A man was on trial for murder. There was convincing evidence, but no body. The defense lawyer, worried that his client would be convicted, resorted to a trick: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all. Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk into this courtroom.” He looked toward the courtroom door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened. Finally the lawyer said, “Actually, I made up the previous statement. But you all looked at the door with anticipation. I therefore put it to you that there is reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty.” The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. After only a few minutes, however, they returned with a guilty verdict. The defense attorney was stunned, “How? You must have had SOME doubt, I SAW you stare at the door.” The jury foreman replied: “WE looked at the door…but your client didn’t.”
James 4:4-8 Let your patience show itself perfectly in what you do. Then you will be perfect and complete and will have everything you need. But if any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it. He is generous to everyone and will give you wisdom without criticizing you. But when you ask God, you must believe and not doubt. Anyone who doubts is like a wave in the sea, blown up and down by the wind. Such doubters are thinking two different things at the same time, and they cannot decide about anything they do. They should not think they will receive anything from the Lord.
Today we begin a relatively short, 4-Sunday walk through the post-resurrection (that is to say AFTER Easter) appearances of Jesus. We won’t talk about ALL of His appearances by any means, but we WILL get an overview of what happened AFTER Easter morning and BEFORE Jesus ascended into Heaven. The series has an odd name that might seem a bit of a mystery at first glance- Closing Night Strike. Closing Night Strike is a theater term. In educational theater, we would do the play or musical over two weekends- 6 or so performances. And then, after closing night, we would “strike”- put away the set, the costumes and the props.
So, what’s the connection between Closing Night Strike and the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus? “Seems a bit of a…JUMP, Pastor!” Here’s the deal- when you’re in a play, you work for months on the show- memorizing lines and blocking, doing character development, etc. And then, the show “goes up”- it opens. You do several performances. And then…it’s over. Closing Night Strike. A couple of hours of clean-up and it’s all gone. And you’re suddenly left with a strong sense of, “What do I do NOW?!”
THAT’S the connection to post-Easter. Churches spend SO much effort and energy getting to Easter. Excitement builds. Expectations are high. Easter comes. Everybody looks great. The worship services are powerful, meaningful. And then…Monday comes and it’s all over. The show has closed. The sets have been struck. The costumes are in storage. And the church is left to ask, “What do we do NOW?!”
Don’t get me wrong- Easter was great. Between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, we had 566 people worship with us. 566! That’s unbelievable! It’s also the biggest single week in a LONG time at this church. Great Easter. But the last verse of “Up From the Grave He Arose” isn’t the end- it’s the beginning. That first Easter morning began 40 days of Jesus appearing to hundreds of people. And we’re going to look at 4 of those stories that capture the power and beauty of the post-resurrection appearances. Each week’s message has a song tied to it – in fact it’s the name of the message – that relates to the story we’re looking at that week.
We’re a skeptical lot by nature, aren’t we? Actor Gary Cooper, as he turned down the iconic role of Rhett Butler in the movie “Gone With The Wind”, said, “I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.” Decca Records, as they rejected the Beatles in 1962, said, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” A professor of Electrical Engineering at New York University said, “The supercomputer is technologically impossible.” Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., in 1977 said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” And perhaps the most all-encompassing statement of skepticism EVER comes from Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents who, in 1899, said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” EVERYTHING! In 1899! Humans, by nature, are a skeptical lot, and that was just as true of the 1st Century disciples as it is today.
John 20:24-29 Thomas (called Didymus), who was one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other followers kept telling Thomas, “We saw the Lord.” But Thomas said, “I will not believe it until I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were and put my hand into his side.” A week later the followers were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. The doors were locked, but Jesus came in and stood right in the middle of them. He said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand here in my side. Stop being an unbeliever and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you see me. Those who believe without seeing me will be truly blessed.”
It’s important to understand that Thomas isn’t singled out as an example of “doubt” here because of weak commitment or a watered-down faith. In fact, earlier in the Gospel of John, it’s Thomas who bluntly declares his willingness to follow Jesus back to Lazarus’ tomb, even though Jesus had nearly been stoned by those same people just a short time before. While the other disciples were being prudent and cautious, it was Thomas who said, “Let’s go, so that we might die with Him!” And his steadfastness was rewarded with a ringside seat for the staggering miracle of Lazarus walking out of the tomb- a foreshadowing of Easter morning. Thomas’ commitment to Jesus was enthusiastic and wholehearted.
