The 2 Most Important Words in the Bible

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!easter angel

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my goal today is to convince you that the 2 most important words in the Bible are found in the Gospel reading for today.

In fact, in confirmation class, when I teach on the New Testament, I ask my students to guess what those two most important words might be, and if they can guess it, they will win a prize. Now the rule is that they have to be successive words in the Bible. They can’t just be two words pulled out of different books or chapters, like “grace” and “Jesus.” They usually come up with some pretty good guesses. Inevitably, “Jesus wept” is guessed because of its familiarity. But that’s not it. I had one student guess “By grace,” and that was probably one of the best guesses. It’s hard to top that.

But I believe that there are two words that do top it, and I always do a big reveal in class, but for you, I have already given the answer away. Not only did I say that the words are found in the Gospel reading for today, but they are in fact the title of my sermon- “And Peter.” And Peter? Yes, and Peter from Mark 16:7 “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.”

Transition: The big question obviously is: “Why are these the two most important words in the Bible?” Now I’ve got to make my case.

Consider what happened just a few days before Jesus’ resurrection.

Let’s start on Thursday evening after the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples were on their way to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. This is from Mark 14. And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.

Fast forward now to verse 43 in Mark 14. And immediately, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 45 And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 46 And they laid hands on him and seized him. 47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 48 And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” 50 And they all left him and fled. The first part of Jesus’ prediction comes true. Peter and the other disciples fall away.

Fast forward once again to verses 66-72. And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

peter roosterPeter denies Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. He doesn’t just deny following Jesus. He denies even knowing Jesus. And the rooster crows. Despair and dread fills Peter as he realizes that he has done exactly what Jesus predicted, exactly what he had emphatically promised would not happen.

Despite his best efforts, despite his promises and convictions, despite his well-meaning words, when His Lord needed him the most, he denied that he even knew him. He had let Jesus down and now Jesus was going to die. He had let fear overcome his convictions.

Fast forward to Easter morning. “Jesus is risen. He is not here.” The angel announces to the women. “Now go and tell his disciples and Peter to meet him in Galilee just as he said that night in the Garden.”

I want you to imagine the scene in the Upper Room before the resurrection announcement. The disciples are hiding in fear and in sorrow. I picture Peter sitting by himself in a corner- still despairing and mourning, not just about Jesus’ death but about his denial.

Suddenly the women burst through the door with amazing, unbelievable news! Jesus is risen! And he want his disciples and Peter to meet him in Galilee.

Now imagine if both the angels and the women had merely said “the disciples” without the additional “and Peter.” How do you think Peter would have reacted to their announcement? It would have been easy for him to conclude that he was not included in the invitation, that he no longer deserved to be called a disciple. Sure, the other disciples had run away from Jesus too, but only Peter had denied Jesus three times. The announcement that Jesus is alive might not be heard as good news to Peter. “Jesus is alive? Oh no! He was right all along. He truly is the Son of God, and I denied him. I rejected him. He won’t want me anymore.”

Instead though, imagine Peter sitting in that corner by themselves listening in as the women tell the story of the empty tomb and the angel. And the angel said, “He is risen. He is not here. Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee.”

And Peter? Did Peter hear that right? Did you just say “and Peter?” Jesus wants me? Even though I denied him three times? Even thought I let fear and doubt overcome my faith and conviction? Jesus, the Lord of all, still wants me to be his disciple?

In that moment, the power of God’s forgiveness became very real to Peter. In John’s Gospel, he records that Peter, upon hearing the women, races to the tomb to see it for himself. Could it be true? Jesus is alive? And he still loves his disciples and Peter? Me?

Do you see now why these two words are the most important words in the Bible? Do you see how this is Good News, the greatest news, no matter what your name is?

After all, how many of you can identify with Peter’s fear and denial? I’m going to venture a guess that all of you have acted like Peter many times over, and I’m including myself in that.

We have all denied our Lord Jesus over and over again in our thoughts, words, and actions.

In our Rite of Confirmation, we ask our confirmands some tough questions.

“Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?”

“Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, even to death?”

“Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”

How many of you have stood in this church and promised to continue steadfast in your church attendance, in your godly living, in your confession of faith, rather than fall away from it? Maybe you didn’t quite have the passion of Peter, but you promised, “I do so intend by the grace of God!”

How many times have you also made promises to God privately? You resolve to do better in your Christian life. I am going to read God’s Word regularly. I am going to go to church more often. I am going to quit that habitual sin. I am going to stand up for what I believe and even witness to my friends and neighbors. I can’t even remember all the promises I have made to God, and like Peter, had every intention of following through on.

broken promisesAnd then I failed. Over and over again. I failed to keep my promises and convictions. I failed to follow Jesus and walk in his ways and live according to God’s Word. I failed to read God’s Word and pray according to the schedule I made. I chickened out and didn’t share God’s Word to someone who desperately needed to hear it. I am Peter.

And if you are honest with yourself, you will admit that you, too, are Peter. Probably more often than you want to admit. You are, like Peter, a denier of Jesus. You see, every temptation to sin is, at its root, a temptation to disbelieve the Gospel. John Calvin once said, “Christian are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief.” We sin when we are dissatisfied with the all-satisfying Christ, when we do not fear, love and trust in him above all things. Every time we sin, we deny Jesus the rightful place in our life.

Peter denied Jesus out of fear of the consequences of following Jesus, that he might be treated just like Jesus was and put to death. He doubted Jesus’ words of promise that he would rise again and that he is Resurrection and the Life for all who believe in him. When he was confronted with his sin and disobedience and unfaithfulness, he broke down and wept bitterly. He had failed. What hope was there for him? What hope is there for us?

Then came the Good News declared by the angels that changed Peter’s life and changes your life too. The Good News that is not just for those had not denied Jesus. It is Good News for them, and Peter, and you.

Despite his denial, his unbelief, his sin and failure, Jesus loved Peter and wanted him as a disciple. He forgave and restored him. Jesus died and rose again for Peter. That Good News was delivered to him personally. And Peter. There was no doubt. The Good News of forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection was for him! His very name was spoken.

