When speaking of someone who spent much time and effort over a trivial thing, Winston Churchill remarked, “He reminds me of a dog who is chasing a train. What is he going to do when he catches it?”
It has taken me many years to figure out that one of the marks of wisdom is knowing the difference between what is important and what is not important. The trouble is that I have found that unimportant things often disguise themselves with either urgency or pleasure while important things are seldom urgent and are often not very pleasurable. In fact, they can be quite difficult to attend to. And so for me it is a struggle to both know and to do the important things of life. It is a constant battle to make sure that my priorities are in line. Having our priorities in line is very important to having a good, full and purposeful life. One key to success in work and business and family and everything else is knowing what is important and what is less so.
I know that I’m not alone in my struggle over priorities. Folk Singer Harry Chapin’s song, “The Cat’s in the Cradle” is all about a man who didn’t have his priorities in line and ended up missing out on something very important. I would be surprised if maybe you have the same problem that I do. Maybe you find it hard not only DOING the important things but even knowing what they are.
One of the things I have learned in my struggles with priorities is that the most important things in life that many people often give little attention to are matters of faith. Many people find the Christian faith to be something rather unimportant in their lives. In some ways, even as a pastor, I can understand this. Spiritual matters are hardly ever urgent matters. Unlike our bodies which urgently call for food when we are hungry or drink when we are thirsty our hunger for spiritual things is often quieter. With our busy lifestyles so many other things seem more important – getting the kids off to school, paying the bills, keeping the boss happy, keeping the car running and even the grass mowed. It is easy to neglect the matters of the spirit. Even we pastors can get so caught up in busyness that we can neglect our own spiritual health. But friends, if we do, we miss out on the benefits of paying attention to something that is indeed very important things in life.
This Easter Sunday, I would like us to take this time to remind ourselves of how important matters of faith really are. This is what Paul did when he wrote to the Christians in the Greek City of Corinth. He starts off chapter 15 by saying to them:
1 ¶ Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
Then he says:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
Here Paul talks about something he says is of first importance and he says that what is of first importance is that Jesus Christ died on the cross, that he was buried and that he was resurrected from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures. These things, he says, are primary things. They are paramount. They are preeminent. They are worth giving much time and attention to. They are worth giving up things for. They are worth reordering our priorities for. They are worth any inconvenience and even pain to explore and hold to and proclaim.
But why? What makes these things more important than anything else in life?
I. Because death is our Greatest Problem and Eternal life is our greatest need.
I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news but human beings die in thousands of different ways. Human life is fragile and can be ended by everything from powerful nuclear bombs to tiny micro-organisms. That is frightening.
What is most frightening, perhaps, is that the older I get, the more aware I am that one day death will come and claim me. I am 45 years old. My Grandpa Brown lived until he was almost 90. He lived a good long life. Someone once said to him, “Billy, if only the good die young, you must have been one bad son-of-a gun.” Yet, if I live to be 90, that means that half my life is over. I am now considered middle aged. As Doris Day once said, “The really frightening thing about middle age is the knowledge that you'll grow out of it.” Funny as that statement is, it has more than the ring of truth.
Some people try to deal with death with courage and even humour. Perhaps my favourite saying about death is another one of Winston Churchill’s quotes. He once said:
"I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter."
Then there is what English playwright W. Somerset Maugham once wrote:
"Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it."
I wish I could have nothing to do with it. The problem is that we can’t. One day all of us will face our demise and no amount of denial, humour or even courage can change that.
Have you come to realize that you will not live forever? It might seem like a funny question to ask but I am convinced that many people have somehow been able to fool themselves that death will make an exception in their case. A Roman Catholic Cardinal named René Francois Regnier once wrote this poem:
"Gaily I lived as ease and nature taught,
And spent my little life without a thought,
And am amazed that Death, that tyrant grim,
Should think of me, who never thought of him."
Death is our greatest problem and no person on earth can do a thing about it.
What do you think would happen if I asked Jack Layton at a town hall meeting: “Mr. Layton, we have a real problem with death here in Canada. People are dying every hour of every day. Despite our advances in health care, one out of one people die! People I know and love have died. I’m going to die. What is your plan to deal with the problem of death?” What would happen? What would he say? He’d probably look at me like I’m crazy! Either that or he would blame the problem on Stephen Harper and accuse Michael Ignatief of not having a good enough plan to deal with it.