Thomas’ “seeing-is-believing” faith had served him well so far. Why change now? What Thomas missed was that Jesus’ ministry had taken a quantum leap forward on Easter morning. The resurrection hadn’t yet moved him forward. What prevents you from moving forward? I think for most of us…it’s fear, because when the ground rules change, our greatest strengths often turn into our biggest liabilities.
You’re probably thinking, “That’s ridiculous! How can my strengths become weaknesses?” Take a lesson from the Borden Company. Back in the day, few companies were more familiar, respected or successful than Borden’s…think Elsie the cow! But what made Elsie end up in almost every refrigerator in the country is also what eventually led to the company’s downfall. Borden’s strengths became their weaknesses. First, companies like Frito-Lay and Doritos started taking a larger share of the chip market, but Borden saw no reason to change or add to its existing Wise potato chip brand. Next, premium ice creams like Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs appeared on the scene, but Borden saw no reason to change or add to its traditional, lower-priced Lady Borden ice cream brand. Then, easy-to-prepare meals like Rice-a-Roni became popular, but Borden saw no reason to change or add to its Prince spaghetti and Classico spaghetti sauce brands. And that unwillingness to change is what eventually brought Elsie to her knees. After significant financial losses in the early 1990s, equity firm KKR carried out a successful leveraged takeover of Borden in 1995. In 2001, they shut down Borden’s food products operations and, by 2005, they had divested ALL of Borden operations. The Borden dairy brand now only exists through licensing agreements with other companies. In the end, poor Elsie was led to the slaughterhouse at a price per pound that was MUCH lower than anybody imagined possible, all because they were unwilling to change.
Psalm 31:21-24 Praise the LORD. His love to me was wonderful when my city was attacked. In my distress, I said, “God cannot see me!” But you heard my prayer when I cried out to you for help. Love the LORD, all you who belong to him. The LORD protects those who truly believe, but he punishes the proud as much as they have sinned. All you who put your hope in the LORD be strong and brave.
A healthy amount of doubt isn’t a bad thing. If you never sincerely doubt, then you’ll never completely believe. Thomas showed us how to escape the trap of depending in your own strengths. After hiding behind his strong commitment to the visible signs and wonders of Jesus, Thomas ultimately had the humility to accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and love when He showed up, alive and well. When confronted by a living Jesus, Thomas didn’t even have to touch the nail holes. Instead, he stood, in wonder and amazement, and said, “My Lord and my God!” As I pointed out last week, Thomas responded in faith to Jesus’ love and forgiveness by allowing himself to be weak enough to accept the fact that he simply wasn’t strong enough on his own.
The Long and Winding Road, written by THE most successful songwriter in history- Paul McCartney- originally appeared on The Beatles’ Let It Be album. It was their 20th…and last…U.S. #1 song on May 23, 1970. It was also their last new single ever released. The song has a lot to say about life, and faith…and doubt. The words include: “The long and winding road that leads to your door will never disappear- I’ve seen that road before. It always leads me here; lead me to your door. Many times, I’ve been alone and many times I’ve cried- anyway, you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried. And still they lead me back to the long winding road.”
Life leads us all over the place, winding in and out, up and down. And sometimes, life finds us alone and brokenhearted. But it’s Jesus Christ Who continues to call us forward, looking for deeper understanding and stronger faith. And that unending road of life always leads us back to Him…if we’re willing to stick with it.
Writer Herb Caen said, rather bluntly, “The trouble with born-again Christians is that they’re often an even bigger pain the second time around!” What’s your greatest strength? That’s quite possibly also where you are the most vulnerable. Has your greatest strength become your greatest weakness? Jesus’ gift to Thomas was to empower him to stop doubting and believe…and it can empower us, too. Instead of “show-me” signs, God offers us an unmerited gift of faith…one that we can’t earn and don’t deserve. And that gift is nothing less than the love, forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ.