If you don't mind, I'd like to repeat a piece of that prayer we just
prayed together. Would you join me silently? "Oh, God, please lead
us to experience the joy of his resurrection and the surety of ours. Through
the risen Lord we pray. Amen."
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of Jesus.
While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: "The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again." Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. (Luke 24:1-11)
You all know that story. You've heard it before. That's why you are here. I would like to lift up a little different aspect of it this morning.
Jesus died. Jesus came back. The women knew it. The women told the others. And the others did not believe them. That's the story of Easter, too: the question of witness and belief--both faith and doubt. All through the centuries, that has been the theme of Easter.
There have been those who said, "Alleluia, he is risen!" and some have answered, "He is risen indeed" while many, in their hearts, have said, "I'm not so sure," "I don't know," "I don't believe that" or "I can't take your word for it." That may not be as great a crime as some people have said. At least, those who can't take somebody else's word for it are in pretty good company. The apostles couldn't either, on that first Easter morning. They thought it was just ... nonsense.
And what about the women? They couldn't prove it. They couldn't prove it to the Lord's apostles. That's why, when we speak about these things, we talk about faith. It's the faith we place in the witness--not just our faith in God, but the faith we place in the testimony of those who say, "I have seen him. He has risen. It is real." If we haven't that experience ourselves, we simply have to accept it or reject it on our faith in the credibility of the witness. It's as simple as that.
So ... you have been told. It's your choice. It can't be proved by the cycles of nature. The tulips are lovely, but the fact they come up in the spring doesn't prove that Christ rose from the dead, and it doesn't prove that we will. That is the bad news. The good news is: we are all going to find out sooner or later. The problem is: better sooner than later. And that's my subject.
What difference does it make to me--here and now, in this very modern, technological, sophisticated twentieth century--whether a Jewish rabbi came back from the dead two thousand years ago? Good question. What difference does it make to me now? Why is it important?
Well, in the first place, if he was a god and not a man, it doesn't make any difference to me. The gods were always doing that sort of thing. You know, they kind of popped in and out at will, according to the Greeks and Romans, so if he was just a god, mox nix, as the Germans say. If, however, he was a man, this can cast some doubt on my observation that people die and I don't see them any more ... that isn't exactly true, but that's another subject.
If I'm going to find out sooner or later anyway, why is it important for me to know now? I think it's really rather simple. By his demonstration of life and death and returning from death, he provides a message for me.
For example, you remember when he was standing before Pontius Pilate, what he said was, "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth." Alright, so he has borne witness to the truth. He has demonstrated it with his own body. He was born, and lived, and died, and returned, so his disciples might learn before they died that human beings survive death. Why was it so important they know that, and I know it, and you know it? You're going to find out sooner or later anyway, but better sooner than later ... because it makes a difference in how each of us lives this life, now.
It's quite simple. If death is the end of us, period, as many people believe, then, "Hey, Babe, go for the gusto. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the lights go out." Or as some of the yuppies say, "Whoever has the most toys at the end wins." And that's logical. It is not logical to say, "Lay up for yourself treasure in heaven," if heaven is just wishful thinking. And it's not logical to turn aside from the accumulation of earthly stuff, if that's all there is. So, at a deep level, how you live this life depends on what you believe, or don't believe, about the Easter message. That's your choice. But apparently God thought it important enough to send Jesus to this earth, to live as a man and demonstrate that truth.
Alright, if the Easter message is true, I'm going to survive death. Then it makes sense for me to do some of the things Jesus said. For example, he said, "When you give a party, don't just invite your friends and relatives who are going to repay you. Invite the blind, the maimed, the cripples, and the poor--and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you." He explains it simply: "You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."
To the rich young ruler who had kept all the commandments he said, "One thing is still holding you back. Get rid of your wealth. It's holding you back. You're tied to it. Let it go. Give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." What does that mean? Well, it's really pretty neat economics. He's asking this guy to let go of something that's holding him back, something he can't take with him anyway, and to invest it in the friendship of people who he is going to take with him, or who are going be there to meet him when he gets there. That's as neat an economic proposition as I ever heard. Granted, it is a life-after-death investment, and you have to have some faith to make that kind of investment, and that faith is based on what you believe about Easter. But if you don't think Easter is true, you don't make that kind of investment, logically.
Let's look at the flip side. If it isn't true and I believe it, then what? Paul answers that when he says, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men the most to be pitied." In other words, if it isn't true, we have been conned. If we lay aside earthly desires and make life-after-death investments and it isn't true, then indeed we are to be pitied.
Flip it over the other way. Suppose it is true, but I don't believe it. Then what? Quite simply, I am not going to be prepared to live in the life after death. If everything I like, everything I love, everything I'm tied to, is earthly, what happens? All of a sudden, the big surprise: I find I have left all that stuff and taken my desire for it with me. Not fun. I still want it, but I can't have it. Suppose what I want is a car, but I can't have it because I don't have a body. Unpleasant. You can expand that in your mind. If I'm hung up on anything like food, fame, sex, money or any other earthly stuff, if I wake up and find myself dead--that is, without a physical body--but everything I want requires a physical body, I'm going to be in deep, serious kimchi. There are other names for that, but kimchi will do for now.
