March 31, 2013

Seeing Clearly

Well good morning.  And what a good morning it is!  This is the morning that we have, in a sense, been preparing for the past seven weeks.  This morning is going to be the final installment in our series “Living an Easter Kind of Life.”  Everything we have been talking about for the past seven weeks has been to prepare us to take all the joy and excitement of today and carry it with us for the next 385 days until Easter rolls around again.  The way I’ve said this is going to happen is for us to take up a set of practices called the spiritual disciplines.  The spiritual disciplines are simply a set of practices that help us disengage from the unhelpful influences of this world and to engage more fully with the helpful influences of the kingdom of God.  Each week we have looked at a different practice.  We began this journey by talking about disengaging from things which tend to knock us off the path of God through the discipline of fasting.  For those who fasted, we had a really meaningful time breaking our fast together this past Friday night.  Then we took a look our time and talked about building a regular Sabbath into our routines.  From there we spent some time on the importance of internalizing God’s word through memorization in order to better know Him.  Three weeks ago we look at our propensity to worship things other than God and how we can make sure that we are keeping our focus on Him.  From there we looked at the importance of accountability in the context of community to help us keep away from harmful practices.  Finally last week we took some time to celebrate our Lord together and to look at how we can take up Paul’s advice to rejoice in the Lord always.  Today as we celebrate life, I want to finish out this series by talking about death.  I mean life.  No wait, I definitely wrote death there.  Hold on a minute…did I pick up the wrong manuscript this morning?  No, that really is what I wrote there.  But wait, how are we supposed to celebrate life if we are talking about death?  Well, I guess you’ll have to stay with me and find out.

In order to do this, I want to direct your attention to a part of an ancient letter a guy named Paul wrote to some Jesus followers in a city called Corinth that if it were still around today would be in the East-meets-West country of Turkey.  Now, for those of you who were at Poole this morning this is going to sound a bit familiar, but don’t worry, I’m going somewhere new.  In this letter, Paul covered a whole bunch of ground and touched on some issues that are still pretty relevant to the church today.  Well, as he was drawing to the end of the letter, he sought to leave them with something really solid to hang onto; something that if they remembered little else that was in the letter they could remember this and be okay.  What he settled on eventually became what we know as chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians.  In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul wrote what has become the most important block of teaching ever composed on the event which Jesus’ followers thought was of such monumental importance that they made celebrating it the most important part of the life of the church.  They so emphasized this event and the day set aside for celebrating it that still today people who wouldn’t normally bother losing sleep or an early tee-time to come to church make the effort either out of cultural guilt or maybe to appease their wife or mother.  And if you are here today and feel like maybe you kind of fit that description, I just want you to know that we are so glad you’re here this morning.  I’m going to have you out of here in about 25 minutes so you can get on with the rest of your day.  In the meantime, I hope I can bring you to the place that you have a bit better an understanding of why Jesus followers make such a big deal about this particular Sunday.

The event I’m talking about is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.  I know it sounds kind of weird to think about, but Christians believe that 2,000 years ago this guy named Jesus died, but didn’t stay dead.  On the third day after He was put to death on a cross by Roman executioners, He came walking back out of His tomb.  Well Paul waxes eloquently about the resurrection and its importance for quite a long time.  He lists off some eye-witnesses to the event that curious members of his audience could have gone and interviewed about what they saw.  One of these witnesses, by the way, was James, Jesus’ brother.  James became one of the key leaders of the Jesus followers in Jerusalem and eventually was put to death for His refusal to give up believing that Jesus was the Messiah.  If you have ever wondered about what is the strongest evidence in favor of the fact that Jesus rose from dead, it’s James.  Here’s why: what would your brother have to do in order to convince you that he is the Messiah?  Short predicting His death and resurrection and then being right, I can’t really think of anything.  Anyway, Paul goes on to talk about the centrality of the resurrection to the Jesus movement.  The entirety of Christianity hangs on the event of the resurrection.  Apart from that everything else we do becomes irrelevant and even needlessly offensive.  Paul then challenges them for not seeing the matter of the resurrection as clearly as they should.  He riffs for a while on what exactly the resurrection means for us.  Finally, near the end of his comments he proclaims that when all of this incredible stuff is experienced a couple of ancient Hebrew Scriptures will be fulfilled.  These are actually printed on the front of your bulletins to make it easy for you this morning: “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’  ‘O death, where is your victory?’  ‘O death, where is your sting?’”

