death

Triumph Over Sin and Death

Romans 5:12-21 (NLT)

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. Yes, people sinned even before the law was given. But it was not counted as sin because there was not yet any law to break. Still, everyone died—from the time of Adam to the time of Moses—even those who did not disobey an explicit commandment of God, as Adam did. Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come. But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ. And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins. For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant. So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.


He is risen!

It is our great declaration, one usually made in our sanctuaries on Easter Sunday. At our Easter egg hunt Saturday, I asked the gathered crowd if anyone knew why Easter is important. One child said, “We look for Easter eggs!”

Well, no. We do that for fun, but that’s not the core meaning of the Easter celebration. Then a second voice called out, “Jesus rose from the dead!” That little guy got a high-five.

He is risen; Jesus was dead, killed in a most brutal manner, and then he was alive, is alive!

Even if you’ve heard the story before, I’ll bet you would like to hear it again. Every gospel has its version. Let’s look at how the Gospel of Luke tells the story. [Blog readers: You might want to take time to read Luke 24:1-12 reverently and attentively, as if hearing it for the first time.]

Do you hear it? Do you hear the astonishment of those first witnesses? The women, the faithful women, the ones who did not run away, who tried to attend to Jesus even in death, were the first witnesses, hearing the pronouncement of angels that he is risen.

We are told the men, the ones who had run in fear, the ones who had betrayed Jesus, thought it all sounded like nonsense. Jesus began to appear, however, to followers on the road to Emmaus, to the core disciples as they continued to cower, and to many, many others.

He showed them his scars. He showed them the crucifixion was real—his death was real. But I have defeated death, he was saying with his presence.

Our text from Romans emphasizes this great truth. “For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.”

Think of it this way: We were born to sin. You may not like the idea—you might find it unfair—but if you believe God uses the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to reveal great truths, then you cannot deny it. Somehow, that first break with God, recounted in Genesis 3, broke all of us. If we live to an age where we become at all conscious of our actions, we cannot avoid offending God.

Because we were born to sin, we also were born to die. Paul seems to talk about death in a couple of ways. There is the death of the body, of course, a death that may come quickly because of our inherent fragility, or slowly because of inescapable decrepitude. But worse than that, there is a spiritual death, an inability to connect with God, to ever deserve God’s love, because our sin has made us unholy.

But don’t forget the key message today: He is risen! Paul presents Christ as victor, as the one who dove into death and defeated it from within. A righteous man dying not only destroys death, he makes possible eternal life.

This is relatively simple stuff. As church-going Christians, we can discuss ideas that are a lot more complicated. We’ve already had to do that some as we have made our way deeper into the book of Romans the past three months. But at its core, Christianity is simple.

The cross—it worked! The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—it proves the cross worked! Believe, and the resurrection is yours!

There are two kinds of people in Easter Sunday worship. Many of you came because you believe, and you want to celebrate the great truth of Christianity, the truth that Jesus has triumphed over sin and death. Hallelujah! I pray your hearts are leaping!

Some of you are here reluctantly. You came to make someone happy; you came out of a sense of obligation, it being Easter Sunday. If that’s you, I need you to listen to me:

GOD LOVES YOU. He loves you so much that he walked among his creation in flesh and died on the cross for your sins. He loves you so much that he suffered as a human and died as a human, feeling everything we feel, so that sin has no hold on you and you can have eternal life with him.

My words alone may not be enough to convince you. But these stories, these very old stories, have very new life in them. You likely sense the life in them touching your soul right now.

Know that today, you can live the story. Know that today, Christ’s triumph is your triumph!

Those Bigger Barns

Luke 12:13-21

I saw an update in the news last week about the two scientists who made a bet regarding the first person to live to be 150. Steven Austad, a researcher at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, bet the person was already alive when the year 2000 began; Jay Olshansky of the University of Chicago bet the person had not been born at 2000’s onset.

Each man put down $150, which went into an investment account. The bet, of course, won’t be resolved until as late as Jan. 1, 2150, and the two scientists don’t expect one of them to collect it. The winner’s heirs or designees will benefit from the proceeds.

Oh, one additional detail about the bet—that 150-year-old person has to be lucid enough to hold a conversation.

