When I was in Seattle, WA, I had the goal to get to the top of the highest point in the lower 48 states, Mt. Rainier. I bought the right gear. I went into training. I learned from a woman who had been up Mount Everest three separate times.
On the day of the climb, we hiked up to Camp Muir, a base camp about 10,000 feet up. From there, we slept in a tiny wooden cabin to acclimate to the altitude and rest up for the final ascent. We went to bed at 6pm and woke up around Midnight. (You have to leave early in order to cross the ice bridges before the daylight gets too hot, the bridge melts and you fall to your death.)
It was about eight hours up when a blizzard kicked in. The air was sparse. The wind was frigid. My fingers were frozen. And it was only getting nastier. Some of the other climb groups had already turned around and gone back.
About an hour from the top, the lead expeditions said:
“This is getting pretty bad. I haven’t seen it this bad before. What do you think? We could go to the top and see the marvelous views, but…
If we don’t turn around, we could get frostbite or die.
So we thought about it and said:
“I’m sure Google images probably has some might fine photos of the top. So...
Sometimes suffering isn’t worth it.
Today we are continuing our series called Dear Church. It’s a series based on letters from Jesus to seven different churches. The letter for today looks at a church that was dealing with suffering…even suffering because they were believers. Our goal today is to understand what kind of suffering believers have to deal with and whether it’s worth that suffering.
Before we begin, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth, your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see, our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The One who Knows Suffering
This letter starts in Revelation 2:8: “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty —yet you are rich!”
A few notes:
The letter is again written to the angel. We said that’s most likely referencing their pastoral leadership which, in turn, means it’s a letter written to the church in Smyrna.
Smyrna was an ancient Greek city at a central point on the Aegean coast. Because its positioning allowed for advantageous port conditions and an easily defendable city, Smyrna was full of people. In other words, it was a great place to start a church.
And someone had. We don’t know the exact apostle or disciple that founded it, which shows that the Gospel was spreading beyond the work rate of the apostles alone. This church was probably not started by one of the 12 apostles, yet Jesus considers it a church. Similarly, our church wasn’t started by one of the Apostles, yet Jesus would call it a real church.
Because the Holy Spirit was at work in the word.
Here in Raleigh.
So, both are churches.
Finally, the speaker is Jesus. This is his letter. And since this is a letter to a church that is suffering, he offers his credentials on the subject:
(1) Jesus Existed before SUFFERING
These are the words of him who is the First (v.8) Jesus existed eternally long before suffering ever existed. He created a world that was perfect, apart from suffering. Then, he watched as humans foolishly were led by the devil into suffering.
Don’t think that Jesus’ main goal is to end suffering?
To bring life back to the way that it once was?
It’d be like cleaning your living room, putting all the toys in their place and removing all the crumbs from the floor – making the place a gorgeous Better Homes and Gardens style living area.
Then, your kids happen.
And you’d like to see it back to the way it was when you were finished cleaning.
The same is true for God. He has on his heart a desire to bring things back to the way they were long before suffering happened.
And here’s the good news about that:
(2) Jesus will OUTLAST Suffering
These are the words of him who is the Last. (v.8) As in, he will last beyond all suffering.
He will outlast cancer.
He will outlast financial difficulties.
He will outlast persecutions.
He will outlast terrorism.
He will outlast racism.
He will outlast the little angry emojis that people put upon Christian content on Social Media.
He will outlast every form of suffering.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t suffered.
(3) Jesus is FAMILIAR with suffering
These are the words of him who died. (v.8)
Do you know how Jesus died?
He was arrested by a mob.
He was beaten by that mob.
He was smacked and slapped till the early hours of the morning.
He was whipped thirty times with a 7 stranded leather whip that had metal shards on the end. (Also known as flogged)
He had a crown of thorns smashed down onto his head.
He was hit with a staff.
He was laid down upon two giant pieces of wood.
He had one nail driven through his right hand.
He had another nail driven through his left hand.
He had one more nail driven through his feet.
He hung on that cross as his lungs slowly collapsed.
He was abandoned by his friends.
He was betrayed by his disciples.
He was crucified by his people.
He had our sin and guilt and shame plaguing his soul.
He was familiar with suffering.
Suffering even to death!
Now – he lives.
He lives and walks among his churches.
(4) Jesus Knows YOUR suffering
Pause and reflect on that truth.
Because it’s easy to think:
No one knows my suffering.
No one understands.
No one gets this sadness I feel.
No one grasps the loneliness that I go through.
No one truly gets the depths of my depression.
Jesus is speaking to you. He says:
I know it feels like no one knows, but I know.
I know what it’s like to suffer.
I know that you are suffering.
I know what it is you’re suffering:
I know that you feel so poor because you are suffering.
In the midst of suffering…
You are rich.
(5) Jesus Gives Eternal RICHES to the Suffering
You are rich.
Rich in my love.
Rich in forgiveness.
Rich in the promise of eternal life.
You have a place in my family that all of the money in the world would be unable to buy.
You may be suffering, but you are not suffering from a lack of my promises.
II. Truths about Our Suffering
After giving his credentials as to why he is an expert in suffering, Jesus has a few things to say about the suffering that the people of Smyrna were going through. He says:
I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. (v.9)
Apparently there was a group that was slandering the church. It was a group that claimed to be Jewish but wasn’t. This isn’t genealogical. Jesus is referring to people who were did not have a faith that matched the Old Testament faith, but pretended they did.
Because the Old Testament Jewish faith was that God would send a Messiah to save us from our sins. Overtime some Jews abandoned that faith and replaced it as, “God doesn’t need to save us from our sins, because I am Jewish and do Jewish things.”
When Jesus showed up, a “phony” Jewish faith is exactly what the Pharisees had. Jesus was the Messiah. The real Jewish faith would have believed in him. Instead, the “phony” Jewish faith rejected Jesus as Messiah because “they were good enough Jewish people on their own.”
Now after Jesus, this group was persecuting the church in Smyrna and it was bad enough to be called “suffering”:
Maybe they were calling them names.
Maybe some of them worked on the local tax board and were taxing their church building heavily.
Maybe some of them paid of the Roman soldiers to throw church members in prison.
Regardless, the church was suffering. What did Jesus say about this suffering? A few things:
(1) Believers WILL Suffer for their Faith
Look at what Jesus says in Verse 10: Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. At first glance, this seems comforting. But if you are a Smyrnian, don’t you think they read this and responded by saying:
What? About to suffer? You mean this isn’t even done yet?
That’s the truth.
For the Smyrnian people.
And for us:
The truth is that believers in Jesus will suffer.
Some suffering will happen because we’re on a sinful world where sinful people hurt one another. (Gossip, racism, and unfaithfulness)
Some suffering will happen because we’re in an imperfect world. (Cancer, pollution, and natural disasters)
Some suffering will happen because we’re believers in Jesus. (Things like angry comments on your Christian blog, being excluded from parties because you’re “That lousy Christian,” being yelled at by your spouse because “I’m not into that Jesus junk.”)
Jesus said this:
Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me. (Luke 10:16)
Just like you might not like a football team and, as a result, you don’t like fans of a certain football team.
Or you don’t like a politician and, as a result, you don’t like followers of that politician.
It’s the same thing with Jesus:
If someone doesn’t like Jesus.
They don’t like his followers.
If sinners made Jesus suffer,
They will make his followers suffer too.
(2) The Real Villain is the DEVIL
Because if it was just a bunch of humans making us suffer, you might think:
I can take them, Jesus. I took a few defense classes once, so…I got this.
But these people aren’t the real ones behind it. Look at what Jesus says about who was really behind the Smyrnian suffering:
I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you. (v.10b)
Now it wasn’t as if the devil showed up with a red pitchfork in his hands and pointy ears like some kind of Halloween costume.
But he influenced.
He gave people ideas like:
You should tell that Jesus supporter that he’s an idiot.
You should tell that Roman guard that Christian is breaking law by praying in public.
You should break up with your wife because the amount of Bible talk she has is crazy.
The same is true today.
The real villain isn’t whoever is persecuting you.
It’s the devil himself.
(3) Suffering Lasts for AWHILE
Because look at what Jesus says next:
You will suffer persecution for ten days.” (v.10c)
That doesn’t sound awful.
It’s the reason I sign up for ten days at a fitness camp. I figure – that’s not too long. I can handle it.
Or maybe you sign up for a ten day visit to your in-laws. You figure – that’s just over a week. I got this.
10 days of persecution? That’s doable.
But here’s the thing about numbers in revelation. They are metaphoric:
The number 3 represents God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The number 4 represents humans. Humans were created in God’s image, but aren’t God.
The number 7 represents the church. It’s 3 plus 4, where God connects with humans.
The number 10? It represents completeness.
Meaning the church at Smyrna would suffer until the suffering was completed.
In other words, for a while.
And the reality is that Christians will suffer…until their suffering on earth is completed.
Suffering will be a part of your life when you’re 5.
When you’re a teenager.
When you’re middle aged.
When you’re a senior.
Even suffering for your faith…
…will be a part of your life for a while.
Only for a while.
(4) The faithful will receive the CROWN of LIFE
Look at what Jesus says at the end of verse 10:
Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
Back at this time, the victor’s crown was associated with the Olympics. It was made of olive branches and given to the winner.
To the winner of the 100-meter dash: Victor’s crown.
To the winner of the 1600-meter run: Victor’s crown.
To the winner of the pole vault: Victor’s crown
To the winner of the steeple chase (whatever a steeple chase is): Victor’s crown.
After all the training.
After all the sweating.
After all the suffering.
A victor’s crown.
Look at what Jesus promises to those who are victorious.
Who go through suffering in this life.
But hold on to Jesus:
A victor’s crown.
But not just any victor’s crown. This isn’t made from olive branches.
It’s made of life.
Do you get it?
If you hold to Jesus despite the suffering this life brings, you will have eternal life.
Death won’t win.
You will defeat it.
Just like Jesus defeated death, you will defeat death too.
You will live.
And about this life…
It won’t be one of suffering.
(5) The Faithful’s SUFFERING will END
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death. (v.11)
That’s sounds awful.
First death is bad enough.
It’s nothing but suffering.
Nothing but awful.
Nothing but hell…
…because it is hell.
But dear believers, that’s not anything you have to be worried about. The faithful will not be hurt even in the slightest by hell.
Because in heaven? There is no hell.
In heaven? There is no death.
In heaven? There is NO suffering.
No suffering for faith.
No arguments with spouses.
No rebellious kids.
No ostracization from friends.
No suffering of any amount, variety or kind.
In heaven, SUFFERING is done.
Because you’re with the one that defeated suffering.
You’re with Jesus.
III. WHAT NOW?
Jesus’ words are simple: Be Faithful.
Because when being a believer gets hard, it’s tempting to not be faithful.
“I became a believer and I still get sick.
I still have work problems.
I still have financial difficulties.
Only now people ridicule me for my faith.”
It might seem easier to stop being faithful so that you won’t have this momentary suffering.
If you stay faithful, in the midst of the momentary suffering, you will have eternal blessings.
Because God is faithful.
