Sermon April 20, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

April 20, 2014
Easter Sunday

“The Resurrection and the Life”

John 11:25-26; 20:1-9

This is the final sermon in our series on the songs of Lent and the song we are focusing on today is the great Easter hymn – “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”. The hymn was written in the 1700s by Samuel Medley, who had been a sailor in the British navy. He suffered a severely wounded leg in battle and faced either amputation or death. He prayed that God would save his leg and his life, and he did. Afterwards, Medley began to read the Bible and he became a Christian after reading a sermon by Isaac Watts, the great English hymn writer. In this Easter hymn he repeats the phrase “He lives” thirteen times and it reaches a great crescendo as the last two lines of the hymn repeat the first two lines.

In the 14th chapter of Job, Job poses a timeless question – “If mortals die, will they live again?” Deep in the heart of every person is the desire to know the answer to that question, to know whether life ends at the grave or if there is something beyond. It even sounds odd the way Job phrases it – “If mortals die!” There is no “if”. We know that. That we all die is the one thing of which we are certain. But what will come afterward?

Samuel Medley’s hymn is drawn from the 19th chapter of Job where he is ready to give an answer to his own question. Job says: “For I know my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.”

One of the hardest things we will ever have to face is the death of a loved one or the possibility of our own death. There is a deep unease in many of us when it comes to death. Death can be a hard thing to talk about and we tend to use ambiguous language. We employ euphemisms like – she passed away, he’s gone, she’s no longer with us, he’s among the dear departed. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ first stage of grief is denial, and that may be what is happening with our language about death. When I talk with a family in preparing a memorial service, I will sometimes use the words “passed away,” but also I always make sure I say the word “died”. I feel like someone’s got to say it.

Remember the street signs that used to say “Dead End”? Have you noticed that you hardly ever see them anymore? Apparently street signs warning of dead end streets have become too morbid and insensitive. Traffic departments have replaced them with the less offensive – “No Outlet”. I read that a resident in Colorado, pushing for the change, complained: “We just moved into a condo and right outside there’s a dead-end sign. Every time you come, you have to go by this sign, and it just isn’t very pleasant.”

Sometimes humor can help us deal with a difficult subject. A few years ago the City National Bank in New York City sent flowers to the management of a branch opening up its new facilities in Binghamton. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up and the flowers intended for a funeral were mistakenly sent to the bank, with a placard reading – “Deepest Sympathy”. Later, the embarrassed florist called the bank to apologize. However, he confessed that what really worried him was that the bouquet intended for the bank had been delivered to the funeral. It carried the message – “Congratulations on your new location”.

Christianity takes death very seriously. We do not have a doctrine of endless reincarnations on the great circle of life. We find no comfort in a doctrine of the immortality of the soul, the idea that the spark of life is inextinguishable. Though death is an ending, we know that in God’s will it is not the end. The promise of our faith is that nothing, not even death, “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” On this Easter morning we are here to proclaim that death will not have the last word on life.

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He makes the statement in John 11 and it helps us to understand what comes in John 20. The two things I want us to consider are the promise of life after death in John 11, and its fulfillment in the resurrection in John 20.

In John 11, it is Jesus’ friend Lazarus who has died. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus’ sister Martha goes out to meet him, and she says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will never die.” And then Jesus follows up this profound statement with a penetrating question – “Do you believe this?”

I start every funeral service, every memorial service with these same words of Jesus. And as I look out at what is usually a lot of people that I don’t know, I always end up thinking to myself – Do these people really believe this? It sounds like a paradoxical claim – if you live, you won’t die, and even if you die, you’ll live.

