Before I preach my sermon, I want to properly recognize my sources, lest I be accused of plagiarism, or for that matter, making this stuff up. My sermon this morning draws heavily from a book written some time ago by a man named Luke (no last name). It comes under a genre known as “Gospel”, which means literally “good news“, and it is found in a larger collection of works referred to as the “Holy Bible.” You might actually have a copy on your bookshelf at home — many people do. If so, you might want to take it down from the shelf when you go home, and have a look-see to check the accuracy of my references.
A common story-telling technique used these days in movies is to place the end of the story at the beginning of the movie, and from there work back from the beginning to show the audience everything that lead up to the ending, putting the ending in context, making sense of it all. Coming to church on Easter can be a little like coming to see one of those movies, watching the beginning, and then leaving, because — hey, we already know how it turns out, right?
So I thought this Easter I would focus on the background story, because it is my contention that you can’t really understand what Easter means if you don’t pay attention to who this guy was who got raised from the dead.
His name was Jesus. You know that. There was scandal and mystery surrounding his birth; conceived in the womb of an unwed peasant girl named Mary from a small town in Galilee called Nazareth. His actual birth took place in a town called Bethlehem, in, of all places, a barn because his family was homeless at the time. His first visitors were poor shepherds who weren’t welcomed in the circle of respectable townsfolk, but they came visiting because they claimed to have seen angels who told them about a great joy given to all people in a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Little is known about this Jesus’ childhood. The one story we have of his childhood suggests he might not have been the easiest kid to raise. It tells of how, at the age of twelve, he wandered off from his parents, scaring them half to death, spending several days in the Temple in Jerusalem. When they finally found him, he seemed perplexed by all their worrying: “Didn’t you know I must be in my father’s house?”
Nothing else is known about Jesus until around the age of thirty, following an extended wilderness fast, and a baptism with thousands of others in the River Jordan by a revival preacher named John, Jesus suddenly returned to his hometown of Nazareth, having apparently been away for some time.
He showed up in church on the Sabbath, and stood up to read from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he read, “Because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
And then with what struck some present as extreme brashness, Jesus declared that this very day these words of prophecy were being fulfilled in him.
Well, that whole business of the “acceptable year of the Lord” – that was a reference to “the year of Jubilee“, referred to in Leviticus 25:10, where every 50 years, all land was to return to the original owner, in order to keep folks from becoming landless and destitute while the rich just keep getting richer. But, of course, just because it was in the Bible didn’t mean anybody actually paid any attention to it. And when it sunk in what exactly Jesus was saying, well, it made folks mad, and they tried to kill him right then and there.
But somehow he slipped away.
He went from there to other towns throughout Galilee, and there he continued preaching to whoever would listen, and it was discovered that he had remarkable healing powers — that maybe there was something to that “Spirit of the Lord has anointed me” business – because he would lay his hands on lepers, and demon-possessed folks, and people who couldn’t walk or see, and sure enough his word and his touch would make folks whole. When Jesus was around, it was absolutely clear that God didn’t want people sick or maimed; God wanted people whole.
Often he would declare God’s forgiveness to people; which was radical stuff, because up until then folks had to travel to the temple in Jerusalem at great expense in order to experience a little bit of God’s forgiveness. But Jesus kept saying it straight out to people: “My child, your sins are forgiven.”
He started calling people to follow him, and amazingly, people would just up and leave whatever they were doing, whether it be working as fishermen or tax collectors; whatever — they’d just get up and follow him, as though it made all the sense in the world leaving everything to be with this strange and wonderful man as he set the world free from all the stuff that was oppressing it.
Pretty soon, though, he started to incur the wrath of some folks, and funny thing was, it was generally the professional religious folk — holy people — who were getting mad at him. These were people who had devoted their lives to knowing inside and out what God’s Law required, and they didn’t like the new way this Jesus was doing things.
But he kept on doing it though.
And although he didn’t seem especially concerned with obsessing over all the little dots and dashes of the Law, in certain ways he made it clear that God was expecting a whole lot more out of people than even the Lawyers were calling for.
He said God wants you to love your enemies — pray for those who persecute you, he said. Share all your stuff; I mean, all of it. Don’t judge, don’t condemn. That’s none of your business! Leave judgment to God. Just be merciful, because God is merciful.
A lot of people didn’t know what to make of him, because he didn’t act the way holy people were supposed to act: For one thing, he laughed a lot, which everybody knows holy people don’t do. He simply had too much joy for a holy person. He loved parties more than a holy person should. Sometimes he got accused of being a drunkard.
