Just Trying to Make a Point…

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I thought I had a pretty good sermon. I had three points (which some folks argue is two too many!), and I thought I was well prepared to make all three points. I was wrong. I did a terrible job making my third point (judge for yourself by clicking here), so I figured I’d use this space to make the point I wanted to make Sunday.

I should have known it was not going to be a good day for preaching when I mysteriously turned a six foot white rabbit into a six foot white monkey in my opening illustration. It was pretty much down hill from there. Oh, the rabbit that mysteriously became a monkey was the pooka from the movie Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. The premise of the sermon was a play off one line in the film–“the evening wore on” (See the clip here). Mark in his gospel uses a turn of phrase that is (to me) equally compelling–“just at sunrise” (Mark 16: 1-8).

The point? The sunrise (the resurrection) overcomes the darkness…of sin with the promise of forgiveness, of death with the promise of our resurrection, and of fear with the promise of eternal life. It was the last point where I failed to make my point (not counting the whole rabbit/monkey affair).

Here is what I said:

As the evening wore on, the darkness of death would also shadow the promise of eternal life, but just at sunrise the joy comes. The 24-hour news cycle is killing us. We hear the news, see the Facebook feeds and watch in amazement as the culture continues its steep decline. The evening appears to go on endlessly. We long for the sunrise. We wonder when will the night be over.

Are you looking for a sunrise? Turn off CNN and Fox News. Take a break from scrolling your Facebook feed, and pick up a bible. Open its pages and pray. There you’ll meet the risen Jesus, and you’ll experience the sunrise, and you’ll know a hope that never disappoints.

James Moore tells the story when The Saturday Evening Post ran a cartoon showing a man about to be rescued after he had spent a long time ship-wrecked on a tiny deserted island. The sailor in charge of the rescue team stepped onto the beach and handed the man a stack of newspapers.

“Compliments of the Captain,” the sailor said. “He would like you to glance at the headlines to see if you’d still like to be rescued!”     

Sometimes the headlines do scare us. There are times we feel evil is winning, but then along comes Easter, to remind us that there is no grave deep enough, no seal imposing enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the grave. God keeps his promises. We can’t always see it until the sunrise.

Maybe it wasn’t a bad point, but the point I really wanted to make is that the darkness of fear has overshadowed our deep theology surrounding death itself. If nothing else, the past year has shown that the church’s theology of death doesn’t extend much past the point of dying. I do have to be careful how I say this. It could too easily be politicized, and that is not my intention, at all.

It’s just that I’ve watched with some amazement over the past year as many “followers of Christ” acted as though death was absolutely the worst thing that could happen. Death, for a believer, is not the end. This life…this earthly life…isn’t all there is. The resurrection (Easter) is our reminder of the promise of eternal life.

We say in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe “…in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The doctrine of eternal life is historic, orthodox Christian theology. Because of Easter we do not face death with fear, but with peace and with an assurance that Christ waits for us just beyond the veil that separates this life from the next one. Or, so the Apostle Paul taught the Corinthian church that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

It was also the Apostle Paul who shared his own inner conflict with the church at Philippi:

20 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22 But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. 23 I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24 But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.

25 Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. 

Philippians 1: 20 – 25

Yes, I know that “eternal life” is more quality of life than quantity of life. I know eternal life is living a Christ-centered life now, but even acknowledging that fact should never diminish our understanding of the glory we shall one day share with Jesus Christ, Himself.

Embracing a broader theology of death doesn’t compel us to seek to become martyrs, nor does it cause us to take foolish chances with the gift that is this life, but it should free us from cowering in fear of death’s approach. The reality is that the death rate is 100%. If we live long enough everyone of us will die. And, we all know there are times when death does, in fact, come as a friend. The question becomes will we face death with confidence, hope and faith, or will we do so in the darkness of fear?

If we live long enough everyone of us will die.

Me? I’m going to chose to live in the confident expectation of eternal life because “just at sunrise,” hope dawned. Yes, I’m going to live today for Jesus. I’m going to love Him, and I’m going to love my neighbor, and by God’s grace, I’m going to love my enemy. I’m not going to hasten death (at least not intentionally), but I’m not going to live in fear of it, either.

It was April Fool’s Day 2007 and Vanessa and I had just dropped our daughters off for youth group at the church. We decided we needed our favorite indulgence, so we headed to the local Dairy Queen for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. We had made our turn onto the Main Street of our town and as we slowed to turn into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car quickly approaching. I shouted to Vanessa, “Hold on, they’re going to hit us!”

Hit us, they did. I’m told by folks who witnessed the event that my truck flipped four times into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. Thankfully, Vanessa and I escaped relatively unscathed with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises, but I told Vanessa later that as we were making those flips the only thought I had was, “Death ain’t no big deal.” I’ve since thought, “That’s the most expensive ice cream I never had!”

I share that story not arrogantly, but confidently…confident in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom I believe. That’s the point I was trying to make. I’ll not say it’s the whole point of Easter, but it is certainly one of the main points of it. And, it’s not to say that death is not a big deal. It is a big deal, but for the believer, it’s not the only deal, nor is it necessarily the worst deal.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t make the point better on Sunday. Maybe it was the rabbit that threw me off my game…or the monkey. Hopefully, I’ve made the point better here, but if not, there’s always next Easter.

