March 5, 2017

Victory in Jesus

I have a confession to make this morning.  Sometimes instead of watching a really important KU basketball game live, I’ll let it record, wait and see what the final score is, and then watch it (or not) once I know the outcome.  The truth is, I don’t like the stress of wondering how it’s going to end…especially if it’s close and it looks like we might not win.  I mean, who really wants to watch your team lose?  Is anybody with me in that?  Or am I the only fair-weather fan in the room?

Or how about this: How many of you really like surprises when you know they’re coming?  Being surprised unexpectedly is one thing.  We can’t really prepare for that.  My dad threw a surprise birthday party for me when I was 12.  The set up was that he and I were going to go to Blockbuster and rent a bunch of movies and video games when my mom and sister were out of town, but he “forgot his wallet.”  When we went back home I got the job of running back in the house to get it off the bathroom counter.  About the time I was going to sprint into the dark room to grab it all my buddies jumped out and screamed surprised.  I’m surprised I didn’t put a hole in the wall behind me I flew back so fast as I crumpled into a little ball figuring I was a goner.  You can’t really do anything about that kind of a surprise.  But what about when someone has said, “You’re going to get a surprise on such and such a day”?  Do you wait for it patiently, or do you start looking for any kind of clue you can find to relieve a bit of the suspense?  Are you the kind of person who reads the last page of a mystery novel or reads about the end of the movie before reading or watching the rest?  Do you shake your Christmas presents in hopes of getting a clue as to what’s in them?

Sometimes it really is fun to live in a place of suspense for a while.  For instance, if you like scary movies, what makes them scary and fun is not the ah-ha moment that comes when the door (whether proverbial or literal) is finally opened and you see what’s behind it.  No, the fun and scary part are the moments leading up to that.  The uncertainty and questions and visions of what could be are usually way worse than what actually is.  We like putting ourselves in such a place…at least the more twisted ones of do.  It may be a 10-foot, bloodthirsty monster that is going to rip you to shreds, but at least it’s not a 15-foot monster.  There’s relief in the revelation.

Now, for surprises or scary movies this is one thing.  But living our whole lives in a place of uncertainty and questions and visions of what could be…that’s not so fun.  It’s depressing.  It’s dispiriting.  It’s enough to drive a person to any manner of unhealthy behaviors to try and cope with the tension.  The kick is, though, lots of folks live like this.  Maybe you’ve found yourself living like this at some point in the past or even today.  When we’re facing hard or scary circumstances the likes of which we have all encountered at one point or another in our lives, not knowing how things are going to turn out can be incredibly stressful.

But what if I told you there was a way to not simply manage this stress and fear and anxiety, but to get rid of them altogether?  What if there was a way we could live every day like we had already seen the outcome of the game and were just watching so that we could see how the victory unfolded?  Instead of being fearful for the moments when things got really tense and our team was behind late in the game, we could look forward to them to see just how they managed to dig themselves out of the hole.  We could relish the little victories along the way because we knew in advance that they were all part of the big win when the buzzer sounded. We could even relish the scary parts because we recognized them as part of the contour of victory our team took.  We could watch them with delight because we knew they posed no ultimate threat to the outcome.  A couple of weeks ago when KU played West Virginia at home this was exactly what I did.  I confess that, true to the form I described for you a minute ago, I had turned the game off in disgust when we were down 14 points with three minutes to go and it was after 11:00 PM anyway.  When I was surprised with the news that they had won in overtime, I really enjoyed watching the rest of what had recorded to see just how we managed to overcome such incredible odds.  Former Petersburg star, Frank Mason, was instrumental to the victory and is in fact making a pretty good case to be the National Player of the Year.

This morning we are starting a brand new series called Victory.  I love doing series like this one because for the next few weeks we are going to be piggy-backing off of the Bible Studies for Life series that all our adult Sunday school small groups are doing.  It gives us a chance to dig a lot deeper into the big ideas of the lesson together.  That means that if you aren’t part of a small group, the next few weeks are going to be a golden opportunity to get involved with one so you can get the fullest picture possible of the themes and ideas we are going to be talking about together.