That won’t change.
He sent his Son Jesus for you.
And through faith in him you will be removed from suffering…forever.
Today we are looking at the final sermon in our EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS sermon series. It is based on the final time Jesus appeared to his group of disciples.
Have you counted up the appearances so far?
How many are there?
The other women.
The Emmaus Disciples.
The group of disciples on Easter.
The group of disciples - plus Thomas – one week later.
The group of disciples on the fishing trip.
That’s six accounts so far.
But that’s not all of them.
There’s another time that Jesus saw Peter – one-on-one. (1 Cor. 15:5)
There’s a time that Jesus appeared to a guy called James – either the disciple or Jesus’ half-brother. (1 Cor. 15:7)
There’s a time where Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-21)
There’s a time that Jesus appeared to more than 500 disciples all at one time (1 Cor. 15:6)
There’s even a time when Jesus appears to a guy named Saul who was hell-bent on destroying Christianity, but Jesus’ appearance transforms his heart into a guy named Paul who goes on 4 missionary journeys, starts 20 churches, and writes 13 books of the Bible (Acts 9).
If you were counting – that’s 11 different appearances to over 500 different people.
The resurrection is not made up.
It is REAL.
But if so…maybe you still struggle with this.
Because would it be so much easier if you could SEE Jesus?
If you could take a trip to the Holy Land and get a selfie with him?
If you could check out his Twitter handle for his perspective on any cultural situation?
If you could text him every time you had a question on a Bible passage…
Why did Jesus leave?
Why did he disappear?
Today’s EYEWITNESS account is the 12th recorded account in Scripture. It is the last one that occurs before he physically disappears. Today we want to learn (1) where Jesus went (2) why he disappeared (3) and what he wants us to do in the meantime. Before we begin, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The “Disappearance”
The lesson we are looking at to begin with comes from Luke 24:50-51: When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.
Timeline wise this is the 40th day after Easter. We find that out from Acts 1 – which is an expanded version of this same exact account.
Note that this final appearance starts with Jesus leading his disciples. That’s appropriate. He had led his disciples for 3 years. He had led him the last 40 days. He would lead them up until his last day on earth. In fact, that’s literally what disciple means: “follower.”
And he led them to Bethany. Bethany is a small town just to the east of Jerusalem. The city is the place where Jesus commandeered the donkey for his entrance into Jerusalem. In this instance, they are just outside of Bethany where a few hills are located.
And as they get to the top of the hill…
He disciples his disciples just like he had done so many times before.
Unlike so many times before…
His feet go up.
They lift off the ground.
And his body begins floating.
And he goes up.
And up. Until…
A cloud hid him from their sight.
Do any of you know who Criss Angel is? He’s like a tattooed, goth version of David Copperfield. He is famous for street magic.
One of the tricks that he did was he began to levitate in the air. Mind you – this is on the sidewalk, in the street, apart from a magician’s stage.
I thought that was amazing.
There’s a YouTube video of him explaining the trick. Essentially, he is wearing a special pair of pants that (1) break away in the front (2) have a mannequin’s foot attached to the back of it. This enables him to plant his real foot on the ground, balance, and go into a squat that makes it look like he is beginning to float parallel to the ground. The rest is misdirection and camera positioning.
And voila! Magic.
Jesus’ ascension is not a magic trick.
He isn’t floating on a false leg.
There isn’t camera misdirection.
He doesn’t hitch a ride on a hot air balloon, a jet pack or even a drone.
He goes all the way up to the sky
Without any strings attached.
Until he is hidden by a cloud.
This is a miracle!
This is Jesus’ ascension.
Jesus didn’t disappear; he ASCENDED into heaven.
This is a really important distinction.
Because if Jesus disappeared – we’re left confused and frightened.
But Jesus didn’t just disappear.
He ascended to heaven.
That word is really important. If any of you watched Game of Thrones – and I haven’t – but I think I can reveal this without giving a spoiler. I heard that at the end someone conquers all of the other people and ascended to the throne. He wins the Game of Thrones. He ascended to his position of power.
He did it because the struggle was over!
Jesus ascended because He conquered sin.
Jesus ascended because He conquered guilt.
Jesus ascended because He conquered shame.
Jesus ascended because He conquered death.
Jesus ascended because the work of salvation was completed.
That’s so important to remember!
Because Jesus’ whole purpose on earth was to defeat all of our spiritual enemies.
If he ascended to heaven? That’s because his work is done.
Remember that – it’s really easy to think:
I’ve got more to do.
I’ve got to become the perfect mom.
Jesus weakened sin, guilt and shame – but I have to finish them.
There’s even churches out there that preach – you’ve got more to do!
You’ve gotta get to perfection.
You’ve gotta improve.
You’ve gotta do some things to complete Jesus’ work for him.
Jesus doesn’t leave tasks unfinished.
Jesus always completes.
And Jesus completed completely conquering your sin.
If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have left!
Jesus ascended where he rules over all.
Ephesians says this: “He raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (1:20-21)
Did you hear that?
The one who loves you more than you could ever dream is in control of all things.
He’s ruler over cities, counties, and states.
He’s ruler over kings, despots, and presidents.
He’s ruler over wind, waves, and the hot temperature outside right now!
He’s is ruler over all things!
Nothing’s more powerful.
Nothing can defeat him.
There’s one more place that he would love to rule:
I went to McDonald's the other day with a coupon for a free meal that someone had given me. After I ordered Value Meal number seven, I handed them the card and the person said: “Just a second. I can’t authorize this.”
She called over her coworker who looked at the card and said: “We need a manager to authorize this.”
She called over a shift manager who looked at the card and said: “I’m sorry. I can’t authorize this.”
She called over her manager who looked at the card, entered the code and authorized it.
It’s the same thing with life.
We want peace.
We want joy.
We want courage.
And we try to find it from all the things that don’t have the authority to give it:
Things like lust.
Things like greed.
Things like money, fame, career…a desire to be perfect!
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:15)
Because Christ is God.
Christ is the one true ruler.
Christ offers true peace.
And Christ also offers us direction.
II. Our Mission
Because if the boss leaves and you don’t know what to do, it can be stressful:
Should we finish the reports?
Should we work on new clients?
Should we try to recover old ones?
UGH! Maybe we should just drink all of the coffee.
Christ didn’t leave us unclear with what to do. Look at what he told his disciples before his ascension:
Jesus told his disciples, “This is what is written (that’s a reference to Old Testament prophecy.) The Messiah will suffer (Jesus suffered) and rise from the dead on the third day (Jesus did), and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”(That hadn’t happened yet…)
But then look at what Jesus says next:
“You are witnesses of these things.” (Lk. 24:46-48)
Do you get it?
The final part of God’s plan is bringing the message of forgiveness to everyone.
And while all the other parts happened through Jesus…
This is the part that happens through you:
Before being UPLIFTED, Jesus commanded us to UPLIFT.
You don’t need to be confused about your task on this earth.
You see a coworker who is down? Approach them, listen to them, and share the message of Jesus.
Tucking your kids in for the night? Tuck them in, kiss their forehead, and share the message of Jesus.
Have a spouse who doesn’t believe? Go home, give them a hug, and share the message of Jesus.
Serve in ministry here at school? Do the lesson plans, cut out the art project, and share the message of Jesus.
Serve in leadership here at church? Think about funding, consider maintenance, but don’t forget our goal is to SHARE THE MESSAGE OF JESUS!
But don’t think you have to do it alone.
“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” More specifically in Acts: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you….” (1:8)
Ten days later.
The disciples are in Jerusalem just like Jesus told them to be.
There’s the sound of a hurricane like wind without the wind coming from within the room they are staying.
They look around and they see tongues of fire appear on the top of each other’s heads.
They are able to speak fluently in languages that they have never even studied.
The Holy Spirit was with them.
And they immediately find courage. Because they go out that day and do some sidewalk preaching – in the middle of downtown Jerusalem – with the end result that over 3,000 people are baptized and believe.
The Holy Spirit was with them.
And the Holy Spirit is with you.
Jesus left you with the promise of the HOLY SPIRIT.
By faith, the Holy Spirit is with you and he does the impossible.
He made fire appear on the heads of disciples.
He made them speak in language they never learned.
He made the sound of a hurricane occur without any hurricane winds.
He does the incredible!
The seemingly impossible.
Working through you.
To bring others to faith!
But that’s not all.
Look at verses 49-50 of Luke 24:
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, Jesus lifted up his hands and blessed them.
Throughout Scripture, whenever Jesus’ hands are involved, there are some amazing blessings:
In Luke 13 he lays his hands on a woman who had never been able to straighten her back…and instantly she did.
In Mark 7, he lays his hands on a man who is deaf and mute and…instantly he hears and speaks.
In Mark 8, he lays his hands on a blind man’s eyes and…instantly he sees.
In Mark 6, it simply says, “He laid his hands on…sick people and healed them.” (v.5)
Talk about blessings.
And then, there’s the final blessing that pours from his hands.
He heads to a cross.
They take his hands and nails them.
And then blood flows forth.
But not just blood.
Jesus left, but left us with BLESSINGS pouring from his HANDS.
Even though you can’t see his hands.
Even though you can’t touch them.
The truth is no less true.
The blessings are no less real.
It’s one of the reasons that pastors for centuries have continued this tradition. Using the words of Scripture – God’s Word – they lift up their hands. They communicate God’s blessings on the congregation. They say: “The Lord bless you and keep you.”
This is more than just wishful thinking.
This is God’s real blessing given to you.
III. What Now?
I think that if you were a passerby and saw the aftermath of the Ascension, you might have laughed.
Because there were 20 some dudes.
Eyes lifted upwards.
Staring into the cloud.
Gazing into the sky.
Mouths dropped wide open.
And this continued…
A tap on the shoulder:
“The angel said, ‘Why do you stand there staring up into the sky? This same Jesus who left you…will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:10)
In other words:
You have a job to do.
Stop looking into heaven.
And start looking around.
Don’t you see…?
There are souls who need this message.
Souls in your office.
Souls at the garage.
Souls in your neighborhood.
Souls in your kid’s room.
Souls in your kitchen.
Souls in the easy chair across from you while watching Netflix tonight.
Everywhere you look there is work that needs to be done!
What a privilege God wants to work through YOU!
Keep your eyes on the task that Jesus has given you
Be a WITNESS of the EYEWITNESS truth of your Risen Savior. Amen.
We’re continuing our sermon series about EYEWITNESS Easter accounts where we read reports from people who saw Jesus come back to life with their own eyes.
We heard from a group of three women at the tomb.
We heard from Mary Magdalene a bit later.
We heard from 2 disciples on a road trip to Emmaus.
We heard from about 20 disciples in a locked room.
In total on Easter Sunday, there’s around 25 eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.
In 4 different locations.
At 4 different times.
That’s a lot of proof.
And yet…maybe you’re not convinced…
Have you ever played the game of OLD MAID before?
What happens is you are dealt a hand of cards. Once it’s your turn you draw cards from any other player on the table. The goal is to get pairs until you run out of cards in your hand. And you never, ever want to get the Old Maid.
