I would like to ask you a question this morning: What are the two biggest fears in your life? If I get boring, where will your mind wander? That's one of the best ways to identify your anxieties, to see your priorities. If your attention is lost for the message for this morning—will it be a financial concern? Is it a romantic concern? Is it a deep distress for issues of justice, as you know that there were people living on the streets last night? Is it a concern about your children? Or your parents? Or a health concern? What are the two biggest fears in your world?
The resurrection of Jesus Christ equips you to face the two biggest fears in the world.
This morning our theme is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was read so eloquently for us from 1 Corinthians 15, where the apostle Paul declared the essence of the gospel, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The historian Luke, in the Book of Acts, refers to many infallible proofs (that's a pre-Enlightenment expression; I think today we would want to say many evidences) for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The evidences before us are such as these: How about that empty tomb? Where did the body go? Grave clothes were neatly arranged. The appearance of Jesus to Mary and the other Mary in the garden, to two on the road to Emmaus, to the disciples behind closed doors without Thomas present, to them with Thomas present, then to the seven at the Sea of Galilee, to more than 500 witnesses over a period of several weeks before the Ascension of our Savior into heaven, to Paul on the road to Damascus in that post-Ascension appearance, and then to John on the island of Patmos.
And how in the world could those broken disciples from Bad Friday—that's right, it was Bad Friday if there were no resurrection of Jesus from the dead—be infused with a whole new sense of dynamic to declare a living faith? If church tradition says it correctly, all but one went to death as martyrs, unwilling to back off from strong statements of having seen the risen Christ, declaring his bodily, physical resurrection. At least one of them, I think, would have said, "Uncle!" with his arm behind his back at the point he was called to recant.
But, my friends, we worship this morning to celebrate the Resurrection on the first day of the week—the Lord's Day—instead of the Sabbath. And the hope and the confidence of our great Christian faith is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That Resurrection equips you and me to face the two biggest fears in the world.
What do you think the two biggest fears in the world are? You've listed some of your own. I'd like to commend to you what I think are the two biggest fears in the world: One, the fear of dying, and, two, the fear of living. They conveniently cover anything on your list. Just how does the resurrection of Jesus Christ equip us with faith to face these fears?
We experience specific stages of death and dying
First, the fear of dying. Psychologists and psychiatrists who are friends of mine (and my wife is a practicing psychotherapist) tell me a person is not equipped for human maturity, for balanced wholeness, until he or she confronts the inevitability of his or her own death. (We put a parenthesis beside that, those of us who are professing believers in Jesus Christ. We say, "unless Jesus Christ returns before that moment," for we are to live with a sense of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. He could come in the course of this message this morning. At the same time, he may not.) As we know, there are two sure facts in this world: death and taxes.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has written a magnificent study on death and dying. Although not professing to be an evangelical Christian in our understanding of that term, she has made a careful study of the stages we go through when we face the inevitability of our own death, or the death of a loved one.
The first stage is denial. Word comes from the doctor that you have cancer. Your immediate reaction is to say, "Doctor, I think you're giving me the results from the wrong person." Or you look for another doctor. Or you at least try to brace yourself against it.
Billy Graham made a profound observation one time. He said, "The last generation refused to talk about sex. Our generation talks about very little but sex." You say, "Why did you get off on that?" Graham continued, "Our generation refuses to talk about death." We do everything we possibly can to avoid the reality of it.
I'd like you to do something very carefully: look out of the corner of your eye at the person to the right of you. Don't do it obviously. I'm not trying to trivialize this moment, but are you aware that that person is terminally ill? Now take a quick look to the person to the left of you. That person also is terminally ill. I hear the snickers, but the reality is deep. Even the snickers are a sign of denial. The reality is also that the person sitting between the person to the right of you and the left of you is also terminally ill. Some of us who are younger will be gone before some of us who are older. That's simply the way it is. Yet we live in denial.
Stage two is anger. We wave a fist in the face of God—or the gods, or the fates, if by chance we do not believe in a personal God. We resent this fact of life—our pending death or the death of a loved one.
The third stage, Kubler-Ross says, is bargaining. She describes a woman who came to the doctor. The doctor told her she had a particular time frame left ahead of her, but she said, "Doctor, I've got a problem. I have a daughter, and I want to be at her wedding." By sheer will power, by emotional and psychological strength in that bargaining process, that woman sustained herself through the daughter's wedding, long beyond the point the doctor thought she would live. When she came for another checkup, the doctor said, "Aren't you so happy you've been at your daughter's wedding?" and she said, "But doctor, I have another daughter!" The bargaining continued.
When we ministered in Key Biscayne, Florida, there was a gentleman by the name of Henri Lardon, a Frenchman who headed Air France in the southeastern part of the United States. He told me a story about his days in World War II when he was incarcerated by the Fascists in Spain with little thought that he would ever get out of prison alive. Roman Catholic in background, in that prison experience he made a bargain with God: "God if you get me out of here alive, I will go to church every Sunday, and I will tithe." When the war was over, he was released and promptly forgot his bargain with God, until, working in southern Florida, he came into our church one Sunday and all the memories flooded back. Ultimately, he became chairperson of our mission committee and a leader in that church, decades after having made a bargain with God.
