April 10, 2016

Living the Life of Christ

I have never played the lottery.  It strikes me as a game for people who can’t do math.  There are a number of things most of us would consider fantastically unlikely which are actually way, way more likely than winning the lottery.  Consider the Powerball jackpot.  The odds of winning the Powerball drawing are 1 in 175,223,510.  We’re getting geared up for summer and beach season.  As you sit on a beach somewhere this summer, before you jump in the water, keep in mind that you are 15 times more likely to be attacked by a shark than win the lottery.  College basketball season just wrapped up this past Monday.  The vast majority of college basketball players never get the chance to play in a game like Monday’s.  The odds are even smaller that the average high school basketball player will.  Even fewer will go on to be drafted.  That being said, the odds of a high school player being drafted are 25 times higher than winning the lottery.  We’re just about a month past Oscar season.  I know some of you have thought it would be pretty cool to be one of the people who get to walk that red carpet.  Well, you are 116 times more likely to do that than win the lottery.   We have some golfers in here.  Here’s some good news for the next time you hit the links: You are 14,000 times more likely to sink a hole-in-one on a par three course than win the lottery.  You’re more likely to make money betting people that you’ll hit a hole-in-one than you will by winning the Powerball jackpot.  And yet people keep playing.

But have you ever thought about the people who actually win?  Have you ever wondered what happens to them?  Well, for some of them, they go on to live a life of luxury.  But the tough reality is that coming into a lot of money doesn’t magically make you good with money if you aren’t already.  Money does not improve character or make you smarter.  It just reveals what’s already there.  Consider the story of Lara and Roger Griffiths.  In 2005 they won a $2.76 million prize.  Naturally they bought their dream house and a Porsche.  A few months later, though, Roger angrily drove off in the Porsche after Lara confronted him over some emails that suggested he may have been involved with another woman.  In a matter of days their 14-year marriage ended, a freak fire gutted their house, and every penny of their jackpot was gone.  Another man, Bud Post, won $16.2 million, lost some of it to a lawsuit filed by a former girlfriend, had his brother place a contract on his life in hopes of inheriting some of it, went into debt after investing it in failed family business ventures, and spent some time in prison for firing a gun over the head of a bill collector.  He now lives on $450 a month and food stamps.  Andrew Whittaker, Jr. won $114 million in 2002.  Within four years he was being sued by an Atlantic City casino for bouncing checks.

Simply winning the lottery is no guarantee that the winners are going to live in a way that will honor the prize.  In fact, regardless of the gift we receive, those gifts don’t bring any guarantee that we will live in a manner that will honor the gift.  In fact, many times after we celebrate a victory or some other emotionally exhilarating experience there is often a period of letdown.  If you think about it, we are actually in this kind of a period right now.  Easter Sunday is like the Super Bowl for the church.  It’s the one day when everybody comes to church.  There’s a ton of energy in the room.  The sense of excitement is almost palpable.  We gather to celebrate the central reason why we gather at all: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  If there is any other more spiritually significant experience in the regular lifecycle of the church I don’t know what it is.  And then…we get back to normal.  Life goes on like nothing happened and it’s easy to find ourselves wondering a bit what the excitement was all about.

If you think about it, this same kind of thing can happen in our own spiritual lives.  If you are a follower of Jesus, I suspect you can point to a time when you really got your heart and mind wrapped around the Gospel for the first time.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your conversion experience happened in a single powerful moment along the lines of what Paul experienced.  You may have gradually come to a realization that you were following Jesus and not anyone else, but still, I suspect—and hope—that there was a time when you really got it for the first time.  What happened next?  If your experience was like most, while there may have been some changes, even some significant ones, life went on.  Life didn’t stop simply because you were now following Jesus.  All of the same pressures lay in front of you as did before you made this incredible transition.  And somewhere inside you asked a simple, but powerful question: what now?  You see, in Christ we have something even better than a lottery win, but the challenge to live in a manner that will honor the victory is just as acute.

