We talk about the covid-19 pandemic as a once in a lifetime event, and that is true – at least until the next pandemic. But history has a wider point of view than a mere one hundred years. When viewed from a broader historical point of view, looking at just the past two thousand years, covid-19 is only the latest in a long line of pandemics, not abnormal at all. And when we move to a geological point of view, our existence on this planet is just a dot in time, and pandemics are not significant at all.
Genesis 1 tells us (Genesis 1:1–2)
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
Our solar system is 4.5 billion years old and modern humans have only been on the planet for 200,000 years. But long before humans emerged, the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
God watched over our planet as it was being formed, as it began to be habitable, as the creatures of the sea and the creatures of the land emerged. God watched over our planet as humans began to be aware of his presence. God watched over our planet as humans moved from living in caves to creating structures to live in. God watched over our planet as language developed, as communities emerged, as art and music were created.
And all the time the Spirit of God was hovering.
But we do not view life from a geological or even a historical point of view. We view life from a very narrow perspective: has this ever happened to me before?
All this is to say that while we are preoccupied with this once in a lifetime pandemic, this is not new to God. We are scrambling to find a vaccine, to find out how this virus spreads, how to prevent its spread. God is not scrambling. God is not trying to discover something new. God is at work, as God has been at work, from the beginning of time.
And, in fact, I believe this latest pandemic is a rich harvest time for the kingdom of God. We have carried the illusion that we are in control of our lives, that we will live forever, and now we are very aware how impermanent our lives are, how fragile our lives are. This turns our thoughts to God and the meaning of life. This is a rich time for the kingdom of God.
This is a strange introduction to an Easter sermon, but I think it is important to know that God is in control. God is not surprised by what is happening. In the words of the old hymn,
God is working his purpose out,
as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.
This Easter morning I want you to know that you are part of God’s plan. God has a plan for you. God is at work in your life to draw you into a deeper, more intimate relationship with himself. God is working his purpose out and because of that, there is hope for every person on the face of the earth. Hope abounds because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This morning I will share five stories of people who discovered that there is hope because of the resurrection of Jesus.
There is hope in the presence of death – the story of the thief on the cross.
There is hope in the midst of grief – the story of Mary in the garden.
There is hope in the fellowship of the saints – the story of Cleopas and his companion.
There is hope for those who doubt – the story of Thomas.
There is hope for those who are full of shame – the story of Peter.
First, the story of the thief on the cross. There is hope in the presence of death. (Luke 23:39–43)
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Who was this man on the cross next to Jesus? The Bible tells us nothing about him except that he was a robber. We know he was not a Roman citizen. Roman citizens were not crucified, they were beheaded. We see this in the execution of Paul and Peter during the persecution of Nero. Peter, not a Roman citizen, was crucified. Paul, a Roman citizen, was beheaded.
Crucifixion was used to send a message. It was a humiliating and torturous way to die and the bodies were left on the cross for a long time to make sure the message was sent.
An ordinary thief would not be crucified. In fact the Greek word used in Luke means lawbreaker. Perhaps he had stolen things. Perhaps he had murdered. Perhaps he had acted against a Roman citizen. Whatever this man had done was viewed by the Romans as bad enough that he had to be made an example of.
These men were hardened by life. They went to the cross knowing they were going to die and were determined not to let crucifixion win. So when they saw Jesus and the attention given to him, they responded with insults. They were not attracted to the goodness of Jesus. They had given up on goodness a long time ago.
But then, as they were slowly dying, suffering great pain, one of the thieves saw something in Jesus that snuck into his heart. Jesus did not swear. He did not curse. The thief knew better than anyone else the pain Jesus was experiencing and yet he showed compassion for his mother. He prayed that his Father in heaven would forgive those who were crucifying him. While the other thief continued to mock, the second thief heard the words of Jesus, saw the actions of Jesus, saw who Jesus was and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And [Jesus] said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
This thief was the last disciple Jesus drew to himself in his earthly life.
There is hope for those who have been so hardened by the events of their life that they can no longer feel their heart. There is hope for those who have lived a life rebelling against God. Even in the presence of death, there is hope of salvation, hope of forgiveness, hope of having a heart that is filled with the love and peace of God.
Second, there is hope in the midst of grief. Mary was the first eyewitness to the resurrection of Jesus.
