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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review of Eugene Peterson's 'As Kingfishers Catch Fire'

I am extremely thankful that this sermon collection has been released.  Eugene Peterson is the person, in my own reading, who has put the dignity into the work of the pastor.  Peterson was a scholar through and through, but he saw the daily, weekly, yearly work pastors do as being just as important as any work done by anyone in any field.  In fact, he saw a unique dignity in the work of the pastor.
            This collection is one record of how he did it.  ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ is an anthology of his sermons.  Tracking his preaching, one can see how a pastor dealt with the major movements of history as they affected a suburban congregation in Maryland.

            My own preaching is quite different.  However, I am my own person and I live in a different time.  I find myself blessed and educated as I observe how Peterson preached on Moses and Adam and Eve and creation and law.  His work informs and shapes mine.  I recommend this book as a guide to pastors and as a primer in discipleship for all Christians.

"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Sabbatical theme lived out in Daily Relationships

            I am a little over one week into my Sabbatical.  For 4 months I will be away from the church I lead as senior pastor, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation HillSong Church, of Chapel Hill, NC.  For much of the Sabbatical, I will be in Chapel Hill, just not at HillSong.  So far, I have had to go back to the office once to pick up something I accidentally had delivered there instead of my house.  And, I have seen two church members, on separate occasions bumping into them at the Chapel Hill Public Library.
            I’ll spend much of the Sabbatical at the library.  I am here as I type this.  On this occasion, I’ll be needing to put some music on (headphones, of course) because someone behind me keeps snorting.  I am sorry for the cold that is clearly irritating her, but her snot is not helping me concentrate.  However, it is a helpful reminder that life with God happens in normal, everyday places.  Sabbath may be a palace in time, but space is shared with people who have colds and with people who have crying babies.  Space is shared with my own children who try my patience and, more than anyone else, expose my flaws.  Space is shared with my wife.
            As I hiked this morning, it became clear that Matthew 10:39, die to self, is one of the themes of this Sabbatical.  If I truly am to die to self and live to Christ, one of the arenas in which this happens will be my marriage.  Obvious as this may seem, I need to make a spiritual discipline out of putting my wife’s needs ahead of my own.  I need to, out of love, swallow my first reaction to any little habit or tic she has that annoys me.  When my hackles are being raised, I need to shift my mind and spirit.  I need to shift from focus on the annoyance to focus on loving my wife.
All married people annoy each other.  If you think that won’t happen when you get married, I promise, it will.  We marry people, human beings, and human beings do things that get on our nerves.  And each and every one of is a human being who does things to irk those nearest to us.  But, I need to zero in on this: to be married to her is a pleasure.  She makes my life better and she is enormously patient with me.  I need to keep that joy that I find in her ever in front me.
            I need to also focus on honoring God by how I love my wife.  This is scriptural – Ephesians 5.  Matthew 10:39 & Ephesians 5 together produce a pretty clear message.  As an act of discipleship, I must be a self-sacrificing husband.  I’ve said this type of thing in pre-marriage counseling dozens of times.  Now, on Sabbatical time, I need to step back and listen to the sermon instead of preaching it.  That’s true of this sermon and of many others.

            One last thing for this post.  When I sat down to write, I had an entirely different post in mind.  I am still going to write that one.  However, I am committed to yielding to the flow of Sabbatical.  I may have certain plan, but God may have it in mind to alter my plan.  If that happens, ok.  I sat down to write something.  I ended up writing this.  I will still write that other piece.  I’ll just write it later.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

My Sabbatical Blog - to Die to Self

            After a wonderful worship service and send off from the church, my family and I went home.  We had a relaxing Sunday afternoon.  At 4PM, I made a final pastoral visit – to our church’s most senior member, Esta Mae Johnson.  She and I talked about 45 minutes, I left, and Sabbatical had begun.
            Monday morning, I saw my kids off to school, and then hit the road.  I drove 3 hours to Ft. Caswell at Caswell Beach, the North Carolina Baptist retreat center directly across the Cape Fear and Elizabeth Rivers and Intracoastal Waterway from South Port, NC. 
            As I drove, I listened to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.  She tells a history many Americans don’t know, but should.  It is the horrible, tragic, and hopeful and inspiring account of Post-reconstruction black life in the Jim Crow south and the efforts black people made to get out from under the inequality of Jim Crow to the American Freedom they hoped they’d find in the west and north.  The black populations of Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities are largely descendants of the children and grandchildren of former slaves.  This post-civil war generation of African Americans left the miserable lives to which they were relegated in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and other places in the south and sought their fortunes in the North.
            Listening to these stories as I traveled, so unencumbered in all my male, middle class, white privilege as well as the tremendous blessing I have for a season of sabbatical rest, was poignant.  I felt free and in my freedom I was ready to embrace and enter the stories of others, stories of people forced to live harder lives than I have lived.  I cruised east along I-40 and inhabited stories of cotton picking for pennies, lynchings, and people powerless to change it.  But they weren’t powerless, and when they had had enough, they left.  This movement had no central figure, no Martin Luther King Jr.  It is the anthology of stories of people who knew their own self-worth even though the white south did all they could to beat it out of them. 
            I drove along and listened.  And then I got to Caswell and walked the ground.  It’s a large retreat center with numerous dormitories, a chapel, a PX, a gymnasium, a theatre, and a hotel (where I stayed).  Mingled in with these typical retreat facilities are the ruins of World War I era batteries which were set up as a war-time military installation.  These bizarrely shaped concrete structures, long abandoned, are now weed strewn, but were once the foundation of the coastal defense. 

            I climbed around on the batteries.  I walked the beach.  I sat in the sand and unending wind.  I wrote the opening entries in my Sabbatical journal.  I began releasing the cares of a pastor.  For the next four months, I exist in a different space, a “castle in time” (Abraham Joshua Heschel).  Caswell, which at times is crawling with North Carolina Baptists, either screaming teens or adults on retreat remembering when they used to be screaming teens, was all but empty.  For several hours I had the place to myself.  In my journal I wrote that I had found solitude.  The beach was gloriously abandoned. 

            So I walked and prayed and let go.  I played chess on my computer with people from Morroco, Brazil, and Poland.  I ate so many Oreos and fried clams I got sick (almost).  And I let go. 

