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Nearly two thousand years ago, on a single weekend in the Jewish month of Nisan, two profound miracles occurred, the effects of which have reverberated throughout human history. The first miracle no one saw, because it couldn't be seen except by God Himself. The second miracle only a few saw, but multitudes actually experienced. This was the week of Jesus' passion, the occasion of His miraculous death and resurrection. If you've ever pondered the question of why Jesus came in the first place, this important new presentation will help elucidate the mystery, that the Son of God was "delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification."
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Get Busy: Individual Next Steps
The Exclusivity of Jesus
Living Life in the Grace and Sufficiency of Christ: Baptism Celebration 2014
The Continuing Story of Easter
Todd and Greg Answer Questions About the Faith
5 Characteristics of Relationships that Succeed
A Tender Word for Pharisees
Stewarding the Life of a Shepherd
Love is Always Better than the Law
Todd Wagner: I do want to formally introduce Greg to you. About 18 months ago we did an apologetics conference here with some rather bright people. Our friend Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig, Frank Turek, and others were there that day, including Greg. That day 18 months ago was the first time I had a chance to meet Greg personally. I have been deeply encouraged by him, both before that and since then, with some of the stuff he has produced and then really that day with him personally.
He's the kind of guy who I would run with if we were together in the same town. He has chosen to live out there on the Left Coast. We're thrilled that he's out there slugging away having a time in beautiful California, but what we love is that both of us are consumed with the beauty of Christ. I love the way Christ reigns in him and through him. I hope you become increasingly familiar with Stand to Reason ministries, and I know you're going to be encouraged by my friend this morning. Welcome with me, my buddy, Greg Koukl.
Greg Koukl: Wow! This is my second time here to your church, and I feel so at home here. It's fabulous. I'll tell you one thing that helped too is when I walk in, this wonderful picture I have when I walk in your doors here…
Do you know what I think of? Bass Pro Shops. Except there aren't all the dead animals hanging on the walls, you know. My heart skips a beat a little bit when I think about that. I know I'm among kindred spirits here in Texas, right? It's bass and guns, right? All right. There we go. I'm with ya on this one.
I want to tell you a story today, or more accurately two parts of the same story. It's about the two most important events in the most important week in the life of the most important person who ever lived. This story I'm going to tell you is actually a true story. That is, the people really lived, the events I'm going to describe actually happened, and the places really exist. It's a true story; it doesn't start with, "Once upon a time…"
I want to talk about two miracles. The first miracle is one no one saw, because no one could see it except for God himself. The second miracle is one a few people actually did see but multitudes have experienced, and many of you in the room are among that multitude. These miracles happened within a couple of days of each other on the same weekend in the middle of the Jewish month of Nisan in AD 33, which was the week of the Passion of Jesus of Nazareth.
The first time I gave this talk was a couple of years ago, and I gave it right around Christmastime. It may seem a little odd to be talking about the Passion of Christ, the suffering of Jesus, around Christmas. I mean, it's not very festive. During Christmas you reflect on the birth of Jesus, you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and listen to Linus as he recites out of Luke about the Shepherds in the field, or your children might be in Christmas pageants or something, with reenactments of the wise men coming from the east and of Mary making this arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, just about ready to give birth.
When my daughter, who is now 9, was 4 or 5 she would take her own little dolly and put it underneath her shirt. She'd wander around like that for a couple of weeks until on Christmas morning she'd give birth to baby Jesus. So we had our own reenactment there. But you will hear nothing of the most significant New Testament passage, arguably, because it's not in the birth narratives. In fact, it's not even in the Gospels.
Here's the most important Christmas verse you'll never hear on Christmas and you'll never see on a Christmas card. "Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, 'SACRIFICE AND OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME; IN WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE TAKEN NO PLEASURE. THEN I SAID, "BEHOLD, I HAVE COME (IN THE SCROLL OF THE BOOK IT IS WRITTEN OF ME) TO DO YOUR WILL, O GOD."'" This is Hebrews, chapter 10, verses 5-7. That's your Christmas verse.
The writer of Hebrews there is arguing that the Levitical sacrificial system, the sacrifice of bulls and goats the Jews have been doing for a thousand years, really can never cleanse from sin. That's his argument. That is, animals can't pay for people; only a perfect human being can pay for the sins of other fallen human beings, Jesus of Nazareth was that perfect person, and that perfect person's birth is what Christmas is all about.
