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Monday, April 17, 2017

Holy and Sure Blessings (Acts 13.29-41) - EASTER SUNDAY

Sermon by: Robert Austell; April 16, 2017 (Easter Sunday); Acts 13:29-41

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Scripture and Music ::
Singing Together: Christ the Lord is Risen Today (EASTER HYMN)
Singing Together: In Christ Alone (Getty/Townend)
The Word in Music: (Choir) Easter Alleluia Canon (Mozart, Liebergen)
Song of Response: Mighty to Save (Morgan, Fielding)
Hymn of Sending: Behold Our God (Sovereign Grace, Baird, Altrogge)
Postlude: (Organ/Piano) Because He Lives 

:: 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.

“I will give you… holy and sure blessings.” Thus God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (55:3), and the Book of Acts links that declaration to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ which we celebrate this morning. We have been talking about blessing for a number of weeks, seeing that it is not a reward God heaps upon the lucky or the faithful, but is the experience of being a part of what God is doing.

Looking for references to God’s blessing led me to some different places over the last few weeks and today is no exception. This is the first time I’ve gone to the Book of Acts to talk about Easter Resurrection, but it’s there in chapter 13, a quick recap of what happened this Easter weekend, and then an explanation of what it means. So I invite you to listen up and maybe hear something you haven’t heard before in this account of the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

The News: Resurrection! (vv. 29-31)

The big news is Resurrection and it’s described right there in the first three verses of our text. We will take up what it means in a moment, but here is the report of the news, according to Luke the Physician, who investigated, interviewed, and wrote the books of Luke and Acts with the intent of making an orderly account of all that happened. (Luke 1:1-4)

“When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him…” (v. 29)
– That refers to the many things that happened to Jesus that were written about in the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. He would suffer, he would serve, he would be beaten and whipped, he would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, he would heal, he would announce the Kingdom of God. Jesus did all those things in his life and ministry, and once he had given up his life, “they took Him down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb.” That’s a super-short summary of his life and death, but if you want the details, you can read it all in the Gospels, the eye-witness accounts from his followers.

“But God raised him from the dead” (v. 30) – It’s frustratingly short, but not even the Gospels tell us how that happened, just that it happened. The Gospels include the reactions of the women, the disciples, and that sort of thing, but we don’t get the answers to our questions like “How did that work?” and “Did his body recompose?” Elsewhere we are told that he was changed somewhat, so it was more than just resuscitation, like might happen after someone has drowned. He was three days dead and God raised him. It’s supposed to be supernatural, beyond our experience or understanding, divine mystery.

“For many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, the very ones who are now his witnesses to the people.” (v. 31) – This is an important part of the Resurrection news. It’s not just myth and fable because in the days that followed people saw Jesus of Nazareth. You might even attribute it to a vision or hallucination if only one or two saw him at the empty tomb, but he appeared to different people and groups over the course of many days. He spoke, he touched, he ate, he visited. And those who saw him became witnesses – eye-witnesses – of the Resurrection news.

The Promise (vv. 32-37)

But what does the Resurrection mean? Why is it such a big deal? Luke turns to that question next, starting with some long-standing history and hopes of the Jewish people. Luke speaks of the “good news of the promise made to the fathers” (v. 32) and says that “God has fulfilled this promise to our children.” (v. 33) He then quotes from the Hebrew scripture, the Old Testament, from Psalms and Isaiah, to name the promise. God promised his people another like the great King David, born of God as a son, inheritor of David’s blessing and birthright, and proof against death and decay. This was the Messiah that God’s people waited for in faith for a thousand years. And Luke claims all that for Jesus, that he is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the heir to King David. These are the “holy and sure blessings” of David. But Jesus is more than and greater than David, the greatest of all Jewish kings, he says, because David died and his body decayed; but Jesus was raised from the dead.

Luke says that the Resurrection is a big deal because it proves that Jesus was the expected Messiah. Well that has a lot of significance if you are Jewish, but it may still leave most of us asking, “So what?” What does that have to do with me, Jewish or not, in 2017 in the United States of America? And what does all that faith, hope, and promise stuff have to do with my life full of deadlines, internet, science, politics, and modern sensibilities.

Luke says there are two results of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, these “holy and sure blessings” of the Promised Messiah of God: FORGIVENESS and FREEDOM.