John 20:1–18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Who is Mary Magdalene? We first read about her in Luke’s gospel when he writes that Jesus was accompanied through cities and villages by his twelve disciples: (Luke 8:2–3 )
and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Mary had been healed by Jesus and became his follower. We know that she came from a family with money because she, along with the other women mentioned, provided for the expenses of Jesus and his disciples as they traveled around Palestine. She followed him to Jerusalem to care for his needs and even when all the disciples fled, she followed him to the cross and was there when he died. She watched to see where he was buried and on the day of resurrection, she was among the first who went to the tomb to bring spices for Jesus’ body.
She was a devoted follower of Jesus. When Jesus healed her from the evil spirits, she had given him her heart and she was willing to sacrifice everything for him. I suspect that if it had been possible, she would have taken his place on the cross.
As she watched Jesus on the cross, suffering his terrible agony, her heart broke. She stayed home during the Sabbath when walking and working was not permitted. But then at the first possible moment she went to the tomb with spices to anoint his body. She was in mourning and paying her respect. If Jesus had not resurrected, she probably would have gone to the tomb every day or every week to the end of her life to continue to honor him.
When she came to the tomb, before sunrise when it was still dark, she discovered that the tomb stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She wasn’t thinking Jesus had been resurrected, she was thinking that even in death he was being dishonored. Someone had taken his body, not even allowing him to rest in peace.
She went to tell Peter and John and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. After they left,
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb, (John 20:12–16)
and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
Before the angels could tell her, “Look behind you,” she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
Try to put yourselves in Mary’s place. The man who saved you, delivered you from the hell of seven demons, has died. The man you were willing to follow anywhere suffered the injustice of a cruel and torturous death. What was she feeling? Grief, maybe anger, fear and bewilderment, lost and abandoned.
With all the astonishing things taking place that morning and with all the intense emotions being experienced by the followers of Jesus, Mary does not seem to be too mystified at the appearance of angels. What normally caused people to tremble in fear and fall to their knees, seemed to be taken by Mary as just one more extraordinary event on an extraordinary day. It is as if she was in an daze, with too many powerful emotions to process things clearly.
Mary was the first person in history to discover that death is no longer the ultimate enemy. Mary was the first to discover that death is not the end. Mary was the first person to experience hope in the midst of grief. Mary was the first person to discover that there is hope, even in death.
Third, there is hope in the fellowship of the saints. Cleopas and his companion, breaking bread.
Luke tells the story of Cleopas and his companion, perhaps his wife, who left Jerusalem on the day Jesus rose from the dead. As they walked on the path toward their home town, Jesus came up and walked along with them. They talked about all the events of the day, how some of the women had seen the empty tomb and angels who said that Jesus was alive.
Jesus began to teach them from the prophets about how it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and then enter his glory. (Luke 24:13–35)
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
They raced back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what had happened and
how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
Little is known about Cleopas, but the fact that only one of the two travelers is named indicates that he was a source for Luke in writing this gospel. Neither of these two were in the inner circle of Jesus, but their familiarity with the twelve indicates they were among the larger number of followers of Jesus.
On Easter morning, the day of resurrection, they were walking out of Jerusalem. They had heard the reports that Jesus’s body was not in the tomb and that angels had said he had risen from the dead. They knew that the disciples had gone to the tomb and seen for themselves that the tomb was empty, but they had not seen Jesus.
So with all this news, why were they walking away from Jerusalem? Why not stay where the news was happening and see what unfolds? When there is big news, it is difficult to drag me away from the television and live reports. Why did they walk away from the news? Maybe they had pressing business. Maybe they came to Jerusalem for the Passover feast but now had to go back home to their responsibilities. For what ever reason, they were walking away from Jerusalem, on the third day after Jesus had been crucified and the day they had heard these early morning reports.
As they walked, Jesus came up to them and joined them. As with Mary, he was not recognized. They talked. They shared with him the reports of what had happened, surprised he did not know about it. And then Jesus began his first class: Post-resurrection 101
And he said to them, (Luke 24:25–31)
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they came to the village where Cleopas and his companion were headed, they urged Jesus to stay with them and share a meal.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.
Mary recognized Jesus when he called her by name. Cleopas and his companion recognized Jesus when they shared a meal with him.
This was not a communion meal. This was not the first Lord’s Supper of the church. There was no wine. This was a simple meal and it was in this meal that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus.
Sitting down and sharing a meal together is a spiritual act. Think about meals in the Bible. When Abraham received his visitors from heaven, they shared a meal together. When God told Israel to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, he told them to remember this at a meal, the Seder, which we unfortunately were not able to share this year. When God gave instructions to Israel about their tithe, 10% was to be used each year to come to Jerusalem and celebrate with food and drink at the three annual festivals. Meals together were a central part of their worship.
