Sunday, April 5, 2015

"All Things New"

 “All Things New”
Easter Sunday – Bethel Baptist Church, Scottsburg VA
Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23

Recently, I read a couple of articles in Baptist press about the American fascination with vampires and zombies (and I’ll add ghosts to the list).  All you have to do is turn on the TV or show up at any random movie theater and you’ll find these stories in abundance.  The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta last year offered a breakout session, led by professor Curtis Freeman, on the church’s relationship with this genre of entertainment.[i]  The popularity of zombies and vampires in our culture is an indication that despite our abandonment of traditional religion, we’re still interested in issues like the afterlife and the decline of civilization.
Everybody loves a good horror story.  There’s something about them that makes our lives—no matter how dismal— seem not so bad.  Every year, Jesus and His followers would celebrate a horror story called Passover.  Yes, it was about the glorious rescue of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.  But it was also about plagues and pestilence and a destroying angel brining death to the firstborn.  They had to remember the dark things in order to celebrate God bringing them through it. 
On one particular Passover, the disciples not only remembered a horror story—they lived one.  Jesus had predicted it, but nobody had believed it.  But the impossible had happened.  The religious leaders that the disciples had trusted up to a few years ago had arrested the Master, charged Him with blasphemy, and turned Him over to the Romans for a further charge of treason.  Jesus had been brutally tortured and crucified.  The sky had turned black, and there had been an earthquake at His passing “The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many (Mt 27:52-53[ii]).”  Jesus was buried, leaving the disciples with nothing but fear and regret.  Fear that the Romans would come after them next.  Regret because though they had sworn to stick by Jesus, nearly all of them had failed Him.
Even though it was Judas who had betrayed the Lord, the disciples had to be asking themselves, “Why didn’t we see this coming?”  Judas, of course, had added to the horror story by his own suicide, so great was his remorse for the terrible thing that he had done.  Both Jesus and Judas had been their friends.  So, as often follows suicides, the disciples had to be asking themselves that classic question, “How could we have prevented this?  Is Judas’ death on our heads, just as Jesus’ death is?”
Regret gnawed at them with sharp teeth.  They had told Jesus that they would go to their deaths for Him, yet when things began to fall apart, they had failed.  Peter, James, and John had fallen asleep during Jesus’ most desperate hour in Gethsemane.  Judas concealed enmity with a kiss.  Three times Peter denied even knowing Jesus.  Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea failed at defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin.   The disciples all scattered—only John followed Jesus to Golgotha to stand at the foot of the cross.  In a day, all the horror stories they had ever heard became real.  Guilt and shame ate at them—then something worse happened.  Jesus rose from the grave.
Yes, I said that this was even worse.  From our perspective, we think of the empty tomb as a magnificent thing—but the disciples didn’t share our perspective.  Peter and John had found the grave opened and Jesus’ body gone.  Had somebody stolen the body?  Their women had told them that they’d seen the risen Lord—but that was impossible, wasn’t it?  Of course, Jesus was Master of the impossible.  But if He had come back, what would He do to those who had betrayed Him, abandoned Him, denied Him, failed Him?
So, Luke 24:36-37  says, “While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be to you.’  But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit.”  You have to remember—Christians have been taught about the resurrection for two thousand years.  But they didn’t know what this thing was that stood before them.  The dead don’t just come up out of their graves and walk around.  But they’d heard horror stories before—tales of ghosts coming back to haunt people who had hurt them in life.  This is why they were frightened when they thought they were seeing a spirit.  Jesus was back—and what would He do to them now? 
This is why the Lord’s first words to them were so important: “Peace be to you.”  He saw them shaking in their shoes.  He knew they were wondering what kind of retribution a spectre might bring against those who had failed Him.  So He said, “Peace.”  “And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts (Luke 24:38)?”  Jesus reassured them that He had not returned like some undead creature from the crypt.  Neither was a ghostly apparition or figment of their imaginations, the product of indigestion, “more gravy than grave,” as Scrooge once said.  No—Jesus was alive.  Fully alive.  So alive that He could show them His scars, invite them to touch Him, and sit down to eat with them.  Jesus was alive, and He was real.  Everything was okay.
Perhaps like the disciples, you feel like you have betrayed, abandoned, or failed the Lord.  You too have lived out a real-life horror story that is more scary than you’d like to tell.  To you, God has become more a phantom to be feared than a Lord to be loved or a Brother to embrace.  Today, God speaks the same words to you that He did to His disciples after the resurrection.  “Peace be to you.”  He knows that you’re troubled, and that doubts arise in your heart—but He loves you anyway, and wants to give you His peace.
John chapter 20 records the very same appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, but He adds some more detail.  Still, in the midst of their fear, Jesus shows up and gives them His peace.  But He then sends them on a mission of peace.  “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you (verse 21).”  Peace is to become their new lifestyle, their new purpose, their new profession.  He gives you the same commission.  Jesus doesn’t want you to be at peace.  He wants you to bring peace to others.
But you can’t do this on your own.  God isn’t fooled.  He knows that you are troubled, and that doubts arise within your heart.  So He gives you the same gift He gave the disciples.  His Holy Spirit gives you access to God’s supernatural peace, then equips and enables you to share it.  But it doesn’t stop there.
In John 20:23, Jesus tells the disciples that if they’re going to receive His peace, and go on a mission of peace that’s empowered by the Holy Spirit, they must start by first extending His peace within their own body.  After all that had happened, they had a lot of forgiving to do.  They had to extend God’s forgiveness to one another, and receive it for themselves.  Only by moving past the past could they move forward.  Jesus tells you the same thing—you’ve got to start within, forgiving others and receiving God’s forgiveness yourself.  Otherwise, you’ll just keep reliving the same old horror story over and over again.  Only when you do this can the resurrection make any sense in your life.  Steven Cole tells the following story:

