This a sermon that begins on a 4th grade football field and ends at the foot of the cross.
It’s interesting that it begins on a 4th grade football field, because at our 10 a.m. gathering the front row of the Worship Center was filled with — you guessed it — fourth graders who are part of our scout program. Many of them hadn’t been to our church before.
So in God’s sovereignty, I just “happened” to have a sermon planned with a 4th grade opener.
When he is that much in charge, you may well know why I felt good about the sermon.
Titled “The Walking Dead Miracle,” it meandered from that football story to the cross and ultimately into assertions about eternity, landing at this bottom line:
The death OF one reverses death FOR all.
Before I talk to you about a jaw dropping miracle of Jesus that I haven’t touched in 25+ years of preaching because I haven’t been just exactly sure how much I believed it . . . is it OK if I tell you about my moment of football glory? I was in 4th grade, on the Maroon Raiders 6 man YMCA football team in Dallas. 4th grade, remember that, cuz it matters. Anyway, our first game we had two plays – sweep right & sweep right pass – both of which put the ball in the hands of our best player, Gage Pritchard. For our second game, they added one more play, a reverse in which all the offense goes one way and the QB slyly hands it to the wingback to run to other way. It’s deceptive by design. Anyway, the wingback in 6 man football is where they put relatively good athletes who belong more on the tennis court than the football field. I don’t know . . . the kind of kids who will grow up to be . . . clergy. So in Game #2, we’re on the 10 yard line, our coaches call a reverse, and – these are fourth graders, remember – the play works to absolute perfection. No one was near me. Football is easy! Because for 4th graders the concept of “reverse” is so alien & I just walked 6 points in!
You know, the concept of turning things around, going in reverse, is sort of important to us. Can you imagine how hard driving would be in you couldn’t put it in R? Reverse mortgages are all the rage on TV & while I don’t think they mean the mortgage company PAYS YOU to own the house, I get the idea they’re still pretty good. There are products you can buy to reverse skin aging, to reverse hair loss, to reverse low T, really, to reverse anything that might be unpleasant in life. But then doesn’t this desire for reversal, this longing for a “do over,” that wish simply to “have that one back” get more poignant, more personal, more painful? Some of you wish you could reverse that divorce, reverse that investment, reverse what happened that time you had too much to drink, reverse that stand you took that ended up costing you your job. And you feel so powerful in the face of that regret because you can’t, really, take things back & do them over. The reverse may have led to my solitary moment of football glory but for you the concept is ultimately more frustrating than liberating.
Which brings us to today’s Jaw Dropper, which is really an escalating series of 3-4 jaw droppers piled on top of each other. Jesus is in Matthew’s hands here in ch. 27, & Matthew adds some details to the story of the crucifixion that neither Mk nor Lk nor Jn ever touch. And it starts with Jesus not only in Mt’s hands but in the hands of evil in 27:45:
45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land.
Now: this is not an eclipse, it wasn’t cloudy, there’s no need for a meteorological explanation here. Evil dominates the scene – even as God judges it – and nature responds in kind. It’s supernatural. Then in 26:46, we get Jesus at his more raw, tortured, and honest, as a quotes Psalm 22:1 in anguish:
46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
I believe he is being absolutely literal there – going thru the complete absence of God, which is another name for hell, and doing it on earth. Nothing else ever, anywhere, has been hell on earth except this.
Then at 27:47-49 there is some misunderstanding (“God” & “Elijah” sound similar in Hebrew), some taunting, and some fascinating contrast between “the one” who goes to get the sponge and “the rest” who don’t:
47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”
48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
What are the motives of “the one”? We don’t know because Matthew doesn’t tell us, but whatever they were he acted in some way different than the crowd. Finally in 27:50 –
50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
– this great phrasing suggests the voluntariness of it all. That although he appears weak, he is still in charge. Jesus GIVES UP his spirit which means no one is taking it from him. Kinda cool.
But all that is the set up for the real jaw dropping to begin. Look at 27:51a&b:
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
That’s God’s way of saying and Matthew’s way of delivering: this death has everything to do with reconfiguring the way the people get to God. Previously, one priest would go one time a year to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people; he was the only one allowed beyond that curtain. And on the cross, Jesus says and God shows CURTAINS TO THE CURTAIN! The sudden, violent tearing is like Oh! All that’s changed! Where there used to be DISTANCE there is now ACCESS. The old system has been suddenly irrevocably reversed.
And then check out 27:51c-52a:
The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open.
Circle all the turbulent language of shaking, breaking, splitting. Whoa! It’s as if everything has to break apart in order for Jesus to break through. And then this: 27:52b-53:
The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[c] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Now, c’mon. What in the world? Zombies? The Walking Dead?! The movie The Sixth Sense only EVERYONE sees dead people? And Matthew is the only one who tells us this? For years I brought some skepticism to this part of a library that typically makes me euphoric rather than doubtful. And so many questions! How long did they stay alive? Who’d they talk to? What did they look like? How did they smell? But you know what you’ve gotta do? Realize that what interests you doesn’t necessarily interest Matthew and this is his inspired story! He’s got his reasons and our privilege is to figure them out! And note these are “holy people” – presumably folks like Elijah & Moses & Jeremiah and Matthew wants you to know that Jesus both stands in line with then and yet also above them. Because resurrection gets woven into every last detail of the crucifixion. In the grisly story of death, Matthew takes such care to sprinkle glorious details of life. Death here gets turned on its head, dialed back, even . . . reversed. The Walking Dead is not just a TV show but it’s ppl appearing in your living room!
