Crowds Change Nothing- Disciples Change the World

Crowds Change Nothing–Disciples Change the World

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

Eugene Colvin was one of our church’s most popular members. Eugene struggled with cerebral palsy his entire life. He was in a wheelchair by the time I met him. But that chair could not contain his spirit or his joy. All of us remember his smile, his laugh, and his love for Jesus.

Eugene’s memorial service was this past Wednesday. Chris Elkins, one of Eugene’s dearest friends, delivered the message. He quoted Aaron Colvin, Eugene’s father, who once described what it was like to be the father of a son with physical challenges. Aaron said, “It’s like taking a trip to Italy and ending up in Holland. You didn’t plan to be in Holland. But you learn that there are good things about Holland, and you learn to appreciate them.”

Chris used that metaphor throughout Eugene’s service, with this point: we’re all in Holland. None of us intended the hard parts of our lives. We didn’t plan to have cancer, or financial struggles, or a divorce. We’re all in Holland, and need to make the best of it while we’re here. But one day we can live in Italy, if we have a ticket to go there.

So, how do you make the best of Holland? And how do you get to Italy? Not in the way you may think. Hold that thought, and take a trip to Holland with me.

The question of the cross

The date is Sunday, April 12, in the year AD 29. A trip which looked like it would arrive in Italy ended in Holland. Jesus could have entered Jerusalem unnoticed, mingling with the more than two million who jammed the city streets for the Passover. Better yet, he could have stayed in Galilee where the authorities would neither notice him nor care.

But he didn’t. His Triumphal Entry was the very best way to ensure that he enraged the religious leaders with the “blasphemy” of the adoring crowds; that he frightened the Roman authorities into thinking he would start an insurrection, and made himself a marked man. Palm Sunday forced Good Friday. In fact, it guaranteed it. So, why did Jesus do it?

Why did the Son of God exchange heaven for earth, a throne for thorns, a crown for a cross? Why did he ride a donkey to his death? You know the conventional answer: to pay for our sins. But why? Why did he have to pay for our sins?

Last week, a reader of my daily e-mail essays replied with this question: “Why the blood? Why didn’t our loving Father in heaven just forgive us? Why did he require a sacrifice? Why can’t we just pray to God and ask for forgiveness, and as our loving Creator, he grants it.

The requirement for blood sacrifice is his. I just don’t understand why an all-powerful God can’t directly forgive us. This is a question I have had for twenty-five years.” It’s an excellent question, indeed.

If I back into your car leaving church today, you can forgive me without requiring that someone die. If my children disobey me, I can forgive them without requiring a blood sacrifice. Why cannot the God who is love (1 John 4:8) do the same? Why did Jesus choose to ride into Jerusalem in a way which ensured that the authorities would arrest and execute him? Why did he have to die? Let’s work on this very important question for a moment.

Understand God’s dilemma

Since God is love, he wants a loving and personal relationship with us. But love is a choice, a decision. So God had to give us freedom of choice, so we could choose to love and worship him. Of course, we inevitably misuse this freedom, and sin results. Why is this such a problem?

Because God is also holy. In fact, the Bible calls him “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3; Revelation 4:8). And a holy God simply cannot allow my sin into his perfect paradise.

One germ contaminates a sterile hospital room and threatens the patient. One speck of dirt is enough to infect a surgical wound; one malignant cell is enough to produce terminal cancer.

Sin separates us from a holy God, leading to spiritual death now, physical death eventually, and eternal death separated from God in hell. That’s why the Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death, separation from God, is the inevitable consequence of sin, since God is holy.

So the sin which results from my misused free will must be removed before I can enter God’s perfect presence in paradise. But why cannot God simply do this for me, as a mother pulls muddy shoes off her toddler’s feet before letting him into the house?

Because God faces a dilemma you and I do not share. Since God is holy, he must also be just.

You and I can forgive those who injure us without requiring that the law be kept, its consequences fulfilled. I can back into your car, and you can choose not to call the police, fill out an accident report, and see to it that I receive a ticket and have to pay a fine. Such is the demand of justice, but you can choose to waive the law and simply forgive me.

God does not have that luxury. He cannot be completely holy without being also completely just. And justice requires that the law be kept, that its consequences be enforced. For him to be holy and just, the consequence of sin must be fulfilled. And that consequence, that result, is death–spiritual, physical, and eternal death. Complete separation from a holy God who lives in a perfect paradise.

