Sunday, April 8, 2012

The True Message of Easter

When my kids were younger, one of the places that we liked to go during the summer was the labyrinth that they used to have down at the old port. Who here ever went? Well, for those who don’t know, there was this huge warehouse in the old port in which they had created an enormous maze. And the game was to be able to find clues in the maze in order to get out, in order to escape. And it was a great deal of fun, especially if you went with a large number of friends. On the other hand, there is potential for a maze to be less than fun – especially for me.

You see, I really, really, really, don’t like being …lost. I can happily report that I’m not quite so bad with being lost now that I’ve grown up a bit, but when I was younger being lost – especially being lost alone – was the worst thing ever. Imagine paying good money to get yourself lost!

Sometimes life might feel a bit like being caught in a maze. When you feel that way, of course, it really helps to be with someone. And it helps especially to be with someone who has been there before. Each of my children had been through the labyrinth before me. They had each been invited there for friends’ birthday parties. And when I went for the first time, they knew that I really, really didn’t like being lost, and they very sweetly encouraged me. “Don’t panic, Dad: we won’t be far away.” It especially, especially helps to be with someone who has been there before and loves you.

But thinking about mazes, I’d like to tell you an imaginary story that has a riddle in it, ok? Please imagine two of the smartest people in the world. Now suppose that these two brainiacs were put into a really difficult maze. Now there are instructions that clearly explain how to escape. And there, in the middle of the maze, these two people meet right beside those instructions. They study the instructions carefully, but here is the riddle: they are never able to escape from the maze. How is this possible?

Well, one possible answer to the riddle is very simple: these two people, as smart as they are, simply aren’t able to understand the instructions. Now while this might explain the riddle, the thought is really tragic, isn’t it? Being able to understand each other is one of the greatest blessings in the world. And misunderstanding (or being misunderstood) – those are two of the greatest tragedies in the world. Right down there on my list of least favorite things… right beside being lost? Misunderstandings.

Seriously, when you really understand someone, when you “click” with them, you often become instant friends. And good friendships are most certainly one of life’s greatest blessings. When you have the privilege of being married to your best friend, that blessing can be enormous. But misunderstandings occasionally happen even between the closest of friends, don’t they. Now these cartoons by Wiley are a bit on the silly side, but there is just enough truth in them that the humor might sneak up and grab you.

What she heard: “Anything less than absolute perfection makes you an utter failure as a wife and mother.” What he said: “Mom is coming over for dinner.”

What he heard: “Let’s go drain the life force from your body.” What she said: “Let’s go shopping.”

Now while these are admittedly silly, there is also an element of tragedy in them, isn’t there? But how much more tragic are real misunderstandings between real friends, and real partners. But there is an even bigger tragedy this morning, and this is the tragedy of misunderstanding Easter. Yes: most people even today misunderstand Easter! Easter may very well represent God’s best attempt to communicate his love to the world – to communicate his love to you. And sometimes people just don’t get it.

Suppose, for example, you go to the internet and at Google, you type “explaining Christianity to children”, you get links to a lot of advertising for educational resources, but in the top three, there are actually two websites that attempt to summarize who Jesus was for the sake of teaching one’s children.

According to the first one, “Jesus… came to earth to teach about love and fellowship.” Well, you might tell me that it is appropriate for some age…. Oh-k-ay. Here’s another one: “Jesus… came to… remind us how to behave.” Well, that’s also kinda true… but… I gotta tell you, “love and fellowship?” “how to behave?” This really is a dollar-store substitute of the Christianity of the Bible. Honestly: Christianity is not a sin-management program. As if life is all about avoiding sin.

That’s nonsense. Whether we like it or not, everyone in the entire world is regularly sinning. Everyone in this building, too. Anyone who thinks otherwise is judging themselves by a really low standard, typically the standard of themselves. God has a much higher standard. You see, Christianity is not about making one sin less; it is about the one who is sinless. (I need to say that again, because it is so important…) Christianity is not about making one sin less; Christianity is about The One who is sinless – Christianity is about Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

For when the Bible gives a summary of its own message, it doesn’t talk about sin management. Instead it talks about the Resurrection; it talks about Easter! Let’s read: (1 Corinthians 15:3,4) “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is it, folks. This is the real deal. Accept no substitutes. Nobody who really understands this is going to water it down to “teach about fellowship” or “remind us how to behave.” The message is that Jesus. Conquered. Death.

