A Sermon for Easter Sunday
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts April 16, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: 1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith-being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire-may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Hope and Hopelessness
I want to talk with you this morning about hope. That's the focus of our Scripture passage for today: "By his great mercy, [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (v. 3). There you see the clear connection between Easter and hope. Through the resurrection, God grants us hope, living hope.
In order to prepare for this sermon, I thought I'd do a bit of Googling to see what I could find. I started with "hope." The first Google link, from over one billion hits, was Hope College in Michigan, where, ironically, our founding pastor Ben Patterson was once Dean of the Chapel. That's a fun coincidence, but not especially relevant to this sermon.
Among the other top "hope" hits were several social help agencies, like Project HOPE. Bob Hope's official web site showed up, as did something called Computer Hope, which is meant to help you out when you're ready to throw your computer out of ten-story window. That sounds like a valuable site, but no help for this sermon.
Then I decided to broaden my Google search a bit and look for "hopelessness." Of the seven million Google hits, most of the early ones were psychologically oriented. They all agreed that hopelessness is a very bad thing. No surprise here. A National Institutes of Health study found that hopelessness among older adults leads to a higher mortality rate. A University of Michigan study found a link between hopelessness and high blood pressure among middle-aged men from Finland. (Since I'm both middle-aged and one-eighth Finish, that got my attention. But I think the results impact you other folk as well.) And a World Health Organization source noted that "the single most accurate predictor of a person's likelihood to attempt suicide" is, you guessed it, "hopelessness."
Given these findings and many others like them, you wouldn't be surprised to learn that Google grabbed many health-related websites that advocate hope. My favorite page had the compelling title: "Always Choose Hope Over Hopelessness." It began, "There is a strong connection between hope and health." Then it went on to contrast Mr. Hopeful with Mr. Hopeless. They illustrate the fact that "Hopeless individuals believe that their problems will never be solved and they will never succeed at what they attempt to do." Conversely, "Hope is like our personal cheerleader in the game of life." The discussion ends with a number of questions, like:
Do you look forward to the future with hope and enthusiasm?
All things considered, do you see yourself as a lucky person?
When you look ahead to the future, do you expect to be happy and content?
The punch line: Get to work now on feeling more hopeful!
Now I don't know how this strikes you, but I feel rather bugged by it, to tell you the truth. If I were Mr. Hopeless today, I don't think it would help much to be told that I might be killing myself off, and that I should get some hope. After all, hope isn't something we can just produce at will. Hope has to do, not simply with internal feelings, but also with external realities. From my point of view, hopelessness may be bad, but false hope could be even worse. Hope, when it's based on wishful thinking alone, will inevitably disappoint us, and will lead, I expect, to even deeper hopelessness.
For example, I could hope that my hair will grow back on the upper half of my forehead (or as my family calls it, my "fivehead"). And I could hope that I'll lose twenty-five pounds without having to give up foods I like to eat. And I could hope that my books will soon outsell Dan Brown's books. I could hope for these things and get a momentary buzz. But then reality would come crashing down on me, and I'd be stuck with the emptiness of false hope . . . balding, overweight, and with books that sell in the thousands rather than the millions.
If I'm going to have hope, I want confidence that the object of my hope isn't ridiculous. If I'm going to be hope-full, I want to be full of reality, not wishful thinking. I want to place my hope in that which won't let me down, leaving me worse off than I was before.
The Content of Hope
This is exactly what Peter says we have from God. "By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope." Living hope! A hope that won't die. A hope that will continue until we realize it. A hope that won't let us down. Now that's what I need, and so do you.
Question: So what is the content of this hope?
What are we hoping for when we have a living hope?
The answer comes to us in the rest of our text from 1 Peter. Our hope is "an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you" (v. 4). Notice, biblical hopefulness is grounded in the content of hope. Hope is not just the feeling, but the reality that engenders the feeling. Our hope is our heavenly inheritance.
I realize this can sound less than compelling, especially if your picture of heaven is sitting on a cloud playing a harp. This doesn't exactly seem like a engaging eternity, does it? In truth, the biblical picture of heaven is far more gripping. Jesus refers to the life of the future as the "abundant life." It's life with all the stops pulled out. It's life as it was meant to be, full, rich, joyous, energetic, awe-filled, rewarding. It's life lived in intimate relationship with God and God's people. You may recall that Jesus described the afterlife as Paradise, a lush, Eden-like garden. Our heavenly inheritance is life beyond our wildest expectations and dreams.
