Easter

Empty tomb

One of the best things about what I do as a Pastor and a Chaplain is that I hear lots of stories.  As I sojourn in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and churches, the many rich accounts of people’s lives continue to amaze me.  Some are profoundly sad, some are incredibly joyous, all include relationships of love and some of hate.  The narratives underlying the daily existence of many people is often an alchemical mix of genuine altruism and mindless neglect.  Since we live on this fallen planet with its strange combination of amazing beauty and severe conditions, it only makes sense that the people of the earth experience the wide range of emotions and experiences from grief to joy.  No matter who I speak with, wherever they are from, we all need hope.

Earl (not his real name) had brain surgery.  It effected his speech.  Earl labors to speak and communicate.  Indeed, he struggles so much to do so that I can only pick out bits and pieces of what he is trying to say to me.  The work of talking is made even more frustrating with the fact that Earl was once an extroverted pastor who made his living talking and speaking and offering words of hope.  Now he can barely get a sentence out his mouth.

Punctuated throughout most of our conversation were swear words of which he apologized.  Instead of poo-pooing this wonderful older minister for his imprecations, I invited us to swear together.  For several minutes, what must have looked kooky crazy to any angels looking on, we sat and swore.  Earl and I expressed our anger, disappointment, and tears over the loss of a precious gift.

Then, after we had a good session of lament, I read the timeless story of a person who conquered everything that is wrong and unjust in this world.  Jesus suffered like no other before or since.  He felt loss.  He knew grief firsthand.  He died.

But death could not hold him in the grave.  The power of God raised Christ the Lord to new life.  Now, the life of Jesus is my life, and Earl’s life.  I didn’t read the glorious story of Jesus to change Earl’s feelings or even to try and make him feel better.  I read the story because its real, its true, and it is the Christian’s hope.

I believe the words of 1 Corinthians 15:20 are right:

“Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life.”

Every hope, each promise, and all expectations for Christians everywhere are completely and totally realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Easter, or more aptly, Resurrection Day, is the highest holy day of the entire year for followers of Jesus.  One of the great things about Easter is that it is not only one day in the Christian Year – it comprises 40 days leading to the day of Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit.  That means we celebrate the truth “Jesus is alive!” for six wonderful Spring weeks.  We purposefully take a good look at our hope.

The somber reflection of Lent with its emphasis on confession of sin and repentance now flowers into the exultant joy and celebration of new life.  The call and response of Christians in the glorious season of Easter is “He is risen!” “He is risen, indeed!”

If there ever was a time for the church to give testimony to the redeeming and saving work of Jesus, it is on Resurrection Day and throughout the Easter season (often referred to as “Eastertide”).  Now is the appropriate time for fellow believers to hear from their brothers and sisters in Christ, how he has brought them renewal – a new outlook and perspective; a new way of relating to others; a new purpose; a completely new life.  We are so tied and in union with Jesus that his resurrection is our resurrection.  Christ’s rising to new life gives us hope.

Earl has hope.  I have hope.  You have hope.  The effects of the fallen world will not always have its way on the earth.  Christ is crucified.  Christ is risen.  Christ is coming again.

Eastertide

 
 
            It could very well be that you have never heard of the word “Eastertide,” and maybe not even in your church.  In my judgment, that is quite unfortunate because Eastertide is a significant season in the Christian Year.  It spans fifty days until Pentecost.  Yep, that is seven weeks of bringing the new life we enjoy to the forefront.  Eastertide’s intentional focus is to recognize and celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and, thus, exulting in our own new life in him.
 
            Now, you might be saying to yourself something like this: “Why do we need to have some liturgical season about Christ’s resurrection?  Shouldn’t we be living like we recognize this every day?”  Yes, of course we should.  But consider this:  If you only sing songs of resurrection on Easter Sunday in your church; only occasionally, at best, think of Christ’s resurrection outside of Easter Sunday; then, perhaps it is wise to bring a highlighted focus to the resurrection in a special season.  Just as we would likely not think of taking only one vacation day in the year for renewal, so it is necessary to take more than one day to enjoy Easter.  If nothing else, Eastertide gives believers an opportunity to let Christ’s resurrection percolate in our hearts so that we end up becoming people in real life who exhibit an alive-spirit.  And God knows we could use much more of that in our congregations!
 