You have that same confidence. The same Good News delivered to Peter is also delivered to you personally.

Fittingly, it is delivered by Peter in Acts 2. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter preaches a sermon. He concludes with this, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

You crucified Jesus. Your sins put him on the cross. Peter knew that his sins had put Jesus on the cross. And like Peter, the crowd, upon realizing their sin, were cut to the heart and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter got to deliver the same Good News that was delivered to him on Easter morning. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” For you! For me? A denier? A promise breaker? A sinner? Yes, for you!

baptism called by nameAnd in Holy Baptism, God spoke your name and washed your sins away. I have called you by name. You are mine. You were buried into death with Jesus and raised to a new life in him and became his disciple. In the Lord’s Supper, you hear the words of Jesus repeated, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” For me? Yes, you, as often as you need it, forgiveness is yours. Take and eat. Take and drink. Be forgiven. Be strengthened by my death and resurrection for you.

Have I convinced you? The two most important words in the Bible are “and Peter” because you can insert your own name in Peter’s place and have the confidence that Jesus died for you and rose from the dead for you. He comes to meet you in His Word, in baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper to declare that he loves you and forgives you and that he can still use you as his disciple no matter what. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! For you. For me. And Peter. Alleluia! Amen.

Apparently there is a Skit Guys sketch on this very topic that I was unaware of until my sister was actually able to guess the two words because she had seen their video. They do a great job of highlighting God’s grace as well. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhoFEuw2GPA

 

 

Advertisements

Sunday School Stories: Daniel and the Lions’ Den

This is the first sermon in a series I am doing in the month of July.

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

For the next 4 weeks, I’m going to be preaching on stories in the Old Testament that you probably remember learning about in Sunday School and reading about in children’s books. But we don’t talk about them in church very often. These stories don’t show up in our regular Old Testament readings. So unless you are an avid and faithful Bible reader, you have not thought about many of these Old Testament characters and stories very often. You probably know the structure and basic plot points, but you might not really think that it has any meaning or significance for your life today. Well, I hope to change that idea. As Paul tells young Timothy, All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16)

When you do read the Old Testament, there is one concept to keep in mind as you try to figure out what it means. This is a principle for interpreting the Bible. It is a rule given by Jesus Himself in Luke 24. Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection and says to them: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”

So what is the principle for reading the Old Testament? Everything in the Bible is primarily about Jesus. We have this tendency to put ourselves in those Old Testament stories and make them about us. And certainly there are things we can learn and apply to our lives from the great examples of faith found in the Old Testament. However, first and foremost, everything and everyone in the Old Testament points to Jesus: his life, death and resurrection. So that’s the principle we will work with the next 4 weeks. These stories ultimately point to Jesus. And because everything Jesus did, he did for you, these stories in the Old Testament do have great meaning and significance in your life.

So let’s look at our first Sunday School story: Daniel in the Lions’ Den from Daniel 6. We need to set up the story to begin with. At this time in history, many of God’s chosen people are in exile from the Promised Land. You have to remember that the nation of Israel was split into two kingdoms years ago after the reign of Solomon. Israel was the northern kingdom and had fallen to the Assyrians already. The southern kingdom was called Judah, and the city of Jerusalem with the temple, was located there. The people of Judah had been warned by prophets for many years to repent and turn from their idolatry. But they did not. They continued to rebel against the one true God despite the predictions of doom on the horizon if they continued in their evil ways. Finally, the Babylonians, under King Nebuchadnezzar, began to attack Jerusalem. They were, at first, partially successful and took many captives back to Babylon. One of the captives, or exiles, was Daniel. (Eventually, the Babylonians would conquer and destroy Jerusalem.)

Exile was a terrible punishment for these people. They were taken out of the Promised Land that God gave them because they broke the covenant. They were cut off from the temple where God had promised to dwell. They were in a foreign land with foreign customs and foreign gods. This was a challenging time for the chosen people of God as they were confronted by the drastic consequences of their unfaithfulness and sin.

Yet many of these exiles continued to love and serve Yahweh, the God of Israel. Daniel is a wonderful example of how God can turn any bad situation into something good. Daniel distinguished himself among no only the Jews but also the Babylonians. He was wise and discerning, and God gave him the ability to interpret the dreams of the king of Babylon which put Daniel in a place of high favor and authority.

By the time we get to Daniel 6, we have already gone through a couple of Babylonian kings. Nebuchadnezzar is gone as is a king named Belshazzar. King Darius is on the throne. So let’s look at the text of Daniel 6. 

It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom 120 princes, to be throughout the whole kingdom; 2 and over them three high officials, of whom Daniel was one, to whom these princes should give account, so that the king might suffer no loss. 3 Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other high officials, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. 4 Then the high officials sought to find a ground for complaint against Daniel with regard to the kingdom, but they could find no ground for complaint or any fault, because he was faithful, and no error or fault was found in him. 5 Then these men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.”

Daniel was going to be a powerful man. This sparked some jealousy among the Babylonians, who no doubt were not happy that foreigner, a captive, was in this position of power over them. They knew Daniel continued to worship his god, so they wanted to use that against him. So they go to King Darius to set Daniel up.

Then these high officials and princes came by agreement to the king and said to him, “O King Darius, live forever! 7 All the high officials of the kingdom are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions. 8 Now, O king, establish the injunction and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed.”  Therefore King Darius signed the document and injunction.

What does Daniel do? Verse 10: When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously. Daniel does not fear the lions’ den. He fears his God more and gives him the honor that he is due despite what the consequences might be. Sure enough, Daniel’s enemies are spying on him. They go to King Darius and tell him that Daniel is breaking the law that he instituted. Darius is very upset by this because he is very fond of Daniel. He realizes he has been tricked, but his hands are tied. The law is the law. We continue with verse 16.

Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” 17 And a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. 18 Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no diversions were brought to him, and sleep fled from him. 19 Then, at break of day, the king arose and went in haste to the den of lions. 20 As he came near to the den where Daniel was, he cried out in a tone of anguish. The king declared to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” 21 Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever! 22 My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no harm.” 23 Then the king was exceedingly glad, and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. 24 And the king commanded, and those men who had maliciously accused Daniel were brought and cast into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. And before they reached the bottom of the den, the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.

God delivered Daniel from death and destroyed his enemies instead. Even in exile, God still cares for and protects his chosen people.

Now that we have reviewed this story, what does Daniel in the Lions’ Den have to say to us today? And also, how does it point to Christ?

As the people of God today, chosen by God to inherit the Promised Land and eternal life, set apart by our baptism into Christ in order to be a light to the nations, what are we to do with the great Old Testament story of Daniel and the Lions’ Den? Can we look to the person of Daniel as an example of great faith? Can we point to him and say, “That is what a Christian should look like!”? Certainly we can- as long as we admit that we fall well short of Daniel’s example of courage and faith.

You see, one thing I have learned from this story is that a Christian should expect to be in the lions’ den. Not only should we expect it, we should rejoice in it and embrace it. You heard me correctly. We get a reminder of this in 2 Corinthians 12.Paul writes, For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. In other words, I am content… in the lions’ den! How many times does Paul say he rejoices in his sufferings? Remember when he and Silas were thrown into prison for preaching the Gospel? What did they do? They sang praises to God! I can imagine Daniel doing the same thing in the lions’ den.

How many of you would do the same thing in these types of situations? Well, I believe that you have plenty of opportunities. Like the Babylonian leaders who sought to get rid of Daniel, we should expect the world to scheme against us, to try to destroy us, to put out the light of the Gospel, and to keep us from praying and worshiping the one true God. This world will insult you, laugh at you, tell you that you’re a hateful bigot for your faith. We should expect all of this. For the devil prowls around like roaring lion looking for someone, like you, to devour.

Brothers and sisters, if you don’t feel like you’re in the lions’ den being attacked on all sides, perhaps you should ask yourself, why not? After all, that’s part of the packaged deal you get when you follow Christ.If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Come into the lions’ den, Jesus invites you. But no, you don’t want to go there.

I’m reminded of a story of a young man who just graduated high school. He grew up in a strong Christian home and went to church every week. He was going to spend his whole summer away from home working in a logging camp. Well, his father knew what type of men worked at the logging camp, so before his son left, he sat him down and said, “Son, I’m excited for this opportunity you have this summer. But I want to warn you that when these men find out that you are a Christian, they will not make life easy for you. They will probably laugh at you and make fun of you and try to destroy your faith. They might treat as an outcast because you are a Christian.” So the boy went off for the summer, and when he returned he was much stronger and more mature and had many stories to tell. He was telling his dad about his experiences and then says to him, “Oh, and Dad, you never had to worry about me being persecuted by my co-workers. They never even find out that I was a Christian!”

Like that boy, you want to avoid the lions’ den at all cost. You will bow down and worship the one true God when it is convenient for you- like right now for example. But the rest of the week? Well, you don’t want to cause any trouble by standing up for the truth of God. When the world tells you to keep your mouth shut about the Gospel, you listen and obey. When it tells you to worship at the altar of self interest and individualism, you gladly comply. You’ve got to look out for yourself after all. You want a Christianity without the hardships, the persecutions, the calamities that Paul talks about. Brothers and sisters, you are no Daniel.

Thanks be to God that someone greater than Daniel has come along! Remember that we are operating on Jesus’ own principle that everything in the Scriptures, including the book of Daniel, points to Jesus- his life, death and resurrection. So what does Daniel in the Lions’ Den have to do with Jesus? And how does it impact you?

First of all, Jesus willingly went into exile. Jesus left the comforts of heaven to become fully human and live on this earth. He came not because he had rebelled. He came for those who had rebelled. He came for you.

Second of all, Jesus was also plotted against in secret by his enemies who sought to destroy him. Jesus made quite a few enemies while on earth. But he never backed down from proclaiming God’s Word. He continued to speak the truth about the kingdom of God in love. And he did it for you. But human hearts are opposed to the things of God, and by nature we hate them. Jesus’ words and actions planted faith in the hearts of many, but many were turned off by his message.

Third, Jesus was sentenced to death. Like Daniel’s enemies, Jesus’ conspirators were successful in their plot. Jesus was betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He was given an unfair trial. He was mocked and laughed at. He was beaten and flogged. He was led to his lions’ den, the cross. And unlike Daniel, Jesus did die on the cross. God the Father did not save him from death. He forsook him. Jesus did all of this for you.

Fourth, Jesus is the true and greater Daniel because he rose from the dead and defeated his enemies and your enemies. I mentioned before that Daniel 6 doesn’t come up in our regular Scripture readings. In fact, Daniel 6 is scheduled to be read every year for the Easter Vigil service. What’s that? It is the service that many churches have on the Saturday evening before Easter Sunday. It is the day between Good Friday and Easter. Why read Daniel 6 on this day? Because Daniel in the Lions’ Den foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection.

Think about it. Daniel was put into the lions’ den to die. A stone was rolled over what was supposed to be his grave, and the king’s signet sealed his tomb. But the next day, the stone was rolled away, and Daniel was alive. He was found blameless in God’s eyes, and so God shut the mouths of the lions. Then his enemies were thrown into the lions’ den instead and were killed.

In Jesus’ case, he was already dead when he was placed into his tomb. And they made the tomb secure by sealing it and placing guards around it. Three days later, the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was found alive! God the Father also found Jesus blameless and raised him from the dead. Through his resurrection, Jesus’ enemies and your enemies were put to death and defeated! Sin, death and the devil were the ones who were ultimately destroyed.

Daniels in the Lions’ Den points us forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a preview of God’s ultimate triumph over all the forces of evil. It is a preview of your triumph one day as a follower of Jesus when the grave, the lions’ den, will not hold you down. You too will emerge from the lions’ den victorious over sin, death and the devil when Christ returns on the Last Day.

