It’s Thursday and Jesus has had the last supper with His disciples. He goes to the Garden of Gethsemane around midnight to pray with His disciples. And while He’s there He’s arrested by the temple guards. They take Him before the Jewish Sanhedrin where Jesus is tried on charges of blasphemy; that He has claimed to be the Son of God and the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. He’s found guilty and He’s taken the next morning to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Now before Pilate He’s accused of having tried to lead an insurrection, of claiming to be a king over against Caesar. And though Pilate finds no basis to charge Him, he caves to the pressure and finds him guilty. Jesus is then sentenced to be beaten, and then to carry His own cross to Calvary; a hill just outside the city gates of Jerusalem.
It’s there at 9 in the morning that He’s nailed to a cross. On either side of Him are two men who had been armed bandits and perhaps revolutionaries. And Jesus is crucified between them. He hangs there for 6 hours until 3 in the afternoon when finally He spoke these words, “It … is … finished.” And then He breathed His last breath … and died.
He was taken down from the cross by a man named Joseph of Arimatheia. His body was cleaned up, anointed, wrapped in a linen shroud, and then Jesus was placed in the tomb. A large stone was rolled in front of the mouth of the tomb. And that … should have been that.
That should have been the end of the story. The disciples would have grieved the loss of their friend and mentor. Perhaps they would have become disillusioned by what happened; believing that God was conspicuous by His absence as evil and suffering, hypocrisy and hate, win out after all. And so, their faith destroyed (or at least severely compromised), they would go back to fishing, or farming, or collecting taxes, or whatever it was they had done before they became Jesus’ disciples.
But, of course, that was not that … that was not the end of the story.
Early on the first day of the week, on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to the tomb to continue to grieve and mourn. As they arrived at the tomb they were horrified and shocked to find that the large stone had been rolled away. As they peered in they found the grave clothes just as they had been left on Jesus’ body, but there was no body. And they were certain that someone had come and taken the body of Jesus to further desecrate and humiliate Him even in His death.
Mary Magdalene turns and she sees a stranger in the garden. Certain that he’s the gardener she begs him, “Please tell me if you have taken the body of my master would you tell me where you have taken it.”
And the gardener speaks. “Mary.” And she turns and she sees that the gardener is none other than Jesus himself.
Can you imagine the joy that she felt in that moment; the shock and the amazement? The astounding joy to know that all of the evil that she had seen taking place on the cross on Friday, the death of the man that she loved, that all of that in one moment was reversed in one moment as he stood there calling her name.
Now this is the Easter story. In the time that remains what I’d like for us to ponder are three questions, one of which we’ll answer, actually only you can answer, and that at the end of the sermon and that’s the question, do you really believe this story? Granted it’s a hard story to believe. So in the end I’ll invite you to answer that question for yourself.
The questions that I really want us to ponder together are, first what does this story mean? If Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was all a divine drama, a message from God that God is trying to speak a word to the human race, what was God trying to say in the resurrection of Jesus?
And then the second question is, what does this story demand of us? What does it demand of you? And what does it demand of me?
Let’s ponder to begin with 2 ideas answering the question what does this story of Easter mean for us today?
In 1930 Gustav Aulen, who was a Swedish bishop and a theologian, published a book called Christus Victor. That means “Christ the Victor.” In it he said that in essence what was happening in the suffering death and resurrection of Jesus – he wasn’t saying this was all that was happening – but he said the early church understood largely that what happening in Jesus’ death and resurrection was a playing out of a divine drama in which God was pointing toward something that every human being has wrestled with from the beginning of time. It’s this cosmic struggle or battle between good and evil.
And we all know it. We live it. We’ve experienced both sides of the equation. Both the good and the bad have come from us and we’ve been the recipients of this. It’s the universal struggle between faithfulness and faithlessness. Between obedience and disobedience. Between love and hate. Between despair and hope. Between life and death. Every human being will wrestle with this. And in Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, in His life and His suffering and His death upon the cross and then His resurrection God was demonstrating in this cosmic kind of battle how ultimately the story plays out. He was giving us hope. He was showing us the victory that God has already won over the forces of evil.
