Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Message of Easter

Good Morning and Welcome to Bethel on a lovely Easter Sunday Morning.

And it is wonderful to have some visitors with us and all the children here this morning. For those who don’t know, I sometimes have something for the children on Sunday mornings, and Easter Sunday is no exception. But it isn’t just candy this morning. I also have something for them to see… just a little trick with a handkerchief… normally, it is difficult to put something big inside something small, but very few people think that I’m normal. And what is this a picture of? A bunny? A bunny? Oh. I understand… some of you might imagine that I am showing a bunny because it is Easter, but this isn’t exactly a rabbit... It’s a duck! You see, sometimes, depending on how you look at something, it can be as different as a rabbit or a duck! This one was easy – I just have to turn the cloth, and everyone can see the two different pictures.

Here's another one I like: But in both of these two cases, it isn't at all clear that one way of looking at things is any "better" or "more important" than the other. So sometimes, things can be taken two ways, and it is a matter of looking at them differently. In these cases two ways of looking are just as valid. But this isn’t always so. In some cases, one way of looking at something, or one way of understanding something is very much more important than the other.

Here is an example. You see, there are two ways of looking at this image. And they are by no means created equal. This picture was taken by my boss, who is an expert scuba diver and underwater photographer (used with permission). Suppose you were a little fish, and you were out on a swim with your best friend. (out of school ;-) ) And suppose you came to this location, and started to discuss what it was you were seeing. Your best friend says, “Oh, it is just some coral.” But you aren’t so sure. “It’s no big deal,” says your friend, “You can have your opinion and I’ll have mine – it doesn’t matter.” But just at that moment, your friend gets a little too close to the “coral” and CHOMP! He just got eaten by this scorpion fish! There’s his eye, and there’s his mouth. Sometimes differences in perspective can be important – even life-changing! Good thing that you knew all along that it wasn’t just coral!

How about those “Magic Eye” images? Well, they either look like a jumble of nothing, or they look like something in three dimensions. And anyone who has seen the real image would not let you get away with claiming that it is just a jumble, or that seeing the jumble is “just as good” as seeing the “real image”. You see, there are some things in life in which the way that we choose to look at them is very important indeed.

One of the other fun things about these images is that it doesn’t even help to be smart. It doesn’t help to have read the right books. It doesn’t help to have been born in the right place. Either you see the “real image” … or you don’t. And if you have seen the “real image”, not even the richest, smartest, most educated man in the world would be able to tell you that it is just a jumble. Because you’d know better than him!

So many things in life can be looked at in different ways. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that some of the most important things can also be looked at in different ways. In particular, the message of Easter is one of those things. I’d like us to turn to 1 Corinthians 1:18. The Bible says:

[T]he message of [Easter] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The message of Easter can be either foolishness or the power of God. How do you like that? And hey, this doesn’t look like a case of two “equally valid perspectives” either. If someone says “It’s no big deal, it can be the power of God for you, and foolishness for me,” you want to say “wait…WHAT? No big deal??? Are you kidding??? You don’t know what you are missing???”

But, of course, we aren’t angry at folks who tell us that the message of Easter is foolishness. The Bible doesn't say that the evil, or the enemies of God think that it is foolishness. It is the perishing. These are the folks who need our help. And besides, they are in good company. Really! You see, even Jesus own disciples didn’t get the message the first time. In fact, the Bible tells us that at least twice Jesus predicted his own death, which, of course, is what we commemorate on Good Friday. Sometimes Jesus included his resurrection in his predictions – and that’s the basis of our Easter celebrations, isn’t it? But Peter, James and John, Jesus disciples – men who went on to change the world with their wisdom, courage, commitment and sacrifice – these guys just don’t get it any of those times.

Now as you probably know, there are four different accounts of Jesus life and death: Matthew Mark Luke and John. But Jesus’ predicting his own death is found in all four of them. In fact, we have seven different places in the Bible in which these predictions are recorded for us. In two of those seven, the Bible says that the disciples had no idea what Jesus was talking about. For example (Luke 18):

31Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33On the third day he will rise again." [that's the message of Easter, isn't it?]
34[But] the disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

What do you think of that? What could it possibly mean when it says that “its meaning was hidden from them”? Isn’t the meaning of Jesus words obvious? “Handed over” – that’s easy, we get that. “mock him” -- no problem. “insult him” – that’s easy, too. “flog him” “kill him” “rise again” – what’s not to get? Were the disciples of Jesus a little bit slow? What’s going on?

Well, this morning, I’d like you to imagine that this message – the one about Jesus dying and rising from the dead – the message of Easter – that this message is a bit like a Magic Eye picture. Sure, there is what it looks like on the surface, a few historical facts, perhaps… but there is another meaning, a deeper meaning, a really very much more important meaning that God wants us to get this morning.

Now if you’ve never really “got” that deeper meaning of Easter, not to worry. The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus was angry with his disciples because they were a little slow. But it is worth mentioning that the Bible does say that Jesus once seemed to be very angry with this fellow named Peter. Of course, Peter was one of the leaders of the disciples. And so he was very close to Jesus. But, believe it or not, Jesus once had stronger words for Peter than he has for the evil Romans, or the self-righteous Pharisees, let alone the tax-collectors or worse. It is true. In particular, he challenged Peter when Peter was unwilling to accept the message of Easter. God doesn’t mind if we don’t fully understand things, but He is not at all impressed when we close our minds to the truth. Matthew 16:

Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. [he was to be killed and on the third day raised to life – that’s the message of Easter, isn’t it?]
22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!"
23Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! … You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Imagine! Is that a bit harsh? Jesus calls one of his best friends “Satan.” But the lesson here, of course, is that we can’t just “correct” Jesus whenever we feel like it. Peter wasn’t able to understand the message of Easter, but that part wasn’t bad – the other disciples weren’t reprimanded for their lack of understanding. The problem occurs when Peter went too far – when he decided that since he didn’t understand the message, then there wasn’t really any special message at all. That’s when Jesus challenges Peter with these sharp words. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Of course, the remedy to that mistake is to simply change your mind. And that is what God is asking some of you to do this morning. Open your minds. Consider the things of God this Easter.

Remember that Magic Eye image? There is no shame in not being able to see the “real picture” – it may be your loss, but there is no shame. But there is a dangerous mistake of the mind and of the soul to conclude that just because you can’t see the “real picture” then such a picture doesn’t exist. You see, the second that you make that choice, you will never be able to see the real picture, and you will likely keep others from seeing that real picture, too.

And it is the same with Easter. There are those who have shut their minds to the things of God – so full of themselves that they think nothing of “correcting” the word of God. Then there are people like the disciples before they “got” the message. They aren’t able to see the “real picture” but there is still hope. But then there are also people who “get” the message – those for whom Paul’s words in Romans chapter six have become a reality: “like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” For them, the message of Easter is the message of hope: the power of God unto salvation.

But this message is threatening to some folk, isn’t it? In fact, it is an interesting aspect of our culture that more ink has been spilled in disrespect of the historical message of Easter than perhaps any other event in history. But here’s the problem: if some professor comes up with good evidence for the traditional understanding of the Bible, it gets published in some academic journal, and most of us never hear about it. On the other hand, if some professor has some speculative theory that goes against the traditional understanding of the Bible, it somehow gets published in Time magazine, the Gazette, and the Globe and Mail. What’s up with that?

So if someone tries to tell you that Jesus might never have existed, it simply isn’t true. What’s more, we have more historical evidence for Jesus than for all but a very few people who were alive at the same time. And if someone tells you that the Bible was written centuries after the life of Jesus, it simply isn’t true. These days, even the most skeptical of the serious scholars agree that, for example, the book of 1 Corinthians was written within a few decades of Jesus’ life. In that book, Paul writes:

This is the message by which you are saved… For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and
that he appeared to Peter, and
then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, (most of whom are still living…)
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles,
and last of all he appeared to me also.

“by this message you have been saved.” If we understand this message, it can become the power of God in each of our lives. Sure, there is what it looks like on the surface, a few historical facts, perhaps… but there is another meaning, a deeper meaning.

But this is a very interesting passage historically. When Paul writes that he “received” this Easter message, he means that it came to him from someone else. Scholars who have analyzed the language of this message all agree that it appears to have originally been formulated in Aramaic, the language of the first disciples, and translated into Greek, the language Paul wrote in. When he wrote this, the people who he says saw Jesus were still alive. Peter was still alive. Many of the other twelve disciples were still alive. James was still alive. And Paul explicitly says that most of the five hundred who saw Jesus alive together were still alive.

