Easter Sermon (Video, Audio, Full Manuscript)
I understand the reality of smaller churches. It can be hard to find a pastor. And I understand the reality of many pastors: it’s Saturday night, your plate is full, and you may feel like you do not have time to write a sermon.
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“We Were Creatures that Aught Not Live” (Easter Sermon, 2019)
We are here today to commemorate Jesus’ death on a Roman cross in 36 AD. It is one of the most historically verified events in history. And we’ve just heard a retelling of it from the Gospel of John. What I’d like to do for us now is to talk about the significance of Jesus death.
What does it mean that Jesus died? What does it mean that Jesus died for me?
As we begin to think about what this means and why it matters, I want to start in, perhaps, an unlikely place, which is Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life, which is currently a best-seller. He starts the third chapter in the book with the question, why don’t you just take your pills? He says,
Imagine there are a hundred people who are prescribed for the drug, consider what happens next? One-third of them won’t fill the prescription, half of the remaining 67 will fill it but they will take the medication incorrectly. They miss doses, they quit taking it entirely, they might not take it at all. He contrasts this to our treatment of pets and of children. Parents give children the medicine they need and people generally take care of their pets so why don’t we take care of ourselves?
As I was pondering this, I had an interview this week with a young woman who had struggled with anorexia for many years to the point where she almost died from it. And she said, “I knew what I was doing was wrong, it was not good for me.”
And as she was talking more about this, her name was Rebecca Lemke, she said, “All the things I knew were bad but to me, it didn’t matter because it was just a long-term suicide attempt for me.”
And she said that relatively quickly but I knew that that was her heart speaking that she wanted to die. But I think the truth is even deeper than that and more profound than that; that at some level we as human beings know that we should die. That we are such a creature that ought not live. We know this because we know what the good is and we don’t do it. We know what bad is and yet we choose to do it.
Jordan Peterson continues his chapter towards the end, “after drawing conclusions such as that, how could we not question the value of our being and even of being itself, who then could be faced with illness in himself or another without doubting the moral utility of prescribing a hailing medicament?
And no one understands the darkness of the individual better than the individual himself. Who then, when ill, is going to be fully committed to his own care? Perhaps man is something that should never have been. Perhaps the world should even be cleansed of all human presence so that being in consciousness could return to the innocent brutality of the animal. I believe that the person who claims never to have wished such a thing has neither consulted his memory nor confronted his darkest fantasies, what then is to be done?”
I used to think that the Bible taught things that were so far removed from human existence and from our day-to-day lives, that we needed to find a bridge to get over there. How do we get people from where they are and what they’re thinking about day to day, over to what scripture is saying? And what I am realizing more and more is that scripture speaks deep truths, deep truths, that we all know somewhere in the heart, somewhere deep, we know but we spend our whole lives running away from these truths and the difficulty is getting people to look at the dark and difficult truths within us.
The truth is, as Job says in Job 5:1: ‘For man is born to trouble as sparks fly upward.’ Human life is punctuated by sorrow and tragedy, this is true. But in spite of this, in spite of the fact that life is hard, we ought to do the right thing. And Jesus said in everything treat people the same way you want them to treat you for this is the law of the prophets, this is the Golden Rule; do to others what you would want them to do to you and we know this is what we should do (Matthew 7:12). And yet in spite of this, we do not do it.
As we read in Isaiah 53:6: ‘All of us like sheep have gone astray. Each one of us has turned to his own way.’ We might be able to compare ourselves to others and say, well, I am better than somebody but when we compare ourselves to what we know is goodness, we don’t measure up. And we all know this. And the inevitable conclusion of this is death. We are not the sort of creatures that ought to live. And how many of the practices and the things that human beings find themselves wrapped up in end up really being a long-term suicide attempt? When you think about the things that are really harmful to people, these ares some of the most expensive and most sought-after chemicals on the planet.
If you think about drugs, if you think about cigarettes, if you think about alcohol, we know these are bad for us, why are we so drawn to them? Why do we start them in the first place? Is there a voice deep down inside that says, I am the sort of being that ought not to live.
So what can we do about this? Well, Jordan Peterson proposes an answer and this is an answer that’s been tried many times that for basically just try harder, just try harder. That’s basically how his chapter ends.
But trying harder will only get us so far. Sure, we can take responsibility, we can care for others, we can push ourselves to be altruistic but ultimately, everybody’s going to die and what meaning and purpose can our life really bring? Can we really push back the darkness with our feeble attempts?