            Gazing across the Atlantic, it struck me that I haven’t settled on a scripture passage for Sabbatical.  I have not been led to that one word from the Bible that will provide the undergirding and the theme for this time.  As I sat atop one of the batteries ocean Tuesday morning, I found what might be it.  Matthew 10:39 – “Those who find their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.”  I don’t know what this Sabbatical has in store, but I know this.  I have to die to self.  I have to stop worrying about who I am and stand upon whose I am.
            Midday Tuesday, I drove up to New Bern.  I went there to interview a woman, Daynette Snead who is African American, has her own real estate business, and is the associate pastor of a Chin Church.  The Chin are another people group (like the Karen who meet at HillSong) exiled from Burma (Myanmar).  This African American lady from Richmond, Virginia is killing it in business in mostly white New Bern and getting it done in ministry among Chin refugees. 
            She and I discussed race and life and ministry.   She graced me by sharing with me her story.  I won’t go into it because it is hers, but in what she shared, I found symmetry with what I was hearing in The Warmth of Other Suns.  Listening to that, talking to Daynette, hearing God in the wind and the waves of the ocean, listening to Jesus in Matthew 10 – it all came together for me.  I have big dreams for the future of the church I pastor, HillSong Church of Chapel Hill.  Big dreams.  Those dreams forming and have been for some time, but they will be set aside temporarily.  For now, I am awed by how God has brought things together for me. 
God is dropping me into the stories of others. 
            I hope this expands my ability to love others.
            I hope this enriches my telling of the Gospel story.  I know it is deepening my understanding of it. 
            I pray that in all of this, I will learn to see more clearly that God is in control and that my life is to be spent following Jesus, not worrying about things.  As I learn to die to self and as I am enriched by other people’s stories, my own dreams will take shape.

            Next for me in Sabbatical is a lot family time, and, I hope, a lot of reading.    

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Word of Blessing

I wrote this as a benediction for my church family before going away for 4 months on Sabbatical.

            “Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.  And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13).
            I wanted my final column before a 4-month Sabbatical to be a word of blessing.  Candy, Igor, Henry, Merone, and I will be away and in all likelihood not see people from HillSong until September 17.  However, I know our God and Father will guide us back.  And when we return we will have the experiences of the summer affixed to us, tattooed on our psyches and souls.
            Furthermore, God will be at work within the church.  People will make new spiritual discoveries and will grow in Christ.  New ministry will be birthed in my absence.  New people will come.  I hope this happens.  I am sure it will happen. 
            I pray the church will support Heather in her leadership.  I know you will.
            I pray the church will encourage Enam and give her space to grow as a pastor.  I have confidence this will happen and that the church will show her great love and great grace.
            I pray the church will welcome Holly onto the staff.  I know you will and I know this will be a great experience for her as she learns the ins and outs of ministry.
            I pray the church will embrace Hong and a new work; a ministry to Chinese people.  What a great opportunity!  I am confident God is in it. 

            The most important things are found in the blessing that Paul sent to the Thessalonians.  I now pass Paul’s words on to you.  Increase in love for each other and for all who come to worship at HillSong.  May love abound; may it be a defining characteristic of our church family.   Turn to Christ, allowing yourselves to be vulnerable and exposed before him, and His Holy Spirit will strengthen your hearts as you grow in holiness.  HillSong, you are numbered among the saints because you are in Christ.  I look forward to seeing you in September and hearing about how God has been at work among you and sharing with you how God has shaped our family’s life.

The Origin of the Church

“Called out, called into” (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
Sunday, April 30, 2017

