Sunday, May 17, 2015

Taken Up to Send Down: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday

Christ is risen! “Our God is a God of salvation, and to Yahweh the Lord belongs deliverance from death” (Psalm 68:20). As our celebration of Eastertide draws toward its close, we remember that, even after his deliverance from death, Jesus visited his disciples for forty more days. Does that strike anyone else as odd? I mean, the Ascension could have taken place on Easter Monday. It could have even taken place on the eve of Easter Sunday, with Jesus rising from the roof of the house in Emmaus where he broke the bread. But Jesus stayed, not just for a day, not just for a week, not just for a month, but for forty days – a nice, round number of biblical significance. Jesus chose to wait forty extra days before being enthroned in heaven's glory. Why? Was there some benefit he got out of it? The benefit wasn't for him. The benefit was for the disciples. Jesus had his focus securely on them and their needs, even after his resurrection. Is an abrupt goodbye really the Messiah's style? Here they are, still in shock after the crucifixion, still befuddled by the emotional wrenching back and forth of the discovery of the empty tomb, still awestruck and perhaps confused by seeing him living again. They're joyful, but believing their eyes is a long-jump of faith. Even after the resurrection, even in the midst of appearing to the believers in Galilee, “they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17).

If Jesus had left immediately, even the earliest disciples would have been left with divided hearts, afflicted and assailed by their doubts and questions, their misgivings and misunderstandings. So Jesus stayed to give them “many convincing proofs” of his risen life (Acts 1:3). And when he stayed, he wanted to make them ready for what was to come after he'd go. What did Jesus do to occupy his forty precious days as the firstfruits of new creation, still walking the corrupted soil of an old creation? He brought them peace, wished them peace, but he also gave them teaching. Once a teacher, always a teacher. Did he teach them off the top of his head while he was “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:2)? No, he pointed them to the books of the Old Testament, saying that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”, and “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures” and how they were really a story about him and his mission (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus reminded them that their work would be anchored in understanding Scripture – and has that changed? Is biblical literacy no longer vital to the church's work? Only if you think Jesus was wasting his time those forty days! The church is absolutely called upon to be a community saturated in the Bible, learning from the Bible, wrestling with the Bible, praying through the Bible, teaching each other the Bible – because it's from the Bible that we learn God's story, our story, creation's story, and are trained in the roles he's given us.

Beyond teaching his disciples to understand in their minds and hearts what the Bible was saying, he also gave them a gift, a gift which – to look at many believers today – you'd think the church resents. That gift was a commission, a calling, “to be witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48), called to declare both forgiveness of sins and repentance through the name and authority of the Messiah – not just to the Jews, but to “all nations”; and not just to foreign nations, but “beginning in Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). One and the same gospel is for Jews and Gentiles alike, revolving around the authority of the same Messiah, who offers forgiveness for sins and calls us to repentance. Those are two sides of the same coin: without repentance from sin, there isn't forgiveness, and without forgiveness being granted, there's no power to really repent.

The church is called to keep those thoughts together. If we're so paranoid to avoid looking 'exclusive' that we forget that forgiveness requires repentance, then we're failing to be witnesses to the whole story. If we're so self-centered that we don't bother to proclaim outside these walls, then we're scarcely witnesses at all. But “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), he said – which is exactly how Acts runs, starting from Jerusalem and rolling the gospel mission right to the halls of imperial power in Rome. And the story isn't done, because here we are, across the ocean from Jerusalem, and there's still proclaiming of repentance and forgiveness of sins to be done. Jesus gave his disciples a mission. Are we his disciples too?

So after forty days, Jesus led them to the village of Bethany, on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. And outside that village, standing higher even than the Temple Mount, he commissioned his disciples one last time, and then “as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). “Lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). What was Jesus doing while he parted from them? Was he waving a tender goodbye? Was he turning his attention to his upward journey? No, even on the skyward trek from earth to heaven, his thoughts and actions are still on the band of disciples left below. Even while being caught up to heaven, even while the cloud interposes itself, Jesus is actively speaking words of blessing over them! And doesn't that just sound like the Jesus we know? Do you think he stopped once the cloud concealed him? Or do you think that he kept blessing them even while hidden from their earthbound gaze? I dare say that these words, “while he was blessing them”, have been his chief mode of operation from that moment forever onward; and of every other action he takes from his heavenly throne at the right hand of the Father, it happens “while he was blessing them” – and we're them. From earth to heaven and everywhere in between, his love pours itself out in words of beautiful benediction upon each and every one of us, and upon the tempest-tossed church as a whole. He blesses us still and “daily bears us up” (Psalm 68:19).

What did the disciples do when Jesus ascended, when they saw him go up and then saw him no more? Their gazes were fixed on his heavenward track, 'til a pair of angels asked these “men of Galilee” why they were just gawking at the sky and longing for the status quo (Acts 1:10-11). The status quo was no more. Then “they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53). When they witnessed the ascension, they worshipped. Their worship was focused on Jesus – unabashedly, unashamedly, true disciples worship Jesus. But never to the exclusion of the Father: true disciples are continually blessing God. And as true disciples bless the Father and worship the Son, they return with great joy to do what the Father and Son say. They returned down the mountain, down to Jerusalem: We can't always live on the mountaintops of spiritual rapture; we have work to do, but while we may not always have bliss, we can take the “great joy” of the Lord with us where we go.