And are our good works really all that good?
Perhaps there’s another way. There’s an almost universal tradition of sacrificing animals, and we see this also in the Bible. Why sacrifice an animal? It’s a strange concept, isn’t it? Why sacrifice an animal? We have this deep feeling in us that a price needs to be paid. And we know that we should pay the price but perhaps somebody else could pay the price for me.
It wouldn’t make sense to sacrifice inanimate objects. Perhaps we could sacrifice vegetables or fruit, but that has never been very popular. Rather there’s this almost universal human tendency of sacrificing animals. We see this in many religions around the world. Why animals? Well, when you think of it, animals are innocent. They do not have the capacity to sin in the same way that we do. Because in that statement, in the Golden Rule, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, something that is presupposed is self-consciousness. There is an ‘I’ and because I know that I exist and I am conscious of myself existing, I can think about what I would like to happen to me. And by extension, I can think about you as a self-conscious person and what I would like to happen to you if I were you.
Animals are not self-conscious, most of them. And as far as we know, they are not capable of this sort of thinking about others to think, ‘I will do to you what I would like you to do to me’ or ‘I will not do to you something I know is good and I would like to be done to me. I will purposely choose to do something evil to you’. But humans have this capacity for evil which troubles us deeply, animals do not. Which is why, as Jordan Peterson says, “we remain eternally nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, for the divine unconscious being of the animal, the untouched cathedral-like old growth forest. We find respite in such things. We worship them even. The original state of nature conceived in this manner is paradisal, but we are no longer one with God and nature and there is no simple turning back.”
Where can we get this innocence? How can we get back to that? Well, one option is to sacrifice, to sacrifice an animal. And this is laid out for us in Leviticus 6. It would take two goats. Leviticus 16 verse 7: ‘He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the doorway of the tent of meeting. Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats; one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat.’
Verse 15: ‘Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people and bring its blood inside the Veil and sprinkle it on the altar.’
And verse 21: ‘Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it, all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to their sins and he shall lay them on the goat and send it out into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself, all their iniquities to the solitary land and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.’
Verse 30: ‘It is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you. You will be clean from all your sins before the Lord.’
Perhaps, we can put our sins on an animal; an animal can die for us in our place because it’s innocent. Perhaps, an animal if we lay our hands on it and confess our sins, that animal can take our sins far away from us and then we can be clean. This is the idea of the day of atonement. This is the idea of the Covenant that God established with his people. And as Hebrews 9:22 says: ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness’. This is the whole idea of the Covenant of God.
But there’s a problem. In Hebrews 10, as we read today: ‘For the law since it was only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, it can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year-by-year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, they would have ceased to be offered because the worshippers having once been cleansed would no longer have been conscious of sin. But in those sacrifices, there is a reminder year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’
There’s innocence there and people are trying to put their sins on it to take them away. It helps but there’s a need to repeat it over and over and over until the sacrifices themselves become a reminder of the aching pit of darkness and sin, which is within all of us.
And so Jesus came.
And when Jesus came, John pointed to him and said: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’.
Jesus is the son of God who became man, who lived a sinless life and who died in our place for our sins. It’s remarkable that with all the religions in the world, there is almost nobody that has a negative thing to say about Jesus. For Muslims, He is a great Prophet. For Buddhist, He is a holy man and a sage. For Hindus, He is perhaps a reincarnation of one of their divinities. For liberal scholars and secular people, He’s a great example to follow. Very few people have anything negative to say about Jesus and most hold him up as the example of Holiness and purity. And most people would say, would agree, this is the sort of person that ought not to die. And yet he did die, on a Roman cross in AD 36. The specific location in Jerusalem, He did die.
He did die.
So what should we do with Jesus? Well, there are two options, at least. One is that we ought to take him as an example of somebody that lived a good life and then laid down his life, voluntarily. And we should try to emulate that to try and do the same thing and try to sacrifice ourselves to atone for our own sins.
This is an idea if you want to know, proposed by Emmanuel Kant in his 1793 book, Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone and it’s basically the same thing that is repeated by Jordan Peterson and in a less sophisticated way, this is the idea that a lot of people get when they look at Jesus. Well, he lived a good life, He was a good person. I am going to live a good life, be a good person so that I can do the same thing that he did.