Notice the opening words, though, of that passage: "…when He comes into the world, He says…" Who's the he? It's that baby born in a manger. On that first Christmas the eternal Son of God spoke to his Father. He said, essentially, "I realize, Father, that the blood of bulls and goats is not adequate. That doesn't cut it. Here I am. I receive the body you have given me, the body that was created…" For what? "…to be sacrificed."
So if you've ever pondered the question of why Jesus came in the first place, there's your answer. Actually, there's a lot more confusion on this, I think, than there ought to be, because Jesus did not come to spread peace and love, help us all get along, and advance social justice and the cause of the poor. He had some things to say about all that, but actually, on balance…not very much.
In fact, in the gospel of John, when John, the man who lived with Jesus for three and a half years, writes his biography of Jesus…which is the very last biography, so it's the final statement, this incredible account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth…he doesn't mention anything akin to social justice even once. Why would the great, beloved disciple sum up the life of Christ and leave that out? It's because that wasn't what the life of Jesus was all about to begin with.
The main reason that sweet little baby in the manger came to earth was to participate in something unspeakably violent and brutal: the execution we reflect on this week. In other words, Jesus was born to die. He was born so he could give his life. Here's the way Jesus, himself, put it. He said, "The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many." Now, you know what a ransom is. A ransom is when you pay a price and you buy something with it.
Usually we think about it when somebody is kidnapped, so we're really buying another human being. The same thing is true here. What was Jesus going to buy? He was going to buy us. What was the price he would pay? His body. "…A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME…" He would sacrifice the life of his body to rescue us.
By the way, you do find this in the birth narratives, and you find it everywhere. You may not have noticed this before. Look in Matthew, chapter 1. God speaks to Joseph in a dream, and he says, " [Mary] will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus…" That's Joshua, Yeshua. Savior is what the name means. And, indeed, "…He will save His people from their sins."
When that heavenly host appears to the shepherds in the field that first Christmas night, the angel says to the shepherds, "…today in the city of David there has been born for you…" A what? "…a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." There are three things there: the one who saves, who is the Messiah, who is God himself, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
Later in the week Simeon encounters the infant Jesus there at the temple. Luke, chapter 2, records this. Simeon looks at the child, and to the Father he says, "Lord, you can allow your bond servant to depart in peace because my eyes have beheld your…" Your what? "…your salvation."
Earlier, Zacharias had prophesied over his son, John the Baptist, when he was an infant that he would be the prophet of the Most High God, "To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins…" See? It's all through there. This is same John who 30 years later would point to Jesus of Nazareth when he first comes on the public scene and say, "Behold, the Lamb of God!"
He says, "SACRIFICE AND [BURNT] OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME…" There it is. There's the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Each of these passages, of course, is echoing in some sense this same idea we see in Hebrews: the sacrifice of animals is not adequate; therefore, God provides a human with a body to be the sacrifice for us.
Now Jesus came to save, not to teach. The things he taught were important, but most of it was not original. You see it in the Hebrew prophets. He's kind of borrowing from them. The important thing he did is to give himself to rescue us from imminent danger. So how did he do that? What did he ultimately do to accomplish the rescue? He actually did two things.
First, he lived the life we should have lived. That's what happened those first 30 years or so. He led a morally perfect life. In a certain sense, he didn't do anything fancy; he just did everything right. Secondly, he took that perfect life and traded it for our rotten lives. We get his goodness; he gets our badness and all the punishment that goes with it. He takes our place; we take his place.
I was flying from Jacksonville, Florida, down to Miami Beach once to do an event, and there was a lady in her mid-30s sitting next to me, a Muslim woman from Iran. She'd been living in the States for a while, long enough to be able to have the mental freedom, in a sense, to reflect on her own religious tradition and to see the things that were happening in the world and begin wondering if it was really the right way to go.
In our conversation she opened up a little with me on that. I had identified myself as a follower of Christ, so she felt comfortable asking me some questions, and I offered her a thought. In circumstances like this I don't try to pile on too much information. I just want to put a stone in their shoe. I just want to get them thinking.
I said, "Here's something you can think about with regard to the difference between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity. On the one hand, they both care about holy living and living right and are angry when we don't because they're good, holy, and just gods, but the difference between the two is that in the case of the God of Christianity, given the fact that none of us live the life we're supposed to live, he came down and became a man and took our place in the punishment."
