Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sermon for April 26th: Luke 24:36-49.

Welcome to the Adventure!

For many years now I’ve been a great fan of the BBC science fiction series ‘Dr. Who’. I won’t attempt to describe this show for those of you who haven’t encountered it; the point I want to make this morning is that in this series the Doctor and his companions often meet beings from other planets, or even from other dimensions of reality altogether. In one episode a few years ago, the Doctor and his companion Rose arrived in nineteenth century Cardiff just in time to confront an outbreak of dead bodies which had begun to get up like zombies and walk around the city. It eventually turned out that these bodies were being animated by gaseous creatures, who were coming through a rift in the continuum of time and space. I have to tell you that the first time I saw one of those zombie-like people, the hair stood up on the back of my neck – even though I knew it was only a TV show!

And yet, the stories of Jesus’ resurrection have been so cozily domesticated among us that they don’t terrify us at all; we’ve read these stories before, we know what’s going on, and it’s very hard for us to enter into the experience of those early Christians. Imagine what it was like for them, the first time they saw the risen Jesus standing among them! What must they have thought? “Is this a ghost? Is this a zombie? Or have we all gone stark staring mad?”

Here’s a list of the reactions provoked by the resurrection of Jesus in Luke chapter 24: the disciples are described as ‘perplexed’, ‘terrified’, ‘unbelieving’, ‘amazed’, ‘foolish and slow of heart’, ‘startled and terrified’, ‘frightened’, ‘doubtful’, ‘disbelieving and wondering’, ‘worshipping’, and ‘blessing God’. It sounds to me as if their entire world had been shaken to its foundations! I don’t think it felt at all like a cosy fireside chat with gentle Jesus, meek and mild!

The days between the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost completely transformed these early Christians. Something happened to take these frightened and dispirited people and galvanize them into mission. They went from hiding behind locked doors for fear of the high priest’s death squads, to being committed and persuasive evangelists who went out, seemingly without any fear at all, and boldly proclaimed that Jesus was alive and that he was God’s victorious King. What was it that had such a powerful impact on them?

First: they met the risen Lord. Look again at verses 36-40:
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”. They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have”. And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

The way a lot of Christians talk about the risen Jesus today, you’d think they have him in their back pockets, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice whenever there’s an unbeliever who needs impressing. This ‘Jesus’ seems more like the rabbit that the magician pulls out of his hat than the unpredictable and awe-inspiring risen Lord of the New Testament. But the true risen Jesus is completely outside of our control. The closer we get to him, the more we realise that we’re not in charge of things any more. You can make your plans, you can think you have reality figured out, you can deal with a troublemaker and put him in his place – with nails, if necessary – and then suddenly God acts, and everything is completely transformed.

That’s the way it was with these early disciples after Easter. They might be meeting in an upper room with the doors locked – and there he was! They might be going for a walk in the countryside – and there he was beside them! They might be out fishing on the lake – there he was again! His appearances were completely unpredictable – and completely outside the disciples’ control.

We mustn’t lose sight of the awe and fear this provoked. We tend to emphasise the joy of the resurrection, and well we might, because the disciples were indeed full of joy when they saw the Risen Lord. But at the same time we mustn’t isolate this word, and think of it as the one totally adequate word to describe their response. We read in this passage that they were startled, terrified, afraid to believe their eyes, frightened, and wondering. Apparently that’s what it’s like to have an encounter with the Risen Jesus; as C.S. Lewis said about Aslan the Lion in the Narnia stories, he’s not a tame lion - he’s not safe, but he’s good!

Now I don’t know about you, but I feel a little envious of those early apostles. I mean, even though I understand that they were terrified out of their wits when they first saw the risen Lord, I think I could live with that terror if it meant having a chance to see Jesus alive again from the dead. I’d like to have been there in the early morning when Mary and the others went to the tomb; I’d like to have been walking on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples who met him there; I’d like to have joined the disciple group for that breakfast beside the Lake of Galilee when Jesus cooked for them after they’d caught the enormous catch of fish. I’d love to have had the chance to see him alive again as they did.

The thing is, not many Christians had that experience. After Jesus ascended into heaven, those appearances almost completely stopped; even in the Book of Acts, they are almost completely absent. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent; it just means that he now makes himself present to his followers in a new way, through the Holy Spirit who comes to live in them. We’ll talk a bit more about that in a few minutes, but for now I’ll just say that it’s by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and being filled with the Holy Spirit day by day, that we get to know the Risen Lord Jesus today. And it’s the experience of the power of the Holy Spirit that will transform us as those early disciples were transformed by their meetings with the risen Lord.

So those first disciples met the risen lord, and this experience had a powerful impact on them. But they were good Jewish boys, and they needed to see how this fit into the story of their people, the story they found recorded in their scriptures. And so another thing that had a powerful impact on them was the way Jesus helped them to understand the purposes of God.

These guys were completely confused after Good Friday. They had believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the King who God was going to use to drive out their enemies and set Israel free. But when they saw the Romans kill him, their faith was shaken to the core: how could God let the Messiah be defeated? And so their agenda changed; let’s just keep our heads down and try to stay out of the way, and when the dust settles we can head back to Galilee.

Jesus changes all that. Look at verses 44-47:
Then he spoke to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled”. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day…”

‘He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures’. No doubt he reminded them of passages like Isaiah 53 which speak about the Lord laying on him the sin of us all, or Psalm 22 where the Lord’s servant cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. He helped them to see that the death he’d suffered on the cross wasn’t just a tragic accident, but was part of the plan from the very beginning. And suddenly the light went on in their minds; the only way they could think of later to explain their sudden understanding was to say that he had ‘opened their minds’.

