Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
Luke 24:1-12 or John 20:1-18

This is the day which Jehovah hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.

There is a candy called "Now and Later." It was given that name because it is a package of several individually wrapped squares of a chewy substance, some of which can be eaten now while some is saved for later. There is enough in one package for now and for later. There is so much about the Christian story that has a "Now and Later" viewpoint. Jesus Christ reigns and will reign. Eternal life is our hope for tomorrow and our assurance for our today. Salvation is now and later.

On Easter Sunday we celebrate the empty tomb. We are amazed with the women and surprised with the disciples that Jesus' body was gone, wondering what it all means. Once Jesus appeared before them, stories we will hear in the weeks to come, they began to understand everything that He had told them as they journeyed together toward the cross. They began to understand why He had to die and what God had planned all along. Once Jesus appeared before them, they saw that God's power is over everything, including death.

Yet, on Easter Sunday we see only the empty tomb and the promise of meeting Jesus again. On that day when our pews are full, with family and friends of our members or curious strangers seeking to understand Christianity, we speak of Jesus' being raised and give them the empty tomb, and yet in Luke's version of this story we do not meet the risen Lord. We are given the promise that we will see Him again, but we see only a missing body and the confusion of the disciples.

Of course, our hymns, prayers and joy will praise God for the Living Christ. We'll sing thanksgiving for raising Jesus from the dead and we'll present our visitors with a glimpse of what will come. The empty tomb means that our tombs will also be empty, that we will be raised with Christ and that we will rejoice in His presence for ever in eternity. This is a great promise, one that will give us hope for tomorrow and will keep us through the hardest times.

Yet, for many people, hope in an afterlife gives no consolation in times of stress and difficulty. The disciples were told what was to come, that He would die and be raised again, but they did not understand what that meant while they were experiencing the grief of their loss. They could not see beyond the moment. What good does an afterlife do when we are suffering in this life? The Christian faith, to those who do not believe, is foolishness. Recently someone said to me, "He's dead, get over it." The resurrection is meaningless to many because it does nothing to change this life.

Paul writes, "If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable." For many people, Christianity is to be pitied because they prefer to live for the satisfaction of their hedonistic desires, which the religions of Paul's world satisfied. Unfortunately many today have the same expectations within their belief system even some Christians. Faith, to them, is about feeling good, about self-satisfaction, about being better. And though the Christian response to God's grace often brings about good feelings, satisfaction and a transformation into something new and better, Christ never promised that our life with Him would be easy. As a matter of fact, Christian faith is hard. The Christians in Paul's day were persecuted because they did not live according to the societal expectations. Even though they had faith, Christians got sick and they died. Though there were those in the community of faith who had wealth, many of the Christians were less wealthy because they had been outcast from both the Jewish community and the pagan for their unusual beliefs. Christians truly are to be pitied, if you expect faith to be rewarded in this life.

If there is no heaven, if there is no eternal life, then we are indeed to be pitied. But in Christ we are not to be pitied, because we have a hope that goes beyond today. The non-Christian who pities a Christian for faith in some heaven or afterlife sees no purpose of living beyond the here and now. They want their reward immediately. Christianity is indeed for "later" because in that empty tomb is the promise of our own empty tombs. We know that Jesus Christ was the first of many, the first born of the dead. He rose and through faith we will rise with Him.

Yet, the promise of Easter is not just some future event in which we hope, it is not just about the eternal life we will live with Christ. It is certainly a wonderful hope. Isaiah tells us of the new heavens and earth, a time when we will not be afraid or cry, a time when the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. This is not today, but it will come.

Yet, the promise in Isaiah is not just for that new heaven and earth, but a new earth in which we can live today. We still die, but have you thought about how amazing it is that we live such long and full lives? Even a hundred years ago, it was extremely unusual for a person to live to old age. Now Willard Scott celebrates the birthdays of many centenarians a week. The childhood mortality rate has dropped dramatically even in the last century. Life is in many ways better for all of us, as technology gives us more time for leisure and medicine helps us to live healthier, happier lives. In some ways, we can see glimmers of the fulfillment of the promise in our today.

Though Isaiah speaks of the heavens in the first verse of this passage, everything else is about the earth. The future promise is for today, also. The future fulfillment is the hope of today and in that hope we can live in joy and peace. We aren't to see the Easter story as one that is still to be completed. God's salvation is now. In that salvation we live and breathe the Gospel in this world, offering hope and peace to those who are still lost in the darkness. The world is being recreated one heart at a time as we, God's people, share His love to the world. In our words and works, things are transformed and people are changed. We can see a glimmer of what is to come when we will no longer labor in vain or be subjected to misfortune. How great a day it will be when the earth is new, when the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox shall share the bountiful gifts of God's abundance. But this is the day that the Lord has made.

We all live busy lifestyles. Between chauffeuring the kids to all their activities, work, and the regular household chores, little time is left for quiet time. Along with our daily responsibilities, we live in a society where our leisure activities are almost as important as our work. We are encouraged to take time to smell the roses, to enjoy life, to do activities that will make us happy because if we are happy we will be healthier. Not that these activities are bad, or wrong, it is just that we have so little time to simply rest. We who live beyond the resurrection are restored to the relationship that is lost by our sinfulness. We are called by God's grace to live joyfully, to live faithfully, to keep our hearts and minds on God.