I said, "Consider, for example, if something happened with the plane here. Let's say that terrorists took it over…" Now when you're on a plane and you use an illustration like that you have to talk quietly. Okay? "…and they were looking for someone to drag out of the airplane, slit their throat, throw their body out on the tarmac where all the TV cameras could record it, and make their statement to the world.
Let's say they came down to get you, and as they were going to take you I realized what was going on. I put my hands in front of you and said, 'Don't take her. Take me instead," so they took me, slit my throat, and threw my body on the tarmac, and you survived. What would you think if I did something like that for you?"
She looked at me, and she said, "I cannot even imagine anybody doing anything like that for me." I replied, "That is what God did for you in Jesus." Jesus said, "Don't take her, Father. Take me instead." Jesus made the trade, his life for ours, and that trade took place on a small outcropping outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem. It's called Golgotha, the place of the skull, but most of us know it as Calvary, the place of the cross. It was the place of the first miracle.
Many of you might have seen the movie The Passion of the Christ. I think this film is historically precise, visually stunning, and viscerally moving, obviously, for the graphic nature of the film, a portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. But the most important detail of that crucifixion in the final hours of his life is not actually in the film, because it's not something that can be filmed. It's the miracle that could not be seen. It's the trade.
Here I want to be very clear about something that there is sometime confusion about. Jesus was not a victim. He was the one who said, "Nobody takes my life from me. I have authority over my own life. I lay it down just as I want to do it." Jesus wasn't a victim; he gave his life in a trade. He gave it willingly. It was his choice. It was what he wanted. In fact, it was the reason he was born. ( "…A BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME…" )
In other words, from the very beginning this divine plan had been unfolding, and Passion Week was just the pivot point of thousands of years of prophecy, promise, and expectation. While three hours of darkness cloaked the cross, a transaction was taking place that had been planned since the dawn of time. But for Jesus this meant betrayal, humiliation, acute physical suffering, and unimaginable emotional agony.
Now crucifixions are a cruel form of execution, and this is obvious when you see the portrayals of it. It's generally reserved for slaves and rebels. Death is slow and agonizing. It's the result of shock, blood loss, and exposure but eventually of suffocation. The people who are nailed to the cross end up sagging as they lose their energy. Their legs can't hold them up, their diaphragm contracts, and they suffocate.
Have you ever been stuffed in a small space and started to feel panicked because you have claustrophobia? Claustrophobia is the fear of suffocation. That terrible fear is how people on the cross die, but for Jesus, the pain of the cross I just described pales in the face of a greater anguish. It's a deeper torment that cannot be seen. No camera could ever capture it, and no words can adequately express.
It's more excruciating than the nails that pinned his body to the timbers. It's more dreadful than the lashes that, as you saw in the movie, ripped the flesh from his body. It was a dark, terrible, incalculable agony and infinite misery that God the Father unleashed upon his sinless Son as if Jesus were guilty of an immeasurable evil.
So why punish the innocent one? Well, if you recall, on the top of the cross there was a certificate, a piece of paper, a parchment. It was meant to list the crime of the person who was being punished. There was a debt owed to Caesar for the crime. This was a certificate of debt identifying what needed to be paid for, and the cross was payment for that crime.
Characteristically, after the execution government officials would take that certificate, that parchment, and would cancel it out. They'd put a word on it. The word was tetelestai, which simply means paid, canceled, done with, or completed. That particular crime had been paid for. Finished.
Of course, being King of the Jews, which is what was on Jesus' own certificate of debt, he was being punished for sedition, allegedly, but he wasn't guilty of sedition, and that wasn't really the reason he was there in the big scheme of things. There was another certificate of debt that was actually nailed to his cross that we can't see. The apostle Paul talks about this in Colossians, chapter, 2.
He says there was a certificate of debt God nailed to the cross that consisted of decrees against us and which were hostile to us. In other words, that was our rap sheet. God placed our crimes against him there, pinned to the cross where Jesus was. In that darkness on that afternoon on Calvary from the sixth to the ninth hour, the divine transaction takes place. Jesus makes a trade with the Father in punishment adequate for all the crimes of all humanity. Every murder, every theft, every lustful glance, every hidden act of vice, every monstrous deed of evil. The big or the small; it doesn't matter. Punishment adequate for every crime of every person who ever lived, Jesus takes upon himself as if he were guilty of them all.
