Thursday, April 25, 2019

Easter- When Jesus Changes the Story

Easter 2019 When Jesus Changes the Story 

For ten years I’ve had the privilege of worshipping with you on Easter and proclaiming this story of Resurrection. And it’s as powerful today as it was when we were first invited to do life together. We need this story, because this story changes the world. And if we let it, this story will also change us. Let’s read. 

In 1999, just eight years after the death of his father, Bart Millard penned a song that would go on to inspire millions. Recently made into a movie, “I Can Only Imagine” was written as a tribute to the amazing power of God, who took an abusive drunk of a father and completely reshaped his life in a way that stunned all who knew him. God had done a resurrection work in his life and changed this man’s story! But in an article published in People magazine, Bart Millard confessed that he wasn’t quite sure God could change his story.  Acknowledging the deep wounds that persisted from years of his father’s abuse, Millard feared he would never heal. “I never in a million years thought it would actually happen,” he said. (People Magazine online) 

Never in a million years. You could probably fill in the blank with almost any type of challenge or problem and confess the same doubt-filled sentiment expressed by Millard that day. That’s just how the world works. When you’re so used to having the same old ending, it’s hard to imagine anything different occurring in your life, let alone something good! And when the disciples first hear the news, their reaction says it all, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” In other words, “Good try. That’s now things are done around here.” Never in a million years did those early tomb travelers believe that Jesus would be resurrected from the grave. 

Three days earlier, the disciples’ world had been shattered. When Jesus came calling three years ago, they lowered the drawbridge of their hearts, thinking and hoping that this time would be different. But now it seemed like the same old story was playing out again. The Jewish people had been down this road before, and it never ended the way they thought it would. A hero would rise up, talk a good game, grab some followers, make a ruckus, instill some hope, then the weight of the government would crush their dreams and snuff out whatever hope remained. But Jesus seemed different. His teachings, his approach, his love, his power. It all seemed different this time. But like so many stories before his, Jesus’ story ended the same way-  the hero dead and buried in a grave. And with this death came losses too painful to address.

Mary Magdalene was one of the first at the tomb, and she was beside herself. Several years earlier, she had been freed from her demons…whatever they were. In Jesus, they were wiped away, commanded to leave her alone and now she was free. But now Jesus was gone. I wonder if there was a lurking fear that she would return to her old life…Peter. Peter had grown so much! This former fisherman turned disciple had been part of miracles, had witnessed powerful moments and had gained a trusted friend. But now Jesus was no more. Not knowing what to do, Peter went into hiding, then went back to fishing. Andrew was so certain that this was the One who would change everything! When he first heard Jesus speak, he ran as fast as he could to his brother and said, “Come!” We’ve found him! He’s here! But now he wasn’t. What did this mean? And James and John. They had left everything to follow this hero. They walked away from the family business. Left their father Zebedee behind because they were so convinced that Jesus was the Savior they’d been waiting for. But they must’ve felt so swindled as they watched him hanging limp on a cross. It must’ve been like a bad dream. We left everything for this? It wasn’t supposed to end this way! We thought this time would be different!

I meet so many people who are tired of their stories and just want things to be different. Tired of the monotony, tired of the same old, tired of simply spinning wheels and never getting ahead. And so at times we grab ahold of anything that will move us out of that restlessness and we’ll look around for signs -any sign- that will take us from where we are to where we’d like to be. It might be the constant searching for a new job, or the thrill of a new relationship, or the excitement of a new adventure. But more often than not, the newness wears off faster than we expect and we end up right back at square one. 

When I was growing up, I knew a man who was always trying to change his story. Every three or four years, he’d grow restless. So he’d go searching for a new job, convinced that this time things would be different. This time he’d find something to fill that hole in his heart. This time he would finally be content. And his constant searching took a terrible toll on his family and his health. I’ve met others who are simply tired of trying to change their story and they’ve given up, convinced that their stories will always play out the same way. A few years ago I was counseling a young man who was desperately trying to seek God’s will for his life. He sensed God was calling him to ministry..and then something happened. He drifted. He stopped yearning, stopped searching and eventually gave up. The last time we talked, which was over three years ago, he was no longer attending church, no longer reading his bible, no longer paying attention to God. I got the sense from our conversations that he was resigned to believe that his story would play out like it always has. You see, that’s why we need this Resurrection story. Sometimes we feel stuck. Sometimes we feel like there’s no way out. Sometimes we feel that our stories will never get any better. But Jesus is in the business of doing what we can’t do on our own. And Jesus is in the business of doing what we think cannot be done. That’s because Jesus in the business of bringing new life to old, familiar stories