A little boy visiting his grandparents and given his first slingshot. He practiced in the woods, but he could never hit his target. As he came back to Grandma's back yard, he spied her pet duck. On an impulse he took aim and let fly. The stone hit, and the duck fell dead. The boy panicked. Desperately he hid the dead duck in the wood pile, only to look up and see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all, but she said nothing.

After lunch that day, Grandma said, "Sally, let's wash the dishes." But Sally said, "Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen today. Didn't you, Johnny?" And she whispered to him, "Remember the duck!" So Johnny did the dishes.

Later Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing., Grandma said, "I'm sorry, but I need Sally to help make supper." Sally smiled and said, "That's all taken care of. Johnny wants to do it." Again she whispered, "Remember the duck." Johnny stayed while Sally went fishing. After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally's, finally he couldn't stand it. He confessed to Grandma that he'd killed the duck. "I know, Johnny," she said, giving him a hug. "I was standing at the window and saw the whole thing. Because I love you, I forgave you. I wondered how long you would let Sally make a slave of you."[iii]

Jesus died a horrible death, proving that humanity is capable of the worst of sins and atrocities.  But then His resurrection proves that God’s glory eclipses even the worst sin.  He speaks peace and mission and blessing and forgiveness, because He wants to end our horror story and give it a good ending.  The problem is that every time we relive our sins, we let Sally make a slave of us again.  Each time we choose to live in the past, holding onto fear and unforgiveness, we let the devil win. 
Jesus rose so that we could rise above these things.  He defeated death so we could live in victory.  For this reason, our horror story becomes the Good News: Christ is risen (Christ is risen, indeed)!

[i] “Session explores churches and zombies in post-Christian age.” Jeff Brumley.  June 30, 2014.  April 4, 2015.  See also: “Many Americans find meaning in vampire, zombie tales, Baylor prof says.”  Jeff Brumley.  March 16, 2015.
[ii] All scriptures taken from the NASB.

[iii] March 30, 2015.

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