The Promise

(Isaiah 44:1-8; Luke 24:36-49)

The longer I do this, the more people I talk to, the more I believe that the biggest thing driving people in this world is fear. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of pain, fear of abandonment, fear of being helpless . . . the list goes on and on; everyone has their own particular fears, since we’re different people with different experiences, but we all have them, and some go very deep. Some people are ruled by them, and we see them as fearful; some overreact against them and take foolish risks, living on the edge to try to prove they aren’t afraid. Many turn their fears into anger; sometimes that’s directed outwards—maybe they even become violent—while others turn their anger in on themselves, resulting in depression. It looks different in everyone, but fear is always at work. It comes inevitably from living in a world that’s under sentence of death.

But 1 John, through which I plan to preach this fall, declares, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Why? Because the perfect love of God has removed that death sentence. This is Easter: God set aside all the praise of heaven to be born as a baby to a working-class family in the redneck part of an occupied country; he spoke the truth, not what the powerful people wanted to hear; he was guilty of nothing at all, but they rigged a trial to convict him anyway, and then they executed him in the most painful and shameful way anyone had ever come up with to that point. He let them, so he could take that death sentence all on himself, so he could take everything bad and wrong and poisoned and polluted about us and our world and pay the penalty for all of it; but then he turned it all on its head, beating death at its own game, breaking its power and overcoming it with his life.

And then, having come back to life again, he went on ahead of us back to heaven, to get our place ready and to open the way for us to follow him. He made a way for us to get free from fear—not a way to avoid death, but a way through it. In fact, he became the way: he is the way. We don’t get to heaven by living a good life or being nice to people; we can’t be good enough, and we don’t have to be. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done right in the past, and it doesn’t matter what we’ve done wrong; we have no reason for pride, and he offers us freedom from all guilt and shame and regret. All we have to do is believe that when he said he is the way, he meant it—and follow as he goes. That’s the promise—for you, for me, for each of us, for always.

The Mission

(Daniel 7:9-14; Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 1:1-11)

The message of Christmas is that God was born as an ordinary baby—that there was at one time on this planet a man, perfectly normal to look at, with a normal set of experiences and challenges, who was—while still being fully and completely human—fully and completely God. No, we don’t understand how that could be, but it’s apparently one of those things God can do even if it doesn’t make sense to us.

The message of Easter is that God didn’t come down just to enjoy the sights. This man who was God, who was completely innocent of any wrongdoing—not just any crime, but even any inappropriate thought—allowed himself to be wrongly convicted and brutally butchered, to take on himself all the evil and all the pain and all the brokenness of the world and to pay the penalty that justice demanded for all of it; and then he made himself the victor over death by rising from the dead. Through this, he saved us from sin and death—he put sin to death in us and replaced it with his life, which has overcome death and Hell. His life is at work in us by the power of his Holy Spirit, swallowing up what is dead; his light is shining, burning away the darkness in our hearts.

Because of this, we have hope; and we need hope. Few can drive themselves to live without it, and no one can do so in any kind of healthy and fruitful way. But there is nothing in this world in which we can put our hope that will not ultimately fail us; every one and every thing will ultimately die and be lost to us, subject to the fatal finality of this world order, and the remorseless passage of time will grind it to powder to be blown away on the wind of forgetfulness. Where there is death, there is no hope; to have enduring hope, we must have an enduring resurrection. And in Jesus Christ, we do.

But the reality of our fallen time is that there are many who don’t know this, and many more who have turned their backs on this hope for one reason or another. Some know, more or less, what they’re rejecting, and refuse the hope because they will not accept the surrender to God that goes with it; but there are many more who have rejected a false version of Christianity, not knowing that it isn’t the true gospel.

Because of this, the hope we have been given brings with it a mission: to share it with those who don’t have it. That mission isn’t the sole reason we exist, for our most important purpose is to worship God; as John Piper says, “Mission exists because worship does not.” But because there are many who worship false gods instead of the one true God, or who worship a false understanding of God, one of the ways in which we worship our Lord and Savior is by carrying out the mission he has given us.

As we talked about a few Wednesdays ago in our afternoon Bible study, we see that mission—we see Jesus commissioning the church—in these passages from Matthew and Acts; and it has three parts. First, go into the world, as individuals and together; if all we do is sit here and try to get people to come to us, that’s not enough. For some people, that means packing up and moving across the world; for more of us, it means sending and supporting those people, while at the same time remembering that we too are missionaries when we go to Owen’s to buy milk.