            If life, eternal life, and the necessity of being alive are all needs we have within particular congregations, then it only makes sense that we would want to take advantage of what Eastertide has to offer us:  a deliberate look at Christ’s resurrection, exploring its implications and impact for us and our churches.  Simply assuming that we all know about the resurrection will not do, any more than my wife simply assuming I love her without looking her straight in the eye and telling her so.  
 
            If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Corinthians 15:17) and we can only expect a sin-as-usual kind of approach to life with a sort of shoulder shrug that says, “Meh, what’s a guy to do?”  But, instead, we have the hope of life everlasting because Christ has risen from death.  We have the hope of individual renewal and corporate revitalization since we serve a risen Savior.
 
            Therefore this is the perfect time of year to engage in some renewal practices or even make a few simple changes that show signs of life within the congregation.  Here are just a few ideas for lifting Christ’s resurrection into the next few months:
 
Pray for revival.  Wherever there is deadness there is no Jesus.  Christ brings life, so praying to God for revival is a deliberate way of connecting with the Lord.
 
Squarely address things in the church which are death-dealing.  Gossip, back-biting, slander, and an entire host of sins of the tongue kill and murder people.  It brings death.  Simply sluffing-off someone’s acerbic speech as “that’s just the way they are” will not do in the church, unless you want Jesus at arms-length.
 
Promote things which are life-giving.  If sins of the tongue bring death, using our speech for encouragement, love, mercy, forgiveness, and building up one another in the church promotes growth, health, and life.
 
Preach a sermon series on new life.  The church is the hope of the world because Christ is the risen Lord.  Boldly proclaim the truth of the resurrected Christ and how it works in reaching the world.
 
Start that new ministry that you always believed would make a difference.  It is the season to take a risk.  After all, if you have eternal life can you really fail?  Host a new small group in your home.  Transform that unused space in the church building.  If you are a layperson, blow away your pastor by asking him/her in what ways you can bring life to your church (believe me, your pastor will have ideas for you!).
 
Focus on daily habits of spiritual health and life.  If you would not think of skipping meals for days at a time, then think about the erosion to your church that occurs when many individual parishioners do not read their Bibles on a regular basis or pray with any kind of consistency.  Make a plan and stick to it.  It will not only bring growth to your own life, but will impact those around you.
 

 

            Just keeping the word “Eastertide” in front of you for the next few months can be a simple yet powerful way of reminding us that God has called us to new life.  Let the reality of Christ’s resurrection take root in your heart to such an extent that Jesus becomes the greatest influence to all your thinking, speaking, and acting.

Interpreting Easter

 
 
Perspective and interpretation are everything.  We do not just recognize and know certain facts about things; we have a perspective on those facts and interpret them into some kind of coherent story. 
 
            Nearly eleven years ago my wife and two of my daughters were in a car accident.  We were returning home from my parents’ house in rural Iowa.  A car came from the east on a gravel road and did not slow down but blew through the stop sign, right in front of us.  There was nothing I could do.  I hit his rear quarter panel and his car literally spun like a top and came to a stop.  He and the girl in the passenger seat immediately hopped out of their car without a scratch or bruise on them.  My girls were in the very back seat and were fine.  My wife, however, tore her rotator cuff from the seat belt and the impact.  For me, ever since that day, my back has never been the same.  There are occasionally days when the pain and limitation are so bad that I can barely walk across the room.
 
            In the ten years since that accident I have replayed it over a thousand times in my head.  Maybe if only we had left a few minutes earlier or later from my parents’ house things would be different.  Maybe if I had only driven slower or faster.  But there really was nothing I could have done about it.  I have been downright angry more than once, blaming that stupid kid who changed my life.  In those thousand times of replaying the event, I have looked at it from my perspective, my wife’s perspective, the girls’ perspective, and even the dog’s perspective.  But in all those years of replaying the accident in my mind, just in the past two weeks God has given me a different view of that event.
 
            You see, in these past ten years I have been so deep into interpreting the accident from my perspective and my family’s perspective that I never even considered to look at it from the perspective of the driver of the other car.  It was as if God finally tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to see it all in a different way.  When I look at that accident from the other driver’s view, he was driving down a gravel road and was coming to a t-intersection.  There was no road on the other side of that stop sign.  What is there to this day is a large grain elevator.  He was driving at highway speeds when he went through the stop sign.  Had he blew through that sign and not been struck by my car, he and the passenger with him would have been certainly killed because they would have slammed into the elevator.  But, instead, I “happened” to come along and hit him in such a way that his car spun and literally stopped just feet from the grain elevator.
 