There is seemingly no way out of this dilemma. God could remove our freedom, so we cannot sin; but then we could not worship and love him, defeating our purpose and reason for being. God could choose to allow us into paradise with our sins, but then he could not be holy. God could choose not to enforce the consequences of our sin, but then he could not be just.


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Are your plans surrendered to God?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 4:13-17

In 1870 the Methodists in Indiana were holding their Annual Conference. At one point in the proceedings, the president of the college where they were meeting said, “I think we are living in a very exciting age.” The presiding bishop asked him, “What do you see for the future?”

The college president responded, “I believe we are coming into a time of great inventions. I believe, for example, that men will fly through the air like birds.” The bishop said, “That’s heresy! The Bible says that flight is reserved for the angels. We’ll have no more such talk here.”

When the Annual Conference was over, Bishop Wright went home to his two small sons. Here they are: Wilbur and Orville.

God’s plan for our lives is always greater than any we can imagine for ourselves. I’d like us to think together about that subject: how can we know that will?

Knowing and doing the will of God is the key to living the abundant Christian life, the life Jesus died for us to experience. All of Christianity reduces to this: what is God’s will? Am I in God’s will?

Where do you need to know God’s will? If you could ask God one question, seek his guidance with one problem, what would it be?

Verse 13. Come now those saying, Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, and we will spend there one year, and we will trade and will make a profit;

Come now is a brusque address to get their attention, something like “listen to me!” Those saying are merchants: mariners, sea and caravan traders, and those who combined domestic and foreign trade (Adamson 178). Business travel was common; cf. Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 18; Romans 16:3) and Lydia (Acts 16:14; Burdick 197). As Jews left Palestine to settle in cities throughout the Mediterranean world, growing commercial activity and commerce would be familiar to James’ readers (Moo 202). What follows is apparently a quotation, something James has heard them say.

Today or tomorrow is the correct reading, not “today and tomorrow” (as in some versions; Robertson 54). The phrase beginning, we will go into this city suggests “deliberate and calculated arrogance. They would go where they liked, and for as long as they liked. Their resolve, together with the refusal to reckon with death, has a modern ring” (Adamson 179). All four verbs in the verse are in the future tense, indicating assurance about what is to come. This city is specific, as though they are pointing at a map or a city on the horizon.

Verse 14. who do not know of the morrow, what for your life? For it is a mist, which for a little appears, and then disappears.

Who do not know of the morrow applies to us all, whether we are wealthy merchants or not. It is foolish to assume that life will transpire as we plan, and wise to assume that whatever happens is under the control of God (Martin 166). Proverbs 27:1 warns us, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

Mist is the word for steam rising from a kettle or smoke rising into the wind (Rienecker 392); both are carried away instantly and are no more. James may have in mind the Mediterranean mountain mists familiar to seafaring merchants (Adamson 180). The word expresses the simple idea that life is short. Disappears was used by Aristotle for the migration of birds (Rienecker 392).

Verse 15. Instead of you saying, If the Lord wills, even we will live and we will do this or that;

Now James returns to his dialogue with those in verse 13.

Verse 16. but you boast in your presumptions; all such boasting is evil.

Boast refers to empty boasting which is intended to impress men, extravagant claims which cannot be fulfilled (Rienecker 393).

Verse 17. Then to one knowing good to do, and not doing it, it is sin to him.

This is likely an independent maxim incorporated into the text (note the switch from second to third person; Martin 168). James is fond of closing his argument with proverbs (2:13; 3:18).

Knowing to do good implies that we all know good we are not now doing. James may have in mind the good which the merchants in this section could do with their material gain (Moo 208). We consider such “sins of omission” to be less significant than those of commission. James does not: it is sin to him.

Theological applications

What is your view of history?

•Cyclical

•Chaotic

Shakespeare’s Macbeth(Act 5, Scene 5):

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing

•Linear

Does God have a plan for us? (Jeremiah 29:11)

•Some evolutionists say that life began as a chance coincidence, with no particular plan or purpose at all. Existentialists say that this life is all there is, and life is chaos. Martin Heidegger, for instance, wrote that we are actors on a stage, with no script, director, or audience, and courage is to face life as it is. Postmodernists say that truth is relative, and there is no overriding purpose to life. So, does God have a plan for us, or is life a random coincidence? In the words of Shakespeare, are we “sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

•In Jeremiah’s letter God claims, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (v. 11).


