Friday, April 21, 2017

Easter’s Amazing Power! (Luke 24:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes: “Our three-year-old daughter, Nicole said “I can’t wait for Easter.”  I asked her: Do you know what Easter means honey?  In her own sweet way, with arms raised high and a smile on her face, she shouted, surprise!" What a superb word to sum up the meaning of Easter!    

What a glorious morning!  From San Diego to Jerusalem, from Rome to Egypt, well over two billion Christian believers around the world are celebrating Easter, even amidst the political, social, military, and religious turmoil in our world.   We gather on this morning of all mornings to celebrate the greatest event in history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.    No historical event has shaped the world like the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God in Christ has not only dramatically impacted individual lives over the centuries, but has shaped and influenced the values, the intellectual foundations and history of nations, including our own.

Some of you have come here this morning with questions on your mind.  Is there hope?  Is life meaningful?  Is there reason for joy?  Is there more than this life?

The answer has arrived today; it’s a three-word message, Christ Is Risen!  It’s good news to those who have lost their joy.  Its good news for those lost in grief.  Its good news to those burdened by guilt.  It’s good news to those filled with fear.  It’s good news for those who have lost their way and are seeking a new way, a new purpose, a new direction for their lives.

In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women arrive at the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices as was the custom.  Finding the stone rolled away, they enter the tomb, and are shocked to discover that Jesus’ body isn’t there.  A divine messenger tells them the incredible news; Jesus has risen from the dead.   The women think back and remember Jesus words about being handed over to sinners, and being crucified and rising from the dead in three days, and then hurry off to tell the apostles.   The apostles are skeptical at the news and Peter decides to rush to the tomb himself.  He sees the empty tomb and returns home simply amazed.

Jesus’ resurrection is a totally unexpected, irrational and illogical event.  The church has attempted to use intellectual arguments to convince people that the resurrection occurred. That Easter is true.  Like pointing to the existence of the Christian religion and people who claim the name Christian, the existence of the Christian Church, the existence of the New Testament, the practice of Sunday as well as weekday worship services, and the sacrament of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.   Would these exist today if Easter, the resurrection of Jesus was a hoax or falsehood.

Easter catches us off guard, like it did for those women who had gone at dawn to the tomb.  It was empty.  The impossible to conceive broke in upon them.  It blew apart their belief system, their mindset, their worldview.  No wonder they were amazed and afraid.  We would be as well. It was the defining moment for their lives.  The power of Easter altered the lives of these women, and these apostles, as it has for millions of believers down through the centuries.

Today, it seems, with our advances in communication, we regularly hear that someone has died, and then suddenly, they come alive.  In February, the Internet said that the iconic Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot, was alive!  Someone on Twitter had created a false rumor that Lightfoot had died.  The 71 year old singer famous for the song “If You Could Read My Mind” said: “Everything is good.  I don’t know where it came from; it seems like a bit of a hoax.  I was quite surprised to hear it myself, I feel fine.”  The stark difference of course, is that Jesus really died, truly died and on Easter morning, defeated the seemingly unconquerable power of death.

Because of the amazing power of Easter, we are confronted with the truth about Jesus!  Jesus’ resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and teachings and death on the cross for the sins of the world.   God was authenticating Jesus as His only Son.   On Easter God reversed the crucifixion and placed his seal of approval on Jesus.  Easter was God’s act of justice on behalf of one who was sentenced and executed unjustly.  Easter confirmed Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God.  Easter confirmed the truth of Jesus’ healings and miracles and exorcisms.  Easter confirmed Jesus claims about having power over sin, death, and evil.   Easter confirmed the claims Jesus made about himself and his mission.

Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."    “I am the light of the world.”   “I am the lord of all.”    “I am the resurrection and the life.”  “I and the father are one.” (John 10:30).

Jesus was either who He said He was or He was the biggest liar who ever lived.  Easter declares that Jesus is who he claimed to be and that Jesus has the power he claimed to have.  No other religious leader of history has made such claims — not Ghandi, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed.  They are all in the grave.  But Jesus Christ isn't.  His tomb is empty.  God raised Jesus Christ alone.

Second, because of the amazing power of Easter our view of death has changed.  We know this simple fact about life.  Life will come to an end.  There is death.  We well know that life is precious.  Life is fragile.  It is priceless.  We deeply grieve the death of friends and loved ones.  It breaks our hearts.   Every one of us must face our mortality.  You can’t turn to modern medicine to obtain immortality.   Death is real.

But because of Easter it’s not the last word.   For life today and forever is in Jesus Christ, the hope for our life after death.  Scripture says:  “Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”  Jesus made an amazing promise:  “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it were not so, and I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”  That’s a promise worth repenting for, that’s a promise worth turning away from self for, and that’s a promise worth turning toward Jesus Christ in faith for is it not?  Can I get an amen?