            That car accident actually saved two people’s lives.  All of a sudden my chronic low-level back pain and limitation seems a very small price to pay for the lives of two people.  I am now interpreting that event as God sending his servants, Tim and Mary, to a highway where two other people were on a collision course with death.  And he used us to literally stop it from happening.
 
            Perspective and interpretation are everything.  For many of the people in the first-century, the crucifixion of Jesus was just another death.  It all seemed like some tragic accident that Jesus did not deserve.  But it was no tragic accident.  God sent Jesus to the right place at the right time among people who were on a collision course with death.  And he took their place.  It was us who were behind the wheel and driving our lives recklessly, not knowing that we were facing imminent tragedy.  But Jesus came along and took our place.  He absorbed the punishment that we deserved so that we could live.
 
            My car accident was unique to me and to the others involved.  But the death of Christ is universal in its scope, having affected every single person on planet earth.  And God showed no favoritism.  The cross of Christ is for all kinds of people from every nation, every race, and every ethnic group.  We are invited by Holy Scripture to have a perspective on the cross as being able to affect deliverance from all wrongdoing and all misguided lives.  We are encouraged to interpret the resurrection of Jesus as bringing a new lease on life to millions of people.  We are to take those events of Jesus and see them as our redemption.
 

 

            So, then, our part in the whole affair is this:  Everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.  That is the perspective and the interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus that we need.  Our only hope of life beyond the grave is Christ’s victory over death.  Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed.

Christ’s Resurrection

 
 
It is actually possible that some Christians can be laid back concerning the subject of Christ’s resurrection.  Those who have grown up in the church have heard it all before.  They believe it and have signed off on it on their invisible Christian doctrinal checklist.  Yes, yes, Jesus has risen from the grave… now let’s talk about some exciting stuff, like Wisconsin basketball!  When we view Christianity as merely a set of beliefs to hold, it is only logical to have some boredom over the resurrection.  But if we go beyond this and rightly discern that following Jesus is a way of life, then Christ’s resurrection becomes vital, interesting, and wildly significant.  It is necessary to believe in Christ’s resurrection as a real historic event.  But his rising from death was never meant to end there because God has a way of life for us to live into.  God desires us to lean into that resurrection power as the foundation for glorifying him by experiencing a new changed life.
 
            Jesus had in mind to see a community of redeemed people, delivered from the power of sin and death, use their salvation to love God with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength; to love one another in such a way that demonstrates God’s self-sacrificial love by following him together; and to love the world by talking about the events of the cross and resurrection with people wherever they go, just as naturally as we discuss collegiate basketball.
 
            It is the kind of life that cannot be achieved on our own because spiritually dead people cannot make themselves alive.  It is a life based upon the power and love of Jesus Christ.  God does not choose, adopt, and save based upon how lovely we are or how good we are at making ourselves attractive to him.  He loves us because love is who he is – it is all about his giving us belonging as his beloved child.
 
            Timothy Paul Jones tells in his book Proof: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace about his adopted seven year old little girl.  It was with much prayer that he and his wife decided that God really wanted them to have her become part of their family.  It was not because she was a sweet child.  In fact, this was actually this little girl’s second family because another family had adopted her and did not keep her because they could not handle her.  She had ended up back as an orphan.
 
            After she was adopted and with the Jones’ family for a while, Dad discovered that her former family went to Disney World every year… without her.  The Mom, Dad, and biological siblings would all go, but they would always leave the little girl behind with extended family.  That meant the girl would have to hear all year about the memories of the family and the see the pictures without her in them.  So, after learning about this, Dad decided that the next family vacation was going to be to Disney World, including the adopted girl.
 
            In the month leading up to the vacation, the little girl began lying for no reason, saying incredibly hurtful things to her siblings, and was just a handful to deal with.  Two days before they were to leave, she said to her Dad: “I know what you are going to do.  You are not going to take me to Disney World, are you?”  In her previous family, she had tried being as good as possible, but it never earned her that trip to Disney.  The little girl had been so terrible in the past few months that Dad had the thought to use the trip as leverage to get his daughter in line.  Rather, he wisely responded to her by saying, “This is a trip we are doing as a family, and you are a part of this family, so you are going with us.”  He went on to say, “You will get consequences for your behavior, but we are not leaving you behind.”
 
            The daughter’s behavior did not change, and the car ride to Florida was awful.  But after the first day at Disney World, there was a breakthrough and a turn-around.  Dad asked his daughter, “So, how was your first day at Disney World?”  After a long pause, she said this: “Daddy, I finally got to go to Disney World… but it wasn’t because I was good; it’s because I’m yours.”
 