            You open your Bible.  You flip past the Old Testament and turn to the New, but you skip the four gospels.  You skip the most quoted of Paul’s letters, Romans.  You keep turning pages until you’re at 1st Thessalonians.  What do you see?  Do you see the word Paul invents there? 
            An experienced Bible reader knows many of the New Testament books are attributed to a man named Paul.  Romans is the letter from Paul to the church in the city of Rome.  That letter says in chapter 1, verse 7, “To all God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints.”  First Corinthians is so titled because it is Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.  It be begins, “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1:2); and so on with Second Corinthians, Galatians and so forth.
            Note the opening to 1 Thessalonians.  In the others, it was ‘God’s beloved in Rome,’ ‘the church … in Corinth’, and so on.  But here it says, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).  It does not say ‘to the church at Thessalonica,’ but rather, ‘to the Thessalonians.’  I never noticed this in over 25 years of reading the Bible.  What is it about that city that led Paul to write in this way? 
            We find the story of Paul’s time Thessalonica in Acts 17.  He was there with his colleagues Silas and Timothy.  They were hosted by a man named Jason.  Many of the Jews in the Thessalonian synagogue decided to become followers of Jesus because of the preaching of Paul, Silas, and Timothy.  However, many more were violently opposed to the Gospel.  Furthermore, the religious conditions in the city made it certain that any Thessalonian who came to follow Jesus, Jew or Greek, would run into trouble. 
            A mob from the synagogue came looking for Paul and when they couldn’t find him, they forcefully dragged his host, Jason, and several of the other new Christians before the magistrate and accused them of violating Roman law by virtue of their practice of Christianity (Acts 17:5).  It’s an accusation that would have legs because of the dominant religion in Thessalonica – emperor worship.  Ancient coins discovered there indicate that the emperor was seen as a god and was to be honored as the Lord above all others.  Thessalonians believed in many gods.  They didn’t care what god you bowed to as long as you and your god bowed to Augustus and his descendants who served as emperor of Rome.
            The Thessalonian church was born in the midst of accusations coming from Jews in the city and then outright persecution by the Greek city officials who ran the city.  That all hit right at the outset.  This group – the gathering of Thessalonian Christ followers – claimed to be inheritors of the story of Israel.  Israel’s story was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.  However, though they were birthed in the course of Israel’s story, the early Christians were part of something new, a new group.  And in Thessalonica, they saw themselves as a distinct group.[i] 
There was no word in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek for our English word ‘church.’  When you read in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” it makes perfect sense, in English.  In Greek it says, ‘th ekklhsia, the assembly.’  What is translated ‘church’ in our English Bibles is actually the word ‘assembly,’ and it had a definite meaning in Thessalonica and other Greek speaking cities.  That meaning was not ‘a gathering of Christians who make up the body of Christ and worship God together in Jesus’ name.’
When Paul writes to the Thessalonians and calls them ‘ekklesia,’ he is defining a new entity, one that had not existed prior to 35 AD.  The first followers of Jesus stayed together in Jerusalem after the resurrection, the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, and then the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  If those events are unfamiliar to you, you can read all about them in the first two chapters of the book of Acts.  That gathering of Jesus followers that stayed together eventually became what we now know of as church.  Paul, who became a Christian a few years later, traveled all over the Mediterranean world, sharing the news that God had fulfilled Israel’s story by coming in the person of Jesus, and in doing so had rescued all of humankind from sin and defeated death forever.  But the first believers didn’t realize they were the first church because they didn’t know what church was.
As Paul preached this message, Jews accepted that Jesus was their Messiah.  Pagan gentiles accepted that their life of pantheism was a lie and that they needed Jesus.  The Jews and gentiles joined together and formed communities.  The letters Paul wrote to these communities helped them define what they were – a people joined together in Christ.  The Thessalonians were one of the first to recognize that by coming together in Christ, they were apart from the culture in which they lived.  Being in Christ collectively, they were apart from Greek culture.  They were set apart from emperor worship.  They had decided to leave behind the culture of their birth.  They did this knowing it would mean harsh consequences.  They could see the goodness of God, and so they accepted persecution to join something new.  When they read what Paul wrote, ‘Thessalonian Ekklesia,’ they knew he was talking about something new and they were part of it.    
What do you make of the title of the sermon that’s in the bulletin, ‘Called out, Called into?’  We see ‘to the church of the Thessalonians’ in our Bibles and don’t blink.  How many churches are in Chapel Hill and Carrboro?  I don’t know.  Over 50?  How many churches are in North Carolina?  When Paul wrote the letter and began with the phrase ‘assembly of Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,’ he was naming what they were.  They were called out of the only world they had known and into something – church – the world have never seen.
Verse 6 sums the enormous significance of this.  “In spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”  In some pockets of American Christianity we see great efforts made to make coming to church an easy, comfortable, attractive thing to do.  Churches try to package the Gospel so that it is palatable.  Some churches go to great lengths to accommodate seekers, unchurched persons, and nonbelievers.  I get it.  The motivation is to help more people who don’t know Jesus come to saving faith in him.  But, what kind of Jesus do people meet when their salvation is packaged with no struggle, no tears, and a sanitized cross?  What kind of Christianity are they embracing, when they Gospel they’re taught is contorted to fit their lives and not inconvenience them in any way?
It is a Christianity out of touch with Gospel we get in the Bible.  Paul preached at Jason’ house.  The group that gathered managed to get Paul, Silas, and Timothy out of Thessalonica, but Jason and others around him were roughed up and arrested and had to pay bail.  In this ordeal of suffering, Paul remarks, you joyfully met Jesus, decided to follow him, and thus became not just an ‘assembly’ like the other assemblies in Thessalonica.  You became his church
I found this definition of church from a scholar writing about Thessalonica.  Church is “the arena in which God’s revelation in Jesus Christ has become present and active.”  In other words, we know it is church because God is here and is doing something.  The definition continues, “The Holy Spirit is present and active preparing those called” for the end time when God will bring everything together.[ii]  Church is not like any other group; there is no analogy.  Church is the “gathering of those who are in Christ,” linked in baptism, commissioned to give witness, and prepared for eternity. 
This sense of being called out of the world was clear for the Thessalonians and they accepted it and the hardship that went with it.  Do we?  (A) Do we truly believe that by gathering with others who are in Christ we are called out from the world?  I’ve made the case this morning that church is an entirely unique gathering, unlike anything else.  Do we believe that?  (B) If we do, do we then accept that by being part of the church, then the church is our top loyalty precisely because when we are joined together in church, we are joined together in Christ?
Chapel Hill of 2017 is not like Thessalonica of 40AD.  You will not have one a group declaring that you are causing society turmoil because you decided to join the church.  You will not have another, more powerful group believe the accusations of the first group and thus beat you up and imprison because you joined the church.  That won’t happen.  When you leave here and go to a restaurant, they’ll welcome you and take your money just like they do for all customers.  Your neighbors will smile and wave, and if you have any trouble and need to dial 9-1-1, the police will come and help you.  As church, we won’t face what the Thessalonians face as Church.  But we are called out of our world just as they were.
I reject the notion that churches should bend over backwards to accommodate the tastes of attendees.  We can and should have a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere.  We must extend generous hospitality.  When people come here, we want them to know that they matter.  When we people meet us, we want them to know they are loved by God and by us.  But love is different than doing whatever is necessary to get people to come and try to force people to be happy.  We want to help people meet God and receive God’s love.  Upon receiving that saving love of God, we want to help people live life as followers of Jesus.  In this kind of life, he is Lord of everything, and we submit everything in our lives to Him.  What do we think the Gospel asks of the individual believer?  We think the Gospel asks you to submit everything in your life to Jesus as Lord. 
We’re called out of the world and into the church, into the family of God, into His eternal Kingdom.  That is our destiny.  Life as his disciples is our current reality. 
We’re called out, but that doesn’t mean we abandon the world.  As we are called into the Kingdom, we are given a mission.  We sent to the world, lost and dying as it is, to call out others who don’t know the saving love of Jesus.  Besides being a worshiping community of person that are linked in Baptism and prepared for eternity, the church is a commissioned community.  We are sent back into the world as God's representatives tasked with helping others hear God’s call.
Paul expresses great admiration for the witness of the Thessalonians on this count.  Verse 7.  He says to them, “You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Acaia.  For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you … in every place your faith in God has become known.  For the people of those regions report about … how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (v.7-9).  The Thessalonians answered God’s call by following Jesus no matter the cost.  They became known for their faith.
For what are we known?
Called out of the world and into the Kingdom, our answer to the call is seen in how we love each other and in how we give witness to Christ in the world out of which we have been called.  To be called out doesn’t mean we leave the world behind.  It means we become different people within it.  We are in the world as persons and as a people in Christ.  In verse 3 Paul summarizes the values that must be what defines us.  He mentions the Thessalonians’ “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  These same values and attributes – faith, hope, and love – are listed in 1st Corinthians, the great “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13.  We will draw others to Christ when they look at our lives and see faith, hope, and love. 
This came from Jesus, not from Paul.  We have this letter because he was apart from the church, appreciating who they became in his absence.  Our church does not depend on the preacher to provide the faith, hope, and love.  That comes from Jesus.  As has been said for many weeks, after next Sunday, I begin a 4-month Sabbatical.  I won’t be here.  But, I will still be part of this place and no matter who is preaching, we are called together to be God’s church, a people joined in Christ, bound for His kingdom, and sent out into our town to call others out of the world and into the church, the body of Christ.  As long as we remember that this is who we are and as long as we stay attentive to the present, active Holy Spirit, God will speak in this place and we will hear. 
As Paul said to the Thessalonians in chapter 1, verse 4, I now say to HillSong Church.  “I know brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you.”

