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Alleluia! Jesus Is Risen! Sermon by Timothy Brown

"If Christ has not been raised from the dead your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (and) those also who have died in Christ have perished."

Say that again please. . . .

"If Christ has not been raised from the dead your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (and) those also who have died in Christ have perished."

If we smuggle our way into the netting of this ominous apostolic argument we ought to get the eerie sense that everything, and I do mean everything, that makes our days remotely worth doing is hanging in the balance.

"If Christ has not been raised from the dead your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (and) those also who have died in Christ have perished."

Interestingly enough, each of the four gospel writers differs with respect to certain details regarding the resurrection story of Jesus. For instance, Matthew tells us that two women came to the tomb, Mary Magdalene and Mary, while Mark and Luke say there were three. Mark and Luke differ on the identity of the third women; one says she was Salome and the other says she was Johanna. Matthew reports a single angel announcing Jesus’ resurrection to the brokenhearted who came to the tomb that morning, while Matthew and Luke tell us that it was two men. Again, even they differ somewhat in that one says they were dressed in white, while the other says that were wearing dazzling apparel! Matthew tells us that the appearance of the angel was accompanied by a great earthquake, while Mark and Luke either didn’t notice or didn’t care!

These differences notwithstanding, each of the gospel writers agree that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, who was hung out to dry on a Roman cross on the evening of Passover, who lay lifeless in a borrowed tomb on the Festival of Unleavened Bread, was raised from the dead on the morning of first fruits!

We must get this one thing straight—when the gospel writers claim and faithful followers of God throughout the centuries affirm that Jesus was raised from the dead, they have in mind a real and corporeal resurrection. As they make this most central claim they can hear in the ears of their collective consciousness Jesus’ desperate cry, "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" and his death rattling whisper, "It is finished!" When they say that Jesus was raised from the dead they are fully aware of the dreadful process of death—the ominous last gasp, skin once pink and supple now gray and cool, joints stiffening and everywhere stillness. Death! But then—and this is the largest "but then" in the universe—but then, by a power not seen since the creation's first dawning, everything reverses! Jesus breathes, blinks, moves toward the light, and enters the marketplace of the human experience again as the living One! Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead!

"If Christ has not been raised from the dead your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (and) those also who have died in Christ have perished . . . but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died!"

Technically speaking, the apostle’s argument is a reductio ad absurdam. The point of the argument is to reduce the claims against the resurrection to their logical absurdity, dismiss the absurdity, and thereby affirm the opposite. This was a popular, albeit complicated form of argumentation among the philosophers of ancient Corinth. But it appears as though Paul either grows impatient with the argument or simply can not contain his gospel excitement, because he cuts his argument short and fairly nearly jumps out of his apostolic skin and proclaims, "But in fact Christ has been raise from the dead!" And because of that everything is different!

I
Just think of it—if Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead, so the argument goes, the hem of every other doctrine unravels like a cheap dress. "If Jesus Christ has not been raised your faith is futile . . ." If Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead the towering comfort usually associated with God’s foreknowledge, predestination, and calling is a cruel joke without a punch line. Without Jesus’ resurrection from the dead the incarnation is a papier-mâché crèche, the miracles stories are smoke and mirrors, and our best Holy Spirit doctrine is "a sound and fury signifying nothing!" If Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead, you can junk the ecumenical creeds, write off the reformation as the will to power, and call our keenest eschatological hopes a crap shoot. If Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead our practices are foolish, our services a waste of time, and all the best gospel songs screech like fingernails on a chalkboard. If Jesus Christ has not been raised from the dead . . . Actually Paul says it best, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are among all people most to be pitied!"

The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives life and meaning to every other imaginable thing! The psalmist saw it coming centuries before: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits . . .who redeems your life from the pit!" And St. John of the Apocalypse bears Technicolor testimony to its abiding significance, "And then I turned to see whose voice it was who was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face shone like the sun shining in full force!" The resurrection of Jesus Christ gives life and meaning to every other imaginable thing!

Maybe this will help. We have some friends, not all that much younger than Nancy and me, who just welcomed into their home their first child. They had wanted children for a long time but the demands of graduate work, the pressure to publish, the anxieties of tenure review, and all that sort of thing kept family concerns on the back burner. For reasons that are still a mystery, they were unable to conceive, but happy nonetheless to adopt. And when the day came for them to go to China and return home with their little one, they learned that they would bring home not only an infant son, but his twelve-year-old sister as well. That, of course, is like going from "zero to sixty" in a heartbeat.