What bargains have you made with God in a moment? They say there are no atheists in foxholes. It's amazing how religious and how spiritual we get under pressure in a moment of bargaining.
The fourth stage is depression. We understand that.
And the fifth stage is one I would like to say only those who have a faith in Jesus Christ come to, but that is not true. It does not bear out with the empirical data. That is the stage of acceptance, where we somehow come to grips with the inevitability of our own demise, some through faith in the Lord, some through their own psychological mechanisms.
I remember when I moved to Florida, the pastor nominating committee had on it a dentist who promised to take me out deep-sea fishing and snorkeling. Well, I'd been pastor there for several weeks when I got a call: "Get your sermon done early this week; I'm taking you out fishing and snorkeling on Saturday." We went out, and we caught some fish out in the Gulf Stream. Then we started to go snorkeling. Just as I went over the side of the boat, I said, "Are there sharks in these waters?" He said, "No. I've been here at least 25 times."
So I put on the goggles and the fins and the snorkel tube and went down. I made the mistake of sucking in before breathing out, and after having swallowed a significant portion of the Atlantic, I adjusted and began to see a beautiful world open up. Those of you who have snorkeled or done scuba diving know the utter transport of spirit when you first look under the clear water and see the coral reefs and the beautiful fish. I went up, breathed, went down and up again, and then as I went down, I saw angling toward me Jaws, Jr.—a ten-to-twelve-foot shark.
I immediately went through all five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and even a slight twinge of acceptance—as I did everything the books tell you not to do. I thrashed my way right back up to the boat. My dentist friend later said the greatest act of Christian grace he ever committed was to let his new pastor go up the ladder first.
The resurrection helps us face the fear of dying
How does the resurrection of Jesus Christ equip you and me to face the fear of dying? One, he's gone to prepare a place for you and me. He says, "If it were not so, I would have told you"—I don't put you on. "In my Father's house are many mansions"—there's a place for you and me beyond this life.
Second, the resurrection of Jesus Christ equips you to face the fear of dying because he gives hope for those of us who remain when a loved one in Christ goes to be with him. Early in my ministry, I served as an associate in a large church for three years and had more than 100 memorial services. I remember reading from 1 Thessalonians 5 that great statement: "I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you sorrow not as those who have no hope." And I remember telling people they need not sorrow because of the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. But I noticed some of the most wonderful saints of God continued to weep in spite of what I said.
I re-exegeted that passage and realized that there was a subtle distinction between two kinds of sorrow in that passage. You sorrow not as what? Those who have no hope. Go ahead and weep. Go ahead and work out that grief process realizing that, if you are in Christ, your tears are for yourself (if the one who has gone is also a believer in Jesus Christ), for that one is in the presence of Christ, who has gone to prepare a place for that one. Those of us who pastor know the different texture of sorrow between that of the one who sorrows without hope for one who had no hope, and that of those who have hope both for themselves and the one who received Jesus Christ and claimed his promises.
Third, the resurrection of Jesus Christ equips you and me to face the fear of dying in that it promises a reunion. We don't know the exact nature of our new, incorruptible bodies. They'll be without blemish; we know that much. We know they'll be recognizable, identifiable, perhaps like those in the experience Jesus had on the Mount of Transfiguration, where with a couple of his disciples, he encountered Moses and Elijah. We dare not say much more about it and try to make the Scriptures say what they do not say. But we are promised a reunion.
We're also promised a release from the specter of hell. That's not a very popular word today, not even a very popular word among those of us who endeavor to preach the Scriptures as honestly and straightforwardly as possible, because there's something about that word hell that alienates us. Perhaps the reason is because that's what hell is: alienation, a separation.
Unfortunately, much of our understanding of hell is not from the Bible. Much of it comes hundreds of years later from Dante's Inferno and other literature about hell. But the Bible does say that even as there is a place in the presence of Jesus Christ for eternity called heaven, there is a place that is separate from God with a great, unbridgeable chasm between the two, and that is alienation from all you and I were created to be in the life beyond this life.
The resurrection helps us face the fear of living
And, my friends, the resurrection of Jesus Christ equips you and me to face not only the fear of dying. Paul, here, as he discusses this matter, is dealing with a problem at the church of Corinth. The problem was that some had died, and the ones who lived were worried about the ones who died. They were questioning the Resurrection. Paul was saying, "Now if you question the resurrection of the body, you're questioning the resurrection of Jesus." He works these things together.
He says, "If for this life only, you have hope, you of all people are most to be pitied." He was declaring that it is on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have a hope beyond this life. But in that he also implies that not only does the resurrection of Jesus Christ equip you and me to face the fear of dying, it also equips you and me to face the fear of living, a much bigger fear for some of us. How does Jesus' resurrection do that? Well, there are many ways.
