Throughout the world churches today are filled with worshippers. Christians believe that Easter is the defining moment in world history. And on a day when we mourn the death of the Queen Mother, it reminds us that Christ has defeated death.
But in Western Europe, including Britain, it is not like other parts of the world such as Africa, Asia, South America and parts of the United States where there is church growth. Here there is spiritual degeneracy and spiritual ignorance. Last year an Easter poll of 16-30 year olds in Britain found that 40 percent did not know that Jesus died on Good Friday, and 60 percent were ignorant of who was Pontius Pilate.
This year a similar poll of children (conducted with the permission of their parents) revealed increasing ignorance. One articulate 11 year old was not untypical. He said: "I think Jesus had about 1000 apostles and Pontius Pilate was one of them.
So I want to go back to basics. And the basics about Christianity and being a Christian are black and white. You have them, in simple form, in Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 10 verse 9:
"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."
To be a Christian is to be publicly committed to Jesus Christ as Lord. But you can't just say "Jesus is Lord" and believe anything you like. No! You have to "believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead."
Our subject this morning is THE GOD WHO RAISES THE DEAD.
There is a myth that the ancient Greek philosopher Plato tells of some people trapped in a cave. They spend their whole time looking at shadows on the wall. The cave dwellers think that the cave and the shadows are the total reality. Everyone else knows they are wrong, for there is a real world outside the cave. It is just like that in Western Europe. Millions are trapped in the Cave of Secularism. They think that that is all there is. And it is a sad and dark world to be trapped in - just read the papers or listen to the news. But Christian believers know that Christ is risen and an eternal world exists outside this sad and dark modern cave that is limited to the present and the visible. The Christian faith is concerned also with the future and the invisible. It is " being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Heb 11.1).
You say, "but how do you know what the Christian faith really is? There are so many voices these days." True, that is why we go to the Bible - not because we are obscurantists, but because that is where you have the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. So this morning I want us to go to the book of Revelation - the very last book in the bible and the first chapter. I am going to talk especially about verses 17 and 18. Now the book of Revelation is a book full of symbolism. It is, therefore, a hunting ground for fanatics who fail to see the symbolism. But if you read the book as you would look at an impressionistic painting, the fundamental truths are clear enough.
Let me now give you three points by way of introduction.
First, John, the author, is on the Island of Patmos - one of the Greek islands off the coast of modern Turkey. He and the church at large are being persecuted. Verse 9 tells us that John was a "companion in the suffering". Tradition has it that John was in exile during the reign of Domitian who became a particularly nasty and bloody Roman Emperor. But it was at this time God spoke to John in an amazing way.
So often God has to allow us to go through hard times and suffering before we are able to listen to him. Are you going through a hard time at the moment? Maybe God has something he is wanting to say to you this morning. Certainly God spoke to John when life was hard.
Secondly, verse 10 tells us that John's experience of hearing God's word was "on the Lord's Day". The Lord's Day - Sunday, the day of the Resurrection - had become the day of regular meeting for the early Christians. It had supplanted the Jewish Sabbath. And so often today it is when God's people are faithful in coming to Church like this and hearing the Bible preached or when they meet with other Christians in small groups to study the Bible together that they hear God's word. And,
thirdly, verse 10 says that John was "in the Spirit" - that is the Holy Spirit of God. You see, hearing God's word is not just a matter of listening with your ears. The Bible teaches that naturally, by nature, we are all deaf to God's word. By nature people do not go God's way. They ignore Jesus Christ. They shut their ears to his word. Or changing the metaphor, the Bible says that while physically alive, they are spiritually dead. And like any corpse, they cannot hear - spiritually. That is why they need the Holy Spirit to give them new life, and new spiritual ears. Jesus says, they need to be born again by the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit's great instrument for giving life is the Word of God. And the Bible, as the Anglican Articles say, is "God's Word Written". It is the Spirit inspired Word. And that is what John is giving us in this book of Revelation.
Now the basis for the whole book is this opening chapter. And what do you have here? Answer: a vision of the risen and exalted Jesus Christ. Let me read verses 13 - 16:
"... among the lampstands was someone 'like a son of man', dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance."
We haven't time to go into all the symbolism used here. But those early Christians who knew their Old Testaments would have picked up the clues. Someone '"like a son of man" refers back to Daniel 7.14 and the coming of a heavenly being, to whom
"was given authority, glory and sovereign power."
Whiteness can stand for wisdom and great age but with the energy and activity of the blazing fire and glowing bronze. Then the face "like sun shining in all its brilliance" would have meant for John a terrifying "theophany" - an appearance, somehow, of almighty God - the real God - the creator of the universe.
This was no "Lord of the Rings" fiction on film, after which you are either cross you have to spend more money going back for parts two and three, or else you keep on re-reading the books in eager anticipation. No! This was a terrifying and frightening moment. So we read, verse 17, "when I saw him I fell at his feet as though dead." That was John's condition. But what do you read next?
"Then he placed his right hand on me and said: 'Do not be afraid'."
Have you come in here frightened this morning? Are you frightened for the future? Are you frightened for the future of your family, for your job, for your marriage, for your health? Are you frightened of death? Or like John, are you frightened of God? Well, Jesus still says: "Do not be afraid." But how does the risen and exalted Christ dispel fear?
First, he says to John, I AM THE FIRST AND THE LAST
What would you say lies at the heart of Christianity? Is it primarily a belief? Is it Sunday church-going? Is it the ethic of love? True, all these are important. But they are not its heart. Before I came to Jesmond I taught in a theological college in Oxford. A former principal of the College was W.H.Griffith Thomas who wrote a little book entitled, Christianity is Christ. He was so right. The key to Christianity is Jesus Christ. In that book he wrote: "Christianity is the only religion in the world which rests on the person of its founder."