The oldest child did not speak a word of English. They wanted to share with their new little one not only the love of their home, but also the hope of their heart. But how would they do that without the gift of language? Because they had heard me spout off a Greek or Hebrew word in a sermon from time to time, they assumed I could probably stumble through Mandarin too. They brought the little one to my office for a little evangelism. She trembled at the sight of me. As she entered she was clutching a small black leather volume that I assumed to be her travel documents. I was wrong. As we made a few feeble efforts at cross-cultural communication I thought I noticed her little black book pulsing. I decided to go out on a limb and simply said, "Jesus?" With that, her tiny, little fingers reached for a pad of paper on my desk. She drew what looked like a stick-figure baby in a cradle.

I said, "Jesus?"

She drew another picture. This time several larger stick figures, but one larger than all the others. Again, I said, "Jesus?"

Now we were on a roll. She drew still another picture, three crosses, the one in the middle much larger than the ones flanking it. I said, "Jesus!"

Then she drew a stick figure lying prostrate on a slab. She took the edge of her pencil blade and scribed what looked like a dark canopy over it. I quietly whispered, "Jesus."

Then, with real animation, she began to draw what looked like lightning bolts coming from the prostrate stick figure. But her artistic efforts were less than satisfying. I know that because she ripped off the page, wadded it into a ball, and threw it into the corner. With that she cupped her little hands like this, and with a quick release made a really cool explosion sound, "POW!"

I guess that was her way of saying, "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!" Here is the way that John Calvin says it: "We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is ‘of him' . . . (If we seek) newness of life it is in his resurrection, (and) if immortality, in the same. . . .since rich stores of every kind of good abound in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other" (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.19).

Actually I like the little girl's way of saying it better: "POW!"

"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!"

II
Just think of it—if Jesus Christ has not been raised, our sins are like a locked door and the key has been thrown into the depths of a thousand seas. "If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins." Say what? You heard me! Still in your sins . . . still in your sins . . . still in your sins! Of all the commodities on the stock exchange of the human experience, none is more precious, none more sought after than this, to be forgiven!

I spend most of my homiletic efforts on college kids. Every Lord’s Day I look into the longing eyes of Gen Xer’s, the generation that time forgot and an angry culture caught in its cross-hairs. Though I may say it in different words from Sunday to Sunday, in my heart of hearts I’m crying aloud the same old song every seven days: "Hey, you guys! It’s really true! Despite all evidence to the contrary, "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!"

God will forgive you, little four year old, fondled by some retrograde, before your emerging sexuality could go to its first dance.

"(God who) is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!"

God will forgive you, Iinternet porn-peeper, hooked on it and hating it and hoping to high heaven that nobody finds out!

"(God who) is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!"

God will forgive you, young casualty of the culture wars standing on the sidelines with an over-amped and angry sexuality, just waiting to see whose social vision of things will win the day.

"(God who) is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!"

God will forgive you, unsuspecting partygoer, mixing fear with alcohol in a batch of sexual energy that could blow up a lifetime.

"(God who) is faithful and just will/ forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness!"

How do I know this? Because for centuries people who have bumped into the living God have fallen into an ocean of forgiving grace and emerged from beneath its cleansing waters singing a very distinctive song. A song that sounds like this . . .

"Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who heals all thy diseases, who forgives all thy iniquities!

Or . . .

"The steadfast love of the Lord, never ceases, his mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning! Great is thy faithfulness!"

Or . . .

"Worthy (is the Lamb) to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign upon the earth."

And the reasons that any of them could sing anything at all is because there was once someone who sang sadly but surely . . . "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!"

Do you remember this scene from Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov? Two of the brothers, Ivan the steely-eyed atheist and his younger brother Alyosha, who is a Christian and Ivan’s intellectual inferior by far, are sitting in a bar discussing things philosophical. Ivan has Alyosha in a philosophical headlock. He is strangling him with the age-old conundrum, "If God is so good why is there so much bad?" Alyosha hasn’t a clue how to respond. He holds his bewildered head in shame just inches above his soup. Finally, coming up with a category of knowing that transcends all other knowing, he stammers his answer: "(I know) there is one who can forgive everyone everything, because he shed his innocent blood for everyone and everything."