Peter says this inheritance is "imperishable, undefiled, and unfading." It won't disappear or rot away. It won't be ruined by the time we get it.
It won't be like what I inherited from one of my grandfathers. Poppy, as I called him, didn't drink alcohol. But in his professional life, he received lots of booze for Christmas gifts. Now you'd think that Poppy would have thrown away the bottles or given them to a friend. But, no, Poppy was a saver. He retired from business in 1968. He died twenty-two years later, in 1990. As we were cleaning out the attic of his home, we found boxes and boxes of alcohol, most of it still wrapped for Christmas. Now I don't know much about alcohol. But I do know that storing it in a blazingly hot attic for several decades doesn't tend to improve its flavor. My inheritance, I fear, was "perishable, defiled, and fading."
By way of contrast, consider another bit of inheritance I received just a couple of weeks ago. Honestly! This came from my grandmother on the other side of the family, who died in 1994. She had always promised that I would inherit her fine silver. But it took my uncle a little while to get it to me, say, about twelve years. When I opened up the wooden box in which it was stored, there it was. Yes, the silver needs a little polishing. But it's completely intact, "imperishable, undefiled, and unfading."
The life God has for us beyond this one is like this silver, only infinitely better. It's everything that matters most in life, ten times over. And it won't be tarnished, or lost, or spoiled.
My grandmother's silver and a (still-unopened) box of my grandfather's "stash." Yes, I'm a "saver" too.
Hope and the Resurrection
Question: How can I be sure that this hope isn't empty?
How can I have confidence in my inheritance?
Here is Peter's answer: "By his great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." Did you catch that? The resurrection confirms that the promises of God are true. The resurrection demonstrates the power of God even over death. The resurrection proves that your inheritance is real, secure, and will be there waiting for you.
Apart from the resurrection, we wouldn't have biblical hope, but only wishful thinking. We wouldn't have confidence in our salvation, but only uncertain expectation. I know some people try to have a resurrection-less Christianity, or a Christianity in which the resurrection is reduced to "the rising of the spirit of Jesus in the community of his followers." This sort of resurrection not only makes no sense historically, but it also fails to give the sort of hope we need. Here I agree with what the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
Yeow! That doesn't leave much room for resurrectionless Christianity, does it?
My friends, Jesus Christ was truly raised from the dead. His tomb is empty, there's no question about it. If it hadn't been empty, the opponents of early Christianity would have produced the body of Jesus and that would have been the end of the Jesus movement. No, indeed, the resurrection did really happen, changing the fearful, discouraged, and, indeed, hopeless disciples into a fearless, bold, and hopeful band that changed the face of history.
Because of the resurrection, we can have hope, a hope that will not die or disappoint us, a living hope, a confident hope, a joyous hope.
What About Now?
At this point I expect some of you are thinking, "Well, that's great. But what about this life? Is Christianity simply a matter of waiting around hopefully for the life to come? How does everything you've been saying make a difference now?" These are great questions, crucial questions. And they're answered in our passage from 1 Peter.
First, I want to note how this text reaffirms something I've been saying throughout the last several months: Life is hard. As many of you know, I've been doing a preaching series called Finding God When Life is Hard. Throughout this series we've seen that the Bible doesn't sugarcoat reality. There's no pretending about the struggles we all face. 1 Peter is no exception. In verse six it says, "In this [your future inheritance] you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials." The NIV puts it, "for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials." So Peter agrees with the rest of Scripture by affirming the hardness of this life.
And, like the rest of Scripture, Peter also affirms God's help and presence in the midst of our struggles. First, he notes that our trials in this life demonstrate the genuineness of our faith (v. 7). Then he adds,
Although you have not seen [Jesus Christ], you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (vv. 8-9)
Even though we don't yet see Jesus, even though we have to wait to receive the content of our hope, we can still rejoice "with an indescribable and glorious joy." Yes, in the face of trials and suffering. Yes, even when life is hard, we can experience true joy in the Lord.