Which I’m not sure why anyone doesn’t want the Old Maid.
Generally speaking – I’d love an Old Maid.
It’d be great to have someone help around the house…but I digress.
What happened when I was growing up is my dad used to take his hand.
He’d spread it out in a fan.
He’d take one card and put it up…enticing-like.
And he’d say, “You should take this one. Trust me. It’ll be good.”
And I’d believe him.
Eventually. I didn’t take that card.
I was burned too many times.
I was skeptical.
Maybe you’ve gotten the Old Maid too many times.
Maybe you’ve been burned too often.
Maybe you’ve believed too many sinful people who have let you down too many times.
Maybe you’re skeptical about Jesus.
Today we’ll look an eyewitness account from a guy that was filled with skepticism. Our goal is to listen to how Jesus transforms his skepticism to faith – and see how we might transform ours into faith. Before we begin, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Eyewitness Account
Thomas’ eyewitness account comes from John 20. It starts in verses 24 with a caveat, “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.“ It doesn’t say what Thomas was doing when Jesus appeared to all of the other disciples. Picture what you’d like. Maybe he was out for a walk. Maybe he was visiting a relative.
I like to think he was out getting coffee.
Probably a Venti black coffee.
And as he was sipping the coffee – because the coffee is taking his mind off the terrible events that have happened recently - he sighs.
This is really awful.
We spent years following that guy.
He’s no Messiah.
And we’ve got no hope.
As Thomas gets close to the door of the house, he takes a deep breath.
They are my friends. I should try and cheer them up. Get them ready to move on.
But from within the house –
Thomas doesn’t hear sadness.
He doesn’t hear crying.
Thomas has to really knock on the door to get them to hear him over their talking.
Finally, the door bursts open:
Alive! Thomas! He’s alive.
We saw him. We saw him. We saw him.
Thomas – we touched him. We put our fingers in his hands. We put our hands into his side.
Jesus’ resurrection is real!
And this goes on for a while.
Thomas’ friends trying to share their exuberance with their friend.
Ya’ll are crazy.
I don’t know happened. If you had too much to drink or you’re hallucinating.
But.. I do know what didn’t happen.
Jesus didn’t visit you.
He isn’t alive.
When will you guys get it through your thick skulls!
But one of them approaches:
We aren’t crazy.
We aren’t drunk.
Look around. There’s like 20 of us in the room.
20 of your closest, most sincere, loving friends in this room.
All of whom are telling you the truth – Jesus is alive!
We saw it with our eyes.
We touched him with our hands.
We’re telling you with our words.
Doesn’t that count for something?
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (v.26)
One week later.
Same time of day.
Only this time…
Thomas is with them.
Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (v.26)
Then, Jesus made a bee-line for Thomas.
Hey friend. “Do you see me?” I’m right here.
Put your finger here. That’s where the nails were.
Put your hand into my side. Isn’t that what you wanted?
While you’re at it. Close your eyes and listen…Can you hear my lungs breathing?
Put your ear against my chest. That’s my heart.
If you won’t listen to your friends.
Listen to me:
Stop doubting and believe. (v.27)
To which Thomas.
Doubting, skeptical Thomas.
Can only say:
“My Lord and my God!” (v.28)
In other words:
II. Resurrection Truth
There it is. Thomas’ eyewitness account.
An account that has made Thomas forever known as Doubting Thomas.
Which – not super flattering.
I think, anxious Thomas, kinda-believing Thomas. or even average, everyday common Thomas would have been preferable.
But Doubting Thomas it is…and that’s important. Because his skepticism leads us to three incredible resurrection truths:
(1) Jesus Rose from the Dead
Fourth time it’s been key truth #1. It’ll keep coming.
But for real this time – because if last week’s account of 20 some odd people seeing, feeling, touching the risen Jesus … if that wasn’t enough.
Then, Thomas’ account is for you.
If you don’t believe this happened, Thomas’ words are for you.
He says, “I get it. I was skeptical too. Some guy dying and rising for the forgiveness of sins? It sounds crazy. It doesn’t happen. But it did. I saw him with my own eyes. I touched him with my own hands. I did a thorough investigation – And it led me to this truth: Jesus is alive!”
And here’s the really cool part.
If Jesus is really alive.
Then so is his forgiveness.
Even for the doubter.
Because…notice what Jesus does when he enters the room.
The first thing he says is: “Peace to you.”
That “you” is plural.
It is all encompassing.
It includes Thomas.
Jesus didn’t say, “Peace be to most of you…but not you Thomas. You can sit over there and be anxious for a bit.”
Jesus brought real forgiveness.
Even to the doubter.
Because maybe you’ve been doubting God.
Maybe you doubt this resurrection.
Maybe you’ve been doubting this Jesus thing.
Maybe you’ve never believed before.
Maybe you doubt God is with you, that God cares for you, that God loves you.
And listen to Jesus’ voice:
“Peace be to you.”
(2) Faith is a Gift
Thomas had said, “Unless I see Jesus with my own eyes and touch him with my own hands, I will not believe.”
Stop and listen to what just happened.
Sinful, imperfect Thomas just gave Holy, Righteous God…an ultimatum.
God doesn’t owe Thomas anything.
And yet – God gives Thomas exactly what he asks for.
He GIFTS Thomas exactly what he asked for.
He gives him the opportunity to be an eyewitness.
He gives Thomas faith.
And in fact, go a bit farther:
Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (vs. 29)
People who haven’t seen Jesus.
Who is Jesus talking about?
You see Jesus?
Dear believer, he’s talking about you.
But don’t get a big head. Listen again to Jesus’ words:
Blessed means given a gift.
And if you believe in Jesus…
If you believe that some dude died 2000 years ago, came back to life, and in him you are forgiven of all your sins?
That…is a gift.
A miraculous gift.
Don’t forget that.
I was talking with a woman the other day who was pretty excited to tell me that she got saved.
I said, “Oh. That sounds nice. What do you mean?”
And she said, “Well…I was already living a pretty perfect life. So, I though I might as well do it and decide to bring Jesus into my life. And Pastor, you should have seen it. I really did it.”
Did you catch that?
I did it. I did it. I did it.
I thought she said that she “got saved.”
But what she meant was, “I saved myself.”
Here’s the thing:
Faith isn’t something you do.
Faith isn’t something that you make happen.
Faith isn’t something that you get down on the ground, clench really hard and will into happening.
Faith is a gift of God.
If the devil has made you think that it’s something you do – be careful. It’s a line of thinking that leads to two scenarios:
(1) Pharisaical. AKA – Trust that I’m really awesome at believing.
(2) Despair. Because I’ll never be able to bring myself to believe this.
In both of those instances, faith isn’t in Jesus.
Faith is in oneself.
And that’s NOT saving faith.
Friends, faith is a gift.
Take a moment.
Give thanks to God for your Savior Jesus, yes.
But also gives thanks to God for your gift of faith.
(3) The Gift of Faith Comes through the Gospel
Because maybe you’re thinking – “God! I want this gift of faith. How are you going to send it?”
Maybe you can send me it via USPS?
But look at what John writes right after this eyewitness account. He says this: Jesus did many other miracles in the presence of his disciples – some that we didn’t even get to hear about – but these words are written – why? – that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (v.30-31)
Faith is a gift that comes through God’s Word.
Faith is a gift that comes through the words about Jesus.
Faith is a gift that comes from hearing about your Savior.
Scripture says this, “Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the Word of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:8,9)
There’s not any fireworks.
There isn’t any magic incantations.
There isn’t any incredible 60 day fast that you need to do in order to cleanse your body and pray yourself into the kingdom of faith.
You simply need to hear the Gospel.
Because the Gospel brings the gift of faith.
How does it do that?
Because it’s not just some person’s words.
It’s the Word of God Himself.
The all-powerful, all loving, doing everything it can to reveal to you Jesus’ saving work to get you to heaven: God’s Word.
That leads me to two very simple WHAT NOWs:
(1) Immerse Yourself in God’s Word
Because if you have doubts, if you are unsure, if you are a skeptic…
The cure is not an ultimatum to God.
The cure is God’s Word.
His gentle, powerful, faith creating Word.
I love you.
I died for you.
I rose for you.
If you want a stronger faith – study God’s Word.
In church. In a group. With others. On your own. In your family.
If you think your faith will grow without God’s Word – that’s like thinking your home garden will grow without any water.
It won’t happen.
Some of ya’ll need to hear God’s Word on this. Immerse yourself in the only thing that gifts faith in order to grow your faith: God’s Word.
(2) Share God’s Word
Because you probably know someone who is a skeptic.
You probably know someone who is unsure.
You probably know someone who is doubting.
You might even think – I don’t know what needs to be done.
You know the solution.
It’s God’s Word.
Bring them God’s Word.
Tell them about Jesus.
Tell them about the Savior.
Because it is through that message of God’s Word and only through that message of God’s Word that God gifts faith. Why it’s so important to share it with others.
Go and tell!
We are in the middle of our Eyewitness sermon series and so far, we have heard Eyewitness reports from Mary Magdalene and from the Emmaus Disciples (Named? Cleopas and the other guy). In addition, we heard there’s a group of at least three other women (Mary the mother of James, Joanna and others—Lk. 24:10) who saw Jesus alive as well. That means by evening on Easter Sunday there are 5 people who have witnessed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
The unlikely story is building credibility.
DNA testing was introduced into our court system in the early 90s. Did you know that hundreds of people who were previously convicted by eyewitness reports have been found not-guilty thanks to the DNA Testing? In 70% of those cases, the reason for conviction was the eyewitness testimony of one or two people.
John Wixted, a psychologist for the University of California, San Diego – wanted to see how useful eyewitness testimony was. He conducted an experiment with police that focused on 348 robberies in 2013 that involved an eyewitness and a single suspect. He showed the eyewitness a group of 5 photos in which one was the convicted robber. The eyewitnesses got the correct suspect 1/3 of the time.
But…in addition to quizzing eyewitnesses on the correct suspect, he also asked them about their certainty – whether they were unsure, certain, or very certain.
Of the people who were very certain? They correctly identified the suspect 75% of the time.
And when there was even one other supporting eyewitness, the rate of correct identification shot up to 90%.
By evening on the very first Easter, Jesus was identified as risen by at least 5 eyewitnesses.
And their confidence? It was through the roof! They didn’t see Jesus running away or from a distance, but up close and personal.
But…they aren’t even the beginning of the eyewitness accounts.
Today we’ll look an eyewitness account that probably quadruples the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. The goal? Gain your confidence that Jesus is alive. Before we begin, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Eyewitness Account
The eyewitness account is recorded in both the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Luke. We’re going be in both, starting with John. It says, “On the evening of that first day of the week...the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders…” (Jn. 20:19)
The section starts by describing a group of disciples together. The Gospel of Luke helps us better define who the group was gathered together.
A few notes:
It doesn’t involve Judas – he betrayed Judas and took his life because of the guilt.
It doesn’t involve Thomas – take note – we’ll talk more about that next week.
It does involve the Emmaus disciples – Cleopas and what’s-his-name show up to tell them all about their eyewitness experience.
