Sunday, April 24, 2011

Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 28:1-10 or John 20:1-18

At that time, saith Jehovah, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

It is always strange to write about the Resurrection Day scriptures before we have experienced Maundy Thursday and Good Friday because it is hard to experience the empty tomb without the cross. But since we have been through this many times before, we can remember what the disciples experienced in those last days of Jesusí life. Besides, for many of us, the passion story was read last Sunday and is fresh in our minds. So, before we talk about the joy of Easter morning, letís think about the men and women who endured that hard time.

What must it have been like for those disciples? Just days before, Jesus was at the height of His popularity. He entered Jerusalem as a hero to the praise and adulation of the crowds. Though Jesus may have tried to present a different image in His entrance on a donkey with her foal, the people saw Him as the conquering king. Jesus did things early in the week that may have furthered their impression. He overturned the cheating moneychangers and argued with the leaders. The disciples who were closest saw the power and authority with which He did everything. They were looking forward to being in the middle of this revolution to change the world and restore Israel. Though Jesus constantly referred to the reality of His mission, they preferred to see Him as a conqueror.

They were confused when He was anointed at Bethany because they didnít want to believe that He was about to die. They didnít understand why Jesus would submit Himself when He washed their feet, or why Judas was running off in the middle of the dinner. They saw a change in Jesus that just didnít make sense when He was right on the path they wanted for Him. They wondered what it meant and where they fit in this new and frightening picture. ďWhat is happening?Ē I can imagine them saying. Then the soldiers came and Jesus went willingly. Wouldnít a conquering hero fight? Peter certainly thought so. He raised his sword to protect Jesus, but Jesus said, ďNo.Ē He was innocent, but accepted the will of God. Though Jesus told them that it must be, they never understood. So, when Jesus died on the cross, the disciples were left in shock. What were they to do? Where were they to go? Would there be another king who would lead Israel into freedom? For those first disciples, the cross was the end of everything. Jesus was rejected, cast off, killed and they were left alone.

The very thing they thought was the end was the center of everything they would do from that moment forward. Peter tells the story in our lesson from Acts as we understand it. Jesus preached peace and a new baptism; He healed and set people free. He did good things and Peter was among those who were witnesses. But then Jesus was hung on a cross and died. The story does not end there, however. It does not end in their fear and confusion. It does not end on Good Friday. God raised Jesus from the dead and Jesus prepared those witnesses for their new mission, which was to tell people that God has provided sacrifice necessary to restore Godís people to Himself. They were sent to take Godís forgiveness to the world, forgiveness gained by the blood of Christ.

We have a hard time with this concept of atonement through sacrifice. Why would a loving God demand payment for sin? Why would He punish anyone, especially when sin is innate and we are incapable of overcoming it? Why would a loving God demand blood, especially the blood of someone who was so good? I suppose that is part of the reason those first disciples couldnít understand what was happening. Even though they understood the need for atonement and the shedding of blood for forgiveness, they were offended by the idea of human sacrifice.

Jeremiah writes, ďAt that time, saith Jehovah, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.Ē This is a covenant that is unbreakable by a God who promises everlasting love. Israel failed her God over and over again. Like a father disciplines a child, God disciplined His people when they turned from Him. They sought the aid of allies instead of trusting in God. They worshipped the gods of their neighbors instead of staying true to the One who chose them out of every other nation to be His. They went their own way instead living according to His Word.

Despite the discipline, God always remembered His covenant. He kept His promises. The punishment might have been hard, but it was not permanent. They suffered but were not destroyed. This was ultimately manifest in the death of Jesus. Though it seemed permanent on Good Friday, the disciples saw Godís faithfulness in the empty tomb. The punishment was not permanent. Jesus wasnít destroyed. Though God might, at times, punish the sins of His people, He remembers His covenant and restores them into wholeness.