And that reminds me of the way that C. S. Lewis closes out his argument in Mere Christianity: "Look for yourself and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But if you look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in."

"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!"

III
Just think of it—if Jesus Christ has not been raised, those whom we have loved and lost are nothing more than smudges on the window of our fading memories. "If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins, (and) those who have died in Christ have perished." Those who have died in Christ have perished? Say it isn’t so! You mean pastors perjure themselves when they speak of heaven? Families beguile themselves when they hope to see their loved ones again? When we rise up to say "I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting" we really ought to sit down and save our breath? No! None of the above! Remember? "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died!" In the economy of the Christian faith Jesus’ resurrection and ours are the obverse and reverse side of the same gospel coin. He is "the first fruits of those who have died!"

I love these lines from "Seven Stanzas of Easter," a poem by John Updike. Maybe you will too:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all it was as his body;
If the cells' dissolution did not reverse,
the molecules reknit,
the amino acids rekindle,
The church will fall!
It was not as the flower (each soft spring recurrent);
It was not as his Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes
of the eleven disciples;
It was as his flesh: ours!
The same hinged thumbs and toes,
The same valved heart
that pierced,
died,
withered,
paused,
and then regathered out of enduring might
new strength to enclose!

The enduring might that regathered Jesus’ lifeless body gathers us still and somehow that is always just enough!

When you work with college and seminary students as I do, you cannot help but have your favorites. Among my favorites was a curly-haired Christian Reformed boy from Spring Lake, Michigan, named Tim VanderVeen. He was "six feet something else," had shoulders three axe handles wide, and possessed a radiant smile as broad as the dawn. He graduated from Hope College with glorious honors, an All-American in soccer. Upon graduation he took a job with Prince Corporation and climbed the ladder of success as quickly as anyone I had ever seen. That is, for three years.

It was raw-boned, wind-whipped Tuesday afternoon. I had returned to my desk after lunch to a waiting phone call from Tim. I picked up the phone eagerly. His tired voice on the other end told me that something strange was up. He told me that he had the flu and couldn’t shake it. He said that they were pumping him up with fluids. "Hey! I’m going to be in GR later today," I said. "Maybe I could stop by to see you." His tired voice replied, "I’d like that. I’d like that a lot!"

By the time I got to Tim the doctors had gotten to him first. They told him it wasn’t the flu at all. It was leukemia. That began a three-year arduous battle that Tim would lose, or win—you can be the judge.

Now I am turning the clock forward to the last days of Tim’s life. I entered Room 5255. I hate that room to this very day. Death was hanging on the curtains. His mother was sitting in the corner quietly crying. You would cry too. Tim’s shoulders were no longer three axe handles wide; his hair was no longer curly. I am sure he would have liked to release one of those beautiful smiles but his strength was all gone. I got down on one knee so that we could look at each other eyeball to eyeball.

I said, "Hi, Tim."

He said, "Hi, Tim."

A long, awkward pause followed our first exchange. I had been a pastor for a long time, but I still didn’t know what to say then and there. I didn’t say anything. Tim broke the silence. He said, "I’ve learned something." Now, I know this much at least, as Shakespeare puts on the lips of John of Gaunt in Richard II, "Where words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain, for they breathe truth who breathe their words in pain." So I asked him, "What have you learned?"

He said, "I have learned that life isn’t like a VCR." I didn’t get it then anymore than you are getting it now, so I said, "Hey, partner, I don’t get it." He said, "Life isn’t like a VCR—you can’t fast-forward the bad parts."

A pretty long stretch of silence followed while I tried to get my mind around his uncanny wisdom. He broke this silence too saying, "But I have learned something else . . ."

"What’s that?" I said expectantly.

"I have learned that Jesus Christ is in every frame. And right now that is just enough!"

Just enough . . .

It was just enough when Ted and Joan VanderVeen rocked their little one over the waters of baptism that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. It was just enough when they watched their little guy hurtle down the driveway for his first day in Christian grade school that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. It was just enough when he took his rightful place at the Table of the Lord that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. And it was just enough when he breathed his last breath here and his first breath there that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. It was just enough. . . .

And, dear brothers and sister of the resurrected One, it is still just enough, always just enough! "If Christ has not been raised from the dead your faith is futile and you are still in your sins (and) those also who have died in Christ have perished . . . but in fact he has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died . . ."