And Jesus Christ is here making it clear to John that he is not just the baby born in Bethlehem. Oh! he was. He was truly man. But here he is saying, in effect, that he was and is also truly God. He is identifying with those words in verse 8 of this chapter:
"I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty."
It is the Lord God, the Almighty, who is there saying he is "the First and the Last" (alpha and omega are, of course, the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet). So this is a claim to deity. This is precisely what the apostles believed as foundational. If you read the Gospels, Jesus there makes the most remarkable of claims and does the most remarkable of things - God-like things. He forgave sins and he, too, raised the dead. Nor can these be dismissed as make-believe.
"It is now recognized that the one Christ for whose existence there is any evidence at all is a miraculous figure making stupendous claims."
That was the verdict of William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
So Jesus wasn't just like any other religious figure. Most people agree that Christ was at least a good religious teacher. But if you study the Bible he was much more than that. C.S.Lewis once said:
"If you had gone to Buddha and asked him, 'Are you the son of Bramah?' he would have said, 'My son, you are in the vale of illusion.' If you had gone to Socrates and asked 'Are you the son of Zeus?' he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked 'Are you Allah?' he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius 'Are you heaven?' he would probably have replied, 'Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.'
Jesus, however, claimed to be one with God. Here he claims to be the "First and the Last". Remember those words we regularly hear at Christmas:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning ... [and] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory" (John 1).
Secondly, the risen and exalted Jesus says to John, I AM THE LIVING ONE; I WAS DEAD, AND BEHOLD I AM ALIVE FOR EVER AND EVER! So Christians believe that in Jesus Christ God broke into the world. They believe that Jesus' whole life was a demonstration of what God is like - and the only demonstration of what God is truly like. Then he was crucified on that first Good Friday. But God raised him from the dead on Easter day, as we heard in our New Testament reading. The tomb was empty. God was endorsing his teaching, his life and his death - his sacrificial death for the sins of the world. And the Resurrection proved his deity was not just an empty claim. The Bible says that Jesus Christ "through the Spirit of holiness [the Holy Spirit] was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1.4).
So much, therefore, hinges on the Resurrection. C.E.M.Joad, a former professor of philosophy at London University, was once asked "who from all of past history would you most like to meet?" He replied, "Jesus Christ?" And he went on, "I would want to ask him the most important question in the world: 'Did you or did you not rise from the dead?'" Paul said: "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith ... But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead." (1 Cor 15.14). The evidence is such that it is easier to believe in the Resurrection than not to believe. But you must study it.
Tragically too few do. And too few preach and write about the Resurrection. Lord Ismay records that when he was chairman of the BBC only one of 6000 sermons preached on the air had shed any light on the Resurrection. Michael Green tells of visiting a consultant doctor in hospital who was himself dying of the cancer on which he was a specialist. And he was angry - not because of his illness although he was only young; but because church leaders had spoken in such muted terms about the Resurrection. The Doctor had been an agnostic for 40 years. Then he read two books that had brought him to a clear faith in the risen Christ. So he asked: "Why have I never had the evidence clearly put to me before?"
The evidence is there in the four gospels which are sufficiently different to show there is no collusion, but sufficiently alike in the details of that first Easter morning to witness to the truth. Yes, the later narratives of the appearances to the disciples differ, but that is because they are recording different appearances at different times. But the great evidence for the truth of the Resurrection is in the changed lives of the disciples who became willing (like John on Patmos) to suffer for their faith. You don't suffer for a lie or a hoax, which is what the alternative to a real Resurrection would have to be.
Christ is, indeed, the Living One who was dead, but is now alive for ever and ever. That is the great Easter fact.
Thirdly,the risen and exalted Jesus says to John, AND I HOLD THE KEYS OF DEATH AND HADES.
The keys are the symbol of authority. If you are instituted and inducted as a vicar in the Church of England, as I once was, you are given, symbolically, the keys to the church. That, as they say, is de iure, authority.
It doesn't help you much, however, when you can't find your keys and you want to get into this building where there are so many locks. That is when you are hugely grateful to Arnold Coulter, our verger. What really counts is de facto authority - the ability actually to unlock the door.
But the risen Jesus Christ has "all authority in heaven and on earth" as he told his disciples after the Resurrection and before the Ascension (Matt 28.18). And his authority is over "death and hades" - with hades standing for the realm of the dead - both heaven and hell.
Are you frightened of death? The death of the much loved Queen Mother has brought home to us all, its reality. So has the carnage on the motorways this Easter Weekend. Tragically we are becoming immune to the horror of death as we see the awful killings in the Holy Land on our TV screens almost daily. It has been reckoned that three people die every second, 180 every minute, almost 11,000 every hour, about 260,000 every day and 95 million a year.
If you were to die today or tonight, where would you go? The bible says "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment" (Heb 9.27) - and the judge is going to be Jesus Christ. He is the one who has authority over death and hades.
But John, on the Island of Patmos, had no fear. Domitian could do his worst. He knew he was safe in Christ. Jesus has said (John 5.24):
"whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life."
Christ will not force anyone. If you reject him, his verdict on that Great Day will be, "so be it - depart from me." Yes, there is hell as well as heaven. But the risen and exalted Jesus Christ by his Spirit invites you to heaven. The Good News is in that famous verse, John 3.16:
"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."
On Good Friday Christ died for your sins and my sins, in our place, bearing the punishment we deserve.
On Easter Sunday he rose again. He defeated sin, death and the devil. By his Spirit he wants you to be raised with him and have new life. How do you share in that new Resurrection life? By faith, you commit yourself to him; and, as you are able,
"you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, [and] you will be saved."
And that new "salvation" life is to be lived out in this life as well as in eternity.