Wednesday, March 31, 2010
LIVING BY DYING
Luke 9:18 - 27; Romans 8:1 - 11
There are lots of things you thought you understood and had figured out. In the end, you discovered that what you thought was true was not really true. For example, I heard a true story this weekend. A home owner - who shall remain nameless - heard a lot of ruckus and as they looked out there was three people, dressed in black and wearing ski masks out in the yard. He thought it was a group of teens that had been burgling houses in the area was about to break into their house. But that wasn't reality at all. It was just a bunch of Presbyterians sneakily skulking around placing pink flamingos in the yard. Things are not always what we think they are.
Easter - It's the grandest switch in history. The authorities thought they had killed Jesus. The Romans were glad to be done with the uprising his life caused. Pilate had washed his hands. Soldiers had beaten him within inches of his life then executed him using the most painful, tortuous method known in history - a specialty the Romans were very good at.
Just to make sure he was dead, a Roman soldier thrust a spear in his side and fluid from his lungs mixed with blood flowed from the wound. He was taken down and pronounced dead. If anyone knew what death was it was a Roman Soldier.
The Jewish religious leaders thought they had quelled the challenge to their authority. This young rabbi from Galilee who had stirred up such a fuss would bother them no more. After he had been taken from the cross, he had been placed in a stone sepulchre, a large stone was rolled in front and the tomb was sealed and guarded by a squad of the Praetorian Guard.
Even his followers spent the days immediately after Jesus' crucifixion mourning his death. They wrapped his body. They embalmed it with spices. They placed it on one of the carved rock ledges of the tomb. They saw the stone rolled in front of the tomb and sealed with Pilate's royal seal. They witnessed the placement of an armed guard, placed there because even the authorities had heard Jesus' claim that he would rise again.
The disciples, for fear of reprisals and arrest themselves, they were hiding out in an upper room with the doors locked.
That was Friday. Little did they know that what they thought had happened was quite different than what really did happen. Yes, their rabbi and lord had died. But dawn broke that first day of the week and things changed. Sabbath was over. It was time to go and do a more thorough job of caring for the body of him who they loved and followed. In sorrow the women went, not knowing they'd find the tomb empty and the grave clothes rolled up.
Various stories began to circulate trying to discredit the news. Jesus' disciples had stolen the body; Jesus really wasn't dead, he had only swooned; in their grief the women and the disciples just imagined they'd seen Jesus. Many of those stories still circulate today. The authorities claimed the disciples had stolen the body. Others tried to spread the rumor that Jesus' followers had gone to the wrong tomb by mistake. None of those rationales hold water really. Nor do any of the more recent arguments of skeptics. In fact, those who have seriously investigated the Easter event have found that it is the only answer that makes sense of what happened in the following months, years, decades and centuries since
Many people have attempted to disprove Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Frank Morrison investigated thoroughly, looking at all the historical evidence and ended up writing a book entitled "Who Moved the Stone?" The stone that had been moved from inside the tomb, in spite of the Roman seal and the armed guard was the one telling proof that could not be denied. He became a convinced believer.
Lew Wallace, the governor of New Mexico and a staunch atheist, set out to do the same; to disprove the resurrection. What he ended up writing was an incredible story of the risen Christ called Ben Hur. More than a historical docudrama, the story was a sort of autobiography of his own life. Before believing in Jesus and his resurrection he we disbelieving and angry, struggling against God. He didn't believe in the resurrection. After his own historical investigation of the evidence however, he not only came to believe in the evidence intellectually, but it changed his life.
CS Lewis, a literature professor and philosopher attempted to investigate with the intent of disproving the claims of Christianity and he was "Surprised by Joy." He became perhaps the most convincing apologist of the Christian faith in the 20th century.