[i] K. Donfried (2002), Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p.143.
[ii] Ibid, p.145.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review of Peter Bergen's 'The United States of Jihad'

I am extremely grateful for the detailed treatment Peter Bergen gives to America’s so-called ‘war on terror’ in his book ‘The United States of Jihad.’  He paints a picture of a problem that on one hand is too elusive for the massive forces of law enforcement in the United States, but on the other hand is unlikely to directly affect the daily lives of most Americans.  He points out that people are 12,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack (p. 272).  However, we don’t live in fear of driving our cars around.  We get in our cars and go without thinking about it.

The stories of the different terrorist attacks in the United States are compelling.  The deaths are tragic.  So too is the fact that it will likely happen again and the media will jump on the next event and over-cover it just it has the previous ones.  The ‘terror’ produced by these incidents is disproportionate to the damage they cause.  The tragedy is innocent people do die.  Furthermore, the families of those who become terrorists also suffer deeply.  And law enforcement suffers embarrassment.  Bergen points out of that many of the attacks were carried out by people the FBI had looked at and dismissed as unlikely to commit terrorist acts. 

My conclusion, having read Bergen’s book is that evil has always been a part of the human story and will continue to be.  In the past evil went by names like slavery, institutionalized racism, genocide, and Jim Crow.  Today, evil is named radicalization, Islamophobia, Jihad (that leads to murderous acts), and terrorism.  Of course evil has many other names today, but these are a few of the more high profile ones. This age of terror will pass.  And evil will find new names.  But evil does not win unless we let it.