This is not the message of Christianity because in Ephesians 2:8 it says: ‘For it is by Grace you have been saved through faith and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God not as a result of works so that no man can boast.’ We don’t save ourselves through our actions, this is not the central message of Christianity but fundamentally, it’s futile. We are stained, we are defiled, that is the problem. We are sinners. So how can we offer ourselves as atonement for our own sins? The sacrifice itself is defiled.
And we agree in the deepest part of us with Isaiah 64:6: ‘For all of us have become like one who is unclean and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment. All of us wither like a leaf and our iniquities like the wind taketh away.’
That even in our best efforts, in our best and brightest moments, there is selfishness. There is greed. There is self-interest. There is all the darkness that attends our human existence, touches all of our actions, even our best ones. So what is the other option we can do with Jesus?
We can accept the redemption that was won for us on that cross. Jesus Christ died for us, the righteous, for the unrighteous. The one who ought not to die, died for us, in our place so that we would not have to. As we read in Isaiah 53:4: ‘Surely our griefs, He Himself bore and our sorrows He cared. Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening of our well-being fell upon us and by His scourging, we are healed. All of us, like sheep, have gone astray. Each one of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him.’
This is not an example to follow. This is a payment that is made on our behalf. He was pierced for our transgressions, ‘He was crushed for our iniquities and the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him.’ There is well-being that we can have because of what happened to Him. So how can this exchange be made? In the Old Testament, the priest put their hands on the head of the goat and in that way, their sins were transferred to the goat and the goat left the camp and took their sins with them.
Jesus died nearly 2,000 years ago, how can this exchange be made?
Well, the exchange was always spiritual. In the case of the priest laying their hands — nothing communicated physically. It was a spiritual transference. But God understands that we are flesh and blood people and so if your spirit is weak then later, come to the table and partake of the elements with us and let God take you by the hand and through the physical elements of the wine and the bread, and let them remind you of the spiritual reality of Jesu’s death for you. And take that in as God’s righteousness coming to you and your sinfulness being paid for.
But we know that even this is, while powerful, is a living symbol that leads us to him and what really needs to happen is a transformed heart. As it says in Romans 10, 8 to 10: ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart. That is the word of faith, which we are preaching. That if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with a harder person believes resulting in righteousness and with the mouth, he confesses resulting in sanctification.’
This is how we can be saved, this is how the transfer happens. As we believe and we confess that Jesus is Lord, and then we are saved through his death. What happens when we are saved? Isaiah 1:18 says: ‘Come and let us reason together; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though your sins are like crimson, they will be white like wool.” And that deep part of our soul where it once said ‘sinner’ it now says ‘pure’. Ezekiel 36:26 says: ‘I will make a New Covenant with them and I will take out their heart of stone and I will replace it with a heart of flesh.’
And that deep part of us where there was hardness and where there was sin, God is going to take that out and replace it with good emotions and holiness. And Romans, 5:1 says: ‘That we have peace with God.’ And John 3:16 says: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in Him, should not perish but have everlasting life.’
So that we move from being the sort of being who ought not live to become the sort of being who ought to live. Because of what Christ did for us, this happens.
Is there anybody in the world, think about who is it in the world that you want to live more than anybody else? If there’s a parent in the room, I will guarantee you the first person that came into your mind was your child.
And first John 3:1 says: ‘Behold what manner of love is given to us that we should be called children of God?’ In the eyes of God, when He looks at us, He sees His children, when we are saved. And He looks at us and He sees His holy ones, his saints. He sees the body of Christ. He sees people who are loved by Himself who are accepted wanted and chosen.
And He sees people who have a purpose in life. Because Ephesians 2:10 says: ‘We are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus, to fulfill works that He has prepared beforehand for us.’ We are saved by grace. We are saved for a purpose. We are saved to live into this purpose and through this living, we will have meaning in our, despite the suffering of life. And we are promised that this life is not the end but will stretch on to eternity, through the death of Jesus Christ.
Let us not forget the price that was paid. He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities and the chastening of our well being fell upon Him and by His scourging, we are healed. Let us pray.
Thank you, Jesus, for what you did for us. The price that you paid, the weight of sin and guilt that you carried. Thank you, Lord Jesus, that it’s all done and that we have become the sort of thing that ought to live. We’ve become the sort of thing that ought not slowly to kill ourselves but ought to take care of ourselves because you love us. And more than that because you have made us lovable things, things that ought to love themselves because you have paid to take away the sin from us, in Jesus name, we pray these things, Amen.