Friday, April 29, 2016

Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A 5 year old girl asked her mom what a Bible verse meant that her class had discussed in Sunday School: "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." Her mom said, "Well, it means that when you are good and kind, you are letting Christ's light shine in your life before all who know you."

The very next Sunday in Sunday school, the little girl got in a bit of a spat with another girl and created somewhat of an uproar.  The Sunday school teacher had to go and find her mother to get her to settle down in class.  Her mother said, "Sweetie, don't you remember about letting your light shine before others?" The girl blurted out, "Mom, I am sorry, I think I blowed myself out."

In our morning lesson from Matthew, Jesus says something astounding, something extraordinary to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.”   Prior to this Jesus called himself the Light of the World, but now he declares that his followers are salt and light?

Jesus clearly wanted his followers to see themselves as salt and light in how they lived and how they functioned in life.  To this ragtag band disciples, Jesus’ words must have sounded quite peculiar.  But Jesus saw something in these disciples which they did not see.  And Jesus knew God’s plan for them which they did not know.  And isn’t that true for us as well?  We often don’t see ourselves the way others see us.  And we don’t see ourselves the way God sees us or know the plans God has for us?

Why would Jesus use a metaphor like salt and light for his followers?    Listen to what God is saying to you in this teaching.

Salt is valuable.   Roman soldiers carried salt with them instead of gold when they traveled long distances through arid lands.   It was prized commodity for trade.   Jesus was giving kudos to his disciples.  He was affirming their value by calling them salt. Do you hear Jesus affirming your value, your worth, when he refers to you as the salt of the earth?

Salt is a preservative.  It was used to keep food from spoiling; to keep food fresh.  Sailors in Jesus' day packed food in salt to preserve it on long voyages.  What is God calling you to preserve?  What comes to your mind?  I think of some examples: we are to preserve the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ and pass it to the next generation; we are to preserve biblical morality like the Ten Commandments; we are to preserve the value of the family and marriage, we are to preserve biblical values like  honesty, truthfulness, kindness, respect, goodness, we are to preserve biblical precepts like loving others, justice, righteousness, we are to preserve the church, the body of Christ and its worship and mission in the community and world.  Sprinkle a few grains of salt and it preserves food.   What is God calling you to preserve?

Further salt is for seasoning, it lends flavor to things.  Food without salt is flavorless and insipid.  Don’t we often use seasonings to spice up our food: garlic, shallots, onions, peppers, paprika and salt?  Now salt alone isn’t very tasty.  Most people don’t enjoy snacking on salt, like a cow with a salt lick.  It’s a catalyst.  Coach Bear Bryant had a sign hanging over his locker room that said, “Make something happen.”  Salt makes things happen.  Salt brings out flavor and adds taste. The late Christian author William Barclay writes:  “Christianity is to life what salt is to food. Christianity lends flavor to life.”  How can you and I lend flavor to life?    By bringing humor in situations.  By seeing the humorous.  By being able to laugh, even at yourself, and getting others to laugh with you.  Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:  “I might have entered the ministry if certain clergymen I knew had not looked and acted like undertakers.”  Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote:  “I have been to church today, and I am not depressed.”  We lend flavor by having a positive attitude rather than a negative pessimistic one.  By showing gratitude and appreciation rather than complaining and grumbling all the time.   By giving encourgement to someone when he or she is down, rather than criticism.  By bringing enthusiasm, energy and zest to others.

Laura Armstrong is the founder of Chemo Angels, which is a volunteer organization dedicated to adding a ray of sunshine to those undergoing treatment for cancer.  Laura has provided that ray of sunshine by gathering volunteers, called "Chemo Angels," who commit to regularly sending cards, gifts, and other tangible expressions of encouragement.   Here's one mother's note to the Chemo Angels:  "Justin received not one, but two packages yesterday! He was so thrilled. We had a very difficult day at the doctor's office. Then, when we arrived home, there were two boxes waiting for him. It was perfect timing!  It is almost as if someone "up there" is timing the arrival of the Angel packages.  Thanks again for all you and the Angels accomplish. It is truly miraculous! —Lorie.”

What do you need to do to season your witness?   The letter of Colossians 4:6 counsels when talking with unbelievers: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”    I'm not talking here about using salty language.  But in finding positive and constructive language to share your faith and hope in Christ.  Jesus calls you and me to bring out life’s flavor.  If we make no effort to positively affect people around us, to bring glory to God, we are like Jesus said, “salt which has lost its saltiness.”  We are of no use to God.  We should not try to just blend in with everyone; but rather to bring out flavor in life.