Until next time, keep looking up…

What to Do When Your Job Stinks!

new-orleans-saints-wallpapersI’m a Saints fan, and sometimes I like to turn down the sound on the TV and turn up the sound on the radio, and listen to the radio broadcast from the Saints broadcasting network. It makes for a much more fan friendly broadcast to listen to the “home” team announcers on game day. I mention that, not because it has anything to do with this blog, but because I love one of the advertisers on game day. It’s River Parish Disposal Company. There’s nothing special about the company, I just love their motto. The motto of River Parish Disposal Company is “Business stinks. But, it’s picking up!”

That motto sums up the ministry of Jesus as we read it in John 11, at least on this day in question. Setting up the scene, Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died. He’s been challenged by his co-workers and the two sisters of his friend, Lazarus. Let’s face it. It’s never a fun day to go to a funeral, and this was after the Jewish leaders had tried to stone him and arrest him. This was a day when Jesus’ job really did stink, and as we read in the text, it didn’t just stink figuratively, it stunk literally. So, what did Jesus do when his job stank? He cried! Sounds like what we do when our job stinks, too. Sounds like what we do when life stinks!

We think tears are something to be avoided. Johnson’s Baby Shampoo even has a “no more tears” formula. Our culture tells us “real men don’t cry,” and our music tells us that “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” But all of us do cry at some point in our lives. We cry at the graveside of a loved one, or at the loss of a job. We cry with a broken heart when a relationship goes bad, or we cry over a sin that overwhelms us. We cry (or we should) when we hurt someone we love, or when someone we loves hurts. As long as we live in this broken world we will experience tears.

Tears are good for us, though. Tears are a way for the body to release harmful bio-chemicals. Biochemist William Frey found in one study that emotional tears–those formed in distress or grief–contained more toxic byproducts than tears of irritation (think onion peeling). Tears remove toxins from our body that build up courtesy of stress. Tears are like a natural therapy or massage session, but they cost a lot less! Additionally, tears release a natural soporific that acts as a tranquilizer to the body. That’s why we’re often tired after a good cry. Any way you look at it, tears are healthy. And, on this day, we get a good look at the fullness of Jesus’ humanity.

We know why we cry, but why did Jesus cry, especially since we know what he was about to do? One reason is simply the deep compassion that Jesus felt for those who were suffering. It is true that Jesus let Lazarus die. He delayed coming. His reasons were good and merciful and glorious, but this didn’t mean Jesus took the suffering it caused lightly. Even though Jesus always chooses what will ultimately bring his Father the most glory—and sometimes, as in Lazarus’ case, it requires affliction and grief—he does not take delight in the affliction and grief itself. Jesus is sympathetic, and as “the image of the invisible God,” in Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus we catch a glimpse of how the Father feels over the affliction and grief we experience.

Another reason Jesus wept was over the power of sin. As God the Son who had come into the world to destroy evil, Jesus was about to deliver death its deathblow. But sin grieves God deeply and so do the wages of sin: death (Romans 6:23). And ever since the fall of Adam and Eve he had endured sin’s horrific destruction. Death had consumed almost every human being he had created. It had taken Lazarus, and it would take him again before it was all over. Tears of anger and longing were mixed with Jesus’ tears of grief.

Another reason was the cost that he was about to pay to purchase not only Lazarus’ short-term resurrection, but his everlasting life. The cross was just days away and no one really knew the inner distress Jesus was experiencing. Lazarus’ resurrection would look and be experienced by Lazarus and everyone else as a gift of grace. But, it was not free. For as much as we see Jesus humanity in this passage, we also see the fullness of his divinity. As a matter of fact, chapter 11 is the turning point in John’s Gospel in the life of Jesus. From this point, Jesus is headed to Jerusalem to die a horrific death. Jesus, who had never known sin, was about to become Lazarus’ sin, and the sin of all who would believe in him, so that in him they would become the righteousness of God. As the writer of Hebrews says, Jesus was looking to the joy that was set before him, but the reality of what lay between was weighing heavily, and it brought tears.

This might also indicate yet another reason Jesus wept—raising Lazarus from the dead would actually set in motion the events that would lead to his own death. Calling Lazarus out of the tomb would have taken a different kind of resolve for Jesus than we might have imagined. Giving Lazarus life was sealing Jesus’ own death.

As I reflect on this encounter in Jesus’ life, there are a few lessons I learn. First, Jesus is angry at the power of sin in our lives. He’s not angry with us—that would be counter to the gospel of grace. He is, however angry with the power that sin holds over us, and that anger is reflected in the words of our text today.

A second lesson I learn is that Jesus is moved by our tears. He cries when we cry. He hurts when we hurt. He suffers when we suffer, and he does so because it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Sin brings suffering. That’s the result of the fall of humanity. Yes, Jesus still gets charged with not doing something about all the suffering. He got charged with it that day, too. He doesn’t set aside our tragedies or sorrows, but he is with us in the midst of the tragedies and sorrows. He walks with us, and brings us comfort.

A third lesson I learn is that tears don’t last forever. Again, our music reminds us that “It Only Hurts for a Little While.” How many oceans could be filled with the tears shed by humanity through all the centuries? And, we stand at the graveside of a loved one and we ask, “Will it always be this way?” We ask, “Is this all there is?” The writer of Ecclesiastes basically says life is suffering, death and then we’re forgotten. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. The Psalmist reminds us “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5), and when that morning comes, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). After all, it was Jesus, on this same day he wept that he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live” (John 11:25).

Jesus asked Martha if she believed that. He asks us, too. Do we believe that?

Until next time, keep looking up…