On that first Easter morning, while it was still dark, the women made their way to the tomb. They expected to find things the way they usually were at a cemetery- quiet and dreary. They carried with them the tools of the day- spices for the body- to cover up the sting of death, the reality of washed away hope, the stench of defeat. Never in a million years did they anticipate anything different. But that’s when resurrection is at its best. In this dark place, the story was changing. Jesus was doing something new. Their first sign that something wasn’t quite right was the absence of a body. It left them perplexed. There’s usually a body in a tomb. But where was it? Their second was a dazzling sight and two voices, calling them to remember what Jesus said would happen. Handed over to sinners. Crucifixion. Resurrection. Don’t you remember? And the truth is, they didn’t. Certainly they had heard Jesus speak those words. Certainly they had listened to him teach and preach. But not in a million years did they think those words would actually come to pass. Yet this time they did! This time, the grave was not the end. This time, death did not have the final say. This time, evil had finally met its match. And this time, the ending, which had always been the ending, was now the birthplace of a new beginning. He silenced the boast of sin and grave. Jesus had changed the story once and for all! And he’s waiting to change yours. 

In this beautiful story of resurrection, we find eternal hope. Through Jesus, God is reconciling the world to Himself and bridging the deep chasm between us. The great biblical narrative is unfolding in this story- creation and fall, redemption and restoration. And that’s good news for a creation that groans out for God’s new life possibilities. But there’s something else we find in this Resurrection account, something else I don’t want us to miss: the possibility of a transformed now for each of us, a resurrection story. 

Year after year we gather in this spot to hear and sing and experience the ancient Resurrection story, but maybe this is the year we become part of it. Maybe you find yourself today like Bart Millard, or my two friends, who were about ready to throw in the towel of faith and give up hope that things could be different. If that’s you, I want you to know that Jesus can change your story. Maybe you’ve tried every trick in the book, but you still can’t overcome that nagging sin. Or maybe there’s a habit or addiction that continues to weigh you down and you don’t know where else to turn. Or maybe you’re just lost, weary from trying so hard, and your hope is all but gone. If Easter tells us anything, it’s that Jesus can can change the story. And He can certainly change yours. Jesus can take what is dead and bring it back to life. Jesus can take what is lost and cause it to be found again. Jesus can take what is broken and make it beautiful. But before Jesus can change your story, He has to enter into it. 

Resurrection begins when Jesus enters the story. Eternally speaking, resurrection began the moment God’s Son made His home in the womb of a woman named Mary. And personally speaking, resurrection begins the moment God’s Son makes His home in your heart. That’s how resurrection starts. When invited, Jesus roots himself in our lives and begins to change us from the inside-out. But we have to invite him. And when that happens, Jesus will slowly give birth a new you. This is hard work. Much like the birth pangs women feel at childbirth, Jesus authors new life for us by challenging us, wrestling us and compelling us to let go of our old ways of life. Because to experience true resurrection, for Jesus to truly change our story, something must come to an end. 

Earlier this week the world watched in horror as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames. For 800 years people flocked to Notre Dame to study its architecture, take in its art, ponder its history and gaze at its beauty. News reports mourned the loss of an iconic building and major tourist attraction. But lost in the midst of much of the coverage was the original purpose for the building. I have a feeling this was divinely orchestrated, but standing over the charred remains of the cathedral was a beautiful, light-filled cross. Maybe you saw the picture. (Show picture) For me, that picture was a prophetic reminder that Notre Dame Cathedral was meant to be sacred space where people could meet Jesus. It was meant to be a place where Jesus would resurrect people from the ashes of their lives. And maybe it will be that again. Maybe out of those smoldering ashes, an old story will give birth to a new one. And maybe it this tragedy will revive people will once again to be drawn to the resurrecting love of Jesus Christ. 