It may not be surprising given that Jesus lived in a culture that valued hospitality, but there are ten meals Jesus shared with others recorded in the gospels. And when Jesus resurrected, he ate in their presence to prove he was not a ghost. In John’s gospel it is recorded that he cooked breakfast for them.
It is not simply the food that is important. Eating as you drive in the car is not particularly spiritual, nor safe. A family going into the kitchen and grabbing something to eat and then each person going back to their computer or TV to eat is not particularly spiritual. And if the family or friends are sitting around the table, each one talking into their phone or listening to their own music, that is not particularly helpful or spiritual.
It is the community aspect of a meal that is important. When we gather, the food is brought out to the table and everyone sits down and shares together. Conversations flow, sometimes everyone listens to one person, other times there are three or four or more conversations going on at the same time. There is news and thoughts and laughter being shared.
It is the fellowship around a meal that is powerful and draws us to Jesus. This is why it is important to say grace before we eat. We remember, with gratitude, that all we have, all we share, comes from God and we give him thanks. This places us with God at the table as we share together. Jesus makes himself known to us when we share together around the table.
We had an online Good Friday service and there were 26 zoom boxes with fifty or more people. At the end of the service we talked with each other, greeted each other, asked how each other are doing. In addition to people from around Morocco, there were people from England, Canada, the US, France, and Portugal. There were people who moved away from Rabat years ago and it was like a family reunion. It was a bit like I imagine heaven will be. It was a joyous time.
I commented that if it were not for what Jesus did on the cross, none of us would know each other. Jesus died for our sins, but why did he die for us? He died for us because he loves us. What was his purpose in dying for us? He died to bring us into his family. On Friday night as we chatted with each other, we experienced the joy of fellowship as part of the family of Jesus. Our joy was great because Jesus was present with us. There is hope in the fellowship of the saints.
Fourth, there is hope for those who doubt. Thomas
We all know the story of Thomas who was absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection. When he returned they told him they had seen Jesus but he said to them,
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
It is only in the gospel of John that we get much detail about Thomas. In John 11 Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick and told his disciples they were going to see him. The disciples resisted. (John 11:8)
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
It was Thomas alone who opposed the other disciples and said, (John 11:16)
“Let us also go; that we may die with him.”
In the upper room when Jesus talked with his disciples it was Thomas who asked the question: (John 14:5)
“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”
Thomas was not timid. Thomas was not afraid. But Thomas also was not going to go along with what everyone else said unless he was convinced it was true.
There is a psychological experiment in which ten people are asked which of two lines on a blackboard is the longest. One line is clearly longer than the other. The first nine people who answer are part of the experiment and they all say the shorter line is the longest. The tenth person is the one being tested and 85% of those tested said the line that was clearly shortest was the longest.
Thomas was one of those 15% who refuse to go along with everyone else.
For some reason he was not in the upper room when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the other disciples. When he came back they were all excited and talking over each other, telling him they had seen Jesus and that he was alive.
But Thomas knew Jesus had died and was laid in a tomb. His hope had died along with the hope of the rest of the disciples. Now, when they told him they had seen Jesus, Thomas could not make sense of this. How could this be? Had the other disciples deluded themselves into thinking they had seen something that was not there?
So Thomas said, (John 20:25)
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Thomas puzzled over this for a week and then Jesus appeared again, even though the doors were locked. Jesus stood among them and said, Peace be with you!” and then he said to Thomas, (John 20:27)
“Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
I take great encouragement from this. Jesus is patient with those who doubt. When Peter stepped out on the water to walk with Jesus, lost faith, and began to drown, Jesus lifted him up and said, with compassion, “Why did you doubt?”
This is good news for us this morning. There are probably some listening who have not believed, who along with Thomas and the other disciples, doubted. The good news for you is that Jesus will walk with you all the way to belief. Jesus will do everything in his power, other than forcing you against your will, to help you believe and receive his gift of salvation. He is not angry that you do not believe. He is patient, helping you along the way to belief.
This is good news for those of us who are Christians who have family members and friends who are not willing to receive Jesus’ gift of salvation. Jesus will walk with them all the way to belief.
That is certainly my story. I had a number of encounters with God in my life before I submitted to him and received his free gift. As a fourteen year old, I remember going to a chapel that was open at night and praying for help. I was on a church trip to Florida and having a difficult time with some of my peers. I prayed for help and the rest of the trip was much better.
But then I forgot all about that. I went my own way. I ridiculed my oldest sister who came home from university having become a Christian, even though I thought a lot about what she said.
