Monday, April 17, 2017

Rediscover Easter

Rediscovering Easter

He was dead, and with him died all of their dreams, all of their hopes everything they believed in.  They had given everything to him, their past, their present even their future and up until three days ago it seemed like a pretty good bargain.  All he had wanted was everything, and they gave it.  All he had asked was that they believe and oh how they had believed. And why not they had seen the impossible, they hadn’t just thought the impossible, that’s easy, what was it the Queen of Hearts told Alice, “Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”   They had seen the impossible, they had seen blind men see, they had seen lame men walk, and they had seen dead men live.  They believed with all their hearts, but not anymore, now their beliefs were as dead as their master was.

And there was nothing to do but to go home, to leave Jerusalem, to leave their hopes to leave their dreams and just go home.  They might as well try and recover their yesterdays because their tomorrows were as dead as Jesus was. 

They had seen him beaten, they seen him crucified, they had seen him killed and they had seen him buried and they knew the dream was as dead as the dreamer.  Unless, unless it was true what Mary had seen, she had seen an empty tomb, she had seen empty grave clothes and she had seen Jesus.  And if that was the case than he wasn’t dead, he was alive.  And if he was alive than everything was going to be all right. 

I went and saw the Passion of the Christ when it first came out and a friend asked me how I felt about it and I told them “Disturbing”.  And he looked at me a little strange and said “really, I really enjoyed it.”  Seriously?  I find that disturbing as well.  

And the reason I found the Passion disturbing is because crucifixion is disturbing.  But Christianity is not about the crucifixion of Christ it’s about his resurrection, Christianity is not about his death it’s about his life. 

It’s not about mourning it’s about celebrating.  The first Easter morning 2000 years ago must have begun as a bit of a downer, a dreary affair, with Jesus followers remembering what had happened, remembering the horror of Friday, remembering that their friend was dead and their dreams were shattered.  But then the cry rang out he’s alive, the tomb is empty.  And then, it happened, as quickly as turning on the lights, they weren’t mourning his being dead they were celebrating his being alive.  It wasn’t defeat it was victory.  Because he wasn’t dead he was alive and the tomb is empty. 

But how do we know that? Well we do know from history that on the third day the body of Christ was missing.  So where was it?  We believe, as did the early church, that Christ had risen from the dead that there was actually a physical resurrection.  It wasn’t a spiritual metaphor or a mass hallucination or a colossal hoax.   

However, throughout the years there have been other theories put forward as well. 

Last week a movie opened in town called “The Case for Christ”, it’s about Lee Strobels and how he came to faith.

Strobel’s was an atheist as well as an investigative reporter and legal editor for the Chicago Tribune.  He wrote the book “Reckless Homicide” which was an expos√© into Ford Motor’s cover-up of the problem they were having with the Pinto’s exploding gas tank.

When Strobel was 28 years old his wife became a Christian at Willow Creek Community Church.  He was beside himself, figured that Leslie had been duped by a brainwashing cult and so he began to investigate the claims of Christianity.   

His motives were to show his wife that Christianity couldn't possibly be true, instead through that journey he himself became a believer.   After his conversion he wrote the book “The Case for Christ”  which chronicled his investigation and is the basis for the movie. 

I have been a Lee Strobel fan since I read his book “Inside the mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary” in 1992.  Angela and I went to the movie last week and it is well worth watching.

 In his book “The Case for Easter” Strobel wrote, “The starting point seemed obvious to me: Clearly, the resurrection was the linchpin of the Christian faith.  After all, anyone can claim to be the Son of God.  But if someone could substantiate the assertion by returning to life after being certifiably dead and buried --- well, that would be a compelling confirmation that he was telling the truth. Even for a sceptic like me.”

The first thing that Strobel wanted to confirm was that Jesus actually died on the cross. 

After all there have been those who have maintained that he only passed out on the cross and came to in the cool air of the tomb. What Strobel discovered was that when presented with the gospel accounts of the crucifixion modern doctors felt that there was little chance that Christ could have survived the torture described there. 

Dr. William D. Edwards is a cardiovascular Pathologist at the Mayo Clinic and he wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association “Clearly, the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound in his side was inflicted . . . Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”

Once Strobel was satisfied that Jesus was really dead when he was placed in the tomb he needed to affirm that one of the apostles hadn’t stolen the body.  The strongest argument for that is that every one of the apostles was tortured for their faith and for their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. And while there are all kinds of people who will lie there are very few who will maintain that lie in the face of torture and death. 