Wherever God leads us, whether northern India or northern Indiana, that’s our mission field; wherever we are, we’re his missionaries. The structure of the church exists to enable and empower that, which is why my other denomination, the RCA, defines its mission this way: “Our shared task is to equip congregations for ministry—a thousand churches in a million ways doing one thing—following Christ in mission, in a lost and broken world so loved by God.” I love that, because that’s who we’re called to be as the church: a community of people, a community of communities, “following Christ in mission in a lost and broken world so loved by God.” That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Go,” and that’s the job he’s given us to do.

Next, he says, “Be.” Jesus doesn’t say “You will do witnessing”; this isn’t about just an activity that we go and do for a set period of time every so often. Rather, as we’ve been talking about, he says, “You will be my witnesses.” What we think of as formal evangelism can definitely be a part of that, but there’s a lot more to it; this has to involve our whole lives. Chuck Knox, the old football coach, used to tell people, “Your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a word you say”; if our words say we believe in Jesus but our actions tell a different story, our words will fall on disbelieving ears.

We certainly need to be able to tell people the truth about who God is, who Jesus is, and who we are in him, but that’s the sermon minor; it’s there to support and explain the sermon major, which we preach by the decisions we make, the values we show, and the way we treat those around us. Both are necessary, but it’s the sermon people see in us, not the one they hear, that carries the greatest weight. To be witnesses, to bear witness to Jesus with our lives, means that at every point, our lives are to reflect the love and testify to the truth of Jesus Christ.

Which is impossible, for us; but what is impossible for us is possible with God. That’s why Jesus says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” and then says, “and you will be my witnesses.” Unfortunately, though, when the Holy Spirit fills us with the love and the grace and the power of God, we don’t stay filled; as the great evangelist D. L. Moody put it, we leak, and so we need to be constantly filled and refilled by the Spirit. That’s part of the connection between witness and worship, because when we worship God together, we open ourselves up to the work of his Holy Spirit, purifying us, preparing us, teaching us, and empowering us for the work to which he calls us, so that more and more we will be the people, and the church, he calls us to be.

So, Jesus says, “Go”; he says, “Be”; and he says, “Do.” Specifically, he calls us to do his work: as his disciples, to make more disciples. Our mission as the church is to go out into the world, not to hide behind our four walls—to live, in full view of the world, lives powered and guided and changed and being changed by the Spirit of God—so that people will be attracted by our example and thus be drawn to follow Christ as we follow him. We are God’s light in the window, calling home those who have wandered far from him, giving direction to people lost in the darkness; but when people come, it isn’t enough just to get them in the door. It’s our call at that point to nurture them as we nurture ourselves, to give them a place by the fire and feed them, body and soul, to share our life with them, and to disciple them so that they, too, can take up the call in their turn.

Which means that if we’re serious about evangelism, we have to be willing to be disconcerted and discomfited. As the British Columbia pastor Mark Buchanan put it, drawing on the story of the paralytic whose friends tore open the roof to lower him to Jesus, if we’re truly focused on drawing people into our community to make disciples of Jesus, there will be roof tiles broken. Some people will take advantage of us; others will, with good intentions, completely disrupt our comfort zones (this is especially true of children); there will be damage done by people who just don’t know any better yet; and some of the risks we take will fall flat, leaving us looking and feeling a little foolish.

We need to face up to it, though: these are the things that come with following Jesus, with seeking to serve Christ faithfully in our community. We cannot avoid them without amputating our witness and turning aside from our mission. Ultimately, we have to decide what’s more important: keeping all the roof tiles in place, or making disciples for Jesus Christ. If we’re going to be faithful to him, our commitment has to be that broken people matter more than broken tiles.

By His Spirit

(Genesis 2:4-7; John 20:19-23)

We’ve talked before about the fact that the work of Christ, accomplished in his death and resurrection, didn’t end there. After he rose from the dead, he spent time teaching his disciples, helping them understand what had happened and preparing them for what was coming; then he ascended to heaven, returning to the Father’s side, to be the way for us into the presence of God, and sent us his Holy Spirit. It’s through the work of the Spirit that Jesus is alive in us; it’s through the work of the Spirit that the redemption Jesus purchased on the cross is our redemption. It’s by the power of the Holy Spirit in us that we are crucified with Christ, and given his resurrection life.