Lee Strobel, a lawyer, used to examining evidence and seeking the most logical and plainest answer to that evidence ended up writing "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Easter"
Perhaps the plainest proofs of all was the changed lives of the disciples. History tells us the fates of some of them: James was beheaded in Jerusalem. Matthew was killed by a sword in Ethiopia. Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt, after being dragged by horses through the streets until he was dead. Luke was hanged in Greece. Peter was crucified upside down. Thomas was stabbed with a spear in India during a missionary trip. Jude, the brother of Jesus, was killed with arrows when he refused to deny his faith in Christ. No longer cowering in fear, they became bold witnesses willing to be martyred for their absolute certainty that life had been snatched from the claws of death.
The power and courage to spread Jesus' gospel came not because of the example of Jesus' death but because of his victorious triumph over sin and death. Life came from death.
God's plans and purposes were then, and are now, upside down and contrary to the way humans plan things. To become the greatest, one must become the least. To be exalted one must humble him/herself. To receive the blessings of heaven, one must become poor in spirit, meek, and starving for spiritual fulfillment. To find your life you must lose it.
It was not the powerful, or the religious, not the self-pious or the in-crowd with whom Jesus identified. It was the leper, the cripple, the poor widows, the lowly fishermen and shepherds. The king of the universe who created all things became a human being and humbled himself, becoming a servant and giving his life on the cross.
But that didn't stop him or his powerful reign in the hearts and lives of his followers. In fact, his death, as much as his tormentors thought had ended him, became the pathway to his exaltation as Lord and Savior. A humiliating, torturous death and a humble burial in a borrowed tomb were no less fit for God than was the manger stall at his birth. In God's economy the simple, the small and the foolish things of the world become the power of God to salvation. Life is found through death. God has turned the tables on death.
Aslan said it best in the LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE - She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
The deeper truth of the gospel is that, indeed, a willing victim did give his life in the place of traitors. The stone table cracked. Death began working backwards. It is not the way you think it is. Living comes through dying.
The Easter message we need to hear is that it is in dying that we too find life. As followers of Jesus, he called us to deny our self, take up a cross and follow him. When Peter made his bold assertion of faith in Jesus at Caesarea Phillipi, Jesus blessed him and changed his name. However he made sure Peter understood the way things really were to be. When Peter tried to talk Jesus out of going to the cross, he was rebuked by the Lord who told him, "...you are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man." (Matthew 16:23)
Then, in almost the same breath, Jesus turned to all the disciples and told them this: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Mt. 16:24,25)
In order to live - truly live, we must die to self. We have to know that the ideas of culture, the things of mankind, are contrary to the reality of God's kingdom. That is true physically and spiritually. Our mortal bodies must put on immortality. To do that, the mortal has to die. Jesus said (John 11:26) I am the resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me will never die, and even if he dies, yet shall he live." That is the promise made sure in the Easter event.
We can make Easter about all sorts of things can't we? It can be about chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts. It can be about new clothes. It can be about a once a year pilgrimage to church. It can be about ham dinners or spring flowers or the newness of life in nature. But the reality is that Easter is about the fact that life - real life, eternal life - comes only through dying. It comes because of the death of Jesus, which he then triumphed over by rising from his tomb alive. It comes because - as the Bible tells us, this same spirit that brought again our Lord Jesus from the dead is at work in us. (Ephesians 1:19,20 cf)
Recently, there are many here at Calvary have experienced the chilling, seeming finality of death. A spouse, a father, a son or daughter, a grandparent has been taken from this earthly life. All the things we knew and loved about that person are no longer physical realities. We can't hug them and tell them we love them. We can't call for their advice or for a favorite recipe. They are no longer there to take care of the checking account or working to bring home an income. They are not sitting across the table from us at dinner, or laying beside us at night.
The natural assumption is that death has triumphed; that death is the reality of the way things really are. But that is not so. Just as the angel told the women when they came to anoint the body of Jesus, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He has risen just as he said!"
You see, that is what we do isn't it. We look for life in what we think that reality is. And yet there is a deeper reality, a deeper magic if you will, that reminds us "we who are in Christ and who believe in him will never die. Even if we do, yet shall we live."