In any event, the big idea for this series is that if you are a Jesus follower, you get to participate in the victory He has already won over the powers of sin and death in this world.  You know He won that victory, right?  We are just seven weeks from the grand celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that we call Easter.  In His resurrection, Jesus defeated once and for all time those powers.  He defeated sin by paying the price our sins demanded so that the debt we owed to God because of it was satisfied.  He defeated death by rising from the grave three days after He was killed.

Well, the twin threats of sin and death have been the one enemy over which we have not been able to achieve victory on our own.  Think about all the other enemies we have defeated.  Illiteracy is a vanishing state.  Global poverty rates have been on a precipitous decline over the past few years.  Homelessness isn’t nearly the problem it used to be.  Hunger is on the verge of being eradicated.  Illness is something we can treat, nearly all the time, with a few pills.  We’re pushing the average lifespan later and later.  As some inspiring octogenarians in our own congregation have amply demonstrated, 80 is the new 60.  What we have accomplished as a people is simply stunning.  Did you know there are actual plans drawn up in an architect’s office somewhere for a building that is one mile tall?  But sin?  Where Christ is not Lord, sin is still our master.  Sin in its various forms still wrecks lives and relationships.  It destroys families and finances.  It breaks hearts and steals joy.  And death?  Well, we all still die.  There’s no cure for that.  Illness we can fight, but death eventually claims its victims 100% of the time.  These enemies force us to live with the fear and tension and uncertainty we talked about just a second ago.  They leave us feeling trapped in a well of frustration and heartache with no apparent escape.  They are the horror movie which does not ever seem to finally open the door.

Or at least, they were.  They were before Jesus left them utterly defeated.  He left them defeated and left us with a victory that only needs to be claimed to enjoy.  For the next six weeks, we are going to talk about this incredible victory.  We’ll talk about how we can live in it, just how extensive it really is, and how we can share it.  Before we can get there, though, we need to talk about how we can gain access to it, how we can catch a glimpse of it such that it can begin to transform the way we see the things happening around and to us.  In order to do that, we need to make sure we have the right vision of Jesus in view.

Who is Jesus?  It’s a question that many ask but fewer try to really answer.  In the church, it’s a question with which we wrestle on a regular basis.  In order to get an answer, we usually turn to the Gospels.  Now, that’s not a bad thing at all.  The Gospels are our primary source for knowing about Jesus.  They tell us in great detail about His life and ministry and message.  Jesus came to earth in humility and lived His life with gentleness and love.  He was a friend to sinners and sought out their healing.  He was meek and mild.  He was the kind of guy you want around all the time because He brightens up the room with His presence and personality.  He never stood for injustice and always called those who were self-righteous to get over themselves.  What we get, in sum, is this incredibly attractive picture.  This Jesus will be the shoulder we can cry on when things are bad.  He’ll support us when we are struggling.  I could go on, but you get the point.

But, that’s not the full picture of Jesus.  That Jesus may help us when we are down, but is He the warrior we need when things get really bad?  He’s certainly our hope in the dark, but is He also our light that’s bright enough to drive the dark away entirely?  Is He the Jesus of victory?  Is He the conquering king who will broker no opposition to His perfect rule and reign?  He is, but if we want to see the image of this Jesus in a way that can give us the confident hope of victory that will leave us laughing at the troubles we may face here and now, we need to look a little further back in the New Testament.  In fact, we need to look to the back of the New Testament.  When the apostle John was given a vision of the events that will culminate in the end of the world, His vision was not of the Jesus who had been His closest friend in life, the man who had entrusted to him His own mother when He died.  His vision was of Jesus in all His heavenly glory.  And it was this picture of Jesus—still the same character, but revealed in the fullness of His splendor—that gave a passionate hope of victory not only to John, but to millions of other Jesus followers throughout the history of the church.  This Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  Turn with me to Revelation 1 and let’s look at this image of Jesus together.

John’s vision in Revelation was primarily of how the events that would culminate in the end of the world would unfold.  It’s no secret that the picture is a pretty convoluted one.  Folks have debated how best to understand what John recorded for us for centuries.  There is nothing even remotely resembling a consensus on the matter.  On occasion artists have taken some of John’s descriptions of events or characters and sketched them out for us to visually examine what they might mean.  When this happens you get pictures like these.  I’ve got to admit: Those don’t help me very much.  But one thing that is clear is this: John’s vision begins and ends with Jesus.  But as I said, this is not the meek and mild Jesus we often associate with the Gospels, this is the Jesus of victory.  This is the Jesus who was revealed in part to Peter, James, and John when He took them up on the mount of transfiguration as reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  That Jesus left the disciples terrified speechless.