And it’s only by the power of the Holy Spirit that following Jesus makes any sense at all. It’s all very well to ask, “What would Jesus do?” but on our own, that doesn’t do us much good. We aren’t smart enough to know what Jesus would do, for one thing; sure, there are a lot of issues where the Bible makes it quite clear what we’re supposed to do (or not do), but there are also a great many times when figuring out how to do what Christ calls us to do requires more knowledge and understanding than we possess.

And then, of course, it’s all too often true that we don’t want to do what he tells us, and we’re tempted to disobey; sometimes we just give in to temptation, sometimes we resist it, and sometimes we look for excuses to pretend that God doesn’t actually mean what he flat-out said. We don’t have the strength to resist every time—and that’s not even the biggest danger. The biggest danger is Satan’s sleight of hand, getting us to focus on one temptation while he slips another in where we aren’t looking. One classic is to let us “beat” one in our own strength in order to make us proud, for spiritual pride is among the most insidious and deadly of all sins; but there are always openings, places where we’re vulnerable. We just can’t keep watch in every direction at once.

The blessing for us is that we don’t have to, because we haven’t been sent out to be Christians on our own, by our own strength. What does Jesus say? “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Obviously that means we are sent out to continue his mission, but there’s more to it than that. How was Jesus sent, and how did he go? In complete submission to the Father, and complete dependence on the Father, with whom he was united by his Spirit. He wasn’t on his own. And neither are we, because we too have been sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit of God, who unites us to Christ, and it is by that power and with his guidance that we live.

This is important to understand, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it means we aren’t called to convert people to a religion. Human religions are about how we work our way to whatever reward is promised by whatever god or gods we choose to believe in—and this is also true, by the way, for atheists and agnostics, whether they recognize their idols as gods or not; human religions are about how we earn the favor of that which we worship and become whatever it is we think we want to be or ought to be. They are rooted in human decision and begin with human effort; they are fundamentally about us, though directed toward something greater than us, and are centrally concerned with ourselves. As such, they operate from a human perspective, and rarely (if ever) think to challenge that in any significant way.

Christianity, by contrast, is something profoundly different. Though we may use the word “religion” to describe it for lack of a better one—and because it does have certain things in common with the religions of the world—if by “religion” we mean “something like all those other religions,” then it isn’t. The gospel is not about us, it’s not about our work, it’s not about us being good enough to please God, and it’s not something we initiate or control. The gospel is about the reality that we can’t be good enough to please God, not with all our wisdom and all our best effort, because our sin is a separation between us and him that is far beyond our power to overcome—and about God’s response, that in Jesus Christ he overcame it from his side, through his death and resurrection, because he loves us.

As such, rather than being about what we do, our faith is all about what God has done, and is doing, and has promised to do. Other religions say, “You must be good enough”; Christianity says, “God is good enough.” Others say, “You must be strong enough”; we say, “God is strong enough.” Obedience isn’t something we must do or else, it’s an opportunity we’re given to give back to Jesus, to sacrifice something of our own will to him in gratitude for his sacrifice of everything for us.

Second, we aren’t called to convert anyone to anything. Conversion is the Holy Spirit’s work. We’re just called to bear witness to Jesus Christ—to tell others what we’ve seen and heard, and to live in such a way that what we tell them has credibility. We need to live what we say, not just mouth the words; but what people do with the message we bring is not our responsibility, it’s between them and the Spirit of God. It’s simply ours to live for Jesus, and to talk about him as we would talk about anyone else we love and admire greatly, and leave the rest to God. The weight of the souls of others does not rest on our shoulders, but his.

And third, we’re sent out to talk about what the Holy Spirit wants to talk about, not necessarily what we want to talk about, and to accomplish what Jesus wants to accomplish, not necessarily what we want to accomplish. This is not about church growth; Jesus didn’t grow a big church in his lifetime, he had a small band of followers. This is not about any of the cultural stuff we get hung up on, who has the best music or the nicest building or the most inspiring preacher. This is not about being successful by any worldly definition; from the world’s point of view, Jesus was anything but. There is nothing here to support doing things the way we’ve always done them, nor is there anything to support doing them the way the big church down the road does them; but there’s a clear indication that if we let either of those approaches drive our thinking, we’ve badly missed the point.