In university, God brought people to me who talked about having a relationship with God through Jesus. A number of people spoke to me and encouraged me. I began to know that God was watching me but I had not yet submitted to him.
I went in March 1971 to Chicago to visit my oldest sister and her husband. I spent the week asking Bruce questions about the Bible. How could this be true? What about all the contradictions in the Bible?
Then on Sunday we went to a church and people stood up to tell their stories of how they became followers of God. A young, blond, construction worker spoke about how he had found Jesus. He was very embarrassed at speaking in front of a large group. He didn’t speak very eloquently. But as he spoke I said to God, “OK, I’ll give my life to you, but not here in front of all these people.” And on the plane back to Boston I began my life journey with Jesus.
There is hope for those who doubt.
Fifth, there is hope for those who are full of shame. This is the story of Peter who denied knowing Jesus.
Peter was the strong leader of the disciples. He was bold. He was the one who stepped out on the water to walk with Jesus, and don’t forget, for a time he was walking on water. None of the other disciples dared to do that. Peter was the one who was unafraid to speak up to Jesus. And when Jesus said he was going to die, Peter boldly proclaimed, (Luke 22:33)
“Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
When the temple guard came to arrest Jesus, Peter pulled out his sword to defend Jesus.
And then, just as Jesus had said in the upper room, when Peter was accused of being a disciple of Jesus he denied knowing him. He denied knowing Jesus a second time. And then Peter was accused a third time of being a disciple of Jesus. (Luke 22:60–62 )
Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Peter was shamed, humiliated, defeated.
Peter denied knowing Jesus three times but was given a second chance when Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love me?” When Peter said, “Yes, I love you,” Jesus told him, “Feed my sheep.” Peter’s denials shamed him but Jesus gave him a second chance and restored his honor.
Jesus comes to us in our shame and takes us by the hand and lifts us up.
God does not give up on us. No matter how badly we fail, no matter how much we give in to temptation, Jesus pursues us and will lift us up from the mess of our lives. This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus. God does not hold grudges. God does not hold our disobedience against us. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:19 (The Message)
God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.
Judas, who betrayed Jesus with a kiss also was shamed, humiliated, defeated. When he saw that Jesus was condemned to be crucified, (Matthew 27:3–5)
he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”
Both Peter and Judas betrayed Jesus. Both Judas and Peter were shamed by their actions. The difference is that Judas could not face the shame and took his life. Peter took his shame and went to Jesus. He came as the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable came to his father. Peter surrendered to Jesus and Jesus restored his honor.
Peter received a second chance Judas did not allow himself to have. Peter faced up to what he did. Judas tried to hide from what he had done.
If we allow our shame and embarrassment, our pride, to become more important than Jesus, we go the way of Judas. Peter is our example, our patron saint of second chances.
There is hope for those who are full of shame.
On one of my early morning walks, I began to think what I would do if I became afflicted with covid-19 and died. I began to compose the letters I would write, the people I would talk with, the songs I would want played at my funeral.
One of the things I would want to say to people I love is to not allow anything to prevent you from holding on to Jesus. There are people who are sceptics. I understand that. There is the sceptic in me and that prevented me from submitting to God, once I knew he existed, for several months.
There are people who have been hurt by the church, hurt by people in the church. I understand that. Followers of Jesus do not always represent the church well. There are followers of Jesus who do not live the life they profess to believe. There are followers of Jesus who warp the truth of Jesus to fit a theological dogma. Jesus is not always well communicated.
There are people who have been condemned by the church for their lifestyle choices. I am not saying that we are free to live any way we choose to, but I am saying that even when we choose poorly, Jesus pursues us, desires us, wants us to be in his kingdom. A heart for Jesus overcomes our misunderstanding about how to live.
There are those who are consumed with guilt for the things they have done and do not believe they can be forgiven. Their shame is too great. But they do not realize how powerful the love of Jesus is. The love of Jesus smothers guilt, smothers shame and invites those who repent to come into his kingdom.
There are those who are ashamed for having failed Jesus. They professed faith with their lips but then gave it up when it became too difficult. As I said, Peter is our patron saint of second chances.
There is hope for everyone. There is no person who is without hope. The love of God is so powerful. God’s love will pursue us. God’s love will not give up on us. Because of this, we all have hope.
We celebrate Easter because this is when hope rose up in the world. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus we can celebrate with Paul. (Romans 8:38–39)
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Whatever your circumstance, whatever your state of mind, I pray that you will allow hope to rise up in you on this Easter Sunday.