Jesus went into the lions’ den for you so that you would have nothing to fear. The devil, that roaring lion, means deadly woe, but you tremble not! For Christ is your protector and Savior! When you suffer in the lions’ den for the sake of Christ, you suffer with Daniel, with the disciples, with Paul, and with all the Christians who have suffered throughout the ages. Most of all, you suffer with Christ who took your sins and suffering upon himself that you might be forgiven and granted the promise of resurrection and eternal life. And so, with Daniel and with Paul and with all Christians, let us say confidently together the words of Philippians 3:7-10. Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ,—10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Easter Sermon- A Cinderella Story

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed! Amen!

Easter is my favorite holiday. In my opinion, no holiday can match the joy and celebration of Easter Sunday. Sure, Christmas is definitely more popular. That probably has something to do with all those gifts we give and receive. Christmas in our culture has a lot more pomp and circumstance. Christmas is typically considered the biggest holiday of the year. And the birth of Jesus is certainly a noteworthy celebration. But Christmas is nothing without Easter. Easter is the height, the climax, of the church year. Everything in Jesus’ life and in your own life is building up to Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. To summarize St. Paul, “If Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith is worthless and pointless.” For sure, Holy Week for me means a lot of extra time and work, but it is totally worth because of the celebration of Easter. As the theologian N.T. Wright has put it: “”We should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind. This is our greatest festival. Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else. Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity… This is our greatest day.”

One of my other favorite times of the year just ended last week. Monday night was the culmination of March Madness, the men’s college basketball tournament. I have always loved March Madness. In elementary and high school, I was so eager to get home for those first round afternoon games. I would plop down in front of the TV with my bracket and consume college basketball. In college, since I had a little more freedom in my choices, I admittedly would skip any classes that interfered with March Madness. A guy’s got to have priorities, right?

Even mild basketball fans often get caught up in the excitement of March Madness. They will fill out brackets and predict a winner for the office pool and even try to watch some of the games, especially those first round games. I believe the reason for this is the anticipation of a Cinderella story. It seems we cannot get enough of Cinderella. We love to root for the upset, the David versus the Goliath, the tiny school against the tradition-rich, larger superpower. We get caught up in the classic tale of rags to riches.

This year, of course, the super-powers won out in the end. There weren’t too many extended Cinderella stories. But we did have a few upsets, a couple of Davids taking down Goliath. Who didn’t find themselves pulling for little Lehigh University against the giant everyone loves to hate- the Duke Blue Devils? We also had Norfolk St. (who had ever heard of that school before) taking down one of the best teams in the tournament in Missouri. Those Cinderellas had their moment of glory. We remember with fondness their rags to riches journey.

What is so compelling about a Cinderella story? I think it is the element of surprise. The victory is completely unexpected. We love to root for the underdog, but we don’t expect them to win. If they were expected to win, they wouldn’t be an underdog and it wouldn’t be an upset. The Cinderella team always gets to claim, “Nobody believes in us!” They use that thought as motivation. “No one thought we could pull it off!” No one believed David could beat Goliath, especially since he wasn’t wearing any armor and was armed with a few rocks and a sling. They were busy planning his funeral. Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and sisters never thought she could get a handsome prince to fall in love with her. When the slipper fit, they were stunned. A couple of years ago, no one believed that Butler, a small university in Indiana, could make it all the way to the national championship game and almost win the March Madness tournament. They shocked the nation. And we loved them for it.

Hollywood certainly knows that the rags to riches story is compelling. From Rocky hanging with Apollo Creed to a slumdog from India winning a million dollars, we eat these stories up. Even shows like American Idol are based on the premise that an unknown talent who never had a shot at making it to the big time finally has a chance to prove themselves. Why do you think thousands of people show up for those auditions? They all want their own Cinderella story. They want to beat the odds, to take down Goliath, to shock the world. You see, that’s another reason why we love the Cinderella story because it gives us hope. We think, “That could be me someday.” We could have our own rags to riches journey. We could be that average person toiling away, waiting for that big break, and we just hope that it comes. The Cinderella story is deeply personal.

I mentioned before that Easter is my favorite holiday. Why is Easter such a great celebration? Maybe because it is the greatest Cinderella story ever told. 

Think about it. It has all the classic elements that make a Cinderella story. After all, it was completely unexpected. The story of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is more unexpected than Cinderella marrying a prince, Rocky beating Apollo Creed or David taking down Goliath. Why? Because dead people don’t come back to life! We all know that! All those other people had to overcome some pretty great odds. None of them died however. The chances of someone coming back to life after they have died are 0%. Dead is dead. There is no coming back from that.

A few years ago, a bunch of brilliant minds got together to have a discussion about the Easter story. They had a press conference to present their conclusions, and they announced that the resurrection didn’t happen because it couldn’t. It was impossible. They even took with them a local young woman who worked at the morgue so that she could bear witness, in case anyone was in any doubt, that normally when people died, they stayed dead.

And yet today, we are gathered together to hear the story about the women who came to the tomb expecting to find the very much dead body of Jesus. Instead they found a stone rolled away and an angel sitting inside the tomb who announced to them, “Jesus is not here. He is risen!” What was their response? “Oh yeah, that’s what we thought would happen.” No! They were shocked. Mark says that trembling and astonishment seized them. They were terrified. They didn’t know what to think! This was completely unexpected. What does the angel mean “He is risen?”

But later on, they see Jesus with their own eyes. Paul says that over 500 witnesses saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes and could confirm his Cinderella story. But this isn’t simply a rags to riches tale. This was a death to life event. This wasn’t just a small boy taking down a giant. This was a dead person taking down the greatest giant of all time- death.

Just think about this. As a human race, we have been able to overcome all sorts of obstacles and opposition using our reason and intellect. But one enemy we have not been able to beat is death. Sure, we’ve been able to delay death for a little bit longer thanks to medicine and technology, but sooner or later, death is not going to be denied. It’s going to win. But Jesus beat it.

