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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Leaving Death Behind (EASTER) (Luke 24.1-12)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 27, 2016 (EASTER)
Text: Luke 24:1-12

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: Piano Meditations, Rick Bean, jazz piano)
Song of Praise: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (EASTER HYMN)
Song of Praise: See What a Morning (Townend, Getty)
Offering of Music: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Rick Bean, jazz piano)
Our Song of Praise: The Doxology
Hymn of Sending: We Know that Christ is Raised (ENGLEBERG; arr. Hopson)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: 

This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Easter Sunday is understood to be one of the two “big Sundays” of the Christian Church. The other, of course, is Christmas. For many of us, our quick summary of those two days is the birth and death of Jesus. But that’s not quite right. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus; but the cross and the death of Jesus really is what happened on the Friday before Easter, the day we call “Good Friday.” What the Church celebrates on Easter Sunday is the Resurrection of Jesus. And of those three most significant events – the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus – I think Easter is the one that is the most “out there,” the most full of mystery and miracle.

Of course it’s all miraculous, if you believe what scripture says about Jesus. But we have points of connection with birth and death, because we all are born and die. But resurrection? We have resuscitation, like after drowning or a heart attack; but that’s often a matter of minutes, before the brain is deprived of oxygen for too long. But three days dead? That’s beyond; that’s unbelievable; it’s non-sensical! But that’s the claim; that’s the story.

“Why do you seek the living One among the dead?

You heard the story read in today’s text. Jesus had been crucified, confirmed dead by the Romans, and buried before the Sabbath began. The women had gone back after the Sabbath to bring spices to complete the burial process. They found the stone moved and the body gone. And they encountered “two men… in dazzling clothing.” (v. 4) Terrified at the appearance of these messengers from God – angels – the women bowed to the ground. The angels spoke, saying, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?” The angels go on to say more and the women go to share the news.

“Why do you seek the living One among the dead?” (v. 5) – what an unusual way to start! In fact, that’s kind of a Jesus-like thing to do, to start with a question. Why not just tell them Jesus is alive and that they should go tell the others? I think the angels were trying to do more than impart information; they were stirring up faith. The one you seek is not in the box you have drawn – he is not “among the dead”; rather, he is alive! The angels asked a question that cut right to the heart of things. Then they did say outright what had happened: “He is not here; but He has risen.” (v. 6) And they helped the women remember that Jesus had talked about this. And the women remembered, and believed.

Non-sense: Unbelief or Wonder?

The women went to tell the apostles (v. 10), who had a near-unanimous reaction. To the apostles, “these words appeared… as nonsense, and they would not believe them.” (v. 11) I take that particular word literally – “nonsense” – this news was beyond the senses, beyond reason, beyond experience or comprehension. Peter evidently had a different reaction and ran to see for himself; but he only saw linen wrappings and no body. When he left the tomb, though, he was “marveling at what had happened.” (v. 12)

That’s the sticking point with God, isn’t it? If only God would speak from a burning bush or make an appearance or send an angel or two my way… then it would be easy to believe. But that’s not God’s usual m.o. AND I’m not sure that would help anyway. I mean the women got two angels and a huge stone rolled away. Peter saw the empty tomb and graveclothes. But it’s easy to rationalize those things away. What REALLY stumps us is the part that’s beyond our senses – a holy, infinite God who loves us; a God become human who died and lived; that there is something after death that is beyond what we can measure, touch, dissect, or truly comprehend.

When it comes down to it, there are two basic responses to this non-sense, this stuff beyond the human senses and comprehension. There is unbelief and there is wonder. There may be others, but those are the two responses in today’s text and I think they cover a lot of ground and common experience. Unbelief and wonder. Both make sense. I get unbelief; I really do. I don’t believe in unicorns, fairies, or genies in a bottle; it would be easy to dismiss the claims of Jesus and what scripture says about him as one more fairy-tale. But I also get the wonder; what if it is true? Doesn’t it line up with what Jesus said and what hundreds and thousands of years of independent testimony and inspiration and teaching said about God. Have you read God’s story? Do you REMEMBER? It is just as He said.

Clinging to Death

And here’s the thing; here’s the place where this connects to life and living. Much of the time, we live clinging to death. We live as if there is nothing more, as if there is no Savior and no Heaven, as if there is nothing eternal about our souls. Sure, we come to church – occasionally or a lot, but neither is a measure of our unbelief or wonder. Neither is necessarily a measure of our faith.

Even when we look to Jesus, we sometimes still cling to death. Let me explain. So much of the time we live out a faith that has Good Friday as its end-point… that is, forgiveness. Keenly aware of the ways we fall short of holiness, with God and with others, we are often reluctant even to do that. But when we muster up the faith and courage and humility to come before God, it’s a Good Friday faith: “Lord, I don’t deserve it; but would you forgive me? I’m sorry.” And God is good and faithful, and does! But we just cycle, rinse, repeat. We just go from the cross right back to the sins and habits and patterns that separated us from God in the first place. But listen; God has more intended for us!

The cross was not the end-point. Don’t misunderstand me there; the cross is central… it is foundational. Without it, without Jesus’ obedience and sacrifice in love, we could not be made right with God. But there is more; there is so much more! THAT is what Easter is about. Jesus took our sin and death onto himself on the cross, but on Easter he rose to life and defeated sin and death. And the Bible says that if we trust Christ, we are united with him in his death and in his resurrection.

That’s where the Easter story ties into the series we’ve been looking at over the last number of weeks.

Leaving Death Behind

We’ve been talking about the things we leave behind to follow Jesus, to trust and obey and follow in his footsteps and where he would lead us day in and day out. So far we’ve mainly talked about leaving behind things that are easy to comprehend: things like safety nets, comforts, preconceived notions of God and the like. But this is perhaps the biggest thing of all. Following Jesus means leaving death behind.

By that I don’t mean some sort of weird view that we can’t die, but in the way that the Bible talks about death as the period at the end of the sentence of life apart from God. But when you add God’s redeeming work to the sentence, you get more. Let me show you a passage from Ephesians 2 to demonstrate:

v. 1 – And you were dead in your trespasses and sins [description of sins].

In essence, it says “You were dead in sin,” period. But then it says this…

v. 4 – BUT GOD [a bit describing God] made us alive together with Christ!

There’s actually more after that, but this is enough for today and to illustrate the point of Easter. We cling to death when we do not yet know Christ or only see him as a forgiveness-dispensing device from God. Easter puts a semi-colon there – you were dead; but God made you alive with Christ.

So practically, what does that look like? How do you DO that?

Here’s the thing – you don’t have to DO it; God did it. God says that is reality for all who trust Christ. We just keep turning away from following Christ onward and we keep circling back to make sure the forgiveness took.

You leave death behind by following Jesus. Those who followed Jesus laid down nets and left their boats. Those who followed Jesus paid back those they had cheated and invited friends to meet Jesus. Those who followed Jesus focused more on the Spirit of God’s Law than the letter of God’s Law. Those who followed Jesus kept company with those in need – spiritually and otherwise. Those who followed Jesus, though sometimes confused, allowed Jesus to teach them who he was and what he was about.

Easter means that death is not the period at the end of your sentence. It is the semi-colon before what God has in store for you. And what God has in store – that’s what I want for you; that’s what I want for this church; that’s what I want for my family; that’s what I want for me. May it be so. Amen.

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