Saturday, April 7, 2012

Do you believe this?

Here is my Easter message, 2012:
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Last week we looked at the Passion week through the eyes of a man named Cleopas who was mourning the events of Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion. The story ended in despair and desolation, with the disciples crushed by the events, their Master prosecuted, condemned and executed like a common criminal.

We all know what happens next, but they didn’t. For them, it was the darkest hours of their lives. They didn’t know what we know now. They were devastated by the events of that week and the last 24 hours and didn’t know what was about to dawn upon them.

Today we are going to look at the resurrection story, but focus primarily on the initial response of the women and of two of the disciples, and what we can learn from them.

When the crucifixion ended and the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross, he had to be buried in a hurried fashion because sunset was approaching on Friday, the start of the Sabbath. It was Sunday morning, the day after the Jewish Sabbath when a group of women set out right at sunrise to go to the tomb in order to properly prepare Jesus’ body for final burial. As the women approached the tomb they saw that the large stone across the entrance was rolled away. It doesn’t mention this, but apparently the guards had fled, with Matthew’s gospel saying that an angel appeared and rolled the stone away, and that the guards were so terrified that some of them passed out.

The women approached the tomb and looked inside. They saw two angels in clothes that “gleamed like lightning” and one of the angels spoke and said, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!” The angel told them to go tell the disciples and so they fled the tomb and ran back to the disciples. Mary Magdalene spoke for the group of women when they reached the disciples. She was amazed, and yet still uncertain of what she had heard. She told them “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and I don’t know where they have put him!” Now we, reading the story with hindsight, think to ourselves “She just had an angel tell her he was risen! Why is she saying someone took the body?” But we have to remember she has been through a terrifying, dizzying series of traumatic events the last 24 hours, watching her Master being tried and crucified. There was a conspiracy of betrayal with the High Priests and religious leaders. So her head is spinning and she doesn’t know what to believe.

Two of the disciples dash off to the tomb, and that is the focus of what I want us to look at today. I think that the initial response of the two disciples who first ran to the tomb to investigate matters provides a good representation of how we all look at the resurrection of Christ.

Is seeing believing?
The text of the disciples running to the tomb is in John 20, verses 3 through 9. Peter and John take off running for the tomb to see the situation for themselves.

So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. 4 The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; 5 and stooping and looking in, he *saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. 6 And so Simon Peter also *came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he *saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. 9 For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.

John runs ahead of Peter and arrives at the tomb first. He looks inside, sees the empty burial cloth lying there, but he hesitates to go in. Peter arrives and being the man of action that he is, boldly goes into the tomb and also sees the burial shroud lying there, empty. Since Peter has gone into the tomb, John is emboldened to follow and it says that he sees and believes.

In this short little series of events lay three responses that typify most people’s response to the resurrection of Christ. Let’s look at the responses in the story, then look at how they match up with our typical responses.

First John arrives at the tomb ahead of Peter, looks in and sees the empty burial shroud, but doesn’t go in any further to investigate more closely. Recall that in the Greek language, there are different words used for the same term, but often with slightly variant meanings. In this passage we read that John “saw” the burial cloth and then that Peter also “saw” the cloth. But different Greek words are used here.

When John first ran up and looked inside the tomb, the word used for “saw” has the meaning of to glance at, to quickly scan. So John came to the tomb, quickly scanned the situation, but went no further and drew no conclusions. He may have been waiting for Peter, who was the de facto leader of the disciples, to see what he would do and think.

Then Peter arrives and more boldly, he goes inside. Peter came in and studied the situation. John’s gospel doesn’t tell us Peter’s response, but the same incident is described by Luke in his gospel, chapter 24, and it says that Peter walked away puzzled, wondering what had happened.

Finally, John goes into the tomb, and it says again that he saw the situation. But this time, a different word for “saw” is used. This word has the connotation of seeing with perception, with understanding. This time, John saw with understanding, and it says he believed. He got it. He knew a miracle had happened.

Even then, John seems to have only barely grasped that Jesus had truly risen, because his own account says that they still did not understand that Jesus must rise from the grave.

Which response represents you?
I think that the responses we see here from Peter and John are fairly typical to how people respond to the resurrection of Christ and the gospel message.

John’s first response. Many people respond to the gospel message and the resurrection of Christ like John initially did. They look at it, glance at it, but don’t dig into it to investigate it further. They just take a cursory interest in it but go no further and make no decision about whether they believe it or not.

