Sunday, April 7, 2013

"He Has Made His Light Shine Upon Us"

Texts: Psalm 118:14-29; John 20:19-31

CHRIST IS RISEN!  ("He is risen indeed!")

What a wonderful piece of good news!  This is what we believe and what we confess, the truth by which we are saved: That Jesus Christ died for our sins, and was raised in glory on the third day.

At least, I hope that is what we believe.  It's what we hope everyone we know and love believes.  But we can't take that for granted.  These days, people believe all sorts of things about life that aren't true.  They believe it's okay to give in to sin, even that it should be celebrated and given special rights.  They believe that there are all sorts of ways to gain eternal life.  They believe that truth is what they think it is, instead of what God says it is.

And they refuse to believe what is true.  The fact that God is the Creator and has the right to make the rules for creation.  The fact that sin is offensive to Him and we need a Savior to take away our sin and make us acceptable to Him.  The fact that Jesus Christ alone is that Savior, and outside of Him we have no hope now or in eternity.

There's a good chance most of us here have been Christians for years.  Maybe even from childhood.  It's hard for us to understand why it isn't obvious to others that Jesus Christ is Lord of life who is risen from the dead.

But our reading from the Gospel according to St. John reminds us that believing in Christ as our risen Savior is not automatic or obvious.  It wasn't even automatic or obvious to those who walked with Jesus as His closest disciples.  In verse 19 of chapter 20 we find them huddled together behind locked doors.  They're afraid of the Jewish authorities.  Sure, Mary Magdalene and the other women have brought the news that Christ is risen.  Peter and John have even been to the tomb and found it empty.  But they don't believe it.  As far as they're concerned, Jesus was still dead and their turn to die might come next.

And then there's Thomas, who declares frankly that he won't believe it unless he sees the resurrected Christ in person and can probe His crucifixion wounds.

All these men had walked with Jesus and seen what He could do.  All of them had heard Him say He would rise again.  All of them had heard testimony-- testimony from witnesses they should have believed--that their Lord had returned gloriously from the dead.  But they did not believe.  They could not believe.  As human beings with human limitations, it was impossible for them to believe.  But why?

First, for the same reason the unbelieving world rejects the truth of the resurrection today; the same reason that we too once didn't believe in Jesus risen: Because their minds were still blinded by sin.

The Scriptures tell us that we are all born dead in trespasses and sins.  Our eyes are closed to the vision of God and what's more, we like it that way.  We prefer to create our own worlds, our own reality, our own rules for right and wrong.  We want to be our own gods and our own saviors-- if we think we need to be saved from anything in the first place.  As Jesus said in chapter 3 of John's Gospel, unless we are born again from above by the power of the Holy Spirit, we cannot see the kingdom of God.  Unless God Himself intervenes in our spirits, we prefer darkness and won't come into the light for fear our evil deeds will be exposed.

But there's another reason why the disciples, why we human beings as human beings cannot believe in the risen Christ.  It's because God has reserved the right of converting us to Himself.  The new birth comes only from above. Becoming a child of God isn't something that can happen by human desire or initiative, but solely because God gives a person that right. God the Father must reveal to us who Jesus is, the Christ of God.  Spiritual truths are discerned by spiritual means only, by the power of God's Holy Spirit.  God has ordained that it should be this way, so the glory for our salvation and our growth in holiness should remain where it belongs, with Him alone.

And so here are the disciples in the 20th chapter of St. John, hiding and refusing to believe that Jesus had been raised until He  Himself came and stood among them, alive, risen from the dead.  "Peace be with you!" He said.  He showed them His hands and side, where they could see the wounds of the nails that fastened Him to the cross and the spear that pierced His body.  They saw, they believed, they were overjoyed.

We could say they believed because they saw the physical evidence.  And to some extent this is so.  In recent centuries many unbelieving scientists and lawyers, both atheists and men of other faiths, have looked at the historical, legal, and medical evidence for and against the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They've had to conclude that it really happened, that the gospel accounts are true.  However--  accepting the facts intellectually didn't lead all of them to believe in the resurrection of Christ and its power in their lives.  With some, yes, God used the physical evidence to open their spiritual eyes and bring them to saving faith and joy.  But for many others, having to accept the earthly reality of Christ risen has led to disappointment, anger, and rejection.   Their sin blinds them, and God in His sovereign will has not chosen that they should see His light and believe.

It is not the mere sight of a crucified man walking around alive that convinced the disciples that evening.  That could be explained away.  Rather, it is Jesus Himself who shines His light to bring belief and joy to His fearful followers.  By His resurrection power He overcame the locked doors.  He overcame the disciples' locked, fearful minds, and demonstrated that indeed it was He Himself standing in their midst.  Result?  Saving belief.  Reaction?  Joy!!

But what of Thomas' reaction when they tell him the good news?  He demands physical evidence in order to believe, and you can be sure that he doesn't believe the physical evidence is there.  

When you read Thomas' other statements in the Gospel of John, you'll see that his doubt does not arise from scientific skepticism.  Rather, Thomas is kind of a fatalist.  He's the one, when Jesus spoke of returning to the suburbs of Jerusalem to raise Lazarus,  "Let us also go, that we may die with him," because Jerusalem was the last place Jesus should go if He wanted to stay alive.  You've probably known people like Thomas.  They expect the worst, and the best pleasure they get out of life is being right when it happens.  