            Jesus died and rose again, giving us the grace of forgiveness and a new life not because we were either good or attractive; he did it because we belong to him.  There can be no grace without people who flip their middle fingers at God.  Jesus died and rose again because of our sin; because we needed a Savior.  God’s grace is a farmer paying a full day’s wages to a crew of deadbeat day laborers with only a single hour of work (Matthew 20:1-16).  God’s grace is a man marrying an abandoned woman and then refusing to forsake his covenant with her when she turns out to be a whore (Hosea 1:1-3:5).  God’s grace is the nonsense of a shepherd who puts ninety-nine sheep at risk just to rescue one lousy sheep that is too dumb to stay with the flock (Luke 15:1-7).  God’s grace is the extreme commitment to save people from their own sinful stupidity and stubbornness by sacrificing himself on a cruel cross and rising from the dead just so people can live brand new lives full of peace, love, and joy in a new family of redeemed people with lots of siblings who love each other and want to love the lost world who still does not know what they can have in Christ.
 

 

            A true and real grasp of the grace of God in Christ never results in yawning or boredom; it leads to unending praise and extreme gratefulness.  In the wake of Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus is more than a once-a-year recognition for believers; it is to be a way of life in grasping the power of grace and belonging in Jesus.  It ought to change our lives.

Suffering and Joy

Easter is not only one Sunday on the calendar, but is a season in the Christian Year spanning seven weeks, or fifty days, until Pentecost.  In the Easter season the church explores the theme of resurrection and new life in Jesus.  Our Lord Christ did not only die so that we might have forgiveness of sins; He also died so that we might live a new life with a clean slate to follow him daily.  God saves us and forgives us, regenerates us, in order that we will live a new life in Christ.  This regenerated life is not really a matter of making new resolutions or turning over a new leaf – it is a faith response to the grace of God displayed in Christ by dying on the cross and rising from the dead for us.
 
            One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  It is primarily a story of grace and new life.  The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man.  By the time he is released, he is hard and angry at life.  Since ex-convicts were not treated well in 19thcentury France, he had nowhere to go.  In desperation he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit.  In the middle of the night he steals the bishop’s silver, but is caught by the police.  When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, they are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, and says, “You forgot these.”  After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.”  In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.
 
 
 
            But that is only a small part of the story; his forgiveness is the beginning of a new life.  The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a regenerated and redeemed life.  Jean Valjean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done.  Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life.  There are trials and temptations for Valjean all along the way, but what keeps him pursuing his new life is mercy.  Whereas before being shown mercy Valjean responded with a brooding melancholy and inner anger.  Now, after being shown grace, Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.
 
            Suffering and joy.  They seem to be opposed to each other.  And, if we conform to this world’s thinking, they are taken as opposites.  Only Christianity has the worldview perspective that sees suffering as an occasion for joy, and not just senseless, random, and empty grief.  Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior in going in the way of suffering.  We are told in Scripture that these sufferings are trials to our faith, that is, they are the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened.  Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles.  Walking in the way of our Lord Jesus, adversity is our teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great salvation we possess in Jesus (1 Peter 1:3-9).
 
            The most miserable people I know are those who do not know grace, have not been taught by mercy, and, therefore, do not know the joy of extending grace and mercy to others.  There is a tendency for many Christians today towards being stoic through the trials of life.  We try and keep a stiff upper lip and simply endure.  Taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long.  Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is a more appropriate response to trouble. But it is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice, even though the rejoicing is through tears, in the living hope that is kept for us and not by us. This spiritual inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer, and not add to the weight of our troubles by blaming the failure of faith.   
        
            Our goal in this life is not to escape the world because at the end of time when our salvation is completely consummated, heaven comes down to earth and both are joined together.  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of god is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).  This is our inheritance in Christ.  But we must come prepared for this encounter with God by presently undergoing grief in all kinds of sufferings; these trials to our faith are the pre-marital sessions that prepare us for our marriage with Jesus.
 

 

            Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever.  Until that day, however, let us not hunker down and stay in the garage of life.  Let us explore the open road that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith.  Let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.  Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth, in this age, while it is still called Today.  And let us allow the trials of this age to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of loving the world.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Surprised by Joy

 
 
            From Good Friday to Easter we move from grief and confusion to joy and confidence.  In this post-Holy Week arousal from Winter to Spring, it is not simply a time to experience a Resurrection Sunday celebration and move on.  It is the season to rejoice in being surprised by joy in the risen Savior.
 