My question here is this: what on earth does that mean?  I have more questions.  Why would Paul close this powerful block of teaching with such an odd exclamation?  With him exclaiming this at the end of the letter, it would seem that he wanted his readers to look at the resurrection through this lens.  How does this—the idea that the sting and victory of death are gone because of the resurrection—form the lens through which the resurrection is best understood?  Maybe you’ve asked questions like these before.  I get that the resurrection is the center point of our faith.  But, what does it actually mean?

Think about it like this.  For all of human history, death is the single enemy we have not been able to conquer.  We live in a world entirely consumed with death.  Think about it.  We can heal bones.  We can cure most diseases.  We are capable of (which is not the same as being wise to) manipulating life in a variety of ways.  If you want a blond-haired, blue-eyed baby boy, geneticists can do it.  In some cases we can keep a person on the cusp of death for weeks, months, or even years.  We have mastered our minds.  We can drive people crazy or make them sane once again with the aid of pills.  We’ve nearly developed technology that allows people to manipulate nearby objects with a thought.  We can make blind people see and deaf people hear with electronic, medical implants.  We can manipulate our bodies in all kinds of different ways.  We can make ourselves taller, shorter, larger, or smaller.  We augment, reduce, change size, color, shape.  We can build structures of enormous size and complexity.  We can build robots small enough that several hundred or even thousand could fit on the head of a pin.  We can shape our environment entirely to our liking.  We can change the direction and flow rate of rivers.  We can hold back the tides.  We can move mountains and fill valleys.  We’ve explored the darkest corners of space and the deepest crevices of the oceans.  We are the masters of our world and yet death remains unconquered.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11 Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, observed that although our view of it is limited, God has put a taste of eternity in our hearts.  Human history bears witness to this truth in our dealings with death.  No human culture has ever accepted that death is simply the end of existence.  In every culture throughout human history people have found ways to continue the narrative of human life after the point that our eyes close here.  The Greeks and Romans imagined the Underworld and its various regions for the good and the rest.  In the East the idea of reincarnation developed and became very much systematized.  Other Eastern religions imagined that when our spirit leaves this body we join up with the larger universal spirit and become once again a part of the whole that made the world.  The Vikings had Valhalla where the bravest men went to have an eternal victory celebration.  The Jews had Sheol where the dead went to wait for the resurrection at the end of time when the righteous would be rewarded.  Even in today’s increasingly secularized West, people are often consumed with leaving a legacy by which they will be remembered by the living.  All of this is not to demonstrate that the Christian concept of eternal life is merely another in a long line of attempts to avoid dealing with the seeming finality of death, but rather to show that humans have never been willing to accept the notion that the end of this life is the end of our existence.  There is a spark of eternity in our hearts.  We were created for it and we know it.  But we can’t see it.  And so we pant for it blindly, painting all kinds of pictures of this thing we cannot see and yet know with an unexplainable certainty exists.  For thousands of years of human history, this was the sting of death, the victory of death.  This was the agonizing fatalism of human life.

And then, everything changed.  A man died and didn’t stay dead.  Furthermore, people saw him alive again.  The grip in which Death held the people of this world was forever broken.  Where once there were only questions, now there was certainty.  Death is not the final answer.  If this one guy lived again, perhaps the rest of us will someday as well.  There is something more.  Much more.  This, my friends, is the hope and the promise of the resurrection.  When the disciples saw Jesus standing there alive after having been dead everything changed.  Everything.  Nothing could be viewed in the same light any longer.  Life flooded their vision and for the first time they could see everything clearly.  Have you experienced that before?  Seeing things clearly for the first time?  It takes looking through the right lenses.  If you want to see clearly, you have to look through the resurrection.