One is, through it he offers you and me meaning. Bishop Festo Kivengere, that great man of such spiritual strength from Uganda who had the courage to stand before Idi Amin and tell him the facts of life at the time that it could have cost his very life, described his boyhood days in Uganda. He said, "I was going around in circles, circles of emptiness with me at the center." You know the feeling?
I'm studying at Harvard on my sabbatical, and I'm taking a course from Dr. Robert Coles. Our assignment for this week was to read Leo Tolstoy's A Confession. His confessions are some of the most beautiful statements I have ever heard. They're the words of a man who gave up his faith at age 18 because he saw little reality of a spiritual nature in the lives of his contemporary, professing believers and in his own life. He was a very successful author, a man of the upper class in Russia. Then, about age 51 or 52, he began to shift gears and look back on a life that was squandered in intellectual pride, in moral degeneracy, and in nihilism and its emptiness.
As he went into deep depression and despair, Tolstoy described the ultimate of a person who has lost purpose in life. He said there were four alternatives he could see: One, ignorance. Simply deny that there is a problem and go on. Some live that way. Two, Epicureanism. Eat, drink, and be merry; live for pleasure. Three, suicide, the most realistic of all, he said. If I'm going to die anyway someday, why go through the pain of writing another book? If there's no life beyond this life, why waste any more time? Yet, he said, "I didn't have the courage. I had a wife, and I had children, and I couldn't bring myself to what was really the way of wisdom," as he called it.
The fourth option is the way of weakness, just to go on living, knowing all you know and the despair of it all, without the courage to commit suicide. He said, "That's the course I took, until I began to reflect on the fact that all through human history there have been some people who have had faith." There have been some people who have confronted the vanity of life in their intellectual pilgrimage or perhaps have not been aware of the vanity because early in life they have plugged in to a vital personal faith in the triune God.
So he began to check it out. He tried it among his class—the elite, intellectual, religious people and the clergy—and he said frankly, "What I saw was not appealing." (This is a paraphrase. He said it in much more sophisticated words.)
Then he said, "I began to look for it in the people who seemed to have joy in their lives, and it appeared to me to be the peasant class, the working people who had very little time for leisure and who were not the parasites of society, as my class was, living off of our wealth and not putting in a good, hard day of work with the sense of God-given vocation. Almost as quickly as my faith was lost at age 18, my faith was restored, and I began to practice the things of the faith. I began once again to observe the Sacraments. I began once again the daily disciplines. And as I worked through the theology of my church, although I saw some inadequacies and I didn't agree with everything, I had my faith restored. I realized in a dream I had one night that the thread of faith that held me up was so fragile. But I awakened to realize that at the end of the dream, the thread of faith was upheld by a pillar."
My friends, the resurrection of Jesus Christ equips you and me to face not only the fear of dying, but also the fear of living, in that it give us the sense of meaning. We know where we came from. We know where we're going, if we take the Word of God seriously, and we know why we're here.
Some of us take the Word of God and use it in neurotic ways. We use it to become extra conservative: There's nothing like the past. A friend of mine, complaining the other day, said, "Even nostalgia ain't what it used to be." They tell us grief is the endeavor to find purpose and meaning. Grief is not just what we do when we lose someone to death, it's also what we do when we lose meaning. So some of us in our grief, when life has lost meaning, become extra conservative.
Another way to handle loss of meaning is to become futuristic, to become the radical, to try to reshape everything with an idealism that does not square with reality.
This isn't to say there isn't a place for conservatism. There is. I'm not saying there isn't a place for future hope. There is. We believers in Christ, of all people, have a hope for the future. And yet sometimes we build our charts and set dates for that which has not been met in our time frame, or we become radical in other ways that refuse to deal with the realities of our human nature. Our meaning is not in the past, although Christ's action is in the past and involves all of history. And our faith in not in the future, although ours is a future hope. Our faith is to live in the present, until Christ comes, with the meaning and purpose he has given us.
We live not only with the Cross of Jesus Christ vertically breaking into our lives, but also with a corporate understanding of who we are. We're not just individuals, but also a community of faith equipped to share together, building each other up in the faith and then being deployed to go out and bind up the wounds of the bloody, beaten society.
My prayer for myself and my prayer for you is that we'll claim the resurrection power of Jesus Christ to equip us to face both the fear of dying and the fear of living. In the moment of silence as we contemplate his sacrifice for us, there will be a time of renewal for those of us who love Jesus Christ. If you're struggling with doubt as a student, if you've never opened your life to Jesus Christ on your way into the mature years of your life, if you've been brought to church by someone, or if you feel need—whatever the reason—I urge you right now to come to the point that Tolstoy did: You may have doubted, but you're willing to open your life and say, "I'll commit all I know and all I don't know of myself to all I know and don't know of Jesus Christ. If this book is your Word, Lord, if this all truly happened, I'm prepared to commit all I possibly can of myself and claim your equipping both to live and to die."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
John Huffman was pastor of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California, for many years, and is the author of Forgive Us Our Prayers.