This past Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013, I had the unanticipated pleasure of preaching the morning message in my home church, High River Alliance. It all began on Good Friday morning, when our pastor and his family were called away suddenly on account of a family medical emergency. After a few texts back and forth, it became clear that they should attend to their family’s crisis and not try to return to High River for Easter Sunday. I offered to take the service, and (for better or worse) he agreed. So here’s the result of a busy Easter Saturday’s worth of work! Though I’ve cleaned up the text a little, it’s written as a talk, so the structure and grammar is not what it might be if I were writing for publication (which I wouldn’t … in this field!). Click here for the podcast.
Defining Moments – A Sermon for Easter Sunday
Most of us are familiar with the concept of defining moments. Defining moments shape us—they are the raw material with which we write the stories of our lives. Some defining moments are big. Others are small. But defining moments are what make us who we are.
Join me in a little exercise. Off the top of your head, just here in the moment, can you think of some defining moments from your life? Can you recall a defining moment from this past week or two? What about a significant tragic defining moment in your life? What about the biggest, most exciting defining moment?
Some of you have little children. They can’t do this, you know? When really little children play together, they just play—they’re not verbal. As children become verbal, they start to form relationships with one another through words. But not through defining moments. Children will ask things like: What’s your favourite colour? What’s your favourite food? Favourite number? Favourite letter? Favourite game? Favourite book or TV show? They do that because that’s what their world revolves around—they have no defining moments to talk about, because they haven’t lived long enough. Four-year olds don’t say to one another, “Remember the time when …” But teenagers do, and as they form friendships, as young people start to date and get married, they build relationships around defining moments—in two ways. They share stories about their own lives to get to know one another, and they do things together so that they build up a set of shared experiences—defining moments they can treasure together. That’s why so many couples find their marriages grow richer and richer over time.
So what are your defining moments?
A few days ago, there was a defining moment in Calgary … Jarome Iginla, the face of the Calgary Flames hockey team, was finally traded. It’s not that important for my life, but for Mr. Iginla and for the Flames organization, it’s one of the most significant defining moments ever.
When I think of tragic or sad defining moments, I think of Christmas morning 1997. You see, my mom had cancer, was gradually slipping away in palliative care, and the last conversation I had with her was Christmas morning, when I slipped up to the hospital around 8 a.m. I told her I loved her and wished her a Merry Christmas, and she mumbled the same to me—they might have been her last words, even, because she drifted into unconsciousness that day and died two days later.
When I think of happy defining moments, I think of my birthday 27 years ago. Colleen and I were dating—planning to get married, and while I was at work after my classes at the university, she was going to come to my apartment and make supper for us. Perfect, I thought … tonight’s the night I’m going to propose! I came home, saw her there, then went into my room to change … when about a dozen friends screamed, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” To say that I was in shock would be a gross understatement—not least because the engagement ring was sitting only half-hidden on top of my dresser! What an absolute shock! Well, that day turned into a defining moment for Colleen, too, because after everyone finally left the party (which couldn’t happen too soon for me!) … I surprised her and proposed.
Every year at Easter time, we Christians remember, commemorate, and celebrate the defining moment of our faith—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We just heard the account of those events again as we read from the gospel of Matthew, from chapter 27:45 to chapter 28:10. What I want to do with you this morning is to explore that defining moment—to reflect together, as many of us have done for many years, about what those events did, what they mean, and what they mean for us.
So, first of all, let’s think about the question of what the events of that first Easter did. What happened there, at Calvary and in Jerusalem?
It was not just any defining moment … but the most important defining moment in all human history … more than any war has ever been, more than any empire has ever been, and even more than the discovery of electricity or the invention of the computer, or any other technological or cultural phenomenon…
In the person of Jesus, God entered human history in the most radical way imaginable … by becoming Jesus the human being … and with the death and resurrection of Jesus we reach the powerful climax of God’s encounter with humanity … the gospel accounts are filled with drama … God’s power is pulsing on the earth … it feels almost electric … think of the many events of that day:
The sky went dark in the middle of the day.
A powerful earthquake shook the land.
The resurrection of holy people who mingled among the masses in Jerusalem.
The curtain of the temple torn from top to bottom—an absolutely revolutionary event in Judaism, because it tore down the barrier between God and humanity.
And think of the impact on people: the centurion (“Son of God”) and the others who witnessed Jesus’ death and who were overcome with emotion.
Impact on people: the women who watched the death and burial of Jesus, who returned to embalm him, who witnessed the empty tomb and who encountered the living Jesus.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus–both notable men–who understood something of Jesus’ importance, and who cared for Jesus’ body, placing it in an expensive tomb.
Then … two days later … Sunday … another earthquake … the heavy stone rolled away … the appearance of angels (“He is not here. He is risen.”).