The same apostles who hid while Jesus was being tortured encountered something or someone that gave them unprecedented power, and according to the scriptures, that something or someone was the risen Christ. Strobel wrote “The disciples didn’t merely believe in the resurrection: they knew whether it was fact or fiction. Had they known it was a lie, they would never have been willing to sacrifice their lives for it. Nobody willing dies for something that they know is false. They proclaimed the resurrection to their deaths for one reason alone: they knew it was the truth.”

Chuck Colson was known as Nixon’s Hatchet man, he was part of the Watergate Seven.  While serving time for what happened at Watergate Colson became a Chirstian.  He would later write about the resurrection:

“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”

Strobel then lists the various people whom the bible said Jesus had appeared to after the resurrection and said that if you called each of them to a witness stand to be cross examined about what they saw and allowed them 15 minutes to explain that the total testimony time would be 129 hours.  In other words, it would take you from breakfast on Monday until
Friday at dinner time listening around the clock to hear the testimony of those witnesses.  

But what did that really mean, other than the obvious that Jesus wasn’t dead?

Because the Tomb Was Empty His Enemies Knew they Were Wrong  The Jewish Religious leaders said he was a liar and a blasphemer.  The Roman Government said he was deluded and harmless.  Judas felt he had backed the wrong horse and that Jesus was a fraud.

And if Jesus had of remained in the grave then they would have all been proven right, but the grave was empty and they were wrong.

But really, Easter wasn’t about who was proven wrong.  Judas had already taken his own life, Pilate didn’t care who Jesus really was when he had him crucified and still didn’t care and the Jewish leaders still felt threatened by the teaching and life of Jesus.  To admit they were wrong now would signal the end to their power and influence.

But the empty tomb would change the lives of those closest to Jesus and ultimately would change the face of the world.

Because the Tomb Was Empty Peter Knew He Was Forgiven You remember Peter don’t you?  Peter who was one of the twelve.  Peter who was one of the inner circle.  Peter who was one of Jesus’ closest friends. 

It was Peter who walked on water, it was  Peter who offered to die for Jesus and it was Peter who grabbed a sword in the garden and tried to fight off those sent to arrest his friend.

And it was the same Peter who denied he even knew Christ, not once, not twice but three times.

Jesus had been arrested and his followers scattered, all but two of them disappeared.  John and Peter followed Christ, but not together.  We don’t really know if John was challenged about knowing Christ, and if he was we don’t what his response was.  But we do know what happened in the case of Peter.

Biblical Scholars tell us that the Book of Mark was probably the first gospel written.  The same scholars tell us that even though it was written by a young man named John Mark that he was probably just acting as a secretary for someone else.  Someone who had been an eye witness to everything that Christ had done.  And that somebody was in all probability Peter. 

With that is mind let read Peter’s account in Mark 14:67-72 and noticed Peter warming himself at the fire. She looked at him closely and said, “You were one of those with Jesus of Nazareth.” But Peter denied it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, and he went out into the entryway. Just then, a rooster crowed. When the servant girl saw him standing there, she began telling the others, “This man is definitely one of them!” But Peter denied it again. A little later some of the other bystanders confronted Peter and said, “You must be one of them, because you are a Galilean.” Peter swore, “A curse on me if I’m lying—I don’t know this man you’re talking about!” And immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Suddenly, Jesus’ words flashed through Peter’s mind: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny three times that you even know me.” And he broke down and wept.

Come on Peter, what is going on?  This is Jesus, the same Jesus that called you from being a fisherman and turned you into a fisher of men.  The same Jesus that walked on the water, fed the hungry, healed your mother in law and raised Lazarus from the dead.

You don’t know him?  You practically lived with him for the past three years and you don’t know him? You ate together, travelled together, laughed together and you don’t know him?  He taught, you learned.  Maybe you simply forgot that you knew him.  What was it you couldn’t remember?  Was it when you said in Luke 9:20  “You are the Messiah sent from God!”or was it when you said in Matthew 14:33 “You really are the Son of God!”

Peter do you even have the slightest recollection of saying to Jesus in Mark 14:29 Peter said to him, “Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will.”  Or Mark 14:31 No Peter declared emphatically. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!”

