Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 15: 50-58 Raised: in victory

Over the past few days, the General Synod of the Church of Ireland met in Armagh. And among the many items of business, we discussed a new order of service for Morning and Evening Prayer for use on Sundays. The material was passed, so you can watch this space for when the service starts being used. But in the middle of the service there was one line that some people didn’t like. An amendment was proposed to take the line out.

It comes in one of the opening prayers, and says this: ‘In the fulness of time, you made us in your image, and in these last days you have spoken to us in your Son Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.’ And the bit that some wanted to remove was ‘In these last days.’ It was suggested that we aren’t in the last days, that there’s no prospect of the Lord Jesus returning any time soon, and so we don’t need that line.

Now, that phrase is a quotation of Hebrews 1 ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’. And thankfully, the synod voted to keep it in. But it was the thought that we don’t need to worry about the last days because we aren’t in them that made me think of today’s reading. This morning, we mark the Sunday after the Ascension Day, when Jesus returned to heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father. But we also remember that he has promised to return. And it’s Jesus’ return that we focus on this morning, as we look forward to the full and final victory of Jesus - the victory we will share in.

Over these past few weeks, we’ve been seeing what the resurrection of Jesus means for us. And last week, we saw that when the dead in Christ are raised, they will be transformed - look back to verse 42 to remind yourself of the change. ‘The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.’

And in verse 50, we see why this new body is needed. Look at it with me: ‘I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.’ These flesh and blood bodies cannot survive in the kingdom of God. Our perishable bodies, bodies which fade and fail and fall ill - they wouldn’t be suitable for an imperishable existence. Our current bodies would be as useful as a chocolate teapot in the new heavens and the new earth. But don’t worry about that. As we were reminded last week, God has it all under control.

And the way God has it under control is seen in verse 51. Paul tells us ‘a mystery’ - something that has long been secret, but is now being revealed. And, when you look at it, it sounds like a warning or advice to new parents: ‘We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed...’

But Paul is revealing God’s word about what will happen on the last day. And when he says, ‘we will not all sleep’ he means that there will be Christians who are alive when Jesus returns. That some will not sleep - will not die - but will be alive to welcome the Lord Jesus.

And if we are alive when Jesus returns, we won’t die - but we will be changed. All change. It’s like the announcement on a bus or train. This one can only take you so far, after that, you need to get on another one to get to your final destination.

And when will this change happen? ‘In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.’ In a moment - in any moment! In the time it takes you to bat an eyelid, or blink, the Lord Jesus will return. It could happen at any moment. A friend was telling us that he recently talked to his 4 year old about how Jesus could return any day. So now, every morning, the first question he’s asked is - is it today, daddy?

Well, we don’t know when it will happen, but we do know what will happen. ‘For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.’ Notice that it’s immortality, not immorality!

So when the trumpet sounds, it’ll be time to be changed. And I was trying to think of what it might be like. So, think of when the factory hooter goes to signal the start of a shift. The workers have to get changed from their ordinary clothes and put on their special uniform which is suitable for their environment.

And did you notice that everyone will be imperishable by then - the dead are raised imperishable, and the living are clothed with the imperishable. Everyone who knows and trusts Jesus will be imperishable, never to spoil or fade or fall again.

Now, when that happens, verse 54, then will come the moment we’ve all been waiting for. ‘When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”’

When all God’s people are imperishable and immortal, then death will no longer have any say, will no longer claim any victories over us. Instead, we will share in Christ’s victory over death. And the long-ago promise will finally come true.

You see, right from the Garden of Eden, death has been our enemy. And slowly, but surely, death has claimed everyone. As someone once said, the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. Death is our great enemy. But God promised, back in Isaiah 25, that Death would be swallowed up in victory.

Will you turn there, briefly, to see what God had promised? P708. Verse 7 shows the universal problem - death is like a shroud, like a blanket over all peoples - full blanket coverage. None are exempt. But, ‘he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.’

