Easter not Christmas

Most people in the UK don’t make a great deal of Easter these days.  Christmas is a much bigger event:  cards, presents, trees, decorations, special services, days of feasting.  Compared with that, Easter is quite low profile.  That’s true for us as a church too.  Yes, we hold a service on Good Friday.  Yes, we sing hymns about the resurrection on Easter Sunday.  Some of us may eat hot cross buns and give the children Easter eggs.  But we don’t spend weeks preparing, planning, celebrating the way we do for Christmas.  Compared with Christmas, Easter is very low-key.

It’s Easter, not Christmas that’s the heart of Christianity

You’ve only got to look at the four gospels to see that.  Two of them, Mark and John, don’t talk about the “Christmas-event”, the birth of the Lord Jesus, at all.  The other two gospel-writers, Matthew and Luke give quite a lot of space to the build-up months earlier, and the aftermath months later.  But they actually give very little to the birth itself or the events around it. Matthew deals with them in one sentence: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king…”  while Luke gives them twenty verses (Luke 2:1-20).

Compare that with the account of Jesus’s death.  Matthew takes eight of his 28 chapters to describe the “Easter week” – the week of Jesus’s death and resurrection.  Mark takes six of his 16 chapters, Luke six out of 24, John no less than 9 out of his 21 chapters.  Jesus lived on earth for around thirty-three years. But the gospel writers devote one in three of their pages to just eight days out of those thirty-three years: the eight days between Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem and Easter Sunday when he rose from the dead.  For the gospel writers, the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection was by far the most important part of his story.

The most vital element in the message preached

Paul was the first great Christian missionary.  What did he think was the most vital element in the message he preached?

“Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

“When I came to you, brothers… I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…”  (1 Corinthians 2:2).

“I delivered to you as of first importance, what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 17).

“God forbid that I should glory, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”  (Galatians 6:14).

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9).

How about Peter?  Read through Peter’s first letter if you want to see how central the events of Easter week were for him.  Peter lived alongside Jesus all through the years when Jesus was travelling around the land of Israel.  Yet in that letter, he doesn’t quote one thing that Jesus said or did during those years.  But he does write again and again about the death and resurrection of Jesus.

“He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

“You were ransomed…with the precious blood of Christ..” (1 Peter 1:19).

“God… raised him from the dead and gave him glory” (1 Peter 1:21).

“Christ also suffered for you… He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.  He himself bore out sins in his body on the tree… by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21-24).

“Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:19).

 “Baptism now saves you…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21).

“Christ suffered in the flesh…” (1 Peter 4:1).

Peter’s mind was obviously filled with thoughts of Jesus’s death and resurrection.

The Bible focuses on not how but why Jesus suffered as he did

As a church, we don’t display crucifixes.  We don’t even decorate our building with a cross.  Nor do we have paintings of the risen Jesus in his glory.  But it’s not because we don’t want to think about the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  It’s just that we don’t think that a carved figure or a golden ornament is the best way to remember the all-important events of the first Easter.

I’ve quoted above a string of statements from the Bible about Jesus’s suffering and death.  None of them focus on the horrible tortures of the crucifixion.  The chief thing that Paul and Peter wanted us to grasp was not the exact nature of the suffering Jesus went through.  Rather they wanted us to understand why Jesus suffered as he did.  Likewise when they talked about his resurrection, they never tried to describe how he looked when he returned from the dead.  Rather they spelled out just what the risen Lord Jesus can do for those who trust themselves to him.

And that’s where paintings, or carvings – or for that matter films and videos – can’t help us. They can help us imagine some of the graphic details of Christ’s suffering.  But they can’t help us understand why Christ suffered, or what his suffering achieved.  Nor can they bring home to us the wonder and glory of what the Lord Jesus can do for us, now that he’s come back from the dead.  A person may spend hours gazing at a crucifix – and yet never understand why it was necessary for Jesus to die that horrible, brutal death.  You could kneel before a famous painting of the risen Lord Jesus – like Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory – but never come to know Jesus Christ himself.  You could watch a Hollywood actor playing out the role of Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross or as he walked out of the tomb, but it wouldn’t bring home to your heart the wonderful fact that the Son of God died and rose again to save sinners.

Only God himself can really help you understand

Only God himself, by his Holy Spirit, can really help you understand what was happening at that first Easter.  And he does that, not through crucifixes or videos, but through the words of the Bible.  Countless people have found that as the Bible is read and explained, it’s as if they’re being confronted directly with the person of Jesus Christ.  They find themselves overwhelmed at the thought of Jesus’s suffering.  They find themselves thrilled by the fact that he defeated death and is alive.  They understand what Peter meant when he wrote “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God”, and they find themselves saying, “it was for my sins he died.  They’re irresistibly pulled to Jesus Christ: they know that he’s their only hope; they trust him, love him, worship him.

For some people, the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to Jesus the very first time they hear the story of his death and resurrection.  My friend Billy McCurrie was in a cell in the Maze Prison, when a prison visitor, a little old lady, asked if she could read the Bible to him.  She read the story of Jesus’s death at Calvary and Billy was struck to the heart.  He needed no crucifixes or paintings to make the truth real to him.  He knew that Jesus Christ had died taking the punishment sinners deserved.  He knew that he was a sinner.  He knew he needed the forgiveness only Jesus Christ could give.  That night a hardened gunman with a life sentence hanging round his neck was on his knees pleading with Jesus Christ to save him.  Today Billy is a preacher, telling others of the Lord who died for him and rose again to save him.

For others it’s very different.  Some have heard the story of Jesus many times and yet never understood it – until that moment when the Holy Spirit makes it all plain.

My wife Anne went away to camp at the age of 14.  She had known the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection from the time she was a toddler. She could have recited by heart many Bible verses about Jesus and why he died.  If someone had asked her, she would have explained without hesitation that Jesus died for our sins so that we could be forgiven.  Yet something happened that year at camp.  A preacher stood up and talked simply about Jesus and his love, his willingness to suffer and die for sinners.  He said nothing that Anne hadn’t heard before.  But as he spoke, Anne realised as she had never done before, what it meant.  Jesus had died for her sins.  Those sufferings were because he loved her.  And now, risen from the dead, he could be her Saviour.  She felt as if she had never heard or understood the story of Jesus before.  And just like Billy, she found herself on her knees worshipping her Saviour.  She knew that if Jesus had suffered so much to save her, she must spend the rest of her life serving him.

We often sing this hymn.  It’s a prayer that we’ll be helped to understand the Easter story:

Give me a sight, O Saviour,
Of thy wondrous love to me.
Of the love that brought thee down to earth,
To die on Calvary.

O make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant to thee, the Holy One
To bear away my sin.

O wonder of all wonders,
That through thy death for me,
My open sins, my secret sins,
May all forgiven be!

O make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant to thee, the Holy One
To bear away my sin.

That’s a prayer not just for Easter but for all the year round.  But I’ll be praying it for myself in a special way this Easter time.  And I’ll be praying it for every person who sits and listens to the Easter story in our congregation.  For those of you who have never before been given a sight of Jesus’s love, may the Holy Spirit open your eyes for the first time.  And for those of us who long ago were drawn to Jesus, may the Holy Spirit renew our sense of wonder and love towards the one who loved us and gave himself for us.

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