The ascension motivated the worship of the early church, and the ascended Christ still spurs our worship today. But the ascension also motivated them to something we seldom think of: strategic planning. Where does that come in? Well, when the disciples came back down from the Mount of Olives, where do they go? They go to the Upper Room, to the midst of the praying community of believers – which by now includes Mother Mary and the formerly unbelieving brothers of Jesus, like James (Acts 1:13-14; cf. John 7:5; 1 Corinthians 15:7) – and, while the gathered church is still only 120 strong, Peter leads the charge in filling out the leading body of the Twelve, since their number had dropped to an ill-suited Eleven (Acts 1:15-22). This was the only time a replacement was ever made, because it wasn't the death of Judas that required it, but his betrayal of the faith. Peter, Matthew, John, Thomas – they all still hold the office now that they held then, no matter the surprise it is to groups like the Mormons who hail their leaders as apostles who replace the original Twelve.

But here, a new apostle has to be found from among the ranks of those who were eyewitnesses “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). The final choice here was by God himself – the Eleven prayed and cast lots, knowing that God would answer them (Acts 1:24-26) – but first they had to propose two candidates, and that took strategic planning (Acts 1:23). Using God's wisdom, they brainstormed options and then laid the question before the Lord. Hammering out the strategy for the church's mission isn't the opposite of living by faith. God calls us to pray, and God calls us to think and plan. What the church does every Sunday is and should be a response to the reality of Christ's ascension. But the same goes for what the official board does on the first Tuesday of every month, and for the trustees and the stewards and the Christian Education Commission whenever they meet. In the wake of Christ's ascension, we need to bring all the wisdom and experience God has given us, and we need to plan strategically for the mission, and then we need to offer it up to the Lord who “knows everyone's heart” (Acts 1:24).

That's how we respond to his ascension. But why did he have to ascend at all? What makes that so important to our faith? Why couldn't the forty days be forty centuries? Wouldn't it be wonderful to have Jesus still here with us in the flesh? Yet “it is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7), he said. Where's the advantage? Well, first, the ascension of Christ is critical to his ongoing priestly ministry. Without ascending, there would be no lawful priestly work of Christ, as the author of Hebrews says: “Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all” (Hebrews 8:4). The foundational act of Christ's priestly ministry was to offer up the sacrifice of himself as a perfect atonement for our sins. But in order to bring such a sacrifice, one has to go into the right holy place to meet with God, just as the high priests of Israel went into the temple. And just so, Jesus had to ascend to the heavenly Holy Place so as to present his own sacrifice to the Father (Hebrews 9:12). And so Jesus “entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24).

Furthermore, if we live through Christ, then we're “in Christ”, as Paul's so fond of saying (Romans 16:7). If our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), then our lives are located wherever he is. If our lives are embedded in his risen life, then where he goes, we spiritually go. And it's only because he has ascended above all things to the Father's presence that we spiritually live the ascended life already: God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6-7). We've already inherited such a high and secure position, but only because Jesus spiritually brings us with him to the high and secure place where he's ascended. And only in that way do “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19).

With the ascension, Jesus Christ is fully empowered, raised and acclaimed to the highest position, being “enthroned at God's right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21). After having “made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is enthroned as the King of the kingdom of God – having “purged our stains, / he took his seat above” – but he is there as both a king and a priest. As a king, he lives in God's heavenly throne-room; and as a priest, he lives forever to minister in God's heavenly tabernacle, which is one and the same reality (Hebrews 8:1-2). And in being there, directly in the immediate presence of the Father, he can present our prayers to the Father in person. Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us (Hebrews 7:25). And because our spiritual location is in his location, our seemingly earthbound prayers hit the ears of the Father through the lips of the Son at the Father's right hand – only because Jesus ascended.

As if that weren't enough, the ascension of Christ is a precondition and a guarantee of the greatest Gift. Why is it an advantage to us to have Jesus in heaven? Because “if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7) as the “Spirit of Truth” who “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). He was taken up to send the Spirit down. And the ascension accounts agree. The disciples had to stay together in Jerusalem, because even with all that Jesus had taught them from the scriptures, they weren't ready yet for their real mission. All the biblical knowledge there is, isn't enough in itself. After all of that, we need to be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). We need to “wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4), knowing that we “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon [us]”, as Jesus said (Acts 1:8).

What's so important about that? Well, unless we're filled with Christ's Spirit, we can't be Christ's body (cf. Ephesians 4:4). A body without its own spirit, is a cadaver. And the church is not called the motionless cadaver of Christ; we are called the body of Christ, a living body: “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27)! And how can we carry out our commissioning if we're anything less? The Church cannot afford to be a zombie! Jesus gave us a Christ-sized mission! Who else can save the world? Who else can initiate people into salvation? Who else can teach mysteries from heaven? Who else can bring such healing and spiritual power? The Great Commission is a Christ-sized mission, and that will take the very body of Christ, living and animated by the Spirit of a risen and ascended Christ, to carry out.

This same Spirit, who animates the body of Christ, also is the means by which Jesus spreads spiritual gifts throughout his body. Although we're united as one body, responding in one Spirit to one God and one Lord, joined by one faith and one baptism into one hope of our calling (Ephesians 4:4-6), yet we have different gifts and graces, “according to the measure of Christ's gift” (Ephesians 4:7). For “when he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people”, or perhaps “gifts in his people” (Ephesians 4:8; cf. Psalm 68:18). What gifts? “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11). That's not a complete list, as Paul shows elsewhere by listing more “varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4).

The point is that the ascended Jesus has freely and abundantly sprinkled these gifts throughout his body, and I don't for a minute believe there's such a thing as an ungifted disciple, a believer whose purpose is just to take up space in a pew, a Christian whose calling is to be a consumer and not a contributor. Every believer has a role, every believer has a function, and the body of Christ can't grow properly without it. Because the purpose of the gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). We have to become fully grown, fully matured, fully equipped, because it's a big mission. That's one major reason why we get together regularly as a local church body: to equip each other. Not just for a preacher to prepare an audience, or a teacher to prepare a class; it's for each and every one of us to actively contribute our gifts to the spiritual improvement of the whole body.

And we have to grow into Christian adulthood. Children are easily misled, tricked by the lies and half-truths of the world, “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery”, as we see with sorrowed eyes too often in American churches (Ephesians 4:14). But we grow up through living the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), and Jesus will provide for our unified growth as we do that (Ephesians 4:16). Real adulthood, real maturity, doesn't conform to pagan culture or impurity, living “as the Gentiles live”; but rather, real adulthood, real Christian maturity, means using the spiritual gifts to help the whole body become more like the perfect likeness of Jesus himself, “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:17-24). And it's because our ascended and exalted head has gifted his body through the Spirit sent down, that we can grow. The Spirit was given so that we could be the body of Christ on the mission of Christ: so that, even today, we could keep understanding and living out the scriptures and could continue being empowered witnesses, living the truth in active love.

Furthermore, the ascension of Christ is a precondition and guarantee of his eventual return: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Bodily he went up, bodily he'll come down. We have a certain hope, a guarantee, that Jesus will come back. And when he does, the kingdom of God will not just be inaugurated; it will be consummated, made full and perfect upon the earth as it is in heaven. When? The disciples had that question too: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Did Jesus say, “That will be May 14, 1948”? Did Jesus say, “That will be December 21, 2012,” or, “That will be September 28, 2015”? No – no, Jesus said, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We have the guarantee that Christ will return, but speculating on it is pointless. Ignore the ravings of the end-times pontificators, the prophecy speculators, the Robertsons and the Falwells and the Campings and the Hagees. The Father has set the times by his own authority, and we're called to be as ready for Jesus to return tomorrow as for Jesus to return in a century.

Finally, in being taken up into heaven, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10), and the church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). If there were any doubt, Jesus is most definitely in a position vastly above all of creation, spiritual and material. His station is eternally secure: “His kingdom cannot fail, / he rules o'er earth and heaven.” And so his changeless character – “while he was blessing them” (Luke 24:51) – is eternally welded to changeless authority – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me; go, therefore, and make disciples...” (Matthew 28:18-19) – to give us a firmly-anchored hope beyond all fluctuation and beyond all shadow of turning. The Ascension is not some second-rate appendix to Easter, something optional to remember. The Ascension is a vital sequel in the ongoing victory of the risen Lord of Life! So “lift up your heart, / lift up your voice,” O church, and “rejoice! the Lord is King” in heaven indeed!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Killing Leviathan: A Sermon on Isaiah 27

Praise be to God, Christ is risen! Jesus is the victor over the “deserted and forsaken” City of Chaos (Isaiah 24:10; Isaiah 27:10-11), the deceitful empire of sin. For us, called out from the City of Chaos, he bore the sin that breaks the earth and so saved the world for us (Isaiah 24). Jesus is the God who feeds his people and swallows up death forever and wipes all tears from our eyes (Isaiah 25). Jesus is the Lord who pulls up the dead to the heights of his resurrection-life and founds a strong and holy city for the people of God (Isaiah 26). And now, at the climax of this arc, Isaiah offers us four more reasons to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and to bow the knee and confess that Easter matters and proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God (Philippians 2:10-11).

First, the resurrection is the climax of God's answer to our sin. Our sin is a problem – now there's an understatement! Sin is the opposite of faith. Sin is the opposite of obedience. Sin is the opposite of worship. When we faithfully and obediently worship God, we proclaim with our words and actions that our minds, hearts, souls, and strength are lovingly devoted to one Lord and are consecrated to the service of his sole kingship (cf. Mark 12:29-30). When we sin, we proclaim with our actions that our devotion to God isn't absolute, and that there's room for our mind or heart or soul or strength to sacrifice to some other power – we render to a fraud what belongs to one God (cf. Matthew 22:21).

That's what idolatry is all about. Maybe the idol today is our greed, for greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5) – we want to pretend that ownership trumps stewardship, and we demand to have more than we'll realistically use for godly purposes. Maybe the idol today is our personal ideology – we want to subordinate the Bible to our experience or our pet theories, rather than holding firmly to scripture, holding loosely to good ideas, and letting go of anything contrary to Christ's gospel of holy love. Maybe the idol today is simply our pride – we want to be legislators unto ourselves, choosing a path for our own, writing our own rules, setting ourselves up as judge and jury – either overzealous judges, enforcing our personal views on others, or absentee judges, negating the commandments of God through willful neglect. But sin and idolatry are bound up together, so the guilt of sin is portrayed as altars and poles – the cultic objects used for idol-worship in Old Testament times (Isaiah 27:9). Our addiction to these altars and poles keeps us in exile from God's presence and from the promised rest to which God invites us (Isaiah 27:8; cf. Hebrews 4:9-11). It takes away our understanding and enslaves us with lies (Isaiah 27:11), keeping us from the truth that sets us free (John 8:32).

Usually, when we think about God addressing the problem of our sin, we think about the cross. And we're right to do that. Paul writes explicitly that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3), and that he was “handed over to death for our trespasses” (Romans 4:25). The writer of Hebrews reminds us that “by the grace of God”, Jesus died to “taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus himself described his death as giving his life as “a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And Paul works out how, by our old sinful selves being pinned to Christ on the cross, they were buried in his tomb to stay there, separated from the lives we now live (Romans 6:6-7).