In essence, that’s what this whole week proclaims. That’s what the empty tomb points to! The worst of the worst is not the end of the story. In Jesus, there really is the possibility of a new life (not a rebuilt old life, but a NEW one) and new chance and a new story. This is what Jesus does! So let me ask you- are you ready for Jesus to change your story? Are you ready to let the old you die and let Jesus resurrect you to newness? You were meant to live a victorious life. You were meant to have all the fullness of Jesus Christ dwell in you. Today might be your Resurrection moment. Today might be your new chance at new life. If you let him, Jesus will enter your story, wrestle with your heart, and give you the gift of life. And nothing, nothing can take that away. Let’s pray. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Table Talk: Your Grief Will Turn To Joy

Your Grief Will Turn to Joy April 6 and 7, 2019
John 16: 16-33

Today we’re continuing our Lenten journey with our Table Talk sermon series. We’ve been sitting in the Upper Room with Jesus and the disciples, listening to and reflecting on these intimate teachings recorded in John’s Gospel, the last teachings Jesus will offer before he heads to the cross. We’ve learned about servanthood and friendship; we’ve learned about the power Jesus shares with us and how He expects us to continue His work through the presence of the Holy Spirit. And today we turn our attention to the topic of joy. Would you read with me? 

You might’ve heard in the news that a cyclone has recently ripped through several African countries, especially Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which were hit pretty hard. I’ve spent some time praying for the safety of my friends and colleagues, and as I’ve been praying, I’ve been recalling some of the wonderful moments and conversations during my time in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2016. It’s been three years, and I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember, but one conversation I’ll never forget was with my new friend Amos. Amos and his wife were some of our first hosts in Zimbabwe.They lived in a remote area with no electricity or running water, but they did not lack in the area of faith. When we arrived, Amos’ greeted us with a big smile, then quickly took us on a grand tour of his homestead. There was one building in particular that I found intriguing, only because it wasn’t a building; it was the remains of a building. Amos started to tell us that this used to be his pride and joy- his store, where he would bottle and sell honey- but it had been destroyed during a political firestorm. Amos went on to tell us that he had been part of a group hoping to bring change and renewal to his beloved country, but instead, political corruption won the day, and with their victory, came destruction, fear and physical violence. And as I listened to Amos tell his story with passion and hope, the question I could not stop wrestling with was this: How did this man live with so much joy in the midst of so much pain? 

Joy is at the heart of today’s passage, but it’s not the first theme that pops up. Quite frankly, the entire conversation leading up to this moment feels like someone just emptied a thousand-piece puzzle on the floor and asked, “What do you think this means? Because after listening to Jesus talk, the disciples were confused. Loving and serving each other was one thing, but this notion of seeing Jesus, then not seeing Jesus, was pretty confusing. What does this mean the disciples asked. Where’s He going? Why is He going? And what’s Jesus trying to say? All those questions are understandable. You know, I’m not sure any of us would’ve gotten the picture Jesus was trying paint. But then the conversation takes an unexpected turn that brings the confusion into focus: Jesus begins to talk about grief. 

We don’t typically expect Jesus to talk so bluntly about the things we’d rather avoid. I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here today to hear about suffering or pain or loss. Those just aren’t the topics we expect to hear at church. But that’s probably more to do with our expectations than anything. We can’t read the Bible without reading of crosses and death and pain. And we can’t make it through this broken world without much of the same. Pain is a normal part of life, and grief often comes with it. I’m guessing that you could name at least handful of times when you’ve experienced those trying moments in your life. Trevor Hudson, a retired South African Methodist minister, would often remind himself before stepping on stage to speak that almost everyone in his congregation was sitting by his or her own pool of tears. Maybe that’s your reality right now. Maybe a loved one passed away, or a friendship ended too soon or a dream disappeared or an opportunity was taken off the table. And those moments cut deep. 