This same principle applies to our earthly life and purpose. We can spend all our time and resources pursuing earthly pleasures, filling ourselves with good things, enjoying the status of wealth and prosperity, health and power. Our lives, quite frankly are often defined by earthly accomplishments and attainments. But the way Jesus defines the quality of one's life is by dying to self and taking up a cross as we follow him. Real life in Christ takes a different turn as we begin to follow him. We begin to care more about the things and the people he cares about than we do about the things the world considers important.
Robert Ramey, in a small devotional booklet entitled "The Cross Bearers" made this point clearly. He said "cross-bearers look for the crucified in the lives of the poor and needy."
Mark Labberton makes it as well when he says we have fallen asleep in worship and we have not been tuned into the things that matter most to the heart of God.
In our sermons about the seven deadly sins, we said that all of them, pride, envy, greed, anger, sloth, gluttony and greed are not deadly because earthly things are themselves bad. They are deadly because they believe the lie that says self is most important; that self is God; that taking care of and primping over and gathering stuff for ourselves at the expense of others and of devotion to God is sin - deadly sin.
The cross shatters the power of those desires. The empty tomb fills the believer with a different power and a different life. Paul says that "he had been crucified with Christ." (Galatians 5:19) But he also said that we (believers and followers of Jesus) have been raised with Christ. Because of that, we are to set our minds on the things that are above where Christ is seated and not on the things below.
That is why Jesus said if we want to find our lives we must lose them for his sake. if we want to follow him we need to deny self, take up his cross and follow him. We need to care about the things and the people that Jesus cares about. We are to die to self in order to live to Christ.
I know you don't want to come hear me work my own issues. But I have to share a couple of examples from my own life. And just because I have experienced lessons of this truth in the past, doesn't mean that I don't continue to struggle against my own selfish ambition and desire today. I do struggle. It is a daily choice I have to make as to whether I will deny myself, take up the cross and follow Jesus.
Please forgive me for sharing two examples from my own life though. Perhaps you can identify with them and be encouraged that even your pastor deals with such things.
When I graduated from High School, I had the world by the string. I applied for and received offers of scholarships from two very prestigious music schools in the state of Colorado. I took a lesser scholarship to what I considered a better school - The University of Northern Colorado. In particular, not only did they have an excellent jazz program, they were also known as a very strong school for music education.
During my freshman year, I was pursuing what I considered was my life's dream - to be a professional jazz musician. One late February night of 1969, I was confronted by the risen Lord in a pretty dramatic fashion and experienced what I can only describe as a call to full-time vocational ministry. At the time I assumed it would be in music ministry. To make a long, long story a little shorter, I sought out some counsel and guidance from a few very trusted mentors and friends and I decided to apply to the McCallister Conservatory at Wheaton College. I felt that there I would be able to combine an excellent music program with a more thorough Biblical and theological background. After submitting an audition tape I was accepted and in the fall of 1969 I flew back to the Chicago suburbs. I was sure I was going to be the big fish in the pond at this small liberal arts college. I had never sat less than first chair in any band I had been in and I was certain I would be a star. When I got there, I found the competition was intense and that there were some incredibly talented musician at the conservatory. I knew I had to practice harder than I had ever practiced. I was placed in the Concert Band (not the Symphonic Winds) and ended up sitting several chairs down from the top. In addition to all my classes, I spent hours in the practice room determined to climb back up to the top and show how great I was and how lucky they were to have me. About mid-year, something happened and I completely lost my embouchure. My tone was fuzzy and my range was no where close to where it used to be. By mid-term, the conductor called me in and told me he was going to cut me from the concert band and move me to a lower band. I was devastated.
Didn't the Lord want me to serve him by using music? I began to pray and question where I could best be used. I began to realize that music had been a source of pride and self-advancement for me and that if I was really serious about giving my life to the Lord, I needed to be open to some other area. My music career was over.