We are sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses to Jesus Christ; that is our sole purpose, and everything else we might do or care about should be secondary to that, because nothing else matters more to the Spirit of God who lives in us.

“They Have Taken My Lord”

(Jeremiah 31:15-17; John 20:11-18)

In one of his sermons, the Presbyterian pastor and writer Frederick Buechner observed,

When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.”

It’s a trenchant observation; but it occurred to me this week, as I was meditating on our passage from John, that Buechner actually doesn’t go far enough. He’s right that we tend to hear what we expect to hear, that which is safe and predictable, but there’s more to it than that. We also tend to see what we expect to see, for the same reason; and it’s not just the Bible we neutralize in this way, but God. We don’t see what he’s really doing, and we don’t hear what he’s really saying, because we already think we know what’s going on and what God has to say about it; and those who don’t think about God much or who don’t want to believe he exists just filter him out altogether, most of the time. Either way, we see and hear only what we’ve already decided we can see and hear, confirming our expectations by never looking beyond them or letting them be challenged.

That’s understandable, because it’s safer that way, and often more comfortable. That way, we don’t see a God who challenges our settled assumptions about how the world works, and how it ought to work; we don’t hear a God who challenges our ideas about what can reasonably expected of us, or who calls us to face things we’d rather not face and make changes we really don’t want to make. And if we don’t see the dead raised, the lame walk, the blind receive sight, and the slaves set free, since we don’t really expect to see such things—well, at least we don’t get our hopes up, either, and risk having them dashed by reality.

Faith, I think, is God taking the blinders off our eyes and the plugs out of our ears, removing the filters of what we expect to see and hear, unfixing our fixed ideas of what’s possible and impossible, and stripping away the defenses we erect against him; it’s the gift of eyes and ears that are open to him, so that we can see his hand and hear his voice, so that we can know him and recognize him at work. Without that gift, our perception will never go beyond what the world has taught us to understand.

That, I think, is what’s up with Mary Magdalene in our passage from John. I’d never really registered the first part of this passage before, but it’s remarkable. Mary’s crying, and she looks into the tomb—I don’t know why, since she’s already discovered that it’s empty; maybe she didn’t know why either, but she does—and when she does, she sees two angels sitting in there. But she doesn’t see two angels. In fact, she doesn’t seem to see anything odd about them at all. There’s no reason for two people to be sitting in there—that’s pretty strange; their clothes are bright white, which was very unusual in that age before washing machines; and presumably there hadn’t been two people sitting there just a few minutes before, when Peter and John looked into the tomb, so that’s suspicious; and yet, none of this registers with her. They ask her, “Why are you weeping?” and she says, “They’ve taken my Lord,” and pulls back out of the tomb. She doesn’t even ask them if they know anything about it.

And when she turns around, she sees Jesus—but she doesn’t see Jesus; she thinks he’s the groundskeeper. Strange man standing outside the tomb on the first day of the week? There must be a logical explanation; it must be the guy who comes by to mow the grass and water the flowers. He, too, asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”—and she asks him, “Are you the one who took Jesus’ body? If so, please tell me where you put him.” It’s hard to blame her for not making the immediate leap from “empty tomb” to “resurrection”—I don’t think any of us would have done differently—but the evidence is piling up that something strange is going on here, and she just can’t see any of it. It’s impossible, therefore it can’t have happened, therefore none of it can be there.

But with God, all things are possible, and so the unthinkable has been thought, and in fact has happened; those really are angels in the tomb, and this isn’t the groundskeeper. And when Jesus says, “Mary”—when she hears his voice speak her name—then she knows him, and then she can see. She can’t figure it out for herself, even with the evidence right in front of her—she needs to hear it from Jesus; she needs him to call her name, and by doing so to open her eyes.

And when he does, when her eyes are opened, she runs to him and embraces him in love and joy and wonder; but Jesus doesn’t just let her bask in that, because she has a mission to fulfill. He tells her, “Don’t cling to me—I’m not leaving yet; but I will be returning soon to my Father, who is now also your Father, so run to the disciples and let them know.” Her eyes have been opened, she knows that Jesus is alive again, but that knowledge isn’t just for her to enjoy—it gives her the responsibility to share it. Just as she needed her eyes opened, so do the rest of the disciples; she can give them that gift by telling them that she has seen Jesus, and what he said to her.