But the Bible says more. Paul tells us that Jesus “was raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). And that's a crucial part of how we're saved! Without Jesus rising from the dead, we can't be set right. It's not just evidence that the cross worked, though it is that. Jesus was raised so that we could be set right in the sight of God, so that we could be made new. If our old selves are buried in his tomb, the only way to separate us from that mass of sin is for us to get out of the tomb – to leave death and return to life, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), and “we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). Without the resurrection of Jesus, it wouldn't be possible to be separated from our sins. To be buried with our sin and stay put – that's just death, the same death that's the inevitable payment for sin (Romans 6:23). To be buried with our sin and not stay put – that's newness of life. That's how we can “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). But if we're living in life, and sin is dead in death, then how can we keep walking in it? We can't; it doesn't match. To persist in idolatry when the idols are smashed and dead and buried – that's just nonsense. But a fallen man or woman is an expert on putting nonsense into practice. With sin dead, it has no claim to lordship (Romans 6:14). Jesus is Lord, because he lives forever; sin is not lord, because sin is dead! So “don't let sin exercise lordship in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Romans 6:12).

Don't cling to your incense altars and sacred poles (Isaiah 27:9). Nothing is too special: even the brazen serpent Moses made in the desert had to be ground to dust when the people made it an idol (2 Kings 18:4; cf. Numbers 21:5-9). The symbol cannot be allowed to eclipse the reality, which is Christ (John 3:14-15). And just so, every idol is the perversion of a symbol of what God has in store for us. To idolize our greed is to pervert the symbol of stewarding the limitless riches of God and storing up true treasure through the obedience of faith (2 Timothy 1:14; Matthew 6:19-21). To idolize our experience or our ideas is to pervert the way our perspectives, submitted to Christ, enrich the wisdom of the church by expressing the fuller range of gifts and graces that he distributes. To idolize our pride is to pervert the priestly kingship for which he made us, and which we'll live out as glorified “kingdom and priesthood serving our God” to “reign on earth” (Revelation 5:10). We don't want to fester in the darkness of the shadow; we want to flourish in the light of the substance.

Ultimately, there are two paths in front of us as believers. One is to live a contradiction: to confess with our mouths that Jesus is risen and to confess with our hands that sin is risen. How often do we try to burrow back into the grave where our sin was abandoned? How insistent are we to sign 'spiritual graverobber' as our occupation? Throw down your shovels! We don't need them! There's a better way. The other path is to endure in offering ourselves to God for righteousness, living in keeping with the truth of the gospel. And that where does that path lead? What would a human life look like when all the false altars are crushed like chalk and all the sacred poles are toppled for firewood (Isaiah 27:9)? When the altars are chalk dust and the poles are ash, the gentle breeze of the Spirit blows where it wills and carries them all away (John 3:8). That's the process of sanctification, making us holy through the spring-cleaning of our dusty souls.

Present your false altars and sacred poles to Christ, hand them over to be crushed, and the Spirit will blow them away – maybe not all at once, maybe gradually, but the Spirit is faithful, because this Spirit is the Spirit of the Living God who was faithful to raise Jesus from the dead. “Come, my people, enter your chambers and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past,” God warns (Isaiah 26:20). What door? “I am the door,” Jesus says, “I am the gate” (John 10:9). Only by hiding in his resurrection, hiding within his risen life as separated from our buried sin, are we both spared from God's judgment on sin and made clean by the Spirit's faithful labor – just as Jesus wants us to be (Ephesians 5:26-27), thanks be to God!

Second, the resurrection revives the vineyard of the Lord. Remember, early in his ministry Isaiah preached a parable about God's vineyard, the house of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7). God cared it, God tended for it, God fulfilled his end of the bargain to the full, but the vines only grew rotten grapes (Isaiah 5:2-4) – nothing but injustice, bloodshed, cries of distress (Isaiah 5:7). So what did God do? The vineyard was ripe for judgment: “I will remove its hedge, and it will be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled down; I will make it a waste … and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns” (Isaiah 5:5-6). Where's the hope in that? Nowhere.

How does the resurrection make a difference? Because Jesus is the Father's True Vine (John 15:1). The Vine is not dead! The Vine is alive! Well, so what? So this: a branch on a dead vine will die and wither; just watch and wait. Without a living vine to force nutrients and growth into the branch, the branch is absolutely hopeless, no matter how free from disease it might be. A permanently dead vine is no help at all – worse than no help. But the True Vine is not dead. A branch on a living vine has a chance. But what about a branch on a resurrected vine – a Vine that will never die, can never die? A branch abiding in that Vine doesn't have a chance; it has a guarantee!

The old vineyard was corrupt at its roots, so God judged it, tearing down its hedge and wall. But not so with this vineyard. On account of the risen Jesus, God proclaims, “I have no wrath” (Isaiah 27:4). How beautiful is that? Instead of inviting the beasts to ravage it and mow it down, God will water us constantly, guarding us night and day from destruction – because the LORD is our keeper (Isaiah 27:3). We will be pruned, but not torn down. Under the protection of God, the vineyard will flourish. With the Father as the vinedresser, Jesus will pump his resurrection-life into us. If the Vine is alive, won't the branches share the Vine's life? If the Vine is glorious, won't the branches share the Vine's glory? If the Vine is risen, won't the branches be assured eternal life through resurrection too? And won't the Spirit that fills the True Vine also fill his true branches?

It's because of the resurrection that we can share his Spirit. And with the Spirit, the Spirit that blows away the dust of our pagan altars, we can bear fruit. Any branch abiding in the Vine will “bear much fruit” (John 15:5), but only branches that abide can be fruitful. The chosen branches are appointed to bear lasting fruit (John 15:16). The point of raising up an everlasting vine is, Isaiah says, so that Israel's shoots will “fill the whole world with fruit” (Isaiah 27:6). And what fruit did God look for that unrenewed Israel didn't give? Justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7). What fruit does the Spirit naturally grow? “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” – those are the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).

If we're abiding in the risen Christ, that means filling the entire world with his Spirit's fruit. How are we doing with that? Are we filling the world with justice and peace? Look at Baltimore, look at Los Angeles, look at Syria and Libya and Iraq and Yemen – are we as the Vine's branches actually filling the world with justice? How about patience? Are we filling the world with that, modeling patience and helping the world to grow in it? How about generosity? How about self-control? How about gentleness and kindness? What are we actually doing to fill the world with that fruit? Are we at least filling Lancaster and Chester Counties with this fruit? Or are we holding back our buds, privatizing our faith and ceding the public square over to fruitlessness? Abide in the Vine; be his branches; fill the world with his Spirit's fruit.

Third, the resurrection means gathering. Isaiah already told us about how the temple atop Mount Zion – the church founded on the rock of testimony to Jesus – would send forth the instruction of God – the gospel – and draw all the nations there to be taught (Isaiah 2:2-3), so that justice would rule the nations and the teaching of God's peace would replace the teaching of worldly war when Christ is King (Isaiah 2:4). Here, the lost people of Israel are brought back from Assyria and Egypt and the other lands of their exile, and gather back to “worship the LORD on the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:12-13). Both show the same motion: those who were lost and scattered will gather around the holy mountain, and there they will learn and worship.

It begins now as we call all nations to come be discipled in the Master's Way. But it also means an act of God. The exile will be undone through Christ, and in the end, “all Israel will be saved,” after “the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25-26). What's more, the literal exile of death will be over. Where are God's people more lost than in the grave where they rest? But, Isaiah says, “a great trumpet will be blown” (Isaiah 27:13), and so “the dwellers in the dust” will “awake and sing for joy” when “the earth will give birth to those long dead” (Isaiah 26:19), as we learned last week, “for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). When “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven”, then “he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:30-31), and Christ will “descend from heaven with the sound of God's trumpet, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). God does it for all the faithful – he loves the whole community of the redeemed – and he gathers them “one by one,” loving each on an individual level (Isaiah 27:12).

And where will they gather? The holy mountain. For what? Because “on this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods, a feast of well-aged wines … and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples … He will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-8), at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), once “his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). Why does the resurrection matter? Because it's a risen Lord who returns with his risen life to raise and gather his whole people as a risen bride for the Great Feast that unites a risen Christ and a risen Church as one risen flesh and spirit in eternal bliss and resurrection joy. Exile ends where communion is fulfilled, for the Lamb of Resurrection “came to seek out and to save the lost”, the wayward and self-exiled (Luke 19:10) – thanks be to God!

Fourth and finally, the resurrection guarantees the final defeat of Leviathan: “On that day, the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). Who is Leviathan? Who is this dragon? The last book of the Bible treats us to a symbolic vision of “a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads”, who opposes the birth of the Son who will “rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:3-5). The same “great dragon” is called “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Yes, Isaiah already prophesies that the LORD will slay Satan (Isaiah 27:1).

As we look back, that isn't news. In the original story of the “ancient serpent”, God introduces the gospel by offering assurance that, though the Serpent's offspring will wage war against the Woman's offspring, the ultimate Offspring of the Woman will deliver a costly but fatal blow to the Serpent, crushing his head (Genesis 3:15). Paul stresses that the divine Son of God is also the one who enters humanity by being “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4). Jesus is the ultimate victory over the Serpent. He flexed his power by casting out demons, saying that if he casts out demons by the finger of God, then it means that the kingdom of God has arrived in him (Luke 11:20) – meaning that the Serpent's rule of lies is crumbling, because the world is about to witness God's style of kingship. Jesus gained triumph already at the cross, disarming the dark powers and exposing them to public shame (Colossians 2:15) – but only because the cross and the resurrection are bound up together. It's the resurrection-life of Jesus that makes him the reigning Lord now, able to command the church's present resistance to Satan now (James 4:7).

And we know how the story ends. The dragon fails to thwart God's plan (Revelation 12:1-6), he's cast down to the earth (Revelation 12:7-9), he knows his time is short (Revelation 12:12), and he makes war against all those on earth “who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 12:17). The dragon may win some battles, but his war is lost. The dragon is bound in a pit for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2-3) – some see that as a literal thousand years after the Second Coming, some see it as a literal thousand years before the Second Coming, others see it as a symbolic thousand years that we're already in – and then he gets one last hurrah (Revelation 20:7). But it won't work, because the City of God does not lose. The dragon and his offspring come to fight “the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and consumed them” (Revelation 20:9), and the Dragon is banished to the Lake of Fire for good (Revelation 20:10). That's the last we hear of the Dragon, as Isaiah already said: The LORD “will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah27:1).

How does the resurrection make a difference? If Jesus were still dead, then Leviathan is in charge – forever. If Jesus were still dead, then so is the hope of God's kingdom. If Jesus were still dead, then the cross would be the Dragon's victory. But because Jesus is alive, having passed through death into glorious life, the cross belongs to the victory of God! The Dragon's best weapon, the power of death, was turned against him at the victory of the cross and resurrection, “so that through death [Jesus] might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The cross and resurrection disarm the Dragon, striking him down with a wound he can't shake off or ignore. Jesus will win – it's guaranteed. Jesus will crush his head – it's absolutely certain. And if we share in resurrection-life by having faith in Jesus, then we'll be part of his victory: “The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet” by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 16:20).

