Sunday, March 27, 2016

I Believe: Trusting the God of Easter


"O the Blood" performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir

I fell in love with that song last summer. I believe I told you about my experience last summer at the Brooklyn Tabernacle. During my sabbatical, my family traveled to New York, and we attended the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Sunday. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang that song while we were there. It was one of those extreme moments of clarity for me. I know these things to be true. I have preached about them nearly every Sunday for the past 16 years. But every now and then, I experience these moments of extreme clarity when I come to believe all over again. Do you ever have those moments?

In that moment, I came to believe all over again:
  • The blood of Jesus washes me.
  • The blood of Jesus was shed for me.
  • That sacrifice literally saved my life!
  • The blood of Jesus is my victory!
  • And that “victory” is what we come to celebrate on Easter.
  • He is Risen (He is Risen Indeed).
But what about those many moments in life when it seems like Jesus never rose from the dead? Death, not resurrection, seems to be the most powerful force in our world. This week we were reminded one more time just how powerful and devastating hate can become. In Belgium, 31 people were killed and 270 people were injured in yet another terrorist attack. ISIS almost immediately took credit for the devastation, wearing the fear they caused as a badge of honor. If you listen to the politicians running for President, it is difficult not to be reminded of the death reigning in our world. Trump sees death coming in from Mexico, so he says we need to build a really big wall! Cruz sees death in the Muslim community, so he says we need to increase our police patrols in Muslim neighborhoods. Hillary Clinton sees death in American gun violence, so she says we need to make it more difficult for folks to buy guns. Politicians, especially in election years, have the same goal: help Americans see the death more clearly, make them very afraid, and show them how they alone are equipped to do away with the death.

Sometimes death is not on the television, but in our own living rooms. More than a few of us in this room have had to say good-bye to fathers and mothers and spouses and children. In those moments, we have all been reminded that suffering and lament are parts of this life. In those moments, as strong as our faith may be, it is difficult to see evidence of Jesus’ resurrection with so much death around us. Sometimes death, for us, happens long before the funeral. Some of us have experienced death in our world by walking closely with someone who is battling cancer. We say the right things to them. We pray for them. Yet, when we are alone, we fall apart. Because cancer is a reminder that death is alive in this world.

We experience death in other ways too (not just through literal “death”). Sometimes death manifests itself through fear. Can I be honest with you? I think there is some fear festering in our own family. A few weeks ago, our elders announced that we are going to study a difficult topic together. A topic about which people are passionate and emotional and sensitive. It’s a tough conversation. I don’t want to get into that issue this morning, other than to say this…if we allow fear to cripple us, if we assume the worst about our brothers and sisters (our family), if we work to fuel already heated emotions by our speech, then all we will see is death.

That is world we live in! Terrorism, disease, fear, and sometimes, in a world like ours, it is extremely difficult to see evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. So we come to a place like this and we hear the words: “Jesus is Risen!” And we might even say the correct response: “He is risen indeed!” But I know there are folks here this morning who are having great difficulty really believing that statement. Because your experience right now is not resurrection. Your experience right now is death.

So, what are we to do about that on this Easter morning?

Nearly two thousand years ago, the earliest Christians set out to write down the most important elements of the Christian faith. If you strip away all of the extraneous elements from Christianity, what is left? What is at the core?
I believe in God, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.
I believe Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and that He descended into hell.
And to this list of “I believe statements,” they added this one:
On the third day, He rose again from the dead, He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
Easter is at the center of the Christian faith. In fact, Easter IS the center of the Christian faith.
  • If Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is absolutely meaningless.
  • If Jesus did not rise from the dead, He was just another good man who helped people.
  • If Jesus did not rise from the dead, all of the death in this world wins.
But Christians profess our belief in a resurrected Christ, and that changes everything, it must change everything.

Most of you have at least heard the name, Rick Warren. He is the pastor of Saddleback Church and the author of one of the best-selling books of all time, The Purpose Driven Life. A few years ago, he and his wife Kay went through a devastating loss. Their 27-year-old son took his own life. He had been battling depression and mental illness for years. About a year after that tragedy, Warren wrote this:
I've often been asked, "How have you made it? How have you kept going in your pain?" And I've often replied, "The answer is Easter."
You see, the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus happened over three days. Friday was the day of suffering and pain and agony. Saturday was the day of doubt and confusion and misery. But Easter—that Sunday—was the day of hope and joy and victory.
And here's the fact of life: you will face these three days over and over and over in your lifetime. And when you do, you'll find yourself asking—as I did—three fundamental questions. Number one, "What do I do in my days of pain?" Two, "How do I get through my days of doubt and confusion?" Three, "How do I get to the days of joy and victory?"
The answer is Easter. The answer … is Easter.
He’s right, you know. The answer to death in our world is Easter. The answer to fear and terrorism and cancer is Easter. As God’s resurrected people, we are called to live as though God has the last word, because (simply stated) God does!

When Paul was writing to the Romans, he invited them to see their entire lives through the lens of their baptism. I invite you to do that same thing this morning. Just after Paul reminded the Romans of the magnificent grace of Jesus Christ, he wrote this:
So what are we going to say? Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply? Absolutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it? Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life. If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his. This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin. That way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore, because a person who has died has been freed from sin’s power. But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him. We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1–11 CEB)
Baptism is more than just a one-time act that forgives sins. Baptism is a picture of the life to which God has called us. Our baptism calls us to leave death in the grave. Our baptism calls us to live as resurrected people. Ultimately, our baptism is—ultimately, Easter is—an enduring call to trust God. Brothers and sisters, on this Easter morning, let me ask you a very pointed question: Do you trust God?

Do you remember the words? The blood of Jesus washes me. The blood of Jesus was shed for me. That sacrifice saved my life! The blood of Jesus is my victory! Do you believe that? Do you trust the God of Easter to take care of the death in this world? Do you trust the God of Easter to take care of the death in your life?

History is filled with people who did extraordinary things because they trusted the God of Easter. How would history be different, if they had allowed the fear of death to cripple them? Imagine the apostle Paul, fearing resistance or rejection, choosing to stay home rather than embarking on the missionary journeys that took the message of Christ throughout the known world. Imagine Rosa Parks. What if she had not trusted God to change America’s institution of racism? What if she had submitted to the bus driver's command to give up her seat to a white person? Imagine Nelson Mandela. What if he had looked the other way when he witnessed and experienced apartheid in South Africa? What if he thought to himself, “I just can’t get involved; it’s too dangerous.”

Now, imagine yourself, fully aware of the mission and vision God has placed in your heart to advance His kingdom in this world. What if you are held hostage by: phobias, irrational worries and destructive fears of failure, harm, or rejection? Easter is a call to let go of fear and trust that God is who He says He is. It is time to trust that God did what He said He did. It is time, church, to embrace the God of Easter, because He is our Highest Hope!

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