In the end there's a sense in which the cross doesn't take Jesus' life. He doesn't die of asphyxiation, exposure, or loss of blood. Rather, when the full payment is made, when the last of the debt melts away, when the justice of God has been fully satisfied, Jesus just dismisses his spirit, he lets it go into the Father's hand, but before he does a single Greek word escapes his lips. Tetelestai.
Your translations say, "It is finished," but Jesus isn't saying, "I'm glad that's over with." This is his victory cry. He's saying, "The debt is canceled; it's all been paid. I've completed the task." The divine transaction is complete. Jesus has taken our guilt; we can take his goodness. That's the trade.
If you want the technical terms, it's called substitutionary atonement or justification. Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 21. "He [the Father] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." There's the trade.
The story is told of a king who had discovered a theft in the royal treasury. He decrees that the person they catch, who is the thief, be flogged in public for this offense against the crown. When they find the bad guy they bring that person before the king. It turns out that there in chains stands the frail form of the king's own mother.
Without flinching he orders the old woman to be bound to the whipping post. When she's secure he stands up, removes his robe, takes his crown off, sets aside his royal scepter, removes his own shirt, and then enfolds the tiny old woman with his arms. Baring his back to the whip, he orders the punishment to commence. Every blow that was meant for the criminal, his mother, actually falls with full force upon the bare back of the king until the last lash falls.
In the same way, friends, in those dark hours when Jesus hung from the cross, the Father took those who had put their trust in Jesus and wrapped his Son around them, shielding us and taking every blow we deserve. This was not an accident; it was planned. Indeed, the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah described it 700 years earlier. This is a passage that is familiar to many of you, but you may not have thought of it in this regard or quite in this detail before. Listen carefully.
"Surely our griefs He Himself bore…He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him."
"And as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due. […] But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; if He would render Himself as a guilt offering…""A body you have prepared for me." "As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities."
Of course, that's Isaiah 53. Friends, this is why Jesus is the only way. This is something that troubles Christians and non-Christians alike. "Why is Jesus the only way?" This is why. Now you know. He is the only one who solved the problem. He's the only one who could solve the problem.
No other man did this; no other man could. Jesus alone, the perfect Son of God, paid the debt for whoever trusts in him, and without him you can't be saved, because without him there is no other payment; there is only your payment. Without him you pay yourself, and that would take forever.
That is the miracle of the cross, the miracle that cannot be seen. The trade. For those who put their trust in Jesus…listen to this one…the anger of God has been spent. This is something many of you who follow Jesus don't deeply realize, but me too, because there's healing in this. It's in Romans, chapter 5. "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God…" By the way, this isn't the peace of God.
Some of you might be thinking, "Well, I'm not feeling very much peace." That's not what he's talking about. There's a peace of God, but he's talking about peace with God. That is, God's not angry at us anymore. There's no war going on. His anger has been satisfied. He poured that out on Jesus. God cannot be mad at you anymore. His anger has been spent, and it's the understanding of the peace with God that brings the peace of God.
This all sounds so good in hindsight. Right? We look back on this and say, "Wow," but on that Friday night there were no poetic reflections on atonement; there was just a bloody, brutally beaten corpse hanging from a cross. Jesus was dead. He was taken down, and he was buried. The women were weeping and the men were hiding.
It was night, and then it was day, and then it was night again. It all seemed over, like that was the end of it, and all the hopes were dashed. "What next? Go back to fishing after this?" Then something happened. Now what happened has mystified historians, but let me tell you what the majority of historians currently agree on.
There has been a dramatic change in the scholarship in the last 50 years on the question of what happened on that Sunday morning. The majority of New Testament scholars nowadays, and I'm talking critical scholars, people who don't have a theological horse in the race, agree to four facts of history regarding that weekend.
Jesus of Nazareth died at a Roman cross. That's pretty clear. He was dead.
The tomb he had been placed in was empty on that Sunday morning.
There were a lot of people, including nonbelievers and even skeptics or those hostile, who had some kind of experience they described as seeing the risen, resurrected Christ.
They agree that this belief in the resurrection by these people actually launched the early church.
So four things. They have agreement on the death of Christ, the empty tomb, the appearances of something that persuaded people Jesus was risen from the dead, and that this is what launched the early church. Now what historians don't agree on is what the best explanation is for those fairly solid facts of history.
I want to reflect on this for a moment, because there aren't that many options. There are a handful of scenarios that people have offered, attempting to explain those facts. I'll just run through a few of them, and you can decide for yourself what you think about these. By the way, I'm not making any of these up. These are the ideas that are in play.
