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)!