About that same time, I met some friends who had begun going downtown Chicago every weekend to serve in an urban setting. They had established a coffee house ministry in an old abandoned house scheduled for Urban Renewal. It sat right at the nexus of three of the most disparate sections of the city. To the North was Old Town - a hang out for the hip sub-culture and a gathering place for runaways, drug users, and prostitutes. To the East was the Carbini Green Housing Projects where 20,000 people lived in low-income, rat infested, tenement apartments. Gang violence, muggings, drugs, race riots were common occurrences in and around Cabrini Green. To the west was the near north side of Chicago known as the Gold Coast where the extremely wealthy lived in high rise condominiums and ate in fancy restaurants. It only took me one evening walking the streets and talking to people; inviting cold, lonely runaways back to our house; sharing the gospel along with a simple meal, or a hot cup of coffee for me to be hooked. Sometime I can share some of the incredible stories we experienced there.
The point was that once I gave up my prideful hold on my plans and said, Lord whatever you want me to do and wherever you want me to serve - that is where I want to be. And that decision changed the course of my life and ministry.
Since then I can enumerate 15 or more times when I have had to make a conscious decision to step back from pursuing my own goals, dreams and ambitions and say - Lord, what is it YOU want of me. I want to follow you. Perhaps the most graphic example was 13 years ago after we had come to Enumclaw and fallen in love with this church and this area. We were so excited and so determined to come. I was going to turn this church on its head and it was going to grow and become a large, even more influential church. We were so excited about coming here. Less than three weeks later, as I was making final plans to leave New Mexico and move to Enumclaw, those plans seemed all of a sudden shaky at best. In the midst of all the stuff that occurred after my accident, I once again came face to face with the realization that coming to Enumclaw, couldn't simply be my plan and my selfish ambition. It it was to happen it had to be the Lord's doing. I had to let go. I had to die to self.
The most amazing thing is that often, when I have done that, the doors have been opened to follow original plans. But I had to let go of them first. My life and my choices were not my own any longer. I had died. And it was through dying to self, through dying to my own selfish choices and ambitions, that I have found life.
I don't know about the places in life that you struggle to let of. I can't begin to tell you where you need to let go and die to self. It may be your family, your career, your reputation, your financial security, or even your health. The Easter message is that things are not always as they seem. It is in dying to our ambition and lock on our own goals and dreams that we find a newer, a deeper, and a different kind of life - one that is guided by and strengthened by the very same Spirit that raised Jesus from death to life.
Some of you know the bitter sadness of death and loss in your life. This year has been difficult as you have lost friends or loved ones. Their absence, their dying maybe seemed to signal the end of life as you knew it. For them, the message of Easter is that they, through death, have been brought to life eternal. For you, the pain of loss and the process of grieving have meant that you have had to hang on to Jesus in ways that you never did before. And your life is different. But you have found that even through life's most difficult trial, you have found a deeper life in Christ.
Before us today stands an empty cross. In the first century, the cross stood as a symbol or Rome's absolute authority and power. It was a graphic reminder of the cruelty that human beings can inflict on another person. It is a symbol of death, and many people today, want nothing to do with a cross. But things are not as they seem. The cross is not a symbol of death. It is a symbol of life. It is a visible reminder to us of the victory Christ Jesus accomplished through his death, and ultimately his resurrection. He conquered our deepest fears and our most cruel enemy. Today, as a signal that you want to die to self and live in Christ anew, I ask you to take that piece of blue ribbon that you were handed as you came in and place it on the cross before you leave tonight. That ribbon is a symbol of your life and your ambitions, your accomplishments and your pride. It represents the sin that keeps you from knowing and living in the new life that Jesus promised. As you place it on the cross, know that it has been put to death so that you may know what it truly means to live.
On Easter morning, when the disciples thought all had been lost - the came to the glorious truth that all was not as it seemed. The symbol of death was now a symbol of life; The cross was empty, the tomb was empty. Jesus was alive. Jesus is alive. He is Risen. He is risen indeed. Hallelujah.