Jesus is saying bring out the abundant life which God offers all people, bring out the joy of life in Christ, bring out purpose by helping others to discover God’s plan for their lives, bring out hope to those who are experiencing emptiness, brokenness,  and hopelessness.

Sprinkle a few disciples here and there, sprinkle some of you around in places and no telling what God will stir up, no telling what flavors you’ll bring out, or what you will preserve.   The highest calling we can have in life is knowing God used us to accomplish His plans and purposes.  Someone said: “Unless salt gets poured out of the shaker, it remains a mere table ornament.” Are we salt shakers or table ornaments?

Jesus further said you are the light of the world.  Light is life.  Light is fundamental to humanity and all creation.  In the book of Genesis, God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.  God saw that the light was good.”  God created light on the first day. In our New Testament lesson, Jesus, the Light of the world, came to bring humanity out of the darkness of sin and into the light of God.   Jesus declares to his followers something astounding:  “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts in under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine, before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Jesus says you are to glow brilliantly, to burn brightly, to blaze intensely.  Jesus asserts that as Christ's followers, through our faith and actions, filled with the indwelling Spirit of Christ, we reflect the light of His glory to the world.   For the purpose of light is to illuminate.   As lights, we are to witness to the one true light in our daily lives.  We are not the source of the light; we are reflectors of the light of Christ.  Jesus' light shines in and through us so He can be seen.   Are you hiding Christ’s light or reflecting it?

A Chinese proverb says:  “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” In the face of adversity and disappointment, it is more worthwhile to do some good, however small, than to complain about the situation.  But, I know, because I've been there, it's much easier to curse the darkness.

Jesus words cause us to ask:  “Who me?”  Does that question cross your mind at hearing Jesus words?  How to do we reflect the light of Christ?  We radiate light when we inspire courage in those who are paralyzed by fear, when we help others to find a solution to their problems, when our words and actions inspire others to place their ultimate faith and trust, commitment and obedience in God.  And what an honor, what a privilege to be a means of someone's coming to faith or renewing trust in their faith.

We radiate light when we light the path of others.  When we are a guide, a leader, a mentor to someone.  We are a light when we make the time and take the time to spend with someone who is lost or aimless or confused and needs light to open up his or her path.

We radiate light when our words and actions inspire hope in others.   When they begin to believe that possibilities exist, that there is a pathway out, that the future is open, and that they are not alone, but there is another who is with them.  The Bible says “Through Jesus Christ, we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

We radiate light when we truly love others in Christ without thought of recognition, acknowledgment, credit or compensation.

I think of an elderly woman at my former church in Monument, CO where I served as pastor.  She was a Registered Nurse, long retired, well into her 80's. She volunteered at the local high school as a tutor/mentor for students who were having academic difficulties.  She was well known, respected and beloved.  She went a couple of days a week to the high school, and tutored one-on-one with young people having difficulty with some subject like math.  And she made it clear why she is there, she not only loved kids, and wanted to use her talents, but she found ways to witness to Jesus Christ.  I saw and heard how she brought the light of success and understanding and love to students who were struggling with the darkness of failing in school.

Are you hiding Christ’s light or revealing it?  God’s eternal light shines in you.  The highest calling any of us can have in life is making the world a little brighter because of the way we live and move and have our being.

I close with these words from the late artist Thomas Kinkade: “I believe we all have a greater purpose to our lives than merely existing day to day.  Each of us in our own unique way is called to let our light shine.” I believe it too.  Others are to see our good works, which are meant to draw attention not to ourselves but to God. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.”    Amen!

Friday, April 22, 2016

A House Not Made with Hands (Psalm 19:1-4; II Cor.5:1-5) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A church member writes:  Our pastor on occasion goes on a personal retreat to the mountains, to be alone with the Lord, to pray and seek God's direction for his ministry.  Someone called the church and asked, "May I speak with the pastor?"  The office manager replied, "I'm sorry, he's gone up to be with the Lord."  There was sudden gasp at the other end of the line, and realizing what she said, she quickly followed up, "Oh, but he'll be back next week."