Not everyone who rejects the truth of Christ does so because they feel the facts are against it.  There are also people like Thomas who feel they can't believe in the good news of Jesus risen because it is good news.  Nothing so wonderful could possibly have happened.  Even if it had, it couldn't possibly make any difference to them.  No, it's a cruel, rotten world, they tell themselves, it even killed the best and holiest Man who ever lived, and you may as well accept that's the way things are.

Can people who disbelieve due to emotional hurt change their minds on their own?  No, they can't.  Thomas couldn't, our unbelieving friends and neighbors can't, and we couldn't ourselves.

But then Jesus came and stood among His disciples, including Thomas the sad doubter.  Miraculously, by His divine resurrection power He came, despite the doors that again were locked.  He knew Thomas' thoughts without being told.  He repeated the very words Thomas had spoken earlier in the week, saying, "Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting, and believe."  And miraculously, by the divine light of revelation, Thomas was thoroughly convinced.  He did not make the physical test of Jesus' wounds.  He didn't need to.  His spiritual eyes were opened, he believed, and confessed the truth about who Jesus was and who Jesus was to him.  "My Lord and my God!" he exclaimed.  God used the earthly sight of Jesus risen to work faith in Thomas' heart.

But Jesus tells him. "Blessed are those who have not seen, yet have believed."  To whom is our Lord referring?  I was moved to  research the Greek of this saying, and discovered that it can literally be translated "Blessed are the ones not having seen, yet having believed."  But the words "having seen" and "having believed" are in a tense that is not limited by time.  In other words, the action of not seeing, yet believing, that Jesus speaks of can happen in the past, in the present, or in the future.  Brothers and sisters, the blessing of knowing and believing in Christ risen for you is for you now, and for all whom God shall call to believe the message  preached and recorded by His faithful apostles.  It is the blessing and gift of God that we should believe, for He has shined His light upon us and called us out of darkness and doubt.

God has raised Jesus Christ from the dead and we are raised from death and sin in Him!  How shall we respond?  With joy!  By falling at His feet and confessing, "My Lord and my God!"  By singing with the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 118, for he spoke as a prophet and looked forward to the ultimate salvation that would be found in God's own Son, the Messiah Jesus.

For the Lord is our strength and our song, He himself is our salvation.  He has made us righteous, and so we celebrate His victory over sin and death, not only on Easter Sunday but every Lord's Day of the year and all the days in between.  His right hand has won this great victory, the Lord has done this mighty thing, bursting forth from the grave.

And so in Him, we will not die, but live.  We will proclaim the wonders of what Christ has done, no matter who believes us or not, for our sins are forgiven; they no longer will lead us to death.

In Christ we can enter the gates of righteousness.  We can go into God's royal presence and give Him the thanks He deserves.  We can go where only the righteous may go, because Jesus Christ the Righteous One has gone before us and credited us with His goodness and holiness and made us acceptable to God.  He has answered our cry and has forever become our salvation.

The Psalmist refers to the stone the builders rejected that became the capstone.  This harks back to the building of Solomon's temple.  But it harks forward to Jesus Himself, who made it clear that He is the stone that was rejected.  Unbelief in Him did not start in this modern age, oh, no!  And unbelief did not and does not keep the Lord God from making His Son the capstone of all His plans for humanity.  He indeed has exalted Jesus Christ to the highest position of majesty and power, and His work is marvellous in our eyes.  This day of salvation, He alone has made it: let us rejoice and be glad in it!

Because Jesus is risen and because God has caused us to believe in the power of His resurrection, we can cry out, "O Lord, save us!" and know that He can and He will.  We can pray for success in walking in His ways, and know that His Spirit is with us so we can do just that.  Blessed is Jesus Christ who comes in the name of the Lord!  Forever let His Church bless Him!  And we can bless Him and not reject Him, for the Lord is God, and He has made His light to shine upon us.

He brings us near to worship Him, where before we wanted to worship all sort of false gods; especially, we wanted to worship ourselves.  By the grace of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead, He is our only God, and we will give Him thanks; He is our God and we will exalt Him.

Brothers and sisters, it can be hard living as a Christian in this world.  So many refuse to believe in our risen Savior, and people can be so noisy and aggressive in their unbelief.  What a temptation for us just to lock the doors and hide, like the disciples did in those early days.  But we shall not be afraid and we won't hide.  Rather, we can  have confidence in the power of God to shed His light upon this dark world and trust Him to enlighten the hearts He has chosen.  Remember what you were before He shined His light on you, and know that the hardest heart is not too hard for Him.  Let us lovingly and faithfully tell others that Jesus Christ is alive from the dead and let God do His work through His word.

Will they believe our message?  Maybe, maybe not.  All that is up to God alone.  But what ever happens, we can have faith that the Lord is good, for His love for us in Christ endures forever.  Give thanks to Him, give thanks, for Jesus Christ is risen!

(He is risen indeed!)

Alleluia, amen!

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