And so it has continued, on down through history, as the faith has spread and the church has grown as people bear witness to what they have seen and heard; thus, just a few years later, the Apostle Paul would write, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Mary saw Jesus and told the disciples, and they in turn saw Jesus and told others, and those others told others; the Holy Spirit inspired the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, and we have continued to pass the word along, telling others what we have been told and what we have seen for ourselves, what Christ has done in our lives and in the lives of those around us. And as we bear witness, the Holy Spirit works through us to give faith to others, to open their eyes and ears so that they too may see and hear what we have seen and heard.

It’s important to note, it’s not on us to open anyone’s eyes; it’s not our job to make people come to faith. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. There’s value in training in evangelism, but it’s not about sales technique or learning how to talk people into things; it’s simply to help us express our faith more clearly and confidently. It’s rather like a witness in court preparing to testify—the idea isn’t supposed to be to manipulate the jury or the judge, but simply to speak the truth more plainly and effectively so that those in the court understand what really happened. Once that’s done, the work is in the hands of others; and so it is with us. Bringing people to faith is God’s work; our part is simply to do the same thing Mary Magdalene did: to go tell people we care about, “I’ve seen Jesus—he died for me, and he’s alive again. Come and see.”

Seeking the Living Among the Dead

(Isaiah 53:10-12; Luke 24:1-12)

As I was preparing to preach last Sunday, I came across an excellent piece by the Lutheran pastor and writer Russell Saltzman on the importance of preaching Jesus dead before we preach Jesus risen. It was good enough that I posted the link on Facebook; in response, I got a complaint from my brother. It was interesting, because he wasn’t complaining about me, which is the more usual form; actually, he didn’t have any problem with the essay, either, but it sparked him to note an issue he has with most Easter services. Specifically, he wrote, “One of these years I’d like to hear a sermon that spends time talking about what everyone must have been feeling on that Saturday. We’ve all had to live through the morning after something terrible: waking up and hoping it was all a dream, realizing that it wasn’t, just going through the motions while we start trying to put our lives back together. What must it have been like for Mary, the disciples, etc. on that long day when they thought it was all over?”

It’s a good point, because while we celebrate Good Friday, we don’t emerge from that service into the world as the disciples knew it. That next day must have been the hardest day of their lives. For the rest of Jerusalem, things were back to normal after all the commotion; their fellow Jews would be getting up and going to the synagogue to observe the Sabbath, some of them probably with a sense of satisfaction that that Galilean gadfly was out of the way. For Jesus’ disciples, however, the reality and enormity of their loss was just beginning to sink in; life had a giant hole right through it that nothing could possibly fill or close or heal, and all they could do was try to figure out how to cope, how to go on, when their greatest hope had just been brutally extinguished.

That was, I am sure, a grey, empty, echoing day, with nothing for it but to keep taking one breath after another, putting one foot in front of the other, putting on the outward show of life and hoping somehow to find something to fill it with meaning; and as my brother says, we need to pay attention to that, because most people have been there at one time or another, and there are a lot of people in this country for whom that’s simply the world as they know it. Why else is the average age of onset for depression now just 14? Why else is suicide the tenth-leading cause of death in this country—and the third-leading cause among adolescents?

I used to believe that most people sailed through life with no major hurts or disappointments, but 37 years have taught me that’s an illusion; there are very few people like that, and most of those are fakes. We live in a world that’s just getting by, most of the time, a world of people trying to cope with broken marriages, abusive parents, drug-addicted children, broken dreams, evaporated hopes, one failure after another . . . There are a great many people in this world this morning, some in this community, who are standing exactly where Peter stood that Saturday: someone just pulled the rug out from under them, and they aren’t sure there’s a floor beneath it.

This is the world in which the Resurrection happened; this is the dirty grey hopelessness into which the light of Easter erupted; and this is the world as it still prevails wherever that light is obscured or changed or hidden from view. The light of the Resurrection should blaze forth from every church and every chapel into every community, but too often it doesn’t; whether because we’re comfortable and distracted and never quite talk about it, or because we think it’s not the most effective way to grow our churches and build our reputations, or because we don’t really realize that we have something important to say, or even just because we’re not sure how—it all comes down to fear in one form or another, I think, regardless—we hold back, and we don’t let the light shine.

