Easter

So most people are probably aware that Easter is here. For one, Wal-Mart makes a whole aisle of their store dedicated to Easter chocolate – the cream-filled chocolate eggs (which are my favorite), chocolate bunnies and so forth. Easter egg hunts are a fun activity that churches and families do. But as with Christmas these things are only add-ons and commercialized forms of what the holiday is really about.

This is not what Easter is about.

So, why do Christians make a big deal about Easter? It’s all about the fact that Jesus – the man who we are trying to follow – died, and then…something happened. The tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty. The Jews explained it away: “The disciples or someone else stole the body.” Modern skeptics have argued that a man named Jesus never existed to die and be buried in the first place. That would certainly cast a shadow on Christian teaching, for “if Christ is not raised [from death], [our] faith is futile.” (I Corinthians 15:17)

I can’t speak for someone else, so I’ll just speak for me. I don’t think that that’s the case. First of all, the story of Jesus is a story set in factual history. The land of Palestine exists; the Roman empire was real; the Pharisees and Sadducees and other major groups of people really existed. The Gospels are really nothing more than personal accounts from four random guys that Jesus said, “Hey you, follow me.” These were real people who really wrote down (or narrated) what they saw, heard, felt and experienced.

When you sit in a courtroom and listen to eyewitness testimony, you aren’t looking for everyone to say the exact same thing. Sometimes one person notices something that the others don’t notice; sometimes different people confuse the order of events. In the case of the Gospels, we even have entirely different audiences and the person writing (or narrating) the Gospel is trying to make a different point from the others. However, what we have instead is this: we have the equivalent of hours of eyewitness testimony from these four men who had every logical reason to tell us a different story.

Among other things, their self-representations in the stories they told were often less than stellar, yet the disciples seemed to not be too worried about telling their audiences about their own mistakes. Even when people tell the truth, they often shy away from the embarrassing details about themselves. If someone tells you something authentically embarrassing about themselves, then you can guess that they are telling you the truth as best as they can. Plus, in telling others about Jesus, they were ostracized from the Jews. In such a culture where so much of your identity came from the fact that you were a Jew, they rejected that. They gained no wealth, no political capital, no nothing. If these men were pulling stuff out of the sky just to make people like them, they weren’t very good at it.

Another great example is the fact that women were the ones who first discovered the empty tomb. In that Middle Eastern culture, women weren’t allowed to testify in a court of law. Women’s testimony was considered unreliable, so the fact that women were the first ones to discover the empty tomb was an embarrassment to the disciples; they  were actually making it less likely that people would believe them. Why would they do that if none of it happened?

In a way, those who are following Jesus celebrate Easter year-round. The Easter story is about a man who claimed to be God in the flesh and then backed that claim up when he came back to life 3 days after his death.

Also understand that at its heart, the Easter celebration is the heart of the disciples’ message. The disciples were not theologians and they weren’t trying to create a  religion. Their message centered on a very simple statement: “This man named Jesus was as dead as dead can be.  I saw him die. And then three days later, he stood before all of us. He was alive again.”

Could the disciples have lied? Sure, but it would go against everything we know about human motivation. Most people lie in order to make themselves look better or to gain something – political power, money, status, etc. These men gained none of these by saying what they said. Could they have imagined it? It’s possible, but doubtful. It wasn’t like Peter was looking at a shadow and saying, “Guys, there he is! Don’t you see him?” Could it have been a collective delusion? It could have, but that would go against everything we know about psychology and sociology. Hallucinations are a highly individual experience. Like dreams, they are based out of a person’s psyche so if they had been hallucinating they wouldn’t have all seen the same thing. Instead, they all saw the same thing: Jesus standing before them in flesh, even talking with them in a group setting for long periods of time, eating, etc.

Are there additional arguments that can be brought against the Resurrection claim? Sure, but I can’t cover all of them. Besides, some of the objections I have already brought up seek to invalidate the experience of these 12 human beings and very simply, that irritates me. When you try to invalidate the experience of human beings, you begin to act like they were too stupid or too ignorant to know the truth. It comes across as very arrogant and dismissive. If I came up to you and said, “Let me tell you why all of your life experiences that shape who you are are invalid,” odds are you wouldn’t like it. I’m a big fan of asking pointed questions, but I’m also a big fan of not belittling or dismissing the experiences of other people.

This is why I believe that Jesus is still alive today and this is why I am trying to follow him. I believe that Jesus was a real man who really died, and then a considerable number of people saw Jesus alive again at the same time, in the same place. It isn’t about chocolate bunnies or fertility rituals of ancient cultures; it’s about the fact that a human being rose from the dead.