Why? "For you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls." Notice the tense here. You are receiving . . . now, in the present. We don't have to wait to begin to experience "the outcome" of faith. Last week I talked about how we live in between the resurrection of Christ and His return. In this age we begin to taste the banquet of the future, but only in bits and pieces. Now we begin to enjoy the new creation, but only in part. Now we rejoice, truly and gloriously, but we also hurt, and grieve, and struggle.
The resurrection tells us that someday things will be different. And the resurrection tells us that we can begin even now to experience the life of the future. In our daily life, with all of its challenges, we can know what the Apostle Paul calls, "the immeasurable greatness of [God's] power for us who believe" (Ephesians 2:19). Then Paul adds, "God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead." (v. 20). In other words, the power of the resurrection is available to us now through Jesus Christ.
Joy and Sorrow on Easter
Does Easter mean there will be no more suffering? Not in this world, but in the world to come. Does the resurrection mean everything in my life will always turn out great? Not in the eyes of this world, but from the perspective of the future. Does believing in Jesus mean I'll always be happy? Not in this world, though we can know genuine joy even when life is hard.
To be honest, I will experience a mix of joy and sorrow today. I love Easter. It's one of my favorite days of the year. (Yes, in spite of the fact that I go to church four times. Actually, because of the fact that I go to church four times!) I love celebrating the resurrection of Christ, reflecting on new life in Him, proclaiming His victory over sin and death. And I love singing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" again and again.
I also love my Easter afternoon tradition. For more than a decade Linda, Nathan, Kara and I get together up in the L.A. area with our larger families and friends. We'll spend the afternoon with some of the dearest people in our lives. And I'll get to take a long nap!
But I'll also feel sad today because somebody special won't be there. Julie was a dear friend whom I knew for half of my life. A brilliant, kind woman, she was a wonderful wife and mother of two young children. But Julie got cancer, bad cancer. Last year she came to our Easter gathering as she had for so many years before. She loved being a part of our larger family. But last year Julie had to be helped to a recliner, where she stayed for the afternoon. There wasn't much left of Julie last Easter, as cancer ravaged her body. We all knew it would be her last Easter with us. A month later she went to be with the Lord.
We will miss Julie today, especially when we see her sweet husband and children, whom my family and I haven't seen in person since Julie's memorial service. There will be many tears today, as we all feel the unfairness of this life.
And there will be tears of joy. The joy of being together as God's family. The joy of being able to weep with those who weep even as we rejoice with those who rejoice. The joy of God's presence in the midst of suffering. And, above all, the joy of knowing that Julie has received her inheritance. With all of my heart, I wish she could still be with us, and mostly with her dear family. But I am more grateful than I can explain in words in knowing that Julie is in Paradise with Jesus.
What we'll experience today reminds me of Easter 1988. Linda's mother had died of cancer just a few weeks before Easter. Our tradition back then was to celebrate Easter afternoon at Linda's parents' house. We thought about not doing it that year because we'd all miss Linda's mother so much. But Linda's dad wanted to host Easter, and that settled the matter.
As we arrived, it did seem strange to be in that home without Marion in charge. But we all brought the required foods and everybody pitched in to get the meal ready. When we gathered around the table, nobody said anything at first. Finally Linda's dad said, "Well, let's pray." And so he led us. I can still remember his prayer, spoken simply, calmly, and with deep emotion: "Dear Lord, we all miss Marion today. It seems so strange that she's not here. But today of all days, we thank You for saving her from death. We thank You that because of Your resurrection, we know that Marion lives with You. So even as we miss her, we rejoice today. Thank You, Lord, for being here with us, and for our families, and for this food. Amen."
Now that's hope. Resurrection hope. True hope in hard times. Hope that will not disappoint us. Hope for the future that floods this life, giving joy and meaning in the midst of sadness.
My friends, this sort of hope can be yours in Jesus Christ today. If you already believe in Him, let me encourage you to make Him the center of your hope. Be encouraged by the inheritance that is yours. And begin now to enjoy the future through God's rich gifts in this life.
And if you have never put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, I can think of no better time to do so than right now. In a moment I will close in prayer. As I do, I'll give you an opportunity to pray with me to give your life to Christ and to receive Him as your Savior, your Lord, and your hope.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!
By his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!"
All praise be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! Amen!