Do you remember how we started this morning? I told you one of my least favorite things, didn’t I? Well, guess what? Even if you were to think about your least favorite thing… the dentist, the dark, spiders? No matter what you thought about, I bet that you’d agree that death is much worse. And Jesus. Conquered. Death. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.

Now if you are anything like me, you still might not quite understand this. Hey, it took decades before I even began to get it. I used to read these verses or listen to them and think “ok… but what do those events mean to me?” And that’s the real question, isn’t it? If these events: Jesus dying for our sins, and Jesus rising from the dead, happened almost two thousand years ago, why should I really care? Well, that’s exactly the right question this morning. By the grace of God, I hope that we can come a little bit closer to “getting it” – to really, truly, understanding God’s most profound message of love for you.

You see, Easter is an event in history, for sure, but Easter isn’t just an event. It truly is the focus and the emphasis of the entire Bible. It may be mostly in pictures in the Old Testament, but it is all through the gospels, and it is all through the letters, and we even hear it in the song that the billions of angels sing in the book of Revelation. Don’t miss this: the reason why Easter is such a big deal in the Bible is that Easter can be such a big deal for you. In fact, Easter should be a big deal for all of us, if only we wouldn’t, tragically, misunderstand. You see, when Jesus conquered death, he wasn’t just showing his power: he was actually blazing a trail – a trail for us to follow; a trail that leads us through death into the most abundant life available.

Now if you are still puzzled – don’t worry, you are in good company. You see, even the disciples of Jesus – those closest to him, those living with him day-to-day – they didn’t “get it” for a long time. Now you might be thinking “How is that possible? They saw Jesus come back from the dead!” True enough. But Jesus’ disciples were introduced to the message of Easter before they ever got to witness it. In fact, they were introduced to the message of Easter in almost exactly the same way that I’ve introduced it to you this morning. Really. Recall how I did that. I read those verses: “Christ died. He was buried. He was raised on the third day.” And how were the disciples introduced to the message of Easter? The only difference was the verb tense. That’s right. You see, the Bible records Jesus telling the message of Easter to his disciples in advance. On many occasions, Jesus told them that he was going to die and he was going to be buried, and then he was going be raised on the third day! Here are the references of Jesus doing exactly that. I bet you didn’t know that Jesus told his disciples the message of Easter so often! These are really important elements of the gospel.

So this morning, I’d like for us to look at one of these passages, and consider the disciples reaction to the Easter message – because their reactions are almost certainly the same as the reactions of people today! And while we are at it, let’s pay close attention to how Jesus responded to their reactions. Because that will give us a hint as to how we should really react to the message of Easter today. So please open your Bibles to Mark 8:31-32: "from that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples … that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."

Notice how it says “from that time on Jesus began to explain”. This wasn’t an isolated thing. It is like a lesson that Jesus needs to go over again and again. But now let’s see how the disciples respond. Verse 32: “He spoke plainly about this, but Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Peter saying “Never! this will never happen to you!” And this, my friends, is still a common reaction to the message of Easter today: denial. “No way,” people say, “it never happened.” Never in the history of the world has more ink been spilled in attempts to deny a historical event. It isn’t even close. The message of Easter must strike a nerve. So many people prefer to deny it altogether rather than having to deal with it.

But as so many historians have discovered, it is very much more difficult to dismiss the Resurrection than one might think. There is no doubt (at least among real historians) that Jesus did, in fact, live. There is no doubt among historians that Jesus was, in fact, crucified, and died. And there is no doubt among historians that important historical figures like Paul and James became believers after Jesus crucifixion. And there is no doubt among historians that all the disciples believed that he was raised from the dead. After all, this is the message that they took to the ends of the known world and this is the message that they gave their lives for.

I watched a recent debate between a Christian historian and an atheist. And the Christian historian asked the atheist what alternative explanation could there be for all these things. And the only one that the atheist could offer was that everyone who saw Jesus was hallucinating. First the ladies who went to the tomb were hallucinating. Then the disciples were all hallucinating together. And then for the next forty days, everyone shared this big hallucination. And then, of course, the atheist would like us to believe that every Christian since that time was brain-damaged. I don’t think so.