The Early Church

            Followers of Jesus experienced life altering changes immediately after the resurrection.  We say we believe in God, believe in resurrection, and eternal life, and we mean it.  As much as we can, considering we’re talking about things that are really outside our experience and beyond our comprehension, we mean when we declare our faith in Jesus as God incarnate, our Lord and our Savior.
How would our belief be affected if a resurrected person walked into the room?  If someone we know is dead, saw in the coffin at the funeral home, and saw buried at the cemetery walked in right now, some of us would be pretty freaked out. 
            That’s what happened.  The appearance of Jesus after the crucifixion was mind-blowing.  Not only did meeting the risen Christ change the perceptions of reality held by the earliest believers, meeting the resurrected one altered their ideas about themselves, and about the world around them.  It also changed the way they understood the things they had previously heard Jesus say. 
            Just about all of the original followers of Jesus were Jews and in following Jesus, they imagined themselves continuing to live the story of God and God’s chosen people that had begun with Adam and creation and then continued with Abraham and the calling out of a chosen people.  After Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that story continued with Exodus, and Moses, and the law, the Torah.  From Moses, this story moved to the greatest of leaders, King David, and then from David and his son, King Solomon, to the lowest of shames, exile. 
Peter and John and the rest of the disciples believed Israel was still in exile, and Jesus had come to begin a new age, one in which Israel would be free of foreign influence and able to worship God and live life in freedom and peace in the Promised Land.  They believed Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams.  Jesus was the climax of the story.
            They were right, but they didn’t understand what all that meant.  They didn’t realize that he was God, that he would defeat death and appear to them, and that after they saw him a new movement would begin.  Each new discovery gave birth to another.  Before they had a chance to fully comprehend the resurrection, they saw Jesus ascend to Heaven to sit at God’s right hand.  Before they could adjust to him being gone, the Holy Spirit came and filled each of Jesus’ followers.  They didn’t know what church was.  God dramatically invaded, the Holy Spirit burned in them, and they who had not understood now became the community that formed the first church. 
            The coming of the Spirit and the gathering of Jesus’ followers into this new thing – church – helped make sense of something Jesus said.  After he was raised but before he ascended to heaven, he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  That last phrase was confusing.   Jerusalem, Judea, and even Samaria made sense.  These were Jewish lands.  But what was this about testifying to Jesus to the “ends of the earth?”  They thought the story of God and Israel reached its climax in the land of Israel with God as king.  Jesus turned that idea on its head.  The story did not reach its fulfillment with a gathering, but with a sending.  Salvation would go beyond Israel. 
Furthermore, Torah was no longer the sign of salvation because Torah had been achieved in the coming, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  Baptism, not circumcision, was now the sign of the community of believers.  The church was the gathering of the Jesus-followers, and the church was the base of operations for the mission to announce rescue to the entire world.  What they thought would happen actually happened.  God acted to save Israel and the world.  How it came about caught them all by surprise. 
As we arrive at the end of Acts chapter 4, we find ourselves with a group of people stepping into an uncertain, unexpected future, and they couldn’t be happier about it.  Our reading for today, verses 32-37 talks of the people being full of awe and wonder as they saw the things God was doing through normal individuals, fishermen and tax collectors, the first church leaders.  They were praising God continuously.  They were full of goodwill for everyone.  And daily, people were coming to awareness that in Jesus, we are saved: saved from sin and death, and saved for a life of relationships, a life of meaning, and a life of full, real joy.
            Change can throw people for a loop, but this group of the original Christians thrived in this time of rapid change.  We can look to them as our church has changes ahead. 
            Of course some things are established.  Jesus has been raised.  We know that.  That truth is the ground on which we stand.  He has risen, ascended to the Father, and his Holy Spirit has come and is here.  These basic truths hold us together just as they do for churches all over; churches we’ve visted in Ethiopia; churches we know of in Quebec and Dominican Republic; our CBF neighbors up the road, Mount Carmel Baptist Church; megachurches like Saddleback in California and the church of celebrities, Hillsong-Manhatten.  All Christians are upheld by the saving love of Jesus and his resurrection.
            For us, what’s new?  In a sense, that cannot be easily answered because what is ahead is a search.  We’re examining our church’s identity.  Every church has its own personality and we’re taking a long, hard look at ours.  We’re going to spend the rest of this year praying for renewal. 
            One of my own specific prayers is that God will show us the changes we need to make to become a more diverse community.  I dream of a day when I walk here on a Sunday morning and I see so many from so many different backgrounds that it is impossible to know which group has the most.  Asian, black, white, Hispanic, Arabic, Native American; all believers together in the name of Jesus, praising Him and loving each other; that’s my dream for HillSong. 
We’re leaning toward that dream.  We have some diversity even now.  We have a Karen church that shares space and many in the Karen community often worship in this, our 11AM English service.  A Spanish congregation worships here on Sunday afternoons and their pastor and many of their members are in our English service every week.  We have as a part of this English church people from many different backgrounds.  Next week we will vote on partnering with a Chinese church-start. 
All of this points to the direction of our church.  Acts 4:30 says many signs were being done by the apostles.  Here, the elders, deacons and membership’s willingness to lovingly welcome different people into HillSong and to entertain the new ideas the pastoral staff has presented is, to me, a sign that we are trying to hear God’s voice.  We are prayerfully attempting to answer God’s call on us. 
Another aspect of the renewal process is that I, the senior pastor, will begin a 4-month Sabbatical on May 7.  For 4 months, I’ll be away from the church.  The church will be in great hands.  Of course Heather will be the lead pastor and Enam will continue her great work with the youth ministry.  Pending next week’s vote, we will introduce Holly Holder as our ministry intern, doing a lot of the things Heather normally does.  And we’ll introduce Hong Zhou as the leader of the Chinese church plant.  She will also be part of the church staff.  So the church staff will be Heather, Enam, Holly, and Hong.
Additionally, Dina Sit will oversee day-to-day operations just as she always has, and there will be tremendous experience and institutional knowledge in the deacon and elder chairpersons, Todd Baker and Susan Dunn.  So leadership in our church will carry on without much of a stumble.
However, I have been the pastor for almost 11 years.  For better or for worse, you’re used to seeing me in this spot on Sundays.  I am used to constructing my life around Sundays and not just any Sunday, but Sunday at HillSong Church in Chapel Hill.  It’s going to be weird for a while.  But, we have to keep this in mind.  All of this is coming about because the pastors and the elders went through a lengthy prayer process, and I’m going on Sabbatical and we’re going through renewal because this is where God led us.  When this process began, Enam was not yet on the church staff, Holly had only been to HillSong a few times, and Hong was still and an MDiv student at Duke Divinity School.  God has been preparing us for this all along the way.  God has brought us to this point.
We move forward in joy trusting that God will provide all that we need.  Stepping forward in faith, we take to the journey relying on God.  By this time next year, we will see ourselves in many ways as a new church, a church God has planted.  This is what those early believers we meet in Act 4 did.  They stepped forward.  The stepped into uncertainty, but they stepped in faith and they were full of joy. 
Four ideas defined this early church.  First, they were unified.  Verse 32 says those who believed were of one heart and soul.  I believe this is true of our church.  We know people in our church family have many ideas exist and sometimes we have ideological differences, but for us this is a very positive thing.  Our diversity of ideas gives our church intellectual depth.  And we know that we have in common our identity in Christ and the life that the resurrection gives us.  We believe in that together and, like the early church, are completely united in faith.
Second, that first church moved the meter.  It says in verse 33, “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection.”  There is power in our witness.  Talk to people who were part of our church and had to move to other cities.  They still hold onto the way God shaped them while they were in this church family.  Talk to people who moved away from here and then came back.  When they returned to the area, they returned to HillSong because they believed they would grow in Christ and be able to serve here.  The Lord is present in the Holy Spirit and when the Spirit is present, there is power.
Third, also in verse 33, it says, “great grace was upon them all.”  If we are going to be a safe community where people of all backgrounds can come, be welcomed, and meet God, then grace has to be one of our defining characteristics.  You have certainly shown me tremendous grace.  I pray you will pass that on to the other pastors and staff members.  Heather, Enam, Hong, Holly, and Dina will all need to know the congregation has their back and will walk with them through the challenging moments. 
Fourth, Acts says the congregation of the first church was characterized by generosity.  This goes along with grace.  They shared with one another.  Yes, some of that was material and monetary support, but this also means generosity of spirit.  They shared their hearts with each other.  I urge HillSong to be devoted this summer to being generous with love.  Give compliments and encouraging words.  Give lots of hugs.  It’s something that is an enormous blessing, and you don’t run out of them.  You can 100 and have 100’s more to give. 
Before the church even knew what it was or what church is, the church was rich in unity, power, grace, and generosity.  This is all because of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection, and because of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  As we said before, the Holy Spirit that was with the early church is here too.  We are drawn together as a family, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Today we will finish our time of worship with worship singing and then with communion.  As we take the bread – the body of Christ, and the cup – the blood of the new Covenant, have confidence.  God’s promises can be trusted.  This summer there will inevitably be moments where no one is quite sure what to do because the next things is something I have come to do by habit and I won’t be there.  It might be in a worship service, it might around the office, or in some ministry situation in the community.  When that moment comes, don’t worry about it and don’t try to do what I would do.  Follow the Holy Spirit’s lead.   Whatever the situation is will turn out wonderfully because we are people joined together in Christ, following the Spirit together. 
That’s what church is.  Renewal and new visions are just part of it.  We are a people united in Christ, following the lead of the Spirit together. 


