Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter: Good News, Bad News . . . and More Good News


Today is Easter Sunday, the day on which the Church celebrates the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. What does this historical fact mean?

First, the good news of Easter:

Jesus' resurrection confirms that he is in fact the Son of God, the long-promised Savior of God's people. "His Son . . . was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:3-4).

Jesus' resurrection shows that God approved of Jesus' finished work of atonement, his wrath-deflecting death for sinners. He fully bore the punishment due upon sinners, and having completed it, was vindicated (justified) by being raised from the dead. "Jesus our Lord . . . was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Romans 4:25). "By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I [God] will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong" (Isaiah 53:11-12).

Jesus is the living, secure source of sure forgiveness of sins for all who turn to him, now and for eternity. "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47). "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Romans 5:10). "The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:23-25).

Jesus defeated death, opening up a new future for God's redeemed humanity. For all in Christ, death is not the final word. "God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:24). "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as all in Adam die, so also shall all in Christ be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. . . . The last enemy to be destroyed [by Christ] is death" (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 26). "Our Savior Christ Jesus . . . abolished death and brought life and immortality to life through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10).

Believers in Christ will one day share new bodies like his. "What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21). "When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4).

Those who belong to Christ already possess new life and victory over sin's guilt, shame, and power by the same Holy Spirit, a foretaste and a down payment confirming the glorious new life to come. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . . . For the death he died, he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God" (Romans 6:3-5, 10-11). "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:4-6; see also Colossians 2:13-15).

Many people, feeling either an internal need for religion or desiring an external show of false piety, only attend worship services on Christmas and Easter. These motives even drive many people to church week after week. Perhaps you are one of them. It is a blessing indeed to hear of the Good News, the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection. But Easter isn't all good news. Here's the rest of the story:

Being raised from the dead and exalted as God's Son, Jesus is also the King who commands our obedience and submission. "The LORD said to me, 'You are my Son; today I have begotten you. As of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.' Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him" (Psalm 2:7-12). "The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3:35-36).

As the Living One who holds the keys to death and hell, Jesus will come again to judge all people. "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" (Revelation 1:17-18). "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).

As terrible as the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth were (and are) to witness, at least if you only come to church on Good Friday, you are left with only a dead man. If the last word about Jesus was his burial in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, then we are left with a benign Judean rabbi -- a man of love and power, to be sure, but one whose love and power are no longer active for us today. But in fact Jesus has been raised and demands the obedience of faith from all people. We can either be honest with ourselves and God about our wretched condition, our sinfulness, and the failures in trying to live life on our own terms--and the just anger of God due to us because of that. And we can turn to Jesus and embrace him as the Living One, the sure Savior whose death has paid for all our sins and removed God's wrath, and who opens to us eternal, new life in fellowship with him and all his blessings. The same love, forgiveness, power, healing, wisdom, and compassion Jesus embodied and used for good in his earthly life can be yours today if you commit yourself to him and receive him as our Rescuer and Master. The good news of Easter will become your good news. Or you can choose to remain indifferent to this Jesus, perhaps gambling upon the chance at a later day to take him seriously.

Just as Jesus asked his dear friend Martha, so he asks all of us today: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26). If you do believe this, here is a possible prayer you can use:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, you are alive today, and that gives me great joy and hope! Your death has paid for my sins and secured my forgiveness, and I know you call to me now to receive you and cross over from death to new life. I am a needy sinner, but in unfathomable love and grace you gladly and fully meet all my needs, both now and forever. I turn from my ways and trust you as my Savior and my King. Take me to be yours, and reign in my life--because I have no other hope. You are trustworthy and true, and I know you will do all this for me. Amen!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

"Just watch my servant blossom!

Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!

But he didn't begin that way.

At first everyone was appalled.

He didn't even look human--

a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.

Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,

kings shocked into silence when they see him.

For what was unheard of they'll see with their own eyes,

what was unthinkable they'll have right before them."

Who believes what we've heard and seen?

Who would have thought GOD's saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God--a scrawny seedling,

a scrubby plant in a parched field.

There was nothing attractive about him,

nothing to cause us to take a second look.

