Monday, April 23, 2012

Contempt for Death

1 Corinthians 15:51–57 (NKJV)
51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” 56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Last week we observed that we are in the time of Eastertide, the period of time when the Church has historically remembered and celebrated the resurrection of our Lord Jesus from the dead. So why did Jesus rise from the dead? To demonstrate for all those who believe in Him that our bodies likewise will be raised.

And it is this theme upon which Paul dwells in our text today. This corruptible body must pass through the furnace of death and be raised incorruptible; this mortal body that is subject to death must pass through the furnace of death and be raise immortal. And when this has happened, when at the Last Day Christ has returned in glory and raised from the dead all those who believe in Him, transformed us into His own image – righteous, incorruptible, immortal – then shall come to pass the promise of Scripture, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

In other words, brothers and sisters, we have immense hope. Death is not the final word. As horrible as death is, as devastating as it is, death is a conquered foe. Jesus rose from the dead; Jesus dealt death a death blow. We now live in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead; because Christ has risen we too shall rise.

So what does this mean? It means that we can have immense confidence in the face of death itself and in the face of all death’s minions – sickness, pain, torture, persecution, hardship, trial. None of these things have the last word – the last word belongs to Jesus and to life. And this is what our psalmist understood. “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed That I would see the goodness of the LORD In the land of the living.” “Oh death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Such confidence is absolutely necessary for us to possess as the people of God. After all, consider the twofold task that has been entrusted to us. First, we are to lead lives of godly sincerity and purity no matter what others may think or say. Second, while living this way we are not to retreat into a little hovel but to engage all the nations of the earth with the message of the Gospel. What would enable us to accomplish such things? Listen to Eusebius:

[To do so] the strongest conviction of a future life was necessary, that [we] might be able with fearless and unshrinking zeal to maintain the conflict with Gentile and polytheistic error: a conflict the dangers of which [we] would never have been prepared to meet, except as habituated to the contempt of death.

How are we to treat death? With contempt. Why? Because Christ is risen and has broken his power. Even as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall rise. This mortal shall put on immortality. So what should characterize our lives? Fearless and unshrinking zeal to maintain the truth of God against all opposition – whether from our own flesh or from the world or from the devil himself. Congregation of the Lord, Christ is Risen! (He is Risen indeed!)

So reminded of the power of Christ’s resurrection but no doubt reminded also that we frequently are fearful and shrinking rather than fearless and unshrinking, let us kneel and confess our lack of faith to the Lord.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Fairy Tale Come True

Romans 8:11 (NKJV)
11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

There once was a boy named Jack whose family was very poor. His father had died and he and his mother lived alone on their small farm. But the crops had failed and Jack and his mom had only one choice left: they’d have to sell their cow so they could get enough money to buy food and seed for the next season.

So Jack’s mom sent him to market and Jack, like a good boy, made his way to town. But along the way he met an old man by the side of the road. “Beans, beans, magic beans!” the man cried. Jack was curious. “What do these beans do?” he asked. “Ah, plant these beans,” the man replied, “and they will grow into a huge vine that will rise to a massive height and take you to the giant’s castle where he holds the goose that lays the golden eggs.” Golden eggs! Well that was just the thing for Jack. If he could get those golden eggs then he and his mom would be free of their troubles.

So Jack made the trade – his cow for the old man’s beans. Whistling happily Jack returned home and proudly showed his mom the beans he had obtained in exchange for the cow. But Jack’s mom – as you may recall – was none too pleased with her son. “You foolish boy,” she declared. “Those aren’t magic beans – that old man has fooled you and now we have nothing left either to eat or to plant in the spring!”

Jack was grieved that his mom was unhappy with him – for he was a good boy. So what did Jack do? He determined to put those beans to the test. Late that night, when the full moon was shining on their farm, Jack went out and planted the beans, watered them, and then returned to bed. “Perhaps now my mom will see that these beans really were magic.”

Early the next morning, before his mom was awake, Jack got up, put on his clothes, and ran outside to check on his beans. Normally, of course, this would be an exercise in futility – beans don’t grow overnight – but these were magic beans. And there before Jack’s eyes, reaching high up into the sky, was the biggest bean stock Jack, or anyone else, had ever seen. It soared up into the clouds, far out of Jack’s sight. Jack had been right – they were magic beans.

And how did Jack know they were magic beans? He planted them, he put them to the test.

Brothers and sisters, this is Eastertide, the time of year when we continue to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. So why was Jesus raised from the dead? Listen as the great historian Eusebius explains the reason to the emperor Constantine upon the 30th anniversary of Constantine’s reign:

Suppose one desired to show us that a vessel could resist the force of fire; how could he better prove the fact than by casting it into the furnace and thence withdrawing it entire and unconsumed? Even so the Word of God, who is the source of life to all, desiring to prove the triumph over death of that body which he had assumed for man’s salvation… pursued a course consistent with this object. …delivering [his body] up to death in proof of its mortal nature, he soon redeemed it from death, to demonstrate the immortality of the body accomplished by His Divine power and the powerlessness of death.