And if you don’t read carefully, that’s the jaw dropperiest miracle of the day. But if you DO read carefully – and we DO at GS! – there’s more, there’s better, there’s deeper. Look at 27:54:
54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Who are these people? Glad you asked! They are the execution squad! The centurion (high ranking Roman soldier) is the one who supervised the flogging that tore open Jesus’ back, he’s the one who allowed the ridicule, he’s the one who ordered the nails, he’s the one who watched all the mockery – all of it. He supervised. His team carried it out. They’re the ultimate Death Squad. Killing God. And what gets me about 27:54 is that they’d seen plenty of crucifixions before; they were professionals at it! You know what that means? They were deader than dead. They were numb to death. They were the real Walking Dead, because those corpses in v. 53 had at least been “holy people.” These were anything but. These guys were agents of the enemy; soldiers in an evil empire.
Yet although they had seen plenty, what happened? They saw something in this death and it’s turbulent, roiling, jaw dropping aftermath, that made them reconsider the world. That made them come to life. They, the real dead ones, come to life! They move from execution squad to exaltation team; from death sentence to life song! And in that, the TRUE jaw dropper, all the escalating miracles come into focus: The death of one reverses death for all. That’s why the curtain was torn! The religious system brought death to most and access to one had to be REVERSED! That’s why you had walking dead people! DEATH WAS GETTING REVERSED! A hint, an appetizer of what awaits! And that’s why a numb, sadistic death squad comes to life: because death was reversed that day. No other death of anyone anywhere anyway did that. One death had life woven into it. Jesus’ death. The Lamb’s death. Brought about the death of death. REFRAIN and it takes Matthew’s turbulent, masterful, subtle language to bring home.
See, on the cross, the order of everything gets turned around. We normally think that life is followed by death. Not anymore! When you know what’s going on, death is followed by life! That’s why baptism (have several that day please!) goes TOMB TO WOMB. Down to die, arise in the waters of amniotic fluid to a new life. We think things inevitably move to decay; you get your life in Jesus and you come to understand that they move to renewal. The death of one reverses death for all.
But wait wait wait. Here this –The death of one reverses death for all – but please don’t hear what I’m not saying. Because I want everyone here – no exceptions – to have you death reversed. That when you die – and, yes, we all will and you’ll be dead a lot longer than you’ve been alive – you will have your death reversed into everlasting life in the realm of Jesus. You will be more alive then than you are now. Way more. But although the POWER is available in this ONE DEATH to do all that, you have to access it. Like electricity is always out there, working, but you gotta plug the cord in to get any use out of it! Jesus’ death on the cross is SUFFICIENT for all but only EFFICIENT for those who claim it. It’s ENOUGH but it has to be accessed. How?
What the centurion said! Surely this is the Son of God! Surely this is God in flesh! He recites exactly what the religious leaders rejected. The rejected that idea about Jesus. So he was crucified. The centurion recites it. So he’ll be resurrected. His death will be reversed. You might room in heaven with the guy in charge of Jesus’ death squad! Glory! So when you acknowledge, embrace, surrender to the eternal reversal brought by one death for all death, ah, then your own eternity – RAISED LIFE – is in the books. That’s why they call it the Lamb’s Book Of Life! The death of one reverses death for all.
And along the way, so much else will be reversed. You might not be as numb to death and as calloused towards life as those Roman soldiers – or you might be – but I know that someone here, somewhere in life has allowed numb to replace alive. For some of you feeling the pain in your marriage became too painful so you stopped feeling anything anymore. For others, the grief of losing people you love, one after another, got to be so heavy it was easier to stop feeling anything than to feel everything. So you went numb. And then others it is that general despair that makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning and it’s a lot easier to drink or to pop a pill or even to place a bet than to feel. Numbness has made you one of the walking dead.
My gosh, my prayer is that Matthew 27 will give you perspective on all that. With a universe in flux and a world in despair and your life in a rut, the perspective that Jesus in himself is the incredible REVERSER makes a difference. Enormously so. We’ll get to this more next week (Easter!) but since he is alive you’re not alone. Since he reversed death, you can’t hide. He is relentless, pushy, annoying. And this conviction I have is not based on a philosophy or an idea but on a singular, decisive act in history. One death reversing all death for whoever will take it.
And you know what that’s going to mean in the long term, in the big picture, for all who accept it? For those who recite what other religions reject? You know the old RIP? Rest In Peace. I use it all the time. In fact, not long ago, Glenn Frey of the Eagles died and so I sent a text to my son: RIP, Glenn Frey. The text came back: Who is Glenn Frey?
Epic Parent Fail!
So we use RIP a lot. But one day it’s gonna be replaced and reversed!
RIP is getting replaced with RIG: Rise In Glory.
Want that number to include you?