Sermon delivered by Howard Baston, pastor of First Baptist Church in Amarillo, T.X., on Apr. 12 2009
I know you’re aware of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China. But are you aware of a small group of poor Chinese peasant farmers who came to the rescue of their country?
On the night of May 12, after hearing of the earthquake, the peasant farmer leader, Liu Zhongming, called together men from his village. He declared, “We must go to Sichuan and save.” Packing together their home-made Shandong bread and a few thermos bottles full of water, the ten farmers piled into a rickety three-wheeled tractor and set off on the 1,200 mile trip. They didn’t even know where they were going. Didn’t know how to get there. Their vehicle, being an open three-wheel tractor, wasn’t even highway-worthy. They had to travel the back roads, often asking for directions and always having to pay the local tolls every 30 miles. Crammed into the back of the rickety tractor, the tried to sleep as they bounced on the rocky roads.
People ridiculed their tattered tricycle tractor. They accused them of trying to claim they were doing such a noble act – traveling that far in such a vehicle with such limited resources – because they wanted to avoid paying the tolls. No one believed the sincerity of these farmers, that any one would attempt anything like this. They had to eat a lot of bitterness to be there. But even the hardened soldiers on the front lines were moved to tears by the story of the ten peasant farmers who dedicated themselves to saving their countrymen.
After three nights and four days travel, they finally made it to the disaster site. Immediately, they thrust themselves into the work. Though they’d never erected a tent before, they read the diagrams. And two days later, these peasant farmers had 200 tents already propped up.
Next they were laying down water pipes, building restrooms, and transporting commodities. Every day, all they had to eat were dried ramen (rahman) noodles, and they slept at night crammed in the tractor so that the disaster-stricken people could have the tents.
The farmers said they didn’t have much money, but they did have strength. They had the ability to save others and no problem doing physical labor. “Let’s go save the people of Sichuan,” the leader had shouted, as they loaded the tractor.
Their 200 blue tents looked like a sea of grief. They checked daily on the people in the tents. Many had lost their loved ones. They were depressed, simply sitting in the tents in a trance all day long. The farmers said, “Sometimes we do not know what else we can say, so we just sit with them for a moment, quietly, in the tents of grief.”
Ten peasant farmers who became humble saviors to the earthquake victims.
There are times in all of our lives when we sit in our own blue tent in a sea of grief, times when we need a savior, someone to travel from a great distance – maybe even from the portals of glory to earth – to sit beside us, to save us. The humble Bethlehem baby was just such a savior for our souls.
Jesus is first and foremost a Savior.
As astounding and thought-provoking as Jesus’ words were, Christianity is not a new teaching – neither a new set of rules by which to live, nor a collection of new insights of wisdom. Don’t misunderstand. The Sermon on the Mount contains the most challenging code of conduct ever proposed. “You have heard it said that you shall not murder; but I say to you do not even be angry.” But we’re not here at Easter primarily because of the uniqueness of Christ’s teaching.
Christianity is not even first and foremost about trying to walk as He walked, to follow His moral example. Jesus didn’t simply come to show us how a man could live and should live so that we would try to emulate His words and His walk. What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) is a great question, but it’s not the primary question of Christianity.
Let’s face it, watching David Lowe play the organ doesn’t encourage me to run out and buy a Hammond Organ and pretend that I can produce the sounds he can produce. I can’t. And never will. Or if you watch Tiger Woods hit a golf ball, that can only be frustrating to those of you who play the game three times a week and never see the ball fly as straight and strong as when Tiger is behind the club.
There has got to be more to Easter than a new teaching or a new role model. So, what’s it all about? Why are we here? Why is Easter so important?
Here it is. Don’t miss it. Christianity is the belief that God acted in human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
That’s it. Christianity is about something that happened. Something that happened to Jesus of Nazareth and something that happened through Jesus of Nazareth. The climax of human history occurred in the one person called Jesus, a Jewish rabbi from Galilee. This son of a poor stone mason or carpenter. God fulfilled prophecy in this man called Jesus, a man whose own birth was miraculous and mysterious. (N. T. Wright, Simply Christian, p. 91)
With the virgin birth, perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus, God has begun His rescue operation once and for all. The great door has swung open into the kingdom of heaven and it can never again be shut. For Jesus has paid the price by being obedient, even to the point of death.
Let’s talk about these two things. First of all, let’s talk about what happened to Jesus, and then we’ll talk about what happened through Jesus.
I. To Jesus
He was crucified. He died a criminal’s death on a cross between two thieves. He was mocked and scourged. Bludgeoned and browbeaten.
Jesus arrived as this rabbi, this teacher, from Nazareth who didn’t have the credentials of the Christ. Yet He spoke about the kingdom of God as if it were His old hometown. In fact, He clearly indicated that because He had arrived, the kingdom of God had arrived with Him.
Somehow He embodied the rule and the reign of God. The long-awaited Great Day of the Lord had begun because He was here. To summarize His sermon in a sentence, He declared, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is here.”
Claiming he had the power to usher in the kingdom of God, the power to forgive sins, and the power to raise the dead, He was perceived as a threat. There wasn’t any room in the political system of Rome for another king of a different kingdom, nor was there room in the religious system of Judaism for a teacher who was declaring He represented the presence of God even more than the temple, which he declared was soon to tumble.
No room for a prophet who wanted to carry the Good News not only to the Jew, but to the Gentile as well.
No room for a teacher who taught a new kind of righteousness that went beyond the letter of the law of Moses to the spirit of the law.
No room for a Messiah who fulfilled prophecy in a way that they had never imagined. A Messiah who suffered and died a criminal’s death.