So, we come again to those disciples. How were they feeling on Friday and Saturday? They were broken. The unimaginable had happened and they could not see beyond that moment. I wonder if some of them were angry with God? Did they think about following Barabbas, who was set free while Jesus was crucified? Did they think perhaps he was what his name suggests ďSon of the Father,Ē instead of Jesus? Were they ready to give up and return to their old lives, getting along as best they could in an oppressed world?

Whatever plans they were making were shaken on that Resurrection Day. The cross wasnít the end of everything; it was the beginning of something new and spectacular. The tomb was empty. Jesus had been raised. It wasnít enough, however, for the body of Jesus to be missing from the cave. Most of the people in Jerusalem, especially the Romans and the religious leaders, suggested that there had to be a natural explanation. They spread rumors that the disciples stole the body to make it appear He was resurrected.

The disciples, despite the promises in the prophecies and the words of Jesus, wondered if someone else had stolen Jesusí body. Did the authorities want to ensure the disciples could not hide the body and make these claims? There are still people who argue these points today, still not believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. But we are told in the Gospel stories and in Peterís recollection of those days: Jesus not only was raised, but that He visited His disciples and even ate with them. He was made manifest in their presence after He was raised so that they might believe. Jesus honored those disciples by appearing to them; they were chosen to see Him so that they could then go out into the world and reveal Him to others.

He honors us, too, as He is revealed by others, choosing us to continue sharing the message that He gave to those first disciples. He is revealed by those whom God sends, like our parents, pastors and other Christians who cross our path, but it God that makes Jesus manifest in our life. God raised Jesus from the dead and He raises Him in our lives. We inherit the same promises as those who came before, joining in the covenant that God began with Israel but extended to all nations.

I have a statistics tracker on a few pages at my website. I donít pay a lot of attention to the numbers, they arenít very impressive and since the tracker is free they might not even be very accurate. But it is fascinating to see hits on my site from places all over the world. Iím often surprised, especially when someone visits from the Middle East or tiny islands in the Pacific. Over the years I have seen trends in visitors. I only get to see limited information about the last one hundred visitors and most of the people come from the United States. There are usually some hits from Canada, England and Australia. I rarely see visitors from South America, but that quite possibly has to do with language, since Spanish is the predominant language. I am amazed at how many visit from Africa and Oceana, as well as Asia. My statistics tracker reminds me daily that the Word of God truly is for all nations.

Peter had to have it shoved down His throat. He kept returning to the idea that Jesus Christ came to save Israel, but eventually learned that Israel was no longer just a nation, but was also all people who believed in Christ. Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name. He shows no partiality when it comes to the saving grace of Christ Jesus. He is the right hand of God, He was punished but not destroyed, and He has become my salvation because he did it all for me.

I like the idea that Jesus is the right hand of God. In ancient culture, the right hand attests to the victorís powerful superiority. A commander, when entering a city, would raise his right hand in the air to show that he is the winner. God has raised His right hand, because He has conquered sin and death. He raised Jesus to show that He is all powerful. Jesus may not have been accepted by all the people in His day, and His death and resurrection may have been question by both the unbelievers and the believers, but He was still victorious. It was when God revealed Jesus to the witnesses, and now to us, that we can believe that He is faithful to His covenant promises. God has promised everlasting love and He will rebuild that which has been broken. He will restore His people, all His people, all those who believe in Jesus.

When you believe, you will be raised with Christ, and when you have been raised with Christ you are called to a new life. God will make Him manifest in your life. You are called, like Peter and those first disciples, to be His witnesses, living a to a life of revealing Christ to others in your words and in your deeds. You are called to a life that leaves behind the old ways and takes on His garments of righteousness. Through faith in Christ, a faith that God produces in us when Christ is revealed, we become His people and He is our God.

On that first Easter, when the disciples discovered that it was not the end but only the beginning, God did something new and amazing. He gave us a peace that we could never know without Him. Peace of heart. Peace with God. Peace that changes the world. Let us join with the first witnesses in sharing that peace with the world, preaching that Christ died but was raised by the God who keeps His promises. He comes today and always to restore us, to rebuild His chosen people into one nation in covenant with God.

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