It is hard for those who visit our congregations on Sunday to see that, though, especially since we will focus on that empty tomb. We'll talk about how Jesus has been raised so that we might have eternal life, but they will not necessarily see how that affects our lives. When we go back out into the world as Easter people, will they know that our faith means more than just a hope in an afterlife? Or will they be like that guy who said, "He's dead, get over it." Will they see that faith is about joyfully living in thanksgiving each day, or will they leave wondering what's the point of it all?

Easter is about life. Certainly, the raising of Jesus is about new life for Him, but it is also about new life for all of us. The empty tomb means that we will receive the eternal life that is promised by God to those who believe. In baptism we die with Christ, in faith we are raised again. Life is the end of all we face in Christ. That is completely upside down from what we experience in the world. No matter what we do, our flesh will perish and decay. Believing in Jesus will not keep us from dying. Our Christian lifestyle might extend our life a bit good and healthy living can keep death at bay, but not forever. We will die.

There is often a church directly connected to a cemetery. The reason is that people are buried in hallowed ground, and the ground around churches is hallowed. In places where the church buildings are hundreds of years old, the more prominent members of the congregations are even buried inside the church. We noticed in the churches of England that there was often engraving on the stone floors marking the resting place of some wealthy landowner or exceptional member of the clergy. Churches like Westminister Abbey appear to be little more than huge, elaborate tombs. While the church is known for other things weddings and coronations of monarchs, funerals and even secular gatherings most people visit the site to see the resting places of hundreds of famous people from poets to kings.

It is certainly why we went, to start. I wanted to check out Poets Corner. With monuments to the likes of Chaucer, Tennyson, Browning and Dickens, some of the most amazing minds are remembered in that corner of the church. Though he is not buried in the church, there is even a memorial to William Shakespeare. I was also interested in the legacy of the Tudors, several of which are buried in the church. Fascinating stories about their life battles and death reunions make a visit to the church like watching a soap opera. The architecture, something that always fascinates me, is amazing and beautiful. It is worth a trip for anyone in England.

Yet, it is a living church. People gather there each Sunday for worship, to hear God's Word and to receive the sacraments. As a matter of fact, the church offers several worships everyday, including weekdays at lunch, so that people visiting and working in the city can gather to worship the living God in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our life. We happened to be visiting over the lunch hour. We heard the worship announced over the loud speaker a brief communion service in a few minutes. We asked one of the staff how to get to the service and he was so excited that we wanted to worship that he took us through red velvet ropes and against the flow of visitors so that we could be there in time.

I was terribly disappointed when we arrived at the worship area to discover that there would only be a few dozen worshippers. There was easily a thousand people in that church that day, and in the midst of that chaos we few received the body and blood of Christ. I wondered why, as I watched the visitors filing by, why they would spend so much time with the dead when they could be worshipping the living God. For them, Westminster Abbey was nothing more than a tomb.

Our world is truly upside down. After the resurrection, the women went to the tomb seeking Jesus' body so they could finish the work of anointing Him for death. As they were there, two men in dazzling robes appeared asking them, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?" They did not yet know that Jesus had been raised, though He told them to expect it. They did not understand what He meant until later when He appeared before them alive. As Christ lives, so do we. But we see the world with a skewed point of view, seeking death instead of life. We would rather spend an hour looking at the tombs of famous people then worship the living God. This is true of our daily lives, also, as we chase after the things that will perish and decay rather than worshipping the living God.

When we look at the passage from Acts, we see Peter telling the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Peter tells those listening that they were chosen as witnesses, not to an empty tomb but to the living Christ. "Him God raised up the third day, and gave him to be made manifest, not to all the people, but unto witnesses that were chosen before of God, even to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead." This risen Jesus commanded the disciples to preach to the people and to testify that Jesus is indeed the appointed Messiah. He was the One for whom they waited, the One promised through the prophets and the scriptures. The disciples were called to preach the risen Lord so that the people who know God's Word is true and believe. Those who believe receive forgiveness of sin through Jesus' name.

Jesus in not just a risen Lord, but He is the living Lord, present among His people. The Christian faith would be nowhere if there were no witnesses to testify that Jesus is alive. What hope is there in an empty tomb? The angels who met the women at the tomb asked, "Why do you seek the living among the dead?"

Sometimes we forget to pass on that forgiveness that we have so graciously been given. When sinners seek to know the Lord Jesus, do we really give them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, offering them true forgiveness for their sin? I have heard that there are ex-convicts fellowshipping among communities of Christians who are unable to admit their past out of fear that they will be rejected. Some sins are much greater than others in our eyes. What would happen if a rapist, murderer or child abuser wanted to join your fellowship?

Would you say "Jesus forgives" but turn your back on their needs? While it is true that Jesus is the only one who can forgive sins, we are called as Easter people to bring that forgiveness to the living dead in this world. We are called to deliver the promise of hope that comes with the empty tomb to the people who are dying in their sin.

Yet, even more so, we are called to introduce the world to the Living Christ. How can they see Him living in us if we reject them and turn our backs on their greatest needs - not only physical, but also emotional and spiritual?

Our churches this Easter will be filled with people, many of whom will be first time visitors. A great many who have seen the story of Jesus' passion will come seeking the rest of the story. What will they find in your fellowship? Will they see an empty tomb and only a promise of the hope to come? Or will they see the Living Christ and rejoice in this day as they receive the forgiveness that comes from Christ through His believers - the forgiveness that they need for true life now and forever? This is the day which Jehovah hath made; We will rejoice and be glad in it. The Lord is risen, He is risen indeed.

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