But he didn’t just change their view of God’s purposes for the past; he changed their view of the future too – their future. He says ‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in (the Messiah’s) name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’. It was the job of these early followers to spread this good news, and to invite people to turn to God and receive forgiveness through Christ. And of course this mission to spread the Gospel and invite people to become followers of Jesus is still given to us today. Not all Christians have the gift of evangelism, but Jesus tells all his disciples here, without exception, that they are ‘witnesses’.

Humanly speaking, I am a Christian today because a witness told his story. In my case, he told his story by writing a book about his experiences of the Holy Spirit; the book was called Nine O’Clock in the Morning, and the author was a man named Dennis Bennett. This book got my attention as a young teenager, because it described a God who could do real things in the lives of real people. I was hungry for such a God. This book prompted me to embark on a journey of discovery that ultimately led me to Christ. That’s the power of a Christian’s story.

Of course, not all of us write books about our stories! Nor do we have to. All we have to do is to make a reasonable attempt to live the Christian life in the eyes of our friends, relatives and work colleagues, pray for opportunities to put in a word of witness, and then respond faithfully when those opportunities come.

‘All we have to do?’ I hear you saying; ‘Tim, don’t you understand how terrifying that is? Don’t you understand how totally inadequate we feel?’ Well, yes, I do understand that; I suspect that those early Christians felt exactly the same way! How could they possibly face such a prospect?

They could face it because of the promise of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says to them, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (v.49). In other words, Jesus’ message is “Relax, people! I know I’m giving you a big job, but you aren’t going to be alone in doing it. The Holy Spirit is going to come and live in you, and he will give you the strength and wisdom you need to do the job!” And that same word is true for us today as well.

It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to know the risen Lord and to share his good news with others. And just like it was with the appearances of the risen Jesus, we aren’t in control of what the Holy Spirit will do and when he will do it. Yes, we pray that he will come and live in us, and God has promised to answer that prayer. Yes, we pray that he will fill us every day and transform us into the likeness of Jesus. But Jesus warned us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind: ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes’ (John 3:8). If you like your religion under control, best to stay away from the Holy Spirit!

Let me tell you about an experience I had at Regent College a few years ago. I was sitting one evening in a circle of about thirty pastors, having what our group leader described as ‘a time of intentional listening to God’. I’ve often been skeptical of this sort of thing, and as this time began, I started to feel the same sort of skepticism. But then things began to happen. Across the other side of the circle, someone said, “I’m getting the sense that there’s a pastor here who is watching life turn into death before your eyes, and it’s tearing you apart”. And then a woman sitting two places away from me began to weep and said, “That’s me”. It turned out that she was the assistant pastor in a church; a new senior pastor had recently arrived and his misguided ministry was totally destroying the spiritual life there.

For the next hour, this sort of thing happened over and over again. I have to tell you, it wasn’t very comfortable! I was terrified that at some point God was going to reveal my secret besetting sins to someone else in the group! Afterwards I went back to my room and spent a lot of time thinking and praying about why I was so uncomfortable. Eventually I realised: it was because the whole thing was completely out of my control. I can control the preparation of a good sermon; I can control a well-run church. But I have no control about whether the Holy Spirit is going to do something obvious, in my life or in the lives of others. All I can do is hold myself in readiness, knowing that he might show up at any time.

And that’s what makes being witnesses for Jesus an adventure! It’s not about designing a foolproof program to reach every home in our neighbourhoods with the good news of Jesus. Rather, it’s about praying that the Holy Spirit will fill us and then guide us each day to the people he’s already working on, praying that he will give us ears to listen to them and words to speak at the right time. It’s a partnership with God, and anyone who’s willing can join the partnership.

So let’s take Jesus up on this promise. Every morning, let’s come to him in prayer: “Lord, please give me opportunities today to be a witness for you, and also, please fill me with your Holy Spirit so that I can recognise those opportunities and make the best possible use of them”. But if we pray like that, we should watch out! God will indeed start sending people our way; we’ll discover to our surprise that the Holy Spirit is working through us to touch peoples’ lives and bring them a step closer to Jesus.

It’s an adventure, this life with the Risen Jesus, and like all good adventures it’s got a certain amount of scariness attached to it. We never know when the Risen Jesus is going to show up. We can be quietly going about our business, and then something happens, and we suddenly realise that we’ve encountered something – or Someone – that is completely outside our control! It’s like we’re playing a game of pool, and we think we know where our ball is going to end up, but then suddenly some invisible force raises the other side of the pool table, and suddenly we’re dealing with a completely different set of circumstances.

This is not about religion. Religion is about ceremonies and rituals that are predictable and safe. The Jewish people wanted a religion; when they saw the awesome God, they said to Moses, “You go talk to him for us; we’ll do whatever you say!” They set up a religious system to keep God at arms’ length, with Moses as their priest. Today, lots of people do the same thing.

But Christianity isn’t meant to be that sort of religion; it’s meant to be a transformational encounter with the Risen Lord by the power of his Holy Spirit. It’s unpredictable and thrilling, it’s scary and exhilarating, it’s joyful and dangerous. To put your trust in Jesus is to get on board for a roller coaster ride. Where’s it going to end? I have absolutely no idea – that’s completely up to him! But don’t worry; it’s true that he’s not a tame lion, and that he’s not safe – but he is good, and you can trust him to guide you through this adventure with love.

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