The resurrection of Christ is of first importance because death is our biggest problem and eternal life is our greatest need.
II. But in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on that first Easter Sunday, we find our greatest hope.
Again, if I asked Jack Layton what he and his party planned to do about the problem of death, he’d look at me like I was crazy. What would Jesus say if he was asked that question?
Joh 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Joh 10:11 "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
"This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. (Luke 24)
Jesus would have a ready answer because he came to deal with the problem of death and to give us new life.
And this was prophetically attested. Note how Paul keeps saying that the death and resurrection of Christ happened “according to the Scriptures.” We find it in the Old Testament revelation – written hundreds of years before the events happened. We see it in the testimonies of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Isaiah and the other prophets.
Isaiah 53 is perhaps the best know prophecy about the death of Christ.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 ¶ Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. 11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
In the Psalms we see this prophesy:
8 ¶ I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, 10 because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. (Psalm 16:8)
These are only two prophesies that show that the death and resurrection of Christ was not an afterthought to God. It was not Plan B if Plan A didn’t work out. God wove the death and resurrection of Jesus into his plan for the history of earth because death is our greatest problem and eternal life is our greatest need and God in Christ chose to solve it for us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It was not only prophetically attested it was attested by many witnesses.
he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
People saw the resurrected Christ. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection tell us the names of several people who saw the resurrected Christ alive and in the flesh. 500 saw him at one time and during Paul’s life many of them were still alive could testify to the truth of what Paul said. God made sure that both prophets and witnesses could attest to the truth of the resurrection. God wanted us in the 21st century to know that Jesus came to deal with the problem of death and to give us new life. As someone under the sentence of death, I think this is fabulous. New life is possible! Jesus promised
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11)
Don’t you think this is fabulous?
III. What is even more fabulous is knowing that nobody is too sinful to find this new life.
Look what Paul says:
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them— yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Some people think that they are either too good or too bad for Jesus. At one time, Paul himself thought that he was too good and didn’t need saving. He was an extremely religious man. He knew the Jewish law and loved it. He was an extremely zealous Jew. But that zeal led him to persecute the church. He approved of Stephen’s murder. He acted like a leader of some dictator’s goon squad, dragging believers out of their homes to take them to prison. He breathed out murderous threats to the church. Then, the risen Christ appeared to him and he realized that he was not too good for Jesus. Suddenly, he felt unworthy to receive this new life in Christ – but that’s what grace is all about. Grace is all about getting something we don’t deserve. In this case, it is new life in Jesus Christ.
It is no wonder that Paul saw the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be of first importance. In the resurrection of Christ he found the prophesied and witnessed answer to the greatest problem that we have - that of death. In the resurrection of Christ we find the forgiveness of sins and the promise of our own resurrection to eternal life.
I read an article a few weeks back where the author made it clear that he put matters of faith, or “religion” as he called it, on the same level as hobbies. The author of the article considered matters of faith to be an “add-on” to life – something that is not at all at all central. He considered them to be things you pay attention to only if you have the time and only when you need them in a crisis or on special occasions like Christmas and Easter. He didn’t consider matters of faith to be of first importance.
I thought about how at one time I didn’t consider Jesus to be of first importance. Yes, I went to church – reluctantly – but I considered it to be something peripheral to the real important things in life like good grades, money, friends and success. I came to realize that part of my job now is to convince you to make matters of faith central in your life.
If it is true that we have no greater problem than death and we have no hope greater than the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ, it makes sense that matters of faith be of first importance to us. It makes sense that they are something to build your life around. It makes sense that they are something that informs all of your decisions. It makes sense that matters of faith not be an add-on, but central to life. Such things are matters of life and death – eternal life and death.
Can I ask you where you stand in all of this? We have a great problem, but we also have a great Saviour. Don’t put him on the fringes of your life – let him be the centre. What would our lives be like if we all put Jesus at the centre? For one thing, I believe that all other priorities would fall into their proper places eventually. For another, death will also have its proper place – something we all must face, but something we also have a solution for in the crucified and risen Lord. Let me assure you that if we seek eternal life and find it, we will know what to do with it.
C. 2011 by Rev. Steven Brown. You are free to use portions of this message but please do not pass this off as your own.