It involves the women – Mary Magdalene, other Mary and Joanna, the other woman – who had seen Jesus rise from the dead.
And…maybe even a few others.
In short, the group is somewhere around 15-20 people.
And the doors were locked. It’s almost a horror film like setting. The disciples have the doors locked, latched, barred, with a couple pieces of furniture stacked against the door – all because they are afraid of the Jewish leaders.
The Jewish leaders just killed Jesus.
They crucified him.
They acted like a mob, wrongfully arrested him, falsely accused him, illegally convicted him, and forced Pilate’s hand to have him crucified.
What if the leaders did the same to them?
What if they had 12 more crosses just waiting to be filled with 12 more disciples?
What if any encounter with a Jewish leader would end the same way that Jesus’ encounter did…death?
And so, they hid.
And…all day long people had been entering the room with really weird accounts.
“We went to the grave and we thought he’d be dead, but the stone was moved!”
“An angel. A brilliantly bright angel. He saw us and spoke to us and said Jesus was alive.”
“It’s true. We listened to Mary. We ran to look. There wasn’t a body in the tomb.”
“I came back later and saw Jesus himself! I know it…because I heard his voice. A voice that healed me from demons.”
“We walked on the road with him. We talked with him. Would we have come all the way back here from Emmaus – a 7-mile sprint? – if we hadn’t really seen something?”
And to be fair – the reports brought excitement.
They brought mystery.
They brought questions.
But mostly…they brought fear.
Lots and lots of fear.
Because this fear of the Jews – had obviously caused their friends – delusions….
…their mind was playing tricks on them!
…a slow descent into madness.
How long until it hit them?
In the midst of the fear, confusion and hushed conversations…
Another guest appeared into the room.
Everyone was so distracted that they did not hear him enter.
Granted --- he didn’t knock.
He just appeared.
While they were…talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24:36-37)
And the disciples…have anything but peace!
It’s the ghost!
He’s seeking vengeance.
He’s back to haunt us.
Jesus lifted up his hands.
The disciples braced themselves for the inevitable plasma-ball to come out and consume them.
Jesus said this, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (v.38)
One by one…the disciples looked at each other.
“Touch him? Touch the ghost?”
“You do it.”
“No, you do it.”
“I’m not touching the ghost!”
Finally, Peter pushes his brother Andrew forward.
He lifts up his hand.
He places it on Jesus’ hand…and…
“Whoa…Guys. It’s real.”
The other disciples quickly come over.
They feel the bumps on his skin.
They feel the hairs on his arms.
They touched the holes near his hands.
He has flesh and bone – just like any other living human has.
Jesus asks, “Do you have anything here to eat?” (v.42)
One of them hands over the fish sandwich.
They pass it to Jesus.
It’ll probably fall to the floor – he’s a spirit.
Jesus ate it in their presence. (v.43)
It went into his mouth.
Chewed by his teeth.
Tasted by his tongue.
Into his throat
Into his belly.
Just like it does with any living human being.
Then, Jesus gave them something else.
He said to them, “This is what I said would happen. Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Old Testament.” (v.44)
I had to die.
And I had to rise.
Just as it was written:
“God, you will not abandon my soul to the grave, nor let your Holy One see decay.” (Psalm 16:10)
“After he has suffered, the Messiah will see the light of life…” (Isaiah 53:11)
“Just as Jonah was three days and night in the belly of a fish, so the Son of man will be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.” (Mt. 12:40)
Friends I am alive.
Jesus’ words echoed…
And the disciples came to a realization.
This wasn’t a hallucination.
This wasn’t a vision.
This wasn’t even a ghost.
This was something much worse.
This was real.
And it couldn’t be more terrifying!
Because the last time most of them saw Jesus?
It was in a garden, late at night, running away as he got arrested.
They had abandoned him.
They had denied him.
They had watched…without doing anything…as he died a slow, painful death on the cross.
They sinned against him…
Now he was back.
Proof that He was who He said He was.
Proof that He was God Almighty who controlled hurricanes, volcanoes and flash floods.
Proof that He was real --- and He was back – and He was back for one reason only:
One by one by the disciples looked towards the grounds.
They knew they were sinners and they were awaiting their sin-hating God to utterly destroy them.
Instead he repeated:
“Peace be with you.”
I am God.
I am alive.
I have the power of life and death.
But I am not angry. (Isaiah 27:4)
I am not here to get you.
I am not here for revenge.
I am here because we won.
Because your sins are forgiven.
Because we are at peace.
II. Resurrection Truth
There it is. The biggest, most populated eyewitness account that we’ve encountered to date.
It’s filled with reasons for confidence.
It’s filled with truth.
What is that truth? Three things:
(1) Jesus Rose from the Dead
Yep. Third time that it’s come up as a truth to learn from the eyewitness account.
Think about it. Jesus goes out of his way to prove that His physical, tangible body is in working order again.
His digestive system works.
His joints work.
His skin works.
He even invites the disciples – all 20-some of them – to do a full, thorough investigation.
Don’t you think they did everything possible to determine if it really was real or not?
Some tapped him.
Someone pinched him.
I gotta imagine someone might have even tried to pluck his arm hair out.
And Jesus allows it! Because it’s real.
And, it’s not just any old tangible working body, but his own working body.
He’s had the nail marks in his hands to prove it.
He’s had holes in his feet to prove it.
He had a big, old slit in his side to prove it.
If this was all one big ruse, then Jesus would have had to convince someone, “Hey, do you mind posing as me after I die on the cross? Really? Cool. Now…I know it sounds crazy, but would you be willing to shove nails into your hands, a stake through your feet and a spear into your side? We’re gonna need those wounds to heal up in order to convince people that it’s really me.”
It didn’t happen.
What did happen?
Jesus really, absolutely, complete rose from the dead.
And that’s important.
Because that means…
(2) We Have Peace
It’s a phrase that Jesus repeats a few times.
“Peace be with you.”
“Peace be with you.”
Because as hard as it might be to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, it might be harder to believe that we have peace with God.
Because we have guilt.
We have sinned.
We have shame.
Truth is – you might be believing that God is so angry with you.
Because of past sins.
Because of BIG past sins.
Because of repeated sins.
Because of unbelief.
Because of not following Jesus.
Because you haven’t been whom God called you to be!
And so…you don’t believe.
And the biggest reason you don’t believe in the resurrection is not be a lack of evidence.
But your biggest reason for not believing in the resurrection is the ramifications.
I am a sinner and lo, God hates me!
But…if Jesus rose.
Then, sin has been defeated.
And…if Jesus rose,
Your sin has been paid for.
And…if your sin has been paid for. Completely. 100% perfectly.
Then, God’s wrath has subsided.
And if God’s wrath has subsided.
Then, you have no reason to be afraid.
Hear Jesus’ words to you:
“Peace be with you.”
Understand. It isn’t because your sin isn’t a big deal – it’s a huge deal.
It isn’t because God doesn’t hate sin and evil – He absolutely does.
It isn’t because you’ve done enough to make up for it – you can’t, and you won’t.
It’s because of Jesus.
Unbelievable as it is – it’s true.
About as unbelievable as a resurrection – also true.
The visible nature of the resurrection provides tangible proof of the invisible truth of reconciliation with God. (Romans 4:25)
The resurrection is the visible proof of the invisible truth:
You have peace with God.
Which leads to our final truth:
(3) You have been Sent
To end his encounter with the disciples, Jesus says, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
Do you get it?
God sent Jesus to bring us back to peace with Him.
And He sent risen Jesus to His disciples to confirm that peace with Him.
And He is sending us to share that peace with others.
He is sending YOU to share that peace with others.
Because there are people out there who are far apart from God.
Who are entangled in sin.
Who are covered in guilt.
Who are like those disciples huddled in that room afraid to face the world because they have no peace.
You give them that peace.
You tell them about Jesus.
And there aren’t any qualifications!
He doesn’t say, “If you have Seminary Certification then you have been sent.” Nope.
Qualifications for sharing Jesus include:
(1) Believing in Jesus.
(2) Hearing his call to “Go” and “Be sent.”
Which you just heard…
SO…this means you!
If you’ve known about Jesus since you were a child? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you’ve known about Jesus since this last Easter. Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you are a 40 plus year member of this church? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you aren’t even a member yet? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you are going home to a retirement community? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you are going home to hang out in your playroom? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you have a master’s degree? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you have a bachelor’s degree? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you have a high school degree? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you don’t have any degree? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you live near people who look and act like you? Sent. Go tell about Jesus.
If you live near people who don’t look and don’t act like you? Sent. Go tell about Jesus.
If you are a Republican? Sent. Go tell about Jesus.
If you are a Democrat? Sent. Go tell about Jesus.
If you are a political agnostic? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you live in Raleigh? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you live in Durham? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you live in Wake Forest? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
IF you live in Chapel Hill? Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you live in Cary, Zebulon, Fuquay Varina, Rolesville, Louisburg…or any other villle or burg that I’m forgetting to mention here:
Sent. Go, tell about Jesus.
If you are a someone or an anyone who knows about Jesus…
(And friends – Jesus is talking to you)
You have been sent. Go and tell about Jesus.
And the Holy Spirit will be with you. Amen.
We are finishing up our Fighting Temptation sermon series this morning. If you’ve been here following along, this is the culmination. We’re going to take everything we’ve learned about fighting temptation and apply it to enduring in the fight against temptation.
If you haven’t been here, that’s okay. Because we’re going to be talking about how to endure your walk of faith -- in a world filled with doubt, shame, guilt, and other things that make it feel like you should just give up on faith.
In short, if you want to enjoy eternal life…this is for you.
Before we study, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth, your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. Surrounded by Witnesses
The section we’re going to look at it from the book of Hebrews 12: 1-3. Briefly – Hebrews is a letter written to believers anywhere at any time. We are believers. We are somewhere and sometimes – so…this is written to us.
This is written to you.
Look at the encouragement in chapter 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Right away, I get this picture of a track and field meet. The stadium seating is filled with people. They’ve got their popcorn. They’ve got their sports drinks. They’ve got their sunglasses on and a granola bar for the kids. They are cheering on your behalf – “You can do it! You’ve got this! Keep running.”
There’s even that coach running alongside the infield. He’s the one’s that’s running by you as you hit the corner – he’s screaming. He’s yelling. He’s waving his arms in big old circles – (because I think he thinks that it’ll help with the airflow so you can run faster.) He’s part of the crowd of people that are encouraging you and cheering you on.
But who is this group of people that the Bible is talking about?
Who are these witnesses?
(1) Those who have Finished the Race
It is usually in good taste, once you finish a race, to turn around and cheer for those who are still finishing up. You’re letting them know it’s possible by the fact that you already made it.
Scripture is filled with those who have finished the race.
Scripture is filled with those who have fought the fight against temptation.
Scripture is filled with those who have walked the walk of faith.
Like a guy named Abraham -- God said to him, “Get up. Move your family. Go to a different country. Even though I won’t tell you where, it’ll be good, just…trust me.”
And Abraham did.
