Easter service - April 17,2022 Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
The Scattered Sheep and the Resurrected Lord
Happy Easter, everyone! Whether you are joining online or in person, I am here to announce once again, God is with you! Through Christ’s resurrection, He demonstrated that He is the living Lord. Not even death can stop Him. So we have much to rejoice over and many reasons to stand in a strong hope each day. That’s why we are here to celebrate and praise God for the wonderful gift of life. We share it with Him and each other now and always will.
The Easter story shows how magnificent God and His Son Jesus are, but when you look at the people surrounding Christ, the impression you receive quickly becomes far less than glorious. Even in His closest friends and inner circle of disciples, you find people who are not only tired and confused. They struggle mightily to believe in Him as they did only a short time before. Then they are not even able to stay with Him in His time of trouble.
In last month’s English worship, we began seeing how God in the Bible at times uses certain events that occur in order to make come true prophecies which He has given long before. Even the truly evil things people choose to say and do become the tools God uses to bring about the healing, peace, freedom—the salvation—which He has planned all along for His people.
In the events of the Easter story we have heard again today, we see God showing that He is Lord, He reigns, even when His people are weak in their faith. God’s part is the same—He rules as King over all, even death itself. But our part is a little different. Last time we focused on the evil and suffering in the world we are in, including war, illness, and more. But one thing that comes again and again into the story of Christ’s resurrection is how He continues to interact with His people when we go through significant failures in our life of faith. The core message, as you are already seeing, is that God is sovereign, even when we are faithless. Christ is the living Lord, even when our faith fails. He can work in spite of our failures of faith and even chooses at times to act through them to show His faithfulness and bring salvation into this world. Now let’s explore in a little more detail how this happens, what it means, and what can help us when we go through times of struggle with our faith.
In both Matthew and Mark’s versions of the Easter story (Matthew 26:31, Mark 14:27), Jesus on the night before He is killed reminds His disciples of the prophecy God has given in the Old Testament in Zechariah 13:7. “‘Awake, sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones.’” Christ tells His followers that this is about to happen—He is going to be taken and made to suffer, and they will abandon Him. Peter is going to deny three times that he knows Jesus before the next morning comes. They do not believe that they are so weak in their faith and so cowardly that they could do such things. In Matthew 26:35, “Peter said, ‘I may have to die with you. But I will never say I don't know you.’ And all the other disciples said the same thing.”
But it turns out they are overestimating their own faith and underestimating the power of the attack on it that is already approaching. We read how in the Garden of Gethsemane He asks them to stay with Him and keep watch (Matthew 26 and Mark 14). But again and again they fall asleep while He is in deep distress and sweating drops of blood thinking about what is going to happen on the cross. The weakness of their faith becomes even clearer to see when the religious leaders arrive there and have Jesus arrested. Mark 14:50 tells us, “Then everyone left him and ran away.” He adds that one of them escaped naked when the crowd grabbed the only piece of clothing he was wearing, a linen cloth. That doesn’t sound like bold faith, does it. In fact throughout the various versions of the Easter story, the failure of faith seems not to be simply doubt. A great deal of it appears to be giving into fear.
Peter has enough courage to follow Jesus at a distance, but soon He is denying that He even knows Him, just as predicted. In the descriptions of Christ’s death, there are women who stay with Him at the foot of the cross, but the only man we find there is apparently John. Where are the others? The writers don’t fill in all the details, but it becomes clearer and clearer that they are miserably failing the test of their faith that Jesus’ death presents to them.
Two days later, Luke reports in today’s Bible reading that some women go to the tomb, find Jesus’ body missing, and hear from angels that He is alive. They don’t understand everything that is happening, but they at least go and tell the remaining disciples what they have seen and heard (vv. 1-8). There we read the disappointing words that show the lack of faith Jesus’ own followers have at this point. Even when they hear the wonderful news that Christ is alive, they are not ready to receive it. “But the apostles did not believe the women. Their words didn't make any sense to them,” Luke tells us (v. 11). The best Peter can do is run to the tomb, where he sees it is empty and Jesus’ clothes have been left there. Yet rather than returning to the passionate faith He has claimed to have, we read, “Then he went away, wondering what had happened” (24:12b). Here, too, is a disciple not exactly covering himself in glory. Jesus’ apprentices don’t look much like faithful followers of their Master.