I know many of you wear glasses or contacts.  Do you still remember the first time you got a pair of glasses that were perfectly calibrated to your eyes?  Or perhaps if you’ve had any kind of corrective eye surgery, do you remember when the wound healed and you could see clearly for the first time?  Life went from just a bit blurry all the time to crystal clear.  You had the right lenses and so you could see clearly.  On our own, our view of life is very much like your eyesight before you were given corrective lenses.  It is clouded and blurred and disfigured by finality and by fatalism and by a suffocating futility.  When we give it a few seconds of thought, this is a monumentally frustration experience—kind of like having blurry vision is frustrating over time.  As a result, we have a number of ways of coping with this to try and hide the truth…or at least to hide from it.   Many folks try to keep their heads down, focus on their own thing, and infuse just enough religious-sounding language into their conversation patterns that they cover their bases.  These folks deal with things by ignoring them.  “Yeah there’s an end coming someday, but there’s enough to deal with here and now.  I’ll deal with that when the time comes.”  The problem is, by the time it comes, they are not even remotely prepared and so they either panic, clawing against the encroachment of the end, or else they shut down and fatalistically accept…whatever happens.  It’s like the person who has bad eyesight but refuses to acknowledge it, squints a little more often, and bites your head off when you ask if everything’s okay.  Yet, if we want to see clearly, we have to look through the resurrection.

Others turn to religion of some kind.  They take up one of the myriad of explanations crafted over the centuries and popularized by a culture that is collectively realizing that the soul and eternal matters can’t be ignored or replaced by mere mechanism.  These folks move in one of two directions: ritual or spiritual.   The ritual folks take up a religion with a great deal of form and structure—perhaps something like Judaism or Islam.  If they do the right set of things in the right ways and at the right times, if they can get their good to outweigh their not-so-good (“bad” is such a judgmental sounding word, after all), then perhaps they will receive a good end.  The problem here that no one really wants to address is that nobody actually has any idea how good is good enough.  This is like the person with bad eyesight living an incredibly programmed and predictable lifestyle.  They can’t see very well, but as long as they stay within the lines it doesn’t present much of a problem.  They know what to expect…at least until the end.

The spiritual folks, on the other hand, take up a religion with more of an Eastern, New-Agey, choose-your-own-adventure sort of flavor.  Here they generally abandon ritual in favor of whatever feels right.  “As long as I honor the spark of the divine in you and you honor the spark of the divine in me (okay, fine, you can call it the “image of God” if you want; we all basically believe the same thing in different forms anyway), we’ll all end up in the same place—joining with the universal spirit that sustains all life.”  The catch here, though, is that I know intuitively that I’m not the same as you and the thought that I can look forward to becoming one with you in some weird, spiritual sort of way doesn’t really resolve any of the tension of death.  This is the person who buys the dollar pair of reading glasses at the drugstore to solve the fact that they can’t read, wears them all the time, and protests to anyone who asks about it, “Hey, I’ve got some clarity here.  If the rest is a bit hazy, that’s okay.  How do you really know that you can see any better?  As long as we can all see a little bit it’s really only a matter of perspective.”  Yet if you want to see clearly, you have to look through the resurrection.

A final group, often taking on the trappings of atheism of some variety, decides they don’t want to deal with the problem of death at all.  They simply close their spiritual eyes and ears and ululate loudly every time the issue is brought up until the asker either leaves them alone or else joins in the ululating with them.  These are the folks with bad eyesight who simply close their eyes really tightly and insist, “If I can’t see at all, then I don’t have to deal with it.  Leave me alone!”  In each of these different approaches, the sting of death is not removed.  It’s merely ignored in some creative way.  The fog remains.  Without the right lenses, we won’t see clearly.  If you want to see clearly, look through the resurrection.

