Monday, April 21, 2014

Come and Die: Easter Sermon

    This morning, I would like to invite you to come and die.

    I realize this isn’t the typical way most pastors begin their Easter sermons, and you might be a little miffed at me for saying such a thing.  I mean, you might be thinking, “You know, pastor, here it is, Easter Sunday.  The church is full of people.  We have quite a few visitors.  They are coming to celebrate Easter with their families and enjoy the holiday.  You also know, pastor that our community has been hit hard by the deaths of some well known folks.  Don’t you respect their families?  Don’t you care that they are hurting?  You should start your sermon off with a story that is funny and sets us at ease.  Then you should tell us about the resurrection of Jesus and conclude with how the resurrection is going to make our lives all better so that we leave feeling happy and joyful.  How dare you start your sermon inviting us to come and die.”

    You know, maybe you are correct in how I should preach.  I mean, there are more than a few pastors who will indeed follow the outline I just suggested, and if you really, really want to hear such a sermon, I am sure there will be re-runs showcasing the guy just down the road from here.  I am sure his sermon will follow along those lines exactly.  But I am not here this morning to sell you Christianity-lite.  I’m not here this morning to tell you that if you just believe in Jesus’ resurrection and have enough faith that your life will turn out fabulous.  Just ask the those families of those who have died about those things.  See if they agree with that sort of theology.  I don’t care what certain preachers say about having health, and wealth, and status and friends, and what have you.  Just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t mean you will have these things, and if you are desiring these things above all else, then believing in Jesus is just a means to an end.  Jesus doesn’t want to be a means to an end.  He wants to be the end Himself, but in order for Jesus to be the end in our lives, we have to die.  We have to die to our fear of death.  We have to die to our desires for wealth and privilege.  We have to die to our own thoughts about what will make us happy and satisfied.  It may not be the most satisfying thing to hear on Easter morning, but I am not asking on my behalf.  The invitation does not come from me.

    You see, Jesus once famously said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me; for whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but who ever loses it for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.”

    At first glance, you may believe this has absolutely nothing to do with Easter.    You may be thinking that Jesus’ call has nothing to do with His resurrection.  You may be thinking that I have gone off the deep end to bring it up, and maybe you are right.  But I ask for a few moments to explain–to explain what I see taking place in many, many peoples’ lives and what has happened in my own life.

    As I look around our society today and as I interact with people, I hear the same story over and over again.  I hear people saying they are running all over the place.  I hear them saying they are burned out, stressed out, and stretched thin.  I hear people who retire tell me they are busier now than when they were actually working.  I hear people who are working tell me they feel tired and worn out–that they have absolutely no energy to do anything after a long week.  I hear people telling me they work hard and play hard, and that their life is crazy.  I sense that people feel like they are on a treadmill that keeps spinning and spinning and spinning and they have no idea how to get off of it.  No one seems to have a sense of peace.  No one seems to have a sense of joy.  No one seems to have a sense of fulfillment.  People seem to be chasing and running after something but never finding it. 

    I know what I was chasing, and I know what it did to me.  You see, some folks think that we pastors are above such matters.  Some folks say, “You pastors believe church is so important and that life should revolve around the church, but you don’t understand what the rest of us are going through.”  And you are right, to an extent.  You see, for many of us pastors, our lives do revolve around the church.  The church becomes our god–our master.  Jesus doesn’t govern our lives, the church does.

    This was rammed home to me when I was watching one of my favorite authors and pastors on Youtube.  Timothy Keller was giving a presentation on doing evangelism in this postmodern world, and he talked about the need for once again being captured by the gospel and capturing the gospel.  And when Keller talks about the gospel, he is speaking about what God has done to save us and not our saving ourselves through our actions.  And he puts a target on those of us who are clergy.  He says, “I don’t know exactly what extent it is for you, but just about every clergy person’s self-worth is tied to their ministry.  When worship attendance goes up, we feel great about ourselves, but when it goes down, we feel miserable.”  And Keller is right.  When the church is doing great; when worship attendance is up; when offerings are strong; when visitors are coming; when programs are well attended; we feel fantastic about what we are doing.  But when the opposite is happening, we feel miserable.  Why?  Why do clergy feel this way?  Why did I feel this way?