Continuing the story, Luke tells us (24:13) that two of them are walking alone away from Jerusalem and toward Emmaus. That same day the group of disciples are behind locked doors, hiding for fear of being discovered by the religious leaders. Thomas is not with them that day. (He has a twin, so we imagine he might be gone to warn that brother that he could be in danger from people who would like to hurt Jesus’ followers and could mistake him for Thomas.)
All this is a description of sheep that have been scattered when the shepherd is struck down. None of the disciples intended for things to turn out this way—maybe least of all Judas. He betrays Jesus for whatever reason and ends up killing himself after he really sees what is happening. Yet through all the mess—even the failure of faith that Christ’s followers thought they would never experience—God is at work. He is bringing about the fulfillment of the prophecy made long before about the scattering of the sheep. He reminds us from behind the scenes that He is still in charge. He is still directing the paths of people to accomplish the great plans which He has had in place for so long. Through the weakness of His people, He demonstrates His strength. Through their failure, He shines the light on His victory over sin and death. Through the death of the misguided expectations and false hopes they had held, He brings the gift of new life.
That is the glory of Easter. Praise God for the way He rules in power, despite and even through the weakness of His people. We are clearly not the great ones and must never try to take the honor He deserves. It rightly belongs to Him.
Yet that is not all. He does not only bring something good through the scattering of the sheep. He also works to bring those sheep back. It is interesting to me to see how even in the middle of the failure of faith that the disciples are experiencing in many ways, God does not leave them alone. He is not finished with them—far from it. Even in this time of fear and confusion and loss of a sense of faith, God is working. He is reconnecting and forming stronger links of a deeper and more genuine faith with His people than they have had up to this point.
For instance, John 20 reports that one disciple who runs to the tomb sees it is empty and comes to believe. That strongly suggests he was not believing up to that moment. The writer adds (v. 9), “They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Later in that same chapter, we find Jesus appearing visibly right in front of the disciples in the place they have been hiding out. That’s much like His appearance to Mary Magdalene earlier in the chapter. His followers now see and believe that He is alive, so the guys are able to tell the big news to Thomas when he later returns, much as the women had told them. Thomas has the reputation of being a doubter. (We still use the phrase “a doubting Thomas” today.) But the truth is that all the disciples doubt Christ is alive until they see Him with their own eyes.
I find it very comforting to see that Jesus does not give up on them when they prove to be weak in faith. That’s because I wonder where I am in the Easter story. One of the best ways for us to truly understand what God wants to say to us through the Bible is to keep in mind a question as we read: “Where do I see myself in this story?” In this case, I see myself in the disciples. I have a very strong feeling that I would react to seeing my Teacher, Master, and Lord arrested and killed much the same as the disciples in the Bible do. In other words, I might very well prove faithless, too. Even though I want to be a person who truly lives by faith, if even Jesus’ best friends and closest followers who know Him directly abandon Him when things get really ugly, how can I say that I would be different? If I did say that, I would only be placing myself right alongside Peter, whose claim to stay with Jesus “no matter what” only made him the most spectacular failure later on. There are many, many different aspects to the Easter story, but God’s amazing patience and kind commitment to His weak-faithed disciples is the one I appreciate the most this year.
How does He react to them as they go through their crisis of faith? Let’s look a little closer. He is very gracious, but that does not mean He is always gentle and positive in voicing support for them. No, to the two disciples walking toward Emmaus, He says (Luke 24:25b-27):
“How foolish you are! How long it takes you to believe all that the prophets said! Didn't the Christ have to suffer these things and then receive his glory?” Jesus explained to them what was said about himself in all the Scriptures. He began with Moses and all the Prophets.
He treats the larger group of disciples in a very similar way later that day when He is with them (Luke 24:38ff). That is, He seems to scold them, then He demonstrates very clearly that He is in fact alive. “Why are you troubled? Why do you have doubts in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is really I! Touch me and see.” Next He continues the teaching He has been giving them (24:44-48).
