Monday, March 31, 2008

Resurrection Reality Check

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In God's great mercy he has caused us to be born again into a living hope, because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” 1 Peter 1

During China's Boxer Rebellion of 1900, insurgents captured a mission station, blocked all the gates but one, and in front of that one gate placed a cross flat on the ground. Then the word was passed to those inside that any who trampled the cross underfoot would be permitted their freedom and life, but that any refusing would be shot. Terribly frightened, the first seven students trampled the cross under their feet and were allowed to go free. But the eighth student, a young girl, refused to commit the sacrilegious act. Kneeling beside the cross in prayer for strength, she arose and moved carefully around the cross, and went out to face the firing squad. Strengthened by her example, every one of the remaining ninety-two students followed her to the firing
History is filled with such stories—of faithfulness unto death. It’s almost impossible to make contact with such a story without asking, “What would I have done? What would I do?” It also begs the question, “Why? Why would a Chinese Christian—or any Christian—choose certain death rather than show disrespect to their Lord Jesus? The answer to that question lies at the heart of our seven-week celebration that began last Sunday. The answer is that Jesus has rendered death powerless. The answer is that no matter what, Jesus wins, and He shares His victory with those who believe in Him. To say it differently: Why risk anything or even everything for the cause of Christ? The answer: ‘Because He lives.” Because He lives, I live now, and will live forever.
Our readings for this Sunday morning would seem to offer us a resurrection reality check. It is almost as if they say, “All right, everyone was singing and happy and triumphant last weekend, but now it’s back to the real world.” Acts 5 shows the apostles paying the price for their public profession of faith in Jesus. They are threatened with death and whipped in the same cruel manner as Jesus had been. In the Epistle lesson, one of the those apostles, Peter, acknowledges that his readers are suffering grief in all kinds of trials—admitting that the Christian faith is not a vaccine against bad things happening in life. And then in the gospel lesson, we learn that immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, one of Jesus’ closest followers took the skeptical approach and said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” It’s like, “Easter was majestic; Easter was uplifting; Easter was pure and powerful, but that was then. Look at what you’re up against now.” The temptation for the people involved in each of these Biblical stories was that they would give in to that very line of thinking—that their troubles would loom so large in their vision that they would lose sight of their risen Lord Jesus. They would doubt that it could make any difference. They would doubt that it happened at all. I think it is safe to say that we are tempted in precisely these same ways. When our culture is not feeding our doubts about a resurrected Christ, we nurse doubts about a God who would allow bad things to happen to us, and soon I’m living in practical terms far removed from a 33-year-old Jewish man getting up out of his grave. I just don’t feel a connection between me and that event, and so hope drains out of my life. We are tempted to live as if the resurrection of Jesus—if it happened at all—doesn’t matter.
And what a heartless temptation that is. What a cruel trap that the devil has set. Because the resurrection doesn’t just matter. It is everything! To paraphrase St. Paul: If the resurrection of Jesus did not really happen, then this thing we call Christianity is an awful waste of our time. If Jesus did not really come back to life, we are nothing more than a group of pious fools following empty rituals. But…the proclamation of the Holy Christian Church, based on eyewitness accounts, has always been and always will be that Jesus Christ came out of his grave alive--three days after being crucified. It is true, and it changes everything.
Because Jesus lives, death is not the end. A Christian man and his wife lost their young son in a tragic accident on Good Friday in 1996. The boy’s funeral was on Easter Sunday. During the memorial service the father got up and shared with his family and friends that Easter had taken on a new importance. "Until you stare death eye-to-eye," he began sobbing, "Easter is just a word. It’s a nice day with bunny rabbits and eggs . . . .but when someone so precious to you dies, Easter becomes everything . . . an anchor in a fierce storm . . . a rock on which to stand . . . a hope that raises you above despair and keeps you going." Those whom God has adopted and gifted with faith also have the promise that they live in Jesus—that means they live forever in Jesus—and the separation that death causes now is temporary, not final.
Because Jesus lives, we can serve Him with confidence. The apostles of Acts 5 endured the punishment they received for preaching about Jesus—and more than that—they were full of joy because they were given the honor of suffering disgrace for Jesus. They defied the order to stop talking about Jesus because they couldn’t help themselves! How could they? Jesus had come back to life! Some council had told them to knock it off—so what? We serve Christ, who defeated death! That was the mindset of the apostles. Is that your mindset? Is that our church’s mindset? It can be, because we serve the same living Lord the apostles did. Christian author, pastor and radio preacher Dr. Warren Wiersbe once said, "[The resurrection of Jesus] is the Truth that turns a church from a museum into a ministry." Jesus is alive and wants to be active in us!
Because Jesus lives, we have perspective on life’s problems. The apostle Peter writes in today’s epistle: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In God's great mercy he has caused us to be born again into a living hope, because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Now we hope for the blessings God has for his children. These blessings, which cannot be destroyed or be spoiled or lose their beauty, are kept in heaven for you. God's power protects you through your faith until salvation is shown to you at the end of time. This makes you very happy, even though now for a short time different kinds of troubles may make you sad. These troubles come to prove that your faith is pure. This purity of faith is worth more than gold, which can be proved to be pure by fire but will ruin. But the purity of your faith will bring you praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is shown to you.”
And, because Jesus lives, he can come to us. He comes to us here, in spoken and sung words; in words that raise believers to new life; He comes to us here in the washing of baptismal water; He comes to us here, hidden in bread and wine. He comes to you to say, “Put your finger here and look at my hands. Take and eat, my body broken for you. Put your hand here in my side. Take and drink, my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Peace be with you. Believe in Me.” Jesus lives in his Church to feed and nurture us! We connect with a living God here! He comes right down to our level to forgive and strengthen and teach us, and in return we praise Him, we pray to Him, we give back to Him, we serve Him. This activity only makes sense if Jesus is alive! Again and again he enters the locked doors of our hearts to give us the gift of His peace.
Why risk anything for the cause of Jesus Christ? Why serve Jesus when there seems to be no immediate reward? Why should we remain faithful to God in the middle of tough situations? Because He lives. Because in every case, our living Jesus wins. He gives undeserving people His victory. This is our Easter confidence! Amen.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Easter: Jesus Wins