1._ Jesus never really died; he just fainted, and when they put him in the cold tomb he revived._ This is called the swoon theory. It has a name to it. Okay. Let me see if I understand this. You're suggesting that Jesus took all of that physical abuse described in the historical accounts…
He was crucified, he was pinned to a cross with nails in his hands and in his feet, he hung naked there all afternoon in the cold April air, he was run through the chest with a spear, he was declared dead by Roman guards who understood that kind of thing, he was packed with over a hundred pounds of spices (that's in the record, by the way) and laid in a cold tomb, and three days later he felt better.
He got up, somehow got past that big stone, met with his disciples, and convinced them that he was the resurrected Lord of Life. I don't think so. Now if you like that one, you're welcome to it, but it seems to me if you do then you're too easily satisfied. How about this one?
2._ Somebody stole the body._ Okay, that's possible. The tomb is empty. Why is the tomb empty? They stole the body. He didn't rise; somebody stole the body. Okay, who? There are only three groups that might be involved: the Romans, the Jews, and the disciples.
Did the Romans want Jesus dead or alive? Dead. Did the Jews want Jesus dead or alive? Dead. They're not going to steal the body. I talked with my 9-year-old daughter about this. We have this book, a tabletop book thing. It has pop-up stuff. It's really made for adults, but kids love it. It's got all of these ideas in there. It's a fabulous book.
We're going through it and talking about this. She can see there are only three groups, and only the disciples are left. I said, "Okay. The disciples. The disciples stole the body. Is that possible?"
"Yeah, I guess it is possible."
"Let's think about that for a moment. What would that mean? That would mean that the disciples, of all people, knew Jesus had not risen from the dead. They saw the dead body. They said, 'We'll just steal it and pretend.' They lied."
All right. It's certainly possible, but it doesn't make sense to me, and I'll tell you why. Here's the basic rule regarding lying, and any kid can tell you it's right: if you make up a lie don't invent a story that gets you tortured and killed. Right?
3._ Maybe they went to the wrong tomb._ Mary and the ladies got it mixed up. There are a lot of graves. They went one way, saw an empty tomb with some graveclothes in it, and said, "He's risen! He's risen! He's risen!" What are the authorities going to do? "Uhhh. Settle down. He's right over here. And he stinks." This is easy to rectify. If they were at the wrong tomb this story would have never gotten off the ground.
4._ The disciples, who saw something they thought was the risen Christ, were actually hallucinating._ This is the most popular explanation nowadays. Well, okay. I guess there are people who have hallucinations. I grew up in the 60s, you know. It was pretty popular back then. But I want you to realize something about hallucinations.
Hallucinations are what philosophers call first-person, private experiences. I'm not going to have a hallucination of something that's moving across the stage and say to you guys, "Do you see that?" because there's nothing in a hallucination out there; it's all in here. That is, hallucinations are kind of like dreams. When you fall asleep at night and have a dream you can't invite other people to go along with you.
Can you imagine waking up in the middle of the night and saying, "Honey, I had a great dream. Hold my hand. Let's fall asleep and do it together." I know Leonardo DiCaprio did a movie where that was a thing, but that's Hollywood. That's not reality. That kind of thing doesn't happen.
If these guys are actually having a hallucination they are having all the same first-person, private, in-their-heads experience at the same time, many times, and in many places. No, I don't think so. By the way, it doesn't answer the question of where the body is. You're all hallucinating, and there's the body. But there was no body.
There's another guy who wrote a book on this, the philosopher William Lang Craig. I saw him debate Greg Cavin, another philosopher, at UC Irvine. Greg Cavin's view was that Jesus had an identical twin and they were separated at birth. (I promise I'm not making any of this up.) He strolled into town just at the right time on that weekend, saw an opportunity, and presented himself to the disciples as the risen Christ.
William Lang Craig called it the Dave theory. You know, like the movie Dave with Kevin Klein where he looks just like the president and they switch roles. Dr. Craig said, "If this is what it's come to, if this is what we have to believe to deny the best explanation for the empty tomb is the risen Christ, then we're on solid ground here." I told this to my daughter, who had the best response. She said, "That's dumb." There you go.
In the final analysis, I think no explanation fits the evidence better… And I'm choosing my words carefully here. I'm not taking a wild leap of faith. Look at the facts. What best explains the thing everybody agrees on? Those facts will tell you what it is. The best explanation is the one given by those previously gutless disciples, the same men whose knees were knocking behind locked doors who are now putting their lives on the line for this testimony: He who was dead is alive. He is risen!
