“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:1–16)
What is Lent?
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent.
Lent has been observed for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The counting of the days of Lent is a little convoluted since some churches observed seven weeks of fasting except Saturdays and Sundays because they liked the number 7. Others wanted it to be 40 days because of the significance of that number in the Bible. Moses was on Mouth Sinai fasting for 40 days, Elijah walked for 40 days while fasting, and of course, Jesus fasted for 40 days when being tempted in the desert – and there are more examples.
The Western church has settled on the formula being that Lent lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday), changing the date depending on when the Jewish Passover occurs, which is on the first full moon following the Spring equinox, making Lent 46 days long, minus the Sundays, or Lord’s Days, when we celebrate His resurrection rather than His crucifixion, by worshipping rather than fasting, bringing the number of fasting days to 40. Makes perfect sense, right?
The season of Lent has traditionally been a time when Christians avoided certain foods, parties, and celebrations to contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus instead. We cut out some of the distracting, pleasurable things from our lives to confess our sins, meditate on the sufferings of Christ, and prepare our hearts by remembering why Jesus had to die on the cross. It’s a time to consider the habits of our life, mortify those sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves and more about Jesus by spending more time, energy and effort on our spiritual lives and relationship with God.
The day before Lent starts is called Shrove Tuesday and it is that day that really emphasizes how far culture has moved away from a Lenten spirit. Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the word “Shrive” meaning to confess sins and receive absolution or forgiveness. It was a day set aside to really clean out our hearts by getting serious with our sin before the season of Lent began. A day to say with David in Psalm 139(:23-24), “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
But here’s what happened. There were a bunch of foods that people would traditionally give up for Lent – things like meat, fish, fatty foods, eggs, milk, and sweets. Like the Israelites with their simple, bitter foods and unleavened bread, Christians used their diet to show what was going on in their hearts. But because there wasn’t refrigeration back then the foods people gave up would spoil before the 40 days were over. And what’s the best way to get rid of fats, eggs, milk, sweets, and meat? Have a pancake party.
So, Shrove Tuesday turned into Shrovetide, three days set aside to use up these foods. Over time, the day of confession became a time when families would get together and eat up all the foods they couldn’t have during Lent. Shrove Tuesday turned into Pancake Tuesday or Fat Tuesday (because it was the day to use up fatty foods). And you likely already know the French name for Fat Tuesday – Mardi Gras.
Now, when you think of Mardi Gras, I’m sure the first thing that comes to mind is confession of sin, repentance, soul-preparation, and spiritual discipline, right? No. Mardi Gras is now an entire season, starting on January 6th, dedicated to parties and parades and often, perversion.
Now, let me pause here for a moment to say that while Christianity is against perversion, we are emphatically not against parties or parades or pancakes – because scripture is not against them. As Ecclesiastes 3 says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (3:1,4) My point today, the reason I’m talking about Lent today, is because as a culture, especially our modern, Western culture, we are really, really bad at weeping and mourning part because we spend too much time laughing and dancing.
And in losing our ability to weep, mourn, lament, and fast – but instead keeping ourselves in a perpetual state of entertainment, distraction, and celebration, has caused us to lose a very important part of our spiritual lives and a critical way that we connect to God.
What Happens When We Lose Lent
I know I struggle with this sometimes. I’ll gear myself up for a time of self-discipline – like a change of diet or a spiritual discipline or to focus on something that I know God has been asking me to deal with – and it seems like I’m constantly interrupted by excuses to laugh and dance. The whole culture seems to work against me.
Every month has a holiday, or a birthday, or anniversary, or party of some kind. Every week the stores have a sale on something that I like. I’m surrounded by things that not too long ago were only available on special occasions. I can buy a birthday cake and sweets and balloons and chocolate and oranges every day if I want to. I don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine to come to my door, I can get news and pictures and crossword puzzles all day long. I don’t have to wait for next week to see my favourite TV show, or for a few months to see a movie, Netflix has new ones every day, and I can binge an entire season in one day! There’s always a new, big movie event or concert or game or playoff or another piece of entertainment that everyone says I must see. I walk into a store and there’s limited edition everything there – books, movies, candy, clothes – and two or three special seasons represented – Valentine’s Decorations next to St Patrick ’s Day stuff next to Easter chocolates – each telling me to get it soon, while it’s on sale, before it’s gone. Then I turn on the radio and hear commercials for deals that are all ending soon, so I’d better get it, that I deserve it, that I would be stupid not to jump on. Every YouTube video and picture on Instagram shows me the latest trend I’m missing out on, or something I need to experience, or something I need to take my kids to, or something I need to do with my wife. RightNow media introduces 12 new studies every week and the blogs I follow tell me about 10 new books I want to read.
And it all kind of works on me. My spirit cries out to stop, get away, find silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but I almost feel guilty not participating in all that other stuff. I work for one day and then I feel like I deserve a reward. I eat a vegetable and then feel like I deserve dessert. I worry about missing out. What if someone asks me if I’ve seen something or tried something, or gone somewhere, and I have to say that I haven’t done it? What if it would have been fun and I missed it forever?
I’m constantly tempted to live in a perpetual state of distraction, entertainment, and satisfaction – and yet the Spirit of God, the Lord Jesus, and the scriptures say that the happiness that I am constantly pursuing in those other areas, the blessedness I’m trying to find in them, the joy I want to feel when I indulge, doesn’t come from being distracted, entertained, and trying to feel satisfied with the world, but with pursuing poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, self-denial. Jesus says in His introduction to the Sermon on the Mount that if we want to feel fully human, know real peace, experience real joy, feel the satisfaction of contentedness in the midst of struggles by knowing the presence of God, then the recipe is to remove a lot of that other stuff and seek the beatitudes.
That’s really what Lent is supposed to be about. It’s not a belief that parties and celebrations are bad. It’s saying that sometimes the human soul requires a time of fasting, penitence, regret, mourning, confession, tears, simplicity, solitude, and lament. Not because we want to sit around being bitter, eating ashes, wallowing in guilt and shame, but because we know that the only way to get right with God and others is to admit that we are sinners who need a Saviour, that we are weak and need help, that physical pleasure isn’t enough and that we need spiritual fulfillment, that discipline and self-denial make us into better, more godly people.
In Matthew 11 Jesus says to the crowds,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (vs 28-29)
And then in Matthew 16 He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (vs 24)
They seem contradictory, but both are true. Jesus says to put away the priorities of this world and the huge burden it is to try to pull ourselves towards happiness, joy, and contentment by using the things the sinful, distracting, immediate pleasures the world has to offer – but to pick up His way of life, His cross, because we will find that burden easier, lighter, and His path the way to true freedom. Jesus says that the way to gain freedom for our souls is not to avoid guilt, shame, lament, confession, mourning, the cross, but to embrace it, because when we finally do – when we finally turn from worldly pleasures to the kind of life Jesus offers – it is then that we will experience true freedom.
1 Peter 2:11 says that all those pleasures and distractions the world offers are actually like propaganda from the Enemy who uses them to war against our soul. It says,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 gives this warning,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
It’s trying to give us a bigger view, an eternal view, comparing what the world offers with what Jesus offers. The world is full of wonderful things that God has given us for our joy and pleasure, that we can use to enhance our connection to God, but each one, because of this fallen world has the potential to be twisted into a trap for our souls.
- Food is wonderful, gluttony is a prison.
- Sexual pleasure is wonderful, but there’s a lot of ways it can ruin lives.
- Parties and wine and dancing and friends are wonderful, but addiction and alcoholism and hangovers and bad decisions and regrets are not.
- Work, education and study are wonderful, but workaholism, anxiety, arrogance, and elitism can be dangerous results.
- Having money and stuff and comfort is wonderful, but selfishness, controlling others, being in debt, and refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, can be terrible results when sin takes over.
- Video games and hobbies are wonderful, but removing yourself from reality to live in a fantasy world, and ignoring your friends, family, and community is not.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to cut out the distractions, do an inventory of our souls, to invite God to examine us and show us how the world has been fooling us, and to come out the other side cleaner, more holy, more blessed, and more committed to following Jesus no matter where He wants to go because we prefer His way to the world’s.
Lent & The Beatitudes
Look back with me to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus calls his followers “Salt” and “Light”. He says,
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
What’s Jesus talking about here? He’s talking about how His people should be different from the world, distinct from the world, special. The illustration of being a lamp is pretty easy to understand but consider the salt.
Just like today, salt was used as a preservative and flavouring for food, something that worked like nothing else. What makes salt special is its saltiness, its difference from the rest of the food. What point is there on sprinkling on something that tastes no different than what you’re already eating? What point is there in rubbing on or mixing in something that has no preserving effect? We wouldn’t use it.
Our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to “permeate society as agents of redemption.” We are to witness the moral decay of the world, the blandness of what it offers, the corruption of its promises, realize it to not only be a trap, but so much worse than what Jesus offers, and remain different, special, unique, salty. We don’t separate ourselves from the world, avoiding it and condemning it from ivory towers and stained glassed cloisters – after all salt doesn’t do anyone any good when it’s left in the shaker – but we work ourselves into the world, in our jobs, our communities, our friendships, our sports teams, etc. and add the flavour of Christ, the light of Jesus to that place. And we only do that by remaining different.
If we act and sound and look like the world, then we are of no use to them or the Kingdom of God. No one will become thirsty for the gospel of Jesus if they never experience our saltiness. No one will ever desire to get out of the darkness unless they see the light within us.
How To Remain Different
So how do we remain different? What distinctiveness should we have? What makes a Christian different from the world? That’s what the Beatitudes are all about. Jesus gives the Beatitudes to show us what salt and light looks like.
Some people think that what sets Christians apart is what we do and don’t do. Christians don’t drink, or smoke, or vape, or party, or watch violent movies, or listen to certain kinds of music, or swear, or make jokes, or do yoga or martial arts. Some Christians even believe that the best way for them to be Christian is to never participate in anything the culture is doing so they never go to movies, listen to secular radio, watch sports, or participate in politics.
But that’s not what Jesus says here at all. In fact, most of these have nothing to do with what we do or don’t do, but instead speak of the attitude of our hearts. What makes us salty in the world is not what we do or don’t do, it’s our character.
Everyone faces death, everyone gets angry, everyone feels sad, everyone gets sick, everyone gets betrayed, everyone feels pride. Lots of people go to parties, drink alcohol, get promoted or fired from their jobs, are blessed with good looks or money or talent, or struggle with handicaps, abuses, and disabilities. The difference isn’t that Christians run to their bubble to avoid anything bad, but instead that they actually face the problem, understand it differently, and have a very different attitude because of their relationship with Jesus.
One book I’ve read lately that has really helped me with this is J. Oswald Sanders’ “Spiritual Maturity”. In his chapter on the Beatitudes, he says,
“It is a common idea that blessedness flows from the possession of wealth, the absence of sorrow, the gratification of appetite, being well spoken of and kindly treated. Christ’s teaching cut right across this popular concept of happiness and indicated that the very experiences we are eager to avoid are the ones conducive to the deepest joy and most to be coveted.”
Why? Because they are the ones that show how Jesus has changed our lives. They are the things that make us saltier, that increase the wattage of the light that shines within us, and shows how different we are from the world.
Consider the first beatitude:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The world says that you will be happy and blessed once you have realized your potential, maximized your strength, have total independence. Jesus says, “No. You will find joy and real prosperity and blessing when you realize that you are a person in need.” When you admit you are weak and bankrupt in your soul, once you realize you are empty is the only time you will allow God to fill you up. It is only once you’ve been broken of your pride, realized your inadequacy for the demands of your life, and come to God with empty hands, that God’s unlimited resources are available to you. Until then, you’re going to be trying to take on the world with your own strength and losing over and over.