Let us rest assured that this is something that has been part of the broader human experience for a long, long time.  In fact, we can look back in the Scriptures and find the story of a man who won an even bigger lottery and was faced with a similar challenge: how now was he going to live?  His name was Lazarus and if you’ll turn with me to John 11 I want to spend a few minutes talking with you about his story this morning.  Now, this morning is not a part of any series and in fact we’re going to start a series I’m really excited about called Beauty from Ashes in a couple of weeks looking at how God can bring beautiful things even from the most broken parts of our lives.  It’s going to be a great journey of hope and encouragement and you won’t want to miss a single part of it.  This morning, though, in light of our post-Easter location and the spiritual letdown than often happens at this time—especially as baseball is firing up in full force meaning a lot of us are going to spend a ton more time separated from this community than we have for a while—I wanted to give you both an encouragement and a challenge.  And I think Lazarus’ story provides the perfect vehicle for both.

Lazarus’ story begins with Jesus getting the news that his friend was really ill.  What follows is one of those episodes that gives a whole lot of credibility to at least the Gospels because if the disciples or someone later was just making this kind of stuff up to make some kind of power play on the world they would never have included stuff like this.  The disciples are all there with Jesus when the news arrives.  Now, they didn’t know anything more about what was going on than they heard—namely, that Lazarus was really sick—but they did know how close Jesus was to Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, and so they were watching closely to see how He was going to respond to this news.  And so when Jesus responded in v. 4 that “this illness does not lead to death.  It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” and then didn’t get up to go heal His friend they figured everything was okay.

That explains their reaction, then, when Jesus finally announces two days later that they were going to go to Bethany which was located on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  Look at v. 8: “The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and you are going there again?’”  Jesus responded with something that sounds pretty cryptic but was essentially an affirmation that Jerusalem was exactly where He needed to be going to stay on track with the plans of the Father.  He then spoke more specifically an announced that “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  In saying that Lazarus had fallen asleep Jesus was using a well-known euphemism for death, but the thick-headed disciples still figured he was just sick and would recover, so Jesus finally spelled it out for them: “Lazarus has died.”

Well, when the group finally arrived in Bethany Lazarus had been dead four days.  In keeping with Jewish burial customs of the first century (which were in part dictated by the fact that it was hot and humid and they didn’t have any means of preserving dead bodies) his family had already buried him in a sealed tomb like what Jesus Himself would be placed in soon.  Upon learning that Jesus had arrived first Martha and later Mary rushed out to Him and with their hearts full of still raw emotions exclaimed: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Don’t miss the hurt and the anger here.  They knew all about Jesus’ healings and yet when they were in what was in their eyes their moment of deepest need He didn’t come to them.  He let their brother die when He could have done something about it.  You see, it’s okay to bring these kinds of feelings to the feet of God.  These two women literally did.  They were wrong in how they understood the situation—and so are we—but they were in the right place; and being in the right place even if for the wrong reason can still allow for the right things to happen.

In any event, Jesus Himself is finally overcome with emotion and weeps with the rest of them.  His source of grief is somewhat different from theirs because He knows what’s about to happen, but the heart of God He expresses in that moment should be an incredible note of comfort for us when we are in the midst of our own grief.  Jesus accompanied them back to the tomb—they thought—to pay His respects, but He had something else in mind.  He commanded for the tomb to be opened.  Ever the dutiful and tactless one, Martha protests in v. 39: “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”  Jesus gently tells her to sit down and shut up…and then Lazarus wins the lottery.  Verse 43: “When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’  The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.  Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

In that one moment everything everybody who ever lived knew about the world changed.  Death was no longer permanent.  Now, Lazarus would die again as this life he now had was not yet permanent.  Jesus would inaugurate the real thing not long after this experience.  But still, he was dead—four days!—and then he was alive.  We talk about getting a new lease on life after some powerful experience.  Lazarus got just plain new life after being dead.  Just so we’re clear, in whole history of the world, something like this has happened a grand total of once.  If Lazarus were still around today I would make sure he bought ever single lottery ticket there was to buy because he beat a set of odds that made winning the Powerball jackpot look more like the odds of getting a tax bill from the government.  Although in his case since death apparently wasn’t a certainty anymore maybe not even taxes were certain for him anymore!  This thing, this raising Lazarus from the dead, was such a theologically, socially, culturally, politically disruptive an event that the same Jewish leaders who were finally pushed over the edge by it into making firm plots against Jesus’ life made designs on his life as well.