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Are your ambitions pure?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 3:13-18

Verse 13. Who is wise and knowing among you? Let him show by the good behavior his works in meekness of wisdom.

Who returns us to the teachers of 3:1, as speech and wisdom are both liable to abuse (Robertson 45). While “who” may point specifically to teachers, church members at large are included. The problem is that some people who believe they were endowed with superior wisdom and understanding have divided the church because of their teaching; such is a sin of the tongue (Martin 128).

Wise in the Jewish context does not point to a speculative philosopher but a person who possesses practical, moral wisdom (Rienecker 388). Knowing is to possess expert or professional knowledge (Rienecker 388). Good behavior points to the entire manner of life (Johnson 270). Good in this context connotes not only excellence and beauty, but moral purity.

Meekness is submission to God, the opposite of arrogance. Paul warned that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Wisdom produces works, and is characterized by meekness (Martin 129). Jesus called himself “meek” (Matthew 11:29), and exhorts his followers to display the same character (Matthew 5:5). Wisdom is a desirable quality in the community (Romans 16:19; 1 Corinthians 3:10; 6:5; Ephesians 5:15; Johnson 270), and so requires the model of leaders.

Verse 14. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not exult over and lie against the truth.

Jealousy is “zeal, ” a fierce desire to promote our opinion or agenda to the exclusion or detriment of others (cf. Rienecker 388-9). It can be good: “His disciples remembered that it is written: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'” (John 2:17); or bad: “the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the part of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy” (Acts 5:17). Aristotle defines the word as the sorrow one experiences because someone else is in possession of what one is not. The word denotes the desire to acquire by taking something from another (Johnson 271).

Selfish ambition is the vice of a leader who creates a party for his own pride (Rienecker 389). This was the very problem in Corinth: “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ'” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12).

The term is found only in Aristotle before its appearance in the NT; to him it means “a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means” (Martin 130).

Do not exult could be translated, “stop exulting.” To exult over is to put ourselves over others, to claim that we are superior. James’ opponents could not exalt themselves unless they lie against the truth, for the truth would condemn their “wisdom” and attitudes. Jeremiah gives the lie to all such attitudes: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me'” (9:23-24).

Verse 15. This is not the wisdom from above coming down, but earthly, beastly, devilish.

What follows is a negative progression (Johnson 272), proceeding from the natural to the demonic.

Earthly contrasts with heavenly, that which is spiritual; “sensual” (NEB) may be the best translation (Adamson 152). James is not rejecting the flesh, but dealing with the “unspiritual” (RSV). Paul contrasts the “spiritual” and “unspiritual” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15); Jesus makes the same contrast: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (John 3:12)

Beastly could be translated “natural,” that which is unspiritual since it is of our lower nature. Devilish calls to mind Paul’s warning: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). It is instigated by the demons themselves (Martin 132).

Verse 16. For where jealousy and contention, there is confusion and every foul deed.

Confusion is disorder, disturbance, trouble. The word often carries political connotations such as “anarchy”; here it relates to the dissention created by those who demand their own rights and exercise a party spirit (Rienecker 389).

Foul deed could be translated “mean practice,’ and could have a lawsuit in mind (cf. James 2:6; Johnson 273). However, James seems to leave the phrase deliberately ambiguous, so that all sins are included: “The wrong kind of wisdom brings about just about every kind of evil practice that one could name” (Moo 174).

Verse 17. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, forbearing, yielding, full of mercy and good fruits, not partial and not pretended.

James is writing well before Paul, and before a theology of the Holy Spirit had been worked out by the church. Nonetheless, the similarity between his list and Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) is noteworthy.

First points to “pure” as “first in rank and time” (Robertson 47) or most important. Without it, nothing else James lists can follow.

Pure implies integrity of character, that which is sincere, moral, and spiritual (Rienecker 389). Peaceable or “peace-giving” is admirable only when it is conditioned by purity; peace at any price is not worthwhile. The word means not just freedom from strife, but wholeness and health, “shalom.” It describes God’s gentle and kind disposition as King (Burdick 191), and suggests the ability to get along with others (Johnson 274).