Consider the second beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Mourning is something that our society actively avoids. We idolize and worship youth and vitality while pushing age and sickness and death farther and farther from our collective minds. The Wall-Street Journal recently had an article on “The Free-Form Funeral” where people avoid churches and the topic of death in favour of more celebratory ceremonies. They are doing rock concerts and parties that memorialize life instead of facing the problem and pain of death and loss. Mourning doesn’t feel good, so they opt for a party. Grief is no fun, so it’s avoided.
The problem here is that grief and mourning are dangerous to avoid – in fact, they are impossible to avoid. Eventually, the party will end, the distraction will stop, and these people will still be faced with their loss, but will have no guidance or community to help them through it. They won’t be able to go to anyone with their feelings of loss because it’s socially unacceptable to do so, so they’ll either have to let it eat them alive – or they’ll have to get rid of it using chemicals and distraction.
But mourning and grief are gifts from God that we shouldn’t avoid. It is in those times of sadness that we are finally open to being comforted. When we face the evil of death it forces us to ask big questions, realize how powerless we really are, it forces us to face the temporary nature of this life, and forces us to feel lonesome, regretful, and sad. It is in our mourning that we are invited to ask for help. And it is in our mourning that the gospel message, where Jesus Christ the Son of God conquers sin and death, bringing hope to a lost world, starts to make sense – where the names of God like Comforter, Shepherd, Father and friend, start to really become real.
But none of that can happen if we do not mourn.
And that’s only the first two of the beatitudes. Let me close with this. Let me encourage you to consider embracing the season of Lent by committing to a time of fasting and prayer. Choose something in your life to remove – tv, entertainment, a meal, a certain food, your phone, the internet – and replace the time you would spend on that with a time of prayer and reading the scriptures.
And during that time, let me invite you to meditate on and study the Beatitudes. Many of you have prayed that God would make you salt and light, to be used to affect this world in a positive way, to see your heart and your community changed by the Gospel in deeper ways. This is a good place to start.
 Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 102). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.”
 I’m going to use a lot of concepts from his chapter called “Christ’s Ideal of Character”.
If you were to ask people what their favourite day of the year is, you’ll get a lot of answers. For some, it’s a holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving or Halloween. For some, it’s tied to a cultural festival like New Years or Hanukkah or Cinco De Mayo. Others are more personal and will tell you it’s their Birthday or a special Anniversary that is meaningful to them. Usually, these days are chosen because of the events surrounding them, the pomp and circumstance, or the special memories that come to mind on that day.
But what if you change the question slightly? What if instead of asking people what their “favourite” day is you ask them what the “most important” day of the year is. That takes it out of the personal realm and makes people think more about how that day impacts others.
I googled “What is the most important day of the year?” and came up with some interesting answers. My favourite of which was from one dude on the internet. And he super likes this day. Can you guess which day it is?
And apparently, he really likes “Earth, Wind and Fire” too – but then again, who doesn’t?. When asked “What does September 21st mean to you?” His answer was: “Absolutely nothing. And hopefully it means even less in the coming years.” If that’s not commentary on modern life, I don’t know what is.
Good Friday or Easter?
If you ask a group of Christians what the most important day of the year is, you’d think you’d get a consistent answer, but you won’t. There are some pretty important days in the Christian calendar and it’s easy to make an argument for why they would all take the lead. Christmas was when the God of the Universe was incarnated as a human baby – that’s a pretty big deal. If there was no Christmas then there would be no Jesus, no New Testament, no Christianity, right?
Other believers will tell you that Good Friday is the most important day of the year. That was the day when Jesus died on the cross, having the wrath of God poured on Him instead of us, dying so anyone who would believe in Him would live. That’s a pretty huge day. If there was no Good Friday, there would be no cross, no salvation, no restoration of lost sinners to God, no freedom from sin.
We’re here today celebrating Easter as another super important day in history – the day that Jesus rose from the dead, proving everything He said to be true, showing Himself to be God and Messiah and Saviour. No one else has ever done that.
So you can see why Christians are torn on which day is most important and why we make such a big deal of this season – why our whole Christian year, our worship services, our songs, our sermons, our prayers, so many of our conversations and meetings, revolve around what happened over these three days.
If you were to ask the Apostle Paul what the most important day was, he would say it this way: from 1 Corinthians 15:3, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…” What is of “first importance” to Christians? What’s the most important thing that all believers need to remember at all times? The death of Jesus on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday. They are inseparable.
Of First Importance
Please open up in your Bibles (or the ones in the pew in front of you) to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and let’s look at that passage together. Verses 1-11 have already been read today and I want to spend some time going through this section to see why the events of Good Friday and Easter are so important – not only to Christians but to everyone.
Right off the start, from verse 1 we read,
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
This is the final section of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. He’s gone through a lot of topics so far. He’s spoken about everything from theology to culture, worship to family issues, and more, and now he’s come to the end of the letter and wants to make sure that above everything else he’s written they remember one thing: “the gospel”.
What is the gospel? It’s explained in the verses we just read. The gospel is the good news, the message about Jesus and which they received and believed – but had gotten off track from. They had messed up a lot of things in their life and church, and he had told them a lot of ways to fix it, but above all, if there was one thing that was going to bring them back from the brink it would be this: Remember the Gospel.
What does that mean? It means that even though that when Paul was with them he had taught them a lot about God, the Bible, life, and morality, there was one message that was over, under and around all of these things: the Gospel. One foundational message that everything else stood on: that God became a man, died, was buried and rose again.
The Foundation of Everything
If you’ve ever been on a sports team or been a coach or done anything at a competitive level, there’s one thing that you keep being told. Whether you are playing intermural floor hockey or competing for the Stanley Cup in the NHL there is one thing that stays consistent: “The Fundamentals”. When things go wrong at the highest level, what do they say: “We weren’t sticking to our game. We got too fancy. We forgot the fundamentals.” When they’re asked how they’re going to win, they never say, “Trick plays and fancy footwork”, right? No, that’s why the interviews and “keys to the game” are so repetitive and boring: “Stay focused, solid goaltending, get pucks on the net, execute the plays, do the fundamentals.”
That’s kind of what Paul is doing here. He just wrote them a huge, complicated letter addressing a lot of subjects, but then at the end he says, “Guys, none of this matters if you forget the fundamentals, the basics, the foundation of everything: that God loves you so much that He sent His one and only Son to take your punishment, to die on the cross, to be dead and buried for three days, and then rise again on the third day. Everything else starts to make sense once you get that into your heart.”
And it does! Pick an issue. Pick a problem. Pick a crisis. Maybe you have a broken heart. Bad self-image issues. Maybe you live with anxiety, fear, depression, or anger problems. Maybe you are a child of divorce or were abused. Maybe you were the abuser, you did the bad stuff, you hurt people. Maybe you are lonely, or overwhelmed, or exhausted. Maybe you are childless, or your body is sick, you have needs, or you are going through a confusing situation.
It’s in these moments that our souls want to cry out to God for help, but then we stop ourselves because we aren’t sure if God listens to one person’s problems, if God cares about us, if God is real, if God is kind. Does God care about my feelings, how I look, whether I have friends? Does God know what it’s like to be anxious, afraid, sad, or angry? Does God know what it means to be abandoned and abused? What does God think of people who have done terrible, selfish things? What does God think of abusers? Are they beyond hope? Does God know what it’s like to be lonely and exhausted and overwhelmed? Has God ever been bent over with emotion, so exhausted that He couldn’t stand, “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” to the point of sweating blood? Has he faced political problems, religious problems, relationship problems, sickness, tragedy, fear, pain, and death? The answer is yes. Jesus knows what that’s like.
Isaiah 53:3 describes him as, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Jesus, the Son of God to whom all glory is due, gave it up. Why?
Why go through that? Why leave heaven, leave the Father, leave the perfection of beauty and the worship of angels to face a life of pain, rejection, shame, betrayal, and crucifixion?
Isaiah 53:4 continues with the answer:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Jesus, the Great Shepherd, saw us as sheep that had gone astray, lost in the dark woods, torn to pieces by the wolves of temptation and sin, dead by our own choices – and then, the Great Shepherd became a sheep. He came into the dark, faced the wolves, and traded places with us. He died so we could live. In heaven he God has no grief, no sorrow, but Jesus came to earth to bear our griefs, to carry our sorrows. All the wrath God had against sinners – all his hatred for those who had insulted Him, blasphemed Him, broke His laws, spread hate, destroyed others with their lust, stole from Him and each other, lied and murdered – would be placed on Jesus. Why?
For the love of sinners. He did it so it there would be no one who would not have grace available to them – no matter how bad they are, no matter what they’ve done – no one would be lost forever if they would admit they are a sinner, turn away from their sin, turn toward Jesus, and ask forgiveness in His name.
When we start at the gospel, building everything we know about God and this world on the foundation of the story of Jesus – when we start to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph 3:18), then everything else starts to come clear.
Are you loved and valuable? Is there someone who sees you as beautiful and worthy of kindness? Yes, so much God traded His one and only Son for you. Is there someone that knows what is going on in the depths of your heart, has faced the same issue perfectly and is willing to help you? Yes, Jesus stands ready at every moment to hear your prayer and help you. Is there someone who has seen the bad you have done, the sin you’ve committed, the hurt you’ve caused, and will still forgive you, clean you up, welcome you into His arms, and give you a new mission in life? Yes. Jesus died for your sins so you could have a new life in him.
And this understanding, this truth that we call the Gospel, fills us up and then spills onto others. How can we forgive someone who hurt us? By realizing how much we have been forgiven by God. How can we know our lives have meaning and purpose? Because God’s word says as long as we have breath, God has something for us to do. How can we know that our sufferings, the worst years of our lives, weren’t wasted? How can we find meaning in such deep pain? Because of the cross and the empty tomb. The worst day in human history, the day sinners tortured and killed the most perfect, most valuable person to ever live – the most unjust, cruel, terrible day ever, led to the greatest miracle, the most important day in history, as God attributed Jesus death to us. When Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday we see that the most terrible day become the most glorious day as man’s greatest enemies were utterly destroyed.
Look back at 1 Corinthians 15 all the way down to verse 54 and see the power of the empty tomb:
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Without Jesus we are perishable, swallowed up by sin, stung by death, overpowered by temptation, disloyal, changeable, fruitless and labouring in vain. But when we turn our lives to Jesus, everything changes: The fear of death becomes powerless. We are no longer slaves to temptation. We become stable, abounding in the knowledge that so long as we are following Jesus, no matter what happens, the labor is not in vain. Or in the words of John Newton from Amazing Grace,
“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
But How Can We Know For Sure?
This all sounds well and good, but how can we know for sure this is true? Is it all based in our feelings? Are we simply to take it on faith? Is it all about that tingle in the spine, that twist in the gut? How do we know this isn’t just a comforting thought that someone came up to give weak, stupid people comfort?
Turn back to 1 Corinthians 15 and let’s read in verse 3 again,
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
We can know this is true for two reasons: First, because this was all “in accordance with the scripture” and second, because there were so many witnesses to the empty tomb.
In Accordance with Scripture
The passages I read to you from Isaiah 53, which accurately describe the events of Good Friday, were written almost 700 years before Jesus was born. God’s plan of salvation, Jesus dying on the cross and rising again, wasn’t an afterthought, wasn’t a way of making a bad situation into a good one – it was the plan since the beginning. We read about the coming of Jesus in prefigures and prophecies in every book of the Old Testament – from Genesis to Malachi. This shows the power and accuracy of the Bible.
Nothing is ever out of control for God. Even the worst day in history was planned out ahead of time and told about in scriptures. God gave His people hope by telling them how they would one day be saved. One way we can know that all of this is true is because of the Bible. It holds up to scrutiny and shows us that God is trustworthy and has a plan.
The Empty Tomb
The second evidence that everything I’m saying about Jesus is true is how many witnesses there were to crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This is why the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday are both of “first importance”.