Jesus could even claim that no one believed in him. He told the disciples three separate times that he was going to suffer and die but then rise again. They didn’t get it. He told the Jewish leaders that he was going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. He was talking about his body. They said, “Sure you will.” Again, no one expected Jesus to defeat death by rising from the dead- not even the devil himself. Easter is the greatest Cinderella story ever.

Yes, Easter is my favorite holiday, but not just because of the great Cinderella story of Jesus’ resurrection. What makes Jesus’ Cinderella story even greater is what it means for you and me.

Remember when I said that one of the most compelling aspects of a Cinderella story is that it makes us think “That could be me someday!”? It gives us hope for our own Cinderella experience. Well, Easter means that you and I have our own Cinderella story. Jesus’ death and resurrection, his rags to riches journey, was done for you and for me. Jesus’ unexpected victory becomes our unexpected victory. It means that Jesus has also taken you from rags to riches and from death to life.

You see, you were once dead in your trespasses and sins. That’s how God’s Word describes you before conversion. You were dressed in filthy rags, stained by sin. You were powerless to save yourself. It was impossible. But through the waters of Holy Baptism, you have passed from death to life. As Romans 6:4 puts it: “We were buried therefore with Jesus by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus’ victory has been given to you. He has clothed you in the rich robes of his own righteousness. You were dead in sins, and now you are alive in Christ. You were clothed in dirty rags, and now you are dressed in a  pure, white robe of righteousness.

A real Cinderella story has taken place in your life. The giants of sin, death and the devil have been defeated, not by you, but by Christ for you. And you can relive your Cinderella story every single day as you confess your sins to God, and then remember your baptism where God forgave you and washed your sins away and promised you the riches of eternal life. You have won the victory through Jesus. All this is because of Easter. If it were not for Jesus’ Cinderella story from death to life, Paul says your faith is futile and you would still be in your sins. Easter is the greatest celebration for a Christian- so far.

That’s right. So far. Because a better day is coming. You will be part of another Cinderella story someday because of Jesus. One day, you are going to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and rise from the dead.

One day, you will die. Death is not completely done away with yet. You will die and your body will remain here on earth, subject to decay and rot. Your spirit will be with God in heaven. But that’s not the Cinderella story. That’s not the end. Jesus is coming back to this earth someday and when he does he will raise all people from the dead. You will experience resurrection. You will go from death to life. Jesus will take the rags of your decaying body and give it new life so that you will have a new, glorious body that will never die again. And Jesus will take the rags of this earth, and he will remake it into a new creation for us to live on forever. Now that is a Cinderella story to look forward to. Just as Jesus defied the odds and defeated the giant enemy of death by rising from the dead to eternal life, you too will rise from the dead when death is completely finished off on the Last Day. And we will live happily ever after.

Let us pray: Lord God, we praise you on this most special and holy day! Christ is risen! Alleluia! You have changed the whole course of human history by raising your Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead so that those who believe in him would not perish but have eternal life. Help us to continue to trust your promise that because Jesus lives, we too shall live. Fill our whole lives with the joy and the hope of Easter victory, our Cinderella story from the rags of sin to the riches of your grace. Amen.

From Manger to Cross

This is my Christmas morning sermon entitled “From Manger to Cross.”

Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

1.            This year, at St. John Lutheran School, principal Mike Saxton chose the school theme from Galatians 6:2 “Carry each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The kids always do a great job of carrying each other’s burdens, of helping each other out, of being kind and considerate to each other. I have been holding a contest each month based on this theme. I try to identify the best example each month of a student who carries someone else’s burdens. The students are nominated by their own fellow students. The winner each month gets lunch provided by me from a local fast food establishment. I have already rewarded several students who have been wonderful examples of carrying the burden of someone else and fulfilling the law of Christ: which is to love.

2.            The Christmas story in the Bible is also a wonderful example of burden carrying. You have Mary, of course, carrying the burden of a child in her womb. You have both Joseph and Mary carrying the burden of gossip and rumors and suspicion because they were not married and Mary was pregnant. This next one is not in the Bible and is merely a common inclusion in the Christmas story, but the donkey bore the burden of a pregnant Mary on their way to Jerusalem. The shepherds carried the burden of being nobody’s, lowlifes, and the castoffs of society.

3.            Those burdens were lifted when Christ the Savior was born in the town of Bethlehem, in a lowly stable, lying in a manger. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. Joseph and Mary’s long journey was over. Their baby was born and the burden of all those suspicions was but a memory. The shepherds were visited by angels and were given good news of great joy. They were the first to bow down and worship the Messiah, the Savior long foretold. These lowly shepherds were given a great honor. Christmas lifted a lot of burdens.

4.            But for Jesus, Christmas marked the beginning of his journey, a journey which would become more and more burdensome every day of his life. Jesus’ burdens were just beginning to pile up. Jesus’ journey on earth began in the manger on the day we are celebrating today. But there would be no point in celebrating today if it were not for the rest of the journey.

5.            In the comedy movie Talladega Nights, there is a scene with a family gathered around the dinner table. The husband, played by Will Ferrell, says a prayer addressed to the baby Jesus. When his wife challenges him and reminds him that Jesus grew up, he responds, “I like the Christmas/baby Jesus best!” I think we all feel that way sometimes. We like the baby Jesus best. We sentimentalize the Nativity scene with Mary and Joseph and the shepherds looking adorably at the baby Jesus with cute animals scattered around. Sometimes we would prefer to leave Jesus in the manger without letting him grow up and continue his journey. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with the rest of Jesus’ story. We wouldn’t have to listen to John the Baptist’s call to repentance to prepare for Jesus’ ministry. We wouldn’t have to encounter the impossible demands of the Law preached by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount. If we leave Jesus in the manger surrounded by his family, we would not have to deal with Jesus’ call to hate our own families and give up everything for the sake of following him. The baby Jesus leaves us feeling safe and comfortable. Who doesn’t love babies and birth stories? Christmas is all about glad tidings of great joy. We want to hear about that on Christmas. Tell us the wonderful story of a baby born in Bethlehem- he is Christ the Lord!