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Easter Sermon

Do We Understand the Good News? (Mark 16:6-7; Matthew 28:8-10)
Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

            The end of 2016, and maybe the entirety of 2016, was hard for a lot of people; maybe for you.  Some felt roughed up, and at a loss because of the political climate in America.  The election results were a tough blow for a lot of people.  Others were happy with the election, but distressed about things going on in the world.  And then a lot of people have their own problems, personal demons or trials that are so intense, they couldn’t even focus on the national or international scenes.  Getting from one day to the next was tough enough. 
            As I took in the state of the world right around us here, I sensed a creeping, uncomfortable malaise.  Pastors and preachers have a variety of responsibilities including the duty to share good news.  I felt that need quite strongly as we turned the page from December to January.  I felt that on Sunday mornings, we had to turn our attention from distressing current events to deeper truths and greater realities – things that could not be affected by what happens in Washington or in the voting booth. 
            So, we began this year imagining just how big God is.  We turned all our attention onto God.  This was not a retreat from the realities around us.  We prayed over the immigration issue.  We prayed for refugees and many in our church have volunteered to help refugees.  We pray over race relations in our country.  And our church is going to spend the rest of this year examining how we can be a more diverse community.  Our decision to earnestly seek to see as much of God as we can was not a denial of the pain and frustration all around us.  The decision to look to God was a declaration that God’s goodness is bigger than the evils of the present day.  God’s light shines brighter than any darkness.
            We want to be witnesses to that light and to draw others into God’s light.  We can only testify to what we have seen.  So, we tried, as a church family, see God.
            As winter gave way to spring and Lent began, we took up an unusual Lenten discipline.  Rather than fasting, going without red meat or desserts or things like that, we instead engaged in story-telling.  This is our attempt to answer God’s call on us to be witnesses.  We set up a witness wall where anyone could write down a testimony of seeing God at work, working for good in the world.  Each week we invited the church to come to wall and share their stories of things they see God doing in their own lives. 
            I wrote down some of the responses.  These are all stories from people who worshiped in this room in the last 6 weeks.  One testified to provision – God met financial needs in a desperate time.  Another wrote of tangible experiences of God’s love, including gratitude for a loving church family.  One person wrote thanks for the opportunity to play school soccer; another for the chance to be in a school play; for opportunities for friendship; the opportunity to become grandparents; and, the opportunity to share the Gospel.  The wall is full of accounts of God helping people. 
            That last one I mentioned is quite important for today – Easter Sunday.  Someone was thankful for the opportunity to share the Gospel.  That word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek and it means, literally, ‘good news.’  The Greek word is eungelion, the root for the English ‘evangel’ or ‘evangelism.’  Technically, evangelism means ‘the telling of good news.’ 
Of course, if I just asked everyone to define ‘evangelical,’ I’d get a wide variety of responses.  Some would not have anything to do with sharing good news.
Similarly, if I asked everyone to write down and turn in a definition of ‘gospel,’ there would be a plethora of definitions.  Some might define it by terms of genre – ‘gospel music.’  Others might define it by terms of purity – ‘that’s the gospel truth.’
In any Easter Sunday crowd, we gather together as a mixture of people.  Some are experienced in church and in churches like ours, and are very knowledgeable about the Bible.  Others are not in church as often and it all feels unfamiliar.  The question I have is for everyone because I think we might all, in different ways, struggle with this.  Do we understand the good news?  We sing about Jesus’ resurrection with great energy, but why is this good news for us?    
            N.T. Wright gives a helpful definition of the ancient way the word ‘gospel’ was used.[i]
            The term actually was in use by the Romans before the New Testament was written.  It was used when there was a handover of power.  The Emperor had died and thus the empire was full of uncertainty.  Will the empire hold together?  Are we going to sink into chaos?  Will pirates or invading barbarians take over?  Is war inevitable?
When the new Emperor was crowned, heralds were dispatched to travel throughout the empire to announce this message.  “We have a new Emperor.  His name is Augustus.  A new age of peace and justice begins.”  That was the gospel, the announced “good news.” Of course people in the empire knew that for them – the majority who were poor peasants – it would be more of the same.  It didn’t matter who was in power.  For the majority in the roman empire, life was poverty and struggle.  The peace-and-justice gospel was empty political rhetoric.
In that world, a world of Jewish frustration – frustrated at being under Roman heel; a world of Greek cultural dominance; and a world of Roman military and political power; in that world, New Testament writers seized this term from the empire and used it to tell what God had done in Jesus.  The first verse of the Gospel of Mark – “Arxh tou euaggeliou Ihsou Xristou uiou qeou.”  “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
From the start, the New Testament did what we have been trying to do.  The New Testament told a different story, a competing narrative.  The New Testament challenged the dominant narrative of empire with news of God at work in the world changing everything.  The New Testament writers from Mark to Matthew to Luke to Paul responded to Rome.  “You say the good news is that Augustus or Nero or Domitian is now king?  That’s good news?” 