When this was written Cephas, also known as Peter, was still alive. So were the other apostles. You could literally ask them what they saw. But not only them, hundreds of other people saw Jesus alive after being dead and buried, and most of them were alive too. Jesus’ own family including James, his brother whom he grew up with, worshipped Jesus as the Risen Lord. (Consider what it would take for you to worship a member of your family as Creator of the Universe.) And Paul, who was an enemy to Christians, who hunted them down, tortured and even killed Christians, met the living Jesus and then gave His life to preaching the gospel.
This is no small thing. People don’t die for a lie. The apostles didn’t make this up so they would get fame, fortune, comfort, and power. No, instead they were despised, rejected, impoverished, faced many dangers, chased down, and then tortured and killed for sharing the story of Jesus. People don’t do for a story they made up.
And since that day, many, many more, have met the living Jesus. They have experienced the love of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the friendship of Jesus – not merely as feeling, but as fact. People have lived and died for Jesus – not because it was their “religion” or their “culture” – but because they knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
My invitation to you this morning is to simply give your life to Jesus. Admit that you are a sinner, that you have broken God’s law, that you stand guilty before a righteous God, and that there is no amount of good you can do to cancel it all out. Once you admit that, ask for forgiveness from God for all you have done. Accept that Jesus died on the cross for that sin, that He traded Himself for you, that He did all the work necessary to save you, and accept His forgiveness. Agree that Jesus really did rise from the dead, conquering sin and death once and for all and that because of your faith in Him, death and sin have no more power over you.
And then, once you have done that – you need your make Him your Lord. Christians, this is a message to you too. Step off the throne of your life and put Jesus on it. Take your plans, your designs, your work, your family, your whole life, and give it to Jesus. Bow to Him as your Lord, your Boss, your King. The Bible says He already is your King anyway. There will come a day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10–11) Today is the day you are invited to do it by your own choice. Will you accept Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord?
We’re about to enter into a time historically known as “Passion Week”, starting on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday. It’s a week filled with history and meaning. This is the most important week of the Christian calendar. Centuries of history have revolved around it and believers from all manner of different traditions observe and celebrate it differently. Some people fast, others sing, some have prayer vigils, some read the bible from cover to cover, some even shave their heads. Each tradition has their own way to show worship by sacrificing something special in their lives to focus on God.
In their own ways they are living out what is written in Romans 12:1-2,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Before Jesus came, believers use to present sacrifices of animals or grain to the temple on certain days, but now, because of the work of Jesus, we have moved from presenting our worship and sacrifices in a certain building to living out our lives as sacrifices to him – still trying to make them pure, unblemished, holy and acceptable to God, but knowing that we can only do this through the power of God.
Please open up to Matthew 21:1-11 and we’re going to tie together our series on Stewardship with the sacrifices of worship we see in the account of Palm Sunday.
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.’ This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’”
Going Through the Motions
Our theme today is worship, particularly the importance of having a lifestyle of worship, but more than this – that worship in itself, true worship, is sacrificial – it costs us something. I just watched a clip of a sermon recently where Matt Chandler was gently confronting some people in churches in Texas with the understanding that just because you go to church doesn’t make you a Christian. He said,
“In the Bible Belt churches are jam-filled with people who have no mark of being Christians on their lives other than the fact that they attend once a week. No obedience whatsoever, no desire for obedience, no relationship with Christ, no seriousness about God…. You come, you check it, and you call yourself a Christian. And I want to lovingly tell you that if there is no desire for obedience and no obedience then you should not count yourself a Christian. You should consider yourself lost and in danger of damnation.”
That sounds like it could be harsh, but he’s right. He isn’t talking about “salvation by works” but the changed heart that comes when we turn our lives over to Jesus. He’s talking about sacrificial, lifestyle worship. There is no true faith without obedience, there is no true worship without sacrifice.
Most people here understand the concept of sacrifice. Parents know what it means to give up our time and resources for our kids. Military people know what it means to make sacrifices for their country. The disasters that keep coming at the world all have relief organizations that want some of our money to help people. Some people even donate their own blood for the sake of others.
I think we understand the concept well enough, but what we need to see is that to be a worshipper of God demands sacrifice. We see that all through the Bible: there is worship that God accepts and that God rejects, and most often the worship He rejects is the easy, mindless, going through the motions activities of religious people. Sing because it’s time to sing. Talk when it’s time to talk. Bow heads when it’s time to bow heads. Read the words written down because you’re supposed to. Look at the guy talking for as long as he’s talking. That disengaged repetition of mindless, religious activity is worship that God rejects.
But let’s take a look at some of the people involved in the Triumphal Entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday. We don’t see people dropping money in a plate, reading a script, or doing anything in the temple in this story. What we see is some of the ways Jesus required them to sacrifice to Him as an act of worship.
The Donkey Man
First, let’s look at the man who gave up his donkey. Jesus had told his disciples to go to the village ahead and get a donkey that was tied up. The book of Luke (19:20-34) sheds a bit more light on this situation: Jesus says,
“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, `Why are you untying it?’ tell him, `The Lord needs it.’ Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
Notice that little difference? The owner is in this one.
Imagine what was going on in this guy’s head. There he is, working on something around the house and some random guys come up try to walk off with two of his animals. The disciples are just being obedient, but what about the owner?
Consider yourself. You’re washing your car in your driveway. The door is open and the key is dinging away. You step into the garage for a moment to get something and a couple of guys walk up, get in the car, and prepare to drive off. You come running out and say, “Where are you going in my car?!” And the people inside respond, “The Lord needs it….”
Now it’s decision time, right? What do you do? Therein lay the sacrifice. The moment he heard that the animals were to be used by the Lord, his argument stopped. He sent his valuables, maybe his most valuable things, on with these strangers. Maybe God prepared this man in advance as he was praying, or maybe he didn’t. All we know is that when the Lord wanted something from him, he gave it up. He didn’t even know what Jesus was going to do with it.
The simple question for us is this: Would you or I have done the same? Would we have let the disciples take our car? We’re presented with this option more often than we think as God gives us the opportunity to sacrifice what we have for others. Someone gets into trouble, someone needs our time, energy, money, resources, and we are presented with the option to give. We feel the impression in our heart to do something. Someone calls us with a need. What do we do? We analyze the situation. We ask questions. We wonder about return on investment. We negotiate how little to give. We try to find other options. But what if the only reason we get is, “The Lord needs it”? Regularly giving up our resources is part of what a lifestyle of Christian worship looks like.
There’s another group that gives of their resources in the story too. Verses 7-8 tell us that there are folks who were spreading their cloaks on the ground. As an act of worship, a way to show their deference to Him, and also a way to acknowledge and declare that He is their promised Messiah and King.
These weren’t their old “Goodwill” or “Salvation Army” clothes either. They didn’t run home and get the jacket they never use anymore. This was whatever they were wearing. But even that doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice, right? A couple donkey hoof prints on there. But anyone who has ridden horses or has been to a parade knows that something else happens when animals go for a walk – there’s a reason the street sweepers follow the horses.
The point is that these people, upon seeing Jesus, started to worship Him and that worship required an immediate sacrifice of what they had. Honoring Jesus will require the use of our time and our resources. We cannot grow as a disciple of Jesus if we don’t spend our time and resources on Him. This, what we are doing here at church, is not the pinnacle of Christian experience and I feel sad for anyone who thinks it is. Sure, we have to get up, some people have to serve, but this is perhaps, the easiest sacrifice of our week. The real test of our Christian character, the real opportunities to give sacrificial, lifestyle worship come later in the week as we are presented with opportunities to give of ourselves to do what God wants us to do.
Consider St. Patrick, whose special day was just a few days ago. Despite the day now being about celebrating Ireland, wearing green, and generating green vomit, the story of St. Patrick is one we shouldn’t forget.
Patrick was born in northeast England, not Ireland, in the late fourth century. When he was 16 years old he was kidnapped by Celtic pirates, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave to a tribal chief who put him to work as a cattle herder. He was raised in the church but it wasn’t until he faced this level of suffering that his faith started to take root. Seeing the beauty of the Irish countryside caused him to worship God’s amazing creativity and it was in the total isolation of slavery in a foreign land where he really learned to pray.
He was held captive for 6 years until he escaped, made his way back to England, and joined the priesthood. He trained and served many churches but then, one day, at age 48 God told him that he needed to go and share God’s love with the unreached Irish Celts. This was unprecedented, totally controversial, and he gained little support – but after a time of negotiation the church finally, and reluctantly sent him off to the barbarians, likely to never see him again.
What was unique about the way Patrick did missionary work was that he didn’t go into the land and try to civilize it. He didn’t try to turn the Irish into good, English people, build English churches, and teach them English songs. He knew that wouldn’t work because he knew the people. So he gave up the way he was used to worshipping for their sake. He gave up his own style for their sake. He spoke their language, gave them his time, his prayers, his food and resources to the poor, and most especially his forgiveness. He gave his whole life to them.
It was this heart of sacrifice that enabled thousands of people to meet Jesus for the first time and gave rise to one of the greatest missionary successes of all time. Patrick was a man who knew what it meant to worship God by sacrificially serving others.
The Sacrifice of Reputation
There’s one more sacrifice I want to point out in the account of the Triumphal entry and that is the reaction of the crowds. Calling out “Hosanna!” to Jesus was dangerous. They put their reputation and their safety at stake. It was a thumb in the nose of the Jewish ruling class, the Sanhedrin. It offended the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day. And, perhaps most dangerous of all, it risked reprisal from the Romans who did not take kindly to anyone claiming to be another king, “the Lord”, or “the Highest”. Their worship required risk.
Consider our own societies celebrity worship culture. Society holds them up for all to see, watches them on TV, listens to interviews, seeks them out on YouTube, wears what they wear, eats what they eat, reads what they read, go where they go. People on the sidelines of the award shows often yell things like “I love you!”, and companies make contests of just spending one hour with a certain celebrity, but it’s all with very little risk. We can shout how much we love Jennifer Lawrence or Vin Diesel from the rooftops until we’re blue in the face and no one cares – but have you noticed what happens when someone stands on a rooftop in front of a crowd and shouts that they love Jesus? Doesn’t’ really happen, does it? Why? Because that’s different, isn’t it? That’s got risk.
When the people in Jerusalem that day were yelling “Hosanna” they weren’t yelling “I love you!” They were yelling, “Save me!” Hosanna is literally the word “save”. They were crying out to Jesus for deliverance. This wasn’t about His celebrity status, but about deliverance. Deliverance from their Roman oppressors, their corrupt civic leaders, and the mess that their religion was in. It was a cry for mercy, an acknowledgment that He was the Saviour.
It’s one thing to yell that you love Jesus in public – you might get away with that in North America – but it’s totally something else to yell out that Jesus is the only Saviour and Lord of the Earth.
We have a hard enough time asking for help, don’t we? We’re all about self-help, self-determination, self-esteem, do-it-yourself. For some people, it’s almost agonizing to ask even those closest to them for help. So many people suffer alone, and it requires a massive sacrifice of pride for them to admit they need help.
But when we cry out to Jesus, that’s exactly what we are doing. We are asking for His help, admitting that we are not enough, that we require His intervention. As Christians we first admit that we are sinners, bent away from God, serving ourselves and messing up our lives and the lives of others. Then we ask for forgiveness, something only God can grant. We cannot forgive ourselves. Then we ask to be reborn, remade, changed from the sinner that we were into a new creation that hates sin and wants righteousness. Only God can do that. And then, every day, we admit once more that we are not strong enough, wise enough, good enough, to accomplish even one right thing without God’s help.
Many come to God in prayer but actually refuse to admit they actually need His help. They use God like 911 or like Santa Clause, the last resort or the way to get something they know is a long-shot. Some treat God like a help desk, asking for a minimal amount of help when they get stuck and then telling God that they’ll take it from there. They believe they are 90% strong enough, and that God gives them the other 10%. That’s not how it works.
A Christian recognizes their deep need and falls before Jesus saying, “I don’t have anything to offer. I’m dead inside. Whatever I touch gets worse. Even my supposed good deeds are done selfishly. I am a sinner in need of a Saviour. Hosanna, Jesus. Save me.”