Indeed, with the resurrection, the fog is lifted.  Several minutes ago I asked the question: why does the resurrection matter?  What does the resurrection do?  Then, I talked about death for ten minutes.  In doing so, though, I have been painting a picture of exactly what the question the resurrection answers is.  Let me put all the pieces together.  First, we know we were created for eternity.  We can feel it somewhere deep inside ourselves.  There’s a life-clock of sorts ticking away, but we intuitively know that’s not supposed to be the end of us.  We have simply never really known how it is going to work.  Then, Jesus was physically resurrected.  There have been many answers to the question of eternity that were primarily spiritual in nature.  This is the first that wasn’t.  Here’s the difference between this and every other explanation of the spark of eternity in our hearts: in the resurrection of Jesus the substance of what makes us human is honored.  As humans we are a combination of spirit and body.  Take one away and we’re not fully human anymore.  That’s not the goal!  The goal is to become fully human not anything less.  Solutions to the eternity conundrum which envision a purely spiritual existence leave us spending eternity as something less than human, not more.  Remember: humans were as good as it got when God was making everything.  In other words: You.  Are.  Awesome.  We merely exchange the haze of death for the haze of a pseudo-life.  These don’t improve our sight at all.  If we want to see clearly, we must look through the resurrection.  In Jesus’ resurrection, then, body and spirit both are preserved, purified, and made fit for eternity.  Now, this body is still going to die, should our Lord tarry.  This body is not made for eternity.  We all know that.  (Part of the reason people do so much to mess with their bodies in ways that go beyond healthy diet, exercise, and normal medical care is because they don’t understand the resurrection.)  What Jesus had when He came back from the dead, though, was a prototype of the body that is made for eternity.  From the reports of the eye-witnesses this body was recognizably human, but it was also more than our current bodies in a number of respects.  What Paul spends some time pointing out a bit earlier in the chapter is that Jesus’ resurrection body was a sample of the body we will have when the time for the taking on of eternity comes.  How exactly this transition is going to work we don’t know.  But, because of Jesus, through the lens of the resurrection, we can see clearly that it is going to work.  The sting of death has been defeated.  Every question is not answered, but we do have a firm answer to the question of eternity: we were made for it and the sense we have always carried that physical death in this life should not be the end was right.  But we can’t see this apart from the resurrection.  If you want to see clearly, look through the resurrection.

There’s one last question to answer.  What does all this mean?  So clear sight is gained through the resurrection.  What are the implications of this for us?  What do you do with this when you walk out the door in a few minutes?  I think there are two implications that flow from all of this.  The first comes out of understanding Paul’s intended audience.  Paul was writing to Jesus followers.  This resurrection body Jesus displayed for us is something reserved for those who belong to Jesus.  It’s kind of an exclusive club, but membership is open to everybody.  As I talked about, though, a few weeks ago when we jammed on the thorny issue of Hell, for folks who have convinced themselves that blurry is the best view of reality, God is not going to smash a pair of cosmic glasses on their face.  The great news of the resurrection is that it gave confirmation to the deepest longing of our soul: to know that we were made for more than we can experience here and now.  In the resurrection Jesus gave us an enormous YES: You are made for more.  You are made for eternity.  You are made for an eternity with Me in a body like this one that won’t ever wear out or break down.  You are made for a life free from the constraints of futility and fatalism and finality.  But, you have to accept it first.  If you want to see clearly, you have to look through the resurrection.