I know what I thought when I read this. Hey, I was alive in 2000. Could it be me? Could the pill, the injection, the treatment that makes the difference come along in time for me and my loved ones to make it to 150, happy and in good health?

I suspect I’m not alone. If we think about death, we prefer to think we’ll beat the odds, keeping the Grim Reaper at arm’s length until we’re ready to depart on our terms. (The morning after delivering this sermon, I found a story about lifespan extension even odder than the the Austad-Olshansky bet.)

Denial about death can be even more extreme. Before I entered ministry, I  twice had people casually tell me they didn’t expect to die, and neither person was speaking in the context of Jesus returning first. Both times I just stood there and blinked in astonishment. By the way, one of them is now dead, taken relatively early in life by cancer.

In today’s parable, Jesus is telling us how spiritually dangerous it is to fool ourselves in such a way.

Usually when we hear this parable, our first thought goes to the rich man’s hoarding. The rich man does have a problem with his love of money and possessions, but even his greed is tied to his foolishness regarding the fragility of life. His collection of grain and goods simply amplifies his sense that he has everything under control, that nothing can disturb his sense of well-being and happiness.

The Bible, even with its early Old Testament characters reportedly living beyond the age of 900, describes life as fleeting. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” says the Prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring,” writes the author of the Epistle of James, traditionally thought to be the brother of Jesus. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

I realize it’s kind of a depressing message. A psychologist friend of mine once pointed out that people don’t like it when I remind them they will die. “I know,” I replied. “But in a way, it’s my job.”

And yet, there is much joy in my vocation. There is much joy in the Christian message. When we hear what the Bible says about life being a fleeting event, barely a flicker in the cosmos, we are being set up, but in a good way. Like the people who heard Peter’s first sermon, we should be cut to the heart, crying out, “What should we do?”

First of all, hear the good news. Because Jesus has died for our sins, the withered grass has been restored, given eternal life. The mist is allowed to take on solid form and last forever. Believe and be baptized.

Then, believers, live this life with your eyes set on what really matters. We still have to live in the world of money and stuff, but keep possessions in perspective, using them according to God’s will.

And quit worrying! That’s the guidance Jesus gave his disciples after he told this parable. The God who provides eternal life certainly will provide what we need now. Worrying interferes with the experience of God in this life.

Stop worrying and you’ll also stop thinking of yourself first. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Philippians 2:4 tells us. When we live in Christ, the focus moves from self and even the slightly larger circle drawn around family to a much larger community, a group of people living in joy now and ultimately transcending this world.

Community also is the antidote to something I think afflicted the rich man. Jesus wants us to sense the rich man was lonely. Look at the conversation the man has as he considers his bigger barns. He has it with himself!

“And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

Which sounds better to you? Dining alone on prime rib and foie gras while toasting your possessions with the finest wine, or sharing a big pot of soup with friends, knowing we walk toward eternity together?

I think the answer is obvious, even if we all live to be 200, our barns full.


The featured image is a Cornish Griffin round barn in Steuben County, Indiana. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A Very High Price

 

El Greco, "Christum am Kreuz," c. 1578, oil on copper, via Wikimedia Commons

El Greco, “Christum am Kreuz,” c. 1578, oil on copper, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Peter 1:17-23

What is salvation worth?

Strictly in terms of what it costs us, salvation is worth very little. In fact, we usually talk about salvation as a free gift from God. And like a lot of life’s freebies, even people who accept the general idea of the gift can begin to devalue it.

They may even treat the free gift as something to be taken seriously only when necessary, maybe in old age, near death. To do so, they of course must first deny the possibility that life could deviate from the course they have imagined. But once they’ve firmly deluded themselves on this point, salvation becomes like a gallon of milk to be picked up on the way home from work, except salvation seems cheaper.

Such a human perspective is very wrong, however. Salvation should never be treated as if it is worth what it costs us. The value of salvation is rooted in what the gift cost God. Writing this down, I almost feel silly stating something that seems so obvious. And yet, even people who call themselves Christians sometimes act as if they don’t get it.