Forbearing translates epiekes, considered by Barclay (95-6) to be the “most untranslatable” word in the Greek NT. He describes this person as “the man who knows when it is actually wrong to apply the strict letter of the law. He knows how to forgive when strict justice gives him a perfect right to condemn. When knows how to make allowances, when not to stand upon his rights, how to temper justice with mercy, always remembers that there are greater things in the world than rules and regulations.” This person manifests “humble patience, steadfastness which is able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred and malice, trusting in God in spite of all of it” (Rienecker 389); Adamson renders the word “humane” (155).


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Is your tongue tamed?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 3:1-12

What is the most hateful or hurtful thing anyone has said to you? How long ago did they say it? Why do the words still hurt? Has anyone hurt you more than with their words?

I was in elementary school, probably the second or third grade. For some reason I cannot remember, I was angry with my parents. It was raining outside, a common occurrence in Houston. Friends of my parents were at our house for some reason. I wanted to punish my parents, so I went outside and stood in the rain. I have no idea why this seemed a good idea, but it did. My father went outside to find me. For the first and only time in my life, he spoke a hateful word to me: “Son, are you stupid? Don’t you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?” I knew then and know now that he didn’t mean his words. I know that he was simply embarrassed before his friends. He never said such a thing to me again. But though his words were spoken more than 35 year sago, I can still remember how deeply they hurt.

Now think about words you wish you could take back. A statement made in anger, or pain, or deception. Have you made greater, more hurtful mistakes than with your words?

Our secular materialism measures success and failure in quantifiable ways. Words are a means to our ends. “White lies” are acceptable and common. Say whatever you must to get ahead. I worked as a graphic artist while completing my masters degree at the seminary. One day, one of my customers showed me his “lie book,” a little green spiral-bound book he kept in his shirt pocket. He explained proudly that whenever he lied to one of his clients, he wrote it down so he could remember it for the next time he saw the person. I wondered how many of his words to me were in that book.

You may not be keeping a book recording your lies, but the people you know are. And the Judge of the universe is. Despite the conventional wisdom of our materialistic culture, you do not control your life until you control your tongue. Your words matter, more than you can measure. You cannot unring a bell, or a soul. So let’s learn how and why to make our words holy this week.

We’ll look at what James says, then find ways to apply his words to our own.

Verse 1. Become not many teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive greater judgment.

Become shows that we grow into the ministry of teaching the word of God; this is not just a position, but a ministry. Become not could be rendered, “stop becoming many teachers,” a clear complaint that many were attempting to teach what they did not yet understand (Robertson 39). Not is placed at the beginning of the verse for emphasis (Martin 107). Probably some not qualified by natural ability or spiritual gift coveted this office and ministry (Burdick 186).

Teachers means those who teach the word of God. In the Jewish context it pointed to rabbis, those who had studied the law and its application to life and now taught others (Rienecker 385). The “teacher” in Christian context also transmitted to the faith community the growing Christian tradition: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim 2:2; Moo 149).

This was a significant position of spiritual leadership (Ephesians 4:11), counting in its number Paul and Barnabas (Ac 13:1). In the early church, the office carried high status and responsibility: “Whosoever then comes and teaches you all these things aforesaid, receive him. But if the teacher himself be perverted and teach another doctrine to destroy these things, do not listen to him, but if his teaching be for the increase of righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord” (Didache 11:1-2).

Knowing is a common Pauline word used to denote a piece of agreed traditional teaching, suggesting that the heavy responsibility associated with teaching was known already to James’ readers (Martin 108). We is in the first person because James is himself a teacher of God’s word, and thus includes himself in those who are accountable for their calling.

Greater judgment in that teachers know the word and will of God and so are accountable for their knowledge. The phrase means that teachers will receive the “greater sentence” (Robertson 39) or that they are exposed to the greater danger of judgment (Moo 149-50). Adamson (139-40) speculates that this may be because God expects more of those who teach his word, or because the damage done to others by our sins is greater. The OT denounces evil speech against God (Numbers 21:5) and man (Psalm 49:20) more often than any other offense (Adamson 176). And Jesus was plain; “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

The problem of unfit teachers was acute in the early church, as the following references make clear (Martin 108):

•”There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).

•”If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words (1 Timothy 6:3-4).

•”The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).


