Sunday, April 01, 2018
Full Service Audio
There are certain events in history that are so poignant and powerful we remember where we were when they occurred. Some of you will remember November 22, 1963, the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or perhaps May 2, 1967, the last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup (sorry, I had to!). January 28, 1986, the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded live on television: I remember it well: we had a visitor at our house that morning and while we were watching it, my puppy dog Monty ate her shoes! And who could forget December 14, 2012, when all those children died at the school in Sandy Hook. There are days that change our lives, moments we never forget. There are mornings and evenings, dawns and dusks, and some events that transcend time. One day, around 33 AD two women went to a tomb to find a dead man. When they got there, they noticed the stone had rolled away and his body had gone. It was empty. Jesus wasn’t there. It was a morning that changed the world.
The fact that two thousand years late, we are here with all the pomp and ceremony of Handel and Mozart, amongst flowers and beauty with family and friends is a testimony to the fact that day changed everything. It changed everything in a poignant way that really came home to me personally a few years ago. I had just returned to Bermuda to preach – many of you will remember it as it was only three or four years ago. I remember walking along a beach one morning that I had gone to as a boy with my parents, and as the warm Bermuda coral sand moved through my toes and the warm water lapped against my ankles and the sun was rising above my shoulder, I stopped for a moment and thought back to those days when they walked with me on that beach. I thought about our passage from Corinthians this morning: “If Christ has not been raised, then those who are asleep in Christ are lost.” Paul says, “Christ has been raised and in Him we have life.” I thought about my parents and I thought about the Resurrection, a strange combination early in the morning, and I realized the empty tomb changed everything!
For the Apostle Paul, who wrote those words years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, they were poignant and powerful. Of all the disciples, and apostles, it was Paul for whom the Resurrection meant the most. The disciples had lived with Jesus, witnessed the Cross, and the Resurrection. They had been there, but for Paul, it was the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus that changed him. The presence of the Risen Christ transformed him. Everything for Paul rested on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, so-much-so that he says, “The forgiveness that we have is futile if we do not believe that Christ was raised from the dead. Our faith is in vain if Christ has not been raised from the dead.” The Cross is the final word if Christ has not been raised from the dead. It is the hope, it is the very foundation of the ministry of the disciples themselves if Christ has not been raised, then everything they believe is a fallacy. For Paul it was an assurance. Christ had been raised, and therefore all of it was true. It was the morning that changed everything.
It wasn’t just a morning that changed everything in order to defend the Christian faith; it is more than that! It changed the past; it changes the present and the future. It is a morning that changes everything! “It changes the past”, says Paul, “because those who in Christ have fallen asleep are now alive.” Paul is thinking as a Jew, going back to the idea from Psalm 13:3: “Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death.” The prevailing belief was that those who died were in a deep, spiritual, eternal sleep, but not alive. Paul knew that sleep was a sign of death, he says, “Even those who are asleep, because of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, are now no longer lost. They will now live.” He sees this retroactively. He thinks about those who died before Christ – which was a big debate in the early Church: how does the Resurrection of Christ now affect them? – Paul sees that the past is taken care of by the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Those who have died and gone before can be raised to eternal life because of Jesus of Nazareth. The resurrection of the dead, the hope that was there in The Old Testament had been fulfilled in the empty tomb on the morning that changed everything. All of those who had gone before and all of those who will follow after, because of the Resurrection, have life, and have it eternally.
It changed the present profoundly in the most incredible way because it affirmed once again the power of life. If life were not important, but a trivial accident, if we were only here as a matter of some genetic coincidence, then the very death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth would have no influence or power. It would be meaningless! But if life itself has meaning, if our existence on this very earth has meaning, then the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ affirms it. Through one man who died we live! Through Christ we have the gift that affirms the very power of life and humanity. How contrary that is at times to a culture that treats life as if it is cheap and unimportant. If every single human life has been a life for which the Lord has died, then each and every life on this earth is of inestimable value.
We treat it lightly, and at times we even treat death lightly, as if it doesn’t matter. Some years ago, I was in Florida and there was a couple in a congregation who wanted to tell me some humorous things. One of them had a story that came out of The Miami Herald and had been in the paper a day or two before. Whether it is true or not, who knows. It was about this woman, a widow, who phoned The Miami Herald and said, “How much does a one word obituary cost?”
The editor said, “Usually it is five dollars a word.”
The woman thought about it, and said, “All right, I’m ready. Have you got a pen handy?”
He said, “Yes.”
She said, “Have you got some paper handy?
He said, “Yes.”
She said, “I would like to put the obituary in for my husband.”
He said, “I am ready.”
She said, “These are the words: Smithson is dead.”
The man thought about it for a few moments and he said, “Ma’am, I am sorry to tell you, but there is a six word minimum for an obituary.”
She said, “Do you have a pen handy?”
He said, “Yes!”
