Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Strange and Dreadful Strife: Sermon for Easter Sunday

Christ is risen! Let all God's people shout, “He is risen indeed!” Isn't that wonderful? Isn't it beautiful? The resurrection of Jesus isn't just some pretty story we tell ourselves. It's the truth of history – he really did die on the cross, he really was buried in the tomb, he really got up again with new life, he left the tomb behind, he appeared to his disciples, he appeared to his unbelieving siblings, he appeared to hundreds of people, he went back to heaven, and he even appeared one last time to a persecuting Pharisee to change a life around (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). 

Friends, if that isn't true, then everything we do here on any Sunday morning is completely pointless, and we're the most foolish of all who've ever lived, wasting our lives on a fantasy (1 Corinthians 15:14). But if it is true – and that's where the evidence points with great, big neon signs – then it changes everything (1 Corinthians 15:20)! Because it means that two thousand years ago, Jesus snapped the Grim Reaper's scythe like a twig. It means that, in the war between Life and Death, Jesus wins! It means that, though he tasted death, he de-fanged Death and walked away. And Jesus is free permanently – like Paul writes, “Since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has any mastery over him” (Romans 6:9).

Early in the 300s, there lived an Assyrian monk named Aphrahat – yes, the Persian Empire had its share of believers, too. During Aphrahat's later life, he saw his emperor, Shapur II, begin to persecute the church, putting thousands of Christians to death. In times like that – times that, sadly, have once again come to the turf Aphrahat called home – it seems like it would be easy to despair, like the disciples were thrown into despair on Good Friday. In a series of sermons, Aphrahat tried to reassure believers that the violence, the chaos, the fear all around them wasn't the end of the story. In short, he wanted them to remember Easter. And this Easter morning, I really feel led to share with you a short passage this “Persian sage” wrote in the year 344, nearly 1700 years ago, imagining what that face-to-face meeting between Jesus and Death must have been like. Here's what Aphrahat has to say:

The upright, the righteous, the good, the wise, neither fear nor tremble at death, because of the great hope that lies before them. And they are always mindful of their death, their exodus, and the last day when the children of Adam will be judged. … When Adam transgressed the commandment whereby the sentence of death was passed on all his children, Death hoped that he'd bind fast all the sons of man and would be king over them forever. 

But when Moses came, he proclaimed the resurrection, and Death knew that his kingdom would be made void. … From the hour he heard God saying to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,” Death trembled and feared and was terrified, for he learned that God is King of the dead and of the living, that that it was appointed to the children of Adam to come forth from his darkness and arise with their bodies....

And then Jesus, the Killer of Death, came. He clothed himself in a body from the children of Adam, and was crucified in his body, and tasted death. And when Death saw that Jesus had come down to him, he was shaken from his place, and was agitated to see Jesus. And Death closed his gates and was unwilling to receive him. 

Then Jesus burst Death's gates, and entered into him, and began to plunder all Death's possessions. When the dead saw light in the darkness, they lifted up their heads from the bondage of death, and looked forth, and saw the splendor of Christ the King. Then all the powers of the darkness of Death sat in sorrow, for he was degraded from his authority. Death tasted the medicine fatal to him, and his hands dropped down, and he learned that the dead would live and escape from his clutches. 

And when Jesus had afflicted Death by plundering him, Death wailed and cried aloud in bitterness, and said, “Leave my kingdom!” … He had no power over the Holy One. … And Jesus left with him, as a poison, the promise of life – that, little by little, Death's power would be done away. … So Jesus, who died, was the annihilator of Death – because through him, life rules supreme, and through him, Death is abolished – the one to whom it's said, “O Death, where is your victory?”

Hallelujah! Centuries later, Martin Luther wrote a hymn – we'll sing it in a few minutes – based on a Latin chorus used in the church. It's a strong, defiant hymn, and the fourth verse goes like this: “It was a strange and dreadful strife / when Life and Death contended; / the victory remained with Life; / the reign of Death was ended! / Stripped of power, no more it reigns; / an empty form alone remains: / Death's sting is lost forever!” 

Amen? That's biblical stuff, right there! That's what Jesus really, truly did: he “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). All death's power was tied up in sin and the curse it brought down on us; but for those who believe, whose sins are buried in Christ's vacated tomb, death's grasp is broken (1 Corinthians 15:56-57). So believers don't so much 'die' as take a long nap: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). “If we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8).

The war against Death is won in advance – it's a sure thing! “The reign of Death was ended” that first Easter morning. Only “an empty form alone remains,” without its sting (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Jesus told us that he came so that we “might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). The Life of God has invaded this dark mud-ball of ours – all that's left is clean-up in the here and now and the final coup de grace at Christ's return, when he raises the dead to bodily life that never ends. Now, that's good news if ever I've heard any!

But here's the truth. If we want to 'get in on' the victory of Life, we have to 'get in on' the kingdom of God – and Jesus is the Door (John 10:9), and Jesus is the King (Revelation 19:16). We can't muscle our way in with the merits of our works. We have to trust the King. We have to stoop down, let him unload our sins and deal with them, and humbly shuffle through the Door. 

That means faith – but I'll share with you this promise: “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9)! And that salvation means the sovereignty of God's Life in your life, breaking Death's power. “God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

I'd like to challenge you this morning. Do you believe? Do you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and does your heart latch onto the truth and power of resurrection – the beauteous light of Easter's dawn? If so, the hand of salvation is outstretched to you – trust and follow him. But what does this mean: “follow him”? It means to “live a new life” (Romans 6:4) – to live an Easter life, the kind of life that Jesus Christ died and rose again to win for you in his “strange and dreadful strife.” On the other side of death – the death of our old selves in his death – we live in his resurrection, which means being “set free from sin” and from all the places in our days and hours where we let Death boss us around.

Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11)! “If Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:10-11). “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). 

God calls us to live an abundant life by following the Spirit of Life. After we refuel this morning with the true Bread of Heaven, the true spiritual food, let's get out there – let's live the abundant life Jesus opens for us – let's win our little battles against sin and death, in the light of Life's victory – and let's share the news, in word and in deed, that the Prince of Life is risen indeed!  Amen and amen!

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