Jump over a few verses to John 12:9 with me.  You see, even in a day when news didn’t travel quite as fast as it does today, the news that Jesus had raised somebody from the dead spread pretty quickly.  People were believing in Jesus as Messiah in droves because of it.  But, even if someone was skeptical about the whole thing—a position we should be able to understand—they could go talk to Lazarus himself or any one of the several other witnesses who saw him wiggle out of that tomb alive and still wrapped in his death clothes after they had placed him in it dead four days before.  And once they did…they believed too.  Look at v. 9 there: “When the large crowd of Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.  So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.”

Can you imagine how Lazarus would have responded to that news?  “Hey Lazarus!  The Jewish leaders are planning to kill you.”  What do you think he would say?  “Meh.  Been there.  Done that.”  Death was and for many has remained the one great and fearful unknowns in this world.  Think about it.  We can control everything else about our environments.  We can control almost everything else about our bodies.  They have now invented the technology that would allow geneticists to edit the DNA of an egg and sperm cell so that the zygote—better known as a tiny human person—formed by their combination will eventually grow into a full-sized person with exactly the features the mother and father want them to have.  That’s science fiction stuff that now exists as science fact.  Now, there are a ton of ethical issues attached to this technology and it hasn’t been perfected yet, but it exists all the same.  But death?  We can’t control that.  It’s just about the only thing left in the world that we can’t fix.  Except for Lazarus…who died, and then lived again.

The news that some Jewish leaders wanted him dead?  That didn’t scare Lazarus.  He didn’t fear dying anymore.  His concern was living.  His goal was to make sure He lived in a way that would honor the life Jesus gave to him.  He had won the lottery and the last thing he wanted to be was one of those lottery winners we talked about a few minutes ago.  He had been given new life and he wanted to live it.

Here’s why all of this matters: if you would count yourself a follower of Jesus, you may not have been given physical new life like Lazarus was, but the truth is that you’ve been given something even greater.  Lazarus was raised again to a life that would end again.  He was raised from the dead, yes, but this was not a resurrection so much as a resuscitation and healing.  He would die again.  In fact he did die again.  For we who are followers of Jesus, though, we have been given the gift of a life that won’t end.  Yes, our physical bodies are still going to eventually wear out.  Should our Lord tarry it’s going to happen.  Some of you are experiencing this rather directly.  But here’s the thing: we are more than just our bodies.  And, the life we have in Jesus doesn’t stop when our physical life does.  It goes on forever in the ultimate spiritual high.  Think about it: all the things that normally wear on our minds and hearts don’t have to anymore.  All the things we fear are things that when this physical life is over are going to be gone.  And since our life isn’t limited to this physical life any longer we don’t have to fear them any longer.

If you are a follower of Jesus you’ve won the lottery.  In fact you’ve more than won the lottery.  You’ve been given life; a life that will not end.  All the normal fears and burdens that come with life in this world are gone—unless you’ve held on to them for some reason and there really isn’t a good reason to do that—and all that remains is one: are you going to live in such a way that reflects the gift you have been given?  In fact if we turn that around into a command this is the encouragement and the challenge I want to give you this morning: If you are a follower of Jesus you have been given life, so live it.  You’ve been given life: live it.

Think about it.  We’ve all perhaps known somebody who started coming to church, seemed to experience a life change, hit that “what’s next” moment, never could find an answer (perhaps because the church failed to help them do so), and before long everything in their life had gone back to how it was before.  They had won the lottery, squandered it, and were back to living poor…or should I say, poor living?  What a waste.  Just like we shake our heads in amazement that someone like Andrew Whittaker, Jr. could blow through $114 million in four years, if you’ve ever taken up the life of Christ but aren’t living it…you’re doing the same thing.  It’s just a different subject.  If you are in Christ you have been given life and you need to live it.  You’ve been given life: live it.  And hey: if you haven’t received this life…what are you waiting for?  This is the chance for you to have a life that has the potential to eliminate all of the burdens you bear on a daily basis.  That doesn’t mean the situations will magically improve themselves.  If you’ve dug yourself a nice, deep hole you’re still going to have to climb out of it.  But you will have a ladder now.  And they won’t be burdens anymore because unless you keep them there, they won’t be resting on your shoulders.  All you’ll need to concern yourself with is living out the life of Christ and I’ll just be frank: that’s easier than what you’re doing now.  You’ll have been given life and will only need to live.  You’ve been given life: live it.