And God gave him the land of Israel that would lead to the entire nation of Israel as we know them today.
Like a woman named Sarah – God said to her, “Even though you’re 90 years old and are barren, I will come back in a year and you will have a son – trust me.”
And Sarah did.
And God gave her a child named Isaac --- the great, great, great, great, many times over, grandfather of Jesus Christ.
Like a guy named Moses – God said to him, “I will work through you to do miraculous signs and lead my people out of slavery in Egypt – trust me.”
And Moses did.
And God sent locusts, frogs, hail, bugs, darkness and blood until the king of Egypt finally let them go.
And a young boy named David – God said to him, “Even though you are small, I will take care of you. Trust me.”
And David did.
And God protected him – guiding a tiny little stone from a sling shot into the gap of the giant goliath’s helmet – knocking him down – dead.
And a young man named Joshua – God said to him, “Even though there’s a gigantic wall surrounding the city, I will help you defeat Jericho and it will be yours…trust me.”
And Joshua did.
And God roared, Jericho trembled, God shook the city of Jericho and sent the walls of Jericho a tumbling down.
And a guy named Daniel – God said to him, “Even though the king has threatened a night in the lion’s den for not worshipping him, don’t do it. I’ll protect you…trust me.”
And Daniel did.
And God sent angels to calm those ferocious beasts – that come the next morning – the lions were snuggling up to Daniel purring like housecats.
And a young woman named Mary – God said to her, “Even though you’ve never slept with anyone – and biology says it’s impossible, trust me…You will have a Son and will call his name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
And she did.
And God did. And Jesus was born of a virgin.
And a guy named Peter…And Andrew. And James and John…and Thomas and Philip and hundreds more – to whom Jesus himself said, “They will kill me…. But…three days later…I will come back to life. Trust me.”
And they… didn’t.
But God did anyway. He came back to life.
The Bible is filled with people who have finished the race of faith.
And through the pages of Scripture – they cheer you on:
You will win.
(2) Those who are Running the Race with you
Because when you run a race – it’s good to run a race with friends. It’s nice to have people there to push you. People there to encourage you. People there to say, “You know what. Why don’t we walk for a bit.”
God has given you people to encourage you.
God has given you people to uplift you.
God has given you people to witness to God’s grace and run the race with you.
I remember Pastor John Jeske. He was a pastor of mine growing up. He preached rather long sermons. (Some of you are wondering – “How long does he think a ‘long sermon’ is…?”) He was a kind, gentle, older man – who always took the time to shake my hand and ask how my day was going.
He encouraged me.
One of the interactions that I ever had was a graduation card that I received from him. It said, “Philip, keep holding onto Jesus and keep sharing him with others.”
It wasn’t much.
A few simple words.
Yet – even today –
Years after I received that card.
Years after Pastor Jeske became a member of God’s congregation in heaven.
I hear his encouragement.
I want you to take a moment and think about some of the people God has given you to encourage you.
A grandma? A grandpa?
A church friend?
Because that’s really the point of church. It’s a group of people who gather together to encourage, uplift, run beside, pull each other along, and occasionally -- give someone a ride on their back as we run the race of faith together.
If you don’t have that group of people, God says you need it.
If you have that group of people, God says, “Don’t forget to encourage them too.”
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Because you wouldn’t do very well in a race if your shoelaces were tied together.
You wouldn’t do very well in a race if you were wrapped up in toilet paper.
You wouldn’t do very well in a race if you are the only one with a weighted backpack of about 50 pounds. (Unless you’re that one guy at my gym – who always wears the 50-pound backpack…I think he wears it when he brushes his teeth.)
But you get the point? You can’t run well when things are tangling you up and slowing you down.
And you can’t run the race of faith when things are tangling you up and slowing you down.
Again, what might entangle you? Two things:
(1) Sin that Entangles
This one seems easy.
Sin is bad.
God is good.
Sin is wrong.
God is opposed to wrong.
If you are trying to run the race of faith with God, then you’re going to be immensely slowed down.
And we’re not necessarily talking about tripping up in sin – that happens to all Christians all the time because we are all sinners.
But we’re talking about sin that entangles.
Sin that’s repeated.
Sin that’s repetitive.
Sin that’s got you all wrapped up.
Because think about it:
It’s hard set your heart after God, when your heart is after a bunch of porn on the internet.
It’s hard to run with all your strength, when most of your strength is boasting on social media.
It’s hard to run with joy, when you’re harboring bitterness in your heart.
It’s hard to share Jesus with people of all cultures, when you’d rather share your racist thoughts about other cultures.
It’s hard to trust God’s forgiveness of you, when you’re struggling with forgiving in your heart.
It’s hard to work together to share the Gospel, when you’re working on your own to share gossip about others at church.
Throw off the sin that entangles.
(2) Anything that Hinders
But it’s not just that. Scripture says to throw off anything that hinders.
Meaning things that aren’t necessarily sin.
Cause there’s all kinds of things in this world that aren’t necessarily sin. They are spiritually neutral. Things like: TV, sleep, food, money, career, sports, Rice Krispy Bars, Pokémon, and vegetables – (except for brussels sprouts – those are probably sinful – just kidding…kind of.)
Neutral things are not wrong on their own.
They become wrong, when they consume you to the point of slowing your spiritual race.
Like video games. I enjoy video games. Not the violent, intense, R rated games that have all kinds of questionable content.
But the light-hearted, goofy video games – that leave you questioning how old I am.
But here’s the thing. If those video games start to take up my time, if they start to envelop my thoughts, if I start thinking more about “How can I save princess Peach from Bowser” – rather than – “How can I share Jesus who saves eternally with that person…”
Video games have become a hindrance.
They need to be thrown off.
Think about you and your life.
What is slowing you down?
I bet it’s different than mine.
But I also bet there is one.
The devil will do everything possible to make you think that’s most important.
But it’s not.
So…whatever has become a hindrance to growing in faith, following Jesus, and sharing his message.
Identify and throw it off.
III. Eyes on the Prize
One more thing that Scripture implores us to do as we run the race of faith:
Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. (v.2)
Over at Lafayette Village, every September they hold Octoberfest. Let me say that again – Every September, they hold Octoberfest. (I think that the 4th of July is celebrated on August 10th this year, too). Part of the celebration is the Annual Wiener Dog Race. (Picture it.) It is exactly what you picture. A race with wiener dogs. The race isn’t long. It’s probably the length of a pew. And the dogs are dropped off at the starting line. They are positioned behind a starting gate and then, their owner goes down to the finish line – ready to call for the dog and cheer them to victory.
Sounds simple, right?
But…here’s what happens.
The announcer says, “On your mark. Get set. Go!”
The gates open…and…
One of them immediately runs over to the walls and starts trying to jump over them to get to the crowd.
Another sees a butterfly in the air and chases it to the other side.
A third was on his way to the end but stops when he sees the little kid eating a “hot dog.”
And a fourth – just kinda settles down for a nap.
I remember watching a race. It’s literally 30 feet in length, but it took about 5 minutes because the dogs couldn’t keep their attention on the endgame.
The same thing is true in this life.
We can’t get distracted by shiny, flashy things.
We can’t lose focus from Christ – and drift to career, money, friendship, physique…
None of those things lead to the finish line of eternal life.
None of those things lead to the finish line of heaven.
Only one thing does --
So fix your eyes on Jesus.
Why Jesus? Three reasons…
(1) He is the author of your faith
An author is someone who writes a book. They are the ones who come up with the ideas and write it on a page. People like Dr. Seuss, Maya Angelou and Nathaniel Hawthorne. All authors – all wrote their ideas and thoughts down on paper.
Jesus is the author of faith.
Its contents: He looked down upon earth. He saw that we were mired in sin, guilt and shame. He saw that we couldn’t get ourselves out of it – and eternal death was our destiny. So…he wrote “Faith.”
He came down to earthly willingly.
Lived perfectly when we couldn’t.
Died innocently in our place.
And rose triumphantly for the forgiveness of all of our sins!
He said, “Put your faith in ME, in ME, in ME, not in yourself, in ME!”
Jesus authored the contents of our faith – but – more than that – he authored your faith.
He came to you through Scripture.
He came to you through the words of someone who knew Scripture.
He came to you through the waters of baptism.
He brought you the message that we are sinners and are in need of a Savior.
He wrote on your heart the words of faith:
“I belong to Jesus.”
“He is my Savior.”
“I will follow him.”
Think about it: If he is the one who set you on this journey of faith!
Since he’s the one who started you on it, keep your eyes on him – he’ll help you through it.
(2) He is the Perfecter of Your Faith
In fact, he’ll get you to the end! The Scripture says, “He is the perfecter of your faith.” That means – you can’t do this race without him. You can’t do this race without your Savior. You can’t do this race on your own.
Be careful with that. It’s so common for Christians to say – “Thanks Jesus for starting me out on faith. I appreciate it. But…I don’t want you to get tired…Let me run it on my own.”
And a couple of paces – they’re passed out in a spiritual ditch.
Jesus said this, “I am the Vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit. Apart from me; they can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
If you think you can do this race without Jesus, you’ll be like one of those old branches lying in the woods. Brittle. Withered. Dead.
But…if you stay connected to Jesus, hear his promise: you will grow.
You will be nourished.
Your faith will flourish.
You will run and you will run fast.
(3) He’s Excellent at Keeping His Eye on the Prize
One more reason to keep your eyes on Jesus.
Today is Palm Sunday. It’s the day we remember how Jesus came to Jerusalem in a festive fashion.
He rode on a donkey.
People were cheering for him.
They were waving Palm branches in the air.
They were pumping their fists in the air.
They were laying their coats on the ground so the donkey didn’t have to step on mud.
The entire city of Jerusalem was watching this one-person parade of Jesus and shouting:
HOSANNA! HOSANNA TO THE SON OF DAVID!
The scene is impressive.
And you might think – I can understand why Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem.
If that was his goal…Who wouldn’t want to have an entire city singing your adulation and giving praise and attention to you.
That’s not why Jesus went to Jerusalem.
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him.” (Luke 18:31-33)
Do you see it?
Jesus reason for going to Jerusalem wasn’t Palm Sunday; it was Good Friday.
He didn’t come to earth for the adulation of the crowd; but the ridicule of the soldiers.
He didn’t come to hear “Hosanna!”; but to hear “Crucify him.”
He didn’t come to have palms waves at him, but to have nailed driven into his him.
He didn’t come to ride on a donkey, but to hang from a cross.
He didn’t come to gain glory for himself; he came to gain glory for you.
Jesus’ eyes were on the prize.
And the prize wasn’t himself.
The prize was YOU.
Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
That ultimate joy of God.
That ultimate joy of God that powered Jesus to go through with dying on the cross.
Was the promise of eternity with you.
What helped Jesus endured his immensely painful moments on the cross, was considering eternity with you.
What will help you endure the intense painful moments in this life, the moments that make you doubt, the moments that make you want to give up…
Is considering Jesus.
You will not grow weary and lose heart.
You will run.
All the way.
To your Savior’s waiting arms. Amen.