The prospect of life after death.  Sometimes Christian faith focuses exclusively on living beyond this earthly life.   Believers dwell on and are consumed by their future life with God in heaven.  They spend all their time in prayer, meditation, reading the Bible, and worship.   I think this is an escapist faith, which can and has historically, become a flight from responsibility in our earthly life.   This violates Jesus' teaching about loving one's neighbor, about ministering to the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten and sick, and the lonely.

On the other hand, faith can focus exclusively on being involved in social issues, working to eradicate hunger, homelessness, and peacemaking, with no vision of a promising future.   Christian faith must be a balance between heaven and earth.  Jesus said “feed my sheep,” but Jesus also taught about heaven, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and his prayer - “Our father who art in heaven.”   True biblical faith is a balance of both loving others in the name of Jesus and maintaining a vision of hope for the future. 

In the Old Testament Job asks the question: “If a man die, shall he live again?”  It's an age-old question.  Have you asked it?  I think there are two important questions in life in light of our Christian faith:  “What is my purpose on earth?”  “And what happens after I die?”  

People have different perspectives when it comes to thinking about death and life after death.   Some are caught in a materialistic world view and have no room in their thinking about anything except this physical and earthly life.  They believe that life is extinguished at the grave.  For others, death is something that they are waiting for, longing for; it’s seen as a blessing, a relief from suffering.  For some death is an unknown to be feared and fought against with every fiber of one's being.    Other people find comfort in the idea of reincarnation, that they will live on in another form of life.  For still others, death is seen as an entrance into heaven, into a new and awesome existence.

Do you believe in heaven?  Do you think it makes a difference in how you view life and live your life?  I do. I believe in heaven.   We read in the book of psalms: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”  I agree with the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians when he writes:  “If we only have hope in this life in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”

What is heaven like?  Heaven is not simply wishful thinking.  It is not a fantasy or empty dream.  I like the way one Christian author put it:  “Heaven is like a bud bursting into an eternal bloom, like a blossom ripening into an eternal fruit, like a train emerging from a dark tunnel into a glorious alpine valley.  Heaven is the reality in which we find the kindly, humble, fine, noble, courageous, understanding, caring spirits whom we have loved on earth.  Here we find fulfillment and consummation.  This is home.”

Yes, heaven is a reality where we shall experience acceptance, mercy love, comfort, strength, and know the utter joy of being with Jesus and an intimate part of the family of God, the communion of saints. The Bible gives us visual images of the after-life: a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem, the holy city, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, a house with many rooms. 

Jesus promises: “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms, I go there to prepare a place for you. I would not tell you this if it were not so.  And after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”     

Scripture says in heaven you and I shall meet Jesus Christ face to face.    The letter of I Cor. says: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, then we shall see face to face.  Now we know only in part, then we will know fully, even as we are fully known.”  It says: “God will dwell with people as their God, they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.”

The Bible teaches that in heaven we will receive a new body.  No more treadmills or stationary bikes.   Would you like a new body?  We will not at death be reabsorbed into the universe, like a drop in the ocean.  We shall not merely enter into oblivion.  Our individual identity, our uniqueness, created by God, will continue.  I Corinthians says:  “Some ask, with what kind of body will I come to heaven?  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable, what is sown is mortal, what is raised is immortal, what is sown is physical, what is raised is spiritual.  What is sown in dishonor is raised in glory.  What is sown in weakness is raised in power.  If it is sown a physical body, it is raised a glorious body.”   We will be clothed with a heavenly dwelling.

II Corinthians says the same thing in a different way: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”   This earthly tent we live in now comes to an end, the lease expires, and God gives us a new body, a building from God, a house not made with human hands but the hands of God, one that is eternal in heaven.

Heaven will also be a time of rest we are told in the letter of Hebrews, like God’s resting on the 7th day.  Does anyone here need rest?   Further, heaven is a reality where you shall be rewarded for your faithfulness to God and your obedience to Jesus Christ here on earth.  I know some people have trouble with this idea of being rewarded.  But Jesus says:  “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”

In heaven we shall be reunited with loved ones.  You will recognize loved ones and enjoy eternity with them.  The Bible speaks about the communion of saints, a great cloud of witnesses living in heaven.    

The final verse of Psalm 23 is: “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Heaven in the Bible is portrayed as a house where we shall live forever with the Lord. 

Romans 6:23 reads:  “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.”  We don’t have to be anxious about our future.  Heaven is a gift of God’s grace.  Heaven is a promise of Jesus our Lord.  In Romans 10 we read: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  No one who believes in him will be put to shame. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”   This is the promise which gives us confidence that our future is secure in God.