The Apostle Peter addressed the cost of salvation in a general letter he wrote to be circulated among churches, a letter we now call 1 Peter. We cannot even begin to quantify the value of salvation in terms of earthly wealth, he tells us. A perfect, sinless being, a man who also was fully God, died so we would not face the punishment we are due for defying our creator.

Why? Simply because the one who made us loves us so much.

In this Easter season, let’s revisit the cross. Most of us have heard stories of Jesus’ humiliation, beating and gruesome death. There was another kind of pain, however, a deeper suffering.

Think on your worst sins. Think of the pain they caused, the damage they did to those around you. Christ absorbed the effect of those sins, removing the power those sins had over you. Now we begin to understand the real pain of the cross—Christ bearing our sins and every sin ever committed. What astounds me is that the tremendous weight of our sins did not rip Christ from the cross and crush him.

I also suspect it was more than just the sin in humanity that caused Jesus to suffer. When evil first escaped into the world, creation was fractured mightily, like a porcelain vase tapped with a hammer. In his suffering and dying, Christ repaired all the cracks, pulling them together with his pierced, outstretched limbs in ways we cannot comprehend.

One drop of his holy blood is worth more than all the gold in the universe, and much more than one drop was shed in the remaking of creation. We already have seen an initial sign of this remaking in the resurrection, and because we are freed from sin, we will see the remaking in full.

When we accept this truth, we begin to live in new ways—not because of any rules we’re following, but because we know we can never provide an adequate response to what God has done. We begin to live as if we’re actually astonished by God’s love.

How do we not respond with everything we have: our time, our money, our very lives? In Wesleyan denominations, we speak often of sanctification, of growing in our love so we respond to God and those around us as Jesus would. Every step on this path to holiness is made by better absorbing the truth of what Jesus did, of what he continues to do this day in the world through the Holy Spirit.

I ask you again: What is salvation worth? Let your answer guide your life.

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.

A Crucial Question

Luke 24:1-12

If two angels ask a question, it is a question worth pondering.

The question comes as part of the angelic announcement that Jesus is risen from the dead, his body remade to be indestructible, a state of eternal living we describe as “resurrected.” It is a truth we celebrate whenever we gather as Christians to worship, and it is a truth celebrated in particular on Easter Sunday.

The question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead,” almost sounds rhetorical. I don’t think God intends us to read it that way, however. The question is as valid today as it was in the middle of a Jewish cemetery nearly 2,000 years ago. For those of us who acknowledge the truth of the resurrection, the question challenges our view of the world, our very approach to life.

Sometimes we can see people literally looking for life in the midst of death. A few years ago, at the last church I pastored, our community had problems for a few weeks with a group of what were either older teens or young adults. They had became enamored with the rural community cemetery next to our church building.

Dressed in black, they lounged against the headstones at twilight like they were on living room couches. Sometimes they took pictures of each other draped across the tombstones. I heard some of the photos were on a web site. It was weird.

I feel certain this was more than mischief, however. As misguided as they were, like all human beings, they were seeking some kind of deeper truth, some sort of connection with each other and to a larger purpose. But you cannot find life in the midst of death. We as a church wanted to reach them, but it was like trying to approach a conspiracy of ravens—their instinct was to fly away.

Other than paying our occasional respects to a loved one, most of us are not going to be found lingering in cemeteries. There are other similarly wrong ways to pursue truth, however, and we can inadvertently find ourselves hovering in the world of the dead. When we find ourselves in these situations, it’s good to ask ourselves why we seek Christ where Christ is not.

So many people seek truth through anger these days. But anger is something of the cemetery. Anger is rooted in woundedness and bitterness over slights and losses, real or perceived. How are we to find the living, resurrected Christ where there is anger?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Those were Jesus’ words after nails had been driven through his flesh, pinning him to the wood to bleed and dangle until death.

Other people seek truth through what is temporary, and the world is full of temporary distractions. The distraction can be as noble sounding as deep commitment to work or sports or as deadly as drugs, but if it is not of God, then it obviously is not where you will find the risen savior.

Here’s a test for whether we’re searching where there is life. Remember the story of the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus? We know when we’re in the presence of the living Christ. What we are doing creates a holy burning within us.

When we sense the presence of the living Christ, everything begins to change. In the midst of a broken world we can feel the joy of eternity. Life, we realize, has boundless potential, simply because the resurrection tells us there are no more boundaries.