    Because I was getting my self-worth from the actions of my congregation.  I will make a confession to you this morning.  It’s a confession many of us who are clergy could make.  I had dreams and aspirations.  I wanted to come in and make a congregation grow–not just a little bit–a lot.  I wanted a congregation to explode and have thousands of members and thousands worshiping on a Sunday morning.  I wanted a congregation to do the exact opposite of what is happening to many mainline congregations these days.  And I wanted the notoriety for having led such a congregation.  I wanted folks to come up to me and ask me, “How did you do it?”  I wanted people to come to me for advice on how to grow their congregations.  I wanted to be important in the life of the national church.  I wanted people to invite me to speak at their congregations and conferences.  And I needed a congregation to help me get there.  So I threw myself into the life of the congregation.  I worked my tail end off to make things happen.  I tried all sorts of things hoping to spur rapid growth.  And if something popped up to threaten the health of the congregation, I became defensive.  I tried to keep everyone together and focused.  I read about all the techniques one was supposed to use to make a church grow.

    And where did it get me?  Tired.  Worn out.  Burned out.  Spinning my wheels.  No sense of fulfillment.  No sense of peace.  No sense of joy.  When I heard Keller speak those words about clergy many months ago, I stood convicted by them.  I was a broken pastor who was trying to find fulfillment in the wrong place.  Jesus was a means to an end and not the end Himself.  And the bad part was, I didn’t know how to make Him the center.

    Then, there was something that happened to me this past Thanksgiving.  My family and I traveled to have the holiday with my 94 year old grandfather who is a retired pastor.  We talked many hours, and my grandfather shared with me many stories about his time serving as a preacher.  And then in the midst of the conversation, he said this, “You know, Kevin, I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms.”  I hurriedly wrote that down because it brought me to tears.  First, it convicted me because I longed to accomplish much in the eyes of the world.  I longed to be important, and I wasn’t making too much headway.  But then the statement gave me a massive amount of comfort and peace because it directed me to what was truly important.  “The Lord and I are on very good terms.” 

    None of that other stuff really and truly matters in the big scheme of things.  What really matters is knowing one’s Creator and having Him at the center of one’s life, and that doesn’t come by anything that we do.  It doesn’t come by our perseverance.  It doesn’t come by our willing it to happen.  It doesn’t come by doing as many good things as we possibly can.  How do we get on good terms with the Lord?

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.

    The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.  The Word became flesh and died to reconcile us unto God.  The Word became flesh to bear our sin, our guilt, and our shame so that we might have abundant life.  But that abundant life comes with a cost.  Jesus had to die.  He had to go to the cross, and He now asks us to follow Him to that cross as well.  He also asks us to die.  And that is hard.  Very hard.

    You see, I didn’t want to die to my dreams of being a famous and important pastor.  I didn’t want to die to being the pastor of an absolutely huge congregation.  I didn’t want to die to thinking that I had Christianity all figured out and that I had all the techniques to make congregations grow.  I didn’t want to die to the idea that if I just worked hard enough, everything would work itself out.  I wanted to have control.  I wanted to call the shots.  I wanted to have my cake and to eat it too.  It hurt to let it go.  It hurt like hell.  I hated dying.

    And it seems like such a ridiculous request.  It seems like such a ridiculous command.  “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me.  For if anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, you will find it.”  How can dying lead to such a thing?  How can I be confident there is something on the other side of death?

    That’s why there is resurrection.

    That’s why we gather here today.

            The tomb is empty.  On the other side of death, there is life.  It is not a story just for when our time on earth is done.  It is a story for how we live.

    You see, many of us have a common saying.  We say, “You know, if only (fill in the blank) if I had more money, if I had a better job, if my kids were better behaved, if I were more outgoing, if I didn’t make as many mistakes, if I had a nicer car, if the Texans would win the Super Bowl...then my life would be perfect.”  Each and every one of us says such a thing at one point and time, but the reality is, even if we were to get such a thing, we wouldn’t be satisfied.  We wouldn’t be fulfilled.  We wouldn’t be at peace.  These pursuits become our gods.  They take our time, our energy, and our focus.  Oftentimes, they consume our very being.  And waiting at the end of it all is our fear of death.  It is the one thing none of us can ever escape.  Sometimes, we use all sorts of worldly pursuits in trying to stave off what is immanent.  We stress ourselves out trying to escape the reality that we will eventually die.

    But what is death to one who has already died to self?  What is fear to one who knows that there will be eternal life?  Why does one need to run all over the place trying to take one’s mind off of the inevitable if you have already looked death in the eye and know what is on the other side?  This morning, I invite you to die.  I invite you to die to these things.  I invite you to die to the running and stress and anxiety.  I invite you to die to the way the world tells you to operate.  I invite you to die to the way the world tells you you will find all your desires fulfilled.  I invite you to die to your fear of death.  For death has been swallowed up in victory.  Oh death, where is thy victory?  O death where is thy sting?  It is gone.  The tomb is empty.  There is life, abundant life.  Jesus has risen and He now lives.  Let your heart become His home.  Let Him be at the center of your life.  And you will know the peace that passes all understanding.  You will know true fulfillment.  You will know inexpressible joy.  Amen.

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