“No,” New Testament authors defiantly reply.  “We, a small group among the Jews, have the real good news.  God has come in the flesh, in a man in Israel, a peasant carpenter from backwater Nazareth, Jesus.  He is God and he is man; he is Savior, and he is Lord.  He died on the cross for the sins of the world.  And on the third, on this day, he rose from death in resurrection.”
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus includes salvation for the individual.  When you put your trust in Christ, receive forgiveness of sins, turn your life over to Him, and acknowledge Him as Lord, you are saved.  Jesus provides the story of your salvation, and mine.  But the Easter proclamation of Good News – Gospel – is much, much more than simply saying, ‘here’s how we get to Heaven.’  The resurrection is the dawning of a new age, one in which God is King.  Easter is God’s response to every oppressive power that would seek to rule the world. 
History is full of declarations of exceptionalism.  The superiority of the Aryan race; the sun never setting on the British Empire; America first; on and on it goes.  At Easter, Christians around the world join together to declare “No,” there is no government, king, general, or any other who has real power.  It is God’s.  The world is God’s.  All that is in it belongs to God.  And God is good.  God is love.  God is forgiveness.  God is light.  God is life.  We know God by way of the salvation we’ve been given in Jesus Christ. 
Of course whether or not news is considered “good” depends one where you’re standing.  A couple of weeks ago, we got the news on a Monday night.  “National Champions!”  What could be better?  Well, if you cheer Gonzaga or for Duke a lot of things could be better. 
But more importantly, how do we respond to the news that in Jesus God has come and inaugurated a new age in which God is king?  The resurrection set this in motion and when it happened, no one was ready for it, not even Jesus’ closest followers.
All four New Testaments Gospels convey the same detail the morning of the resurrection.  The male followers of Jesus were in hiding.  The women stole to the tomb in the early morning hours to anoint the dead body of Jesus as it had not been appropriately prepared for burial.  Those women went to the tomb as an act of love for Jesus, but they were fully convinced he was dead.
Mark reports that they found the stone sealing the tomb already rolled to the side and so they entered and found a young man that Luke and Matthew both describe as an angel.  Mark’s young man then gives the 2-part good news that is the beginning of Christian proclamation that we continue to this day.  Something has happened!
First, he says, “Fear not.  You are looking for Jesus, but he has been raised.  He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  This is unmistakable.  He’s not describing a new awareness.  He’s not talking about something that is spiritual but not physical.  Mark describes women entering a tomb where they saw Jesus buried.  Now the body is gone, and the young man they meet there tells them that after Jesus died on Friday and sat in the grave on Saturday, he is alive on Sunday.  His body is somewhere else, fully alive and on the move.
Second, he says to them, “Go and tell.  Tell the disciples they will see him just as he said.”  For the women to do it, to heed the word of the messenger, they have to believe it.  You don’t say something as preposterous as ‘the dead man lives’ unless you believe it. 
Matthew picks up the story here in chapter 28, verse 8.  “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples.”  He is alive.
Do we understand?
The Gospels were written between 30 and 50 years after these events.  The accounts on which the Gospels were based circulated orally throughout Christian communities in Jerusalem and Antioch and then in Corinth and Galatia and the rest of cities where churches cropped up.  In the later 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, these stories were told.  In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote them down.
They did this to get the story straight and help the church remember its foundation.  The Gospels introduce us to our Savior.  They also declare the church’s resounding “no” to the powers of the day.  The Gospels live on to reject the powers of every era including our own. 
Do we understand?
The only way we can understand is if we believe.  I have read numerous exhaustive historical studies.  The best conclusion to be drawn from the hard historical data is Jesus in fact rose from the grave and appeared to his followers.  But evidence doesn’t convince anyone – not in this case.  To fully grasp the news and to comprehend why it this news is good, we have to believe.
We have to believe that we are sinners, that God loves us and in Christ met us in our sin, died in our place taking our sins on himself, and then rose from death on Easter morning.  Once we believe that, then we’re right where those women were in the tomb first hearing the news. 
God has done something.  We’re right to be afraid just as those women were.  The reality of God is terrifying; wonderful, but terrifying too.  But then, as it did for them, that fear gives way to something else.  Because the tomb is empty it means Death is defeated.  We have life.   We have God with us and when we die, we will be raised just as Jesus was raised.  As he was resurrected, we have resurrection ahead of us!   
Finally, it hits us.  News is only news when it is shared.  So, to fully understand the Good news, we need the stories.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John help us there.  We need the honesty – we sin and we need help.  We need the realization that God has done something to help.  We need to believe.  Once we do that, then like those women on Easter morning, we must go and tell. 
There’s a lot of bad news out there.  The world is full of anxiety and uncertainty – a deadly combination.  But, we have another story to offer, one that is truer and one that lasts.  Jesus is alive and all can have life, eternal life, in his name.  Got it?  Good!  Now, we are witnesses called to share our testimony.  Go and tell.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Easter Sunrise Sermon 2017