6.            On Christmas, we want to hear about the stable in Bethlehem, a place of peace and joy. We certainly don’t want to hear about the cross outside Jerusalem, the place of suffering and death. But we have to go there even on Christmas Day. Because without the cross, the manger doesn’t matter. It is pointless and meaningless. The whole reason Christ was born into this world was to go to the cross.

7.            The whole reason John the Baptist preached repentance is because Jesus would give out forgiveness through his death on the cross. The whole reason Jesus preached the Law so strongly on the Sermon on the Mount was to fulfill it and free us from its demands through his sacrificial death on the cross. The reason Jesus calls us to love and follow him above all things is because he is the way, the truth and the life. There is no life without him.

8.            Jesus’ journey was from the manger to the cross. When he went to the cross, Jesus carried the burden of sin for the entire world. He bore your burden. All of the sins you have committed. All of the sins you are going to commit. Jesus carried them. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted…the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4,6a) Christ himself fulfilled the law of Christ: love. The one Christmas song that captures Jesus’ journey from manger to cross the best is “What Child Is This?” Verse 2 goes like this: 

Why lies He in such mean estate

Where ox and ass are feeding?

Good Christian, fear; for sinners here

The silent Word is pleading.

Nails spear shall pierce him through,

The cross be borne for me, for you;

Hail, hail, the Word made flesh,

The babe, the son of Mary!

9.            The child who was laid to rest in a manger was later in life laid to rest in a tomb. He gave up his own life to save yours. He carried your burdens so that you would be able to carry others’ burdens. Christmas is nothing without Good Friday. Let’s look at the picture I had up on the first slide. The artist’s name is Beate Heinen and the title of the painting is “Manger and Cross”.

In the foreground one sees a rock cave with the newborn Child Jesus – not in a kind of manger, but in a kind of trough looking like a coffin. From the manger a way starts through a blooming garden. Along the way the trees become more and more bare, the colors more gloomy. At the rear edge of the image a hill with three crosses can be perceived. The way is winding upwards; it is steep. Nothing is growing there anymore. There is no green, only grey. It is not a place of life, but of death. We know the name of the hill: … Golgotha. The way is leading from the Manger to the Cross. Jesus had to go this way. It was the way of his life. The painter showed it with her picture quite clearly: the Manger and the Cross belong together. It is not possible to accept only a part of the life of Jesus – for everything is connected, everything is woven together. The ultimate consequence of the Incarnation of Christ is his passion and death on the Cross.  The ultimate consequence of Bethlehem is Golgotha.  The ultimate consequence of the love of God is our redemption!

10.          But we also have to point out that Good Friday is nothing without Easter. Without Easter, Good Friday is a defeat. Easter is the victory. Easter is the triumph. Easter is the end of the journey for Jesus and it is the end of the journey for us as well. For we too will be resurrected from the dead and will be given new life. So really, Easter is merely the beginning once again. It is the beginning of new life that will never end. A new life in which we will not have any burdens to carry, either our own or anyone else’s. From manger to cross to open grave. From birth to death to resurrection to everlasting life. That is Jesus’ journey. It is your journey as well.

11.          In a Way of the Cross of the Advent season it says in the 1st station: “Get down on your knees, O soul, close your eyes and look within: Jesus is condemned to death: There lies the newborn Infant, subject to all the laws of nature: …coldness, hunger, nakedness and poverty await Him. Jesus’ first hour in the stable of Bethlehem is already a redemptive act – expiation, salvation, and satisfaction.  We adore You, O Jesus, and we praise You, for by Your holy Cross, already from that first hour of Your life, and by Your Passion and Death, You have redeemed the whole world.” Amen.

Here is the video I showed at the end of my sermon.

 

Life, Death and Life after Death: Part 10- Now What?

I am sorry this final post in the series has been delayed. I was attending the Ohio District Pastors’ Conference in Wheeling, West Virginia this past Monday through Wednesday and was writing my sermon yesterday. But without further ado, (bonus points for whoever can tell me in the comments where that phrase comes from without looking it up- I honestly don’t know, that’s why I’m asking) here is the final installment of the “Heaven” series.

I hope to answer the question, “Now what?” Last time, I tried to answer “So what? Why does this matter?” I realize that much of what I have been writing goes against current, popular Christian beliefs on this subject, so it is important to give you some reasons why I feel it is so important to go against popular thought. But the question for this post is equally important. Now that you understand what our true hope is for the future, Jesus’ return and the resurrection of our bodies and eternal life in the new heaven and earth, what can we do to anticipate that future reality in our present life? Is there anything or should we just sit around looking up into the sky?

Once again, it is important to remember that our future hope is not about going up into heaven forever, but about God coming down to us. We pray “Thy kingdom come” not “Let me go up to Thy kingdom.” Our prayer is that God would come down to us. It is the same prayer that the ancient Israelites prayed in the Old Testament. That their God would come down out of heaven and deliver them from their enemies.

That prayer has already been answered. Jesus, the Son of God, did come down out of heaven to dwell with his people. “Thy kingdom come” was answered when Jesus became man. God was with his people. The Gospel of Matthew speaks often of “the kingdom of heaven.” He is not talking about heaven where God lives, but rather about God’s kingly and salivific activity on earth. (For more on “the kingdom of heaven” read Part 4) So how does God’s kingdom come? Jesus answers that question in Matthew 11 when John the Baptist’s disciples come and ask if Jesus truly is the Messiah. He replies, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

So God’s kingdom comes when he does his saving activity here on earth. This statement by Jesus was ultimately fulfilled by his suffering, death and resurrection. Through these actions, God saved the entire creation. The renewal of the world has already begun through Jesus’ resurrection. It will not be fully realized until He comes again, but as N.T. Wright says “Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of that new life, the fresh grass growing through the concrete of corruption and decay in the old world.”

What began at Jesus’ resurrection, the first fruits of our own resurrection and renewal, continues through Jesus’ disciples on earth today. God’s kingdom still comes to this earth today, most notably through His Word and Sacraments. That is where we will find Jesus coming to us over and over again, as we read and hear the Word, as we are baptized and remember our baptisms, and as we eat and drink his very body and blood. The crucified and resurrected Jesus still comes to us today.