A group of young children were learning about Jesus’ death on the cross. The idea bothered some of the children. But one little boy, who evidently knew his stuff, announced, “I’m not sad. Jesus wins! He comes back on Easter!”

Jesus wins! That is the truth of Easter and the truth of the Christian faith. Death could not defeat Him. The devil could not hold Him in the grave. Jesus won! His resurrection is the ultimate victory parade. Best of all, we are not invited merely to watch Jesus win, but to participate in this celebration. In faith, believe that Jesus’ risen life is given to you—and it is. Jesus wins—and so do you.

Jesus wins! This world can be a scary place. Evil seems to be getting the upper hand. We draw courage from the fact that Jesus wins—no matter what. It may not always be obvious, but He will not lose. We fight with a Champion on our side who has already defeated death. His life is ours and His victory is ours.

Jesus wins! That is the bottom line. May the message of Easter bring confidence and peace to your life.

Monday, March 3, 2008

But Now I See

For 51 years Bob Edens was blind. He couldn't see a thing. His world was a black hall of sounds and smells. He felt his way through five decades of darkness. And then, he could see. A skilled surgeon performed a complicated operation and, for the first time, Bob Edens had sight. He found it overwhelming. "I never would have dreamed that yellow is so...yellow," he exclaimed. "I don't have the words. I am amazed by yellow. But red is my favorite color. I just can't believe red. I can see the shape of the moon--and I like nothing better than seeing a jet plane flying across the sky leaving a vapor trail. And of course, sunrises and sunsets. And at night I look at the stars in the sky and the flashing light. You could never know how wonderful everything is."
That’s just what I would expect to hear from someone who has been given the gift of sight. When I look through the gospels and look at all the people Jesus healed, my expectation is the same. People who were blind can see; people who couldn’t walk are running and dancing; people with no hope are now filled with hope and faith and love. Their lives are changed for the better, and they all get a happy ending.
But not so fast. Maybe my expectations are off. Like in today’s gospel, for example. Here we have a man who has been blind since birth. Jesus comes into this man’s life and gives him the gift of sight! Now he can be amazed by yellow and see the shape of the moon and the stars in the sky! His life has been changed for the better, but wait a minute. The religious leaders, the pillars of the community, the Pharisees, are intensely interested in his story. He’s more than willing to tell them what happened. But for some reason, his story upsets them. It agitates them. They send him away. They get his parents involved. They send for him again. There’s more questions, almost all of them about the man who opened his eyes. The tension grows. Finally, the man says, honestly, “I know only one thing—I used to be blind, and now I can see. If this Jesus were not from God, He couldn’t do anything.” Well, that was evidently not what the Pharisees wanted to hear, because they proceeded to kick him out of the synagogue. Because a person he barely knew had put mud on his eyes and caused him to see, he was now an ex-member of his congregation. That’s not quite the happy ending we expect. And it’s not the end. For when Jesus hears what happened to the man he healed, he goes looking for him, and when he finds him, he gives him sight a second time. This time, it is spiritual vision. Jesus asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” “Who is he, sir?” he asked. “I want to believe in Him.” “You’ve seen him,” Jesus told him. “It is He who is now talking to you.” “I do believe, Lord,” he said and bowed down to worship him. The man has what he needs now—spiritual sight to complement his eyesight. Faith “sees” Jesus as the Son of Man—the god-man of the prophet Daniel’s vision. Here’s where the phrase “Son of Man” comes from: Daniel 7: 13: “I saw One coming with the clouds of the heavens like a son of man, and he came to the Old Being and was presented before him. And he was given glory, power to rule, and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations, and those of every language should serve him. His authority is everlasting and will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” The man born blind now believes that Jesus is this Son of Man. He has true spiritual sight. He still has a bunch of problems in his life and some new ones to boot. But he has everything. He has Jesus. The Son of Man is his Lord and King and Healer.
The story of the man born blind holds an incredibly realistic message for us. The fact that it is realistic means we can trust it. The Bible’s not teaching us fairy-tale solutions to life’s problems. The message is that Jesus gave that blind man physical and spiritual sight. That made his life better, by leaps and bounds, but it did not make his life easier. That’s a tension that this newly sighted Christian would learn to deal with.
And it’s the tension that all Christians must learn to live with. Jesus has given us spiritual sight. The Holy Spirit has given birth to faith in our hearts. We “see” Jesus as our Rescuer, who saved us from eternal punishment in hell. We “see” Jesus as our Lord who rules our lives with compassion. We “see” Jesus right here in His Church as he delivers forgiveness to us. He makes our lives infinitely better—both for now and for eternity. But that does not mean that life right now is any easier. In fact, just like the man born blind, we may suffer because we bear the name “Christian.”
You may have to suffer the eye-rolling of a friend who just doesn’t “get” your dedication to Jesus. You may have to suffer the pressure of family members who want you to think and act like they do, and who cares what the Bible says. You may have to suffer the pain of being singled out as one of “those Christians” by someone who just doesn’t understand. And that may tempt you to tone it down; to keep your faith something private and unspoken.
I love the way that formerly blind man in today’s gospel handles the pressure. He knows what the Pharisees want to hear. They want to hear him renounce Jesus. They want him to suggest that Jesus’ power to heal is some kind of voodoo witchcraft, or that this whole thing is just a PR hoax. But this man will not sell Jesus out. He simply reports the facts: “I know only one thing,” he says. “I used to be blind, and now I see. If this Jesus were not from God, He couldn’t do anything.” He simply says: “Here’s what Jesus did for me-- you can’t take it away from me.” Oh, the Pharisees try to take what they can. They erase his name from the synagogue directory. They used him as a public example, I’m sure. But they couldn’t make him blind again. They couldn’t stop him from seeing. They couldn’t put blinders on his newfound faith. Nothing and no one can.
Nothing and no one can take away from you what Jesus has done by living for you; suffering for you; dying for you and rising for you. Nothing and no one can make you blind again. In the end, Jesus wins, and you win with Him. That’s 20/20 spiritual vision. Amen.