Monday, April 01, 2013

Easter Faith

[This was shared during Easter worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]

Luke 24:1-12
Easter: When God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, having been executed on a cross, though He was sinless and without fault, rose from the dead.

Strange things happen in the wills, minds, and hearts of people who realize that Christ accepted the punishment for sin that we deserve, then took back His life again in order to offer forgiveness of sin, everlasting life with God, and a purpose for living we could never manufacture through owning, knowing, controlling, or entertaining ourselves.

If people aren’t careful, in spite of the doubts every human being experiences, in spite of being unable to prove anything about Easter, in spite of wanting to keep charge of our own lives and not giving control to God, the message of Easter--the message that God the Father so loved this world that He gave God the Son so that all who believe in Him may not perish, but may have eternal life--makes people do crazy things.

Things like:
  • giving as God has given to us,
  • forgiving as God forgives us,
  • living voluntarily under the will of God and not our own desires,
  • telling others that their lives can be changed forever if they trust in Christ and not themselves, or their looks, or their 401(k)s, or their brains, or their brawn, or their work ethic.
Those are things of the world that either die, or give out, or from which you and I will be separated when we draw our last earthly breaths.

Easter says that the God we meet in Jesus Christ has overcome death, will never give out, and can be with us always.

In the eyes of a world turned in on itself, that sees life on this earth as nothing more than an extended effort to make ourselves comfortable before we die, faith in the Jesus of Easter is a crazy thing. The risen Jesus, now enthroned in heaven, isn’t as tangible as a 70-inch HDTV, a well-appointed man cave, or the illusion of the perfect life. Faith in the risen Jesus doesn’t dismiss any of those things. But it challenges us to live for different ends.

Hebrews 11:1, in the New Testament, teaches us: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

For the Christian of today, faith is trust in a God we’ve never seen, faith in a resurrected Savior we’ve never seen. Having faith isn’t easy. “It’s harder to believe than not to.

But here’s how faith in Christ works: If you refuse to believe, you will never believe. But if you confess to God how hard you find it to believe in Christ, how hard it is to surrender to a Savior you’ve never seen, but that you want to believe, God will use the Word and the Sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion), to build faith within you.

Sometimes our faith is minuscule. But if we will keep listening to the words of new life, forgiveness, and call to surrender that comes from Jesus through the Bible, the words of other Christians about Jesus, and the Sacraments, faith will come to us and even sustain us in the darkest times of our lives. “I don’t know how I could have gotten through without Jesus to lean on,” a widow whose joy of life had returned to her several years after the death of her husband, even though her grief would never completely go away.

Luke’s account of the first Easter begins: “Now on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing spices which they had prepared. But they found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Then they went in and did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.”

The women went to the tomb without faith. They loved Jesus. They revered Him. But for all their devotion to Jesus, all they expected to find on that first Easter Sunday was His battered, wounded corpse. They had seen Him die. They had helped take His body to the tomb. They weren’t expecting their worlds to be turned upside down. But something crazy was about to happen to them!

Luke continues: “And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments [angels]. Then, as [the women] were afraid [understandably, since angels reflect the brightness and perfection of God Himself] and bowed their faces to the earth, [the angels] said to [the women], ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen! Remember how He spoke to you when He was still alive in Galilee, saying, ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.‘ And they remembered His words. [Here’s where it gets crazy.] Then they returned from the tomb and told all these things to the eleven [the eleven surviving apostles] and to all the rest [the hundreds of other disciples of Jesus grieving in Jerusalem].”

At this point in Luke’s account of Easter, the women at the tomb are just like you and me: They had never seen the risen Jesus. But hearing again Jesus’ words of promise created faith within them.

Listen: The Word of God has power.

It doesn’t matter if the person speaking it is a butcher, computer programmer, retiree, housewife, basketball star, preacher, or angel. When the simple truth about Jesus’ death and resurrection is shared, it can create faith.

It may require years of hearing and reading the Word about Jesus for a person to have faith. I was in this category. I was thick of head and hard of heart. It took time for the good news about the crucified and risen Jesus to penetrate and give me faith.

