Thursday, April 27, 2017

“We are Witnesses to these Things” Acts 5.29-42, April ’17 series A

1.                   Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Christ is risen, He is risen, indeed, Alleluia!  The message from God’s Word this 2nd Sunday of Easter is taken from the book of Acts 5:29-42, and is entitled, “We are Witnesses to These Things,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2.                   In St. Luke’s account of the Book of Acts we learn that the apostles had been warned by the Jewish authorities not to speak in Jesus’ name.  And yet they kept on preaching.  But, the response of the Apostles we find here in our text in Acts 5 is, “We must obey God rather than men…”
3.                   It’s important for us to remember that we can sometimes do the right thing, be guilty before the law, and innocent before God.  Martin Luther King Jr, whatever his flaws, was willing to take a stand against the evil of racial prejudice and oppression.  He broke man’s laws, went to prison, and he was innocent before God.  Many who have chosen to take a stand against the evil of abortion do, in the process, break man’s laws.  And they too in doing so are innocent before God.
4.                   Apparently here in our text from Acts chapter 5 the Apostles wanted to do the right thing in the eyes of God over and against the law not to preach and teach about Jesus that the Jewish authorities had given to them.  Something had greatly changed in them since our Lord Jesus Christ conquered sin, death and the devil when he rose from the dead.  The Holy Spirit had opened the hearts and minds of the apostles to all that our Lord Jesus was sent to accomplish for our salvation.  And here in Acts 5 we see that the Apostles couldn’t help but keep teaching and preaching about all that Jesus had done.  The Apostle Peter’s words here before the Sanhedrin acknowledge that Jesus’ death had been a shameful one.  In his speech he alludes to Deut. 21:23 which says, “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”  The Apostle Paul reminds us in Gal. 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” 
5.                   But what did God do with this Redeemer whom Israel had killed?  Peter says that the God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead and that He exalted Him to His own right hand as Prince and Savior.  Why has God done this?  That He might give repentance and the forgiveness of sins to Israel.  Peter was preaching the same message he had preached on Pentecost and since—the message he and the others had been proclaiming in the temple courts a short while before.  You killed this Jesus, but God raised him from the dead.  Repent of your sins!  Receive God’s forgiveness, which is for all people, including you.
6.                   The flood of Christian disciples after the crucifixion of Jesus is a mystery. That the number of followers continued to grow despite intense opposition and brutal persecution, despite the absence of their leader, is baffling. Or, in the words of Cambridge professor C.F.D. Moule, it is a mystery that "rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the Resurrection." New Testament writers take us to the beginning glimpses of that great hole, the impact of the first Easter Sunday.
7.                   In the book of Acts, Luke describes a scene where the mystery of Christianity was called into the courts of the Sanhedrin. At this point in time, the high priest was filled with rage. Jesus was no longer among them, but the disciples continued to fill Jerusalem with his teaching. He had strictly charged the apostles not to teach in the name of Jesus, and yet they continued preaching to crowds and healing the sick. Multitudes were professing belief in Christ. So the high priest had the disciples all arrested. Setting them before the council, he questioned them harshly. The disciple named Peter answered exactly as he preached: "We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus… exalting him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit… "
8.                   At his words, the council was enraged, and some of them wanted the disciples put to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up to speak.  He first instructed that the apostles be led out of the room. And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men" (5:35).
9.                   Gamaliel's words introduce a logic often overlooked; he reminded them that this had happened before. He reminded the Jewish Council to look at history. "Before these days Theudas rose up," he countered, "claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men even joined him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing." And after Theudas, Gamaliel warned, there were similar stories. "So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" (5:38,39).
10.               Though the growth of the Church alone isn’t enough to conclude the truth of Christ's resurrection, it’s evidence that would be irresponsible to ignore. The apostles were aware that the message of the Cross is foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others. Yet they made choices to continue preaching despite the orders of the high priest and the often-severe persecution they faced. They changed social and religious practices that had been followed for centuries. They refused to give in; they would not be overthrown.