And there are some that will admit this in private – but these people were doing it in public. Listen to Luke 19:37-40:
“As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’”
The leaders of their city were offended and trying to stop them. Most Christians I know won’t even pray a simple prayer in public – they are too nervous, too ashamed, too worried about what others think. Some refuse to sing even in church because they’re worried what others think. Some go to work and literally no one knows they are a believer. Some won’t even say grace with their own families out of fear. But these people cried out for help right in front of their friends, the priests, the Pharisees, the Roman centurions.
According to Luke 19, as Jesus rode he wasn’t smiling, he was weeping because He knew what was coming. Jesus rode up to the temple, once again drove out those who were selling there, and then began to teach. Listen to what it says in verses 47-48,
“And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.”
The people turning their hearts and attention to Jesus, crying out for his help in public didn’t convert the city – but instead threw it into an upheaval. Their sacrificial worship, their willingness to cry out to Jesus in public, was the catalyst that made the city leaders want to utterly destroy Jesus. And they tried. And that persecution caused all of the believers, even the disciples, to flee.
When you call out to Jesus, people are going to think you’re crazy. There’s a risk. Calling out to the Saviour has risk. Your friends, your family, your fellow church people, may see you as a fanatic, may tell you to calm down, not be so serious, that there are a time and place for that sort of thing. That’s what the Pharisees tried to tell Jesus and his followers.
My conclusion is simply this: the worship God accepts requires sacrifice. It is a reflection of our thankfulness for Jesus’ sacrifice. He gave up everything, came to a world that would hate Him, reject Him and crucify Him, for our sake. He lived as a servant every day and still lives as a servant to His people. Our response is to do the same to Him by giving our lives to Him. Not just one morning per week, but every moment, every action, every decision of our lives. And that will require sacrifice. Without sacrifice, there is no worship.
Do you live a lifestyle of sacrificial worship? Do you spend your time, resources, and reputation on Jesus? Do you risk your time, resources and reputation to worship Jesus? Or does it only happen in closed rooms and dark corners? Does your worship require sacrifice?
Is there something God has asked you to give, some way He has called you to obey, that you’ve refused because it was too much, too risky? What if “The Lord needs it” from you?
And, finally, ask yourself if you ashamed to call yourself a Christian. Does your lifestyle, your words, your deeds, your conversations, your prayer life reflect that you are a believer? Have you cried out “Hosanna” in the streets? I’m not asking you to get on a rooftop this week or stand on a street corner – but how about this: does everyone in your life know you are a follower of Jesus?
At the very least, will you take the risk of showing your faith in a practical way this week? Pray in public, share your faith, tell someone that you are a Christian.
Have you ever seen the movie “Inception”? It’s about a group that invades other people’s dreams so they can plant ideas. It’s a cool movie. One of the cool parts is that they end up going deeper and deeper as they make the person fall asleep within their own dream so they can start a new dream within the dream – and then they do it again – a dream within a dream within a dream. It’s a cool concept.
I recognize that my sermon series has been a little like this lately. We’re at the tail end of a series on 1 Corinthians, which recently launched a mini-series on Stewardship, but now, we’re coming into the Easter Season and I need to pause the Stewardship series so we can prepare ourselves for Easter. In the movie going this deep into inception wasn’t a good idea and almost caused a bunch of people to die – so I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen.
Please open up to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. But first, I want you to watch this:
Carman’s story is like many that are in the church today, not just youth, but a lot of people. Coasting along in the faith, serving here and there… as he said, “Christianity is just what we did.” That sort of faith, if you can call it that, doesn’t really hold up for very long and invariably leads to drifting from God and the church, what Christians have historically called “backsliding”.
But then something happens. In Carman’s case, his mom got sick. He was faced with the suffering, and eventual death of a loved one. At that moment, in the face of suffering and death, all the questions that he had been pushing aside came rushing at him, whether he wanted them to or not, and he was forced to evaluate where he was with God, ask himself who God is, and whether or not he was going to trust Him. I know some here have faced this moment of crisis too.
The reason for human suffering and what happens after we die has been a topic of debate since almost the beginning of time — and after thousands of years of discussion, we are obviously nowhere near a consensus. Religious leaders, theologians, philosophers, and scientists have all spent time, energy and much ink giving their opinions, but people are as divided as ever.
And, though I don’t want to assume where you’re at today, though I do know many of you, my guess is that even in this room there are a myriad of perspectives, and we know a lot of people that hold different beliefs. Some grew up with religious background that told them from an early age that there is some sort of force outside them that controls everything, will judge their actions, and send them somewhere after they die. Others have a view where suffering is all in the mind, there is no judgment on our deeds, and everyone gets their own perfect afterlife. Maybe you know someone who believes in reincarnation.
Or perhaps they are more like the renowned scientist, Stephen Hawking who died this week. He suffered from ALS for most of his life, was on the edge of death many times, and when he was asked about his beliefs about God he said,
“I believe the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization; that there probably is no heaven and no afterlife either.”
In 2011, he said,
“There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers. That is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
It’s possible there are those here or among our friends that take this nihilistic view of the universe, believing that nothing happens and that everyone else is simply believing fairy tales because they don’t want to think about simply disappearing.
Some people love talking about these sorts of subjects and are open to new ideas, others are rock solid in what they believe and will never change – but more often, I find, people these days take a more agnostic view where they simply say they don’t know why bad things happen or what will happen after death and don’t think anyone ever will. Often, these sorts of people work pretty hard to distract themselves from having to ever think about suffering and death at all.
A lot of people are in that state – which we could simply call denial – but they can’t stay there. Death and suffering are all around us. We can’t actually escape them. I just conducted a funeral yesterday and it’s in moments like that, when we are faced with the suffering and death of someone that we knew, someone who was close to us, who had an impact on our lives, that we are forced to contemplate why they went through what they did and what happens next. Did their life matter? Did their suffering have a purpose? Is there a reward for the good they did and justice for the wrongdoer? Is there a place that is free from pain or do we simply disappear into the ether? It is in the moments where we are confronted with death that we are given the opportunity to wonder what happened and where they are now. To wonder about their condition. Which, in turn, forces us, if only for a fleeting moment, to wonder about our own condition, about how we will face suffering and what will happen to us when we die.
Many people aren’t comfortable with this subject, but it’s something that Christians talk about a lot – or at least they should. We’re coming up to the Easter Season which is all about moving from the dead of winter to the new life of spring, of fasting and prayer during lent to mourning the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday, to the celebration of His resurrection on Easter Sunday. The stories of Jesus in scripture are stories of Him being surrounded by spiritual and human enemies, sickness, oppression, and death, and overcoming them all. And part of our mission in the world is to go out and minister to those who are weak, suffering and who have come face to face with death. Christians don’t run from these topics, we run towards them, just as Jesus did.
A Vacuum of Knowledge
Let’s read our passage today in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
This passage is a microcosm, a summary, of the Christian view of suffering and death. Many here are Christians. I am a Christian pastor. We are in a Christian church. And Christians have a very specific, very defined, view of suffering, death and the afterlife, something that we have been sharing and proclaiming and comforting ourselves with for literally millennia.
But this hasn’t always been the case. At the beginning of Christianity, as the Gospel of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the Roman world and beyond, there was a lot of confusion. They, like us here today, had many, many views on why things happen the way they do and what happens after death. They had as many religions and philosophies as we do. And so, as the message of Christianity spread a lot of teaching and clarifying had to be done.
What we just read was a message sent from the Apostle Paul to a Christian church in the Greek city of Thessalonica. According to Acts 17, the Apostle Paul had been through their city, had told them the story of Jesus, about His life, teachings, death, burial, and resurrection, and had planted a church there in Jesus’ name. But he wasn’t able to stay long. Within a very short time, a group of Jews rose up that opposed Paul and his message. They spread lies about him, formed a mob, threatened violence, attacked the house they were staying at, shook them down for protection money, and then ran Paul and Silas out of town. Paul didn’t have time to teach the Thessalonians everything they needed to know, and that vacuum of knowledge left them in trouble.
They were like many people today. They had heard about the One, true God. They had learned that God has a standard for the world, a moral law written into His Word and into the consciences of men, and that we have all broken it. They had learned that every human being has sinned, that we all stand guilty, and that in our hearts we all know that we have done wrong — and that this God, the Creator of all things, will judge our deeds.
But they had also learned about Jesus. They had learned that, as the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16 says, that “God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him, wouldn’t perish, but would have everlasting life.” The Thessalonians, in Paul, had met a man who had seen and spoken to the risen, Lord Jesus, and he had invited them to look into the evidence themselves. They had learned that on the cross Jesus had taken the punishment for the sins of everyone who would turn to Him, that He literally traded Himself for them, took their punishment, wiped out their sins, and offered to them a new life with Him guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit of God. As a result of this message, they felt the conviction of their sins, asked forgiveness of God, and accepted Jesus as their Saviour and their God.
But then Paul left, abruptly. I would imagine that for a time it was all good. Everyone was excited about their new life, new faith, was celebrating and worshipping Jesus and sharing His love — but then someone in the church got sick. They were prayed over, they expected a miracle, but then, instead of seeing a miracle, that person kept suffering, got worse, and died. This put the believers into crisis — the same crisis that many people feel today.
They had been told that Jesus loves them, that God is all-powerful, that all good things come from Him, and that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life — but they just watched someone they care about get sick, suffer, pray for help, and then die. Maybe you’ve felt this way too, even asked the same questions. What happened? Was their faith not strong enough? Was the story of Jesus a lie? Where was God in all this? This was a crisis of faith. People started to turn away from God and the church and wrote to the Apostle Paul, begging him for an answer to what had happened. If God is so good, why do bad things happen? If God is powerful, then why didn’t He fix everything and stop our friend, our family member, from suffering and dying? If Jesus gives eternal life, why do believers die? What went wrong? Is it all just metaphors and stories? They were bewildered and they had lost hope.
Where Our Hope Lies
And so Paul writes to them these words. He says,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
He starts by saying, “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep”. Their bewilderment and hopelessness, their confusion and panic, the loss of their faith had come because there was something they didn’t know. This is the danger of choosing not to think about it, being willfully ignorant, of not studying the word or believing lies. The vacuum of knowledge or false knowledge causes us to be confused, open to lies, and hopeless when we are faced with suffering and death. We become a target for our spiritual enemies, false teachers, and our own temptation to simply make things up – and there is no comfort in that.
But the Bible says that there is a truth, there is a sure hope, there is an answer to the deepest questions, “Why do people suffer and what happens after we die?”, and it’s an answer that needs to be shared by someone who already knows it. That’s why Christians share the gospel. We know something that others don’t. We know how God’s goodness, His power, and His plan, work in the face of human suffering and death. And it’s our job to share it.
The end of verse 13 says tells us why this knowledge is important: “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. There’s an important truth there: everyone grieves. Both Christians and non-Christians grieve. The natural, human response to suffering and death is grief. But there are two different kinds of grief. There is a grief with hope and grief without hope. Most of the world’s religions and philosophies give very little hope. They present a judgemental god who is eager to toss people into Hell who don’t follow his rules. They present a cruel or powerless god who has neither the authority nor the inclination to help anybody. They present a chaotic universe that has no order, no reason, no meaning. Or they simply present, utter, darkness – no hope. It is only the Christian message that presents hope in the face of suffering and death because it is the only one that presents the truth, rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
Verse 14 says, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” In short, our Christian hope comes in the knowledge that God is good, God is loving, and God is in control. Christians know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our birth, life, sufferings, and death are all known to a good God who loves us. But how do we know it’s true? How do we know He’s good? Because of the birth, life, sufferings, and death of Jesus. We find our hope in knowing that God deals with us as He dealt with Jesus.