And so this was about a battle and the ultimate victory. Christ was the victor.
Now in round 1 of this battle Jesus comes – the battle is being played out in first century Palestine – Jesus comes and He begins to fight in this battle. To use a boxing metaphor. He’s healing the sick and casting out demons and drawing lost people to God. He is winning the battle against evil. For three years He goes about His public ministry. And the forces of evil are driven back. And you see in Him goodness and kindness and love. And the people who were listening to His ministry and His message were drawn to God, and drawn to live a life of love. And He teaches them over and over again, “This is what you were made for. This is what it means to be human.”
But round 2 was soon to come. Round 2 Jesus would fight in the city of Jerusalem. And the forces of evil would rally here, not to be pushed back any longer. And they would after trying Him, beating Him, abusing Him, scourging Him, humiliating Him, seeking to make Him feel small they would hang Him on a cross.
And when they hung Jesus on the cross, the forces of evil seemed to deliver the decisive blow, a knockout blow, in which Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. Evil seemed to have triumphed on that day. Goodness was lost. God was absent entirely from the scene, or so it felt for those who were watching.
Round 2 the enemy seems to have dealt the decisive blow against the forces of God of goodness and of hope.
Now it’s important for us to remember for us to recognize that all of us have lived in round 2 at some point in our lives. Some of you are there right now; a moment where you feel utter hopelessness. It may be when you receive a diagnosis from a doctor that tells you that your situation or the situation of someone you love is terminal. It may be when you find your family unraveling and there seems to be no hope in putting it back together again. It could be you’ve lost your job and for months you’ve been looking for another job and one more letter telling you that you were not chosen for the position that you’d applied for; you begin to feel that sense of hopelessness and despair. It may be depression that sets in in your life. Or a whole host of other things.
But every one of us has walked, has stood in the ring in round 2 and felt like we were utterly defeated. Jesus hanging on the cross cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” Round 2 is a part of the human experience.
But Jesus entered the ring in round 2, and it’s interesting, He didn’t even raise His gloves. He stood there and He took it. He doesn’t speak when He is put on trial before the Sanhedrin. He doesn’t defend Himself before Pontius Pilate. He takes every blow that they offer as though He intended to receive all of that pain, all of that hate, all of that poison, all of that punishment. Blow after blow after blow. He absorbs it all. Suffering for us, taking upon Himself all the evil, all the hate that humanity has to offer on our behalf. Sin on our behalf. All of it on our behalf. And then finally tasting of our arch enemy death.
Now this then helps us understand something of what was happening on the cross. In the divine drama God was saying, “I understand what you walk through in round 2. I will subject myself to the evil that you also experience. And He was and his friends were experiencing the hopelessness that comes with round 2.
But round 2 with Christ was not the last round. There was round 3. And round 3 began when He walked forth from the tomb and He as He stood there in front of Mary and what she saw was 24 hours before she believed that round 2 was the end of the battle but instead she had seen in this moment that death was never the last word. That hate would never have the last word. That violence and cruelty and inhumanity these would never have the last word.
On Friday she came to believe that life was tragic. On Sunday she came to believe that no matter how tragic life was there was always hope. There’s always hope. That’s part of the message of resurrection. God triumphs over all the forces of darkness. That the story ends well.
I heard several years ago theologian Frederick Buechner say something about Easter. And every year it strikes me when people ask me what do you think Easter means I’m drawn back to this quote. Buechner said, “Easter means the worst thing is never the last thing.” That terrible and tragic and hurtful words are never the final words.
Easter reminds us that Christ won the victory. That we don’t have to be afraid. That in the end death will not be the final word. This is part of the hope of Easter. And it’s what we see in His resurrection from the grave. We see the promise delivered that death is not the end.
Karl Barth once said it this way: “The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin and the curse of death are beaten. They still behave as though the game was not decided, the battle not fought. We must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them anymore.”