So the resurrection matters! Jesus matters! Because he is risen, faith can separate us from our sin, and he can send the Spirit to sweep away the crushed idol-altars, justifying and sanctifying us to be fit citizens of the City of God. Because he is risen, he feeds his life into us and makes us flourish to fill the whole earth with holy fruit that grows in the Spirit. Because he is risen, he raises the dead and gathers all the lost to come and worship at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, to be united deathlessly with him for eternity and to share fully in the life of God. And because he is risen, he reigns as Lord to crush Satan under our feet, slaying and abolishing the Dragon for good so that he can torment, persecute, and deceive us no more, and we will never again be distracted from the Truth who lovingly gazes into our eyes and wipes away our tears one by one. And because he is risen now, we can faithfully forsake our sin now, and be filled with the sanctifying Spirit now, and bear fruit for society now, and call the nations to worship now, and confidently resist the Serpent's crafty wiles now. Christ is risen – thanks be to God, who gives us the victory in him (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Strong City: A Sermon on Isaiah 26

Sermon on Isaiah 26; John 5:25-29; Revelation 20:13; 21:2, 9-11, 23-27.  Delivered on 26 April 2015 at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church.  The sixteenth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1; Isaiah 2; Isaiah 3-4; Isaiah 5; Isaiah 6; Isaiah 7-8a; Isaiah 8b-9; Isaiah 10-12; Isaiah 13-14, 21; Isaiah 15-18; Isaiah 19-20; Isaiah 22; Isaiah 23; Isaiah 24; and Isaiah 25.

If Isaiah 24 highlights the heaviness of sin and the need for our redemption, the next three chapters of Isaiah unfold to us the amazing things that the Resurrection of Jesus makes possible. It's so easy for us to forget that Easter isn't a day. Easter Sunday is a day, but Easter is a season; and more than a season, a lifestyle, a truth, a universe. Two weeks ago, on the second Sunday of Easter, Isaiah 25 showed us the Wedding Supper of the Lamb – the glorious truth that, because Christ is risen indeed, our union with his risen life will be perfected in the kingdom of God. The Church is engaged to Christ now, but because the Lamb lives again, we'll move in together, and he'll shower us with the fullness of his love forever, and we'll have everlasting fellowship of grace, and death and sorrow will be distant memories of the obsolete past.

As we pick up the prophet's book again on this fourth Sunday of Easter, Isaiah teaches us about two more significant blessings that the Resurrection of Jesus brings: resurrection for ourselves, and a life in the holy city. Isaiah plays with a contrast between two cities: the City of Chaos we met a couple chapters earlier (Isaiah 24:10), representing all the nations trapped under sin, versus this new “strong city” with salvation for its walls and gates wide open (Isaiah 26:1-2). The second can be introduced as victorious because the first one has fallen. Revelation does the same thing, contrasting two cities: “Babylon the Great City” (Revelation 18:21), the empire of ungodliness doomed to failure, versus a “holy city, the New Jerusalem” (Revelation 21:2), the final manifestation of “the camp of the saints and the beloved city” that the devil ultimately attacks in vain (Revelation 20:9). The harlot-city will be burned up (Revelation 17:16; 18:9), but the bride-city – a people called out from the sins of the harlot-city (Revelation 18:4) – will live and fill the earth forever. Where once the nations drank of the harlot-city's wrath of wine and “the kings of the earth committed fornication with her” (Revelation 18:3), the story ends when “the nations will walk by [the New Jerusalem's] light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Revelation 21:24).

Sixteen hundred years ago, the great bishop Augustine wrote a hugely influential book called The City of God. Drawing on Isaiah and Revelation, and trying to make sense of the Visigoth sack of Rome and the decline of the Western Roman Empire – which had officially adopted Christianity as a state religion – Augustine describes history as a constant conflict between the City of Man (or City of the World), on the one hand, and the City of God, on the other. The City of Man, inspired by Satan and founded by Cain, is civilization where people invest themselves in worldly cares and pleasures; the City of God is civilization where people put aside worldly cares and pleasures for the sake of God's truth. The sack of Rome isn't the defeat of the City of God, because the Rome wasn't itself the City of God. Rome may suffer, Rome may fall, but through it all, we have a strong city.

Like Augustine long after him, Isaiah is forced to wrestle with the challenges of the present world. Sure, it's nice to know that someday, the City of Chaos will fall (Isaiah 25:2). Sure, it's nice to know that someday, God will lay low the lofty city and bring down those who dwell in the heights (Isaiah 26:5). But what good is that now? How does it give Joe Shmoe of Bethlehem hope to know that his great-great-grandson might see freedom? What good is all that future if it stays in the future, beyond the lifespan of anyone listening to Isaiah wax eloquent? And what good is the victory of the City of God if it has no practical impact on our lives today? How does it help us grapple with our suffering, how does it give us reason to live with wisdom and virtue, how does it kindle the fires of courage in our chests? How is the Great Feast good news if we aren't around to taste it? If the victory is delayed so all we see is the birth of empty wind (Isaiah 26:17-18), how does that answer the prayers of our present distress (Isaiah 26:16)? If it makes no difference for our generation, if we who are living now get no victory from acknowledging just one God and one Lord, why not party it up with the City of Man and keep living under other lords (Isaiah 26:13)? What good is it to die in faith if the promise isn't for you?

