March 27, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
Luke 24:1-5 Acts 2:22-24, 37-38
The seventh in a series of seven.
He’s the little guy who managed to climb inside an arcade machine while his mother wasn’t looking, and then he realized he couldn’t get out. He was stuck.
That was our introduction to a series of sermons that concludes today on this Easter Sunday. We’ve been calling the series “Unstuck.” Often we find ourselves stuck in life, so stuck there’s nothing we can do to get ourselves unstuck. Christopher Air is one example of being stuck. Here is another:
Jesus, who had set so many people free, wouldn’t be able to do that any more. Nor would he be able to free himself. His lifeless body had been sealed in a cold, dark tomb. Caesar’s soldiers are standing guard, just in case. This is the end of Jesus. We won’t hear from him any more. Right?
And yet here you are. Many of you made a special effort to be in church today because it is Easter. You are here because this was not the end of Jesus. He got up. He arose. He walked right out of that tomb. Two thousand years later his followers number in the billions and Little Caesar is the name of a pizza.
One of those billions who follows Jesus today is Paul David Hewson, better known as Bono. He was interviewed for a television program in Ireland and the interviewer asked him about his faith in Jesus. Notice, the interviewer doesn’t look real comfortable with this particular line of questioning. It’s like he’s squirming in his chair. He can hardly believe a modern, sophisticated person could still actually believe this stuff. But watch how comfortable Bono is talking about his faith in Jesus.
“And therefore it follows that [Jesus] rose physically from the dead?” / “Yes. I have no problem with miracles. I’m living around them. I am one.” / “And you believe that he made promises that will come true?” / “Yes.”
What are these promises Jesus made that will come true? Or to bring it to a finer point, what is the one main promise Jesus made? What is the one that encompasses all the others? When you strip away everything else that Jesus taught and lived and promised, what do you have left? In other words, what is the good news of Jesus Christ? The interviewer didn’t get quite that far with Bono. If he had, I think we would have heard the correct answer. Bono was definitely on a roll with that poor interviewer.
There are a couple of popular incorrect answers. A lot of people would say Jesus came not so much to give good news, but to give good advice. And we love to hear about the good advice of Jesus, don’t we? “Be kinder. Be more loving. Stop being so mean.” Is that why Jesus came? I don’t think so. No one gets crucified for telling people to be nice.
Another popular but incorrect answer is that Jesus came to tell us how to get into heaven. He did tell us that, but that was not his main message. This is the Sunday more than any other that we celebrate the good news that there is more to life than this one life we get on earth. We are all understandably interested in this subject, both for ourselves and for those we love because we’re all going to die some day.
But this was not a central concern of Jesus. He talked a whole lot more about life before death than life after death. There isn’t a single verse where Jesus asks the question so many of his followers ask today: “If you died today, do you know for sure that you are going to heaven?”
But there are many verses where Jesus quite clearly gives us the answer to our question: What is the good news Jesus came to this earth to bring us? There’s one verse in Mark that says it all: “Jesus went into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’ ” (1:14-15) So what is this good news? “The kingdom of God has come near.”
It’s not just that one verse. Jesus is always talking about the kingdom of God. “Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1). One time people tried to get him to stop running around all over the place and settle down and live a peaceful, happy, middle-class life in their small town. He said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). It was his one message to his disciples. “When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:1-2). Even after Easter, at the very end of his time on earth, his message had not changed one bit. “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
Preachers love to preach stewardship sermons, and I’ve preached a few, claiming that Jesus had more to say about money than any other subject. But that’s not true. Jesus had a lot to say about money, but Jesus had a lot more to say about the kingdom of God. That is why he came.
But now that we have answered one question, we have more questions. What is the kingdom of God? And why should it be good news to us?
Before we talk specifically about the kingdom of God, let’s talk more generally about kingdoms. We all have one. You don’t have to be a king or a queen. Your kingdom is simply that place where whatever you say goes. It’s the range of your effective will. It’s where your will is done.