She said, “Do you have a piece of paper handy?”
He said, “Yes.”
She says, “All right, this is it: Smithson is dead. His Cadillac is for sale.”
We often treat human life without serious thought.
There was a BBC reporter on TV last night covering events in Syria. The reporter was incredible! I don’t think I’ve seen a reporter so emotional or honest about what they have seen. She was covering what was happening in a suburb of Damascus that had been cleared out – literally cleared out. She said, “There were so many people who had died that day. I just wonder how many names we have to have before we are shocked by statistics.” How many names do we have to have? How many numbers do we have to have before we are outraged: forty-five, four hundred and fifty, four thousand, five hundred? At what point does human life have value? How many school children die in Florida before they stop giving people guns? How many people have to die in Sandy Hook before the world is outraged? How many people have to die of starvation and poverty before we are outraged? Human life is treated cheaply. But the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ says it is not cheap; it cost the life of the Son of God. Thus, by his Resurrection, every life is an eternal thing; every soul; even those who are asleep are raised from the dead. It changes everything!
It changes the future. Paul goes on to say, “For as in Adam all died, so in Christ all will be made alive. The concept of the Resurrection of the Dead is not actually a concept, theory or philosophy, it is a conviction and a hope rooted in the morning that changed everything; in the Resurrection of Jesus and the empty tomb in Jerusalem. So often we live our lives as if eternity is not important. In our lives, with our family and friends and our co-workers, in our relationships with people, we hardly think of eternity, and that the people we know have been given the gift of eternal life. We seldom think of the eternal consequences of life or the eternal joy waiting for us. Many times, I hear people object to the notion of eternal life, they say, “Is this not just a cover up? We live now, but tomorrow we will have pie. Is it not a cover for an unjust world?” Yet, it is something we need to think about, to grasp. We have to open the doors of faith to really see the power of that empty tomb, and to know what it means in terms of our future.
There is a humorous anecdote told, and again of dubious historical importance I am sure, but it might have happened. A couple who booked a hotel room for the night of their wedding. It was a beautiful suite in a hotel, a bridal suite. After an exhausting day: the service, dinner, dancing and singing, they finally went to their room for the night. They were sadly disappointed by what they saw. The room was small, the curtains were closed, there were two chairs, a little television, a fridge and a couch. And that was the bridal suite! They didn’t know what to do, they were so exhausted. They realized that the couch was a pull-out bed, so they pulled it out and the two of them went to bed. In the morning, there was a knock on the door. There was a waiter there with a beautiful breakfast to celebrate their marriage. As he came through the door, the groom rather angrily said, “Do you realize how poor this room is? You sold it as the bridal suite, the wedding suite, and all we have had is a lumpy couch, a couple of chairs and a refrigerator. What kind of a place is this?” The man didn’t say anything. He just went to one of the doors that they thought was a closet. He opened it, and behind it was a massive bed, champagne, flowers, mints on the pillows, fruit in a basket, and celebratory congratulatory notes! They missed the whole grand event.
When it comes to eternal life, we so often miss the grand event. Even with regards to Christ, we talk about him as a good man with kind words and nice teachings. We talk about his love and his grace and his forgiveness. We talk about the Cross and his death. But we don’t open the door of faith, and we don’t look into the empty tomb. We do not realize the power of the day that changed everything. This is the day we should do that, because it makes sense of the power of life itself. It doesn’t whether we have been powerful or powerless. It doesn’t matter whether we have been successful or anonymous. It doesn’t matter if we have had physical ailments for which we have struggled every day, or have been healthy and blessed with a wonderful physique. It doesn’t matter whether we have lived in tyranny all or days, or in the beauty of freedom and democracy. It doesn’t matter whether we are black, or white, or what continent we are on. It doesn’t matter whether we have physical challenges that disable us or have powers that enable us. It doesn’t matter, because there is justice, and life, and an eternity with God. And that eternity has been opened unto us regardless of the life that we might have endured. Through Christ, we live!
The great Victor Hugo (and my goodness you can’t help but love his plays and his prose and his poetry), I do not always agree with his views on religion, but he knew how important it was to have the open door to eternity. He wrote:
I feel within me that future life. I am like a forest that has been razed. The new shoots are stronger and brighter. I most certainly will rise towards the heavens. The nearer my approach to the end, the plainer is the sound of immortal symphonies of worlds which invite me. For half a century, I have been translating my thoughts into prose and verse, history, philosophy, drama, romance, tradition, satire, ode and song. All of these things I have tried, but I feel I haven’t given utterance to the thousandth part of what lies with me. When I go to the grave, I can say as others have said, ‘My day’s work is done’, but I cannot say ‘My life is done’. My work will recommence the next morning. The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes upon the twilight, but it opens upon the dawn.
To Victor Hugo I would say, “You can believe this because of one empty tomb, and the morning that changed everything.” Amen.