However, this does not mean that we can just sit back and relax and enjoy God’s kingdom coming to us. Part of our responsibility as disciples of Jesus is to continue his kingdom work. God uses us to make his kingdom come. God’s kingdom is to be spread all over the world, and he has decided to use his own new creations to do so. This is the “Now what?” Now, we work for the coming of God’s kingdom to all the world, at the same time praying that it would come among us also (that we would continue to be fed by God’s Word and Sacraments)

I shall now quote extensively from N.T. Wright’s book Surprised By Hope because he gives such a great description of the “Now what?”

The point…is that a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope which is held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly to a vision of the present hope which is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world- for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful and wounded world- is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’ in the present. It is a central, essential, vital and life-giving part of it. Mostly, Jesus himself got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing. They saw him ‘saving’ people from sickness and death, and they heard him talking about a ‘salvation’, the message for which they had longed, which would go beyond the immediate into the ultimate future. But the two were not unrelated, the present one a mere ‘visual aid’ of the future one, or a trick to gain people’s attention. The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not about saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so that they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose- and so that they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project itself.

Whew! Still with me? I have more to quote but thought I would explain a little bit. Jesus’ ultimate purpose was to seek and save the lost, to save us from our sins. However, this is not separate from what he did in his healing and teaching ministry. It is all connected. Jesus’ death and resurrection saved us from our sins, but it also defeated the effects of those sins- the pain and sickness and everything Wright mentioned above. We cannot lose sight of the renewal of all creation and of how God uses us to make his kingdom come through spreading His Word, yes, but also through feeding the starving, clothing the naked, taking care of the earth, building homes for the homeless, and much more. I’ll let N.T. Wright get into that again.

The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing, is that the present life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters, because God has a great future in store for it….It certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called. What you do in the present- by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself- all these things will last into God’s future. They are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.

Living as disciples of our resurrected Lord in anticipation of our own resurrection gives us purpose in life. It gives purpose to what we may see as the mundane. In all things, God works through us to build his kingdom. One more quote from N.T. Wright to conclude this series. This is actually the last paragraph from his book to which I am incredibly indebted to for this series, as I believe he has helped illuminate what Easter and our future hope is really about. (For those of you who know a little bit about N.T. Wright, please know that I do not endorse everything that he teaches, but this stuff is good.) Anyway, in conclusion…

With Easter, God’s new creation is launched upon a surprised world, pointing ahead to the renewal, the redemption, the rebirth of the entire creation…Every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity- every time justice is done, peace is made, families are healed, temptation is resisted, true freedom is sought and won- this very earthly event takes its place within a long history of things which implement Jesus’ own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation, and act as signposts of hope, pointing back to the first and on to the second.

Thanks for reading! Remember, Easter is your future!

Life, Death and Life after Death: Part 8- Heaven’s Not My Home

“I’m but a stranger here, Heav’n is my home.” (from I’m But a Stranger Here)

“When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” (from How Great Thou Art)

“Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care, And take us to heaven to live with Thee there.” (from Away in a Manger)

“Come, my Lord, no longer tarry; Take my ransomed soul away; Send Thine angels soon to carry Me to realms of endless day” (from Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing)

“When mortal life is past Your voice from heaven’s throne Shall call Your children home at last To know as we are known” (from Christ the Eternal Lord)

All of these hymns reflect the idea that the ultimate Christian hope is either dying and going to heaven or escaping this material world when Jesus comes again. All of these hymns are wrong. And, yes, they are all in our Lutheran hymn book (and there are many more examples). Most of these hymns are OK for the most part, they just slip up in the couple of lines I picked out. However, I’m But a Stranger Here should be stricken from the hymnal because it’s just blatantly wrong. Now, I get the idea behind it. As Christians, we are in the world and not of it, but this hymn takes it too far when it calls heaven our ultimate home, the place where we really belong. Not true! I am but a stranger here, but this is my home! In other words, as Christians we are not to look like the world does, but that doesn’t mean we do not belong on the earth. As part of God’s creation, our home is the created world. Once again, we do not desire for our “ransomed soul” to depart this world and leave the material world and our bodies behind. That is what will happen upon death, but that is not the end! When we die, we do not go home for eternity. We go to God’s “home,” and we wait there for the time when Jesus will once again descend from heaven to our home on earth. We are waiting for Jesus to complete what he started on Easter Sunday: the restoration of creation, the healing of our home.

So what will happen? First of all, the resurrection of the body. All those who have died will be resurrected and shall be given new life. Their body and soul/spirit will be reunited, and they will be a new creation. So yes, you will have the same body. But before you get too bent out of shape about that one, just remember that it will be a renewed, restored body. God will take what was ugly, sinful, defective, deformed and make it beautiful, new, perfect.

Then comes the judgment where Jesus will separate the sheep and the goats. The wicked will be sent to eternal damnation, and the righteous to eternal life, but not eternal life in heaven. Eternal life in the new heaven and new earth as St. John describes in Revelation 21.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The holy city, the new Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven. We are not going up to live in heaven. Rather, once again, God is coming down to dwell with his people forever. He will renew the earth back to the way it was always meant to be when He created it and put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The prophet Isaiah gives us a wonderful picture of eternity as well in chapter 65.

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,

and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create;

for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.

19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people;

no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.

20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days,

for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.

21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

23 They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord, and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food.

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord.

So what will we be doing? Often, our idea of heaven, that of sitting around in the clouds playing harps and singing praises all day long, sounds kind of boring. Now, we have no clear picture of what we will be doing for eternity, but I think we can make some pretty good guesses (Isaiah 65 gives us some hints). Since we will not just be souls floating around, but will have material bodies, and since we are not going to be in some spiritual place in the clouds, but will be on the material earth, we can assume that we will be doing what God instructed Adam and Eve to do. Take care of his creation. As one professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis liked to say, “When I am resurrected, I think God will hand me a lawn mower, point me to a patch of grass, and tell me to go take care of it.” One thing is for sure- if your mind imagines eternal life to be kind of boring, then your imagination is wrong. It will be greater than we could ever imagine. Get those old, stuffy images out of your head and learn to anticipate an eternity that we could only hope to have a taste of here on earth. (Which we do, it’s called the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus actually comes to be with us.)