Others are fortunate in that they hear the Word from their moms and dads as children and always have faith. I remember the president of the seminary, Fred Meuser saying, "I never remember a time when I didn't believe." Fred's father was a pastor, his mother a woman of God, and they imparted faith to Fred, a faith he received.

But whether in a short time or a long time, it's the Word of God that creates faith in Jesus Christ within us. Romans 10:17 says: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”

Another part of the Bible, Romans 1:16-17, says that the Gospel about Jesus “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith..For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous [the one who is right before God because their sins are forgiven and they know to go to God for forgiveness and direction]...The one who is righteous will live by faith.’”

There’s nothing you and I can do to convince ourselves that Jesus rose from the dead and will give new and everlasting lives to all who believe in Him. No recitation of convincing facts, not even the overwhelming evidence from the changed lives of once frightened disciples who willingly gave their lives to bear witness to Who Jesus was and what He has done.

Faith comes by hearing a Word you may not have expected or wanted to hear and your ability to hear it comes from the power of the Word about Jesus, what we call the Gospel, the good news.

When people come to faith in Christ or to the daily renewal of their faith that God gives to those who daily repent and daily entrust their lives to Jesus, they can’t  explain it. They know that faith is a gift and are gratified to have it because they know that only those with faith in Christ live with God.

Like anything that’s given to you, you can open it up or push it away. Luke writes in our lesson starting at verse 10: “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”

The apostles should have believed, shouldn’t they? After all, they knew Jesus’ promises. In Luke 9:22, among other places, Jesus said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” But here were the apostles pushing the gift of faith in the risen Jesus preached by the women, away.

This was a perilous moment for the apostles. They had to make what Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis in the waning days of World War II, called “the decision.” We have to make the same decision every day. Bonhoeffer writes:
The time [on earth] is short. Eternity is long. [This life] is the time of decision. Those who are true to the word and confession [about the crucified and risen Jesus] on earth will find Jesus Christ standing by their side in the hour [when our lives are judged]. He will acknowledge them and come to their aid when the accuser [the devil] demands his rights [to take sinners with him into hell]. All the world will be called to witness as Jesus pronounces our name before his heavenly Father. If we have been true to Jesus in this life, he will be true to us in eternity. But if we have been ashamed of our Lord and of his name, he will likewise be ashamed of us and deny us. The final decision must be made while we are still on earth.
You don’t have to work to believe in the risen Jesus. But if you and I will not push Him away when He comes to us in His Word, the Bible, in the fellowship of believers, in His call to repent for sin, in His call to receive forgiveness, and in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, we can have life-changing faith in Jesus Christ.

We can know the peace that passes all understanding.

We can live knowing that while without Christ, we can do nothing of importance, we can do all things through Christ Who strengthens us.

We can know that Christ is with us to the close of the age.

We can live with the purpose that belongs to the children of God, who without faith in Jesus, were no people, but with faith in Jesus become God’s people, people who once lived apart from the mercy and power of Jesus in their lives, but now have received and live in that mercy and power.

We can know that our sins are forgiven and our names are written in the book of life! [See Luke 10:20; Revelation 13:8; 20:12]

But when we embrace the gift of faith in the risen Jesus, we dare not keep it to ourselves! When the women received the angels word and faith that Jesus is our everliving advocate, friend, and Savior had come to them, they ran back to tell all the others who had followed Jesus during His earthly ministry.

This is the real test of whether our faith in Jesus is real or just a hobby on Sunday mornings. Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen asks, “Can we say that we really believe in the resurrection of the Lord if we aren't willing to tell others about it?”

Jesus is risen from the dead!

Turn from sin each day and entrust your life to Him. He will give you life that begins with Him at your side in this dying world and life that lasts forever in the perfect eternal world to come.

That’s the good news of Easter!

Don’t push it away.

Take it into your life every day.

Dare to believe.

Dare to ask for the power to believe that comes from God only to believers in God in the flesh, Jesus Christ.

Tell others.

Then watch your faith grow!

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