If the story isn’t true, then Christianity is a huge, complex lie that men throughout history have used to justify both great good and great evil. But if the story is true, then that radically changes everything we know about reality. So, for me, that is the most important question that you can ask: did Jesus come back to life, or didn’t he? If he stayed dead, then he was just another good guy with some nice thoughts. If he didn’t stay dead then his words are worth taking a second look at.

James 4: Are You Planning with God in Mind?

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.
James 4:13-15
Do you make plans with God in mind?

I am what you would describe as an obsessive planner. I have a plan for just about everything: what I’m going to eat when I’m at school or work during the week, when I’m going to visit my parents, when I’m going to do this, that and the other. My parents have poked a little fun at me because I seem to always have a plan for where I’m going to be and what I’m going to be doing. This may be why I naturally find this passage in James a little touchy. Very often do I make plans, but how often do I involve him in the decision-making process?

Reading this text also makes me smile a little bit because there have been moments where I have been on the totally opposite end of the spectrum. When I was getting ready to graduate high school, I was terrified of even graduating high school. I was so stricken with fear that I basically applied for one college and hoped that I would get in. Thankfully I got in to the University of Missouri, but I remember feeling very conflicted during that season of life because I felt like I couldn’t make a decision. Wasn’t I supposed to wait on God to tell me where to go and what to do? Why hadn’t he told me what I was supposed to do with my life? What if I made plans and then God changed them?

So, is that the kind of lifestyle that James is promoting? I don’t think so. He isn’t saying that planning is bad; making plans for the future makes you a responsible individual. That’s not saying that everyone has to plan for everything the way I do, but there comes a point where not making a decision makes you reckless. When I first started driving, I could barely make a decision to save my life: right or left? Faster or slower? Pass the person or idle down the highway at 40 mph? Frankly, I was a road hazard on wheels.

So what is James talking about? He’s talking about failing to take God into account when you plan for the future. “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” James isn’t telling us to just say “If it is the Lord’s will” at the beginning of each of our plans. There’s nothing magical about the phrase “If it is the Lord’s will.” He’s telling us that God needs to be involved in how we plan our lives and if we fail to include him in our plans, we are (in a very subtle way) trying to have our own way instead of allowing God the right to veto our plans.

One of the ways that I try to check my heart when I am making plans is asking, What is my reaction if this plan of mine doesn’t come to fruition? Do I get mad? Frustrated? Or am I able to make the plan and then honestly say, “God, if this doesn’t work, that’s okay?” If I can honestly make a plan and then accept that it might not work out, then that’s when I know that I’ve put this principle into practice. If I feel myself getting really frustrated when something I have planned doesn’t come about, that’s when I know that I need to take a moment, check my heart and leave it in God’s hands.

I use that phrase – “leave it in God’s hands” – carefully because some people who are trying to follow Jesus have come to believe that we can’t make plans or decisions, that God is supposed to split the Heavens open and tell us what to do every time we come to a crossroads. If you’ll read the New Testament – and in particular the book of Acts – I don’t think that that’s the model of discipleship that we see the early Church leaders setting. Did God speak to them on certain issues? Yes. But they also made many different decisions with no specific instruction from God, though they typically gave God the right to veto their decision.

When you’re at a crossroads, come to the best decision you can and then give God an opportunity to give you the “yay” or “nay.”

A great example of this decisional model is in Acts 1 where the disciples picked who was going to replace Judas as the 12th disciple. What did they do? They whittled it down to two men, they prayed for God’s guidance, and then they drew lots to see which of the two men it was going to be. Did God tell them to do that? No, but they did pray for God’s guidance. Their approach was balanced: they weren’t just asking God to make all of the decisions, but they weren’t just acting without giving God that right of veto.

So, this passage from James is telling us to make sure that we give God the right of veto when we are making decisions. Make your plans, make sure that they are as good as you can make them and then bring them before the throne of God saying, “Father, if it is within your will, here’s what I plan to do” and then trust that if your plan doesn’t work out, God’s got a better one in mind. So, make plans; make decisions; don’t wait for God to make them all for you; and please don’t try to plan everything out so meticulously as I do.

So, if you are trying to follow Jesus, what do you think about this passage from James 4? Do you think God wants us to make plans? What kinds of ways can we ensure that we give God the right of veto if we do make plans? When do you think God is giving you the go-ahead for a plan? What about when he is saying “no” to something you plan?

If you aren’t a Christian or aren’t trying to follow Jesus, what is your reaction to this whole model of planning and decision-making? Does it make sense, or does it just sound weird?