Well, sure, that sounds good, but what’s it look like?  How do we do something like that?  How do we live this incredible life?  Well, that’s something we could talk about the rest of the day and on into tomorrow.  There have been whole libraries of books written on that subject.  But let me give you four things that will set you on the right path.  Any one of these practices individually won’t do it, but if you’ll put them all together the sum total will be strong movement in the right direction.  Are you ready?  The first thing you need to do is to pursue real spiritual growth.  And this can’t be some half-hearted endeavor.  Showing up in this room once a week and then not doing anything else the rest of the week to intentionally move yourself down the path of Jesus isn’t enough.  That’s a little like feeding a child one really good meal a week.  It might keep the child alive, but she won’t grow like she should.  And anybody looking at the situation from the outside in would consider her the subject of terribly cruel treatment.  Why would you be so cruel to your walk with Jesus?  Okay…so how do you pursue real spiritual growth?  Through the spiritual disciplines.  We must commit ourselves to things like regular Bible intake—and more than just reading a small amount each day, although that’s a good thing.  We need to commit to studying the Scriptures.  If you want to know more about how to do this come and talk with me and I will help you.  We need to pray diligently and not merely in response to whatever happens to be going on around us.  We need to have regular fellowship with other mature believers.  We need to put ourselves in places of holy accountability.  We need to have regular periods of silence and solitude.  We need to practice selfless generosity with the resources God has given us.  If we will make these things and more regular, intentional parts of our lives we will experience the spiritual growth we desire.

Second, we need to put ourselves in a place where we can actively serve the least, last, and lost of the world around us and not merely those who will likely be able to return the favor someday.  Sometimes this takes some creativity and thought and even putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations, but this is the pattern Jesus set for us and so we need to follow it.  And one of the best ways to get into this kind of position if you aren’t already is to simply get involved in serving somewhere and then keep your eyes open for what God is doing around you and how He might be calling you to join Him.  There are opportunities at Midway for this.  There are opportunities at the WHF ballfield for this.  There are opportunities in our ministries here for this.  The point is: get serving and pay attention.  When God moves, be ready to respond.

Third, we need to eagerly share the message of life we have received with those who are still dying.  If this sounds suspiciously like evangelism to you…it is.  And I know that sounds scary, but we have two things going for us here.  First, Jesus commanded us to do it so it’s not really a choice for His followers.  Second, He promised to go with us when we do it.  The bottom line here, though is this: if the things guys like Paul wrote about death being the wages of sin are true, then anybody around us who has not experienced the rescue from a life characterized by things which bring dishonor to God that only Jesus can provide is dying and is in fact already dead.  Their spirit is a rotting corpse like Lazarus’ body after four days in the tomb and it’s just waiting for their body to catch up.  Yet we hold the message that brings life to the lifeless.  We need to share it.  That’s part of living.  You’ve been given life: live it.

The last thing is this: we need to actively cultivate the fruits of the Spirit in our lives.  Much of this comes by way of the spiritual disciplines, but this needs to be a special focus above and beyond that.  As we live the life of Christ we should become more loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and gentle and faithful and self-controlled.  We may not make strides in all of them at the same time and we may be better in some areas than others, but we need to be moving forward in all of them.  The life lived worthily of the gift Christ has given is characterized by all of them.  If this is yours, these are for you.  You’ve been given life: live it.  We may be past the spiritual high point in the church’s lifecycle, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still keep striving for new spiritual heights.  We have won the greatest lottery prize there is.  We need to live like it.  We need to live wisely so we can enjoy it to its fullest and not waste it with poor living.  We need not wait for heaven to begin.  We can start now and bring others along with us.  We’ve been given life: let’s live it.