On Monday, I drove to Austin to visit one of our members who had had open heart surgery. As I got about half-way there, KSBJ played out on my radio, so I began searching for a Christian radio station in Austin. Fortunately, I found one. However, this station was not like KSBJ. KSBJ is a listener supported station with no commercials. The station in Austin had commercials, so along with local businesses, local churches also ran ads. Not surprisingly, many of those ads were about upcoming Easter services. One ad did catch my attention. A church was advertizing its Easter activities complete with a helicopter that would be dropping 20,000 eggs for their egg hunt. I heard that ad several times during my trip, so I know the number and the event is accurate.
I must admit that there was a small part of me that thought about calling up Christa and saying, “How much do you think it would cost to get a helicopter to drop the eggs for our egg hunt, and do you think the congregation would go for it?” But there was a larger part that began seriously thinking about what this congregation was doing. I mean, I’m all for getting people to come to your church and to church activities. I have absolutely no problem with that in the least, but this seems like a different kind of animal. If this church is bringing in a helicopter for its Easter egg hunt, what are they going to do for the sermon? Will they have a live-re-enactment of the resurrection complete with the ground shaking, angels appearing and rising into heaven, with smoke and loud music and the like? Will the message of the resurrection take a back seat to a helicopter with 20,000 eggs? It seems like there is a strong possibility of that happening. It seems way too gimmicky, in my opinion.
So, there will be no helicopter here today. There will be no lights, or re-enactments, or smoke, or manufactured ground shaking. For as awe inspiring as such things might be, I know of no one’s life who was changed by seeing a helicopter drop 20,000 eggs. I know of no one who had a change of heart by packing an Easter basket with eggs. I know of no one who found the peace that passes all understanding by watching the gimmicks of congregations. But I do know of many, many people who have had lives changed, hearts melted, who have found peace by encountering the risen Jesus. And it is my hope and my prayer that each of us here today encounter Him.
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, today we are presented with momentous news. The one who died on the cross has been raised. The tomb is empty. Death is undone. Open our hearts and our minds so that we might see what you have accomplished through the death and resurrection of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
500 years ago, Martin Luther kicked off a huge event in history that we will be celebrating later this year. Historians call it the Reformation. Those of us whose churches found their beginnings at this time in history remember how one man dared to call the church back to its foundational beliefs. It was the radical notion that God had acted through Jesus Christ to bring about our salvation through no action of our own but solely by the grace of God.
Luther himself talked about God’s action in this way in his commentary on the book of Galatians, “Here I must take counsel of the gospel. I must hearken to the gospel, which teaches me, not what I ought to do, (for that is the proper office of the law), but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me: to wit, that He suffered and died to deliver me from sin and death. The gospel wills me to receive this, and to believe it. And this is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consists. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.” Yes, Luther said, we must beat the Gospel into folks’ heads continually. Therefore, this morning, I brought a baseball bat... I bet you some of you are wishing we had a helicopter with 20,000 eggs right about now.
Please stop getting up to head to the exits, I’m putting the bat down. Jesus didn’t condone violence, and I’m not about to start that now. However, I am not going to apologize for using Luther’s quote because the Gospel is indeed so radical that we need to hear it over and over and over and over before it really starts sinking deep down within the very fabric of our heart and soul. We need to have it repeated over and over and over so that it weasels its way deep into our hearts and transforms them. We must hear the Gospel over and over and over again because it goes against the way the entire world works.
So, let’s begin there. How does the world work? I want you to think about your life for a moment. I want to think about all the things you engage in. Think about work. Think about school. Think about family and friends. Do you realize that you are in a constant state of working to justify yourself? Perhaps you have never thought of it that way, but let me show you what I mean. If you are in school, why do you work to get good grades? You are showing justification that you have mastered the material and are ready to move to the next step. If you are working, why do you work hard and put in the hours you put in? You are working to justify why the company should give you a paycheck, allow you to keep your job, and even perhaps give you a raise. You are justifying your position to those for whom you work. And even if you are self-employed, you must justify your work to your customers. If you are a handyman, you’d better do a good job or else no one will be calling you. Yes, even within our engagements with family and friends, we are constantly trying to justify ourselves. As a parent, I am constantly asked, “Why?” by my children. That question is nothing more than them saying, “Justify why you are telling me what you are telling me.” And if you don’t think you have to justify yourself even within your immediate relationships, get angry about something and let your tongue slip. See if you don’t have to quickly justify what you said. Or guys, leave the toilet seat up several times in a row. One more example, and then we will move on. This example is front and center in our society even though we might not realize it: sports. If you play any sort of team sport, you are in a constant state of justifying yourself for playing time. You are having to prove over and over and over why you should be playing and why the guy on the bench shouldn’t. And if you slip up; on the field or in your character, you are out of luck.
Have I shown you enough? Do you see how you and I are in a constant state of working to justify ourselves? Do you see how the world is set up so that we must continually justify ourselves?