Indeed, what John recorded as having seen in the first chapter of Revelation was even more glorious—and terrifying—than that time had been.  Listen to this and just try to get your mind around what John is describing.  If it seems hard to understand, perhaps that’s because John couldn’t find words that would adequately capture it.  From Revelation 1:9: “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven church, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and the Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

So, John is worshiping one Sunday morning and all of a sudden he hears this booming voice behind him telling him to write down a message for these seven churches.  Why them?  Who knows?  Perhaps they were particularly important in that day.  In any event, like you and I might have done, when John hears this incredible voice from behind him, he turns around to see what could have made such a sound.  Verse 12 now: “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow.  His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

“Wow,” is about all we can say to this.  But before we worry much about the description itself, listen to how offers it.  This is not the voice of someone who is trying to be sneaky in what he writes.  This is the voice of someone who’s trying to make sense of what he’s just seen.  I think John was just nearly at a loss for words here and was doing his best to translate into words something that really was beyond description.  I mean, look at his reaction to this vision in v. 17 now: ‘When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.”  Yeah!  You think?  Many of you know that of our three boys Josiah is the most…expressive.  On occasion when he hears something that he deems particularly shocking, he will react by falling to the ground and lying there with his eyes closed as if he had just died from the shock.  That’s kind of what’s going on with John here except he wasn’t playing.  He was kind of like this guy.

But come on now; think this with me for a second.  What’s the use of this image of Jesus?  What does this do for us?  Why give John this particular vision of Himself?  Surely there had to be more than scaring him half to death.  There was and to see what this is we need only keep reading.  Look with me now starting at the second half of v. 17: “But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’”  Huh?  Let me unpack this for just a minute.

First, the affirmation to fear not came because, 1. John was terrified; and 2. he had nothing to fear from Jesus.  This Jesus he saw was the same person that He was when He was walking around on earth with John.  John was simply seeing more of Him now than He could then.  Christ in His glory is a fearsome sight, but if we are His, He poses no threat to us.  He is for us.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, Jesus describes Himself as the one who was victorious over Death and Hades, which was the embodiment of the power of death.  They have been subjected to Him.  He may have died, but He is alive now and because of that Death no longer has any power over Him at all.  And, because death is the result of sin, we know that He has conquered sin as well.  In other words, Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.

He gave John this vision of Himself and immediately followed it with instructions to “write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this,” so that he could properly give instruction and encouragement to other believers, starting with the seven churches, but expanding out from there to include even us.  And where was the encouragement?  It was set firmly on this fact that Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  What does all mean?  All.  Everything.  The whole kit and caboodle.  If there is a thing, Jesus is the Lord of that thing.  If Jesus has indeed conquered sin and death—and this vision points powerful to that fact—then there are no troubles or challenges that can possibly see Him overcome.  Remember?  We’ve beaten all the other challenges!  He won’t be flustered.  He won’t be set off His course.  He won’t even be slowed down by them.  And, if He is our Lord, then neither will we be.

Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  He has the end firmly in hand.  No matter what happens between now and then, we know what the end will be like.  It will be Him standing in victory over all of His enemies and those who are His people standing with, enjoying the scene.  We see how this victory will unfold over the course of the rest of the book.  And, yes, the details make it hard to understand.  And, yes, there are a lot of things at which we can only guess.  But what is clear is this: God through Christ is sovereign over the whole thing, He never lets things drift from the path to His throne, and in the end, the righteous will be rewarded with an eternity with Him while those who have refused His continual-but-eventually-expiring offer of grace will receive the thing they most want: eternal separation from Him.  In other words: God wins.  Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.

