Wednesday, March 16, 2016

PASTOR’S POINT: The Logic of the Resurrection

Easter is upon us. And here we are, some 2000 years after the roll out of God's Big Idea, and we're still preaching the resurrection of Christ as the unique and central core of our Christian faith. If Jesus is not undead, He may have left behind some cool teachings and a good example, but He possessed no real unique power to affect this life or the one to come. And since He claimed, on several occasions, that He would die and come back from the dead, well, if He is still dead, why make such a big deal over Him? Why follow Him? But, in fact, His coming back from the dead established once and for all that "He is" who He said He is-both God and Lord. C.S. Lewis said it best in Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: "I'm ready to accept [Him] as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

 At time, I think it takes more faith to believe that Christianity got its start from a lie. Imagine a bunch of defeated loyalists spreading a made up a story about how the guy they thought was the real deal got nailed to a cross in utter humiliation, then actually got UP three days later, and then flew up to heaven so they could start a new religion. Seriously? How about a more logical explanation? These guys were actually eyewitnesses to something miraculous that happened. It radically changed them and they, in turn, turned the world upside down. Need more evidence that Jesus is undead?

In his treatise Seven Proofs of the Resurrection, author Jack Zavada lays out the evidence that demands a verdict:

Resurrection Proof #1: The Empty Tomb of Jesus—The empty tomb may be the strongest proof Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Two major theories have been advanced by unbelievers: someone stole Jesus' body or the women and disciples went to the wrong tomb. The Jews and Romans had no motive to steal the body. Christ's apostles were too cowardly and would have had to overcome the Roman guards. The women who found the tomb empty had earlier watched Jesus being laid away; they knew where the correct tomb was. Even if they had gone to the wrong tomb, the Sanhedrin could have produced the body from the right tomb to stop the resurrection stories. Jesus' burial cloths were left neatly folded inside, hardly the act of hurrying grave robbers. Angels said Jesus had risen from the dead.

Resurrection Proof #2: The Women Eyewitnesses—The women eyewitnesses are further proof that the Gospels are accurate historical records. If the accounts had been made up, no ancient author would have used women for witnesses to Christ's resurrection. Women were second class citizens in Bible times; their testimony was not even allowed in court. Yet the Bible says the risen Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene and other holy women. Even the apostles did not believe Mary when she told them the tomb was empty. Jesus, who always had special respect for these women, honored them as the first eyewitnesses to his resurrection. The male Gospel writers had no choice but to report this embarrassing act of God's favor, because that was how it happened.

Resurrection Proof #3: Jesus' Apostles' New-Found Courage—After the crucifixion, Jesus' apostles hid behind locked doors, terrified they would be executed next. But something changed them from cowards to bold preachers. Anyone who understands human character knows people do not change that much without some major influence. That influence was seeing their Master, bodily risen from the dead. Christ appeared to them in the locked room, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and on the Mount of Olives. After seeing Jesus alive, Peter and the others left the locked room and preached the risen Christ, unafraid of what would happen to them. They quit hiding because they knew the truth. They finally understood that Jesus is God incarnate, who saves people from sin.

Resurrection Proof #4: The Changed Lives of James and Others—Changed lives are yet another proof of the resurrection. James, the brother of Jesus, was openly skeptical that Jesus was the Messiah. Later James became a courageous leader of the Jerusalem church, even being stoned to death for his faith. Why? The Bible says the risen Christ appeared to him. What a shock to see your own brother, alive again, after you knew he was dead. James and the apostles were effective missionaries because people could tell these men had touched and seen the risen Christ. With such zealous eyewitnesses, the early church exploded in growth, spreading west from Jerusalem to Rome and beyond. For 2,000 years, encounters with the resurrected Jesus have changed lives.

Resurrection Proof #5: The Large Crowd of Eyewitnesses—A large crowd of more than 500 eyewitnesses saw the risen Jesus Christ at the same time. The Apostle Paul records this event in 1 Corinthians 15:6. He states that most of these men and women were still alive when he wrote this letter, about 55 A.D. Undoubtedly they told others about this miracle. Today, psychologists say it would be impossible for a large crowd of people to have had the same hallucination at once. Smaller groups also saw the risen Christ, such as the apostles, and Cleopas and his companion. They all saw the same thing, and in the case of the apostles, they touched Jesus and watched him eat food. The hallucination theory is further debunked because after the ascension of Jesus into heaven, sightings of him stopped.

Resurrection Proof #6: The Conversion of Paul—The conversion of Paul records the most drastically changed life in the Bible. As Saul of Tarsus, he was an aggressive persecutor of the early church. When the risen Christ appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul became Christianity's most determined missionary. He endured five floggings, three beatings, three shipwrecks, a stoning, poverty, and years of ridicule. Finally the Roman emperor Nero had Paul beheaded because the apostle refused to deny his faith in Jesus. What could make a person willingly accept—even welcome—such hardships? Christians believe the conversion of Paul came about because he encountered Jesus Christ who had risen from the dead.

Resurrection Proof #7: They Died for Jesus—Countless people have died for Jesus, absolutely certain that the resurrection of Christ is an historical fact. Tradition says ten of the original apostles died as martyrs for Christ, as did the Apostle Paul. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of early Christians died in the Roman arena and in prisons for their faith. Down through the centuries, thousands more have died for Jesus because they believed the resurrection is true. Even today, people suffer persecution because they have faith that Christ rose from the dead. An isolated group may give up their lives for a cult leader who was later revealed to be a fraud, but no one willingly dies (much less violently) for someone they know to be a liar.  For 2,000 years, Christians have died in many lands, believing Jesus conquered death to give them eternal life.