God will swallow up death. He’ll wipe away tears. He’ll take away our disgrace. And where will this happen? ‘On this mountain.’ Jerusalem, the mountain of the Lord, where Jesus was crucified, and rose from the dead, and swallowed death whole. Death does not have the last word. Jesus has triumphed!

That’s why Paul can mock death in those words of verse 55. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ A good few years ago now, Northern Ireland beat England at Windsor Park, when David Healy scored the only goal of the game. Ever since, when lowly Northern Ireland were beating bigger and better teams like Spain and Sweden and so on, the fans would start singing ‘Are you England in disguise?’

Fans like to mock and make fun of the other team. Well here, we can mock death. Death, which for so long seemed so powerful, so mighty, has now been defeated. And on that day when sin no longer has any power to touch us or threaten us, we too will sing and shout and mock.

You see, for now, death has a sting in the tail. Just like a bee or a wasp, it has a stinger. And the sting of death is sin. The sharpness that gets into our skin and does the damage. Death comes as a result of our sin, and brings pain, and grief, and loss. And sin gets its power from the law - from God’s good standard. As we break God’s law, as we disobey and rebel, then that sin stings us, and we fall into the hands of our enemy.

Sometimes bee stings can be fatal, and can kill the person who has been stung. But with the sin sting, death is a certainty. But that is not now the end of the story. Why? Because of verse 57. ‘But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Jesus has won the victory singlehandedly over sin and death. Back in verse 3, we’re told that Christ died for our sins - they are no longer counted against us. And because Jesus lives, death has been defeated. God gives us the victory, we can share in a triumph not our own, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

What a glorious future we have - whether we have died when Christ returns, or if we’re still living - we will all be transformed, made imperishable, and can share in Christ’s victory.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I almost want Paul to finish on the high triumphant note of verse 57. That note of thanks and praise as we clearly see the victory won, and how we will share in it. But that’s not where Paul ends. Instead he adds verse 58, as he draws out the implications of the whole chapter. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, and our resurrection; because of the world to come; because what we do matters, ‘therefore, my beloved brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’ (58)

The doctrine of the resurrection will lead to two things - being firmly faithful, and fully committed. First of all, firmly faithful. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection is the answer to the Corinthian’s tendency to be blown about by false doctrine.

Some had listened to those who say there’s no such thing as the resurrection. (12). Others doubted the power of God or the promises of God. But now that they know the truth, they must stand firm on it. Not moving about, not being moved from it. Standing firm on the rock of Christ.

Isn’t that how Paul started this chapter? ‘Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.’ (1 Cor 15:1-2) Right doctrine - firmly faithful.

But they are also called (and we are called), to be fully committed. Because Jesus has died and been raised, and he has entrusted us with the work of the gospel, and because Jesus will return victorious, then we are to ‘Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord.’

Paul urges us to always gives ourselves fully. Not just on the odd occasions when it suits. Not just a half-hearted effort. But fully, always, doing the Lord’s work, whatever it is that he has called and gifted and equipped you to do for him. And why should we do that? ‘because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.’

There are two ‘ins’ there - together, they summarise the whole chapter, and provide the motivation for doing the Lord’s work:

Our labour is in the Lord. It is done for his glory, with his power, and his blessing. To be in the Lord is to be united to him, one with him. And as we labour for him, our work for the Lord, and in the Lord is not in vain - just as our faith in Christ is not in vain.

Our faith is not empty because Jeus is alive. our work is therefore also not empty or useless. It’s productive, and fruitful, as we spread the good news of Jesus, the triumph of his victory over sin and death.

The English crickteter, CT Studd, played in the very first Ashes match against Australia. Yet he gave up his sport and his fame, in order to go to China as a missionary. He wrote these lines to show what really mattered in his life.

Only one life, twill soon be past,
only what’s done for Christ will last.

Victory is already secured, is already sure. we can celebrate now, as we stand firm in the truth of the resurrection, and spread the good news to others - Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 13th May 2018.