Now listen. Easter doesn’t change your circumstances. Because Christ rose from the dead does not mean you’re going to get a job tomorrow. Because Christ rose from the dead does not mean you’re not going to have cancer. It doesn’t mean your spouse is going to suddenly come back. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be in the same situation. But it means your perspective on the situation changes.
The disciples who had been afraid and in hiding after He was crucified, after He was raised from the dead went out and proclaimed the gospel with boldness. Even though 10 of the 12 of them would ultimately die for their faith they were no longer afraid of death because they knew that the second round was never the last round.
This is what Easter faith does for us. It changes fundamentally our perspective so we know somehow and some way though I can’t see it now and life is difficult in the moment, God will make a way. The third round is coming. That is the message of the resurrection.
But of course there’s more than that. Resurrection is not only a victory that’s already been achieved and a promise for a victory yet to come but it’s also the promise of Christ’s presence in our lives then and now.
Then. Jesus says in John 14 a passage you’ve heard at many funerals. He said, “I go to prepare a place for you and if I do I will come back for you that you may be with me where I am. And in my Father’s house there are many rooms.”
There is something on the other side of death, He’s saying.
In John’s gospel earlier before raising Lazarus from the dead, He turns to Lazarus’ sister and he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die yet shall they live. And whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Story of Rev. John Dyksen, Pastor at First UMC that I served with in Winchester, VA. He was diagnosed with cancer while he served that church and was very sick as he underwent treatments for one year before he died. I remember the Easter Sunday during that year in which he was so sick. He had lost so much weight and he was so weak and to my surprise and amazement he actually walked into the sanctuary and sat down for Easter services. It was all he could do to sit there through the service; his body was in a great deal of pain. And afterwards I said, “John I am so surprised to see you here for worship today.” And he said, “Randy, there’s nowhere else I would go. I had to be here. This is my hope. This is what I’m counting on; that I will see him face to face, that I will be with him and he will be with me.”
Now. Easter’s not only about the hope of the resurrection. It’s about the hope of Christ’s presence in our lives today.
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the last words that Jesus says after His resurrection, just before His ascension into heaven, the final verse of Matthew’s gospel Jesus makes a promise. And this is what He says, “Lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.” He was promising not only that he would be present with us in heaven He was promising, the risen Christ was promising, “I will be with you here in this life no matter what you walk through, no matter where you are, no matter the hell you face on earth, I will be with you. I will never leave you or forsake you.”
This sense of Christ’s continuing presence in our lives is what Christians talk about as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And you may have heard people talk about this in a way that maybe turns you off. But you know it’s really simple. It’s just the sense that Jesus actually fulfills that promise there in the end of Matthew’s gospel; that He really does walk with you every single day, that He’s always there, that He is an abiding presence in your life.
And our parents and grandparents used to sing a hymn about this. Maybe you’ve heard it at funerals, though we don’t sing it often today (even though we sang it this morning at the sunrise service).
The second verse says, “He speaks and the sound of His voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing. And the melody that He gave to me within my heart is ringing. And he walks with me and He talks with me. And He tells me I am His own. And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”
That hymn captures our lives as Christ’s followers. Every single day Christ walks with us. And even in the moments that you do not recognize Him, He is always there. And that changes our lives when we know that we have friend that sticks closer than a brother who walks with us each day.
So we know at least this about the resurrection that it is God’s sign of His ultimate triumph over all the forces of evil and darkness and despair. It is the promise that Christ will walk with us each and every moment of our lives. And when this life is over He will walk with us and we with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.
What does this demand of us? That’s what I want to focus on as I conclude this message.
But first I want to tell you a story that is really a way of answering this question what does Easter demand of you?
A lady in one of my former churches made us a delicious pecan pie (my favorite). She gave it to me one Sunday at church and I put it in the back seat of my car. It sat there for several weeks because I forgot about it and didn’t remember to bring it in to enjoy it. I began to smell this awful smell each time I got in the car after a few weeks. Imagine my dismay when I went searching for the source of the odor and discovered the pie that I had forgotten and left un-enjoyed.