Guest Preacher Pastor Tom Glende
Life-changing questions. Identity & purpose. Matthew 5:13-16.
It’s a question that might sound deceptively simple if we just kind of get surface deep. If salt loses its saltiness, what good is it? And you’d answer, ‘well, none.’ But the question proves to be huge when we actually dig in, and see the deeper truth to which Jesus’ question is attached, namely: our identity and purpose in life. That’s what we want to meditate on tonight.
This is a rather light example to begin with, but I want to use it to lead into our deeper issue. Has anyone konmaried their home yet? Konmari is a pretty big movement. Marie Kondo wrote the best-seller, the Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up. It has spun into a Netflix show. And she has even been named one of Times 100 most influential people. There’s organizational elements to her method, like folding clothes so that they stand vertically for storage, and thus are all easily seen and accessed. Sounds intriguing. And when you get to the part about what to get rid of… The tactic used in Konmari is: hold each item, and evaluate its worth by answering, “does it spark joy?” You keep only those things that bring joy.
I think this could really help one de-clutter. But it might get taken too far. If none of your socks spark joy when you hold them, you might still want to hold on to some. (Please, if not for your own sake, then for the sake of us all.)
Pastor James Hein in a blog picking up on these limits of the “does it spark joy” method of decluttering life commented: “If you’re holding a screaming, poopy-diapered baby in your arms, it’s unlikely that unmitigated joy is running through you.” It wouldn’t be good to just discard everything in life, and every task in life, that doesn’t spark joy.
He went on to talk about the bigger picture of life…
“The method itself is logically too simplistic to be a significant life tool. Though the method’s popularity is clearly tapping into a public sentiment – i.e. in a postmodern, subjective, ‘you do you’ world.”
Think about that outlook, or worldview: a ‘you do you’ approach to life. Do you hear any indication of what an individual’s purpose in life is going to look like, if this is the focus? It’s a view that our sinful flesh could leverage to a lot of harm.
In contrast to that, as we hear Jesus tonight asking the question “what good is salt if it has lost its flavor,” we are directed to the kind of purpose he gives to our lives as Christians. And from purpose, we’re going to get back to the issue of identity as well.
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. - Matthew 5:13-16
Jesus makes the statements: “You are salt. You are light.”
With these examples Jesus describes a very different outlook for us. What salt and light have in common is: they stand out. Jesus talks about us being distinct and different in the world, with the ultimate goal being that people would be directed to God, our Savior.
You are salt. You are light. Now those talk about purpose you have as a Christian. But… and this is huge to keep this distinction in view… these statements, connected to Jesus’ question about salt, don’t tell the story of what made you a Christian. If you want to see what made you – and what makes you – a Christian, you have to look back further.
Where does your identity come from?
Earlier in Matthew 5 we hear the very telling description of “the poor in spirit.” That’s you and me when we recognize our sin. We lack holiness. We “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” We turn to the Lord. We plead for His mercy. We trust in Him to make us right.
That’s what we gather in the Lenten season to hear and see.
Now rewind to Jesus’ words to us: You are salt; You are light. Being salt and light describes the purpose God has for us as His people, but it doesn’t speak to how we become – and how we remain – God’s children.
Do you see how important it is to keep that distinction in place?
Where would we be left if our identity would come from what we do, from how well we are salt or light?
And that is precisely what enables us to be salt and light.
In a really great book on this topic, “Through the Looking Glass, Your Passport to Identity,” it states it like this:
“Not ‘living up to’ requirements, but ‘living out’ our identity in Christ describes the Christian’s life.” &
“True humility is knowing that in Christ you are everything you could ever be, have everything there is worth having. You have nothing to prove, nowhere to climb. From that position of strength you, like your Savior, can find great joy in serving.” – Through the Looking Glass, Your Passport to Identity.
To wrap up, just think about how much this issue of identity plays into our day-in-day out lives.
Teenagers, and even you children who are younger, this topic - “where do you and I look to find our identity” – is important for you too.
Where do you look for your identity? In other words, does your identity ever seem tied up with… a) how good of a student you are (heading toward a career goal you have targeted); b) having good friends & being a friend, or another way maybe to view that is how much positive social interaction you have; c) being successful at an activity – whether that is as an athlete, or a musician, or some other interest? Or if you’re a little older, some additional possibilities may arise: d) a relationship with that special someone; and even, e) how your children turn out – if they’re stable, productive, successful.
It’s good for us to look closely – do some evaluating – to see: have I slipped and shifted from seeing my identity coming from Jesus, and turned my attention to other things for answering the question of where my identity comes from?
You might score 32 on the ACT, you might be the varsity sports star, you may end up making a six figure salary with the profession you arrive at, you may be adored by the special someone or be appreciated for your role in the family. But none of that determines your identity of what makes you who you are in God’s sight.
You might work your best to get average grades, you might get cut at the tryouts for the sports team, you might have a blue-collar job at a trade that will never get you to a six-figure salary. But none of that touches your identity. None of that changes the fact of where you stand with God.
Think about the joy and relief to be able to come time and time again back to the truth: your identity in God’s sight is entirely based on Jesus. He has made you who you are: holy, forgiven, loved by him, with His truth planted in your heart. And from that position, you get the wonderful purpose in life: to be a reflector of His love. You’re enabled to pass on what He has given to you: His Truth, love, forgiveness, self-less service. This is Jesus’ life-changing truth for us. Amen.
Today we are taking a look at a guy with some really, really bad sins who is confronted by the Risen Lord Jesus himself. Our goal is to apply what he learns about his really, really bad sins and apply it to our own really, really bad sins. But before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Background
The guy we want to talk about has already made a few cameo appearances in the book of Acts. Maybe you noticed? Maybe you didn’t.
First, flash back to the end of Acts 7. That’s the section about Stephen, the bread delivery guy who told widows about Jesus -- and got killed because he delivered bread to widows and told people about Jesus. At the end of his trial, as the religious leaders are angry and picking up stones to hurl them at Stephen, Acts 7:58 says this: “Members of the Sanhedrin laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul and he approved of their killing him.”
Have you ever tried throwing a baseball in a sports coat? Or toss the pigskin in a three-piece suit? It’s not very easy. Usually, you take off the coat, so your arms are a bit freer.
These guys? They took off their coats because they wanted as little friction as possible for throwing stones at the “Jesus lover’s” head.
And Saul – he’s not in the game – but on the sidelines – holding onto the non-violent-stone-hurling-clothing and nodding and approving.
Essentially, this Saul guy got his start as the equipment manager for Stephen’s murderers.
In fact, this spurs Saul on to action. He didn’t want to be a benchwarmer forever. Look at 8:3 “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” He’s motivated. He sees a bunch of religious leaders kill an Ordinary Christian church member and he says, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” He goes on an assault as the main guy in charge of destroying the church.
He doesn’t just throw Apostles in jail.
He pursues ordinary church members.
And not just the guys either….
Saul crosses over into the field of throwing Christian women – usually untouchable because we should treat women with respect and take good care of them – but Saul brings his special form of violence against Christian women.
In short, if you are a Christian, you would have been a target for Saul.
Flashforward. The persecution in Jerusalem caused the church to spread. Christians scattered to the north south and west. As they spread, God’s Word spread.
The Unstoppable Gospel remained unstoppable. It’s what we talked about the last two weeks.
About how Philip shared the amazing, Unstoppable Gospel with Simon the dark arts magician and a town under his dark magic.
About how Philip dirty, rugged and sweaty shared the amazing, Unstoppable Gospel with the Ethiopian royalty in the middle of nowhere and he believed.
Saul persecuted the church in Jerusalem.
The church spread out and started growing outside of Jerusalem.
And Saul couldn’t stand it.
Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belong to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (9:1-2)
It’s kinda like crabgrass. Any of you have crab grass? I’ve been trying to get rid of it by pulling the stuff that pops up or spraying on some crab grass killer. But then what happens is, I kill it in one spot and then it pops up in another spot. I’m thinking about torching the whole lawn, but the crab grass would probably be all that survived.
Saul viewed Christianity like crab grass.
He viewed it as a weed that needed to be destroyed.
He was willing to travel hundreds of miles to put a stop to it.
So, he asked the priests for letters – official recommendation letters stamped with the Pharisaical seal of approval – that he could take to synagogues in other towns. Letters he could give to his fellows Jews in the synagogue that read, “This is Saul. He’s cool. Let him kill off all the Christians in the area. It’s for the best.”
Saul asked for letters like that.
Saul received letters like that.
And Saul was empowered to kill because of letters like that.
II. The Confrontation
One particular eradication journey was to a place called Damascus. It was about 150 miles to the North East of Jerusalem.
That’s not an easy trip. But Saul goes – cause his hatred for all-things-Jesus is that much.
It was hot.
It was sweaty.
It was long.
But Saul kept himself occupied. As he travelled, surrounded by a group of vicious henchmen, he practiced swinging his sword, picturing it plunging into the heart of “a mouthy Christian” and he whistled. He was so happy to be doing God’s work and totally eradicating the message of Jesus.
He was carefree.
He was happy.
He was right.
A bright flash. (v.3)
Not the sun.
A brilliant, otherworldly like flash that filled the entirety of Saul’s vision.
Saul fell down.
He heard a voice:
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? (v.4)
Who was it?
Was it Peter?
Was it John?
Was it one his friends playing a prank?
The voice spoke again:
I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. (v.5)
Jesus? As in the guy that I’m persecuting?
As in the guy that my associates killed?
As in the guy that was dead?
As in the guy that supposedly came back to life, but that’s impossible so I have been dedicating my life to completely and absolutely eradicating all of his followers?
Saul looked and believed the man.
And it wasn’t just the subtle glow of the light.
It wasn’t just the confidence in his voice.
It was the nail marks in his hands.
And a lump grew in Saul’s throat the size of a Passover matzo ball.
Jesus was real.
He had thought it was all a sham…
He had thought it was all phony…
He had thought it was all a demon inspired threat to the truth about God…
He was wrong.
Jesus wasn’t the demon inspired threat.
And Jesus? He must have come for revenge.
To zap him.
To destroy him.
To breathe murderous threats against him and take him as a prisoner to the tortures of hell.
Just not yet.
Get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do. (v.6)
Then, Jesus disappeared.
Thank God – he had a few more moments to live.
But…Saul blinked. He couldn’t see. The light was gone and there was only darkness. It was a chilling reminder of how he had been in darkness and completely wrong about Jesus.
He heard his companions voices:
Saul, are you alright?
Saul, we heard the voice?
Saul, what should we do next?
“Drop your swords.
Take my hand.
Get me to Damascus.”
III. The Change
Upon getting to Damascus, Saul changed his itinerary.
Instead of fighting Christians, he was fighting his own demons.
I was so wrong.
I am so guilty.
I persecuted God’s Son!
I killed his people.
I am a liar.
I am a murderer.
I am a sinner – guilty – and in danger of the fires of hell.
Saul didn’t eat.
Saul didn’t drink.
He allowed his physical body to go through the torture that his soul was going through. (v.9)
And then, on the third day…
A man named Ananias.
He was a disciple of Jesus.