Great Risk, Great Reward

Great Risk, Great Reward

Matthew 5:10-16

Dr. Jim Denison

Today’s Bible study has but one point: Jesus rewards most fully those who pay a price to follow him. The greater the cost, the risk, the sacrifice, the greater the life, the joy, the peace, the reward. We progress in proportion to the fare we are prepared to pay (William Barclay). The more it costs us to follow Jesus, the more he rewards us, now and in eternity.

Let’s explore that thesis, and see if it applies to our lives today.

Take a risk for Jesus (vs. 10-12)

Verse 10 is literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and are now being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his disciples would pay a price to follow him. And they did.

They were “insulted” (v. 11), subjected to slander, gossip, and ridicule. Their enemies would “falsely say all kinds of evil” against them.

Jesus warned them, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).

They were thrown to the lions, burned at the stake, wrapped in pitch and set alight, sewn in the skins of wild animals and thrown to hunting dogs, tortured on the rack, burned with molten lead and hot tongs. Part of their bodies were cut off and burned before their eyes, hands and feet scorched, children and families executed while they watched. That’s what it cost many of them to follow Jesus.

Those who are serious about their faith still pay a price to follow Jesus.

70 million believers have been executed across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Christ.

More believers were martyred in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined.

It is predicted that 500,000 Christians will die for Christ this year around the world.

But here’s the upside: There is great joy in suffering for Jesus. We are “blessed”–the word promises joy transcending all circumstances. We are to “rejoice and be glad” in Christ.

There is great reward in suffering for Jesus: “great is your reward in heaven.” Paul agreed: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). He promised Timothy, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12).

There is a great community for those who suffer for Jesus: “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” You stand with 20 centuries of God’s greatest servants when you suffer for your Lord.

You can ask Carlos Alamino if it is worth it to serve Jesus in Cuba. You can ask Oscar Dellet, our other Cuban pastor and partner, the same question. You can ask the thousands who pack their churches, knowing the government is watching. You can ask those whose children are given the poorest schools, the hardest military assignments, the worst medical care because their parents follow Jesus. But they won’t even understand the question.

Baptism is an especially courageous thing to do in Cuba. It is the time when a believer goes public with his or her faith. Family may reject them; the community may shun them. It is a hard thing for many.

When I participated in a mass baptism during one of my trips to Cuba, I was standing in the middle of the lake when the first person was brought to me. Her husband carried her across the water. I assumed that she was afraid of water, or unable to swim. He handed his wife to me, I baptized her, and handed her back to him. When he picked her up, then I saw that she had only one leg.

Was this public statement of her faith, at all costs, at any price, worth it to her? The joy on her face told me all I needed to know.

How to take a risk for Jesus (vs. 13-16)

How do we take the risk which leads to rewards from God? How do we get this “blessing,” this joy, this great reward from our Father? Jesus will tell us, with two metaphors.

First, “You are the salt of the earth.” Not “you will be” or “you could be” but “you are,” right now. “You” is inclusive, all of them. He says the same to us today. But what does he mean? What does salt do? It changes things. Nothing contacts salt and remains the same. How does it change things?

It purifies, as anyone who has gotten salt in a wound and felt its sting knows. Do you purify your world? Are you the holy presence of God? Are people more holy because of you?

It preserves food. In the ancient world, without refrigeration and preservatives, it was the only means of keeping food for the winter. Are you preserving the souls you meet? Is anyone more ready for eternity because of you?

It seasons food. It was the only seasoning most people could afford. Do you bring the joy of Jesus to your world? Are people happier because of you?

It makes people thirsty. Do you? Do people want the Jesus they see in you? Who was the last person who sought the Lord because of you?

It disappears. When it does its work, it is gone. No food or substance is too good for its transforming power. Are you selfless, willing to do anything to serve God and people, not caring who gets the credit?

If salt doesn’t do these things, it is “no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” They got their salt from the shores and marshes of the Dead Sea. It was impure, and decomposed. All that was left was white powder, good for nothing. What can you do with salt that doesn’t taste like salt? What good is it?

Jesus’ second metaphor: “You are the light of the world.” Again, Jesus doesn’t say that we might be or could be, but that we are. All of us, right now. “The” light, the only light in this dark world. What does light do?


Putting Your Eggs in One Basket

Putting Your Eggs in One Basket

Matthew 28:1-10

Dr. Jim Denison

He was a new clerk at the supermarket, his first day on the job. A lady told him she wanted to buy half a head of lettuce. He said, “I’ll have to go back and talk to the manager.” He went to the rear of the store, not noticing that the woman was walking right behind him. He found the manager and said, “There’s some stupid old lady out there that wants to buy half a head of lettuce. What should I tell her?”

