Easter Sunday 2004
HOW CHRIST COMES TO US
11th April 2004
Joseph and Winifred Smith were Christian missionaries from the denomination in which I grew up, who were forced to live in different part of a Japanese concentration camp for prisoners during World War 2. They had served in China with faithfulness, only to find their dreams and hopes shattered in the ruins of their mission station, blasted by the advancing Japanese army.
They were imprisoned in 1938 and stayed there for seven years. Most of the people who had first been interned with them died from the primitive and harsh conditions. Thin, gaunt, malnourished, they faced uncertainty and brutality every hour, without the comfort of being together or without knowing what had happened to their children.
Yet one Easter a miracle happened. Joseph had requested permission to hold a brief Easter service behind the barbed-wire entanglements, and to his surprise, he was given permission. On that morning, the thin, gaunt and diseased prisoners of war were allowed to meet together, husbands and wives, for the brief early morning service. There they sang:
“Up from the grave He arose,
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes,
He arose a victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever with His saints to reign;
He arose, He arose, Hallelujah! Christ arose!”
Then a miracle occurred within them. The despairing, fearful and doubting prisoners felt the presence of the Risen Christ. Hope was renewed. Faith was confirmed.
Courage returned. Strength was generated in weak bodies, and as they were again separated and herded back into the separate compounds, they went singing, with head held high, and with a new vitality. Something had happened that had changed everything, and gave them new resources that held their spirits high until release came. It was the fact that the resurrected Christ came to them and stayed with them, bringing new courage and resolve until freedom came. Their lives would never be the same, and although I was not to hear their story until years later, I could see that the resurrection of Jesus was a contemporary fact to them.
John’s Gospel records how Jesus came to a number of people on the day of the resurrection: first to Mary as she stood sadly in tears in the garden, then to the other women at the tomb, then to ten of the disciples who met in fear behind locked doors, then to the same ten again plus doubting Thomas. The risen Jesus had come to them in despair, in fear and in doubt. It appeared that nothing could keep Him down. He came to them where they were, when they needed Him and despite their own attitudes of despair, fear and doubt. So many people in Australia today live in despair, amid tears and their mental depression. They need to know the Risen Christ. So many people today live in fear, behind locked doors with their minds secured against every opportunity that might leave them vulnerable. They need to know the Risen Christ. So many people today live in doubt, refusing to have any invisible means of support and trying to live on their own understanding. They need to know the Risen Christ. Despair, fear and doubt sap the life forces from people. They need to know the Risen Christ!
He alone is the answer to despair, fear and doubt. What a change came over those first Christians when they realised the fact of the resurrection. Instead of a despairing, fearful, doubting remnant of a scattered band, there was a united group of people with hope, courage and faith. Nothing could quieten them. Nothing could quell them. They were a marching, militant band that were out to change the world by turning it upside down! They were holy revolutionaries, and the world has never been the same since they marched into the streets with the message that Jesus had risen from the dead. What had changed them was:
1. THE RESURRECTION FACT.
“On the third day, he rose again from the dead.” That was the fact that changed them and believers ever since. With His new life came new life into the church. A new power was released into the world. A force for good that would triumph over evil was abroad in the world where nothing could stop it. Mary Magdalene saw him, then His mother and the women at the tomb, then Peter, then the two on the Emmaus Road, then the ten disciples, then the ten plus Thomas, then eleven by the lakeside, then over 500 people, then James, then the eleven disciples again, then the group on the Mount of the Ascension, then Stephen as he lay broken at the foot of the walls of Jerusalem, then Paul as he led a band of persecuting soldiers up the Damascus Road, then John as he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos and ever since people have been aware of the Risen Christ as a fact. Despair changed into hope; fear turned into courage; and doubt was converted into faith. The timid became confident. The persecutor became a preacher. The insipid became inspired!
A simple fact of history had brought the church into being, and swept it across the world with driving power. No one could ever believe that the Christian church, so indestructible in its nature, so unlimited in its possibilities, so indispensable in its value to the souls of men could ever have sprung from anything that was not absolutely genuine and real. Jesus Christ was indestructible and His vitality, power and love flowed into the lives of those who believed in Him and followed His way of sacrifice and service. The resurrection fact made the difference.
