Love More Powerful than Death (a Sermon)

The Resurrection—Tischbein, 1778.
Image via Wikipedia

Oftentimes we are busy busy busy, working, day in and day out, or distracted filling our lives with noise and chaos. We run around trying to make sense of the world according to our understanding and our power, trying to make the whole wide world our story, and in trying to fit the universe into our heads we fall apart. Some of you might feel burdened, heavy, bearing a secret or a guilt, or just anxiety that feels like a death sentence, I want to say to you tonight, you’re not alone. Some of you are crying out, Lord save me now! Lord, have mercy on me today! Some of you are barely hanging on, and I’m telling you, you’re not alone.

There’s a story that was told about a man who had a mill. He worked very hard to collect the harvest carefully and provide only the best grain for his flour, he worked even harder at making sure the mill was in the right place to catch the most wind. At night though, he would fret and worry because the wind slowed down. One day after there had been no wind all day he disconnected the millstone from the cogs and worked to make the flour himself, by hand to be sure that there would be enough flour. He labored over the heavy stone all night long and worked late, tiring himself out to be sure there would be enough flour. When morning came, there was enough flour, but the miller was sound asleep on the floor, exhausted. The flour he worked so hard to produce hadn’t gotten to the baker, and in his exhaustion and laboring over his task the miller did not even hear the sound of a rushing mighty wind that begun to stir that morning and blew full force while he was sound asleep. He who has ears, let him hear this story.

As we prepare for Easter, we must ask ourselves, what does the resurrection of Jesus mean not only about us, but about God? What does this resurrection mean for the world, and why do we evangelize? What makes Easter so special? If your simple answer is Jesus, that’s a good place to start, and to finish, but like Bilbo Baggins of the Shire, we must go there, and back again, if we’re to understand the road set before us. So let’s go there. What I want to say tonight breaks into three broad categories: (1)The Power called Death, (2)The Fear and the Failure, and finally, (3)the God who Raises the Dead.

The Power Called Death
If we’re going to understand the resurrection of the Son of God, then we have to begin by understanding what’s at stake, and who the real enemy is. Oftentimes we think that the bible’s greatest villain is the devil, but I don’t think that’s what the Chrstian tradition shows us. Yes, the devil is important to the story of the bible, and its impact on our lives, and I by no means am trying to discount a real devil out there who seeks to destroy us, the words of the apostles tell us as much. But, there’s an even bigger enemy out there, an enemy with seemingly unlimited power sometimes, and an enemy we all face, the enemy called death.

If we look at the Bible and see what the apostles were saying, they mention death and sin a lot more than we tend to give those things credit for. So, what I’m trying to say is that if we look at the Revelation to John of Patmos, we’ll see that God has spoken a specific word to John about the end of history. Revelation 20:14  Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. If, you stop to notice what’s happened here, God has taken Death, and the place of the dead, and done away with them. He’s taken Death itself the power that is corrupting the creation and done away with it, and all its power, undoing it forever.

This is the first thing the Resurrection means to us as Christians, the end of Death itself. While we should rightly celebrate the lives of faithful men and women and trust in God’s grace for them, we cannot let our celebration of the lives of the faithful ever become a celebration of death itself. Death was and is an enemy of every Christian and their Triune God. When we confess a belief in the resurrection we’re not just making some truth claims like voting on a ballot where we put a check next to a belief and walk away. These truths point beyond themselves to something far more important. What we’re actually doing is taking upon ourselves a new world view, a new way of thinking about everything, in and with and through the fact of the resurrection. It becomes a lens through which we see everything else.

The Christian belief about Easter centers in the fact that this particular resurrection reshapes the way we understand the world, we believe in a Love more powerful than death.

What does that look like in practical terms? It means, We see death through the resurrection. Death is an evil in the world, it’s an evil in the universe and every manifestation of death, from the starving of children to the death of a loved one to the suicidal tendencies in an adolescent is our enemy. We never settle for apathy towards death. We have to recognize that God hates death, that’s why he is redeeming us, so that in and through Him we shall have conquered death, as is fitting for the good creation He created in the beginning.