The other thing that didn’t fit the with the way holy people were supposed to act was the company he kept. He would hang out with pretty much anybody who welcomed him, and sometimes this involved some folk with some real bad reputations. It didn’t seem to bother him in the least what this kind of company was doing to his reputation. If invited to a dinner party, he’d go, no matter whether the invitation came from a some sinner or from a Law Keeper — it made no difference to him. And along the way, the lives of folks were getting healed: physically, emotionally, spiritually — the whole shebang. They’d never seen anything like it. And so more and more people were being drawn to him all the time.
One time this huge crowd of like five thousand people was following him as he going from town to town, teaching, and the sun was starting to set, and his followers started to freak, worrying about how all these people were going to get some supper, and he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” And they looked at him wondering whether he was kidding, or crazy, or what, but he just kept smiling, as though to say, “go on!” so they handed over all they had brought — which wasn’t much: only five little loaves of bread and two fish — and he looked up to heaven and said thanks to God, and blessed the food, and broke it, and gave it back to them to hand out, and something weird and something wonderful happened that day, everybody got plenty to eat, and to this day, nobody knows for sure how it happened, whether the bread just multiplied, or whether people just started sharing, or maybe it was both, but one thing was sure, at that particular moment everybody seemed as concerned about their neighbor eating as they were about eating themselves, and nobody forgot how it felt.
Now as time passed and his followers saw all the wonderful things that were happening when Jesus was mixing with people, well, they began to suspect that maybe, just maybe, he was the one, I mean, the messiah, the one all the folks had been waiting for. And when they finally got up the nerve to say this to him, well, his response was curious. He didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no, but what he did keep saying was, “Follow me. Do like you see me doing.”
And not long after that Jesus took three of his followers to get away from the crowds overnight, and they went up on a mountain to pray, and suddenly his whole body was shining a bright light, and two the ancestors were there, straight from heaven, Moses and Elijah, and suddenly a cloud overshadowed the mountain, and the followers fell on their knees in holy terror, and they heard a voice — God’s voice they were sure — and the voice said, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” And suddenly the cloud was gone, and they looked up, and Moses and Elijah were gone, and there stood only Jesus.
“Listen to him,” the voice had said.
And he led them back down the mountain, and immediately they met up with this poor distraught father with one very sick boy, and Jesus took the boy in his arms and healed him, and they were all amazed.
Now these were heady times for his followers, I mean with the huge crowds and such. They felt a little like rock stars (or at least the back up band members of a rock star) and before you know it, there were these arguments going on between them about which of them was the greatest. Jesus just seemed to know what they were thinking about it and he brought to them this poor little child, this nobody kid, with tangled hair and snot running down her face, dirty, you know what I mean, and he said, “You see this kid? You want to know what real greatness is? Treat this child like she’s the most important person in the world, which she is. You do that, and then maybe you’ll be catching hold of what true greatness is.”
Now with all the attention Jesus was generating, the lawyers and such were getting real nervous, and by now there was usually a couple of their spies on hand to keep an eye on him, maybe argue with him a bit. One time this lawyer said to him, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “You tell me,” said Jesus, “What does your reading of God’s law tell you?” And the lawyer answered, “Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Bingo!” said Jesus. “Sounds good to me.”
“But wait,” said the lawyer. “Who’s my neighbor?” And so Jesus proceeded to tell this story in which this guy is walking down the road to Jericho and these other guys jump him and beat the crap out of him, and take all his stuff and leave him half dead at the side of the road. A priest comes by, but doesn’t stop, and then a minister walks by, and he doesn’t stop either, and then this Samaritan…” (And with that all his listeners said, “Oh my!” because Samaritans were people that nobody liked.) And this Samaritan comes along and he gets off his donkey and goes to the man and baths his wounds and puts bandages on the wounds and then he gently lifted him up on his donkey and took him to an inn where the man could rest and eat and slowly get his strength back. And the Samaritan picked up the bill, goes the poor succor had had all his money stolen. “Now who do you suppose was neighbor to the man who got the crap beat out of him?” asked Jesus. “Ah, I guess the one who showed mercy on him,” said the Lawyer. “Bingo!” said Jesus. “Go and do likewise.”