Recall the wonderful words from the New Testament letter of I Peter: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  By his great mercy, he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading kept in heaven for you.”  

I remember when my mother died in 1988.  She was 73 and I was 40.  She was a wonderful mother.  She was a devoted Christian, a loving mother and wife, she had a good sense of humor, she worked full time as a school secretary for the city schools, and she was active in our church.   She died after suffering from pneumonia and the crippling effects of Parkinson’s disease.  In a dream about a month after she died, I saw her in heaven.  Her face was radiant.  Her body was whole and healthy.  She was walking through a sun-lit field saying “Alan, everything is alright, I’m fine.”   I believe God sent me a picture of my mother in that dream to help me in my grief.

My friends, remember our earthly existence is the warm up act.  It is the prologue for the main event where you’re going to spend all of eternity.  You might even spend a 100 or more years of life here on earth.  But life in heaven is everlasting. 

I believe in heaven because Jesus believed in it.  Jesus taught about it and preached about it.    He spoke about heaven as a realm where God’s will is being done and where angels rejoice in every sinner’s repentance on earth.   Jesus preached:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”    “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”   Jesus made a glorious promise: “Because I live, you shall live also.”

I close with a quote from the great evangelist Rev. Billy Graham:  “When I arrive at heaven’s Gate, God will not be impressed by the many crusades I have conducted.  God will not be impressed that I spoke to more people than anyone in the history of the Christian Faith.  I come to the Gates of Heaven like anyone else—in Jesus Christ and His all sufficient, sacrificial, substitutionary death on the Cross for my sins.  We will be in heaven by the stripes on the back of Jesus Christ, not by any stripes, badges, medals or honors that we have been awarded.” This is the good news of this Easter season.  Amen!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Three Questions! (John 21:15-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Why? Where? Who? What? When? How?  Questions.  So many questions.  Are questions important?  Here's one: “How many innings did it take for the SD Padres to finally score a run? 30.  I won't ask the other question, why?”  But lately things are definitely looking up!

Our nearly 3 year old grand daughter Haven loves to say the word why.  You say something.  She asks why?  You answer.  She asks why?   This could go on all day.  Our son and daughter-in-law have found a new technique they use when she gets into the endless questions mode, they asked her a question.   Actually it’s not new.  I believe the Greek Philosopher Socrates perfected it in the 5th century B.C. in Athens.

Obviously we learn by asking questions.  We ask questions as students and on our jobs.  As persons made in God's image, God created us with a special attribute, curiosity.  We are by nature inquisitive.  Curiosity fuels questions which lead to insights, understanding, breakthroughs, innovation and often more questions.  English scientist Sir Isaac Newton asked, “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?”  These questions led to discoveries about gravity and laws of motion.

Jesus was a master of asking questions.  I am always amazed at how Jesus our Lord used questions to impart vital spiritual and moral truths.  Jesus didn't ask questions because he needed to know the answers.  He used questions to open a new level of spiritual understanding in people.  He asked questions to lead people into truth, for example, about the Kingdom of God.   He asked questions to inspire people to change their minds, to repent and to redirect their lives. The power of his questions cut into the human soul.

Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings about his identity, about God, about the Kingdom and surprisingly they reveal truths about ourselves.

The Easter season announces a new reality, a truth for all time – Jesus came to offer new life, and through faith in the Risen Lord we can experience new life today and forever.  Jesus' resurrection is a surprise of God’s grace which brings joy, hope amidst despair and power for living today. Easter is a joyous celebration.

But it's more than a party with a surprise appearance by the guest of honor, as we discover in our morning lesson from the gospel of John.  The surprise of Easter, of Jesus' resurrection and appearances to many, is immediately followed by a divine imperative – Follow Me.  Do you hear it?

In our lesson, the Risen Lord asks Simon Peter three questions:  “Do you love me more than these?”  By these, Jesus was likely pointing to Peter’s boat, and his nets and fishing gear since he was a fisherman.  Jesus asks a second time: “Do you love me?”  And a third time: “Do you love me?”  And every time Simon answers “yes.”

In the first two questions Jesus uses the Greek word Agape for love, but in the third he uses the Greek word Philos.  Biblical interpreters have speculated as to whether there was any special significance in Jesus using two different Greek words.  One insight I agree with is that traditionally Agape was used to speak of God’s love for us, it was used exclusively for God, but here Jesus uses Agape in speaking of Peter’s love for Him.  Jesus I believe is saying something profound, those who follow Jesus have the ability, the capacity, by the grace and Spirit of God to love God and to love others like God loves.   That is a extraordinary revelation in this story!