Now, let’s shift to religion. Did you know that just about every single world religion is in the self-justification business? The emphasis of just about every single world religion is: if you do x, y, z, then you will receive the blessings of God. If you do not do x, y, and z, you can expect God’s punishment. If you keep failing, try harder. You must justify yourself and prove that you are worthy of God’s blessings.
Here is what Christianity says. Christianity says, there is no way that you can justify yourself before God. God has said that we must do x, y, and z, but God’s standards are so high that if we break x, y, or z, we have dug ourselves a hole and no matter how hard we try we can never, ever justify ourselves. We are indebted to God for our failure to live as we should.
Most of us know this at a very deep level. Sure, we try to fool ourselves. We put on some brave faces and some brave phrases. We like to think that “I’m okay and you’re okay.” We like to believe, “You are perfect just the way you are.” We like to tell ourselves that we are basically good people who just make a few mistakes along the way. Yet, when we examine our lives, we know this isn’t the case. When we really think about how we act and what we do, we know that we hold everyone else to a standard that we ourselves don’t even live up to. Maybe this is why we try to keep ourselves so busy these days. Maybe this is why we work so hard and play so hard and keep our brains engaged with our cell phones. The more we distract ourselves, the more we don’t have to think and reflect upon who we are and why the world is the way it is. The more we distract ourselves, the more we don’t have to reflect upon how indebted to God that we are because of our shortcomings.
But here is the good news. When every other world religion would say, “Try harder. Work harder. Pay your own debt. Do more good than evil.” Christianity says: God, knowing that we could not cover the debt, took on human flesh, became like us, experienced all that we experience, but lived without sin. God came down in human flesh and became the sacrifice of atonement to pay our debt. God came down in human flesh and took the punishment that was meant for us because God loved us so dearly.
Some may quibble at this thought, but what parent doesn’t do this for his or her young children? If your kids were walking in the store and they accidentally broke an item on the shelf, would you allow your kid to be arrested and charged with vandalism? No, you would pay for the item because you love your kid. God desires all people to be His children, so He came into this world to cancel our debts–to pay for them Himself by taking the wrath of God upon Himself so that we would not have to face it.
This is what Jesus spent His whole life teaching and preaching. This is what Jesus spent His whole ministry working toward. His life was one great trajectory toward the cross where He justified us before God the Father. Christianity says: you do not justify yourself; God the Son justifies you–makes you right by His actions. You are made right with God by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith. This means, you are now made right with God by trusting in what Jesus does instead of what you do. Let me say that again: you do not justify yourself like the world demands you do. Instead, you are justified by Jesus’ on the cross.
This is not the way the world works. This is not the way every other world religion works. It is contrary to almost everything we have been taught. Who would come up with such a scheme that is so contrary; that is so backwards? It’s crazy and would have been rejected if not for one thing:
I bet you were wondering when I would actually get to why we are here today. I bet you were wondering when we would get to the empty tomb. Well, here it is. You see, the resurrection is the Father’s stamp that says, “You see. Everything that Jesus said was true. Everything He said about being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; everything He said about being the Son of God; everything that He said about salvation coming through Him as the way, the truth, and the life; everything that He said about being the light of the world; yeah, all of it is true. All of it.
This means you don’t put your hope in your actions.
You don’t put your hope in your ability to do good things.
You don’t put your hope in your ability to follow the rules and laws in the Bible.
You don’t put your hope in the world telling you to justify yourself.
You put your hope in Jesus.
You put your hope in what He has done.
You put your hope in the cross and in the resurrection.
You trust in Jesus, not in yourself.
Oh, and that is so hard. It is so hard to trust in someone else. It is so much more instinctual to pave our own way; to walk our own path; to take everything into our own hands and do it ourselves. It is so much more instinctual and in accord with the world to present our own defense; argue our own case; present why we should be in the right; to justify ourselves. In fact, we keep wanting to go back to that. We keep wanting to do it all on our own. We need to have the gospel beat into our heads continually. Where is that baseball bat?
No. We don’t need that baseball bat. We need Jesus. We need to be reminded about Him. We need to hear over and over and over again how much He loves us. We need to hear over and over again how He was willing to suffer and die for us. We need to hear over and over again how He loves us when we are unlovable. For as we hear about how He died and rose for us; as we think about the cross and resurrection, as we think about Jesus, He moves down into our hearts and makes His home deep within us bringing us peace; bringing us hope; bringing us joy. It’s Jesus who changes us; not helicopters; not 20,000 Easter eggs; not lights and smoke; not even ourselves. Just Jesus.
Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, give us Jesus. We know He is alive. We know He has risen from the dead. We know He longs to dwell in our hearts. Lead us to trust in Him. Beat it into our heads that we can trust in Him instead of ourselves. And lead us to the hope, peace, and joy that is only found in the cross and resurrection. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.