So Isaiah finds an answer. He sees the truth. If God is faithful, and surely he is, then God will be faithful not just to the nation as a whole, but to each generation and each individual who served him. And if he's faithful to them beyond death, and he's faithful to his purposes in creation, then, Isaiah exclaims, “Your dead shall live! Their corpses shall rise! O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead” (Isaiah 26:19). It isn't true that a lifetime of faithfulness only gives birth to wind; it gives birth to new life springing out of death's dust. Even those long dead, for centuries and centuries, haven't been forgotten from God's purposes. God is faithful. And the faithfulness of God means life from the dead; it means resurrection. Those who serve God do not have all memory of them wiped out (cf. Isaiah 26:14). They'll live again to see with their own eyes and enjoy in their own bodies the triumph when God increases and enlarges the nation (Isaiah 26:15). The patriarchs saw the promises from a distance and greeted them, desiring a better country, and so “God has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16).

The ancient Greeks didn't believe in resurrection. They thought it was a lousy idea. The Greeks often looked at the body as a prison for the soul, something holding the soul back from living to its full potential. They didn't want to believe in resurrection. That's why the Greeks usually didn't bury bodies whole. They, like Vikings and Hindus and other cultures, practiced cremation – a symbolic 'burning of the bridges' to show that the soul was now free of this yucky world of matter for good. But the Jews were famously different. They didn't hate the body. They knew that if God created us with bodies, then God meant for us to be part of the material world. That wasn't a punishment or a mistake; that was a blessing. The world may be running down and falling apart, it may be fraying at the seams from the force of sin, but they had hope that the God who made it was the God who'd restore it – and them. Mainstream Jews rejected the idea of death having the last word in its age-old argument with the goodness of creation.

So the Jews didn't cremate. They buried bodies intact, putting them in tombs, saving them as a witness that God isn't done with them and that they'd live again. It wasn't because they believed that God couldn't raise a person from ashes as easily as from bones; it's because burying the bones was a better testimony to their hope of resurrection. Even in how they treated their dead, they were determined to make a clear witness to each other and the world, clinging to the confession of their hope. As Daniel said, those sleeping in earth's dust will wake up, though not all with the same outcome: “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”, and “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky” (Daniel 12:2-3). Jesus himself said that, when the appointed time rolls around, he himself will raise all the dead, and they'll come out of their graves, “those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29). On that day, “the sea [will give] up the dead that are in it, Death and Hades [will give] up the dead that were in them, and all [will be] judged according to what they had done”, whether living according to faith or else according to sin (Revelation 20:13).

In a lot of our hymns, we have a very Greek idea of heaven as our ultimate goal. And it's partly because the Bible really does talk about the spirits of believers being in the presence of Jesus once we die. But that isn't even close to the end of what the Bible sets forth. If it were, why does the Bible even bother to talk about a “new earth”? What's the point of it? If our 'going-to-heaven' theology can't see a place for a new earth in the end, then our beliefs fall too far short of the Bible. The real biblical hope isn't represented in terms of 'heaven'; it's described through the grand symbol of the New Jerusalem, a city and a garden, the perfection of the church into a new civilization. But where is this civilization? Is it in the clouds? Is it in another universe? Is it beyond space and time? What does the Bible actually say?

John writes, “I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). An angelic guide, he said again (in case we missed it), “showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). The point isn't going to heaven; the point is that what's now stored up in heaven will come here: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). By the time the Wedding Supper of the Lamb happens, the Great Feast of Isaiah 25, God's attentions are squarely on the earth, because the earth will be where God lives: “See, the home of God is among men, and he will dwell with them” (Revelation 21:3).

The gospel is not about how to go to heaven. The gospel is about how to live heavenly life on earth – starting now, but even in the end, the everlasting age-to-come when the earth finally becomes everything God ever wanted to make of it. Here's where the resurrected saints will live – where David will play his harp again, where John the Baptist will get his head back, where Job will see his Redeemer in the flesh, where Jeremiah will laugh and smile because his tears and laments are no more. Here's where the resurrected believers will share the Wedding Supper of the Lamb with the Lamb himself – here on earth.

Here on earth is where every City-of-God deed we do will find its fullness. The earth as such won't be destroyed, tossed into the scrap heap and replaced; but its old fallen quality will pass away, just as Peter and John said it would (2 Peter 3:7-13; Revelation 21:1). We have no license to treat God's handiwork lightly as an inconsequential thing, as if defiling the earth through careless or cruel stewardship weren't a sin. Every act of caring love for the earth God made will be perfected in the new creation. We have no license to hold back our witness from impacting society. Every stand against oppression or ungodliness will be honored in the new creation, a building block in a strong city, made firm as we answer the resolute call of our God.

When it comes to this new city, Isaiah describes it as having salvation for its walls (Isaiah 26:1). In a later oracle, he makes clear that this has to be “the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 60:14), where “you shall call your walls 'Salvation' and your gates 'Praise'” (Isaiah 60:18). Without walls, a city is defenseless, which is why the psalmist prayed, “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem” (Psalm 51:18). This strong city isn't the ruined Zion of the exile, where “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3). This is the real City of God, the one that “God establishes forever” (Psalm 48:8), with the salvation Jesus offers as the sure promise that “this is God, our God forever and ever” (Psalm 48:14). “With salvation's walls surrounded”, we can trust in Jesus our LORD forever, because he is “an everlasting rock” (Isaiah 26:4).

With this new city, Isaiah says that the gates will be open – so that there are no boundaries? So that there is no truth? No, “open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in” (Isaiah 26:2). But surely that's just an Old Testament idea, replaced by a New Testament that's only inclusive and only affirming? After all, when John describes the New Jerusalem, he says that “its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there” (Revelation 21:25). So the gates are always open! But just the same, John says, “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination and falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life” (Revelation 21:27).