I ask you, what would transform a group of shivering, shaking men who had scattered and abandoned Jesus, some even denying him? Hiding from the authorities. Doors locked. Lights out. What would have transformed them into vibrant witnesses for Jesus, standing there in the face of the same authorities who crucified Jesus, saying, "We cannot stop speaking that which we've seen and heard"?
What would cause Saul of Tarsus…? Here's a guy who's so dedicated to his religion he rounded up men and women to have them beaten and executed for their testimony of Christ. This man turned on a dime and took his place with those he persecuted on Christ's behalf, eventually giving his life for the very gospel he previously despised. What explains that? Only one answer will do, friends: In Peter's words, "This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses."
If that's a fact, then Jesus is the Son of God because he was declared with power to be the Son of God through the resurrection. (Romans 1) If he has been risen then we have been forgiven, because he was delivered over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4) If risen, now we have no condemnation, because Jesus, who was raised and at the right hand of God, always lives to make intercession for us. (Romans 8 and Hebrews 7)
So this second miracle then, the miracle of the resurrection, becomes the hinge pin for everything else that follows. Two miracles: first, a trade that ends the battle with God, bringing mercy, forgiveness, and atonement; and second, a defeat of death that secures eternity for those who trust in God's Rescuer.
At this point I have to confess a certain personal limitation here, because I find it's harder for me to connect emotionally with the resurrection in our future than it is for me to connect with the cross in the past. I mean, we have the accounts, they're detailed. We can read about what happened on the cross, and we can see movies about it and be moved emotionally. That's pretty vivid stuff, but when it comes to the future, this promise of the future, this promise of eternity… What? Clouds and harps? This doesn't do anything for me at all.
Sometimes I think our imaginations have to be stimulated. What I'd like to do now is tell you another story. It's a story that has nothing to do, at least at first glance, with anything spiritual. I'm going to use this story as kind of a bridge. I want to tell you a story about a horse and a race and a finish like no one has ever seen before or has in the half century that has passed since. The horse's name was Big Red, but the world knew this horse simply as Secretariat.
Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. I was 23 at the time, and I knew this had happened, but it wasn't until I saw the movie with my wife on date night that I understood exactly how this all came to play. The Triple Crown, by the way, is when the same horse wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes all in the same year. Only a handful of horses have ever done it in history. It's like throwing a perfect game in baseball.
Part of the drama in this particular case is the backstory. You have a rivalry between two powerful horses, Secretariat and this huge black stallion named Sham. Now Secretariat was genetically built for speed, not endurance. Secretariat was a come-from-behind horse. He usually overtook the field with a burst of speed right at the end.
In fact, in the early going of the Kentucky Derby, when the chutes opened and the horses went out, Secretariat was dead last. He won that race, crossing the finish line and breaking the track record. Secretariat was an incredible sprinter. The chief rival of Secretariat was Sham, who had been edged out in the first two shorter races, but now this is the Belmont Stakes, the longest race of the season. Sham is the distance champ. He's strong in the long haul.
There was a lot of thinking that in the Belmont Stakes Sham would be the spoiler and would take this chance away from Secretariat, because this was going to be Sham's race. Remember, this isn't just any horse race; this is the Belmont Stakes. This is the longest, hardest, most grueling race of the season. So that's the backstory.
Now after we watched the movie I went to YouTube, searched it out, and saw the footage of this race. You can see Secretariat in this race. As I watched this piece, amazingly, when the bell rings and the gates fly open, Secretariat jumps to the lead right on the rail. In other words, Secretariat is starting this race the way he usually ends the race, like a bullet, and Sham is right there up next to him.
On the first turn Sham and Secretariat burst out of the pack, and by the time they get to the backstretch Secretariat and Sham are 10 lengths ahead of the field. Now, a length is the length of a horse's body. These guys are way out ahead, and they're not even half done. The crowd is stunned. This is a suicide pace. Sham and Secretariat are setting speed records at every quarter mile. No horse can keep this up.
At the halfway point Secretariat is on the inside, Sham is on the outside, and they are head-to-head. Then Secretariat begins to open, and he doesn't open by a head, he opens by a length, then another length. It isn't like Sham is slowing down; it's that Secretariat has just lit the afterburners. The crowd has never seen anything like this before. They leap to their feet and are cheering.