Third, because of the amazing power of Easter, the Risen Lord is continuing to change lives today.    Father Basil Pennington, a Roman Catholic monk, tells of a meeting he had with a Zen teacher at a spiritual retreat.  Each participant met privately with this esteemed teacher.  Pennington says the Zen teacher sat before him smiling and rocking gleefully back and forth.  Finally the teacher said: “I like Christianity.  But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection!”  “You are a Christian.   Show me what this means for you in your life and I will believe.”   Today, as always, people don’t just want to hear poetic words about Easter, they want to see the power of Easter, does it truly change lives?

The answer is yes.  We see the power of the Risen Lord in the witness of a family, a Christian family from Memphis, Tennessee, in the true story of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy who take into their home a homeless teenage African-American, Michael Oher.  He has no idea who is father is and his mother is a drug addict.  "Clip from Blindside!!!!  Yes, Easter’s power continues to change lives today!  God amazing power not only changed the lives of Michael, but of the Tuohy family.

And not only in adults, but also in the lives of young people!  I close with a story from a Sunday school teacher:

“Once I had an eight year old boy in my SS class who was born with Down ’s syndrome.  His name was Philip.  He was a pleasant child--happy, it seemed--but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children.  And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted.

The class learned, they laughed, they played together and cared about one another, even though eight-year-olds don't say they care about one another out loud.  I also knew that Philip was not really a part of the group. Philip did not choose nor did he want to be different.  He just was. And that was just the way things were.

One Easter I had an idea for my class. I gave each child those things that pantyhose come in--the containers that look like great big eggs.  It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find a symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises one by one.  It was glorious.  It was confusing. It was wild. They ran all around the church grounds, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the eggs on a table, and I began to open them. All the children stood around the table.

I opened one, and there was a flower and they ooh-ed and aah-ed.  I opened another, and there was a little butterfly. "Beautiful," the girls all said, since it is hard for eight-year-old boys to say "beautiful." I opened another and there was a rock.  And as third-graders will, some laughed and said, "That's crazy!  How's a rock supposed to be like new life?" But the smart little boy who'd found it spoke up: "That's mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different.  And for me, that's new life." They all laughed.

I opened the next one. There was nothing there. The other children, as eight-year-olds will, said, "That's not fair--that's stupid!--somebody didn't do right."  Then I felt a tug on my shirt, and looked down. Philip was standing beside me. "It's mine," Philip said. "It's mine."  And the children said, "You don't ever do things right, Philip. There's nothing there!"  "I did so do it," Philip said. "I did do it. It's empty. The tomb is empty!"

There was silence, a very full silence. And for you people who don't believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that day last spring.  From that time on, it was different.  Philip suddenly became a part of that group of eight-year-old children. They took him in.  He was set free from the tomb of his differentness.  Sadly, Philip died last summer. His family had known since the time he was born that he wouldn't live out a full life span.   Many other things had been wrong with his body.  And late last July, with an infection that most normal children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died.

At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death.  Nine eight-year-olds and I marched right up to that altar, and we each laid on it an empty egg--an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg.

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, for whoever lives and believes in me, shall never die.” “I was dead, but now I am alive forevermore; because I live, you shall live also.”  My friends, because of Easter Jesus is Lord and He desires to be the Lord of all our lives.  Halleluiah!  Amen!

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Living Sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2; I Peter 2:4-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In the popular 1990’s television series “Seinfeld,” George Costanza attends a child’s birthday party at the apartment where his girlfriend, Robin, lives. A clown is providing entertainment. George suddenly says, “What’s that smell? Is that smoke?” He hurries into the kitchen, turns and runs out in a panic yelling FIRE, knocking over the clown, an old lady with a walker, and a couple of kids. “Get out of my way!” he screams, as he opens the front door of the apartment and races outside. In the next scene, George is getting oxygen from a paramedic.

Suddenly, the clown runs over to George and says, “There he is! That’s him!” Several angry children and moms gather round. “That’s the coward that left us to die!” The clown tries to hit George with an oversized show. George replies, “I was trying to lead the way. We needed a leader, someone to lead the way to safety.” Robin objects, “But you yelled, ‘Get out of my way!’” “Because as the leader,” George continues, “if I die, then all hope is lost.  Instead of castigating me, you should be thanking me.

But I saw you push the women and children out of the way in a mad panic.” Robin yells. “I saw you push them down. And when you ran out, you left everyone behind.” George refutes, “To the untrained eye maybe, I can fully understand how you got that impression. What looked like knocking down was a safety precaution. In a fire, you stay close to the ground. Am I right? That’s why I pushed them down. I risked my life making sure the exit was clear.” The fireman looks at George and says, “How do you live with yourself?” “It’s not easy,” George replies.

Our culture is ambiguous; it sends mixed messages. On the one hand, it says that the goal of life is materialism, fame, status, power, wealth, pleasure. These are the values one should aspire to.  We see examples all the time of greed, avarice, narcissism, and selfishness.  We hear people say “me first” “live for yourself,” and “my individual rights above everyone’s.” He who dies with the most toys wins reflects our culture. Our culture further confuses celebrities with true heroes. But is being famous and wealthy, the same as being a hero or being a role model? Of course not, because sacrifice is about character and dedication toward others. Having intelligence or talent has nothing to do with a sacrificial life.