There are the two sides of it. It's important because I need to know now whether life after death is a fact, so I will know how to live this life. Apparently that's why it was important enough for God to send Jesus to bear witness to that truth. Now, we say, "He died for my sins," but I think he died to give me that message. He was born, he lived, he died, and he came back so you and I would have that message, because we need to know it now. It makes a difference in how we live our life.
Is it true? Good question. How can we prove or disprove anything that happened two thousand years ago in Israel? Or, how can we prove that human beings survive death, then or now? There are three bases for belief, yours and mine.
You can take it on faith--faith in the Bible. That's what our religion calls us to do. And that's why we call it "a faith." It's not magic; it is faith, as in the statement: "I will take it on faith, I will take the Bible's word for it." If so, that's all you need.
If that's not enough, maybe you can accept somebody else's word for it. Take a look in your hymnal sometime. Just flip through the pages and read the words of the hymns, where the writer is giving you testimony, where the writer is saying to you, "Jesus is alive. I have experienced Jesus."--for example, the hymn, In the Garden. It was written in 1912. A man named C. Austin Miles sat down and wrote, "I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice I hear falling on my ear the Son of God discloses." Now, he is either telling you something or lying in his teeth--take your pick. He is like the women who said to the apostles on Easter morning, "He is risen." Like the apostles, it's up to you whether you accept that testimony or not, but that thread of testimony runs all the way through these two thousand years, from that Easter to this Easter. So, yes, there is other testimony, in addition to the Bible.
There are also some very interesting things going on in our world right now that bear witness. For example, for the first time in history, we now have the medical technology to resuscitate a lot of people who have died. We kind of reach out and grab them by the coat-tails and drag them back--and some of them don't like that. If you've read the stories of near-death experiences, a fair number of those folks resented being dragged back to this life. They were just getting comfortable, and excited, by where they found themselves. It is really worth your while to read the accumulating evidence of the many, many, many people who have had a near-death experience. I'll tell you about one: Wyn's father, my father-in-law.
This was in the 1960's, before all the books on near-death experiences came out. He had a major operation. They almost cut him in half. Later, after he came home, he tried to tell me about something that happened to him during that operation. Lawrence was not a man of words, so it was not easy for him to describe his experience. He said, "Well, it really seems funny, but I found myself watching them work on me. Do you think I'm crazy?"
I said, "No."
He said, "I was kind of up in the corner of the room, looking down, and there was this body laid out, and all the people working on it, and it was me."
"Okay, what happened?"
"Well, they got a couple of things that looked like those old flat-irons we used to heat on the stove, and they put them on that body, and as it jumped, all of a sudden I was back in there, hurting."
"That happened a few more times. Several times. And then I kind of went away from there. I went ... someplace else."
"Can you tell me what it was like?"
"Well ... it was like I was floating ... or swimming ... in a sea of golden light ... all around, and above me and below me ... completely surrounded with golden light."
"Was anybody else there?"
"Anybody you recognized?"
He thought about it. "Well ..." Then he looked right at me and said, "Ben, I'll tell you what it was like. It was like when you were a little kid at home and knew that everybody loved you." He paused, and then added, "I'm not afraid anymore."
Okay, either through faith, or by taking somebody else's word for it, or--this is going to sound kind of funny--check it out for yourself. I'm not advising you to have a near-death experience of your very own; that seems like a tough way of doing it. However, it may sound funny, but if you really want to find out whether Jesus rose from the dead, learn how to pray and ask him yourself.
What's the bottom line? One: we all die. Two: we all survive death. Three: we don't have to sleep to the end of time. Four: we don't have to hang around this earth. And five--praise God--we don't have to do it alone.
Well, what should we do? Let me draw a mental picture, up here on the wall, of a balloon--like a hot-air balloon. You want it to go up. What do you do? Inflate it. Then drop the ballast. Therefore, what should we do?
One: love God supremely--establish your upward attraction to Him. You are attracted to whatever you love. Whether it is earthly or heavenly, whatever you love is what you are attracted to. Therefore, establish your attraction to God.
Two: love your neighbor as yourself--establish your attraction to other immortal souls. This is something a lot of other religions forgot: God is one; therefore, any two or more souls who try to approach God must also be able to approach each other. See the picture? If you're going to God, you have to get closer to each other as you go.
Three: drop the ballast--be ready to let go of anything you can't take with you--and you will rise, automatically, necessarily.
Then what? I said we don't have to do it alone. When you find yourself out of your body, remember to look up, call for Jesus, and go to the brightest light you see. That's what resurrection means for you ... and me. And that's the bottom line. Let me say it again: when you find yourself out of your body (and you will) remember to look up, call for Jesus, and go to the brightest light you see.
I'm going to close with a little bit of a story. Many years ago in Fayetteville, Arkansas, every once in awhile my mother and I used to attend a black Baptist church downtown. Neat folks. Good people. They had in that congregation a retired minister named Brother Buchanan, and he was old. Almost every time I was there, after they sang the closing hymn, the young minister would turn to this greatly beloved retired senior minister and ask, "Brother Buchanan, do you have something to say?" And he always did. And it was always the same thing. Brother Buchanan, in his wheelchair, would smile--beaming with his love for them and their love for him--and he'd say, "I'm goin' to heaven... Y'all come."
I went to his funeral. There was a lot of singing, great joy, a little shouting, but no message, no sermon. When it came time for that, the young minister stood up and said, "Brother Buchanan's gone to heaven... Y'all come."