11.               The rapid rise of Christian followers after the offensive death of their leader fails to make sense outside of the explanation the church itself offers: they were witnesses of these altogether unfathomable events. The message the disciples preached throughout the nations was true: Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. Christ was raised and death was stopped for you and me. The apostles were witnesses of God's power, and went to their deaths proclaiming it. They chose to obey God rather than man, and found Him building a Church that would reach far beyond them. The events of the first Easter left a mysterious hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the Resurrection.  And these events of our Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection the apostles preached about became the foundation of their Christian faith and our faith as well.  It is a life of faith that we too have been made witnesses of.  It’s a life that we hear about—and live—during this Easter season.  Amen.

“From Tragedy to Triumph”—John 20.1-18 Easter, ‘11, A, April ‘17

1.                               Grace, mercy and peace to you from our crucified and risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.  The message from God’s Word this glorious day of our Lord and Savior Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is taken from John 20:1-18 and is entitled, “From Tragedy to Triumph,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ. 
2.                               Reporters interviewed Senator John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut, following the explosion of the booster rocket and space shuttle in 1986. He said, “Life is a series of triumphs and tragedies!” I agree. We have known our share of grief and sorrow. This Easter morning we ask, “Can triumph follow the tragedies of life?”
3.                               If we asked the Lord’s disciples that first Easter morning, “Can triumph follow tragedy?” the answer would have been a definite no! They were overwhelmed with a sense of tragedy. Their Master had been crucified and buried in a tomb. None were prepared to speak about hope and triumph. Neither they nor we may escape the tragedies and sorrows common to life after the fall into sin. These burdens are extra heavy when we doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.
4.                               It was early and dark when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. The sun had not risen, neither had faith begun to dawn in her heart. Vivid memories of that dark Friday still haunted the disciples—the black sky; the Lord upon the cross, bleeding, dying, his cry of agony piercing the darkened sky, his last shout; the soldier’s spear thrust in his side. Surely this nightmare had come to an end. There could not be more. But Mary saw in the distance that the stone had been taken away from the Lord’s resting place. She panicked. Someone had tampered with the Lord’s grave. She turned and ran back to tell Peter and John. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him” (v 2).
5.                               In the midst of the tragic scenes of modern life, some people eye Christians with envy, believing that deeply religious people don’t have to face real grief. If this were so, everyone would want to become a Christian. We could not build churches large enough to accommodate all who would be drawn to Christ for a trouble-free life. But Christians are not immune to grief. Scripture says in John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Our Lord knew the feeling of deep loss brought by tragedy. He knew the many contradictions to happiness throughout our lives.
6.                               There are gains in life and there are losses. It may be the loss of a pet dog that has been part of everything going on in the family for years. Gainful employment is outsourced to other countries. A man is laid off from his job after 15 years of faithful service. A woman approaching middle years is alone. Her husband advanced in the company and is gone most of the time. We can lose our health, our eyesight, our hearing. Drastic surgery may diminish us. For so many reasons, we feel a deep sense of loss.
7.                               Do you register more losses in life than gains? Turn to the Easter Gospel. Sense those deep feelings shared by the Lord’s disciples before Easter dawned, before faith dawned in their hearts. We are not strangers to those feelings. We have walked in the disciples’ shoes. Peter and John responded to Mary Magdalene’s sad report. They ran to the tomb of Jesus in order to investigate. The younger man ran faster and arrived first. John loved Jesus with a love that carried him swiftly that morning. How did Easter faith dawn in his heart? How did John discover and experience triumph in the midst of tragedy?
8.                               The subtitle on a journal article read, “I’ve long since forgotten the Easter sermons!” But the sermon that tracks the swift footsteps of the urgent disciple that first Easter just may stir within you new faith to lighten that heavy burden of grief or deep sense of loss. Return to the garden, to his tomb, watch and see, and then believe! Be lifted up this Easter Day! The stone was rolled back from the tomb. John stooped to look inside. He saw the grave clothes, but the remains of Jesus were gone. The disciple was baffled. He leaned against the exterior front wall of the rock tomb, his head buried in his arms, as he agonized in grief. “They crucified my Lord. Even now, they will not let him rest!”