Secondly it means we see death as having been conquered by Jesus in such a way that at Easter, he didn’t just rise from the dead so that he could ascend like a ghost to some far away place. He resurrected into a physical body and has that physical body at the right hand of the Father. What this means for the way we live is that God wills to redeem Creation to save it from death, and to establish it in eternal life. We try to make our fears go away, or we ignore them until they become phobias, but imagine living free of fear. That’s what Easter makes possible.

The Christian belief about Easter calls us to understand that this God is in the business of setting things right, and establishing a beautiful creation that begins here and now with us. We believe in a Love more powerful than death.

The Fear and the Failure

Imagine living free of fear. I don’t mean living like a movie hero running into crossfire to save a microchip or a rebellious “fearlessness” that is really another expression of the desire for death, i mean imagine living without the nagging sense that everything is about to go horribly wrong. The same God who made everything is the God who raised Jesus from the dead and believing in this god means believing that everything is gonna be alright. I don’t mean with a blind optimism that refuses to acknowledge reality, but with the anticipation of the promise.

“What we have at the moment isn’t as the old liturgies used to say, ‘the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead,’ but a vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end. ”
— N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)

We’re all so afraid of failure, so intimidated by the world that we often forget what it means to live without fear. We lock and double check doors like obsessive compulsive people, we lock our cars, stash our goods, and fret over bank accounts and IRA’s. We’re afraid we might lose the treasures we’ve worked so hard for. We’re afraid that we’ll die alone, or that god isn’t real, or that maybe he really is. We’re afraid that believing in this God means being optimistic about everything and forcing a smile, even when our lives are in the pits. Or we’re afraid that believing in this god means a constant depression or sadness from not getting to do what we want to do.

But that’s not the truth.

Believing in this God does not mean turning a blind eye to your problems. If you have depression deal with your depression, if you have financial woes manage your financial woes, if you’re being abused, get help with the abuse, but know that you’re waiting on his promise to set everything right in the end, because he’s shown us he’s all about that when He raised Jesus from the dead.

The fear is something like: if this God isn’t real then I wasted my life believing in something for no reason. But, that’s not really logical and here’s why: We Christians believe that the earliest followers of Jesus didn’t just have a spiritual experience of Jesus, but a literal embodied Jesus appeared to them, turning the world on its head. That’s what the bible says about the apostles, it calls them the men who turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). When’s the last time your faith did that? When’s the last time your commitment to your enemies welfare made people stop because you were turning the world upside down? When’s the last time your prayer life in secret disturbed the world in public?

Another fear we all have is: If this God is real then all he wants from me is obedience, and he could care less for the dreams I have, or the things I don’t want to fail at. That’s not true either. What we believe about God is that He raised Christ via the Spirit as a manifestation of His love, both for His Son, and for us. In that single act, God has overthrown death, once and for all. We no longer need to fear because we have been drawn into the family of this God, who will not stand for a single ounce of death in our universe, either today, or in the end.

What this means for us is that we need not be afraid, either of death or of failure. We must treat death as a challenge, and every death as an occasion for grieving, but with the hope of the end. Belief in this God and the fact that He raised Jesus from the dead can be grasped at any point in our lives, but the outworking of that into perfect love that casts out fear and permeates every level of our thought takes a lifetime to transform our thinking feeling and worrying lives.

The Christian belief about Easter reshapes us from fearful into faithful. We believe in a Love more powerful than death.

The God who raises the Dead Look, at the end of it all we believe in a God who works towards us because He has chosen to be for us. That’s what the incarnation means, the meaning of Christmas is God for us, and the meaning of Easter is the confirmation of that “for us” in the cross and resurrection. As God has raised and changed Jesus he will raise and change you too, in that final day, you will receive the resurrection, and death shall be swallowed up in new life. God is on your side. It takes years and years of learning to understand this God in your insidest inside, but it’s worth it.