He would have been one of the men that Saul came to kill.
Now he was blind.
He was weak.
Surely, Ananias had come to kill him.
“Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (v.17) You are his chosen instrument. He will work through you. He loves you. He died for you. He forgives you.
It was hard to believe!
He was such a sinner.
He was so guilty.
He had done so much wrong!
But …as soon as Ananias finished his message…God did something to emphatically prove Ananias’ point:
Immediately, something like scales fell from his eyes and he could see again. (v. 18a)
Visual proof of the invisible truth.
God had forgiven Saul.
But seeing spiritually that Jesus was his Savior.
Saul got up.
He got up and immediately was baptized. (v.18b)
He was loved.
He was accepted.
He was forgiven.
IV. The Truth
This true story is a true story about Saul.
It’s a true story about God’s grace to Saul.
But it’s also a true story with one very important truth for you.
Jesus died even for the really, really bad sins.
We shouldn’t rank sins. God doesn’t do that.
But humanly speaking, we rank sins all of the time.
There are certain sins that just stick with us. Certain sins we feel extra guilty for. Certain sins that we become convinced Jesus would never have died for.
Is that actually true?
Jesus died for all sins.
Jesus died for the small sins.
Jesus died for even the really, really bad sins.
For that arrest.
For cheating on your spouse.
For practicing homosexuality.
For those awful words you said.
For that violent thing you did.
For that racist blow-up at work.
Even the “worst” and most awful sins find their relief in Jesus.
Want proof? Saul later wrote this:
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. (1 Tim. 1:15)
Saul gets it.
He knows what it’s like to feel guilt.
Humanly speaking he did a great deal of sins.
Humanly speaking his sins rank up at the worst!
Yet he was forgiven.
If he was forgiven, you are forgiven too.
There is no sin too big.
No sin too bad.
No sin too “sin” for Jesus our Savior.
So…what now? Two things:
1) Lay Your Really, Really Big Sins at the Feet of Jesus
If Jesus removes even your really, really big sins, then stop carrying their guilt around.
You need to drop them.
You need to leave them at the foot of the cross.
At the gym, sometimes they make us carry Kettle Balls. Kettle Balls can be a lot of different weights. Sometimes, if you want to do the prescribed workout, the Kettle Ball can be up to about 70 lbs. You have to carry it in a lot of different ways. At your side. In a front rack. Even over your head. It can be tiring. Especially after walking a couple 100 meters.
Then, when you get to the end, you set them down at the rack and you stop carrying them. Like I never pick it up and go: “I wish we could carry these for another couple of hundred feet.” NEVER.
Why do the same thing with guilt?
Jesus died for your sin.
Jesus removed all your sin.
Jesus removed all your guilt.
There is no reason for you to pick it up and carry it with you.
God is strong enough.
God carried it to the cross.
Leave it at the cross.
2) Be Ananias for Others
Because Ananias had every reason to not share forgiveness with Saul! In fact, if we back up in the story – Ananias is a bit frightened to bring the message of Jesus to Saul, a known Christian persecutor, as he is a Christian.
I bet Ananias felt like saying: “Hi Saul! Ya big jerkface! I hope that God punishes you with hell.”
But he doesn’t.
Instead, he denies his own personal feelings and shares God’s forgiveness.
You do the same.
When someone has sinned greatly – against you – against someone else – share the Gospel.
Don’t do the thing where someone comes up to you and says, “I’m sorry,” and you’re like, “That was really, terrible and awful, what you did to me.”
And they say, “I know. I’m sorry.”
And you say, “Yes! It was awful! The worst!”
And they say, “I do regret it. I am terribly sorry.”
And you say, “You were so wrong. So very, very, very, very, very wrong.”
That’s not helpful.
That’s not God’s message to the repentant heart.
God’s message to the repentant heart is “Forgiven.”
That’s the message we share with the repentant heart. The message of “Forgiven in Jesus.”
This is not the end of Saul’s story. It’s only the page turn. Just wait – stick with it – you are going to watch Saul’s life totally transform in devotion to Jesus.
And that’s because Jesus was totally devoted to Saul.
That same Jesus was devoted to you.
That same Jesus devoted his life to you.
That same Jesus gave up his life for you.
In him, even the really, really bad sins are really, really forgiven. Amen.
People always talk about Easter being a magical time, a wonderful time, a special time, a time unlike any other.
Is it really?
You can color Easter eggs any day of the year. (They look the same in December as they do in mid-April)
You can buy chocolate bunnies any day of the year. (In fact, if you wait till the day after Easter, they cost a lot less.)
You can eat a big breakfast – any day that Waffle House is open.
You can dress up – any day of the year. (Trust me. Go to the mall. Somebody’s having a sale.)
You can even be reunited as a family – gasp - even on a non-holiday.
Here’s the truth:
A lot of the things that we think make Easter special – aren’t really that special.
They aren’t miracles so much as non-miracles.
Does that mean there’s nothing special about Easter?
Today we want to look at the one thing that makes Easter miraculous. A miracle unlike any miracle ever – a NEW kind of miracle. And we want to learn how that MIRACLE is still doing miraculous things in 2018. Before we do that, a prayer: Lord, strengthen us by the truth; your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. He’s Dead…Really Dead.
Our Easter lesson starts at the house of a woman called Mary.
Not Mary Magdalene.
Not Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
Mary. Mother of James and Joses.
Ever heard of her?
She hadn’t slept much that night. Not much the last couple of nights. The scenes that played out whenever she closed her eyes were too horrifying, too awful, too grotesque:
The repetitive fists connecting to the prisoner’s face.
The visceral shouts of “CRUCIFY HIM!”
The tearing of flesh with the 7 stranded, metal tipped, leather whip. (Being Flogged)
The blood drops popping out of the thorns smashed through his forehead.
And then…the hanging.
The hanging...and the dying.
The mother of James the Less stood up. She walked over to the window. The sun would be up soon. And…she needed to move on. She needed to move on because it wasn’t going to change: Jesus. Was. Dead.
She had seen him die.
She had seen his head drop and his body go limp.
She had seen the soldiers take the limp body off the cross.
She had seen the burial preparations that the make shift morticians had done to his body.
She had even seen the place where the put his body.
She had seen the door to the grave shut – sealing him in death.
Jesus was dead and there’s nothing she could do about it.
Suddenly, she heard a frantic knocking at the door. It was Mary Magdalene. Her hair was ragged. Her eyes were tear stained. Mascara running. She looked a bit…rough.
“Hurry. We’ve gotta get going. We’ve gotta be there for him. We’ve gotta.”
“I know. I know. Just a second. I’m almost ready.”
The mother of James the Less went behind the door and strapped on her sandals.
They were going to Jesus’ tomb.
They going to honor him.
They were going to begin healing from this tragedy.
She shut the door behind her and joined Mary in the streets. At the corner they met up with their friend Salome. She had her arms full – a few bottles of anointment in one arm – spices like balsam, saffron, frankincense and myrrh. “Don’t’ just stand there; help me with a few of these bottles.”
They nodded, grab some of the spices and continued their journey to the early morning graveyard.
The walk there was odd. There wasn’t much to say. There was the occasional sobbing…a few sniffles, and strange attempts at small talk.
“I think I saw a bird.”
“Do you guys thing saffron will taste good on a fish sandwich?”
“My neck is still sore from staring up at that cross.”
But eventually, a good question:
“When we get there, who’s going to move the giant stone for us?”
They hadn’t considered it yet. That stone was a good 500 some pounds. It was large enough to cover the entrance to the tomb. And it had been sealed – with the seal of Pontius Pilate – an extra precaution to ensure that grave robbers didn’t do anything to his body. They could ask the Roman soldiers on guard – another part of that security – but they were rather lazy oafs who didn’t care much about Jewish culture – let alone Jewish burial practices. Unless they had money, they might have to move that stone on their own.
But as they tried to figure out whether or not a bottle of myrrh was a good bargaining chip, they entered the grave yard. Th early morning light shone on something they weren’t expecting:
The stone was gone.
It was no longer at the front of the entrance at least.
It had been rolled away.
Set to the side.
Mary Magdalene panicked.
“What in the world? That’s too much. They torture him. They kill him and now this? Did they take his body and hang it on a pole. I can’t. I can’t…handle.”
Mary Magdalene dropped her bottles to the ground, turned around and ran out of there.
After a moment, Salome looked at the mother of James the Less, “Let’s go,” she said solemnly.
They both walked forward toward the tomb. As they got closer, they noticed a subtle glow coming from inside the tomb – as if the morning light was trapped inside.
They peeked in.
There was no body.
He didn’t look like a criminal.
He wasn’t wearing Roman soldier gear.
He was dressed in white – glowing white.
And he was smiling.
“Do not be afraid. You are looking for Jesus who was dead. He is not here. He has risen—just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”
The women stood still for a moment.
Was this an angel? Did they dare go in?
Their curiosity was too much. They entered the tomb and began a frantic search of the area.
The body wasn’t in the grave clothes – they were folded nicely at the top of the stone bed.
And it wasn’t behind the stone.
And it wasn’t under that leaf in the corner.
And there wasn’t any sign of digging anywhere.
In fact, there wasn’t any sign of a struggle.
There wasn’t any blood.
There weren’t any footprints.
The body was gone.
Utterly amazed and slightly stupefied, the women turned to the angel. “Go and tell his disciples. They will see him again.” The angel said.
The mother of James the Less nodded.
Salome did too.
They were trembling.
They began to walk away from the tomb.
The walk turned into a trot.
The trot into a jog.
The jog into a run.
They didn’t stop and tell anyone on the way. No one would believe them anyway. They’d just call them a bunch of crazy women – off their rockers – insane.
They were almost in the clear.
Almost back without talking to anyone until…
A man…from behind a nearby bush.
The women stumbled.
And said, “Greetings.”
It was a voice they heard before.
They looked up to see who it was.
It was Jesus.
II. A Miracle Unlike Any Other.
That my friend is the true story of the resurrection.
That my friends is what makes Easter unlike any other holiday in history.
That is what makes today’s celebration miraculous.
Because – the miracle that occurred on that Sunday morning was unlike any miracle ever…
1. Jesus Did the Impossible…
To be fair – Jesus had done the impossible before. He had made blind people see. He had caused the deaf to hear and the lame to walk.
But death is much more than that.
Your eyes don’t work.
Your ears don’t work.
Your legs don’t work.
Your heart doesn’t work.
Your lungs don’t work.
Your body doesn’t work.
And…nowadays…we have some incredible advances in science.
We can use defibrillators to shock a heartbeat that has stopped back to beating again – as long as it’s only a been 2 minutes or less.
We can hook people up to breathing machines that pump air in the lungs electronically.
We can have people’s blood come out of the body and back into the body through a machine that is doing the job of a nonfunctioning liver.
We can keep organs moving and working – when there isn’t any brain activity – and we aren’t exactly sure if someone is dead or not.
He had been dead for over 36 hours.
His body would already have been decaying.
No amount of chest compressions.
No amount of defibrillator shocks.
No amount of forced air from an iron lung could do anything to help him.