But you did deny him, not once, not twice but three times.  And if Jesus had stayed in the tomb than Peter would have lived a life of defeat.  Wallowing in guilt, self-pity and grief.  But Jesus didn’t stay in the tomb.  And when the two Marys found the tomb empty, and the angel told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the angel told them in Mark 16:7 Now go and tell his disciples, and especially Peter, . . .

Especially Peter.  Peter who denied him, Peter who swore that he didn’t know him, Peter who turned his back on him when he need Peter the most.  Not to fight for him, not to try and rescue him from the Roman Centurions.  He just needed Peter to be there.  He needed to see Peter in the crowd needed to know that those three years weren’t wasted.  He didn’t need Peter to die for him; he simply needed Peter to live for him.  And Peter denied he ever knew him.

And when Jesus hung on the cross, with the blood from the crown of thorns dripping into his eyes, and he pulled himself up by the iron nails driven through his wrists and said
Father forgive them, he was looking for Peter.  Mark Twain said “Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” And that was certainly the case here as Jesus looked out at those who betrayed him, denied him.  Those who demanded his death, and those who gave into those demands. 

But that forgiveness is powerless unless it comes from one who has the power to forgive. Unless it came from one who had the power to say, defeat death.  Without the resurrection that forgiveness would have been worthless, simply more words from a prophet proved wrong by his death.  But when he stepped out of the tomb everything he said, everything he taught was proved to be right.  And his forgiveness became a certainty.

Have you denied him?  With your words, with your behaviour? Have you wondered whether or not Jesus could ever forgive you? The answer is “Yes”, not only can he forgive you, he wants to forgive you and his resurrection proves that he has the power to forgive you, if that is what you want. 

When Peter realized what he had done, the Bible says he broke down and cried, that was remorse, he was sorry for what he had done.  God’s forgiveness is there for each one of us but first we need to acknowledge our wrongs, and be sorry that we did it, not just sorry we got caught doing it, but sorry that we disappointed Jesus.

Because the Tomb Was Empty Thomas Knew He Was Blessed You ever get tagged with a nickname?  Especially one you didn’t like.  You have to feel sorry for Thomas.  This was the disciple that tradition says was responsible for taking the gospel to India. We are told that he was martyred for his faith in the Indian city of Madras. 

If you read through the accounts of Thomas in the Gospels you see a young man fully devoted to Christ.  And yet how do we know him?  Not by his first nickname, which is what the other apostles called him, they called him “The Twin.”  I wonder what they called his brother?    

And yet 2000 years later we still call him “Doubting Thomas”  Why?  One mistake, one lousy mistake.   John 20:24-25 One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”

As if he was the only one who had doubted.  When the women first came with the news of the resurrection, well let’s pick up the story where we left off. Luke 24:10-11 It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women who told the apostles what had happened. But the story sounded like nonsense to the men, so they didn’t believe it.

Doubting Thomas indeed.  But he probably verbalized it better, saying I won’t believe unless I can see it myself.  Not a impossible or unreasonable request considering the time and circumstances.  Not like Woody Allen who said “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.”

All Thomas was saying was “you’ve seen him, if I’m going to believe than I need to see him too.”  Not unreasonable at all.  And when he saw Christ he believed, he looked at him and said “My Lord and my God”.   And do you remember what Jesus said John 20:29 Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”  

That’s you, blessed are you who haven’t seen him and believe anyway.  You do believe in the resurrection don’t you?  You can’t take bits and pieces of the Bible, believe some of it but not the rest.  Augustine said “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

If you don’t believe that Christ rose from the dead why are you here?  If I didn’t believe I could think of a dozen other things I’d rather be doing than being in church on a Sunday morning. 

Everything that Jesus Christ said and did could be duplicated or fabricated right up to his resurrection.  But at that point it became very apparent that he was not a man, he was not just a prophet or a teacher.  He was and still is God.  And what does that mean for you on April 16, 2017?  Well in Romans 4:25 The Bible says Romans 4:25 He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.  And again in Romans 6:4 And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Have you been made right with God?  Are you leading a new life?  That’s why Jesus was raised from the dead, so that you could be forgiven, so that you could believe and so that you could have a new life. And all you have to do is reach out and accept it.

Maybe today you can identify with  Lee Strobel when he wrote “As soon as I reached that monumental verdict, the implications were obvious. If Jesus overcame the grave, he’s still alive and available for me to personally encounter.” And encounter him he did on November 8, 1981. Perhaps you will point to April 16, 2017 as the date of your encounter with the risen Christ.

Because the tomb is still empty

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