Sunday, May 29, 2011

Christ's Resurrection and You: The Dead Who Are Free

Texts: Isaiah 53:7-12; Romans 6:1-14

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, BACK IN ancient times when we still called it Decoration Day, early in the morning on the 30th of May my mother would cut big white and pink blossoms from the peony bushes in the back yard, snuggle them into coffee cans filled with water, then she and we kids would climb into the car to make the ninety-six mile drive to the cemetery in Rossville, Kansas, to decorate the graves of our Zickefoose forebears.  I vaguely knew the holiday had something to do with soldiers who'd died in battle, and I didn't know if any of my ancestors had done that; I was only aware that remembering this side of the family is what we always did.

    If that's how it was then, now, almost fifty years later, most of us probably associate Memorial Day more with remembering our dead in general, than with honoring our military personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice so we might live in freedom and peace.  It would be a good thing if we could recapture some of the original meaning of the holiday. 

    But if it's right and proper and right for us to recall those who died to preserve our way of life here in the United States of America, it's even more fitting and essential that we remember, honor, and worship Him who fought and won the ultimate battle against sin, death, and the Devil: our Lord Jesus Christ, the Victim and Victor of the battle waged on the mount called Calvary.  Our soldiers, sailors, and airmen gave their lives that our lives on this earth might be better; but Jesus shed His blood so we might be freed from sin and know the joy of life eternal in the kingdom of heaven.

    From the world's point of view, Jesus of Nazareth was a very strange warrior.  A great champion should go to war with all His armor and weapons upon Him.  He should crush the enemy with superior force, fighting fire with fire and strength with strength.  But Isaiah the prophet foresaw how the Messiah would win the victory for us.  He writes,

    He was oppressed and afflicted,
          yet he did not open his mouth;
    he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
           and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
     so he did not open his mouth.
        By oppression and judgment he was taken away.

Jesus our Lord never struggled to save Himself, He submitted to the death He died!  He was nailed to a cross between two thieves and by three P.M. on a dark Friday afternoon, it was over.  His nail-scarred, whip-slashed, and spear-pierced body was taken down from the cross and buried in a borrowed tomb and everyone, included His friends, thought He was defeated and finished.  As Isaiah says,

          And who can speak of his descendants?
    For he was cut off from the land of the living . . .        

     He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
           and with the rich in his death,
    though he had done no violence,
          nor was any deceit in his mouth.

    But it was for the transgression of God's people that He was stricken!  It was for us!  If anyone sacrificed all that others might live, it was Jesus Christ our Lord.  If anyone's death in battle seemed to be a disaster an injustice, and a tragic waste, it was the death of the sinless Son of Man.  But don't think to honor and remember Him by going to Jerusalem and decorating His grave.  We know better than that.  We know His was truly a "borrowed" tomb.  Every first day of the week we remember that Christ is not there in the grave, He is risen, He is risen indeed!

    And thus have the Prophet's words come true, that

    [H]e will see his offspring and prolong his days,
               and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.
    After the suffering of his soul,
           he will see the light of life and be satisfied.

For we know that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead: really, truly, physically; in a body that can never die again, glorified, without natural constraint or limit, able to taste the good things of this earth and to participate in all the joys of heaven.  We know that by His death Jesus fulfilled the will of the Lord our God, for He made Himself a guilt offering to make complete atonement for the sins of God's chosen people.  Jesus the Righteous One was willing to suffer the most shameful of deaths for us, He stood in our place, though we were transgressors who had fatally offended against God, and by His self-sacrifice He made intercession for us.

    Jesus our champion went to war against sin, death, and the Devil armed only with His holiness and His unfathomable grace towards for sinful humanity.  To the world, that looks like weakness.  But it was that holiness and grace that won Him the complete victory and earned Him the deathless title of Lord of Life.  What's more, through His selfless death and glorious resurrection our Lord Jesus grants the gift of life to us who believe and trust in Him.  Now grace reigns through righteousness, bringing us eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

    There definitely is a similarity between the sacrifice made by our brave military personnel and the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ on the cross.  But our own roles in these conflicts are totally different.  In our nation's wars, we on the homefront pray for and support those doing the actual fighting.  In some wars, we've rationed our supplies and gone without to keep the war effort going.  But in the battle waged by Jesus Christ we're in a totally different position.  In no way could we claim that we helped or supported or sacrificed for Him in His struggle against the powers of darkness.  We couldn't, because we were dead.  We were dead, we were lost, we were totally helpless, without God and without hope in this world.

    But now Jesus has won the victory and in Him we have passed from death to life.  By grace we have been saved, not through our own proficiency at keeping the law, whether God's law or the law of our culture.  Well, then, to echo Paul the Apostle in Romans 6, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?"  Absolutely not!  That would be an utter contradiction of Christ's victory over death.