“Approaching the Resurrected Jesus” (Matthew 28:1-10)
April 16, 2017 Easter Sunrise Service
(I reworked the sunrise sermon from 2011.)

What does the Easter story do?  What happens when we read it or gather with Christians in church and hear it read?  Or we sing it?  How do we come to Easter Sunday?
Dispassionately, bored, yawning? [Mocking tone] O wow! Women came to a tomb before sunrise on a Sunday. And surprise of all surprises. It’s empty. Jesus is alive. Woo hoo! Like I haven’t heard this every single year for the last 40 years. Nothing new; been there, done that.
No, not bored.  Maybe we come knowingly, ready to shout “AMEN!” in all the right places because we know the story so well.  God’s victory over death is our victory. We feel that we own this story. We know it; it is ours.  Easter morning is planned celebration void of genuine wonder. We help others be amazed, but we’ve already had that sensation. It’s not new.
Maybe Easter Sunday is like every Sunday, and the resurrection story like every Bible account.  We come hoping to meet God.  But we aren’t sure we will. We come with an unconvinced optimism. Our faith is colored by spiritual dryness; disappointment; pain, even on Easter Sunday. 
Some spiritual seekers come infrequently and are relatively unfamiliar with the Bible.  But it is Easter. Here we are. We approach curiously. Is there something for me? Is there anything in the Bible or church that’s worth my time; that could make my life better?
What does the story of Jesus’ resurrection do?  What happens in our lives precisely because it is Easter?  How we approach has a lot to do with how we answer this question.  In the Gospel of Matthew we see two approaches on the morning the tomb was discovered empty. We are invited to enter this story. Which of the two approaches here will be our entry point?
First, we meet the women.  Who were Jesus’ women disciples? Luke tells us some of them were women of financial means, the ones who funded the ministry while Jesus and the 12 traveled around preaching and working miracles.  They had power, but in the first century, even wealthy women were generally only thought of in terms of their husbands.  And most women around Jesus were not wealthy, but instead were poor peasants.
These women loved Jesus.  Again, it is Luke who reports that they followed as Jesus walked through the streets of Jerusalem carrying his cross out to the place of crucifixion.  The women walked behind him weeping openly (23:27-28). 
These recognized that Jesus was special. Martha, declared him to be the Messiah (John 11).  At the home of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman violated social conventions and came to the table where the men reclined in order to anoint Jesus’ head with oil. Hers was an act of appreciation and worship.
The women Matthew introduces, who came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, were a part of a group of female disciples who supported Jesus, followed Jesus, and worshiped him. We can enter the story and approach Jesus as they do.  But there are other characters.
As they approached the tomb, the earth shook violently and an angel from heaven descended rolled back the stone that had sealed it, and sat on the stone. Guards were stationed at the tomb, and when the earth shook, they fell to the ground trembling.  The chief priests of the temple and along with them some Pharisees united and approached the Roman governor Pilate to request that the tomb be guarded so that Jesus’ followers would not steal the body and then claim resurrection.  Pilate granted this request.  The women stealing to the tomb in the early Sunday morning shadows is the very moment the temple leaders anticipated. A couple of days after the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers show up at the tomb. The battle-hardened soldiers, assigned by Pilate, stand between these Christ-followers, these women, and grave.
What were Roman guards like?  Might they have been among those who flogged and mocked Jesus? Or were they part of the unit assigned to the crucifixion? They stand in stark contrast to the women. If women, especially Jewish peasant women, were a picture of powerlessness, mighty soldiers stood for violence, power, and war.  They were indifferent to Jesus’ identity and completely opposed to his ideals.
Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek.  These soldiers would smash your face. Love your enemies?  They were the enemy, and they weren’t going to love you. They were going to stomp on you. The soldiers didn’t ask permission. They took what was theirs and often they would take what was yours, and go ahead, try complaining. To what authority could one complain about abuse from soldiers, which was very common? They were the authorities!
So how do we come on Easter? Do we perceive ourselves to be powerless in our world, dependent on others? Or least, have our lives demonstrated that we align ourselves with the poor and the powerless?  We approach as the women did.  We know we need the resurrected Christ at the very center of our lives. 
Do we possess strength and resources that make us among the people in society with advantages?  If we’re honest with ourselves, do we perceive ourselves to be among the powerful in the world? Then we come to Easter Sunday as the soldiers did. 
            What does the resurrection do; how does our life change today, right now because this happened?
The earth quakes, the angel descends, and the stone is rolled back. Four times, Matthew uses the Greek word Fobos, the root of the English Phobia; fear.   Who is afraid?  Everyone.  The powerless women and those mighty soldiers – both find themselves filled with fear.  Matthew writes, “For fear, the guards shook and became like dead men” (v.4).
The mighty soldiers “shook” – it’s the same word used to describe the earth quake. First, the earth rumbled, and then the mighty guards trembled. And they became like dead men. They who were entrusted to guard the tomb of the dead themselves became like the dead. And from that point on, they were ignored.
When theses soldiers walked down the street, you moved out of their way. When turned down the lane in your village, you locked up the cottage and prayed for them to pass by. Now, here they are on the ground, trembling, and Matthew promptly loses interest in them. 
First century women, even the wealthy ones, lived at the pleasure of men. Greek, Roman, and Jewish societies were dominated by men. But in Matthew, these powerless Jewish women move to the center of the story. The angel, indifferent to the petrified guards, says to the women, “Fear not! Jesus has been raised. Go quickly and tell his disciples. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see Him.”
You don’t go to a cemetery thinking you’ll see an angel.  How do we handle that? How do we come to worship, by way of habit, or in hopes that we will meet the living God? 
Before Jesus was born, an angel told Mary she was going to be the mother of the son of God. She responded with a song of praise. Specifically, she said, “[God] has scattered the proud. … He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). There are the proud, mighty soldiers, cowering, brought low.
The women, followers, of Jesus came on a mission of grief, but now, the angel has given them a mission from God.  The divine messenger has chosen of all people these women to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. And they did it!  “With fear and great joy, [they] ran to tell the disciples” (28:7).
Both the women and the guard were filled with fear. The illusion of power the guards lived under was shattered when the angel descended and rolled back the stone. The reality of their smallness and their powerlessness before God crushed them. They weren’t ready to tremble before God. 
The women knew they needed God, so when God showed up, they didn’t collapse. They trembled. They were afraid. But, they were also ready to listen. It was to them that the message and the mission were given. They were the first preachers of resurrection and I believe this is so because of how they came.
The angel told the women, “Fear not.” They ran from there in great joy. Suddenly on the path, Jesus greeted them. The angel said they would see him, but still it was a surprise.  And they were terribly afraid. Fear of God is the right reaction. God is holy. We are sinful. God is divine. We are of earth, profane. God is eternal.  Our lives are here today, gone tomorrow.   It is right to fear the Lord. 
What do we do with that fear?  Hide?  Run away?  The women didn’t do that. They did the only thing one does when one comes before God.  They bowed in humble worship.
“[The women] took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (28:10).
If we come to Easter Sunday as people who have heard the story before and as people who own it and as people who can no longer be amazed by the power of God expressed in the resurrection of Jesus, then we cannot ever have the moment these women had. 
If we come in our power, we will experience what the guards experienced. We will be knocked down and scared senseless. It might not happen at the Easter sunrise worship service. It might not hit and sink in until Judgment Day. But rest assured, if we come to God from a standpoint of power – like God needs us – we will be made aware of just how powerless and how small we are.
If we come to Easter in humility, and if we come to God in repentant, humble confession, acknowledging our absolute need for Jesus, we will be raised up as they were. We will hear the words, “Fear not.” We will worship in wondrous, awe-struck joy. We will be sent out to tell lost and hurting world that Jesus is alive and salvation is available to all who put their trust in Him.
Hiking through a thick forest up the side of a tall mountain, we come to the clearing at the top. When you come out of the shadow of the trees, with a view of the entire valley below and other mountain ranges in the distance, it takes your breath away. You could walk along complaining about the mosquitoes and the sweat trickling down your back, and the ache in your legs from walking four miles up hill. All that complaining would poison you so much, you would not appreciate the spectacular view once you get there. Or, you can enjoy the walk, the beauty of the green forest, the feeling of strength one gets from accomplishing such hike, and the appreciation of nature. The bugs and sweat and fatigue are just part of the journey and the view makes it all worthwhile. The quality of the experience really does hinge on the approach.
On resurrection morning, we meet God when we start out in fear and we start out knowing God doesn’t need us but we desperately need God. No matter how we come - in awe, seeking, bored, or in arrogance, Jesus is raised. Nothing we do affects the story. Furthermore, at the final judgment, nothing we do affects what God’s judgment will be. How we approach it determines how we experience the story. When we come in humility, seeking God, the resurrection begins shaping our lives and we live every day in awe-struck, fearful joy. Every day, the risen Lord says to us, “Fear not. Go and tell.”
That’s the final word this morning. Jesus conquered death. Jesus is alive. He was crucified for the sins of the world and the grave could not hold Him. People need to know. So, come in humility. Rejoice in faith. Then in love, go and tell.