Monday, April 01, 2013

The Good News of Easter (Or, "What's John Updike Got To Do with Easter?")

(Note. The following is an edited version of the first part of yesterday's Easter sermon at Faith Bible Church. It speaks of a seemingly unlikely trio of subjects -- bad news from the culture wars, a John Updike poem, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- but the significance will become clear as you read. As will, I hope, the significance of the exhortations.)

What a week last week was. The communist thugs of North Korea were getting ready to send nuclear missiles to wipe out Austin, Texas…and other points on the map of the USA.

Our nation's highest court was being pressured (loudly and belligerently) to throw the Defense of Marriage Act into the trash bin and legalize homosexual marriages.

After a college student in Florida had refused to participate in a "cultural enriching" action demanded by his professor; namely, writing the name of Jesus on a piece of paper, then throwing it on the floor, then stopping on it, the college student was suspended for demonstrating uncivil and divisive behavior.

The European Union pulled off the biggest bank robbery in history. The economy of United States continued to go south. Young men continued to kill each other on the street. The silent holocaust claimed thousands more victims as the abortion mills continued their grisly trade. Christians around the globe were persecuted more than ever. And so on.

Why bring up these news stories today?  Why serve up such a menu of bummers on, of all days, Easter morning?

Well, these things are the stuff of history. They really happened and we must deal with the implications. We cannot wish such things away. Nor can we seek refuge in denial, diversion or the delegation to somebody else to prepare a response.  It's our business.

And, by the way, Easter is the stuff of history too. The physical resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened and all of mankind needs to get serious about dealing with the implications of that event. Jesus died to pay the penalty of man's sin and was raised by the Father to secure atonement and everlasting life for all who would believe. Easter is our business too.

Indeed, I bring up the anxious and atrocious news of the week on this Easter morning to underscore the relevance of Christ's resurrection to today, to our culture, to your life and mine. For Easter is the antidote for the heartache, fear and loss caused by bad news -- any and all bad news. Easter presents for us the victory over all sin, all evil powers, all death.

Christ is risen. And because Christ is risen, all who believe in him will arise also. Death could not hold Him. And death will not hold us either.

Of course not everything was dark last week. God was quite active in accomplishing his purposes -- drawing sinners to faith in Jesus; protecting His children; giving them spiritual victories left and right; welcoming those would finish their earthly course; answering prayers; and in millions of lives of the faithful, God was shining forth His love, His truth, and His power. The power of Easter is ongoing...

I'm afraid that in many, many Protestant church buildings around the country this morning, there are Easter services going on that do not reflect the miraculous event which is at the holiday's core – that is, the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Decades of naturalism and liberalism have had their effect. And in many churches where sermons once rang with praise for the glorious reality of Christ's physical resurrection, there are now clergymen (and women) who are actually embarrassed by the event. Therefore, the sermons they preach will hem and haw around the resurrection, offering only benign poetry and allegorical applications.

One remarkable protest of this revisionist history and the soft-headed religion that now dominates the liberal Protestant churches of America comes from what might seem to be an unlikely critic, the late John Updike. Updike is one of the 20th Century's most famous novelists and poets, a writer more widely read and talked about than anyone since Hemingway.

Updike's work reflects many of the themes of the post-Christian era. He is, for instance, rather preoccupied by the subject of sex. Yet his novels are also full of religious themes. Updike read Kierkegaard and Tillich and Niebuhr and, though he was not comfortable with traditional Evangelical theology, what bothered him even more was the milquetoast religion of liberal Protestantism.

 I'm going to read one of Updike's poems to you now. It's a poem that exposes the lack of intellectual honesty, the lack of courage, and the lack of practical faith of those liberals who want an Easter without the hard fact of miracle, without what Updike calls the "monstrous" fact of Christ's physical resurrection. The poem is entitled, "Seven Stanzas At Easter."

"Seven Stanzas At Easter" by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that--pierced--died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

The miracle was real, Updike warns. The physical resurrection of Jesus actually happened. And those who deny it should act honestly and just clear out of the religious game altogether. Because Christianity must include the cross, the atoning death, and the physical resurrection. Otherwise, it's less than worthless. It's a mean joke. And a joke, he sternly warns, that will eventually crush the doubters who pass it along.

In this, John Updike echoes the apostle Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 15. Here are highlights of that presentation as they pertain to this matter:

"If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins…If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied."

But Jesus did rise from the grave. And for those who trust in the sacrifice He made for us, the Innocent One dying to pay the penalties of the guilty, they too will rise from the grave.

Later in that chapter Paul continues, "But when this perishable [body] will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal [body] will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."

Christ is risen. And that makes all the difference for heaven and earth…and hell too.

Plus, it's a difference that is not merely historical or eschatological; it makes a huge difference for men and women living in the maelstrom of the present culture wars. While North Korea rattles the sabres, while the sounds of gunshots echo through our inner city neighborhoods, while all of creation groans under the weight of such bizarre sins as child-murder, sexual perversion, and the brazen discarding of divine revelation -- the resurrection of Jesus gives to His adopted children the sure hope of their own resurrection and the power to overcome sin, temptation and trial.

Oh yes, the raising of Jesus has very active help for us today. It gives us perspective, comfort, strength and joy. And, in time, it will give us all the treasures of heaven.

John Updike's criticism of the insipid nature of liberal theology is spot on. And a few million Americans and Europeans have, over the last two generations, left the mainline Protestant denominations because they agreed with him. The liberal religionists have little to offer the mind and nothing whatsoever to soothe the soul. And, whether or not Updike himself ever "walked through the door"(as he put it) and fully grasped the implications of the open tomb, "Seven Stanzas At Easter" still stands brilliantly true and is a compelling illustration of the apostle Paul's exhortation of 1 Corinthians 15.

So let's you and I heed the advice well. Let us not mock God by treating Easter as only a sweet holiday -- one that speaks of bunnies and spring, decorated eggs and new outfits.  Let us not choose the allegory, the metaphor, and the sidestepping which foolishly trades in the true miracle of Easter for the papier-mache scene created by the "faded credulity of earlier ages."

Rather, let us walk through the door of that open tomb, appreciating the universe-shattering event that Christ's resurrection was, receiving into our spirits the powerful effects it has for our service in His kingdom right now, and looking forward to the full realization of His victory when all things will be reconciled to God.