We learn about kingdoms quite early. What’s the word babies learn even before “Mommy” and “Daddy”? “No!” That’s a kingdom defining word. Another word babies learn early and use often is “mine!”
When I would ride in the back seat with my sister and brother, we would draw imaginary lines on the seat. That was our space. That was our kingdom. Cross that line and there would be trouble.
Of course, very often there would be trouble so then our dad would turn around because, whose kingdom did he think the car was? He thought it was his kingdom. He would say, “Do you want me to come back there?” We would say, “Sure you’re coming back here while the car is going 65 miles an hour!” And there would be more trouble. When I had kids of my own, I developed more appreciation for what we put our dad and our mom through when we were kids.
There are many kingdoms. At work. At home. At school. In cities. In neighborhoods. In law enforcement. In government. In international relations. In companies. On Wall Street. In politics. It’s a very long list. But if you take all these and put them all together, we might call the conglomeration “the kingdom of the world”. The Bible calls it that. And we might ask the question: How are things working out with this kingdom of the world?
Well, let’s see. We have terrorism and wars and refugees and poverty and drug addiction and child abuse and broken hearts, lives, and homes. That’s the short list. And the list was not a whole lot different while Jesus walked this earth “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of the world is where we all fight to have our own will done. The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done. We get to the last book of the Bible, Revelation (which by the way, I’m preaching on the next two Sundays) and what do we read? “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever” (11:15).
That’s why Jesus came. That’s the plan, that’s the promise, that’s the good news. To bring up there down here.
A lot of people think it’s the opposite. Jesus came to get us out of down here so we can all go up there and live in heaven. A lot of people think the point of life is like that line from Star Trek. “Beam me up, Scotty.” I’m tired of this world. I’m tired of this mess. I’m ready to go to a better place.
Jesus said, “Not so fast! I came not to beam you up to heaven but to bring heaven down to you. To bring up there down here. I came for God’s kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, on earth as in heaven.”
Up there is coming down here, and it all started with Jesus. He was living in a different kingdom, God’s kingdom, and that put him on a collision course with the world’s kingdom. That’s why he was killed. The kingdom of God was a threat to the kingdom of the world.
The powers of this world thought killing him would remove the threat. But on the third day God said to Jesus, “Get up!” And he did. And he told his followers God’s plan is working. He told his followers God’s plan is for us all to “get up” and get busy with the business of bringing up there down here.
It’s happening! The kingdom of the world has not gone away. It’s power is still quite real. But the kingdom of God is coming! We see signs everywhere we look. Whenever someone who is hopelessly stuck becomes unstuck; whenever someone repents and gets forgiven; whenever an addict comes out of the shadows and gets real and gets help; whenever racial reconciliation happens; whenever someone who has been attached to money gets generous; whenever parents who have been neglecting their children have a change of heart; whenever a marriage that is falling apart gets healed; whenever a church that is down on the mat gets up and gets back in the game; up there is coming down here!
Do you want to hear a good story of up there coming down here? I warned you you are going to be hearing some Shane Claiborne stories. He was in Boise a couple of weeks ago. He doesn’t look much like a preacher, and he doesn’t preach like one either. He preaches a lot better. When he’s not going to places like Boise, Idaho talking about Jesus, he is doing his best to live like Jesus in a very kingdom of God kind of a way. He founded and is part of “The Simple Way”, what they call an intentional Christian community in downtown Philadelphia.
One day he went to the store to get some bread. On the way, he had to go through a part of town that was notorious for prostitution and drug trafficking. He got propositioned. It was a woman on crutches. She was practically freezing to death in a cold, dark alley. He hurried to get past her, got his bread, and nodded at her as he passed by on his way home.
He opened the bread, and realized there was rip in the plastic that was wrapped around it. The bread had gone bad. He had to go back and exchange it. But he knew what that meant. He really did not want to see that pathetic woman again. She was crying as he passed her this time. And shivering. He got the new bread and this time when he passed her he couldn’t just keep walking. He stopped and told her about their community, that it was a safe place, that she would be more than welcome to come warm up and get something to eat. So she followed him home on her crutches.