Now we might expect, upon hearing Peter's response, for Jesus to say: “Thanks Peter, I was hoping you would say that,” but does He?  No, instead Jesus immediately delivers a directive: “Feed my sheep, tend my lambs.”  This undoubtedly caught Peter, who by now thought he had proven his devotion to Jesus, by complete surprise.  Was Jesus doubting Peter's dedication?
Jesus then charges Peter to care for, to protect, to watch over his lambs and sheep.  Jesus then tells Peter that Peter will eventually die because of his commitment to Jesus.  His gives Peter a glimpse into the future.

Do you love Jesus?  It's a question Jesus asks of you and me today.  It’s a question the living and reigning Lord asks of every new generation of believers.  And Jesus makes the follow up command to you, to me, and to every new generation as well, “Follow me.”

When Jesus speaks about sheep and lambs, he is of course speaking figuratively, metaphorically; he isn’t referring to cute cuddly little white lambs or woolly sheep.  Jesus is speaking about children and adults, believers and unbelievers alike.  He is talking about caring for children and adults, friends and strangers physically, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.

How would you answer Jesus question?  Your answer may be “no, or I don’t know, or how do I love you, or yes Lord, I love you.”  It’s a query that won’t go away.   Jesus' birth, his ministry, his death on the cross and resurrection have all been about the goal of reconciling us with God.   It is about what Jesus has done for you and what our response to Jesus will be.

How do we love the Risen Lord?  We love when we worship the Lord, when we pray to him, when we talk to others about him, when we affirm our faith and devotion to the Lord, even in the midst of suffering and disappointment.  Our love comes through expressions of gratitude and appreciation to God for challenges met, goals reached, gifts and blessings given and prayers answered.

But there is a further way; the way of obedience. Involvement, commitment, sacrifice, engagement, service.   Someone said: “Christianity is not a spectator sport. Christians who do not participate either vegetate or evacuate.”  Loving the Lord Jesus means your mind is alive to the presence of others and your heart is open to the needs of people around you.    A Christian writes: “For many years, I have attended midweek Eucharists at St. Bede's Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One thing I love is the hand-lettered sign that hangs over the only door into the sanctuary: SERVANT'S ENTRANCE. There isn't any way in or out of that church except through the service door.”

Every time you get frustrated with having to take care of someone, maybe aging parents or an ill neighbor or a relative, every time you get tired of volunteering in the church or community, or visiting someone in a nursing home, or bringing a meal to someone in need, or driving someone to church,  that persistent question of Jesus’ returns.   “Do you love me?   Will you serve me?

Feed my lambs, feed my sheep!”  Jesus is saying watch out for people in need around you.  Jesus commands, feed my lambs, care for children around you and your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  There are opportunities like volunteering at local schools tutoring children, helping with our church Youth group and children's Kingdom Kids or our Friday Night Family movie and pizza ministry.  You may wish to volunteer at child abuse prevention programs.

I think of the inspiring Monarch School here in San Diego which our church helps financially to support.   We hope to have a speaker from Monarch in the Fall.  Monarch School is a public K-12 school in San Diego, founded in 1988, which is exclusively for students who are homeless, at risk of being homeless, or impacted by homelessness.  It is the only such school in the United States.  The mission of the Monarch School is to educate students impacted by homelessness and to help them develop hope for a future with the necessary skills and experiences for personal success.   What a great mission.

Jesus says feed my sheep!  Some examples are providing support for struggling families or singles or visiting elderly persons in nursing homes or volunteering for Meals on Wheels or our own Sunday Night Ministry.

Like the story about a woman who drives a long distance to the nursing home where her mother is now living.  Before each visit, she pauses a moment before getting out of the car.  She remembers the many arguments that plagued their relationship over the years, the harsh words that can never be forgotten, the long years when they barely even spoke to each other.  She hopes it will go well, but she knows that this visit might not, like others before it.

So she bows her head against the steering wheel and prays for patience, wisdom and a positive encounter.  What she doesn’t realize is that her mother is also praying, because she too is nervous about this visit.  It isn’t the ideal relationship, but it’s the relationship they have.  It’s their chance to be a mother and daughter.  It’s the opportunity to say “yes” to loving Jesus, by honoring and loving one another, by an act of obedience.