2. THE RESURRECTION REUNION.
Over the next fifty days, following the first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to those who would become the basis of the Church. He came to them at different times, in different places, and while they were experiencing different emotions.
Jesus came to despairing love. Mary was in tears, her heart broken by the suffering on the Cross and her hopes shattered in despair. She had nothing in her life except a forgiven past and tender love. But to her despairing love the Master spoke only one word: “Mary”. That softly spoken name carried in it a message of assurance and hope that transformer her.
Jesus came to cringing fear. Peter, James and John knew how careful they had to be. They were marked men. They had been recognised. They would be next. So they locked the doors in fear and in a darkened room discussed what to do next. They cringed from the world that had been so brutally final with their Master.
They feared for their lives when through the doors came the immediately recognisable figure of Jesus — the same Jesus, yet different! All they knew was that their cringing fear had gone forever!
Jesus came to anxious doubt. Only ten disciples had actually seen Jesus that time. Thomas was away and when he returned they excitedly told of the appearance of Jesus. Thomas could not explain the difference in them, but one thing was for sure: he wouldn’t believe unless he saw it for himself. And in the middle of his expressing such anxious doubts Jesus came to him. Now Thomas sank to his knees in trusting faith. Never again would he doubt. Now he knew!
Jesus came to believing faith. The group of believers by the lake, and the five hundred on the hillside were all believers, and Jesus came to them. So also the lone missionary stepping foot on a strange island for the first time knew that Christ had stepped there before him. So Jesus comes today regardless of how we feel.
3. THE RESURRECTION MEANING.
The impact of the resurrection has been so great on the history of the world that we must ask its meaning. What does the resurrection mean, both to early Christians and to us today?
The resurrection is the response of God. So often in the accounts it says that Jesus was “raised from the dead’. The passive tense is used to indicate that the resurrection of Jesus was nothing less than the greatest act of God. Here was God’s irrefutable response to the wickedness of men. The resurrection was God response.
The resurrection is the confirmation of goodness. Jesus had staked everything upon truth, right and love. His goodness had been nailed to the cross by the wickedness of men. But the resurrection was the confirmation that ultimately in this world, the nature of things lies with the good. So often we see the immediate triumph of evil, but the fact is that in the long run God confirms goodness.
The resurrection is the assurance of immortality. Jesus had promised: “After I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to myself so you will be where I am.’ John 14:3 The disciples needed to know if that promise was true, because if it were, then it did not matter where they would go in Christ’s name or what they would do, they would always, inevitably, be in the presence of God. If they knew that for sure, everything else would fall into place. They needed the assurance of immortality.
The resurrection is the promise of Christ’s presence. Jesus again had promised to be with them: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20 That thought would sustain them through all the years that lay ahead, and no matter that they would each die a death similar to crucifixion, they would die serene because they knew the presence of Jesus with them. Martyrs and missionaries, ordinary believers and extraordinary leaders have been sustained ever since with the promise of Christ’s presence.
That is what the resurrection of Jesus meant to those who believed.
Ever since, where Christians have encountered Christ, they have found that in the resurrection God has responded, goodness has been confirmed, immortality has been assured, and Christ’s presence has been promised.
One minister I know wrote: “For years Easter meant little until that time when preparing an Easter message I was struck by the truth: He is risen! I stood up in my study and said aloud: “Christ is Risen. He is alive! Alive!” And I walked around repeating it over and over again. “He is alive” and then the real truth dawned upon me and my ministry has been different ever since.”
That is what this day means and why it brings joy to thousands of millions of people around the world. Jesus is alive and with us. God is in control. Evil has been conquered. The stranglehold of death has been broken. Life has triumphed!
Far too many people have their lives ruined by despair, fear and doubt. But the resurrection of Jesus can so influence your life that despair will turn to hope, fear will turn to courage and doubt will turn to faith.
This is not rumour, no vain hope, no flimsy theory. Here is fact. Irrefutable. Demonstrable. Experiential! You cannot argue against an encounter you can experience. Try it. Seek the risen Lord to enter your life. Invite Him into your life, and discover the difference it makes to you.