One day when I was a young seminarian, I was down sick with the flu and in bed.  I barely remember my wife coming into our bedroom after a doctor’s appointment upset and crying.  She was trying to rouse me with a mix of good and bad news.  Mary had gone to the doctor thinking that she probably had the flu, as well.  But the doctor gave her the news that she was pregnant with our first child.  However, after the examination he had reason to be concerned that our little baby was in the wrong place – she was not where she should be, but may very well be in the fallopian tube and not the womb.  So, here I am, barely able to move, getting out of bed and driving to the hospital to get my wife an ultrasound with such a range of emotions within me that all I can do is weep, feeling, like Mary Magdalene on resurrection morning, that my Lord has been taken away from me – it just felt like I didn’t know where Jesus was at that moment and why I was going through this craziness.  I will never forget the words and even the tone of voice of the ultrasound technician as we anxiously were in the dimly lit room looking at a screen we didn’t understand; the technician said, “She is right where she is supposed to be!”  The tears turned to complete joy.  And the words were prophetic; there was no way that the technician could know at six weeks in the womb that we were having a little girl, but she referred to the peanut within my wife as “she.”  And we immediately knew what her name was:  “Sarah,” which is the Hebrew name for “Princess.”  God had graced us with a precious gift of royalty, coming from the grace of King Jesus. 
 
            We are all right where we are supposed to be.  Whatever your life-circumstance is right now, God has you right where he wants you.  We are here on this spinning planet Earth because we have a divine appointment with Jesus.  Mary Magdalene embraced a mission from the Lord.  “I have seen the Lord” was her witness (John 20:18).  Easter opens up a new world for us, as it did for Mary – a future of spreading the good news and announcing resurrection.  A beloved disciple of my church has recently experienced hearing in an ear that did not hear anything for sixteen years.  Some wonderful technology has enabled her to hear in that ear again, and she has not been shy about spreading that good news!  I can now say her name and she can hear her name said in not just one ear, but in both ears.  Jesus is saying your name; he is calling you.  There is a simple reason why the grave-clothes of Jesus were left in the tomb just lying there – they were not needed anymore!  We no longer need the grave-clothes of discouragement and defeat; we no longer need to weep and wonder, because Christ is risen!  He has called our name and we can now hear in both ears!
 
            The 20th century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, said that what brings people to worship – not just on Easter, but on any Sunday – is an unspoken question clinging to our minds and hearts:  Is it true?  Is it true that God lives?  Is it true that Jesus is alive?  Is it true that I can live a new life in Christ?  Is it true that I can rebuild my life?  Is it all true?
 
            All over the world followers of Jesus are testifying that it is true:  Christ is risen, and there is new life in Jesus our Lord.  Believers in Jesus gather together underground for worship with the threat of being caught.  Young college students gather for bible study with significant risk to their lives if they are found to be studying the Christian Scriptures.  Christians huddle together in secluded places celebrating the resurrection of Jesus because they believe it is true, and they believe it is true because they have seen Jesus and heard his voice.
 
            Pastor Tim Keller once told of a minister who traveled to Italy and there saw the grave of a man who had died centuries before who was an unbeliever and completely against Christianity, but a little afraid of it, too. So the man had a huge stone slab put over his grave so he would not have to be raised from the dead in case there is a resurrection from the dead. He had insignias put all over the slab saying, “I do not want to be raised from the dead. I don’t believe in it.” Evidently, when he was buried, an acorn must have fallen into the grave. So a hundred years later the acorn had grown up through the grave and split that slab. It is now a tall towering oak tree. The minister looked at it and asked, “If an acorn, which has power of biological life in it, can split a slab of that magnitude, what can the acorn of God’s resurrection power do in a person’s life?”
 
When a person believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord, the power of the Holy Spirit is there. It’s the power of the resurrection—the same thing that raised Jesus from the dead.  Think of the things you see as immovable slabs in your life—your bitterness, your insecurity, your fears, your self-doubts and cynicism. Those things can be split and rolled off. The more you know Jesus, the more you grow into the power of the resurrection.  You do not need to just hear accounts of changed lives; you can experience new life yourself.
 

 

            Ministry in the church is to center in the redemptive events of Jesus; this is what makes the church a unique institution.  Use this Easter season to more fully circle everything in life and ministry around the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In doing so, the power of resurrection is with you.  Praise the Lord.