God sent Jesus to be born to a certain family at a certain time. So were we. God allowed Jesus to see both good and bad in His life, to face joys and sufferings, friends and betrayal, purpose and grief. He does the same with us. God set the date and appointed the time of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus sufferings and death were God’s idea, His plan to save us from the beginning of time. In the same way, the events of our lives, the sufferings we face, and the moment of our death are known to God.
But more than this, and in this lies our hope, God rose Jesus from the dead. God’s power brought Jesus from the grave, conquering death. He was seen by hundreds, maybe thousands of people. When Jesus died His disciples were completely distraught: hopeless, bewildered, listless, afraid. But seeing Jesus alive had such an effect on them that they dedicated their lives to sharing that message with as many people as they could — even at the cost of their own lives. They knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus had died and is now alive – and they staked their lives and their eternities on it.
In the same way, Christians stake our lives, our hopes, and our eternities on Jesus. Just as His sufferings had a purpose and He rose from death, so do ours, and so will we. First our spirits to heaven, and then our bodies later. This is where we find hope.
As Romans 8 says,
“If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
My hope for you today, and for the rest of this season, over the next few weeks, is that as you face suffering, grief, and death – as you are confronted once again with bad things that are happening to yourself and those you love, that you will open your hearts and minds to the Gospel, to the message of Jesus, to the comfort of knowing Him. That you will not grieve as those who have no hope but will be able to accept that Jesus knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes, has great compassion for you, and invites you to walk with Him. You don’t have to be perfect or cleaned up, or anything — His grace is available to you right now.
My hope is that you will come to trust more and more, even when the world gets dark, that in this place, at this moment, and no matter where you go from here, that Jesus has given a purpose to suffering, that He knows them all, that He has conquered death, and that you will know beyond the shadow of a doubt – and be able to share with others – that eternal life and perfect hope is available to all who would turn from their sin, ask His forgiveness, and trust in Him.
The Gospel Truth
Today I want to talk about the “Gospel”. That word has been hijacked a bit by our culture so I want, at the outset, to clarify what that word even means. The term “The Gospel Truth” has actually become an idiom in our culture – meaning a group of words that have a meaning you can’t get from the words themselves. Like “it’s raining cats and dogs” (which means there’s a lot of rain coming down), or “beating round the bush” (which means to avoid talking about something), the words “the gospel truth” have now become idiomatic for something that is supposed to be unquestionably true.
A quick Google search for showed people using the phrase in concert reviews (“she loves singing, that’s the gospel truth”. scientific studies (“don’t take this study as the gospel truth”), marriage advice (“here’s some advice, but don’t take it as the gospel truth), and of course, attacks against mainstream media (“CNN, NBC, ABC all present their claims as the gospel truth”). It seems to either a way to double down on how truthful you are, or to squirm out of having people totally buy what you are saying.
The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word EVANGELION, which is where we get our word “evangelism” or “evangelist”. An “evangelist” is someone that tells the “good news”. The world simply means “good news”. When Mark begins telling the story of Jesus, he starts with the word EVANGELION: This is the good news. At the time the word meant any kind of good news. 2000 years ago if someone knocked and said “Have you heard the good news?”, you wouldn’t immediately think they were religious, but simply thought it could be a good sale down at the camel emporium or they just found some money in their sock drawer. [Did ancient Greeks have sock drawers?] Today, however, the word “Gospel” or “good news” is synonymous with the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now, when knocks on your door or stops you in the street and says “have you heard the good news?” almost everyone immediately knows this person is going to say something about Jesus!
My least favourite example of culture appropriating the word “gospel” is from the old Disney movie “Hercules” which opens by presenting the Greek myths with gospel-style, church music, using the hook on the chorus “and that’s the gospel truth”. It’s annoying to me that they would use what sounds like upbeat church music to present myths. It puts the Bible at the same historical accuracy level as Homer’s Odyssey. Which simply isn’t true.
Not a Myth
Christians don’t follow myths. What we believe is not based on philosophy or stories that make us feel good. Instead, we believe the true gospel, the real gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, really happened. Jesus life, death, and resurrection were the plan of salvation, the gospel, that God had written since the beginning of time. We stake our lives and our eternities on it.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 the Apostle Paul writes to the church about the importance of remembering that the resurrection of Jesus really happened. He says:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He’s telling the Christians that no matter what happens in this world, the reason we can have hope is because of the historical reality that Jesus really was raised from the dead. He reminds them that this is what was taught to them, this is what they believed, and when the world around them starts to shake, this is what they need to “hold fast to” – not because it is a nice story, but because it’s true. God’s plan, “according to the scriptures”, was that Jesus would die on a Roman cross. He really was buried and He really did rise three days later. And how could they be sure? Ask Cephas and the apostles, who were still around. If you don’t believe them ask one of the other five hundred witnesses who are still around.
Some people had come to the church and said, “That’s impossible! People don’t come back from the dead!” To which Christians reply, “No duh. That’s why it’s so special! That’s why we have a great big celebration about it every year! Because it’s a miracle.”
But some of the people in the Corinthian church had forgotten the good news were starting to lose faith – and this was only 30 years after the resurrection! As they lost their faith in the resurrection they started to lose hope, which meant the foundation of their lives started to wobble, which caused them to flail about looking for something to make the world make sense, and they were starting to wander into sin, hopelessness, fear, worldliness, sadness, greed, and anything else that would distract them or some level of control – and their pastor, Paul, blows the whistle and calls everyone back to the centre so they can do a big reset.
I’m an Edmonton Oiler fan and I’m very glad to see my team back in the playoffs this year. It’s been a long time. But I still remember 2006 when they made the trade for a big defenseman named Chris Pronger who took the team to the playoffs. He was a huge guy with lots of experience on a team that no one thought would be able to win. I remember watching as the Oilers would get behind, start chasing the puck, start freaking out, and then 6 foot 6 inch, 220 pound Chris Pronger would get the puck, look around at the rest of the guys and reset the whole team. It happened time and again. The young, inexperienced guys, would be buzzing around, and Pronger would basically stop the game and give everyone a chance to get back to where they needed to be.
That’s what Paul did to the church. He stopped their buzzing and reset the whole church. “Guys, remember the truth! Remember what you heard! Remember what you believe and why you believe it! Put down the idols, sin, greed, fear, and foolishness and remember that God is real, Jesus has risen, the Holy Spirit is active, and you are His!”
He goes on to say in verse 12 that if Jesus has not be raised from the dead, if the resurrection isn’t true, then there is no point in being a Christian – life has no hope. He says: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
That’s what we are proclaiming today. My message and the message of this church is the same. “In fact, Christ has been raised from the dead” and therefore we have hope. Adam sinned and brought death to the world – but Jesus’s death made it so that we could be alive again.
I opened the Good Friday service with a prayer that I want to read part of again because I found it so powerful. It said, “It was on the cross that grace removed our burdens and heaped them onto Jesus, where he was made a transgressor, a curse, and sin for our sake…. Christ was all anguish that we might be all joy, rejected so we could be accepted, cast off so we could be brought in, trodden down as an enemy so we could be welcomed as friends, surrendered to hell’s worst so we could attain heaven’s best, wounded that we could be healed, thirsty so we would be able to drink, tormented so we could find comfort, made shame so we might inherit glory, entered darkness that we might have eternal light. Jesus Christ, our Saviour, wept so that our tears might be wiped away, groaned in agony so we could have an endless song to sing, endured all pain so that we could have unfading health, bore a crown of thorns so we could have imperishable crowns of glory, life, and righteousness. He bowed his head so that ours could be lifted to heaven, he experienced reproach so we could be accepted, closed his eyes in death so we could gaze on the unclouded brightness of God. He died so we could live forever.”
The world seems upside down right now, but, Christians around the world proclaim today: remember the gospel! In a world awash with bad news, and a life full of frustration, remember the good news.
We all need some good news these days, don’t we? But for some reason, the media doesn’t really like reporting “good news”. Can you imagine turning on the TV to your favourite news program and hearing only good news for 30 minutes straight? I can’t even fathom what that would be like.
How about instead of saying “1 in 6 people lie on their tax form”, they could say, “Did you know that 83% of people are very honest and do a great job on their taxes every year!” Instead of hearing about how the legal system is failing, the police have problems, and the bad guys are getting out of jail on a technicality, we heard stories like “The police saved countless lives this month by giving out tickets to people who drive too fast, took care of special needs people by giving out tickets, arrested lots and lots of bad guys, saved many families from harm, and visited a whole bunch of schools to help children have a better life.” Instead of hearing about the crooked bankers, wouldn’t it be nice to hear that like 99.9% of the people at the bank aren’t crooked and are just trying to do a good job. That’d be a nice change, wouldn’t it?
I would love to turn on the TV and see some positive stories: “This just in… 20 kittens were born today – here’s some pictures. Baskin Robins has a deal on waffle cones – here’s a coupon. And now for the weather: Hey, the sun us up, it’s nice outside, there are flowers blooming in the park, and everyone should go outside and play. Now for the sports: Almost every athlete in every sport practiced really hard, played exactly by the rules, worked well with their team mates, made lots and lots of money, donated some of it to charity, and the vast majority are still very happily married. Oh, and half the teams won their games! And now for entertainment news from Hollywood: there are actually a bunch of fun movies to take your kids too … and some of them are in 3D.”
Yes, I know that life sucks sometimes and everyone wants us to freak out all the time. ISIS is killing people, Christians are being blown up while they sit in their churches, Syria is gassing civilian woman and children, the US just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb in their arsenal on Afghanistan. Add to that the incredibly difficult things that we are all facing in our day-to-day lives – addiction, abuse, illness, pain, loss, depression, anxiety, sadness… and it’s easy to start to feel hopeless.
As the world presses in and our foundations start to shake, we also start to flail about looking for something to grab onto to steady ourselves. Even committed Christians find themselves wondering what God is doing, where Jesus is, why we are going through this, and we start to grasp for immediate answers and instant comfort. Our fight or flight instincts kick in and we want to rail against those around us, or do anything for a moment’s peace – even if we know it will harm us.
But we need more, don’t we? We need more than just a quick fix or a boost of good news from the world around us – we need something ultimate, some piece of good news that we can build our whole lives on. Something that, when all is lost, the world is dark, the demons are swirling, we feel desperately hungry, angry, lonely, tired and sad, that holds us fast. Some people call this a metanarrative – an overarching story that gives meaning to everything. And that metanarrative, that overarching meaning, that good news is found in the resurrection of Jesus.
What the Good News Means
Some of you know that my family has been through a rough time lately. And I know from talking to you that many of you are also facing some very difficult situations personally, emotionally, financially, relationally. And so I want to share with you, from a bit of a personal side, what the Good News means to us – what it means to me – especially during dark times.
On Easter Sunday we wake up early, put on our itchy pants and fancy dresses, come to church and celebrate, sing about, and talk about the resurrection of Jesus. And we sometimes phrase it as “God did this for the world. God loves everybody.” But today I want to close with what the good news means to me… and hopefully you can resonate with it.
I could do this in 10 words: “The gospel of Jesus Christ means everything to me.” Or I could preach endlessly, for hours and hours, about the ways Jesus has changed my life, what the scripture says, what I have studied in my theology books, and what He has done for me in my darkest times.
No doubt you are wondering which one I picked. You’re hoping for the 10 word conclusion, and hoping against the endless one, right? Well, I’m hoping to lean more towards the former than the latter, if that means anything.
So, when the world is at it’s darkest and I need good news, I am reminded of the resurrection of Jesus and all that it means for me and those who believe. Let me share a little of what gives me hope during those hard times.
First, the resurrection of Jesus means that absolute truth and absolute morality exist. What a horrible insecurity it is to believe that there is no such thing as truth that nothing can be certain, everything is pliable, and that everyone’s opinion, conjecture and feelings are equally valid. That somehow even if something is a lie, it can be the “truth to someone”. That’s an unsettled, foundationless existence.