He was looked down on and passed over,

a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.

One look at him and people turned away.

We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

But the fact is, it was our pains he carried--

our disfigurement, all the things wrong with us.

We thought he brought it on himself,

that God was punishing him for his own failures.

But it was our sins that did that to him,

that ripped and tore and crushed him--our sins!

He took the punishment, and that made us whole.

Through his bruises we get healed.

We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost.

We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.

And GOD has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,

on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured,

but he didn't say a word.

Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered

and like a sheep being sheared,

he took it all in silence.

Justice miscarried, and he was led off--

and did anyone really know what was happening?

He died without a thought for his own welfare,

beaten bloody for the sins of my people.

They buried him with the wicked,

threw him in a grave with a rich man,

Even though he'd never hurt a soul

or said one word that wasn't true.

Still, it's what GOD had in mind all along,

to crush him with pain.

The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin

so that he'd see life come from it--life, life, and more life.

And GOD's plan will deeply prosper through him.

Out of that terrible travail of soul,

he'll see that it's worth it and be glad he did it.

Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,

will make many "righteous ones,"

as he himself carries the burden of their sins.

Therefore I'll reward him extravagantly--

the best of everything, the highest honors--

Because he looked death in the face and didn't flinch,

because he embraced the company of the lowest.

He took on his own shoulders the sin of many,

he took up the cause of all the black sheep.

--Isaiah 52:1 - 53:12, The Message

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Costly Marriage

Our pastor has been preaching through the Old Testament book of Ruth, a beautifully-spun narrative about how the light of God's active providence and steadfast love dawned upon the darkness of two insignificant widows. In chapter 4, the story comes to a head as the young Moabite widow Ruth finds a husband who is willing to marry her despite the financial burden it will bring upon him in losing part of his inheritance to Ruth's children. (Under Jewish law, a kinsman was to marry his relative's widowed wife and produce children for her. However, the children would be reckoned as belonging to the deceased husband, and they would be required to receive a separate inheritance.) Boaz, Ruth's redeemer and a "man of great wealth" (2:1 NASB), acted out a love that was not only perhaps romantic, but also sought out her good even at his own cost. In binding himself to Ruth all his gain would become hers, her offspring's, and her mother-in-law's--the cure to their poverty--but he would also take on her baggage. He'd lose part of his inheritance. He'd have to deal with the emotional pain of a widowed bride who probably often longed for her previous husband, even if only in memories. As a Moabite, he would have to train her in the faith of Yahweh. He was taking on a lot by binding himself to her and her to himself. Martin Luther reminds us that our Boaz--our redeeming husband--is Jesus Christ, who, "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). At the cost of his own humiliation, scourging, mockery, and agonizing crucifixion he bought us for himself, to make his people, the church, his radiant bride (see Eph. 5:25-32; Rev.19:6-10). (Please bear with this; though lengthy, it's some of Luther's best.)

The . . . incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom [1]. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage--indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage--it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see the inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul's; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride's and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?

Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride's. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell [2]. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride, "without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word" [cf. Eph. 5:26-27] of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation. In this way he marries her in faithfulness, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice, as Hos. 2[:19-20] says.

Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, "If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his," as the bride in the Song of Solomon [2:16] says, "My beloved is mine and I am his." This is what Paul means when he says in 1 Cor. 15[:57], "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," that is, the victory over sin and death, as he also says there, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law" [1 Cor. 15:56].

-- On Christian Liberty (Augsburg Fortress, 2003), pp. 18-22

____________________ 1. It appears that Luther is using "soul" here as a sort of generic, gender-neutral pronoun. He was no gnostic who saw sin only on a spiritual plane. 2. Notice how Luther relies on the Christus Victor model of Athanasius, Chrysostom, and other church fathers (that by virtue of the Incarnation, Jesus' God-life destroyed and overcame all that afflicted mankind, to whom his deity was united). But he employs this model as part of the way Jesus bore our sins to carry out on a vicarious, substitutionary atonement that bore the condeming wrath of God due to sinners. They are not mutually exclusive perspectives on the atonement.