There is plenty of evidence – even enough for doubters – that Jesus raised from the dead. But let’s now consider the difference between Jesus’ response to someone who doubts the Resurrection and someone who denies the Resurrection. The doubting story, of course, involves a disciple named Thomas, and it happened after the Resurrection. Thomas hadn’t been around when the other disciples saw Jesus after he had been raised from the dead, so Thomas tells his buddies, “unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were… I won’t believe.” – you see, Thomas had seen Jesus suffer a grisly death on the cross.

So when Jesus finally appeared to the disciples when Thomas is around, is he annoyed with Thomas for not believing? Not. At. All. The first thing he says to them is “Peace be with you.” And immediately turning to Thomas, he says: “put your finger here; see my hands… Stop doubting and believe.” And as you can imagine, Thomas is overcome with goosebumps and believes heart and soul. Then Jesus said: “You have believed because you have seen me; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” So Jesus isn’t at all troubled with doubts. Doubts are good. Doubts are healthy. God is bigger than our doubts.

But with that in mind, let’s go back and listen to how Jesus responds to Peter. Remember, in Peter’s case, the Resurrection hadn’t even happened yet. But when Peter tells Jesus, “no, no – that dying business, and that rising again? It will never happen.” How does Jesus respond? Mark 8:33, “Jesus rebuked Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’” Wow. What a contrast. On one hand, Thomas doubted the eye-witness testimony of his fellow-disciples, and Jesus was deeply gracious to him. Peter, on the other hand, is shut down in the strongest possible terms. When the Prince of Peace calls you ‘Satan’, you know you’ve stepped over the wrong line. Denying the resurrection is almost certainly the wrong thing to do. Doubting? No problem. Denying? Don’t go there.

But now pay attention to what happens next: Jesus notices a “teaching moment” and so he calls everybody around to listen. And this is what he says: (verse 34) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his own soul?”

What is Jesus saying here? Well, he is attempting to explain that in order to understand the message of Easter, we need to live it. It needs to be more than the story of Jesus in our heads. It needs to become our own story, deep in our hearts. This is a dynamic that is throughout the Bible. This explains passages like the following:

“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:4)

“If we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rom 6:8)

“we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” (2 Cor 5:14)

“you died with Christ” (Col 2:20)

“you have been raised with Christ” (Col 3:1)

You get the idea. You see, the message of Easter becomes the power of God for salvation when it moves from our heads as a set of historical facts about Jesus to our hearts as the dynamic by which we live day to day – when we decide that we are going to follow Him in the path of life.

This is certainly at odds with the thinking all around us isn’t it? In a world of self-indulgence, self-gratification and self-assertion, Jesus is turning everything upside down: “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” he says, “but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” But that, my friends, is the message of Easter. Jesus laid down his life for you. And God gave it back to him again. Now it is our turn. If we want to receive this amazing gift of love, we, too, must be ready and willing to die for it.

The message of Easter is not just some historical events. It is a fundamental rethinking of our entire lives. Jesus was lifted up to the highest place in creation and given a name above every name only once he humbled himself in obedience, in death on that cross. And the Bible makes it clear that we need the same attitude. In fact, that’s exactly what the Bible says! This is how the Message puts it:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He … didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to [his] … status …. Not at all. he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a [servant], became human! It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

[But] because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth…will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

This is so upside-down from our take-what-you-can, assert-yourself, know-your-rights culture. Nobody saw Easter coming.

So the next time that you feel like life is being caught in a maze… the Captain of our Souls has shown the way out. It isn’t what you might expect. In fact, it might be just the opposite of what we’d expect. The way to life isn’t to avoid death. Rather, the way to life is through death – Jesus’ death for us.

People who really, truly “get” the message of Easter are completely changed. First of all, we are freed from the fear of death! Death has no more sting! We don’t have to obsess over youth, or looks, or health. None of that matters nearly as much anymore. Second, everything in life is now put into perspective. Trusting in the Resurrection and the Life means that everything we do takes on new significance. Finally, we are set free. Free from death, and sin, and boredom, and evil. None of this because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus did for us. Happy Easter everyone!