[This Easter sermon was shared during worship services with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, today.]
A young preacher was going through a crisis of faith. His ministry as an evangelist was growing, but he was beginning to have doubts about God’s existence, about the veracity of the Bible, about the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. It didn’t help that a friend of his, another young evangelist described by the first young man as “the best preacher I ever heard,” had lost his will to believe. A superficial reading of science had led the second young preacher to reject God. “Nobody believes what you believe any more,” he told the first young preacher.
It was a hard time for that young man. The beliefs on which he’d built his life seemed to be crumbling around him. Then, one night, on a walk through a field in southern California, he fell to his knees. He cried out to God as he clutched his Bible with desperate hands. Lord, he said, I don’t understand everything in this book. But with your help, I will trust the message on these pages. I will trust that there is a God Who so loved the human race that He entered our human story, died on a cross for our sin, and then rose from death so that all who believe in Him will never die, but be with you for all eternity.
That proved to be a turning point in the life of the young preacher. From that moment forward, Billy Graham's faith grew stronger.
Sometimes, I think, we have the wrong idea about faith in God. We think that we have to convince ourselves or get worked up with an ocean of goose bumps. But faith is not something we can manufacture. We can’t educate ourselves into it, like we do with the multiplication table or the conjugation of verbs. We can’t hold our own little pep rallies in order to create the feeling of faith within us. Faith--which is just another word for trust--isn’t something that comes naturally to we human beings.
Not even trust in God. Especially not trust in God. Ron Hals, one of my seminary professors, captured this human tendency to distrust God when he used to tell us, “You all say you would love to have been around when Jesus performed a miracle. But it’s just as likely that you would have watched Jesus turn water into wine or bring back a man from the dead and told him, ‘Do that again. Slower.’”
Faith in God, in the God of Easter, in the risen Savior Jesus, is God’s gift to those who are willing to believe. This may explain the really strange thing that happens in Matthew’s telling of the story of the first Easter morning.
Each of the four Gospel writers—Mark, Luke, John, and Matthew—tell us about what happened on the first Easter in their own ways. They differ on some of the specifics. That has never bothered me. If all four of them agreed on every single detail, I would smell a conspiracy. As it is, I smell the truth.
Be that as it may, one of the details that interests me in Matthew’s account is this. An angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, who have gone to the tomb on the first Easter, “Go quickly and tell the disciples He [Jesus] has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him.’ This is my message for you.”
At that point, the women hadn’t seen the risen Jesus. They were told that if they and Jesus' other folowers traveled the sixty miles to Galilee from Jerusalem, they would see Him for themselves. Granted, the earthquake they experienced at the tomb, the fainted guards, and the angel lighting on the stone that had been rolled away all were pretty impressive things, signs that could point them toward belief. But Jesus’ followers had seen and heard lots of impressive signs of Who Jesus was in the preceding three years. Still, they hadn’t really believed when Jesus told them He would die for the sins of the world and rise to give new life to all the repentant who believe in Him. When Jesus breathed His last on the cross, they were as hopeless as atheists, as forlorn and defeated as anyone who turns their back on God.
Who knows what the women actually believed at that moment? All we know for sure is this: They were willing to believe. They were willing to trust in the message given to them about the Lord they had seen murdered just days before. They were willing to believe that He was risen from the dead. We know this by their response to the angel’s message: “They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell [the] disciples.”
Someone has said that the mixture of emotions that the two women felt as they ran from the tomb—fear and great joy—is like that mixture of emotions felt by brides and grooms as they prepare, hearts pounding out of their chests, to walk into a church sanctuary on their wedding days. They have no idea what the next fifty or sixty years may bring. They have no certainty that they can trust either themselves or their beloved to be worthy partners in life. But they’re willing to trust that no matter what—in sickness or in health, in good times or in bad—that their marriages will work.
The women, like a couple about to be married, didn’t know what the future might bring. They had no more certainty than Billy Graham did that night he threw himself on God’s mercy, that Jesus had really conquered sin and death for all who dare to trust in Him. But they were willing to trust and so, their hearts pounding from their chests, they ran to tell the disciples that the angel had said that Jesus was alive.
But a funny thing happens in the lives of those who are willing to believe. They learn that the old saying is completely wrong. Seeing isn't believing. Believing is seeing!
The president of Trinity Lutheran Seminary during the years I attended there was Fred Meuser. Once, shortly after I started seminary, Dr. Meuser took six of us who had begun our training in the middle of an academic year, out for lunch. We asked him to tell us about himself, especially about how he came to faith in Christ. “There’s no drama in my faith story,” he told us. “I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a Lutheran pastor in churches all around Michigan.” At that, I thought I saw tears well in Fred's smiling eyes. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in Jesus,” he told us. Nurtured in faith from the time he was a baby, Fred had never rebelled. He had always wanted to believe in Jesus and he found that God builds faith in those who are willing to believe.
Many of you know something of my own faith story. In my teens and early twenties, I considered myself an atheist. Then, I married this Lutheran. The faith I saw in Ann and all the wonderful people of the congregation that became my home church made me want a piece of that action. I wanted to know and follow Jesus! I wanted to believe, but frankly, a part of my skeptical mind rebelled even after I'd made public professions of faith. I wanted to believe, but still didn't fully.
Then, one night a strange thing happened to me. I had a dream that I remembered. That almost never happens. I dreamed that I was walking down a street. Nobody else was there. Nobody, that is, except for one figure who kept walking closer and closer. Ultimately, he approached me and I could see that it was Jesus. No words were spoken. In my dream, Jesus simply reached out His arms and pulled me to Himself. That was it. I remember waking up with a smile on my face. My willingness to believe in Jesus had become faith.
When the women ran from Jesus’ tomb, the Lord they weren’t supposed to meet until they were in Galilee showed up. Matthew writes: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said ‘Greetings!’ And they came to Him, took hold of His feet, and worshiped Him…” God creates faith in those willing to put their dukes down and simply let God love them! When we allow ourselves to trust in Jesus that we see Him, see His grace, see His power, and see His love working in our lives. There are many people in this sanctuary this morning who can testify to that truth!
As a pastor for twenty-four years now, there is one single statement I’ve heard from people more than any other. It comes in various versions. But it’s the same statement nonetheless. Atheists will tell me, “I just can’t bring myself to believe.” Faithful Christians will tell me, “My faith isn’t strong enough.” Or, “I’m not close enough to God to be a witness for Christ.” These statements all betray a single, common, human, and very understandable misconception. They all see faith as something we do, as the product of our effort.
But the Good News of Easter is that Jesus has done everything necessary for our salvation. The Father sent the Son. The Son died and rose for us. The Spirit works in the wills of those who are willing to believe.
The women who ran from the tomb to share the message of the first Easter learned what every believer in Christ has learned these past two-thousand years: If we are willing to believe, God will build faith within us. God will help us live in the certainty that the risen Christ gives all who believe infinite, indestructible forgiveness, life, and hope. God will build certainty in us that a risen Savior is by our sides in all that comes to us in this life and He has the power to give us life beyond the grave.
If you and I are willing to believe—willing to meet the risen Jesus in worship, in the fellowship of believers, in the Sacrament, in the Bible, in prayer, in service in Jesus’ Name, our faith will grow. Our faith will invite others to follow. Our faith will show the world that there is a Savior Who died, but has risen. Risen indeed! Happy Easter, everyone.