Paul tells us a story in II Corinthians about going off to Arabia, to rethink everything. His life had changed at the Damascus road, but he wasn’t yet the apostle that we would come to know. His life was difficult among the people he tried to preach to in the early days, and he tells us that his life had become consumed with fear.

II Corinthians 1.8-10 (NRSV)
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again…

Paul felt death creeping on his doorstep because of the troubles he had received when preaching in Ephesus. He felt like he might have failed in his mission. Maybe you feel you’ve reached the end of your rope or that the mission you were given by God has been left unfulfilled. I’m here to tell you to renew your hope in God, because He is the One who has rescued you from death, and will lead you into the fulfillment of the rescue when your body finally becomes incorruptible.

Easter is more than just a holiday to remember Jesus got up and walked out of a tomb, today is the day he proved he was truly Lord over the universe. So too, in every resurrection that happens in the end, his justice is made perfect. Death is a challenge, and we’re tempted to live in fear. However, the end of fear has arrived, His name is Jesus. If Jesus didn’t raise from the dead then this whole thing is a waste of time as I Corinthians 15.32 says, but if he did raise from the dead, then the God who delivers my whole person from death, will deliver my eyes from tears and my feet from falling (Psalm 116.8). If Jesus really raised from the dead, then everything we thought we knew about what it means for God to be God is undone, and begins to speak anew from this man Jesus.

I hope you reach the end of your strength, the end of your striving, so that like the man with the mill, at the beginning of tonight, you might see that at the end of your strength is a mighty rushing wind that picks you up where you’ve fallen. You don’t have to be busy busy busy, you don’t have to rush to and fro, worried about tomorrow. You believe in the God who raises the dead. You don’t have to worry about getting it done or busying yourself with stagnating work, you can rest easy and approach each task with grace, with love and with patience. You don’t have to work in your own strength, you have to learn to let God establish the structure that allows the rushing wind to take full effect in your life, and in mine. You can sleep in peace, you can wake well rested, because in Christ and in continued faithfulness to Him, you’re a manifestation of the Love more powerful than death.

That’s what it means to be a Christian, to claim that in bearing the name, you are part of an entire people whose very existence means that there is a God whose love is more powerful than the kingdoms of the world, and whose love is more radical than anything we thought we knew. It means believing that the world is at stake and God intends to reclaim it.. It means trusting that this God will meet you where you’re at, and draw you to Himself. It means praying for not your own salvation, but the salvation of the world.. It means learning to recognize that the True God is not a monster in the sky barking orders, he’s the One who gives new life, deeper, fuller life. It means recognizing that the proper form of united prayer is not “Save us now,” but instead it’s “Your will be done.”

Do not be afraid that you’ve fallen short, be faithful to confess your sins and part of that confession means setting them right, be faithful to this church to her people, be faithful to the relationships you’re in, and trust in the God of Jesus. Trust that His Father, who is now your Father, will raise you also according to His faithfulness. He accepts you, already, today, just as you are and invites you into a love that transforms.

I Peter 1.3-5: 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, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

He is the one who has made real humanity possible in Jesus, because being a real human being means being able to fully and truly do everything that Jesus did. He helps us toward full mature humanness, by prying open our fists clenched with fear and giving us his own life, his own spirit and love, and putting these gifts into open, waiting hands. It is only when we face the fears, when we confess Jesus as Lord and let this confession sink into us, bathing in the truth of it. The Christian belief in Easter centers in the fact that this particular resurrection conforms us into its own image. We believe that this God, who keeps our feet from falling does so because He’s already shown us that He is in the business of conquering death, and it is by His love that He conquers death. It is because Jesus has risen from the dead, and stands embodied t the right hand of the Father that we know the God we serve is the Love more powerful than death.

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