I have comfort in the knowledge that there are some non-negotiables in this world – that not everything is up for grabs. Some things are categorically bad, and others are absolutely good. Yes, there arere some grey areas I don’t understand, but its good news that God has given us black and white. Jesus died to save me from the wrath of God against sin which leads to eternal death, and because of Him I can be free and clean. It’s as black and white as that. There is right and wrong, good and evil, saved and unsaved, and those things are set by God – not man, not me, not anyone but God alone.
I Am Loved
Second, the death and resurrection of Jesus tells me that I am overwhelmingly, undeservingly, and unconditionally loved by the One who created me. When life is at its worst. When I feel like I’m on the edge of madness, people let me down, and I am utterly confused, I look to the cross and know that God loves me, to the tomb and know that Jesus is alive and with me. It is He who gives me comfort, teaches me, holds me together, and willingly grants a peace that passes understanding. When I can’t count on anyone, I can count on Him. When no one will listen, I can talk to Him and He understands. And when I am alone, I can listen to Him because He really does speak. When I am alone He’s always there. He will never leave me, nor forsake me.
If I had to continuously wonder if I had done enough to earn God’s love, I would be forever paranoid and afraid of Him. If God only loves me because of the good things I do, say, think then I am in real trouble, because, in truth, I know that am a wretched, selfish, sinful man.
But He doesn’t. God so loved the world, and so loved me, that He sent His one and only Son to earth, to live as a human being, and to take the punishment that you and I deserve. He did this because He loves us with an everlasting love.
I Have a Purpose
Another piece of good news that Jesus reminds me of is that we are specially created to have a purpose and a destination. I am not a being who is simply tossed upon the winds of time and space, only to exist for a moment and then disappear into nonexistence. The bible teaches me that God knew us before we were born, put us together in a very specific way, with special gifts and talents and a unique temperament. He chose our parents, where we would grow up, and designed us in such a way that we have a reason to live.
In a world where we are taught we are the summation of a random occurrence of molecules and that we are governed more by chemistry and electrical impulse than an eternal soul… were we are only as valuable as long as we are producing and being good consumers, but where life has no ultimate meaning, there is no assurance of a bright future, and only oblivion to look forward to in eternity… it is good news to know that the opposite is true.
God Has Power
The resurrection also reminds me that no matter how bad life gets messed things up, God is big enough to fix it. Jesus showed that, if He desires, He has the power to solve every problem and turn every bad thing into something good. From making the blind see and the lame walk to turning water into wine just so someone wouldn’t be embarrassed, He showed He isn’t just about big problems but He is also concerned with everyday problems too. He fed 5000 people with one kid’s lunch to show that we never have to worry about provision when He’s in charge. When all of the disciples were terrified that their boat would capsize in the storm, Jesus stood up and literally rebuked the wind and waves and the storm just stopped. And He can, and has, done the same thing for the storms in my heart, my mind, and in my life as well. And the resurrection proves that even death has no power over Him! When things look bleak, it is good news to remember that God not only loves us, but has great power.
I Am Free
And of course, the best news, to me and anyone else who believes, is that we are free from the consequences of our sins. This is the core of evangelism – that because of Jesus we are free. Jesus knows what I’ve done. And Satan, who’s other name is the Accuser, has every right to stand on the other side of God’s courtroom and proclaim to the Judge of all mankind, that I am guilty and deserve death, hell and eternal punishment for breaking God’s divine law over and over. And I do – I deserve the punishment. And yet, there stands Jesus, who’s other name is the Advocate, telling God that every punishment I deserve, every sin I’ve committed, every wrong that I have done, has been atoned for… has been paid for, by Him on the cross.
You see, God couldn’t just let all my sin go. He can’t just forget about it. He is perfectly good and righteous, and upholds perfect justice. Every wrong must be given exactly the right punishment. No one will get away with anything. But for those who believe, that punishment was poured out on Jesus. I was a slave to sin, he bought me back. I was chained to the devil, on my way to the blackness of hell, and Jesus Christ proclaimed light, broke the chain, and brought me back. He exchanged His body for mine, His blood for mine. He went through Hell so I wouldn’t have to.
Christians don’t follow Jesus because we have to. We don’t do good because we are afraid of God. We do it because we want to show our love and thanks to Jesus and because I trust that God knows what He’s doing with my life WAY better than I do. When God tells me I’m doing wrong I try not to see it as Him taking something away but as a Father who is protecting me.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us of all of this! The story of humanity, from Adam to today, is only good news because Jesus is in the story! No matter where we are, what we have done, or who we think we are… God still loves us, Jesus died for us, forgiveness is available to us, and we can live forever in the knowledge that we are God’s people.
If you believe that this morning, I would ask you, and encourage you to remember that today is a day of celebration! And that no matter how bad the news is in your life… and no matter what your dark days, your bad thoughts, or the TV says… there is still good news.
No matter how tough you have it this morning… and I know that some of you are in a very dark place, and it is very hard to see any light… there is good news that if you are willing to turn your life over to Jesus, ask forgiveness for your sin, and open your heart to what He would like to do in you, He will give you hope. He’s never let me down and has taken such good care of me, that even when everything looked really messed up and beyond hope, He has done great things far beyond what I could have asked or even imagined.
Festival of Dangerous Ideas
Today is Easter Sunday, the day that the Christian church has set aside for hundreds of years – dating back to the third century – to celebrate and remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! This event is the single most important event in the history of humanity!
To start today, I want to show you a clip that I found online that comes from an annual event in Australia called the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas”. This is a group that brings leaders and thinkers from around the world together to discuss and debate big ideas.
For example, in 2009 they had famous atheist Christopher Hitchens present the topic of “Religion Poisons Everything” and then Cardinal George Pell talked about how “Without God we are Nothing”. In 2012 they had talks entitled “All Women Hate Each Other”, “A Foetus is Not a Person” and “The Devil is Real”. So that’s the type of environment we’re talking about here. A group of intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals all gathered together to see who can either inform or offend the most people with their chosen position.
This clip is from 2013 and comes from the Q&A portion and I want you to listen to the answers from three of the panelists. First you will hear from Gay Activist Dan Savage, then Feminist icon Germain Greer, and finally, Journalist and Author Peter Hitchens.
Before I play though, let me quickly relate a little of Peter Hitchen’s fascinating story. He’s a Christian author, and he’s at this “Festival” to represent the Christian side of things, but the story of his coming to faith is almost as dramatic as the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
His brother is the famous, and recently deceased atheist author I just mentioned who spoke on “Religion Poisons Everything”, and at one point both brothers agreed that belief in God was ridiculous. Peter was literally a hard-core, Bible-burning, Marxist.
The story goes that while on holiday with his girlfriend in France, they went to view a famous painting called “Last Judgement” (by Rodgier Van der Weyden), when upon looking at the painting, suddenly the question, “What if I have to face judgement someday?” crept into his mind – and stuck there – sending him on a path of discovery that would bring him to faith in Jesus Christ and conservative Christianity. In 2010 he wrote a book called “The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith” as a counterpoint to his brother’s book “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” which was written the year before.
So, with all that in mind, take a look at this clip:
The answers to that question: “Which idea would most change the world for the better?” were incredibly varied. The first guy, Dan Savage, who is a professional sex therapist wants to practice population control and maybe even kill all babies for 30 years. The second person, Germaine Greer, is a radical feminist who believes that all men hate women and desire to enslave them, says that the best thing that we could do for this planet would be to throw off all moral constraints and embrace ultra-individualism.
Both of those answers, by the way, simply come down to being “If you want to create a better world, let everyone do whatever they want without consequences.” It was maddening to listen to the applause for those answers – loud applause for population control and mandatory abortions – and then hear absolute silence after Hitchens gave his answer about Jesus.
Hitchens’ answer, obviously, is the one that I want to focus on today, because he gives the right answer! Let me read his answer again:
“The most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and rose from the dead and that is the most dangerous idea you will ever encounter… Because it alters the whole of human behaviour and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”
He’s absolutely correct. There is no more dangerous, life-altering, world-changing, perspective-shifting, truth in all the universe than the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Believing that changes everything about everything.
If it’s true, then that means that there is a God, the Bible is true, there really is a definitive moral law (right and wrong does exist and we don’t get to make it up). It means that this is not all there is, and that we need to stop living in the moment, but live in the light of eternity. And that God has judged humanity as sinners, condemned us to Hell, and anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus for salvation is truly doomed. Christianity is no mere cultural belief or part-time religious hobby– it’s a worldview-shattering truth.
The Resurrection As Fact
That’s why Christians vehemently reject the idea that Jesus was simply a good, moral teacher who had some great ideas about how to make the world better. Jesus wasn’t like one of those people at the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” who stands up, pontificates on a few points, comes up with a few interesting ideas, and then slides out of history to allow the next thinker to build on His ideas.
No, Christians teach and believe that Jesus Christ is the third person of the Trinity, the Son of God, equal in majesty and authority with God the Father. And that at one point in history, Jesus, who was never created, but existed eternally, came into His creation, adding to Himself the flesh of a human being, so He could perfectly identify with us.
Because of God’s love for us, He sent His Son to be born as a baby, grow up to be a man, live a perfect life, and then die for the sins of all who would believe. Because He’d never broken God’s law, He did not stand under the judgement of God. Out of love for us, God laid the punishment for sins upon Jesus, exchanging His Son for us on the cross. He took the punishment we deserve. On Good Friday, God poured out all His wrath against sin onto His innocent Son, so that we, the guilty could be spared. Sin brought death and separation from God, so sin needed to be dealt with, and God dealt with it by having Jesus die for us instead.
And to prove, once and for all, that He had destroyed the consequences of sin and conquered death, Jesus rose from the dead and promised that anyone who would put their faith in Him as their Lord and Saviour, would rise from the dead as well. Anyone who does not is required to face their own judgement and punishment from God, which is Hell.
This belief is foundational to our whole worldview; it’s the bedrock that we base our life, faith and existence upon. It is the beginning of our entire way of thinking and the reason for our hope. That’s why we make sure that everyone knows that when we talk about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we aren’t talking about an idea, but an historical fact! Our faith in Jesus and Christian worldview isn’t held together by how strongly we believe – but on how strong the evidence is for what we believe. Our love for Jesus isn’t based in a theory, an idea, or a philosophy, but on the true and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Remember the Resurrection
1 Corinthians 15 shows us how foundational this belief is.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians church, he was writing to a church with a lot of issues: sexual immorality was rampant, they were taking each other to court, they had huge flaws in their theology and were divided into factions, some people were literally starving while others were getting drunk during the Lord’s supper, and I could go on… it was a mess.
So, after taking 14 chapters to teach and correct a whole bunch of these problems, Paul does something critically important – he reminds them of their foundation of their faith. They were wandering around, straying from their convictions, getting into trouble, splintering the church, and ruining their witness, and Paul in Chapter 15, like a referee at a basketball game blows the whistle loud and calls them back to the centre. Let’s read what Paul says:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
What’s happening here? Paul is telling them that they have stepped off of the firm foundation and are walking into quicksand. Some false teachers had crept into the church and had started chipping away at their faith in the resurrection, which had caused them to forget the cost of their salvation, which caused them to start to believe that how they lived really didn’t matter, which resulted in all kinds of problems.
The point here is that everything we do as Christians has its roots in the resurrection. What we believe about this life and the afterlife affects every decision we make, every relationship we have, and how we set our priorities. The issue here is that we start to wander from our faith in God and obedience to His Word when we start to forget that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a true, historical fact. It is much easier to neglect our souls, live for ourselves, and pretend God doesn’t see what we’re doing, when we distance our minds from the belief that Jesus Christ really did live, die and rise again.
And I totally understand, 2000 years after the event, living in a country thousands of miles away, in a completely different era, that it’s difficult to keep that truth in our minds. Every day we are presented with a thousand distractions and reasons to live like it is all just a fairy-tale for weakminded people who can’t deal with their own problems. I get that.