Jesus' three questions are always appropriate and relevant.  I ask you to think about His questions this week.   Easter is not only about a surprise party with the sudden appearance of the guest of honor.  It is about a summons, a mandate from our Risen Lord to His followers?

May we live joyfully and walk obediently with the one who lived for us, died for us, rose for us and reigns in power for us, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.  Alleluia.  Amen!

Friday, April 1, 2016

I Have Seen the Lord (John 20:1-18) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Comedian Ken Davis writes about a woman who looked out of her window one morning and saw her German shepherd shaking the life out of a neighbor's rabbit.   Her family did not get along well with these neighbors, so she knew this was going to be a disaster.  She ran outside and yelled at the dog until it dropped the now extremely dead rabbit out of its mouth.  She panicked.  She didn't know what else to do.  She grabbed the rabbit, took it inside, gave it a bath, blow dried it to its original fluffiness, combed it until the rabbit was looking good, snuck into the neighbor's yard, and propped the rabbit back up in its cage.   An hour later she heard screams coming from next door.  She asked her neighbor, "What's going on?"  The neighbor shrieked: "Our rabbit!  He died two weeks ago. We buried him and now he's back!”

Easter as we know isn't really about rabbits; it's about Jesus of Nazareth.  Today 2.2 billion Christian believers, of the 7 billion inhabitants on this earth, are celebrating Jesus' resurrection.  We gather to honor the most stupendous event in history.  No event has changed lives or shaped human history and culture, like the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Which leads us to our story from the Gospel of John.  As Easter dawns we meet Mary Magdalene or Mary of Magdala.  She was one of the followers who accompanied Jesus in his ministry to villages and towns. Out of all the women named in the New Testament she is the only one named in all four Gospels.  She provided financial help and support to Jesus and the disciples.   She came from the costal town of Magdala near the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus cured her of a serious illness, and she became one of his most devoted followers.  Mary had witnessed Jesus' crucifixion on the cross.  She saw him die.  She saw him buried in the tomb. She saw the soldiers roll a heavy stone in front of it.   Her beloved rabbi was dead. She was devastated.

Mary went to the tomb in the morning of the 3rd day, broken-hearted, grief-stricken, shaken to the core.  She had gone to anoint the body of Jesus of Nazareth with spices as was the Jewish custom.  She was shocked to discover that the stone had been rolled away.   The tomb was empty.  She ran to tell some of Jesus' disciples what she had found.

Mary's first response at finding the tomb open was that someone had stolen Jesus' body.   A normal human response.  She exclaimed, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Mary didn't believe Jesus was alive.  An empty tomb meant someone had removed or stolen Jesus' body.  Disbelief, doubt, agnosticism, skepticism, even cynicism is a common human response to the question about God's existence and similarly to the Christian claim about Easter, that Jesus arose on Easter, that he is alive, now and forevermore.

From that morning people have debated about what really happened on Easter.   For example, because of her grief Mary went to the wrong tomb, or Mary and the disciples were delusional, or the disciples made up the story of Jesus' resurrection, or someone stole the body as Mary had assumed.  But who removed it?   Jesus disciples?  The Jews?  The Romans?    And why?  An empty tomb, no body, no corpus delicti, would give credibility to the claim of Jesus' followers that Jesus rose from the dead and was alive.

Critics throughout history have vigorously denied the resurrection.  It's been called a lie, a fraud, a hoax.    The problem is if Mary and the others had not seen the Risen Lord, how do you explain the existence of the Church, the existence of the Christian faith, the existence of the New Testament, the record of Jesus' life and the birth and growth of the church, the existence of worship on Sunday, which celebrates Jesus resurrection?   How do we explain changed lives in history and today who attribute their new life to Jesus Christ?

Now let's move on to consider Mary's second response - “I have seen the Lord.”  Quite a contrast from her first response.  Mary saw the Lord, true, but not at first according to our story.  Mary didn't initially recognize Jesus.   She was in mourning.  Suddenly Jesus says, “Woman why are you weeping?” “Whom are you looking for?”  Mary assumed this stranger was the gardener and asked him if he knew where the body was.  Jesus speaks a second time, “Mary,” and Mary replies “Rabbouni,” for in that instant she knew it was Jesus.  Jesus spoke to her in her hour of need, in her time of grief, in her time of searching, in her time of vulnerability, in a moment when she was completely receptive; that's when she truly saw Jesus.

