculed.
But his saving work still continued.  He forgave those who tormented him and a dying criminal came to faith and was saved from eternal damnation. 
By 12:00 darkness covered the land as the sun refused to shine in the face of its dying Creator.  Three hours later, at about the ninth hour, 3:00 in the afternoon, Jesus said “It is finished”, commended himself into his Father’s hands, and gave up his spirit.
At that moment an earthquake shook the very foundations of the earth and many holy people were restored to life and came out of their tombs and the curtain in the temple that separated God and his people was torn in two from top to bottom.
Several years earlier Jesus said that just as the bronze snake was lifted up in the wilderness so that the people could be saved from the deadly serpent, so the Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever looked to him in faith could have eternal life. 
And then he said the words we all know by heart, the words that caption the scene before our eyes better than any others,
“For God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that whoever believe in his should not perish but have eternal life.”
The man who heard those words was changed forever by those words and was born again just as Jesus said we all must be.  That man was a Pharisee named Nicodemus. 
That Good Friday afternoon, as Jesus was lifted up on a cross, when he had finished his work of salvation and given up his spirit, Nicodemus came to the cross along with Joseph of Arimethea, another prominent Jewish leader who was secretly a follower of Jesus, and they took the body of Jesus and laid it in a tomb and rolled a stone in front of it to seal it. 
As darkness fell on that Friday, the faithful women, sat there in the garden, looking at the tomb of Jesus.  Grief and tears marred their faces.  Very early the next morning:
The chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’
            There was never any doubt about what Jesus taught.  The words themselves were perfectly clear even if people struggled to believe them.  “I will go to Jerusalem, be rejected by own people, be betrayed by my friends, suffer and die and rise again”.  The disciples heard these words.  The faithful women heard these words.  The Jewish leaders heard these words.  And now Pilate heard these words.
There had been other attempts on Jesus’s life.  Attempts to steal him away.  But as he said, “How can it be possible that any prophet would die away from the holy city” and so it was for him that it was there, just outside the walls, that he was crucified and died. 
Despite their pleas to the contrary around the table in the upper room, it was his closest friends who failed him—one who betrayed him and eleven others who either denied him or fled from his side in his hour of need.
And despite the faith of Nicodemus and Joseph, it was the religious leaders of the people of Israel who rejected him and the people of Jerusalem who demanded the release of a murderer and the crucifixion of the holy one of God.  This is what Jesus had promised. 
This is exactly what happened.  It is a tragic irony that these men who came to Pilate early on Saturday morning after the death of Jesus the afternoon before, these men who had hear these words of Jesus and seen them fulfilled, could not see that Jesus was anything but a deceiver or impostor. 
Every word he spoke was true and he was indeed the Christ, the very Son of God just as he had said.
“We remember that he said, I will rise again!”  Can anything more terrible ever have come from the mouth of man than these words if they are not accompanied with faith?  We remember what he said! 
We remember his promise of betrayal and rejection and death and we have been eyewitnesses of it and we still do not believe!  We remember his promise to rise again—this man who never spoke false word—and yet we reject it out of hand.
We remember the promises of Jesus but do not believe!  We remember the words of Jesus and it hardens us in our hatred.  We remember the prophecy of Jesus and it only deepens our fear.
  Brothers and sisters in Christ, there is a profound warning for each of us in the Lenten irony of these words!  We are not immune from the great sin of separating the words of Jesus from the “yes” of our faith. 
We hear his call to forgive others and put him first and cease worrying about the things of this life and we go right on being angry and afraid. 
We hear his promises that we are forgiven and loved and that death is not the end we go right on living under a burden and guilt and shame and fear.
Especially on this most holy day we are to remember the words our Lord Jesus Christ and respond with the “yes” of faith! 
“Father, forgive them.”  “Yes, Lord!  I believe that your shed blood has forgiven my sins and so there is no need for me to go through life feeling guilty and ashamed!”
“It is finished!”  “Yes, Lord!  I believe that what you did on the cross is fully sufficient for my salvation, that it has reconciled me to God and made me part of his family.”
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!”  “Yes, Lord!  I believe that when I depart this life I can do it with courage and confidence, knowing that my heavenly Father will receive me unto himself!”  Yes, Lord, we remember and we believe! 
Those are the words that were missing as Pilate met with the Jewish leaders in one last, failed effort to thwart and undermine the saving will of Jesus.  They said:
Give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” 
I’m not buying it.  I don’t believe for a second the truth of their words that what they were really afraid of was the disciples stealing the body of Jesus and then perpetuating a deception that Jesus had risen from the dead. 
I think that they were deathly afraid that Jesus was who he said he was and he had been telling the truth.
No, how do I square that with what I just said and about them not believing in the promises of Jesus?  Here’s the thing:  fear is not the same as faith.  Their fear that Jesus really was who he said he was, was still not faith in Jesus.
James says that the demons in hell know that there is one God and shudder in fear.  And that demonic fear and hatred is just exactly what is driving the Jewish leaders. 
The Bible tells us that after the resurrection of Lazarus the religious leaders gathered together in fear because they knew if Jesus’ ministry continued in the same way all of the people would follow him and they would lose their place. 
And so they made plans to kill Jesus and Lazarus who they knew had been raised from the dead and they concocted this story about the disciples stealing the body of Jesus to cover their tracks if worse came to worst—which in their minds was Jesus actually being the Savior of the world and rising from the dead just as he said he would do.
But how do we explain that kind of hatred that blinds men to the truth about Jesus? 
Here’s the thing, the victory of Jesus—means defeat for others.  It means the end of Satan’s reign.  It means the end of death’s claim on us.  It means the end of our flesh and sin and self-will.
The victory of Jesus in his resurrection means the end of our puny reign over our petty kingdoms and the absolute necessity to kneel before him in faith and acknowledge him as our King.  But this is the very thing the men who met that morning would not do.
So it still is in our world today with all of those who deny the resurrection of Jesus, hoping upon hope, with every fiber of their being that the resurrection is a deception that is not true and Jesus is a liar who is still dead. 
But none of it will stand in the presence of the living Christ.  Pilate said: 
“Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
            Make a plan.  Concoct a story. Put a seal. Post a guard.  Raise your fist, rant and rage!
Nothing in heaven or earth or under the earth can do one thing to stop the beaten, bloody man of Calvary from doing just exactly what he said he will do:  on third day I will rise!  Amen.