Even as Jack proved his beans were magic by planting them, Jesus demonstrated the immortality of the body by dying and rising from the dead. With this difference: Jack and his beans are a mere fairy tale but Jesus’ death and resurrection are the fairy tale come true – they really happened.

Brothers and sisters – Christ is risen! Let us rejoice! Death no longer has the final word. The sting of death has been broken; the power of the grave has been shattered. Hades has given up his captives and we can now rejoice in the power of God and face death as a defeated foe. There is no cause for fear – if we are trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His power over sin and death, then we need not fear or be afraid. God our own God will deliver us and rescue us.

And so reminded that our Lord Jesus died and rose again to teach us to live without fear of death, let us kneel and confess that we have often been overcome by our fears instead.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter Sunday

Romans 1:1-4 (NKJV)
Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God 2 which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, 3 concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, 4 and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.

Today is Easter – the most significant of the various holy days in the Church calendar. More pivotal than Christmas, more central than Pentecost, more crucial than Epiphany – Easter celebrates the single most world transforming event in all human history. Because of the resurrection, we have the Gospel. Because of the resurrection, we have cathedrals. Because of the resurrection, we have new life, forgiveness, peace with God. All because of the resurrection.

Year after year I bring us back to this passage in Romans to remind us of the world transforming nature of the resurrection. After assuring us that Christ’s coming was proclaimed beforehand by the prophets and that he came as was foretold a son of David, Paul goes on to declare that Jesus was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection of the dead. What does he mean by this turn of phrase?

While many have supposed that Paul is here outlining the two natures of Christ – according to his human nature he was of the seed of David but he was also the Son of God – the text does not support this notion. For how could Jesus’ status as the eternal Son of God undergo a transformation as a result of the resurrection? He has and ever will be the only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. This is not what Paul is addressing.

What is Paul saying then? He is telling us about the transformation that has occurred in the ministry of our Lord Jesus as a result of the resurrection. He was born of the seed of David – had indeed the natural right to rule as King. But simply having the natural right to rule does not establish that one does in fact rule. Bonnie Prince Charlie may have had a rightful claim to the throne of England; but a mere claim means little if one does not actually have the throne. And it is this that Paul addresses with the next phrase. Not only was Jesus born to be King – not only did he have a legitimate claim to the throne – by the resurrection from the dead He was declared to be the Son of God, the King of Israel, with power – that is, the resurrection was Jesus’ coronation as King. God, as Peter says elsewhere, made Him to be both Lord and Christ by the resurrection from the dead.

What is the significance of Easter then? On this day we celebrate the coronation of our King. Nearly two thousand years ago he was crowned King of the Universe, the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him and this includes, because He conquered death, authority over death itself. He has the keys of death and hell. He opens and no one shuts. So death is conquered; death is destroyed. Christ is risen and those in Him shall arise as well. Death is no more the final word.

Is this not good news? Brethren, Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed!) Let us shout Alleluia! (Alleluia!)

And so reminded that Jesus is Lord, let us kneel and acknowledge our rightful King, asking His forgiveness for our sins against Him.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sentence of Excommunication

Matthew 18:15–20 (NKJV)
15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

In the passage before us Jesus lays out the general pattern for church discipline. Private, individual confrontation is to be followed by increasing levels of accountability culminating, if necessary, in exclusion from the covenant community.

There are a variety of purposes served by such accountability but one of them is to make clear that Jesus really is Lord. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he was correctly acknowledged as king and His kingship had ramifications in time and space – Jesus entered the Temple and cleaned out the corruption. We cannot spurn God’s law, reject His authority, and continue to comfort ourselves with the assurance that all is well. “Do you not know,” Paul writes to the Corinthians, “that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:8-10). Jesus really is Lord.

Approximately two months ago the elders, in obedience to Jesus’ command, informed the church that ----, a member of this church, was living in sin. Despite repeated admonitions and encouragements, accompanied with fasting and prayer on ---- behalf, ---- still obstinately refuses to hear the Church, and has manifested no evidence of repentance: Therefore, in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, we, the Session of Trinity Church do pronounce ------ to be excluded from the Sacraments, and cut off from the fellowship of the Church.

Such action reminds all of us how susceptible we all are to the deceptions of the Evil One, the corruptions of our own flesh, and the allurements of the world. But for the grace of God we too would turn from Him. And so Paul warns us, “Beware brethren lest there be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the Living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:12-13)

Paul insists that we need one another – we need our brothers and sisters who will encourage us, pray for us, exhort us, rebuke us, comfort us, console us. And one of the ways that we help one another is by coming here every Lord’s Day and acknowledging together how much we need the grace of God. We gather together, bow the knee to God and confess our sins, pleading the cleansing blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for our sins. And so reminded of this, let us kneel and confess our own sins to the Lord.