Here’s the truth, and if you aren’t totally sure whether or not you’re a Jesus follower, this is the most important thing I’m going to say all morning: In order to see life as it was always meant to be seen, you have to look through the lens of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  In order to do that, though, you have to accept the sacrifice for sin He offered on the road to the resurrection as valid for your lives.  What that means is that you have to acknowledge that it was necessary because you are a sinner.  Now, there are a lot of different understandings of what is meant by the word “sinner,” but the best definition of sin is that it is any decision you make, regardless of how that decision is expressed, that is out of sync with God’s character.  Anything—that means anything—you’ve done that’s out of sync with the character of God revealed in the various ancient manuscripts we collectively the Bible is a sin.  And it’s not that decision that made you a sinner.  Rather, you made that decision because you are a sinner.  See the difference?  Apart from the help Christ offers, you and I make decisions all the time that are out of sync with God’s character.  We can’t help it.  We might be able to put together a good streak for a while, but come on, you know as well as I do that we always blow it eventually.  It’s because we’re sinners.  That’s simply who we are.  Until you acknowledge that, you’re not seeing through clear lenses.  Once you acknowledge it, the next thing you have to wrap your heart and mind around is the fact that you aren’t ever going to fix the problem on your own.  And you should know: sin is the reason there is death and all its terrible fallout in the world.  That’s what messed up our vision in the first place.  But, just like the existence of optometrists doesn’t fix anyone’s vision by itself, we’re not going to start seeing this world clearly until we actually go and receive the solution.  Through the resurrection, Jesus proclaimed: “Hey!  Death doesn’t have to cloud your vision any longer.  I’ve broken its power once and for all.  If you want to see clearly again join up with Me and My movement.  Believe in Me.  Place your trust in what I’ve said and done.  Give Me control of your life, and we’ll fix your sight together.”  If you want to see clearly, look through the resurrection.  If you are not for sure if you are a follower of Jesus, but you want to see clearly, this is how you can fix that.  Say this prayer in your heart and mind—you don’t even have to bow your head or close your eyes: “Jesus, I want to see clearly.  I believe that you died for my sin and were raised from the dead.  I want you to be in charge of my life so that I can see it as you have always intended me to see it.  Thank you for helping me to see clearly.  Amen.”  If you can honestly say that in your heart, you will begin to see clearly, perhaps for the first time in your life.  Now, it may likely require a lot from you even as a perfectly calibrated pair of custom lenses are expensive to have made, but you’ll be glad you did.  If you want to see clearly, look through the resurrection.

Here’s the other implication and then we’re out of here so you can go home and enjoy the wonderful lunch waiting on you there.  If you are a follower of Jesus, if you are in a position to see things clearly—by the way, just because you have a really good pair of glasses doesn’t mean they’re glued to your head; you actually have to wear them if you know what I’m saying—Paul has a word for you at the end of the chapter.  In light of the sting of death being gone, in light of the incredible assurance we have that death in this life is a mere bump in the highway of eternity, “therefore, my beloved brothers [and sisters], be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”  Because of the resurrection, we now know that everything we do is fraught with significance.  Every decision we make shapes us to be a little more or a little less reflective of the image Jesus modeled for us.  When we pursue activities and make decisions that honor Jesus in our daily lives, when we take the time to invest in spiritual disciplines, like we have been talking about for this whole series, designed to move us smoothly down the road to being Christ-like, we are making investments in the coming kingdom.  With the clear sight afforded us by the resurrection we are able to see the surpassing reality of this kingdom.  The investments we make now will pay off then.  Your labors are not in vain.  But let’s be honest: sometimes those labors are hard to make.  The pressures of this world come to bear often and it is so tempting to compromise in order to get by a little easier here and now.  You and I both know that we feel this pressure all the time.  Yet as we have talked about, giving in to the world in light of what we feel like is reality is a move that actually runs directly counter to it.  Paul said be steadfast and immovable.  Let me put it like this: don’t take off your lenses.  Don’t take them off.  Don’t stop looking through the lens of the resurrection.  This is the final secret to living an Easter kind of life.  The reason we lose all the emotion and commitment and excitement of this day is because on Monday we stop thinking in terms of Easter.  We stop looking through the lens of Easter.  We put back on our normal, fuzzy lenses that are shaped by the world in which we live and we squint through those for a year.  Don’t do it.  If you want to see clearly, look through the resurrection.  The sting of death has been defeated.  Don’t stick your hand back in the hive and start rooting around for a few more angry bees still waiting to strike.  Live with the freedom and clear sight of the resurrection.  Let this event—on which your entire faith hangs—define everything about how you go through your days.  Then, when we come back together like this in 385 days, we won’t have to do any special preparing because we’ll already be ready.  We will have lived with Easter’s power every day since.  If you want to see clearly, look through the resurrection.