Tuesday, April 18, 2006

death has been swallowed up in victory (easter)

At every memorial service, someone has observed, at every funeral, there are actually two preachers. There is the pastor, and there is death. Regardless of what is said, two messages are clearly voiced. One might be about hope, the other despair. One might be of celebration; the other of devastation. One might be of victory; the other defeat. One voice might be shouting, the other whispering, but make no mistake: there are two preachers.

The apostle Paul knew this, and 1 Corinthians 15 is an extended meditation on the questions raised by these two preachers. Paul knows it is a contested question, this matter of life after death, this issue of the resurrection. And so he draws upon everything from within his power to make the appeal: personal experience; eyewitness accounts; logic; history; prophecy; paradox; persuasion; encouragement. In the end, Paul gives a compelling testimony, one that is the foundation for our gathering on this Easter morning.

"Testimony is a word that has fallen into disrepair in our time". And so Christian testimony can be speaking words that we think others want to hear, or mimicing the words that we hear others speak. Christians gather around each other, and we parrot the phrases we’ve heard, we take comfort in stories that inspire us. This is fine, but it is not testimony.

"Testimony is a word that is borrowed from the court of law, and in a court of law, something important is being contested, someone is on trial: The executives of a corporation, a government official, a terrorist, a university athletic team, a foreign dictator. In court a decision has to be made, and in order to make the right decision, the court needs to know “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. Everything depends on the honesty of the witness. For this reason perjury, or bearing false witness is a serious crime, for without truthful testimony, the law, and a society based on law, cannot exist.

Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Emory, has helped us to recover the importance of testimony. He writes:

“Christians understand themselves to be in the biggest court case of all, the trial of the ages. What is being contested is the very nature of reality, and everything is at stake. Was the universe created by a loving and just God, or is the universe a blind and random collection of cold stones and burning embers floating through empty space and unshaped by a creative hand? Are human beings created in the image of God, and given lives of purpose and meaning, or is life a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?…When we stand at the grave of someone we have loved, can we hope to meet again on another shore and in a brighter light, or is this weak sentimentality and a cowardly denial of the brute facts? Everything is before the jury.”

Every one of us is here this morning, as jury, and there are two messages, two preachers. We hear these messages not only on Easter Sunday, but throughout our lives. We are, in fact, wandering around waist deep in messages about who we are, why we are here and what our ultimate purpose is: Are we defined as people by a photographic image of perfection, or an imagined bottom line of net worth, or a respected profession, or a household of model children? Are we defined as a nation by our level of security? Are we defined as a church by an estimation of success?

You bet we are, if we allow the world to set the agenda. If we don’t have a clear sense of identity and mission and destiny in life, someone will come along to tell us who we are. And of course, Easter, resurrection, eternal life is at woven into all of that. It is fundamental. Do I think that this life is all there is? That’s death preaching to me. Paul heard the voice of that preacher, he had wrestled with the implications of that logic and he knew where it ended. If this life is all there is, he said, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain. If this life is all there is, then eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

That is the message that comes across to us in a culture of death: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die. Do you remember the bumper sticker: The one who dies with the most toys wins. It is an honest, secular vision of life. I respect it, even if I do not agree with it, even if I believe that it is false witness.

There is more. There has to be more. And that is why we’re here. Something is at stake at Easter. You live long enough, you see people suffer. You live long enough, you catch yourself waiting for test results. You live long enough, you see people you love die. You live long enough, you find yourself standing at gravesides.

And that is where Easter comes in. Easter is all about the death of Jesus. But Easter is more. The good news is that God has raised him from the dead. And the even better news is that God will raise us from the dead and give us a new life, an eternal life.

That’s good news.

Paul knew something was at stake, and he had to tell this news truthfully. What was the alternative? If Christ is not raised, our preached in is vain, and your faith has been in vain. In other words, if Easter is not true, I might as well be out hitting a tennis ball, you might as well be leaning over a golf ball, or turning over from the last nap.

It the dead are not raised, Paul said, let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

And so the Easter message comes as an insistence on truth. Death has been swallowed up in victory.

Swallowed up in victory. Easter is all about the victory of God. Again, there is a need for clarity. This is why, in sports, the umpiring matters, the refereeing matters, the scoreboard matters. We want to know who has prevailed. For a time, we cannot be certain. But in the end, there is a victory, for someone.

The Christian wonders, is it death or life? Is it all meaningless, or is there a purpose? Are we cursed or blessed? Is it about the love of power, or the power of love?

What is it?

Cassie Bernall walked into Columbine High School on Tuesday morning, a promising student. Soon the high school became a war zone.

Do you believe in God?,” one of the heavily armed gunsman asked the blonde girl reading her Bible in the library while the school was under siege.

Yes, I believe in God,” she replied in a voice strong enough to be heard by classmates hidden beneath the nearby tables and desks.

The gunsman in the long black trench coat laughed, Why?”, he asked mockingly. Then he raised his gun and shot and killed 17 year old Cassie Bernall.

It seems that Cassie must have had a premonition. She had reflected on these questions of life and death. When it became apparent that she was not coming home that horrible Tuesday, her brother found these words that she had written on a notebook laying on her desk:

Now I have given up on everything else—
I have found it to be the only way

To really know Christ and
to experience the Mighty power
that brought Him back to life again,
and to find Out what it means to suffer
and to Die with him.
So whatever it takes
I will be the one who lives in the fresh
Newness of life of those who are
Alive from the dead.

For a time it is contested. But in the end, death is swallowed up in victory. In the spiritual classic Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan has Christian walking along the road, when to his horror he notices a ferocious lion is standing in his path. There is no way he can avoid the animal or the situation. He is terrified, but he continues to walk. Then, he is delighted to learn that the lion is chained to a post. Someone has made this journey before him, and has tamed the lion. Although Christian has to make this journey, someone has made the road safe for him. Someone has disarmed the hostile creature. The lion remains, but the threat has been removed.

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting?

This is not the denial of death. The women go to the tomb, the gospel writers tell us, while it is still dark. We are not pretending that death is not real, that it holds no power.

We are affirming that death has been swallowed up in victory. This is a statement of faith, of affirmation of hope. The resurrection sets before us a decision. In the words of Andy Defreyne in The Shawshank Redemption, you either get busy living or get busy dying. In the dilemma facing Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, you either keep walking or you turn back. In the grief of those women who woke up early and went to the tomb, while it was still dark, you either give up or you turn to the Lord. In the meditation of Cassie Bernall, it is to give up everything else and to suffer, die and rise with Christ.

On Easter, in life, there are two preachers, there are two voices, there are two paths. In the earliest document outside of the New Testament, the Didache, there is the first sentence: there is a way that leads to life and a way that leads to death.

The good news, brothers and sisters, is that this is true. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Death has been swallowed up in victory, and how can we respond? With the words of the apostle Paul: Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Who give us the victory…Therefore, Paul writes, as a closing thought: be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. And so let us go forth to live as resurrected people:

Love’s redeeming work is done, alleluia.
Fought the fight, the battle won, alleluia.
Death in vain forbids him rise, alleluia.
Christ has opened paradise, alleluia.

Sources: Alister McGrath, What Was God Doing On The Cross?. Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian. Charles Wesley, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today”.


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