Seeing is of course extremely important.  We are able to see inspiring sights, the skys, the oceans, the mountains, people.  Physical sight is a blessed gift.   The Bible speaks about seeing, about physical sight, yes, but that's not the only kind of sight.  The New Testament also speaks about seeing with the eyes of the heart.  We read:  “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.”  A Christian praise song says - “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you.”

The Bible speaks about another kind of sight: insight, intuition, perceiving or perception, discernment, experiencing a kairos or God moment.  Sometimes our eyesight deceives us.   Do you ever find this in your life?  You look directly at something and totally miss it.  You look at something and think it is something other than what it is.  Witnesses are notorious for giving different accounts of the same accident.   My mother used to say, “Alan, sometimes people say, I see, but they don't see at all.”  When Mary first saw Jesus she didn't recognize him.  That recognition was a gift, a moment of grace, a special response to meeting Jesus.  It was a spiritual encounter.   Faith is another kind of seeing.  Faith is another kind of sight.

We need sight and insight in life.  Easter says - “See not only with your eyes but with the eyes of your heart.”   Both are extremely valuable.  For example people are seeing with the eyes of their hearts when they say:

I see God's hand in my life.  I know God was in my experience.  I see that God is active in my life.  I see now that God answered my prayer.  It was a God moment, a God thing.  I see that God is in charge of His world.  I see that no power of evil can snatch away God's final victory.  I see that Jesus is alive.”    Faith is a form of seeing or perceiving.   Mary went from seeing a gardener to seeing Jesus on Easter.

Mary wasn't the only one that day and the days following who claimed to have seen the Risen Lord.  Many followers were distraught because they believed Jesus was dead.  Hear the testimony in the New Testament from the letter of I Corinthians:  The apostle Paul writes: “I would remind you, brothers and sisters of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you, unless you have come to believe in vain.  I handed on to you what I in turn had received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died, then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me.”

Like Mary and the other followers, God often reaches out to us in times of need, like times of fear and anxiety, times where we feel worthless and a failure, where we feel lost or alone, in times of grief.   Because of Easter, followers of Jesus, in a way that can't be totally explained, have in the depths of their being, seen God.

How else do we explain the faith of over 2 billion believers whose lives radically changed and who make a difference in the world.  How else do we explain the faith of people like Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Wilberforce, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie Ten Boom, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mother Teresa, Evangeline Booth of the Salvation Army, or C.S. Lewis, or Pope Francis, or scientist Francis Collins, or Marco Rubio, or Jimmy Carter, or L.A. Pitcher Clayton Kershaw or the late poet Maya Angelou.  You can add to the list.

Rick Warren, whom I highly respect, is the pastor of Saddleback Church and the author of The Purpose Driven Life.   He and his wife, Kay, went through a devastating loss when their twenty-seven-year-old son Matthew took his own life, after battling depression and mental illness for years.  About a year after this tragedy, Pastor Warren said, "I've often been asked, 'How have you made it?  How have you kept going in your pain?' And I've often replied, 'The answer is Easter.'  "You see, the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus happened over three days. Friday was the day of suffering and pain and agony. Saturday was the day of doubt and confusion and misery.  But Easter—that Sunday—was the day of hope and joy and victory.

"And here's the fact of life: you will face these three days over and over and over in your lifetime.  And when you do, you'll find yourself asking, as I did, three fundamental questions. Number one, 'What do I do in my days of pain?' Two, 'How do I get through my days of doubt and confusion?  Three, 'How do I get to the days of joy and victory?'  "The answer is Easter. The answer … is Easter."

How do we measure the gravity of sin and the incomparable vastness of God's love for us?  By looking at the magnitude of what God has done for us in Jesus, the Son of God, who became like a common criminal for our sake and in our place and whom God raised on Easter.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, because Jesus is alive, God has declared an ultimate victory over sin, death, and evil.  God has opened up a promise of new life today and a life everlasting with Him.  Jesus is Lord who makes a promise, “I am with you always until the close of the age.”   The song I referred to earlier is a good prayer for Easter, or anytime, “Open the eyes of my heart Lord, I want to see you.

Despite the serious issues which we worry about in our nation and world, issues which we are deeply concerned about today, Easter inspires us with hope for today and for the future.  What if Mary really saw the Risen Lord!   What if Easter really is true?  Hallelujah.  Amen!