And that’s sad, because our world needs the light—even here, where you can hardly throw a stone for fear of breaking a stained-glass window. People need to hear the angel’s resounding question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” For the women, that’s literally what they were doing, though they didn’t know it; but spiritually, isn’t that what we all tend to do? Our world is dominated by death; Benjamin Franklin said there are only two certainties in life, but given that our current administration seems to be making exceptions on taxes, death may be the only certainty left. And as we talked about when we looked at Genesis 3, the Devil brought Eve down in part by putting the fear of death at the center of her agenda—and that’s where it’s stayed ever since.

One of the lessons of history, I think, is that the fear of death is one of the main drivers of cultures and societies. For ancient times, you can look at the pyramids—all that work to build a tomb—or at the Chinese emperor Qin Xi Huang Di, buried with an army of terra cotta soldiers. Our culture makes a fetish of youth—dressing young, looking young, talking young, face creams and wigs and plastic surgery. Some seek to master their fear by attempting to master death itself, either by investing huge amounts of money in medical care to stave it off, or by asserting control over it through suicide. There are other ways, but in the end they’re all idols to which people turn because they’re afraid of death and of dying; they’re looking for life, they’re looking for the source of life, but instead of turning to the Living One, they are seeking for life in the jaws of death.

The only answer to that is to be interrupted in the search and told, “He isn’t here: he is risen.” The only freedom from that fear is to understand that God became one of us, God suffered, God died, and then God didn’t stay dead—he came alive again, and everything sad started coming untrue, as Tolkien had Sam Gamgee put it. When the church decides to accommodate itself to what people can believe and reduces this to a “spiritual resurrection,” that’s not enough; or when we reduce heaven to just a spiritual life, that’s not enough either—as you can see from all the questions people ask about whether we’ll have dogs in heaven, or this or that or the other thing. A purely spiritual afterlife is some comfort, but if it leaves the brute fact of death untouched—if death gets to keep its winnings—then it’s only a partial victory, and we need more.

And the gospel gives us more, because the gospel tells us that death itself has been defeated, and indeed, everything sad will come untrue, and nothing that is good will be lost, because Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead in a new and perfect body—and because he did, so in him we will do the same. We do not need to fear death, though we suffer it now, because Christ has defeated it, and he’s still here, and in the end we’ll still be here, and it won’t. This is the word of the gospel, and it’s a word that a lot of people need to hear; it’s a wonderful, amazing, powerful word, a word of joy and hope and peace, and it’s been given to us to speak—we need to go out and proclaim it, shouting it at the top of our lungs: “Death is dead!” This is our story as the children of God, and we need to tell it to everyone who will listen.

The Only Answer

(Habakkuk 1:2-4, 1:12-2:4; Matthew 28:1-10)

Talking with Aaron last week down at 1000 Park, I commented on the price of coffee; in response, he noted that it’s expensive right now in part because of natural disasters in coffee-growing areas. Most recently, there was the eruption of Mt. Merapi in Java last October and November, combined with an earthquake off Sumatra that spawned a tsunami. Between the two events, hundreds of people were killed, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated; the coffee crop was far from the greatest loss. It only makes things worse that this was just the latest in five-plus years of disasters for Indonesia, beginning with the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami in 2004. That one is estimated to have been the third-largest earthquake, and the fifth-deadliest, in recorded history.

It’s not just Indonesia, though; doesn’t it seem like we’ve had an awful lot of major natural disasters in recent years? We no doubt tend to overestimate our own experience, but there’s some reason to think so; of the 25 earthquakes I know of that are believed to have been of magnitude 8.5 or greater, five have struck since Christmas, 2004. Add in the Haitian earthquake of January, 2010—which was “only” magnitude 7.0 but one of the deadliest in history—the upsurge in hurricanes that has given us storms like Katrina, and volcanoes like Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, and it’s been a rough time for our poor planet. What’s more, human action often makes these things worse, as we saw with Katrina, and most recently in Japan, where the natural disaster of earthquake and tsunami set off a very human disaster in the nuclear power plants in Fukushima Prefecture.