It's only those who have their robes washed clean who get “the right to the tree of life” and who “may enter the city by the gates” (Revelation 22:14). And John urges that it's those who hold fast to the gospel witness of faith, holiness, and love, even through all the opposition that cultural forces can bring – those are the people who, passing through the great ordeal, “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14). It's those who overcome whom Jesus promises, “You will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life” (Revelation 3:5). The opposite are those who remain outside the city, prevented by the resistance of their own sin from entering it: “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15).

We may not like the sound of that. It may not fit an age where sin-affirming 'tolerance' (falsely so-called) is the buzzword on the streets and the idol to which law and mass media demand we bow, an idol so precious as to justify, in the minds of many, forcible coercion contrary to conscience – and without bowing to it and being marked as idol-compliant, no one can earn a livelihood, “no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark” (Revelation 13:17). It's a subtle thing, one even many in the church deny or dismiss if they aren't vigilant: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert” (1 Peter 5:8). It's only those who don't worship the Beast who can “share in the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:4-6). Bowing to idols isn't Christ-like love; it's just idolatry, because love “does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

People left outside the gates may not fit the ideals of an age where one of the most popular Bible verses even on Christian lips is, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) – true in its context, a sermon against hypocrisy (Matthew 7:3-5), but often stripped of that context to justify ignoring the rest of the Bible's picture, like Jesus's other statement, “Don't judge by appearances, but do judge with right judgment” (John 7:24), or Paul's affirmation that we have to judge sin within the church through properly executed church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:12), or Paul's inspired promise that “the saints will judge the world” (1 Corinthians 6:2). We aren't called to condemn, but we are called to have open eyes to see whether something accords with God's wisdom or not. And especially within the visible church itself, among those who profess to belong to the family of God, we're told not to extend the right hand of fellowship to those who live unrepentant lives of immorality, greed, theft, indulgence, hostility, or idolatry (1 Corinthians 5:11). And yet so often we ask, “Who am I to judge?” But if we'll even judge angels, how much more are we equipped to compare actions and attitudes to to the word of God, as Paul said (1 Corinthians 6:3)? And we serve “God the judge of all” (Hebrews 12:23), both in the church and outside the church (1 Corinthians 6:13). Pointing to his revealed wisdom on how to live should be an act of love, if we carry it out with a loving heart and if we remember, as G. K. Chesterton once said, that:

The one really strong case for Christianity is that even those who condemn sins have to confess them. It is a good principle for Pharisees that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. But it is the good principle for Christians that he who casts the first stone should declare that he is not without sin. The criminal may or may not plead guilty. But the judge should always plead guilty.

Jesus was hard on the Pharisees, because of all the Jewish groups in his day, they were the closest to the message he brought. The Sadducees, the Herodians, the Essenes, the Zealots – they were way off the mark. The Pharisees said many of the right things, but they had the wrong heart and, because of that, they didn't follow through with even their own message: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses; therefore, do whatever they teach you, and follow it; but don't do as they do, for they don't practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:2-3). When it came to many sins, Jesus was far more strict than the Pharisees! But he was also gentle with sinners: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them”, the Pharisees complained (Luke 15:2) – but where they feared he affirmed sinners in their sins, Jesus said it was just the opposite: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). When we call people to repentance, we should remember that we aren't without sin; we too must plead guilty (1 John 1:8-10). And if a sinner is finally left outside the gates, he's outside gates that are permanently open; the only thing preventing him is his own stubborn devotion to his own sin.

So why does the resurrection of Jesus matter? It matters because it makes possible the Wedding Supper of the Lamb. It matters because it guarantees our resurrection, the affirmation of God's good creation and the bodies we have within it. God started resurrection-work with Jesus, and what God starts, God finishes. It matters because it justifies our courage in the face of those who can kill the body but can't kill the soul (Matthew 10:28). It matters because it's the foundation for the New Jerusalem, our hope of a life better than Eden – not just a garden, but a city, meaning that every good use of our gifts and graces will be caught up into it and perfected there. We ourselves, not just our ancestors or our descendants, have this hope for “a strong city” (Isaiah 26:1). And it matters now because how we choose to respond to Jesus now will shape our very own destiny then.

If we say we respond to Jesus in faith, is it a living faith or a dead faith (James 2:26)? If it's a living faith, then it naturally answers the apostolic message with the “obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). Does this mean that we're saved by works? No, we don't create our own peace: “O LORD, you will ordain peace for us, for indeed, all that we've done, you've done for us” (Isaiah 26:12). We're saved by grace – God did it for us – through faith – we trust that God did it for us, and we stick by him – and we're saved for works, which reveal the character of the faith we live and the grace at work within us (Ephesians 2:8-10). The resurrection of Jesus matters.

Are we living like it matters? Are we standing firm like it matters? Are we bearing witness to how it matters, how “we have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19) – not a wish, not an idle dream, but a hope sealed by an unbreakable promise from the God of Truth – and how “in hope we were saved”, and “if we hope for what we don't see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25)? The resurrection is true; Christ is risen; the Lord of Life is alive, and we will see him alive! And in this truth, we see the big beauty of God's zeal for his people – for us (Isaiah 26:11). So “let us hold fast” in purity of life and in faithful witness “to the confession of our hope” – the hope of resurrection, hope even for dwellers in the dust, the hope of a strong city, the true Zion of which such glorious things are spoken (Psalm 87:3) – “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).