And finally, the encounters with Jesus … the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the larger group of disciples (huddled away in fear, then overjoyed to see Jesus) … the disciple Thomas (who doubted, then exclaimed “My Lord and my God!”) … and Mary Magdalene (who remained devoted throughout, but experienced a roller-coaster of emotions from sadness and grief and crying to joy and excitement).
These events all attest to the power of this defining moment. And just when we’re unsure whether Jesus’ resurrection really did change anything, we turn the pages of our Bibles and find ourselves in the book of Acts, where we see the release of the Holy Spirit—the spirit of the resurrected Christ—poured out on the disciples, radically transforming them!
Three times in the first four chapters of Acts Peter—the one who denied any association with Jesus three times during the crisis of Jesus’ arrest—now three times Peter stands up and preaches to the crowds in Jerusalem, explaining this new powerful eruption of God’s activity on earth … and what does he say?
In Acts 2, Peter explains the outpouring of God’s spirit, connects this event to the life of Jesus and the prophesy of David, and declares (vs 32, 33, 36): “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. … Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
In Acts 3, Peter and John heal a man who had been physically handicapped since birth, which causes an uproar, in response to which Peter declares (vs 12-16): “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.”
In Acts 4, we find Peter and John under arrest for preaching about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, now standing before the ruling council of the Jews. Trying to account for the uproar that they have caused, Peter declares (vs 8-12): “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
Then, in response to a warning not to speak any further about Jesus, he replies (vs 19-20): “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Can there be any doubt about the dramatic impact of Jesus death and resurrection, some 2000 years ago in Jerusalem? Nature erupts. God sends angels. People are overcome with emotion. And the disciples are fundamentally changed from confused and hesitant followers to powerful proclaimers of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Lord and the Messiah—the king and the saviour.
What about the second question? What do the events of Easter mean? In other words, what did Jesus death and resurrection actually do? The Bible—in both the Old Testament and New—is full of answers to this question, but today I think we should look to one of the many answers Paul gives, in the book of Ephesians.
[Note: Other passages I looked at included Isaiah 53:3-12, Romans 4:23-5:17, Romans 6, I Corinthians 1:17-25, I Corinthians 15:3-8 and 12-27, Galatians 2:20-21, Philippians 3:7-11, and Colossians 1:19-20 and 2:9-15. KJ]
Ephesians 1:3-10 … blessing, adoption, freedom (redemption=release from slavery), forgiveness … all of this God’s will … that everything be brought under the authority of Christ … Christ as saviour and as king … but all that just hints at the power of Christ’s death and resurrection …
Ephesians 1:18-23 … hope, power, authority … for us, filling the church, which is his body …
Ephesians 2: 1-10 … from death, from objects of God’s wrath … to love, mercy, life ( our resurrection), grace, salvation, relationship/standing with God (position in heaven), grace, kindness, gift, purpose (created to do good works) …
Ephesians 2: 14-19 … peace, an end to hostilities, acceptance and reconciliation with God and with other people, profound sense of belonging …
Ephesians 4:7-13 … release from the bondage of hell, gifts … spiritual gifts … the whole structure of church ministry flows from the power of Christ’s resurrection …
This is just the barest sampling of scriptures … but enough to demonstrate how absolutely fundamental Christ’s death and resurrection is for everything we are as Christians … it is the ultimate defining moment for humanity.
But that leads us to the final question, which is: what does Christ’s death and resurrection mean for us?
There’s an important passage in I Corinthians 1 … as Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians, he makes the following declaration (vs 17-18 and 22-24): “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. … Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
And I wonder, what would Paul have written to us?
Are we a people looking for miraculous signs, before we’ll believe? Maybe some of us, but I don’t really think that’s where most of us are.
Are we a people who have developed sophisticated intellectual philosophies of life, and see the gospel as something silly? Maybe some of us, but I don’t really think that’s where most of us are.
What we are is a people who are busy, distracted, and deeply materialistic … and I wonder if Paul wouldn’t say to us that the gospel isn’t flashy enough for us … isn’t shiny enough for us?
The gospel—the good news—of Christ’s death and resurrection calls us to response. It demands decision.
We don’t decide if Jesus is Saviour and King—he is.
We don’t decide whether Easter is the ultimate defining moment of human history—it is.
What we have to decide is whether Easter will be that for us. Will Jesus be our Saviour and King. Will we accept his salvation as the gift God is giving—will we take the freedom, release, acceptance, love, kindness, and mercy Jesus offers? Will we accept his kingship as the call God is issuing—will all things in our lives be placed under the authority of Jesus—our time, money, energy, decisions, hopes, dreams, plans, talents? Will we consent to be his workmanship, doing the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do?
Those are the decisions we have to make.
Easter reminds us of them.
It’s a great time for a new defining moment for you and for me.