The apostle Paul believed the resurrection to be not only logical but critical to our faith.  He wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:  “…if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost!  And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.”  Now that’s something to celebrate!  The even better news is that Jesus has promised to come back and take us to where He is:
"And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me 
that you also may be where I am." (John 14:3)

Let’s have a fantastic Easter in anticipation of that even greater Resurrection Morn to come!  To me, it just seems reasonable.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Don't Worry, Be Happy? Part 2

A current commercial for a popular drugstore chain claims that it is located “at the corner of Happy and Healthy.”  For some reason, I find myself recoiling at the label “happy” attached to anything these days, since life seems to be getting more and more difficult.  Often we suspect that the happiest among us are just living in denial.  And yet, as we suggested last week, the most joyful people on the planet should be Christians.  Not necessarily the happiest, but certainly the ones with the most to be happy about. The Psalmist writes of a life with God:

"Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever" Psalm 16:11

Joy is one way God wants His work to be known.  A kind of trademark, so to speak.  It’s true of the created order— nature, as well.  The prophet Isaiah said it this way:
"For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." Isaiah 55:12

Here are some other observations about joy and laughter in the Bible…

1.                    Timing is everything:
To everything there is a season: A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;       Ecclesiastes 3:4

2.                    God Himself enjoys a good laugh:
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Psalm 2:4 (Remember that famous   one-liner: If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”)

The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3:17

3.                    God is the joy-giver: 
He will yet fill your mouth with laughter, and your lips with shouting.  Job 8:21

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”   Psalm 126:2

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.  Psalm 16:11

You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.  Psalm 4:7

4.                    God prescribes laughter for our well-being: 
A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.  Proverbs 17:22

A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.  Proverbs 15:13

5.                    Sarcasm has its place, but not all laughter is helpful to the human spirit: 
And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  1 Kings 18:27
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let   there be thanksgiving.  Ephesians 5:4

6.                    True joy is a choice:
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  Habakkuk 3:18

Advertisers may want you to believe you need a Walgreens to be happy and healthy, but Jesus is calling you and me to offer the world a much better alternative: freedom, favor, joy. Freedom from bondage, the favor of God through Christ, and overflowing joy in all circumstances.   Not a bad prescription, I’d say. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Don’t Worry, Be Happy?  Part 1

It is my belief that the most joyful people on the planet should be Christians.  God’s people.  His believers.  His followers.  Most of us know that the last thing Jesus said before leaving this earth was, essentially, “Get going, and as you go, make disciples of all nations.” But do you remember his first recorded message when he started his earthly ministry?  He quoted Isaiah 61 in the temple.  His introductory remarks spoke of freedom, favor, joy!! 

[My Father] has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion--
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.
At face value, it appears that this upstart rabbi from Nazareth had a pretty high view of himself, but was a bit out of touch with reality—an off-the-charts optimist at best.  Freedom for which captives?  Who are these prisoners who are about to be released? And where is this Godly vengeance on all the oppressors we’ve been waiting for?  Was this the first century version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

The fact is, upon His arrival, Jesus expected to encounter bondage, sadness, and despair.  But the radically good news He was announcing was: “Here I am—the picture of what God is like, and what life is intended to look like in relationship with God.”  After teaching and modeling the arrival of His kingdom, His intended outcome was to leave us in just the opposite state He found us.  What should characterize Christianity?  Freedom, favor, joy. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting life isn’t hard.  Nor would I advise a prayer life that holds back our raw emotions or is characterized by disingenuous over-spiritualization. That’s not how the Psalmists prayed.  That’s not how Abraham or Job or Moses or Jeremiah prayed.  They trusted God could hear them at their worst, most desperate moments.  Remember the classic line from “A Few Good Men”, when Tom Cruise shouted at Jack Nicholson’s character, “I want the truth!”, to which Nicholson retorted, “You can’t handle the truth!”  Well, hear me, beloved.  God can handle your truth.  Be honest. Be specific. But then trust him to act. It is in the trusting, not merely the asking, where the shift in attitude appears.  That’s where the joy comes from.

Jesus said our lives were to be a “display of His splendor.” Where the joy part of that often gets tested is in our attitude toward serving and following Him. One of the first psalms I learned as a child was actually in the form of a song, a hymn actually.  It was Psalm 100, and it began, “All people that on earth do dwell.”  Most of it made sense to my micro-brain until I got to the line, “Him serve with mirth, His praise forthtell.” 

Not exactly elementary age street slang!  I had not a clue what mirth was...thought it might be a derivative of ‘mercy’, but requiring a lisp.  When I found out it actually means great joy, it made more sense, even if the preponderance of stoic, German ancestors around me seemed a bit lacking in it!  From my trusty Thesaurus, I learned that synonyms for ‘mirth’ are even more intriguing: everything from cheerfulness, hilarity, hysteria, kicks, revelry—all the way to my personal favorite—whoopee!

Think of it—Him serve with whoopee!  When was the last time you were asked to serve in some capacity and your response was whoopee!???  But that is exactly the goal of the Christian life…not only to follow Christ and serve one another, but to get to the point where it is our joy!!!  It becomes a “get to”, rather than a “have to.”

As a worship community, let’s encourage each other to enjoy the ride and display God’s splendor with joyful, positive lives.  And when an opportunity to serve another presents itself, remember that the spirit in which you complete that task says as much about the life of God in you as the act itself.