Seeing the horrified look on the manager’s face, he turned around and, seeing the woman, added, “And this nice lady wants to buy the other half. Will that be all right?” The relieved manager agreed.

Later that day, the manager congratulated the boy on his quick thinking and asked where he was from. The boy said, “I’m from Toronto, Canada, the home of beautiful hockey players and ugly women.” The manager said, “My wife is from Toronto.” The boy said, “Oh, what team did she play for?”

I’m going to assume today that you’re as smart as that young man. That you know that reindeer don’t fly, and the Easter bunny isn’t real, and bodies don’t rise from the dead. If a friend of yours dies this week and you go to the “viewing” at the funeral home, you’ll expect to find his body in the casket. If it’s not there, you’ll consider these possibilities: (a) you’ve gone to the wrong viewing room at the funeral home; (b) the morticians have moved the body; (c) a family member or friend has taken it; (d) the person didn’t really die, and it’s all a mistake; or (e) you’re hallucinating, grieving so that you’ve lost touch with reality. These are your only logical options. Or maybe there’s one more.

I’d like to tell you two very personal stories regarding the resurrection. Next to my decision in 1973 to trust Christ as my Savior, these two stories are the most important events that have happened to my soul. I hope they’ll happen to yours as well this morning.

Then this will be Resurrection Sunday, not just a holiday but a holy day, for you today.

Is Easter real?

It was February of my senior year in college. My father had just died two months earlier. Janet and I were engaged to be married. In three months I would graduate and move to seminary to begin a life in vocational ministry. And the roof fell in.

I was taking part in a college retreat in East Texas. That Saturday morning, I woke up with the greatest fears and doubts I have ever experienced in my life. What was I doing? Where was I heading? Was I sure this was what I wanted to do with my life? I had become a Christian six years earlier, but my faith had been easy to this point. Church, worship, friends.

Now I was about to put my future on the line, to spend the rest of my life preaching and teaching the word of God. Was I sure it was really true? Did I really want to do this? In Easter terms, did I want to put all my eggs in this basket?

I left the retreat on that Saturday morning and went for a very long walk. I can still remember the blue sky overhead, the crunch of the winter leaves beneath my feet as I hiked through the woods. In my mind I returned to the first Easter. Go there with me now.

As the story begins, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb” (v. 1). Why here? Because they had seen Jesus buried (Matthew 27:61) and knew this to be the place. Even if they were wrong, Joseph (the owner of the tomb) would have corrected the mistake. If he did not, the Roman soldiers and authorities would have and quickly produced the body. So we haven’t come to the wrong viewing room.

When the angel rolled back the stone, the guards “shook” and fainted. So the soldiers didn’t take the body. Even if other Roman or religious authorities did, and Christians began erroneously proclaiming the resurrection, they would have produced the corpse and proved them liars. The morticians didn’t move the body.

“The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified” (v. 5).”

Jesus “was crucified”–the Greek is completed action, something already done. The Roman medical examiner pronounced him dead; the spear thrust into his side had pierced the pericardial sac around his heart, ensuring his death.

The burial cloths wrapped around his corpse made an airtight seal which would have suffocated him, even if he survived the cross. John’s gospel tell us that when Peter and John saw these burial cloths, they were collapsed on themselves, not stripped off; the body inside simply vanished (John 20:5-7).

He didn’t swoon, or fake his death. Ancient historians Tacitus, Seutonius, Mara bar Serapion and Josephus all confirm that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. It’s not a mistake–he really did die.

The angel continues: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him'” (vs. 6-7).

So we know that the disciples and women didn’t steal the body. They were as confused as anybody. They would not later lie about the resurrection, then die for a lie. And we know that they were not hallucinating; Peter and John would soon see the empty tomb, and the risen Christ would appear to more than 500 people (1 Corinthians 15:6).

That Saturday morning, on that long walk, I mulled over the evidence. And came to this logical conclusion: Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. If he is raised, he must be God and Lord. He must be worth my life and service. His resurrection is the rope from which we swing. We put all our eggs in this basket. Easter is real. I hope you’ve come to the same conclusion, or that you will today.