As soon as she came inside, she started crying hysterically. When she could finally talk, her first words were, “You’re Christians, aren’t you.” Shane Claiborne said he didn’t know how she knew. He wasn’t wearing a T-shirt with the face of Jesus on it. They didn’t have a sign outside their front door that said, “Repent or Burn”. So how’d she figure it out? She said:
I know you are Christians because you shine. I used to be in love with Jesus like that, and when I was, I shined like diamonds in the sky, like the stars. But it’s a cold, dark world, and I lost my shine a little while back. I lost my shine on those streets.
She asked if they would pray with her that she might shine again, and they did.
They didn’t see her again for a long time. Then one day, there was a knock on the door and there she was. Shane didn’t recognize her at first and she could tell. She said, “The reason you don’t know who I am is I got my shine back!” There she was, no crutches, dressed appropriately, a big smile on her face. She said she had fallen in love with Jesus all over again and she just had to thank them for the hospitality they had given her that night.
She said she wanted to give them something to say thanks, but she’d lost pretty much everything living on streets. “Everything except this,” she said. And she handed Shane a box filled with Marlboro miles coupons. She said, “I want you to have this.” Shane said it was about the most precious gift he had ever been given.
He wasn’t interested in sending the coupons in to earn a Marlboro tote bag or something else equally cool, so he said he’s been using them as Bible bookmarks. He took his Bible out and showed us one. He said that every time he sees one of those Marlboro miles bookmarks in his Bible he is reminded that we have a God who is loving people back to life. We have a God who is bringing up there down here.
That’s why Jesus came. That’s why he lived. That’s why he died. That’s why he rose. And that’s what he calls us to be about as his followers. Loving people back to life. Bringing up there down here. He got up from the grave so that we can get up and get unstuck and bring heaven down to earth.
After that first Easter, a disciple of Jesus named Peter preached a powerful sermon in which he shared with a crowd this essential core of the good news of Jesus. The crowd listened and when Peter was done, they knew there had to be more to it than listening to a sermon. So they said, “What should we do?” And Peter said, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38).
We’ve been talking about repenting for seven weeks now. That’s what this unstuck series has been all about. Surrendering our ego. Confessing our brokenness. Asking God to come in and clean up the mess and set us free. Baptism is a sign of this. It’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It involves water because water is what we use to clean stuff. Peter told the crowd, “You ought to do that today.” And amazingly enough, they did. “Those who received this word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
Some of you today have never been baptized. Maybe today’s the day for you. I’m extending you that invitation.
Some of you are saying, “Don’t you have to take a class first? Don’t you have to join a committee?” Nope. We looked it up. And some of you aren’t sure about this United Methodist denominational label. Baptism is not the same as church membership. That’s a separate deal. We don’t baptize you into the UnitedMethodistChurch. We baptize you into Jesus.
Some of you today have already been baptized. Baptism is a one-time thing, so we’re not going to baptize you again. But we do have something called “renewal of the baptismal covenant.” It too is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It too involves water. So I’m inviting those of you who have already been baptized to renew your baptismal covenant. Just come up to this basin, put your hands in the water and let the water run down your face. Or put your whole face in the water, I don’t care.
So how is all this going to work? I’m going to ask you all to “get up” right now. That’s the title. Get up! And I’m going to ask the questions we ask each time someone is baptized. These are kind of like marriage vows. They are sacred promises you are making to God and to each other. Here they are:
- Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the kingdom of this world, and repent of your sin?
- Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
- Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the church which Christ has opened up to people of all ages, nations, and races?
- According to the grace given to you, will you remain a faithful member of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representative in the world?
You may be seated. We’re going to do the baptisms first. So if you are ready to be baptized, all you have to do is meet me here at the font right now. After the baptisms, you are invited to come forward for the renewal of your baptismal covenant. I pray that you will be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit as you come forward. And I pray that God will bless you and keep you and put you to work, this Easter Sunday and always.