Peter’s response. Others go further, perhaps enter in to a more studied relationship with the gospel message and the resurrection, but never come to a point of decision. They scratch their head and don’t know what to think about it. They put off a decision. They don’t commit. They never seem ready to make a choice about accepting the message of the gospel and committing to living for Christ.

John’s second response. Others however, size up the situation, see the facts before them, and they see with understanding. They get it. They grasp the magnitude of the life of Christ, his redemptive work by dying on the cross for our sins, and how he overcame death, all for us. They see it all with understanding and they believe. The Greek word used for John believing is that he trusted. He grabbed hold of that truth with faith and believed it unto salvation.
That is the decision we all must face when confronted with who Christ is, with the message of the gospel and with the resurrection.

Two facts about the gospel message are absolutely critical and require us to respond to them.

First, Jesus was not just a good teacher, a great leader, who was martyred for his beliefs and what he taught. He claimed divinity. He claimed to be the Son of God. That he was God Incarnate, God come to earth in human form. The gospels relate this in several places and it’s clear that the religious leadership knew he was making that claim because several times, in a rage, they said so, and they picked up rocks to stone him to death for blasphemy. An example of this is in John’s gospel chapter 10 where the religious leaders can’t stand it any longer, they are so offended, and they grab rocks to start hurling at him. Jesus asks them in verse 31 for which of his good works are they stoning him, and they respond that it wasn’t for his good works but because he, being a man, claimed to be God.

He also in several places referred to himself using the sacred Hebrew name for God “I AM”…literally YHWH, a term that means “The Eternal One”. It is considered holy and sacred among Jews, and here he was referring to himself as YHWH. It enraged them.

Combine this with the fact that the Old Testament prophets had foretold his coming in great detail centuries beforehand, add in his miracle healings, raising people from the dead and the power of his teachings, and you have to make a decision about Jesus being more than just another great religious leader that founded a great religion. We have to confront the fact that he was much more. He was God come in flesh to reveal the nature of God to us before our eyes. And that he took the punishment that we would have to face for our sin against God upon himself on the cross.

God made humankind in his image, like him in terms of being sentient beings, capable of awareness and abstract thought and the ability to know Him and understand the universe around us. But humankind is also fallen, flawed. We are made in the very image of God, yet we all have this twist in our nature away from God. We reject God, we turn away from him.

You know when your child does something wrong, and you ask them about it and they turn their eyes away from you when you try to talk to them about it? They can’t look you in the eye? That’s captures the very essence of our relationship with God. We were created by him, He loves us more deeply than we can imagine, but we’ve fallen away from Him and the relationship is broken.

We can’t repair that relationship, but God did. He himself took the punishment for our sin. It would be like that parent taking the punishment on himself for what their child did. Or like a judge who finds a criminal guilty, then pronounces sentence…on himself! God saw that humankind was powerless to cure their own sin and fallen nature, so he came as a man, suffered the punishment for our sins on the cross. God’s justice calls for punishment from sin, but his mercy and love provides a way for it to be satisfied so that we can have relationship with him both now and in eternity.
Then He went into the grave and on the third day afterward, defeated death.

The resurrection means everything. If Jesus had just died on the cross it would be easy to dismiss his life and ministry as just that of a great teacher and martyr. But it would make his claims to divinity look hollow and meaningless and mean that they weren’t true, therefore it would discredit much of what he taught, if not all.

But the resurrection changes everything. It punctuates the ministry of Christ.It validates his claim to divinity, because as God come in human form, he defeated death and the Bible says he paved the way ahead for us to follow one day into eternity to spend with him.

Buddha died and was cremated and his ashes are divided up among different sites in Asia. Mohammed’s tomb is in Medina. His bones are in there. Other religious leaders throughout history are buried and have shrines at their tombs around the world. Their bones are in there.

Jesus body is not buried anywhere. There are a couple of shrines to places people believe might have been the tomb of his burial. But he’s not in either one of them. He is not there. He is risen.

Conclusion: Do you believe this?
In John chapter 11, just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he tells Martha:

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

The question Jesus asked Martha is the question we must each one answer. Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That he is the Son of God who gave his life for us, suffering for our sin, then defeated death on our behalf, so the we might have eternal life with God?

Will we respond like John’s first look at the tomb? Just glance at it and not go any further in response? Will we be like Peter, looking more closely, but remaining confused and indecisive? In both of these first two responses, to not decide is itself a decision. It is putting off a decision that must be made. Or there is the third choice: to see with understanding, and to believe, to trust in Jesus and the work he has done for each of us, for you and for me, then to respond to Him in a prayer of acceptance through faith.

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