And that was already happening in the Corinthian church, only 30 years after the resurrection! So the Apostle Paul blows the whistle and calls everyone back to centre so they can reset their minds and hearts. He tells them they need to “hold fast” to what was preached or they’re going to get themselves into trouble. Don’t be swayed by other messages and untruths, or you will be in danger of having a false and useless faith! You won’t be saved because you don’t believe the right things!
This isn’t just a big deal, it’s the biggest of deals! We must deal with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and remember its consequences every day. The passage continues:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…”
Notice that for a second – he’s about to talk about something that is “of first importance”. This is the number one thing that must be gotten right, above and beyond everything else. He received the knowledge from Jesus and the apostles and then delivered it to the Corinthians, and they had let other things distract them. Paul calls them back to the most important thing. And what is that:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”
The number one thing that Christians need to remember and hold fast to is the reason for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death wasn’t an accident, it was planned. The whole of the Old Testament points to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. His sacrifice wasn’t an afterthought. – it was the plan all along! From Genesis to Malachi, the plan was for Jesus to die for sin, be buried in the ground, and then rise again on the third day.
Evidence for the Resurrection
How sure was Paul that Jesus died and then rose again? 100%! This wasn’t just a hope or a story, but was historical fact. How do we know this? Because of what Paul says next:
“…he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
Do you see how the most important fact about Jesus is not that He is a good teacher, but that He’s resurrected Christ? Paul calls the Corinthians back to the historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection so they would get their hearts right with God. Later, the Apostle Peter would say something similar when he wrote,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)
In other words, “Guy’s we’re not making this up! We saw this with our own eyes! This is a true report! You need to change your lives, change your heart, alter your course, and come to Jesus because He really does exist, He really is the Son of God, He really did die for your sins, and He really did rise from the dead, and He really is coming back to judge everyone!”
Sometimes Christians forget why we tell others about Jesus. It’s not so that we can grow our church, get more money in tithes, or make the world a nicer, more moral place. We’re not just sharing nice stories so people can deal with this difficult world. We talk about Jesus because the Gospel is true! He’s alive right now, He’s making salvation available, and judgement day is coming! We’re sharing the truth!
Evidence and Counter Arguments for the Resurrection
Not everyone believes that though, do they? And so, quickly, like Paul did for the Corinthians, I want to go through a few of the evidences for the historical, factual resurrection of Jesus Christ. When you start to doubt or to forget, you can come back to a few of these to remember that your life isn’t based on “cleverly devised stories and myths”, but on the person of Jesus Christ. And for this exercise we are going to assume a few things:
- First, that Jesus was an historical person. This is something that everyone (Christian and non-Christian) agrees with, so that’s not a problem.
- Second, we are going to assume that Jesus really did die on the cross – another nearly undisputed fact, despite what Dan Brown would have us think.
- Third, we are going to assume that the biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection are the best historical documents we have for understanding this event – and that’s also true. Critical historians of all stripes – believers and non – all accept that the gospel accounts are accurate in their historical detail. They may disagree about the mystical parts and the conclusions that the church gleaned from them afterward, but most agree that the details are historical.
What we are going to concentrate on is the empty tomb. If Jesus did live, and did die, then the only question that remains is: did He rise again? Paul’s answer is: He appeared to Peter, the apostles, and 500 other people, and himself, so ask us. We can’t do that, so we’ll do the next best thing – we’ll look at the evidence.
Here’s some possible explanations for the empty tomb that have come up through the years and some counter arguments to them.
The Swoon Theory
First is what people call the “swoon theory”. This is the idea that Jesus was merely unconscious when He was laid in the tomb, and later woke up and went to find the disciples to claim He had risen again.
The evidence against this one is fairly straight forward. First, the Roman solider in charge of killing the prisoners decided not to break Jesus’ legs because he knew Jesus had died. (Mark 15:44-45) Then he took a large, sharp spear and stabbed Jesus through the ribs and into his heart, letting out blood from the heart and water from the protective sack surrounding it. (John 19:32-34) No one walks away from that.
Next, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus body cocoon-style, head to toe, in tight linen and 75 pounds of powdered spices. It’s very difficult to believe they wouldn’t have figured out he was still alive. And even then, if they didn’t notice, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have gotten out considering His injuries and blood-loss.
Finally, there is no way that a beaten and bloodied, mostly dead Jesus would have inspired his believers put their faith in Him because He had been resurrected and conquered death. They’re not that gullible.
The Wrong Tomb
The next theory is that the women and disciples went to wrong tomb. This is unlikely too. According to Matthew 26:61, the two women were there when He was placed in the tomb and it’s very implausible they forgot which one it was. And according to John 20, Peter and John went to the tomb too, and it’s really, really unlikely that between the four of them none of them knew where Jesus was buried.
Thieves or the Apostles Stole the Body
Another theory is either thieves or the apostles themselves stole the body. This is doubtful considering that there were a bunch of Roman soldiers sealed the tomb and then were stationed outside of it to make sure that exact thing didn’t happen. (Matthew 27:65-66) Furthermore, the testimony that Jesus rose from the dead and they met Him, was a real problem for His followers. People make up stories for their own benefit. People lie to achieve something. The apostles didn’t get any earthly benefit from relating the story that Jesus rose again. They were rejected by their people, beaten, abused, tortured, and eventually killed for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection. At some point, if it was made up, they would have said so. It wasn’t worth the trouble they got into. The only reason they kept teaching that Jesus rose again was because it was true and He had changed their entire life.
The Key to Hope and Faith
And, going back to our passage in 1 Corinthians, that’s the whole point. The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything! It means that salvation is real and available. It means that Jesus has all the power to fulfil His promises to give us hope, a future, a purpose in this world, the presence of the Holy Spirit, daily help to meet our needs, and to bring us into eternity with Him. The resurrection means everything, and without it we are nothing.
Listen to how Paul says it:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we are here for no reason, we misrepresent the truth, we have no salvation, and there death is still something to be feared. If Jesus didn’t rise again, sin is still victorious, death is still our enemy, evil still rules the day, and everyone who died has been condemned to Hell.
As scripture says, if we only believe in Jesus for the benefits that come in this life, then we should be pitied – because we are the greatest of fools. We deny ourselves pleasures, sacrifice for others, humble ourselves, face persecution and argument, and talk about hope, love and faith – and for what? If it’s all a lie, and no one is raised again, then what’s the point.
I asked someone who recently came back to Christianity after falling away for some years, “What was that like to wake up every day without God, without heaven, without salvation, without Jesus, without hope?” Their answer: “It was terrible.”
And they were right. Life without Jesus, without the resurrection, is terrible. But life in the light of the resurrection is worth living – and more than that – worth giving our lives for.
Today marks the last day of the 46-day season of Lent, a time that begins with Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter Sunday. Hundreds of years ago, the ancient Christian church fathers set aside this time to give believers season to purposefully remember and prepare themselves for the high-holy days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. During that time believers are meant to meditate, fast and remember all that Jesus did while He ministered on earth – His teaching, His love, His grace, His sacrifice. Instead of being like the world and avoiding feelings of guilt, sadness, lament, suffering and sacrifice, we spend time asking ourselves hard questions, evaluating their lives and their souls, mourning and repenting from their sins, and fasting (giving up) things that distract us from God.
It is a time to think far less of ourselves and more about God our Father, Jesus our Saviour, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the believers around us, and those who do not know God. We shun consumerism and the life dedicated to the accumulation of pleasurable things, the idea that people are products who need to avoid pain at all costs, and commit ourselves to walking the path of Christ – the one that leads to the cross.
The last week of the season of Lent is often called Passion Week (or Holy Week). Each of these days is marked with a special significant event in the most eventful week of Jesus’ life – from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.
Summary of the Week
Those of you who have been with us for the past four weeks have been on a journey going over each day in detail, others of you who haven’t been around perhaps know some of the stories already. Each one gives us an insight into the heart of God, the mission of Christ, and challenges us to look deeper into our own life.
On Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem fulfilling many prophecies and declaring Himself to be the King and Saviour of Israel – but what troubled people was that He wasn’t the kind of King and Saviour that Israel were expecting.
Jesus did that a lot actually. Throughout His entire ministry He encountered people who expected Him to do one thing, but He ended up doing another – and their reaction was often awe, occasionally repentance and worship, but sometimes, they hated Him for it.
His teaching wasn’t like anyone else’s, neither was His power. He said things with authority that no one else had, and did could do things that no one else could do. He could gather crowds of thousands, but instead of relishing in His popularity and rising to power, He shied away and spent time in the wilderness. He would perform a miracle, driven by love and empathy for suffering people, and the crowd would react by trying to crown Him King. He literally had to run away from plans for His future.
Jesus treated people differently than a Jewish Teacher, especially the Messiah, was expected too. He talked to, healed, and even became close friends with all kinds of people: Romans, Samaritans, Gentiles, government officials, religious leaders, rich people, and poor peasants. His closest disciples were uneducated tradesmen, people who worked for the enemy government, rich-boys and even, perhaps, a former terrorist.
On that Palm Sunday the people were shouting “Save us! Save us! Hosanna in the Highest!” because they knew He was claiming to be their Saviour. But instead of being pleased, He began to weep over their foolishness and rebelliousness, knowing in five days they would reject Him. Instead, on that day in the height of his popularity, Jesus rode into town weeping, looked around at the Temple that would soon be destroyed, and then just left.
On Monday, Jesus returned, but did something strange again. He walked up to a fig tree, hungry and wanting to pick its fruit, but even though the leaves were green, it didn’t have any figs on it – so He cursed it to never bear fruit again! That seemed strange and harsh to the disciples, but when Jesus turned and went into the Temple we learned what he was doing – the fig tree was a picture of the hearts of the people.
In the midst of their Passover preparations, they looked very pious, with lots of religious activity in the Temple, everyone abuzz with activity – but their hearts were far from God. There were green leaves, but no true fruit. The Temple looked alive, but it was really dead. And that caused Jesus to do something else that surprised everyone. When he walked into the Temple Court of the Gentiles he saw that the religious frenzy had spilled over into the place where the world was supposed to come and worship God! They had turned the place of prayer into a mall where merchants and money changers could take advantage of poor travellers who wanted to worship God. This infuriated Him! It was so far removed from what God had intended that Jesus cursed them as He cursed the tree, kicking over the tables and driving them from the Temple.
Both of these days, Sunday and Monday, show Jesus’ hatred of people who are religious hypocrites who use the name of God to manipulate people, or try to use religion to manipulate God.
When He came back on Tuesday, Jesus was met on the steps by some of the most powerful men in the city. They wanted an answer for what he had been doing and saying against them and the Temple. He exasperated them to the point of murderous anger. They were sick of Jesus’ messages against them and their precious religious system, and His claims that He was the one sent by God to lead Israel.
They didn’t care that He could heal the sick, make the lame walk, the blind see, and raise the dead. He wasn’t playing by their rules, and made them look like fools. He was stirring up dissention against them, so they made a plan to trap Him in his own words and have him arrested as either a blasphemer or a traitor – but He was far too smart for them. After arguing with group after group of experts that tried to trip him up – and showing Himself to be wiser than all of them – they left Him alone to concoct a new plan to eliminate Him.
Jesus spent the rest of the day teaching about the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world.
Tuesday reminds me of how much people resent being under authority and how much they hate giving up control – even to the God who created them and Jesus who loves them. No matter how much evidence God gives them for His love and their need for Him to be their Lord, people still refuse to give up their lives to God.
But God doesn’t want to be one thing of many in our lives. He demands that we admit we are lost sinners who need Him to be in charge. But how many are willing to do that? The Sanhedrin, who knew the bible better than all of us, certainly weren’t. Even those who claim to be Christians struggle every day with turning over part of their life to Christ. Tuesday reminds me of my own rebelliousness and how we all have our favourite sins that we prefer over God, parts of our life that we refuse to give to God.