    We live-- because in Him our sin nature has been put to death.  How can we know this?  Were you baptised into the name of the triune God? Yes?  Well, as Paul asks, "Don't you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death?"  Our baptism shows that we personally participate in the death Jesus died.  Our old nature died with Jesus on His cross and was buried with Him in His tomb.  And so, as Paul says,

    We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Not an easy task, is it?  We trust that for Jesus' sake God accepts us as holy and without fault.  He sees as we are in Christ and what we shall be when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead.  But as long as we live on this earth in this mortal flesh, our old dead sin natures kept wanting to get up and wage war against the new life Jesus has put within us.  We were the dead who now live, and we are the living who daily must put to death all that is deadly within us.

    Is that all up to us?  Did Jesus make us alive by His death and resurrection, then go away and leave us to fight the battle on our own?

    Not at all!  For Paul reminds us, "If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection."  Do you think the Lord who won the victory over sin and rose from the dead will not also keep you safe for eternal life?  He is at your side every minute of the night and day!  His resurrection guarantees that you will triumph in your struggle against sin, and there's no longer anything in heaven or on earth that can allow the powers of darkness to win out over us in the end. Jesus has died and is risen again!  Our old selves were crucified with Him so our old body of sin might be done away with, so we'd no longer have to serve sin as its slaves. 

    I'm aware that even today there's a certain amount of ambivalence in various parts of the country about the Civil War.  But I hope every American everywhere now agrees that slavery is an appalling evil.  No human being should ever claim to own another man or woman or demand their time and work without pay.  But if human slavery was a shame and a horror, how much more terrible is slavery to sin!  And that's the state you and I were in before Jesus died to set us free.  A slave has to do whatever his master commands, whether he wants to or not.  But if-- no, I should say, since we're in Christ, we're no longer under the whip of sin and death; now we belong to our Lord Jesus who loves us and raises us up to new life in Him.  When Jesus hung dead on the cross, it looked as if He Himself were a slave, as if Death were His master.  But Christ has been raised from the dead and Death no longer has any authority over Him.  In His death He totally triumphed over sin, that old slave driver of humanity, and now He lives to God, the Source and Giver of Life, alone.

    What Jesus won, He won for us.  By His warfare we are free!  Our freedom from sin is not some inspirational thought we conjure up when we get into difficult situations.  It's the present reality for those who are joined to Christ Jesus by grace through faith.  You used to be dead; now you are alive in Christ.  You have died to sin, and you're been made alive to God in Jesus.  When sin was our master, we couldn't choose to do what is pleasing to God.  Even the thoughts and deeds this world calls "good" were corrupt and defective in His sight.  We could do nothing to save ourselves, nor did we want to.

    But now Jesus has won His victory in us and for us.  He has become our Lord and our King.  In Him we can say No to sin.  In His grace we can refuse to let sin rule in our mortal bodies so we obey its desires.  In Him we have been set free from the wickedness that we naturally wanted to do when we were slaves to sin, and we can live instead as redeemed and free servants of the living God.

    But some people don't seem to understand this. You know what has happened in our denomination, that the ordination standard has been officially revised.  Nothing in the new wording says anyone can or must ordain individuals who indulge in behaviors that the Bible calls sin.  It only talks about the Church "submit[ing] joyfully to the lordship of Christ" and about the examining body determining "the candidate's ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements" set forth in the ordination questions.  But we've learned to our shame that many in the PCUSA define the lordship of Christ in whatever way pleases them.  They say our natural bodily inclinations must be God-given, regardless of what Scripture says on the subject, and our most intimate relations have no bearing on the new life in Christ, and even can be a celebration of His creative love.

    Brothers and sisters, never think this can be so.  We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?  Jesus our champion crucified our old sin nature on Calvary, how can we offer the parts of our bodies to wickedness?  Think of this word "instruments" as including the weapons a soldier would carry.  We're in Christ's army now!  Shall we use the faculties God has given us to go back and fight for the enemy?  No, all we have and all we are now belong to God.  So let us thankfully accept that reality and joyfully submit ourselves to Him according to His definition and His will.  He is our captain now, He gives the orders in this fight, and we know that as we offer our bodies to Him as instruments of righteousness we're fighting on the side that has already won.

    You were dead, and look, now you live!  The sin nature in you once lived its perverse life in your body, mind, and soul, but now it has been crucified with Christ!  Sin is no longer your master, and it's not up to you to win your freedom by keeping the law.  Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, has won the victory, and His grace rules over you in mercy, life, and love.

    Isaiah said of our Lord Jesus,

        Therefore I [that is, God] will give him a portion among the great,
           and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
    because he poured out his life unto death,
       and was numbered with the transgressors.

    Jesus won you away from sin forever when He died on the cross, and He brought you into new life in His resurrection from the dead.  On this Memorial Day weekend, remember those who have fought and died to preserve our life and liberty here in this nation God has given us.  But more, so much more! every day remember, honor, and worship Him who died and rose again that our old body of sin might be utterly defeated, and we who were dead might live in His life, liberty, and grace now and forever more.

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