When I think back to my own moments of grief and despair, I can almost feel those old emotions building back up. Yet at the same time, I recognize that those moments are part of my story. We probably don’t spend enough time acknowledging that grief and loss have a place in our story. For many of us, we need to give ourselves permission to grieve. When we experience loss, we need to know that it’s ok to be sad. When his good friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept like any of us would weep. He grieved. There are entire books of the Bible dedicated to prayers known as laments, which read just like they sound: painful prayers and groans uttered from the hearts of people who are desperate and broken. Just listen to some of these. “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me” (Psalm 56:1). “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me” (Psalm 55: 4). “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me”’ (Psalm 42:9). Sometimes we just need to cry out to God from the depths. But more often than not, our approaches to grief, loss and pain just aren’t healthy. Like Peter, who took out his sword in the garden to defend Jesus (and himself) from the fear of loss, our responses look a lot like swords that try to take out the pain. We write a scathing Facebook post. We spread gossip about the one who hurt us. We hold grudges and try to get even. Those are all “swords” that we wave around, hoping they’ll be the sort of coping mechanism that will dull the pain. But Jesus invites us to put the swords down… because grief is not the end. Somehow, Jesus promises, our grief will give way to joy. 

There have been some wonderful moments around this table between Jesus and the disciples. He’s called them friends. He’s washed their feet. He’s promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He’s even stated that together they’ll do even greater things than He has done! But now he cuts to the chase. There are some really bad things that are about to happen. And when they do, the world will rejoice. Everyone around you will think they’ve done something truly good for the world. By getting rid of me, they’ll think they’ve done God’s will. And you’ll feel terrible about it. You’ll grieve, you’ll cry, you’ll mourn for what was. But hold on. Stay the course. Because joy will come again and it will be complete.

In the Fall of 2010, I was approached by a friend who recommended I try a 13-week program called GriefShare. After the death of my father, my friend noticed that I was quick to get back to work- my substitute for the joy I sought. In his book, “Surprised By Joy,” author C.S. Lewis suggests that most of our pleasure-seeking and pain-numbing adventures are substitutes for joy. He especially calls out sex and says that sex is no substitute for what only Christ can give. And for me, neither was work. I hadn’t taken the appropriate time to grieve, and my friend noticed. So I did. For 13 weeks, we tackled what I thought was an unbearable existence- the pain of death. And it was hard. We just sat with our pain, knowing we could do nothing to change what had happened. For many, including me, it was really the first time we opened up our broken hearts. And little by little, as we kept on coming back to those sessions, the pain became a bit more manageable. Soon I discovered that I was able to wake up one day and get out of bed; then I was able to put one foot in front of the other; then I was able to smile again. And somewhere toward the end of our journey, I felt joy slowly returning to my soul. There was a day when I wondered if I’d ever experience joy again. But it came. And it came not because life suddenly got easier or better; it came because of Jesus. I used to think that joy was an emotion I felt, or the butterflies that tickled my stomach or the sheer happiness that I experienced when my plans worked out just the way I imagined. But through this 13 week journey, I discovered that joy was none of these. Joy was Jesus. And He can never be taken away. 

Joy is knowing that Jesus will be present when it all falls apart. And take my word: it will eventually all fall apart. Everything we work so hard for will one day come to an end. But Jesus will remain. Even this merry band of disciples is about to be shattered and scattered, but it is not the end. One of the Bible verses I’ve committed to memory is Romans 8: 38-39, which says this: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love. That’s the rock on which we stand when it all comes crashing down. It was out of this confidence, a confidence in God’s love, that Jesus was able to look at his friends and say, “Your grief will turn to joy.” It was out of this confidence that Jesus was able to face His own dire straits and believe that a cross and a grave were only the ends of a chapter, and not the end of the story. Our times of grief and pain are real, but they aren’t the entirety of who we are. They play a role in our makeup, but they are not our identity. And in good time, as we keep seeking Jesus, those reservoirs of joy that feel so empty now will be made whole again. 

Maybe this is why the author of Hebrews writes this: (12:1-2) “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” I think this is what my friend Amos practiced in his life. I think this is his answer to the question I posed at the beginning. He lived with joy in the midst of pain because he clung to a truth that could not be shaken. No matter what others had done to him, they could not undo what Jesus had done in him. No matter how much of his property they destroyed, they could not touch his eternity. And no matter how many times they beat him, Amos held fast to the promise that Jesus had already won the war. And in a way, you could say that his passion for Christ grew even stronger as he shed his tears of suffering. Amos fixed his eyes on Jesus, and in so doing, discovered a joy that not even Satan could steal. 

Joy is renewed when we fix our eyes on Christ. When we fix our eyes on Christ, we see the big picture. And what’s the big picture? It’s this: John 16: 33- “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Take heart, brothers and sisters. Jesus has already overcome the world. And that is why we joy can be ours today. Amen.