On the other hand, sacrifice is an American value, grounded in our Judeo-Christian ethic. Our culture also promotes the high values of altruism, self-sacrifice, commitment, big-heartedness, service above self. We see these values manifested in people’s generous giving to charities, in service clubs, in organizations, in churches, in the outpouring of generosity to victims of natural disasters around the world, in the sacrifice of the men and women in the military, in community-wide searches for missing persons, in volunteerism, and in runs and walks to raise money for worthy causes like cancer, autism, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. We see it in the generous aid our government provides to countries around the world.

Think about this question, “Can you sacrifice too much for someone?” Are there limits? I’m not speaking about donating a kidney, or financially helping someone with their education, or even giving your life for someone in danger.  I am speaking about situations I’ve seen over the years, as a pastor, where grown children and grown grandchildren take advantage of their parents or grandparents.  They continue to ask for money for this or that reason. They just keep asking and pressuring and make parents or grandparents feel terribly guilty. Asking can become a form of manipulation. It can drain the resources of the giver. It enables underachievement rather than inspiring motivation and ambition. Sometimes, the hardest word to say is “No” rather than “Yes.” Saying no takes courage, strength, and prayer.

Who has made a sacrifice for you? The truth is that everyone here this morning has benefited from someone’s sacrifice: their time, their resources, their wisdom and knowledge, their patience, their talents and skills, their protection, their sympathy, their encouragement, their love, their faith. People who sacrifice for us inspire us to want to do the same for others. Thank you Lord for the sacrifices of others on our behalf. Can I get an AMEN?!

From a Biblical and faith perspective, the willingness to sacrifice stems from the desire to please God; it’s an expression of love, of thanksgiving to God, of a desire to serve Christ. It shows that we know who we are—persons made in God’s image and persons forgiven and redeemed by God’s amazing grace, through Christ’s life, death on the cross, and resurrection.  Yes, sacrifice is indeed a noble value of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Romans 6:13 says, “Give yourselves completely to God, every part of you. You want to be tools in the hands of God to be used for His good purposes.” I Peter 2 says, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, through Jesus Christ.” Romans 12 says, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

In Old Testament times, priests would sacrifice animals in temple worship. They would kill an animal, place it on the altar, and offer it to God. In the Prophetic Tradition of the Old Testament, in prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos, God also summoned the Jews to live sacrificial lives: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Early Christians began to curb animal sacrifice, and after the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 64 A.D. the early Christians heard Jesus’ call to offer themselves as living sacrifices, daily laying aside their own desires, to follow him, putting their energy and resources at God’s disposal and trusting in God’s guidance. God calls us, you and me, to be living sacrifices, that He might accomplish His purposes through us.

Superficial love never requires sacrifice. Genuine love always requires sacrifice. You cannot truly love somebody—your spouse, your friend, your child, your grandchild, your neighbor, you cannot love God—without sacrificing, without a cost, without giving up something.

Do you ever feel unappreciated when you give of yourself, when you sacrifice for someone, when you do the right thing? You start thinking, “Why bother? What’s the use? Why make the effort? Nobody cares. Nobody notices. No one says ‘Thank You’.” When you sacrifice to help other people, know this, God sees your actions. God knows your attitude. The Bible says God sees your witness, God remembers your witness, and God will reward your witness.

I read a story about a doctor in Birmingham, Alabama. On January 28, 2014, in the dead of winter, Dr. Zenko heard that a patient at Trinity Medical Center had taken a turn for the worse. The patient needed surgery, no other surgeon was available and the patient had a 90 percent chance of dying. Driving wasn’t an option because of the snow and ice. Emergency personnel were busy.

So the 62-year-old doctor faced these brute facts and proceeded to take action. He put a coat over his hospital scrubs and started walking, six miles in the snow, from Brookwood Medical Center to Trinity Medical Center. Along the way, he fell and rolled down a hill, but got back up. He finally arrived at Trinity, performed the surgery, and saved a patient’s life. In a later press conference, the doctor was asked why he did it. He said, “It really wasn’t that big of a deal. Any good doctor would have done the same thing. The patient was dying and that wasn’t going to happen on my shift.” Why is it that people who sacrifice for others are often so humble?

What contributions are you going to make with your life in the years you have left? What is it that gives significance, meaning, and purpose in a life? Giving your life away is the greatest thrill of life. It’s the secret of significance. It’s the key to happiness. The truth of scripture is clear: to save our lives we must lose them, in giving we receive, in dying to self we find true life, in servanthood we find greatness.

How can we learn to be a living sacrifice? First, worship God! Prayer changes us. Worship changes us. God’s Spirit changes us. Psalm 50:23 says, “True praise to God is a worthy sacrifice.”

Second, love and serve others! Jesus gave His life for us. Because Christ first loved us, we too should love one another. I John 3:16 says, “We ought to give our lives for each other.”

Third, share Good News with others. Share your faith with others. Hebrews 13:15 says, “With Jesus’ help we will continually offer our sacrifice of praise by telling others the glory of His name.”

Following Jesus opens up a new way of life. Where in your life today is Christ calling you to make a sacrifice? Amen!