Forgiveness and Freedom (vv. 38-39)

“Therefore let it be known to you… that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you…” (v. 38) – You don’t have to be Jewish or even Christian to understand FORGIVENESS. It is that undeserved act offered by one toward another out of mercy or love. Maybe you hurt my feelings by a casual comment, or maybe something worse. You may or may not come to say “I’m sorry,” but regardless, I do not owe you forgiveness, but it is my choice to offer it. The old way was “an eye for an eye” – you hurt me and I have the right to hurt you back in equal measure. That kind of justice has been around in many cultures since ancient times. But Jesus taught something different: forgiveness of the other as one part of his broader teaching to love one’s neighbor. The forgiveness described here is an even greater kind. It is forgiveness of sins proclaimed to you. Sin is a certain kind of rift, specifically between us and God. Yes, it’s a spiritual term. It describes any number of ways we have wronged God or the humanity or creation God loves. Sin may be defiance or dismissal of God; it may be through the way we treat others. But here’s the result of Jesus’ life, suffering, and death: God knows you and forgives you. It’s undeserved; you don’t earn it through good deeds. Like our own forgiveness of others, it’s out of mercy and love.

“…and through Him everyone who believes is freed from all things from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” (v. 39) – Forgiveness from God is the result of Jesus life, suffering, and death; the result of the Resurrection is FREEDOM. Here it says “freed from all things from which you could not be freed through the Law of Moses.” The Law of Moses is the system of right behavior prescribed in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. It includes the Ten Commandments and many other rules and regulations. Hear this: the commandments are good. It is good not to kill, not to covet, not to lie. To the extent that you or I heed and follow them, we are better off than not following. The key there is “to the extent.” None of us can keep them all the time. And so the net result of those commandments is the sure and certain knowledge that we fail and fall short. Maybe you already knew that? You might think that’s obvious to everyone, but I think many of us go to great lengths to avoid that truth. We are “good enough” or “better than that guy.” But whether we own up to it or not, there is a weight – a captivity – that comes with being human. And the claim is that somehow you can be free from that weight and captivity because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Let me press in and try to make this personal. Can you think of a place in your life where you have messed up? I trust you are all with me so far.   And don’t worry, you will not have to whisper this to the person next to you or write it on a card. But whether it’s the Law of Moses or the law of the land or just the unspoken law of what is right and wrong between you and another person, you’ve messed up; we’ve all messed up. Has that mistake had consequences? Or, perhaps worse yet, you are waiting for the consequences to fall on you like a hammer. Have you experienced what I mean by a weight or feeling captive to that mistake? I think our two human responses to that kind of situation is 1) we want to get away with it; or 2) we want to pay in full so we can be free. Both of those have problems. Getting away with something may sound appealing, but it doesn’t truly remove the hammer, because we know we might be found out. And then there is our conscience, which often won’t let it go. Paying in full is sometimes appealing, too, except there are something we can’t pay in full, particularly under the “eye for an eye” scenario. If I’ve hurt you deeply, is full payment for you to hurt be back? Worse yet, we try to combine the two, keeping our mess a secret but trying to make ourselves suffer until the sin is atoned. That version is particularly damaging as it causes further hurt to ourselves and doesn’t actually solve the problem. To truly get unstuck and out from under requires forgiveness which leads to freedom. Not freedom like I’m off the hook, but the freedom that comes from a new start, granted through forgiveness.

Now, I realize, what comes to mind for most of us when I ask about messing up is something related to another person or situation. But I would suggest that underneath that is messing up toward God. And if you can truly recognize that and accept God’s forgiveness and freedom, it will open you up to the opportunity for human forgiveness and freedom. And if you’ve heard anything from the blessing series, you realize that one of the key ways to find God’s blessing is to extend it to others. You may find that the first step towards human reconciliation is offering forgiveness and freedom to someone else who has messed up.

A Final Word: Take Heed (vv. 40-41)

This text in Acts ends in an interesting place. After all the news and context and results of the Resurrection, v. 40 reads, “Therefore take heed, so that the thing spoken of in the Prophets may not come upon you.” What is that thing? It is in v. 41 – that someone hear this news described and dismiss it and perish, missing out on the great gift of life through forgiveness and freedom.

I have described it to you. May God grant you ears to hear that you might be forgiven and set free. Amen.

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