If that is indeed the case, then, what do we have to fear here and now?  With this image of Jesus as the victorious Lord of all firmly in our view and with us firmly in His hands, what things in this world can possibly pose a meaningful threat to us?  It matters not whether we are facing loss, betrayal, hard news, devastating illness, abandonment, loneliness, failure, success even; none of those things and even more will have an impact on the eternity in Heaven Jesus desires to give us.  He’s defeated them.  They’ve lost.  And though they might make some noise on the way out, they can’t change the outcome.  Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  If we find ourselves in Him, then we get to share in that victory.  Our only remaining challenge is to live like this is true.

If Jesus is the victorious Lord of all—and He is—then how should we live?  Well, fear certainly has no place in our lives any longer.  Worry and anxiety are just weird if this is the case.  Think about it.  How would you react if someone was watching a scary movie they had seen before and were still screaming with surprise every time the door was opened to reveal the monster?  You’d look at them like they were nuts!  And rightly so.  They would be behaving in a manner that was hilariously at odds with reality.  Or how about this: jealousy and envy have no place in our lives if Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  Again, think about: What do you call a kid who has everything but who nonetheless gets all put out and jealous when he sees someone else getting something that he either doesn’t have or simply doesn’t get as well?  A spoiled brat!  Well, if we are the heirs of eternity, then why would we get jealous or compare unfavorably what we have with someone else simply because they have something we don’t whether material or not?  We wouldn’t…if we really understood that Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  Or how about sin?  Why would we let ourselves be rendered slaves of some sin when the power of sin over us has already been broken by Jesus?  This is Brooks from the Shawshank Redemption who was released from prison after a lengthy sentence only to eventually commit suicide because he couldn’t handle living with freedom.  It’s a sad, ironic, and deeply unsettling state of affairs.  It doesn’t make sense.

If Jesus is the victorious Lord of all, and if we have accepted and are participating in this victory, then our lives must be different.  More than that, they can be different.  All the stress, the tensions, the uncertainties, the questions that so often drag you down in the face of hard situations in this life don’t have to anymore.  They don’t have any more power over you than you give to them.  Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  He’s conquered every single one of them and offers that victory to you to make your life full and complete in a way you won’t experience from anything else.  You need only receive it.  Now, that doesn’t mean those things won’t still come up and won’t still occasionally loom large, but they don’t have any power; and if we will keep our eyes fixed firmly on this Jesus of victory, they won’t slow us down in our pursuit of eternal life either.  Jesus is the victorious Lord of all.  I pray that He is your Lord so that you can enjoy seeing how the victory unfolds.

We will yet get to enjoy seeing how the final victory unfolds, but the initial victory was won some 2,000 years ago when Jesus broke the power of sin and death.  And how did He do that?  This victorious Lord of all became possessed of such a title when He set aside the glory revealed to John and sacrificed Himself in our place.  There is no victory without sacrifice and this most glorious victory that has ever been won came on the wings of the greatest sacrifice that has ever been made.  God the Father sacrificed His only Son on our behalf.  He let His body be broken in our place.  He let His blood be spilled instead of ours.  And so as we begin this series reflecting on the great victory we have in Christ this morning, it is only fitting that we come to the table where we are reminded of what this victory took to obtain.  In the bread we remember Jesus’ broken body.  He took the full punishment of our sins on Himself in order that we might be spared the terrible fate that awaited us otherwise.  But that wasn’t enough in and of itself.  We didn’t simply need to have our slate with God cleaned, we needed an entirely new way of relating to Him, of being in a relationship with Him.  Jesus did that as well.  Through the juice we are reminded of Jesus’ spilled blood in order to sign and seal a new covenant of life with the Father.  It is a covenant of eternal life for all those willing to enter into it.  By this covenant, the powers of sin and death over us were broken.  By this covenant we have victory.

This morning, then, as we eat and drink together, let us eat and drink of this victory.  As you are served hang on to the elements until everyone has them and we will celebrate our victory together.  As you eat and as you drink, offer a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the victory you have in Christ.  Offer that prayer and commit yourself to living out of that victory in your daily routines because the simple reality is that if you belong to Christ, this victory belongs to you.  Please eat and drink with us.  Now, if you aren’t there yet—and if that’s the case let me say how glad we are that you’re here—hold back on eating and drinking because it’s about celebrating a victory in which you are participating just yet.  Get to the place where the victory is fully yours and it will mean a whole lot more to you.  With that said, deacons, if you will head this way, I’ll pray and we’ll serve together.