She had poured herself into making this beautiful gift for us, but because I didn’t remember it or take advantage of it I was not able to really enjoy it or appreciate the gift that she had given.
Here’s what I want you to know. What response do we have to the good news that Christ died for us, that He was raised from the dead in triumph over all the forces of darkness? That because of that there is always hope. And that Christ is an abiding presence in our lives. What does that demand of us? We have to truly receive it for ourselves and not neglect it. But then we must also remember what Jesus said after His resurrection. “Go tell somebody. Tell them what you saw. Tell them that you saw me suffer in love for them. Tell them that you saw me raised from the dead so there is always hope. Tell them that I’m going to always be with them. Tell them the things that I have told you. Teach them to love God with all their hearts. Teach them to love their neighbor as themselves, to demonstrate mercy and compassion and forgiveness. To care for the poor and those who are in need. To love not only their neighbor but also their enemies. Tell them to walk humbly before me and to seek to do what’s right and to turn from what’s wrong. Tell them to follow the narrow path and not the wide path. Teach them the things I have taught you.
This is what was demanded of the disciples after Easter.
Now you say, “Randy are you really saying on Easter - I mean I don’t hardly ever go to church - Are you telling me I’m supposed to go out and win other people to Jesus? I don’t even know how to express my own faith.”
No. I’m not telling you to go out and preach sermons to other people. I’m not suggesting that you need to leave here and go stand on the street corner and preach. What I am suggesting is that all of us if we come to trust in what happened at Easter have got to live the sermon. We have to live the resurrection. We have to be His witnesses. And I remind you of how that happens. St. Francis of Assisi in a very famous quote said, “Preach the gospel all the time but only when you have to use words.”
It means that you live the sermon. You live the good news.
What does that mean? It means that you live the sermon. You live the good news. It means there are people in your life who are in round 2 right now who are discouraged, who feel hopeless. Your role and part is to show them hope. Your role and part is to reveal to them through your love the love of God in Jesus Christ. Your role is to be for them the resurrection.
There are people living right here in Sterling who live in darkness and they feel like they’re in round 2 and they’re always living in round 2. Who’s going to offer them hope and help them see the truth of the resurrection if it’s not you; if it’s not me; if it’s not us?
In other parts of the world there are millions and millions of people who live in hopelessness and despair. How do you find resurrection hope in the midst of some of the circumstances people are living in? Those things will not be the last word in this world. But how will it not be the last word if it’s not for people like us rolling up our sleeves and saying, “Let’s do something about it.”
This is what the resurrection demands of us, that we are His witnesses. We embody the resurrection and the hope that He offers us in His resurrection.
Now the final question is one that only you can answer for yourself; do you believe this? You know there are some folks who would say, “Come on you can’t really believe this. Christ died and God raised from the dead.” To me that has to be the end of the story. If that’s not the end of the story then we live in a world that’s still tragic and evil overcomes good. That needs to be the end of the story. That doesn’t shake me, it doesn’t challenge me to believe that. I know that has to be the way. If this is a divine drama then God is speaking into that drama a word of victory. I’ve felt His presence in my life. I know He is the risen Christ. You say, “Do you believe this stuff?” I not only believe it. I’m counting on it. And I hope you will too.
O God how grateful we are that you sent your Son Jesus Christ to be our champion, to be our liberator, to be our Savior and our healer our Lord and our friend. We thank you for His suffering and death upon the cross and today we thank you for His resurrection and the triumph and victory. We thank you for the hope that we have in Him. And we pray that you would give us courage and boldness, insight and understanding so that we might live the resurrection, that we might be witnesses of the good news. Help us o God to tell somebody.
Lord in this room there are people who are living in round 2. I pray that this day that once more that they would find the hope, the knowledge that though weeping endures for the night joy’s coming in the morning. Their round 2 is not the final word. Help them to know and believe this. And draw us near to you. We pray in your holy name. Amen.