But these people who met Jesus after he was raised from the dead didn’t just say “hey cool, Jesus is alive again, that’s nice.” This Easter message has the power to change lives entirely. Paul himself “was a rabbi, a Pharisee, a respected Jewish leader. He hated the Christian [movement] and did everything in his power to stamp it out. He was even responsible for the execution of Christian believers. Then suddenly he gave up everything. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader and became a Christian missionary: he entered a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. He was whipped, beaten, [and] in constant danger, deprivation, and anxiety. Finally, he made the ultimate sacrifice and was martyred for his faith at Rome. And it was all because on that day outside Damascus, he [had an encounter with] Jesus our Lord. [Reasonable Faith - WLC]”

Peter was also radically changed by a similar experience. Before Jesus’ death, he was frightened out of his wits by the words of a servant girl around the fire. A few days later, he was hiding in a room with the door locked because of his anxiety. But it wasn’t that long afterwards that Peter is preaching in the temple with great boldness. And when he is arrested, his courage is remarkable as he explains that God raised Jesus from the dead. As we read in Acts chapter 4: “When [the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” Where did Peter’s courage come from? Why was there such a remarkable change in his behavior? As it was with Paul, so it was with Peter: he had had an encounter with the risen Jesus.

Indeed, the Bible says in Luke chapter 24 that one of the things that Jesus did when he met with his disciples after his resurrection was to “open the minds of his disciples so that they could understand the message of [Easter].” It was this message that changed their lives entirely. And it is still a message that still changes lives to this day. But we need to have our minds open to the message.

So what’s the key? What can take us beyond the events of history to a life-changing encounter with the risen Jesus? Well, I bet you can guess that I think that the answer is in the Bible. You will remember that I told you earlier that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection on a number of occasions but none of his disciples were able to “get it”. Well, in each of our Gospels, Jesus accompanies that prediction with a certain teaching. That’s right. The teaching that I’m about to read to you is put in the context of understanding the message of Easter. And I pray that we will be able to get that deeper understanding this morning.

Luke 9:23 “Then [Jesus] said to them all: "If anyone would [understand] me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily follow me. 24For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. 25What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

What, indeed, is the good in all the “stuff” in the world if it means losing your soul? But Jesus offers a radical alternative. Instead of losing your life by trying to save it, to extend it, to comfort it, or to preserve it, running after the things of this world, why not give up your life for something bigger than yourself?

You see, the only way to the resurrection is via the cross. There is no glory without sacrifice. There is no victory without struggle. And Jesus uses the cross as a metaphor for his disciples: “If anyone would follow me,” he said, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily.” The Bible says (Romans 6), “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. 8Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Christians say all the time that the way to heaven is to believe that Jesus died for us. And this is true. But over the years, I fear that we have lost some of the true meaning of what it is to believe. The belief that saves us is not a mental acknowledgement. Jesus came: check. Jesus died for me: check. Jesus rose from the dead: check. That’s a start, but that just isn’t enough. Jesus says that the belief that will save us is the one that gets us on our feet, and makes us follow in his steps. We need to believe in the story of Easter enough that it becomes our story as well. If we aren’t willing to sacrifice, then it can never be said that we truly believe in Jesus’ sacrifice.

In 1 Peter 2: 20 we read “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps… 23When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; [there’s a challenge – do we believe the Easter story enough to be polite when insulted?] when he suffered, he made no threats. [another challenge – do we believe the Easter story enough to actually suffer peacefully?] Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” You see, this is the faith that saves: a faith that puts oneself in the path of Jesus, following his example. Do we trust Our Heavenly Father enough that we can give up our rights? Do we believe that there is a better resurrection waiting for us so strongly, that we are willing to give up our ambitions? How about our pride? How about our right to be disappointed? Are you willing to give these things up? Are you willing to follow Jesus, carrying your own cross, being willing to experience death with him, trusting that the Almighty Judge will raise you up with the same power that Jesus was raised? When we come to that place, our life is changed completely.

I love those words of Jim Elliot: “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” The resurrection is being offered to you this morning. It is a free gift that could never be taken away. Are you willing to give up what you cannot keep in order to gain what you cannot lose?