We also begin to live into the truth that even the cemetery one day will no longer contain death. In Christ, there ultimately is no death, no pain, no fear. Like Christ, we shall rise, remade holy and indestructible, ready to live forever in the presence of our creator.

Why would we look for anything else?

Gimme Three Steps

However you’re tempted to sin, there’s a way out.

That’s Paul’s promise in the 10th chapter of his first letter to the early church in Corinth. He begins with a reminder of the early history of the Israelites, evoking images of them fleeing Egypt, escaping Pharaoh’s army, crossing the Red Sea, and wandering in the desert for 40 years.

He highlights particular sins they committed during that time: idolatry, sexual immorality and complaining. These are just three items on a very long list of sins potentially separating us from God, but Paul makes a point of connecting these three sins to death.

It’s not difficult to see how these ancient temptations remain relevant today. We don’t make little idols out of wood or metal too often, but we live in a culture that offers us many alternatives to God. I would define an idol as anything that becomes more important to us than our relationship with God. Some examples might be sports, celebrities, work, or the acquisition of wealth for wealth’s sake.

Sexual immorality has become so rampant that we now live in a culture trying to redefine what God has clearly defined as sin. Many of your minds went to homosexuality when you read that previous sentence, but it’s important we keep that particular sin in context with other sexual sins. Frankly, within the church we have a more visible problem, if we’re just willing to see it. It is sex outside of marriage—premarital sex and adultery.

I’ve actually known people who railed against homosexuality while they were at the same time involved in adulterous or extramarital relationships. But in God’s eyes, they are all grievous sins. And the readily available, addictive nature of pornography only makes matters worse as people engage in behaviors that actually change the chemical structure of their brains, damaging their ability to participate in present and future holy relationships.

The sin of complaining also is not hard to find in modern times. It’s the sin of negativity, an unwillingness to trust that God is at work in the world. The early Israelites failed to trust God when he was visibly before them. We fail to trust God despite his full revelation to us through Jesus Christ and the promise he is changing the world now through the resurrection.

At a minimum, these sins can bring about the death of dreams and plans. At worst, they can separate us from God in ways that lead to eternal death.

So how do we escape? If we trust the Bible, we have to believe what Paul tells us: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

As I was working on this sermon, the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Gimme Three Steps” kept coming to mind. It tells the story of a man in a bar who has gotten a little too friendly with another man’s girlfriend, and he ends up “staring straight down a forty-four.”

When you’re looking down the barrel of a very large gun, you’re facing death. The frightened man asks for one thing, “three steps toward the door,” a way out.

When we’re facing sin and the death sin brings, we need three steps away from where we’ve found ourselves. Here are the three best steps I know to take:

Prayer. Yeah, I know, preachers are always telling you to pray. But I mean it. When you realize you’re about to cross a line, stop and reconnect with God. Temptation arises when the connection is broken. It doesn’t have to be a fancy prayer. A good start would be, “Lord, help me out of this situation where you and I both know I’m weak.”

Scripture. The Bible isn’t just any book. Believers understand there is life-changing power from God flowing through it as we study its words and absorb their meaning. Learn where the Bible talks about your temptation. Learn also where the Bible offers you words of comfort and grace in difficult times.

Accountability. Here’s the step most American Christians don’t like to consider. This involves a relationship with another strong Christian who can talk with you in confidence when you’re struggling. Maybe it’s a one-on-one accountability partner who has faced similar temptations. Maybe it’s a small group of people you can trust. This third step is so important—it is your accountability partner or partners who act as the presence of Christ. They allow the Holy Spirit to fill them so God is visibly with you as you struggle.

By the way, if you’re in the Kingsport, Tenn., area, there’s a new Friday night worship opportunity that should result in the formation of such accountability groups.

Finally, remember that we’re doing more than just avoiding death. We’re accepting the life God continually offers us. As Paul tells the story of the Israelites in the desert, he speaks of the water that sustained them, water flowing from a rock as needed. “And the rock was Christ,” he says.

It’s a startling reminder. The redemptive aspect of God has always been with us; Christ simply was most visible on the cross. He remains with us today, continuing to heal us from sin.