All of this controversy had a strong effect on one particular member of His inner circle, Judas, who, on Wednesday, decided he had had enough. For two years he had been watching Jesus build influence and show God’s power – and refuse to capitalize on it. For two years He had witnessed miracles that could have launched Him as a celebrity – and then watched Jesus tell people to keep it secret. Jesus could have been anything! He had the power to be rich, powerful, influential, King of the World – and shared it with his followers! But He refused to!
Judas was sick of hearing about how he would lose everything he had, be hated by everybody, and go through many trials on account of being a follower of Jesus. He was sick of seeing Jesus squander opportunities, so he took an opportunity to cash out. He left the disciples and went back to the Temple to find some of military guards that reported to the Sanhedrin, and promised to betray Jesus if they would give Him a large pile of money. Two years wasted – at least he’d get some cash out of it.
On Thursday, Judas found his chance. Jesus and the disciples spent the day working out the details for the special dinner feast that would happen in the evening. As they sat down in the Upper Room to eat, Jesus got up and washed their feet – even Judas’ feet – and told the disciples that He knew that they would betray Him – and there would be one that would betray Him completely.
This confused the disciples, but it solidified in Judas’ heart what he needed to do. On that night during dinner, Jesus offered Judas friendship and a special place at His table. He offered Him a chance to turn around, to follow Him, to give up His plans, but Judas rejected Him.
He didn’t want Jesus as a friend… He wanted Jesus to be a conquering king! He didn’t want to eat at Jesus’ table… He wanted Jesus to give him his own country! Jesus was supposed to destroy the Romans and set His disciples up as Princes among men… but Jesus was talking about humility, suffering and death. No way! Satan entered into Judas’ heart and Jesus looked at Judas and dismissed him saying, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27)
Wednesday and Thursday remind us of how much we are like Judas. We want God to be the great Santa Clause in the sky, giving us all that we want, taking away our pain and giving us presents. We see no reason for God to allow us to suffer, for anything bad to happen. He’s God after all! He could make everything perfect!
We are frustrated that God doesn’t listen to us, that Jesus doesn’t do what He’s told. We know our way is so much better than His. So we, like Judas, go elsewhere to get what we think is best for us. We go to the world, leaving Jesus and His followers behind, to find someone else that will promise us the life we want – the life we deserve – the one we think is best. We are all like Judas.
When Judas left, Jesus began a long time of teaching and preparation for what would happen after He was arrested and crucified. He loved them so much, and wanted them to know that though He was going to die that evening, that they would scatter, that they would betray Him, and that He was leaving them, that it wasn’t the end.
He would forgive them, restore them, equip them for ministry, and always be with them. He would give them His presence, the Holy Spirit, to be with them, and He would give them each other to take care of one another. He warned them about the weakness of their hearts, and how to stay strong by being connected to Him. For hours, though the worst night of His life was coming, He spoke to them words of comfort and peace because He knew they were troubled.
As He sat there teaching, Thursday turned into Friday (which we call Good Friday) and when Jesus got up to leave the Upper Room, He invited His disciples – His closest friends – to come and pray with Him in one of His favourite places – an olive grove called the Garden of Gethsemane.
Eleven of the disciples had entered the garden with Him, and three, Peter, James and John, were invited to come in a little further to be with Jesus while He prayed. He shared His anguish with them saying: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” (Mark 14:34-35) As He prayed, the pain, sorrow and agony of the day – and all that would be coming – pressed fully into Him. A spiritual battle ensued, His sweat coming in drops of blood.
He released His pain and gave His will over to His Father praying, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36) He stood up resolved to do what was necessary to obey His Father’s will and take the punishment, God’s wrath against sin, upon Himself… for the salvation of everyone who would believe in Him.
As Jesus prayed, the disciples struggled to stay awake because they were exhausted from sorrow (Luke 22:45). Jesus kept coming back from His prayer and waking them, trying to get His best friends to support Him and pray for themselves, but they were physically and emotionally exhausted from all they had been through that week.
Mark 14:41-50 tells us what happens next: “And he came the third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.”
This was the same group, the Sanhedrin, that had met him on the steps of the Temple. Since they couldn’t trick Him into condemning himself, and they were afraid of the large crowd following Him during the day, they had come in the night to arrest Jesus after everyone had already gone to bed.
Accompanying the Sanhedrin was Judas, and some Temple guards and a band of Roman soldiers. They “went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.” (John 18:3) This was no small group –potentially a hundred people – all descending upon Jesus in the middle of the night while He was praying in a garden, so they could illegally arrest Him.
They grab Jesus and are about to tie his hands when Peter decides to bring out His sword and fight this group of soldiers and policemen single-handedly. He’s prepared to show Jesus that he would never betray Him. He hacks off a servants ear, and Jesus tells him to put His sword away – it wouldn’t help and Jesus assures them that He is doing what He must do because it is the Father’s will. (Matthew 26:50-56) Jesus heals the servant’s ear, but after that outburst, the solders aren’t taking any chances and decide to arrest everyone.
And just as Jesus had predicted, all of His disciples, scared of what would happen “scattered, each to his own home” and left Him alone (John 16:32). Meanwhile, Judas has earned his ill-begotten wages, and disappears into the dark.
Jesus was then taken to be tried before many different courts, but none of them could find anything to charge Him with. He was first taken to Annas, the former High Priest’s who tried to intimidate Jesus into confessing to something. It didn’t work. Jesus wouldn’t even talk to him.
Then He was taken to Caiaphas, the reigning high priest, and the rest of the Sanhedrin who brought out false charges, false witnesses, and false accusations to try to find Him guilty of something deserving death. But even in their own, staged trial, they couldn’t find any way to condemn Jesus. Eventually Caiaphas had to do ask Jesus point-blank “Are you the Christ?” And of course, Jesus, who never lies – said Yes. He quoted scriptures that let them know that He is God, the Saviour, the Messiah, and the One who should be judging them! They wouldn’t listen and that was enough for the ruling leaders to want to condemn Him to death.
But they didn’t have permission to have Jesus crucified. They needed Roman permission for that kind of terrible punishment. So he stood trial before the Roman Governor Pilate – who kept finding him innocent! Over and over Pilate said Jesus was innocent. He didn’t want to condemn Jesus so he sent Him bound in chains over to the evil King Herod — who asked Jesus to perform tricks for him — and since He wouldn’t, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate.
When Jesus returned, Pilate repeated to the crowds that Jesus was innocent, but they wouldn’t have it. The crowds, stirred up by their leaders, the chief priests, the elders and the scribes – started to chant, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Pilate yells out, “But He hasn’t done anything wrong!” but they won’t stop chanting. Pilate tries something else: every Passover it was tradition that he would release a Jewish prisoner. Pilate idea was to bring out the baddest guy he possibly could – Barabbas, a notorious thief, terrorist and murderer – and make the crowd choose between Jesus and Barabbas. But without a pause, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes shout, “Release Barabbas to us!” Pilate is shocked at their hatred for Jesus and asks “What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” And the Sanhedrin begins to chant “Crucify Him, Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:17) Eventually the whole crowd joins them.
Pilate shouts above the crowd, repeating his finding of Jesus’ innocence, and comes up with a one last resort: He will have Jesus severely punished and then released. But this makes the crowd even more angry and it looks like they are going to start a riot. Pilate realizes that the only solution would be to punish and crucify Jesus in the place Barabbas. The Governor Pilate sends Jesus to flogged and then tortured to death in the worst way that humanity has ever conceived – He would be crucified.
On the Cross
You’ve no doubt heard the word “Excruciating”. It means “to torture, torment and cause anguish.” Inside the word “excruciating” you will find the root word “crux” or “cross”. It is a word invented to describe what happened to people who were crucified.
Jesus died on Good Friday. But before He did, He was beaten, humiliated, and then nailed to a wooden cross. He hung there for six hours, in ever-increasing and excruciating agony, gasping for air – only able to draw a breath when He put weight onto the nails driven through His hands and feet, He spoke in short sentences. Even as He hung there, He spoke words of Love and Hope.
His first words were “Father, Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34). To the criminal beside Him, who only in his last moments, did He turn to God for help Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Then, near the end, as God placed the sins of the world, and turned His wrath against Sin upon His Son– for the first and only time in eternity, Jesus was cut off from the favour and the fellowship He had had with His Father. He cried out in a loud voice with the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), expressing not only His anguish, but also His knowledge that this terrible time will end in victory.
And in the end, when He knew that the sins of His beloved people had been atoned for, and they no longer stood under the wrath of God, He gave up His life saying, “It is finished…” (John 19:30) and “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
In that moment, creation itself groaned. The world grew dark, the earth shook, rocks were split, the veil in the temple was torn, tombs opened, and a Roman Centurion in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus – after seeing all of this, and Jesus character, purity, self-control, and deep love, says, “Truly, this was the son of God!” (Matthew 27:54)
Jesus is stabbed through the heart, to ensure He is dead. Then His body was taken down, wrapped tightly in cloths, and laid in a hewn out stone tomb. They rolled a large stone in front of the tomb, and Jesus’ enemies stationed a guard in front so no one could steal the body.
Jesus’ disciples went home, broken and bewildered, and stayed that way until Sunday Morning.
And we know what happened on Sunday, right? Two women went to the tomb, bearing spices so they could embalm Jesus’ corpse, but they didn’t find Him! Mary is worried someone has stolen him in the night and runs to Peter and John to tell them. They come running and find the tomb empty, with only the cloths Jesus was wrapped in, lying there. They too were confused, and decided to go home and tell the others.
But Mary stayed outside the tomb, weeping. She heard someone behind her, and when she turned around to ask the person whom she though was the gardener, “Where did you take Jesus?”, she saw that it was Jesus! Jesus tells her to go and tell the others, and she runs off to find the disciples – but they don’t believe her until Jesus Himself appears to them, and then to hundreds and hundreds of other people, proving beyond a doubt that He had conquered death!
Christians know what happened on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday. We remember that He died on Good Friday and was raised from the dead on Easter Sunday. But Easter time makes us ask the question “Why?” Why did they hate Him so much? Why did He go through that? Why did it happen that way?
I believe an answer to that question comes in a passage of scripture that spoke of what Jesus would go through 700 years before Christ.
The Prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming of the Messiah, and what He would do for His people. He said:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)
Later, the apostle John would write:
“He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:10-12)
These verses tell us why Jesus did what He did. It was we that needed to stand trial before God – and Jesus stood trial before human courts, and God’s court, for us. We had griefs and sorrows that we couldn’t carry – the weight of our sin that doomed us to our own cross – and He chose to carry the cross for us. Because of our sins, we are under the curse of death, condemned to prison in Hell, and Jesus chose to be afflicted and stricken on our behalf, to take the sentence for us. We have transgressions that need to be paid for, and He chose to be the payment. We needed chastisement (punishment) for all the things we’ve done wrong because sin must be paid for. All the things that happened to Jesus will happen to every sinner, and was supposed to happen to us, but Jesus took our punishment upon Himself. We needed healing, and He took the wounds, so we could be healed. We went astray and He came and found us – and our running away meant we needed to be penalised by God. Jesus chose to take God’s righteous wrath upon Himself, for all who would believe in Him.
And even though His world rejected Him, even though it didn’t recognize Him, He loved us anyway, and made it possible for us to become children of God. He made it possible for us to be like Adam and Eve before they had sinned! By believing in Jesus, the Son of God, we can become children of God.
Why did He do that? Out of obedience to God and a deep love for us. He went through all the pain of Good Friday so we wouldn’t have to. He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday to prove that He has the power to conquer every evil thing – even death!
When He was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter tried to fight against what was happening and Jesus said to him:
“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:53-54)
He was telling Peter that He could have stopped at any time, but He wasn’t there for Himself. He was there out of obedience to His Father and love for us. Every step of the way to the cross was His decision. Every blow to His body was taken because He knew that the only way that sinners like you and me could be brought back into relationship with God, would be for Him to take the punishment for our sin.
That’s why we make such a big deal out of Passion Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They are the greatest days in history! They are the days that Jesus saved us.