Again, we do not have a clear picture. We merely have signposts pointing in that direction. But those signposts in God’s Word do not point to a bodiless state of “living” in heaven forever. They point to the culmination of Jesus’ resurrection when He returns in glory to restore us and His entire creation. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In my last couple of posts in this series, I want to answer the question many of you might be asking: “This all sounds great, Pastor, but why does it even matter?” Does all this talk about life, death and life after death have anything to do with how we live here on earth presently? Does it affect our daily lives? Hint: the answer is yes. Keep checking in to find out how it does. Thanks for reading!

Life, Death and Life after Death: Part 7- He is Risen!

The resurrection of Jesus changed everything.

It changed the course of history. It changed the lives of millions of people. It changed people’s beliefs and hopes about the afterlife. It changed people’s beliefs and hopes about the present life. The resurrection of Jesus continues to change things today. To quote N.T. Wright once again,

Easter has a very this-worldly, present-day meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, and therefore he is the world’s true Lord; Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun- and we, his followers, have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven!

When the angels announced early in the morning at the tomb of Jesus, “He is not here! He has risen!” the world would never be the same again. This claim of resurrection is the very heart and center of the Christian faith. Paul doesn’t beat around the bush when he tells the Corinthians, “”If Christ is not risen your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1Cor. 15:17). Simply put then, if you deny the resurrection of Jesus, you are not a Christian.

Some Christians will try to get around this by saying that Jesus was only resurrected in a spiritual sense. In other words, Jesus is alive in me: his teachings and way of life did not die along with him. Some preachers will claim that Christians don’t have to actually believe in a bodily resurrection, in fact, that it is ridiculous to do so in this enlightened day and age, but that the true message of the resurrection is a liberation to a new life, freed from the shackles of legalism and the backward ideas of the Dark Ages, and able to discover that spark of life or identity hidden inside each of us.

We can understand why non-Christians would want to deny the bodily resurrection of Easter, but why would those who claim to be Christian want to do it? Really, it’s for the same reason. Their human reason cannot accept it. Dead people do not rise from the dead. And that, for them, is enough to put an end to all this resurrection talk. Reason and experience cannot support this claim, so out it goes. Many “reasonable” arguments have been brought against the claim of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples faked it. The disciples simply made it up or had visions of a “resurrected” Jesus. Jesus never actually died; he was just really close but made a recovery. There are many more theories out there. N.T. Wright in his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, covers all of the alternate theories out there in great detail and shows how weak they really are. In fact, the “evidence” for Jesus’ actual bodily resurrection is far more convincing than any arguments to the contrary. Perhaps in a separate I will go into more depth on the arguments for and against. But I will not take time to do that now. I will simply quote how he sums up his arguments (from Surprised By Hope, which is sort of a shortened version of The Resurrection of the Son of God which is really freaking long):

Far and away the best historical explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth, having been thoroughly dead and buried, really was raised to life  on the third day with a renewed body (not a mere resuscitated corpse, as people sometimes dismissively say), a new kind of physical body which left an empty tomb behind it because it had ‘used up’ the material of Jesus’ original body, and which possessed new properties which nobody had expected or imagined but which generated significant mutations in the thinking of those who encountered it. If something like this happened, it would perfectly explain why Christianity began and why it took the shape it did.

What I do want to talk about for the rest of this post is what Easter means for us. Easter is more than just a validation of Good Friday, that is, the approval by God the Father that Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient. Easter does more than prove or validate that Jesus is who he claimed to be: God incarnate. (Although it certainly does mean this as well)

But there’s more to it. For a great explanation, I’m going to turn it over to Dr. Gibbs in an article he wrote entitled “Our Faith, Our Funerals, Our Future”

Think first about the meaning of death. Why do people die today? There is only one ultimate reason; people die because they are sinners. Before they fell into sin, Adam and Eve were immortal. Death only entered in on the day that they ate the fruit from the forbidden tree. Every time you read an obituary, every time you attend a funeral, there is only one thing that you know for certain about that person: he or she was a sinner. That’s why he or she died.

Now, hold on to your hats. Jesus died! Why? He died, not because He was a sinner but because He came to be in our place, to take our place, to receive the punishment from God that we deserved and so to save us. That means that He also has to die. He died in our place.

But if Jesus came to be our substitute and to save us from all the effects of sin, then that also means that He had to rise in a bodily resurrection. Victory over sin and all of its effects must also mean victory over death – the undoing of death. Since Jesus was our substitute, He had to rise in a bodily resurrection. For through Him, God planned to undo sin and all of its effects – even the mortality and death of our bodies.

So, Easter means that in Jesus, God has now overcome even the death of our bodies. He has a plan and a certain hope for us and for all the creation. This creation is the only one we’ve ever known, and, in so many ways, it is a wondrous, beautiful creation. But the apostle Paul reminds us that this creation is still subject to futility, still groaning like a woman in labor, still waiting for God’s final redemption and salvation to appear on the Last Day (Romans 8). God has a plan to restore the creation and make it again a place upon which He can look down and say, “It is very good.”

Jesus’ resurrection was the ultimate coming of God’s kingdom to earth. Easter marks the beginning of a fallen creation becoming new again. Jesus’ resurrection has started that process. That is why Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection the “firstfruits.” What happened to Jesus is what will eventually happen to each of us and the entire creation. Jesus’ defeat of death means that we too will defeat death. This does not happen when we die and go to heaven. It will happen on the Last Day when we will be resurrected and restored. Easter is our future! From Dr. Gibbs again,

Most important, we can rejoice in hope, in a certain hope that Easter reveals to us our future in the Lord Jesus Christ. And we can speak with joy the familiar words of the Nicene Creed: “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!