9.                               John’s sense of tragedy is compounded by the mysterious absence of the Lord’s body. Though the empty tomb is not the ground of Easter faith, can it possibly be a sign of hope rather than despair? Think about it, John. And you bearers of life’s heavy burdens, you think about it too. A vacancy has occurred in that house of death. Is there not the faint suggestion that the other tombs we see, may also one day in the resurrection yield the very bodies they hold captive in bonds of death? Is it not true that when the angel, later appeared to attend that tomb where the Lord’s body had been, their first word was a reference to the empty tomb? They exclaimed, “He is not here!” That was part 1 of the angelic sermon the first Easter service. And part 2 followed. They proclaimed, “He is risen!”
10.                           While John was standing there collecting his thoughts, while the first rays of the dawn of new faith were breaking within his grief-stricken heart, his friend Simon Peter came huffing and puffing. The bold Simon strode right into the tomb. He looked around. The grave clothes, the linen wrappings belonging to the Lord’s body, were there. But that was all. The body of the Lord was gone. John entered the tomb a second time and saw the covering for the Lord’s head, neatly folded in a corner by itself, separate from the grave clothes. There was no sign of haste. Grave robbers would not be so neat. What did it mean? Mary Magdalene had exclaimed in frantic tears, “They have taken him away.” What if it were not they, but he? Could Jesus himself have laid aside the garments of the grave as if needing them no more? Could he have set aside the clothing of the dead? Could he have risen from the tomb? Could he be alive?
11.                           And what was happening to these disciples as they pondered what they saw? John and Peter stood there for a quiet moment, bewildered. Had they forgotten some things? St. Luke reports that Peter saw and wondered (24:12). John gives testimony to his own thoughts and feelings. He is standing in the Lord’s tomb. It is empty. He sees the grave clothes, discarded, like a glove from which the hand has been removed. He sees the linen shroud, the headpiece, lying neatly to one side. And then, yes, the sacred text relates, “He saw and believed” (v 8b). Suddenly, that heavy burden of grief was much lighter and easier to carry. He saw and believed! There came to his mind and heart the memory of the Lord’s faithful Word. John had forgotten. Grief forgets so many things, and John’s grief had made him forget. But, in that moment within the empty tomb, he remembered how Jesus had said so many times, “The Son of God will rise again!” That Word was true! Faith dawned in the disciple’s heart, and with faith, there also dawned a sense of triumph and victory!
12.                           Friends, especially you, bearing heavy burdens of grief, and you, feeling a deep sense of loss, can you on this Easter Day “see and believe”? Stand next to John and Simon Peter within the Lord’s empty tomb. Look about. Remember the Lord’s great Word and promise. He would rise from the grave. He said it plainly, and now so clearly, his Word is true. Behold, “He is risen!” You know that your Redeemer lives! Whatever has happened in your life, or is now happening, if the very foundations are shaking, even crumbling beneath you, not everything is lost. The Lord lives! You may tell him your griefs and sorrows and disappointments. The great enemies, sin and death, have fallen defeated before the glory of the risen Christ. And your troubles are not too great for him. Go to him for comfort and help and direction in your life.
13.                           Comfort one another with these words!” That was the encouragement for early Christians as they battled the odds of sorrow and tragedy. What strength, what comfort there is in these words of Paul from 1 Thessalonians 4, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. . . . Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  These powerful resurrection words are the greatest tonic for grief and sorrow this side of heaven! No empty promises here, but solid answers and certain assurances. Later that first Easter, the Lord appeared and showed himself risen and alive to the disciples on the road and in the breaking of bread with them. He dispelled gloom and sadness. The Lord stood in the midst of the Twelve behind closed doors. Later he joined them in Galilee for breakfast along the seashore. The risen Lord stood in a crowd on one occasion and confirmed the faith of more than five hundred persons. And this risen Lord stands behind all his words to help you this hour of your life, this time of crisis or grief. You may derive unexpected relief and help and comfort from him who says, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
14.                           Is there waiting for you today an empty house, a veritable prison of loneliness, pain, and sadness? The Lord goes with you. He is there before you turn the key in the door. He who vanquished sin and conquered death is there with you. “He is risen!” Take to heart that glorious Word! Faith dawns in your heart this Easter Day! Jesus lives! He lives to turn tragedy to triumph! Amen.