He came back to life.
He did the impossible.
2. …In a State in which It is Impossible to do Anything…
A few weeks ago, someone hit a racoon near my house. It was out on the street squished to the ground. Kinda gross. And over the next couples of days I saw it on the road as I drive to and from work.
Do you know what I saw happen?
The racoon did absolutely nothing. Because it was dead.
And dead things do nothing.
He was dead.
And he did the one thing impossible for any human to do while they were living.
Combine those two facts.
It isn’t like he lifted his finger.
He didn’t wiggle a toe.
He didn’t start whistling.
While he was a in a state in which it was impossible to do anything, he did the impossible!
The dead guy brought himself back to life!
But that’s just the beginning…
3. …As a Visual Proof of the Impossible Invisible Truth
1 Corinthians 15:22 says this, “As in Adam all die.” That’s a refence to the very first human being. A guy named “Adam” which literally means, “Man.” Adam was made perfect. Adam was made without sin. Adam was made not to die.
But then…he chose to sin.
He was no longer holy.
He was the opposite of good --
He was evil.
And as a result – people were going to die.
If you think it’s harsh that God would punish them with death, then you don’t understand holiness.
Imagine if a judge fined you for going 10 mph over the speed limit, but then didn’t fine the guy after you for going 15mph over. That’d be unjust. That’d be unfair. That’d be an unjust in support of wrong.
If a good God is like, “That bad isn’t so bad. I’ll let it be.”
Suddenly, he’s not a good God.
He’s tolerating evil.
He’s an evil God.
God can’t be in support of wrong.
He can only be against it.
That’s why Adam had to be doomed to death.
But here’s where it gets really sad. Because Adam and his wife passed the bad down to their children. It’s kind of like genetics. In genetics, you pass on your hair color to your children. You pass on freckles. My dad passed on my receding hairline and I look forward to one day passing it on to my son.
Adam? He passed on his sinfulness.
He and his wife were sinful humans who gave birth to sinful humans.
Those sinful humans grew up and gave birth to more sinful humans.
Until…eventually…you and me.
Sinful humans doomed to death.
Maybe you know that.
Whether it’s cancer.
Whether it’s old age.
Whether it’s losing a child.
Whether it’s a freak car accident.
Whether it’s terrorism or mass shootings.
You know our world is filled with death.
And eventually…it will come to you and me.
It’s impossible to get away from!
But “As in Adam all die, in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22b)
Jesus is different than Adam.
He was born of God who is holy, not Adam who is unholy.
He lived perfectly.
He was good.
He did not deserve death.
Allow me to explain with a simple kitchen sponge. Do you all own one of these? (Most are nodding heads – a few single guys are like – What’s a sponge and what is it for?) A sponge soaks up dirt. It soaks up grime. If you spill orange juice, a sponge soaks up the orange juice off of the counter and removes it from the counter. It soaks up the coffee from the coffee table and removes it from the coffee table. It soaks up the failed science experiment of red food dye, baking soda and lemon juice and removes from the science table.
Before use – the table is dirty; the sponge is clean.
After us – the sponge is dirty; the table is clean.
And that’s what Jesus did for us.
He soaked up our sins on his body.
He took them on himself.
He soaked up our greed, our lusts, our selfishness, our gossip, our gross sinful failures – even the ones that stain our hearts deeply.
He became dirty and left us clean.
And since he was dirty – that’s why he died.
It’s what happens to any dirty, disgusting sponge, it gets thrown away.
God the Father threw Jesus onto across and into a tomb.
You are now without a stain.
You are clean because of Him.
In other words – God forgave you.
Which sounds awesome. But hard to believe.
Because you can’t see sins evaporating into thin air.
Nobody has a halo around their head this morning.
The fact is we still sin.
How do we know Jesus cleaned us?
Because the very thing that caused Jesus to die – our sins – no longer kept him dead.
Jesus rose; he left your sins in the tomb.
Jesus annihilated your sins.
Jesus destroyed your guilt.
Jesus killed death.
And that’s what this passage is saying, “In Christ all are made alive.”
Now we are no longer born of sinful Adam, but of sinless Christ.
We are no longer born of unholy Adam, but of holy God.
We are no longer born of destined to die, but destined to live Jesus Christ.
THIS IS WHAT MAKES EASTER SPECIAL:
Jesus did the impossible while in a state by which it is impossible to do anything as proof that the invisibly impossible had been done.
This is a message for you. Believe.
Believe that Jesus died.
Believe that Jesus rose.
Believe that Jesus has done the invisibly impossible and cleaned you from all of your sins.
That’s what In Christ means. It means believers in Christ. Unbelief means rejecting his work, running into the empty tomb, grabbing those dirty sponges of yucky sins and saying, “I prefer to live in filth.”
Yuck. Condemnation is deserved.
But belief in Jesus means trusting that he has cleansed us from our sins.
It means trusting in his forgiveness.
It means trusting that because of Him, you will live.
No matter who you are.
Because the women in the story today are the first two to see Jesus’ empty tomb. Did you remember their names? It’s Salome – a woman that’s only mentioned during this resurrection time period and Mary the mother of James the Less. A woman known simply for being a mother.
It’s not Peter.
It’s not John.
It’s not Pontius Pilate or one of the Pharisees.
It’s not even Mary Magdalene.
It’s two seemingly insignificant players in the story of Jesus’ life whose only appearance is on that weekend.
You might feel like a Mary, the mother of James the Less.
You might feel like a Salome.
You might feel not all that important, not all that godly, and not all that much like God could care about you.
But he does.
He lived for you.
He died for you.
He cleaned you.
He rose for you to prove it.
That’s the miracle of Easter.
A miracle unlike any other.
A miracle that still works the miracle of faith today. Amen.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
Have you ever had one of those moments of sheer terror at being caught? I mean the total anxiety panic of knowing… there is no way out of this. If you know what I mean, it was probably when you were younger? Though maybe not, contrary to what we like to think of ourselves, the youth do not corner the market on stupid decisions.
Whatever it was you were doing or did, I’m sure it was very attractive. The thought of all you could gain from going down that path was irresistible. It was so simple, required so little effort, and the benefits, well, they were pretty amazing. I’m guessing that the thought of being caught or the consequences never actually entered your mind. Maybe you had to think about one or two ways to smartly keep it hidden, but the fact that it was just wrong never really was part of the decision-making process.
At least, until you were caught.
You were… not so clever as you thought. Or you over-reached out of greed and arrogance. And if you’re remembering that moment from your life right now just like I am, you can feel the panic. Feel the fear grip your heart as you face whatever might be coming.
And that might be the worst of it. You don’t know what might be coming. I suppose it depended on what it was, how old you were and the like? Maybe privileges would be taken away. Maybe it would just be the shame of letting someone else down. Maybe it would break a relationship. Maybe it would be legal action. But the fear of knowing you’d been caught and there was no getting out of it, that tightening of your heart… that’s what I’m talking about.
Now why… why would I make you relive something like that this evening? It’s bad enough when those memories haunt us at quiet moments during the day or night. Why drag them up on purpose?
Well because that is exactly the feeling I want you to think of when you picture what it’s like to stand before God almighty and try to justify yourself to him.
To better appreciate this evening, I’d like to walk you through… well it’s a metaphor. This isn’t really how things will happen at the end, not literally. But the truth of it holds. So, imagine with me. Imagine the moment comes. Your earthly life has ended, and you are waiting to see what happens next. You’ve heard that Heaven is the place to be and Hell, well not so much.
Though there is some nervous anticipation, you’re feeling – pretty good about what’s to come. You’re a good person. You were a good son or daughter, a good spouse or a good parent. You did right by the people around you. You worked your job, you went to church, you helped those in need. This should go well.
And the time comes that your name is called. You are escorted from a waiting area into a courtroom. There is no jury, only the judge. And there are no witnesses, only the judge. God. One look from his piercing stare and it all comes crashing down. The intensity of that gaze opens your own eyes and you know. You know, and you remember everything he knows about you.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way;
The façade of goodness that you wear becomes as flimsy and fragile as tissue paper. All the selfishness that backed all those “good” deeds. All the times that the cost of doing the right thing was a little too high for you so you just walked by on the other side of the street. The secret thoughts, the greed, the lust, the selfishness, the anger, and more than any of that all the times you just thought you knew better than God.
That’s the panic moment. You’re caught, there’s nowhere to go, and you are utterly guilty. You did all of it, thinking no one was looking, no one would notice, but he saw it. There’s nothing to say in your defense. Anything you could think of in your own mind falls so flat that you can’t even utter the words.
Is there nothing to be done? You survey the crowd. Surely someone could speak up on your behalf and ask for leniency, mercy, or just to ask the judge to let this one go? Someone some authority or power or charisma or money could maybe do something for you…
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
A man does step forward. Not the one you were looking for. He is not wearing anything fancy. He has no regal bearing about him. You do not recognize him as anyone rich or influential. He instead looks like someone in as much need of help as you are. If you were not simply frozen by the terror of the moment you might motion for him to blend back into the crowd.
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,
He draws the judge’s attention. The man speaks.
“I did it.”
“Every charge you are about to read. That was me. I openly confess to every one of those crimes. I did it.”
“You are aware of the punishment?” the judge asks.
“I am. It was me.”
The confession is accepted. The man is bound and led away. What could you do? It might seem dishonorable to let him go in your place, but the terror of what waits at that end is too much to face. You let him go.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
You know what it means for that man. You know what you were expecting. The terror of hell itself. That the mercy and grace of God would be completely cut off from you. Absolutely lost in the outer darkness where there is no light and no hope and nothing but terror and pain forever. Maybe you didn’t grasp it before but you do now. That’s death. To be cut off from the source of life and creation is death.
It should’ve been you, but it wasn’t. What he suffers is of your making, no mistake. You earned and created the hell he is suffering now. You can’t help but stare at the door they led him through. It’s conflicting. You’re haunted by what he suffers in your place but there is still relief that it won’t be you.
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
As you muse, the judge speaks again.
“The guilty party having confessed and punishment rendered, the accused is declared not guilty. With no outstanding accusations, you are free to enter the Kingdom of God.”
Dumbfounded, you step forward. Heaven? You started with confidence you had no right to. It was quickly crushed and for what seems like an eternity you stood there with no hope, trying to accept the fact that you were going to die. And now so quickly that has changed to heaven? It seems so impossibly unlikely, but it’s happened.
You walk to the exit of the courtroom and the entrance of the kingdom. The reward is not just a perfect kingdom, it’s a perfect you. The last remnants of evil within yourself are stripped away and now you not only live in a place that will never cause you pain – you yourself will not be the cause of your own pain anymore.
This is your end. The eternal, loving, unchangeable God as your perfect king. The one who cares for you perfectly. You, made perfect, and living the life you were meant to live from the beginning. All the things from before that gripped your heart with fear are just… gone. There absolutely cannot be a better end. And this is your end.
And what of that man that so boldly confessed to your crimes? The one that was led away to die in your place?
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
He lives. He is your king. He is the judge. He is your God. He died. He lives. You live.