“This is what I told you while I was still with you. Everything written about me must happen. Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms must come true.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written. The Christ will suffer. He will rise from the dead on the third day. His followers will preach in his name. They will tell others to turn away from their sins and be forgiven. People from every nation will hear it, beginning at Jerusalem. You have seen these things with your own eyes.”
When they do not grow in their faith, He challenges them. For example, Mark 16:14 (New International Version) tells us that “he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.” He does not lower the standard of “. . . Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). But He is realistic and knows they will not live up to this ideal. So He teaches them to receive forgiveness when they do fail and move ahead in learning, growing, and becoming. That is, He teaches them to live by grace—not as perfect people but ones who are on the journey toward perfection. That includes perfection of their faith. They will reach it in heaven someday.
He continues teaching, and they continue growing in faith, up to the time for Jesus to go back to heaven. They have certainly not become fully mature human beings spiritually by this point. Matthew tells us in 28:16-17 of his gospel, “Then the 11 disciples went to Galilee. They went to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him. But some still had their doubts.”
Their immaturity is not gone, but Christ’s patience and wisdom as their Teacher are always greater than their weakness. By the end of John, the Lord has put Peter back in place as the leader of His group of followers. Later in his life, Peter will write two letters which become part of the New Testament. There he shows a depth and richness of faith that he simply did not when Jesus was here in this world in a physical way. For example, in I Peter 1:3 he writes to people in various churches in the Roman Empire, “Give praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy he has given us a new birth and a hope that is alive. It is alive because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” He is writing to strengthen them in their faith when they are facing persecution for being followers of Jesus. Peter has suffered for his relationship with Christ, too. Church tradition says that he was later crucified for his beliefs but insisted on being executed upside down to show that he was not worthy to be killed in the same way Christ was. That sounds like a much different person than the scared, would-be follower of Jesus we see in the gospels.
James chooses to escape from possible suffering when his teacher, Jesus, is captured and sent to the cross. But meeting their resurrected Lord changes him and those around him radically. A faith is formed in them that is able to face dangers together with the living Christ. We see it in James 1:3-4.
Your faith will be put to the test. You know that when that happens it will produce in you the strength to continue. The strength to keep going must be allowed to finish its work. Then you will be all you should be. You will have everything you need.
John, too, by the time he writes his letters and the Revelation of John, has grown greatly. From the person who ran away when Christ was arrested, he has shown the commitment of being willing to suffer for his faith. He writes the Revelation of John from the island of Patmos, where he is a prisoner, unable to leave as punishment for his work of spreading the message of Jesus. Christ’s death has shown John how much he is loved, and he wants to live the rest of his life as a way of returning that love. So he has written things like this in I John 4:10-12.
What is love? It is not that we loved God. It is that he loved us and sent his Son to give his life to pay for our sins. Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we should also love one another. No one has ever seen God. But if we love one another, God lives in us. His love is made complete in us.
To sum up all I’ve said so far, in celebrating Easter again this year, we give honor to the God of life, who rules over all things—even sin and death. He is fully in control, even when our faith is weak. And because He is, we can go to Him for help in becoming the people of a faith that is not yet perfect but thanks to Him growing richer and deeper as we move through each day, relying on His amazing grace.
Let’s ask Him now to guide us into deeper faith.
Living Lord, thank you for the power of your love, which holds us. We see it in the way you remain faithful to us, even when we are not faithful. When we were sinners, Christ died for us and opened the way to life forever with you. Praise you for that greatest gift of all, the gift of yourself and eternal life with you. Help us to live in ever-growing reliance on you to guide and strengthen us in every part of our lives. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
1 It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week. The women took the spices they had prepared. Then they went to the tomb.
2 They found the stone rolled away from it.
3 When they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
4 They were wondering about this. Suddenly two men in clothes as bright as lightning stood beside them.
5 The women were terrified. They bowed down with their faces to the ground. Then the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?
6 Jesus is not here! He has risen! Remember how he told you he would rise. It was while he was still with you in Galilee.
7 He said, 'The Son of Man must be handed over to sinful people. He must be nailed to a cross. On the third day he will rise from the dead.' "
8 Then the women remembered Jesus' words.
9 They came back from the tomb. They told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.
10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them were the ones who told the apostles.
11 But the apostles did not believe the women. Their words didn't make any sense to them.
12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent over and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he went away, wondering what had happened.