So all the powers of Jerusalem and all the powers of Rome combined in a way they would never combine before or after. They had a common goal: To stop Jesus. And they did. Or at least, so they supposed.
I’ve thought about the way they mocked Him: the greatest irony ever. Here is the king of the cosmos, the creator of heaven and earth, with a crown of thorns pressed on His brow to belittle Him, as if He is a would-be, could-be king. They placed a purple robe on His back, as if to mock Him in royal regalia. Placing a silly scepter in His hand, they use it to bludgeon His body. They did not realize the joke was not on Him. It was turned on its head, and they, themselves, are actually trying to humiliate the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
The irony of it all hit one Centurion like a load of lumber. See him standing at the foot of the cross. The sky is black as creation itself protests His death. He declares, “Surely this was the Son of God.” “The mockery is on us,” he is declaring.
Beat a man half to death, force him to carry his own cross, nail him to the tree, split his side asunder with a spear, mock him while he dies, and gamble over his clothes after he is dead and you ought to be able to be certain you have put an end to his foolish teaching and dispersed His devotees.
But there were signs – surely they saw the signs – that something was awfully wrong in His crucifixion. Why even the sky turned black at midday. The boulders burst asunder. The graves were ripped open. And the earth shook. It seemed that it would have been clear enough that the cosmos itself was in conflict with the crucifixion of its Creator.
After His death, after the spear has been thrust into His side, they took the body of Jesus away and hurriedly, because of the approaching Sabbath, anointed His body with a mixture of myrrh and aloes and placed it in a borrowed tomb.
But that’s not all that happened to Jesus. He also, by the life-giving, creating power of God, was resurrected. The stone was rolled away – not so much to let Him out as to let men in so they could see the empty tomb. He appeared to the disciples in the flesh, albeit a scarred flesh, to testify He was the historical Jesus who was now their living Lord.
Now that we know what happened to Jesus, what happened through Jesus?
II. Through Jesus
Why is it so important that Jesus Christ was crucified? Why has this horrific act of humanity become the pinnacle of all salvation history? Why is it that when this Jewish teacher hangs on the tree, everything in the cosmos realigns?
That’s the whole message of Easter. God was at work in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, especially through His death and resurrection.
This is what happens through Jesus. Easter is God’s rescue operation, put into place once and for all. The great door has swung open into the kingdom of God and can never, ever be shut again. We now have access to God, a way to our Creator.
You know, if the story had ended after the crucifixion, there would be no reason to take Jesus seriously. He’d be one more would-be, could-be Messiah who died the death of an insurrectionist.
But something was different with this one. Something was strange. Even after His death, His followers began to talk about Him as if He were alive, as if He were alive again.
Jesus, they remembered, had said these things. He had warned them. He’d told them that God Himself was on the move once more, and God was going to rescue His people and put the world to rights. He spoke plainly.
In Mark 8:31, He told them the Son of Man must suffer many things and be killed; and on the third day rise again. They didn’t understand His language then, but they understood it now – now that they had seen the resurrected Christ.
The Messiah was supposed to be a military victor. One who was going to put down Israel’s enemies, especially Rome. One who was going to rebuild, at least cleanse, the Temple. One who was going to put a Davidic king back on the throne.
None of that happened with Jesus. None of it. He didn’t speak about rebuilding the Temple. In fact, He taught that the Temple was going to fall apart – no stones left standing. And even when He acted in powerful ways and people wanted to hail Him as king, He slipped away and escaped their coronation (John 6:15).
No one had supposed that the Messiah would have to suffer, let alone die, despite the fact He warned them time and time again. In fact, they had the opposite expectations. The Messiah was to lead a triumphant fight against Israel’s enemies, not die at their hands.
We believe that on that third day after He was executed, on Sunday – on the first day of the week, a day like today –Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead, not just His Spirit, not only His soul – but the tomb was empty. And that’s why we can say with full confidence that the death of Jesus was not a messy, tragic, political accident. Rather, it was the victory of God over all forces of evil once and for all.
The story catches us all by surprise. There is nothing in any pagan literature about a god doing anything like that. About a god being victorious through suffering. There is nothing in Judaism that had really prepared the followers of Jesus for His resurrection. Oh, there was a puzzling prophecy here and there, but nothing had made them think this is the story line of God. But it was. It was. God was victorious through death.
The best explanation by far for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus really did reappear. Not as a battered, bleeding Savior. Not as a ghost. But as a living, bodily human being. As a rescuer of the people of God.
Something happened in and through Jesus. As a result, the world is a different place. A place where heaven and earth have been joined forever, and God’s future has arrived now.
Now, instead of mere echoes, we hear the voice of God Himself, a voice which speaks of rescue from evil, sin, and death. And hence, now, a new creation.
Yes, that’s it. That’s what happened through Jesus. We’re rescued.
You remember what the angel said to Joseph ? “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Or Jesus Himself said, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
The Bible says “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15).
Or again scripture tells us, “We have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).
We’re rescued. We are reconciled to God. We are born again. Born anew. Paul reflected on it in Colossians when he wrote, “For Jesus delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…. And through Him [God] reconciles all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet Jesus has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Colossians 1:13-14, 20-22).
What happens through Jesus?
We are reconciled to God.
What happens through Jesus?
We are forgiven our sins if we confess Him as Lord and make His death our death.
What happens through Jesus?
His bodily resurrection becomes our bodily resurrection, and we do not have to be held in bondage to death anymore, for death itself cannot keep us down because we’re the people of God.
What happens through Jesus?
Everything has changed. And now, though evil and suffering bring their best, we can always be the people of the resurrection, the people of hope.