However, this is the foundation of our understanding of life and death. Jesus didn’t simply say he would give resurrection and life. He said: “I am the resurrection and the life.” What Jesus brings to Martha and her brother Lazarus, and therefore to you and me, is not just a promise of a future good. This isn’t about a victory over death somewhere in the obscure future. It is a victory that we experience now. It is not just a life that we will receive some day in the by and by, but rather a life that we begin to live and experience in the present. By linking resurrection and life, Jesus is pointing to the truth that the life he imparts to us is eternal life.
The key is to believe in Jesus Christ. He says it twice in that statement. When a person puts their trust in Jesus Christ they begin to experience a new life. Eternal life doesn’t begin after we die. It begins now. The life that we will have with God in glory and splendor is now germinating inside of us through faith in Jesus Christ. It may be a little like how the acorn is to the mighty oak tree, but it has begun. And therefore death no longer has dominion over us. Yes, we will experience a physical death; everyone will. But we will never stop living.

I’ve always liked what C.S. Lewis wrote in the last paragraph of the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia. He said this life is like only the cover and title page of a book. In heaven we begin chapter one of the great story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever and ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

When Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, he was confirming the truth of what he said about life and resurrection. But the real fulfillment of the promise of eternal life is in the Easter story, when the risen Lord guarantees that he has the power over life and death.

John records for us how Mary went to the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning. She had come to the tomb out of a deep reverence for Jesus. He had given a purpose and meaning to her life. Now her grief and heartache had drawn her to the tomb in a desperate effort to be near her Lord. In ancient Israel, tombs were often carved out of caves in the rock. The body would be wrapped in long linen strips like bandages and laid on a shelf in the rock tomb. The tomb was then closed by a large circular stone, shaped like a wheel, that ran in a groove across the opening.

What Mary found astonished her. The stone, which should have covered the entrance to the tomb, had been cast aside. Her immediate thought was that the disciples’ fears had been confirmed – that the religious leaders had Jesus’ body removed to deny him the proper burial they had hoped for. Mary runs back to tell Peter and John: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

The reaction of Mary and the disciples to the empty tomb supports the belief that none of them had really anticipated a physical resurrection of Jesus. They were not predisposed to expect the resurrection. In other words, they were not just biding their time till Sunday when Jesus would rise from the dead.

Peter and John run to see for themselves. And entering the tomb, they find it empty and they see the grave clothes lying in the tomb. What John describes is an orderly scene. It meant that the body had not been taken by grave robbers. They would have taken the body, clothes and all, or would have torn off the cloth wrappings and scattered them. The image we are left with is that the grave clothes lay like the shriveled shell of a cocoon left behind after the moth has emerged; or like a glove from which the hand has been removed, still retaining the shape of the hand.

The resurrection of Jesus is a victory over sin and death. In this unparalleled act, Jesus verified all that he had said and done. The apostle Paul makes it clear that this is the cornerstone of our faith. He wrote: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins … If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, then we are of all people most to be pitied.”

What is distinctive about Easter is that this is not the commemoration of a famous dead man. When we speak of the resurrection, we do not mean that the teachings of Jesus are immortal, like the plays of Shakespeare or the music of Bach. And when we speak of the resurrection, we do not mean that the good Jesus accomplished and the example of his life lives on after him, like St. Francis of Assissi or Mother Teresa. What the Bible says about the resurrection of Jesus is not simply the language of poetry, something not intended to be taken literally. The resurrection of Jesus is a real historical event that displays the power and love of God. In the resurrection, Jesus has shown that love is stronger than evil and that our ultimate destiny is not death but life.

We may continue to be uneasy about death. It may still frighten us. But because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ we can know that death holds no power over us. At the end of our lives we look forward not to death but eternal life in Jesus Christ.

I know Winston Churchill understood this hope. I’ve always been intrigued by how Churchill arranged his own funeral. As expected, there were stately hymns and an impressive liturgy. But at the end of the service, Churchill had an unusual event planned. When they said the benediction, a bugler high up on one side of the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral played Taps, the universal signal that the day is over. There was a long pause. Then a bugler on the other side of the dome played Reveille, the military wake-up call. It was Churchill’s way of saying that, while we say “Good night” here, it is “Good morning” up there.

The good news of Easter is that God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead and it makes all the difference in the world for our lives. We can trust God’s word and promises. We can experience the forgiveness of our sins and receive the power to live faithfully in Christ’s name. And we have hope for our own lives and for life eternal, a hope that can never be extinguished, a hope more powerful than the grave.

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