Equally part of the pattern is the human impulse to turn someone else’s disaster to our own advantage; it’s Rahm Emanuel’s advice: “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Mostly that seems to be political in nature; but when there was no obvious political gain to be had, with the Boxing Day tsunami, the responses were theological. This was especially true from atheists such as Britain’s Martin Kettle, who wrote a column titled “God and the Tsunami” which concluded with the question, “Are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?” Later, novelist James Wood wrote, “If there is a God with whom we can communicate, who (sometimes) hears our prayers, why does He not hear our suffering? Or why does He hear our suffering and do nothing about it? Theology has no answer, and never has had.”

It’s exasperating; as my colleague and friend Jim Berkley noted at the time, it seemed that the secular press had all of a sudden discovered the problem of evil—and assumed that the discovery was equally sudden for the church. Actually, they were the ones who were late to the discussion, and asking the wrong question. They wanted an explanation for the disaster—as, I admit, a great many Christians did as well; as a result, they fell into the trap identified decades ago by H. L. Mencken when he wrote, “For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, easy to understand, and wrong.”

The truth is, we can’t find a satisfactory explanation for such things as the Boxing Day tsunami, or the abuse of a child, or the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or any of the other myriad ways in which human and natural evil devastate lives—there just isn’t one out there; and that should lead us to ask whether an explanation is really what we want. After all, let’s suppose that someone came along and offered an explanation of evil which really was sufficient, which really did explain everything in a satisfactory way, with no holes in it. What would be the cost of such an explanation? What would that mean? It would mean that evil is explainable, and thus that evil makes sense.

And for that to be the case, evil would have to belong in this world—there would have to be a proper place for it. For us to be able to explain why evil happens, evil would have to fit in with the way things are supposed to work; it would have to be somehow necessary to the proper order of things, which would mean that God deliberately created this world flawed from the beginning. If that were so, we would never be able to get away from evil; evil would be as eternal as good, because good would not be able to exist without it. That would be far too high a price to pay for any mere explanation.

Truth is, we could either have a world in which we can find a rational answer to the problem of evil, or a world in which the final defeat and total destruction of evil is a possibility; and it is the consistent testimony of Scripture that the latter is the world we have. Scripture doesn’t explain evil, because it offers no compromise with evil at all, only unrelenting denunciation of evil in all its forms. Trying to make sense of evil is futile, because evil doesn’t make sense. It can’t be rationally explained, because it doesn’t belong to the world God made; it’s fundamentally alien to the way things are supposed to be, and so it’s fundamentally inexplicable.

Does this mean that our faith has no answer to the problem of evil? Does this mean that God has no answer? No; he offers us the only answer possible: he offers us himself. Thus when Habakkuk complains about the evil God allows, what is God’s response? “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and it does not lie. If it seems slow in coming, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. . . . The righteous live by their faith.” The apostle Paul picks this up in Romans 1:17, applying it to the gospel of Jesus Christ: it is through Jesus, by faith in Jesus, that the righteous live by faith. It’s faith in a God who doesn’t fob us off with explanations, as if such thin soup would really make our lives any easier or any better, but instead comes down to bear evil with us, and ultimately to defeat it by his death and resurrection.

This is what Easter is about; this is God’s answer to evil. He doesn’t explain it, for to explain it would be to dignify it, to give a reason for it, and ultimately to excuse it, when evil is utterly inexcusable. Instead, he says, “I have overcome it.” He takes it on himself, paying the price for all of it and thus taking away the claim of evil on our lives; and then, when evil has done its worst, he undoes all of it, exposing its ultimate futility by rising again from the dead, unbeaten, unbroken, uncorrupted, undiminished. Evil takes its best shot, it does the most and the worst it can possibly do, and accomplishes . . . nothing. Indeed, it accomplishes worse than nothing, because it undoes itself; as John Piper put it, “God did not just overcome evil at the cross. He made evil serve the overcoming of evil. He made evil commit suicide.”

In the resurrection of Jesus, life has defeated death, and love has broken the power of sin, once and for all. Yes, there are still times when the pain of this world drives us to cry out with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”; at times we wonder why God is waiting so long to raise the curtain. But we know that at the cross, he turned evil against itself, and on that first Easter, he broke it; and when the time is right, he will complete the victory he won that day. Evil will be banished, and all things will be made new; God will live among us, and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, for death itself shall die, and grief and sorrow and pain will be no more. This is the promise, and the one who makes it is the beginning and the end, and all that he says is trustworthy and true. This is the meaning of Easter; this is why we celebrate this day; for the day of resurrection is the victory that has secured the promise.


Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, woodblock print, 1830-33.