When you watch the video you can hear the announcer. He's trying to contain his excitement, but he can't hold back. "They're on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along. Secretariat is widening now. He's moving like a tremendous machine! Secretariat by 12. Secretariat by 14 lengths on the turn. […] Secretariat is all alone! […] He's into the stretch… Secretariat has opened up a 22-length lead. […] An unbelievable and amazing performance!"
When Secretariat finally crosses the line he is not 22 lengths ahead of Sham; in the longest, hardest, most grueling race of the Triple Crown, Secretariat finished 31 lengths ahead of the nearest competition, and it isn't Sham. Sham ends up dead last, destroyed by the pace. Secretariat shatters the course record and shatters any doubt that he was the most magnificent horse ever to run any course at any time. Never before had any horse run so fast or defeated its opponents so decisively, and it's not been done since.
So here I am on date night, and I'm sitting next to my wife watching this movie. Look, my wife will get emotional at certain things, but I was a wreck. I'm blubbering and can hardly get any words out. I couldn't even contain myself as I was reading this to you a few moments ago. I'm thinking to myself, "It's just a horse race."
What's going on here? Why am I so emotional? Well, I'll tell you something. That's not the first time this has happened to me, and I suspect something like this has happened to you in the past too. Let me tell you what I think is going on in these cases, and then I want to connect that to the resurrection.
Have you ever noticed that certain types of experiences seem to provoke something deep and profound within you, a flow of emotion? You're not sure you understand why you're reacting that way. It's as if you get in touch with something that is almost otherworldly and it overwhelms you. Maybe you feel like you want to weep or maybe you want to cheer or shout or you're so filled with wonder you're speechless. You're transported just for a moment, because it passes, and then you wonder, "What was that?"
C.S. Lewis argued that each of us is born with an intense longing. He said there's something we have inside of us that longs for something this world can never satisfy. He called this the argument from desire. He said if you have an intense longing that can't be satisfied in this world it means that you were probably made for another world where the satisfaction existed. This was a powerful argument to bring him to his own convictions and faith in Christ.
He said that once in a while something happens that gives us a glimpse of that other world, even if it's just for a quick moment. It's kind of like Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There's a magical doorway that allows us passage from the temporal to the eternal and allows us to taste something transcendent. For different people there are different doorways. I was watching the horse race, and…Bam!...I got hit with that.
For Lewis it was nature and literature, especially myth, that touched this deep space in him. He writes about when he was a little child looking out the window at the fells around his home. There was something in him, this deep longing, that would rise up. It actually never left him his entire life. It was also stimulated by myth, which was his field.
Maybe for you it's something different, I don't know…a psalm, a piece of music, an act of heroism you see, or watching a baby being born. There's a moment there, and then it passes. Those moments are fleeting. We quickly return to our standard state of longing, but those moments are real. You know it.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think we were made for something far better than what we experience in this life. We know it, and we long for it. Once in a while we actually get to taste it. When I watched that magnificent horse end that race the way he did, I tasted it. I could not contain my emotion. I tasted something eternal, even if it was just the faintest bit.
So the next time you see something (a film, an event, a news story) or hear something (a verse, a melody) or you reflect on something grand and wonderful… (It doesn't have to be spiritual, necessarily. You find that deep down inside you something moves. You want to weep, and you're not sure why), I want you to think, in that moment, that God has just given you a glimpse.
He has just offered you a foretaste, of eternity, and one day (and this is the promise) we will lay hold of that in its fullness. As Lewis puts it, that something which we were born desiring and which night and day and year by year, from childhood to old age, we are looking for, watching for, and listening for.
All the things that ever deeply possessed our souls have been but hints of it…tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. He says that something will be ours, and he writes, "The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last."
On that day, because of the first miracle, the miracle of the cross, we will hear, "And their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more." On that day, because of the second miracle, the miracle of the resurrection, we will hear, "Enter into the joy of the Lord."
Father, we can't wait. As we navigate the challenges of life in this broken world, the life you have given us to live in service while we wait for your Son, we are deeply touched by what you've accomplished for us with that first miracle, the miracle of forgiveness. We look forward to the fullness of that second miracle, eternal life, and we're thankful that once in a while you give us a taste of what is to come that your Son has secured for us.
Father, we look forward to that time when it will no longer just be a taste but it will be complete and all-encompassing reality. Father, thank you for giving yourself through Jesus, who was born to die so that the battle would be over between us and we could be secured in joyful friendship with you forever. Amen.