Through it all, Jesus spent a lot of time praying, and taught his followers to do the same: and in doing so, to trust God, like little children, knowing that God really was on their side. And never give up. He talked about this poor widow who had nothing in this world but who just kept coming to this unjust judge until finally the unjust judge gave in and heard her plea. Keep praying, Jesus said — keep the faith baby — just like that poor widow!
He said the Kingdom of God is breaking out all over the place if you can just keep your eyes open to see it. When they doubted this, he said, that all they really needed was just a tiny little mustard seed of faith, that’s all, and that mustard seed would grow into this enormous bush where all the birds could come and find shade. He said the Kingdom of God was this great party where people from all over the world — east, west, south, and north — were welcome, and especially the little people, the wounded people, the poor people. He said, when you throw a party, go out and invite all the street people to come, and then you’ll get a taste for what heaven is like. He treated women with kindness and respect — like they were equals of men — which in those days, just wasn’t done.
He did get mad sometimes. He got mad at religious folks who were hypocrites, putting on a big show of being religious on the outside, but inside they had no real love and mercy in their hearts, placing heavy burdens on the poor folks. He got mad at the people who would try to keep other people out of the kingdom party.
He said wealth was dangerous. He said it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle then for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. He talked about some rich guy filling this big huge barn he owns with all the grain he could possibly want and more. “Now what’ll I do?” asked the rich guy. “I know, I’ll build bigger barns!” “Fool!” said Jesus, “Don’t you know that this night your soul is demanded of you, and what good will all your barns do you?” “What does it profit a person,” he said, “to inherit the entire world but forfeit their soul?” He talked about this poor guy named Lazarus who spent his days sleeping on the doorstep of this rich guy, starving for a bite of food, but the rich guy never once lifted a finger to help him. They both died. The poor guy went to rock in the bosom of Abraham, but the rich guy, he had hell to pay. Another time this rich guy came running up to him, sincerely looking for some way to experience God, but with major attachment issues to his wealth that were getting in his way. Jesus looked at him, loved him, and said, “Go, sell all your possessions, give it to the poor, and come follow me!”
He said that in general folks worry way to much about stuff: their money, their clothes, their house. “Be not anxious,” he said. “Look at the lilies of the field, all that incredible beauty without spending a dime. Look at the birds of the air. God looks out for them, and they don’t even have bank accounts!”
One time when the holy people were complaining about the company he kept, Jesus rolled off this riff of stories, all about the lost being found: a lost sheep, and a shepherd who goes searching, searching, searching, until the sheep is found, and about a lost son, whom a lovesick father welcomes home after the boy’s done some really bad stuff.
He ended both stories with parties — big raucous, happy parties — saying it’s like this in heaven when a sinner comes home to God. God gives second chances, and third chances, and on and on. And he told his followers to do the same with one another. “How many times should we forgive somebody?” one of them asked. “Seven times? Seven times seventy times!” he answered.
He came into a town one time with a huge crowd of people on hand, and the one person he singled out to invite himself over for lunch was this little rich taxcollector guy that nobody liked named Zacchaeus, stuck way up in a tree. It caused a scandal, but after their little lunch together, Zacchaeus was moved to give a big hunk of his money away to the poor.
And so finally Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, and the poor folk welcomed him with palm branches and great excitement, and he went directly to the place he had once referred to as “My Father’s House”, and proceeded to throw out all the people who were making profits off the poor folks. And sure enough, just as he had been predicting for some time now, he got arrested by the temple authorities, and handed over to the Romans, and beaten the crap out of, and finally nailed up on cross, where in his dying breaths he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And then he died. And that would have been the end of it. Nice sentiments, all these things the wandering preacher taught and lived, but hey — in the end, it just doesn’t hold water in the “real world.”
Now everybody knows that people stay dead once they’re dead. But the story ends with folks claiming they’d seen him up and around again, saying and doing the same sort of stuff he’d been saying and doing before. People were so adamant in their conviction of his resurrection that they were literally willing to stake their life on it.
Now if God was looking to simply make the point that yes, there is life after death, so don’t be afraid of death, well, pretty much anybody would have done well enough. But Jesus wasn’t just anybody. Now the point that I’ve been leading up to here is that it makes all the difference in the world who God chose to raise from the dead.
It was Jesus, a man with a message. He taught it and he lived it and he died it.
And when God raised him up, the point being made was: This man’s message is the real deal! It’s not just a nice thought, a lovely sentiment. It’s truth! This really is the way the world is designed to operate. So “listen to him!”