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May 1: Jesus is the Center

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Corinthians 15:3-23

Our sermon series for the next few weeks is called "Confirmation for Everyone." Confirmation is the process our teenagers go through during which they get to explore their faith, study essential elements of who we are and what we believe as Christians – all in preparation for making a public profession of faith – promising to love and serve God – in worship on Pentecost Sunday, which is the first Sunday in June this year.

Anyway, we thought that this year, we'd spend the weeks from Easter to Confirmation covering some of the essential concepts, the essential ideas that our students learn in confirmation – we figured we'd cover those with our whole church, so that all of us can learn this along with our young people.

So, today, I'm going to share with you what is perhaps the most important piece of knowledge for getting through confirmation class. This is the one thing you must know that will help you survive when I start asking questions of the class. It's the number one key to Confirmation Class success.

Are you ready? Here it is, the most important piece of knowledge that we impart to our confirmation class students: When in doubt, the answer is always Jesus. Whatever question you get asked, whether it's about some big idea that you aren't fully sure about yet, or if you were just doodling in your notebook and didn't actually hear what the question was – if you aren't sure, just say "Jesus" and see what happens.

It's obviously a joke, because, you know, sometimes Jesus isn't the answer. If I were to ask "in the book of Genesis, in the creation story in Genesis 2, what's the name of the first person who God creates?" – well, the answer for that one is "Adam," not "Jesus." Or, if I were to ask, "In the book of Exodus, who is the person who leads the people out of Egypt, gives them the gift of the law, and brings them to the promised land?" Well, for that one, the answer is Moses, not Jesus.

But, you see, that's actually the genius of the "Jesus is always the answer" trick. Because, when you say "Jesus," even if you're wrong on a literal level, you can be right, if you just work at it a little bit. So, for example, in the New Testament, Jesus is described as the New Adam – the person who Adam was always meant to be, a fresh start for humanity. And Jesus is depicted as a New Moses, someone who leads God's people to freedom – out of our slavery to sin – leads us through the waters – the waters of baptism instead of the waters of the Red Sea – and who delivers God's holy Word to us – a word of free grace rather than the word of the law.

In other words, and this is one of the key points that we teach our Confirmation students, one of the key things I want everyone who is part of our church to know: Jesus is the center. That means that, first of all, Jesus is the center of the story of Scripture, which means that the whole Bible points to him. The Old Testament is really about what it seems to be about. The Old Testament is really about the God of Israel and God's relationship with God's people – the people of Israel. The prophecies we read in the Old Testament are really about stuff that happened back then – about kings and princes and armies and liberation that happened hundreds, even thousands of years before Jesus was born.

But, as we said in our online Lenten devotional – when we were reading the psalms, those Old Testament poems and songs that show up in the Gospels in the stories of the life of Jesus – as we said there, when the early church read the Old Testament – which was the only Bible they had, because they hadn't written the New Testament yet – when the early church read what we call the Old Testament, they saw Jesus everywhere. They realized that Jesus was the fulfillment of everything God had ever said – every promise God had ever made to God's people.

The first passage we read this morning, for example, was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. For those first several hundred years, faithful people – God's people – read it and weren't thinking it would apply to God's Son, who would suffer and die in order to bring us life. They didn't think it was about Jesus. They thought it was about a special prophet, or maybe that it was symbolic language used to describe the whole people of Israel – who were, when this was written, suffering at the hands of foreign conquerors. But, when Jesus happened, after Jesus had died and risen from the dead, when the early Christians read this passage from Isaiah, they said, "Oh my goodness, for all these centuries, these words were right here, teaching us about Jesus, and we didn't even know it. Jesus is the one who suffers for us, who was 'pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes.' Jesus is the One was punished to make us whole and wounded so that we might be healed." When Christians read the Bible – whatever part of the Bible it is – we expect to find Jesus there.

The reason that the Bible matters to Christians isn't because it's magical – it's not like it just showed up one day sent by special delivery from heaven, or like a booming voice from the heavens said "Hey, you guys. I'm about to say something important, so write it down." The Bible matters, it has authority for Christian faith and life, because it is the book where we meet Jesus. For two thousand years, Christians have read these words, and these words have enabled us to encounter Jesus, the one who is God's perfect Word, God's perfect message to us. So, we Christians believe, the whole Bible, cover to cover, points us to Jesus. Christians believe that the only way we can truly encounter God is by God showing up – God is so different from us, we can't know God unless God reaches out to us, unless God makes God's self known. And Jesus is the ultimate way in which God has done that – becoming one of us. And the Bible matters because it's the way we encounter Jesus. The Bible is a witness, a sign that says "look this way, and you'll find the One who God sent to show us who God is."

And that goes two ways – not only is the Bible the book that points us to Jesus, but Jesus is the person who teaches us to interpret the Bible. When we read the Bible, and when we get stuck on some thorny passage, we are invited to let Jesus be the lens through which we read it. Because Jesus is God in the flesh, we know that nothing in the Bible can contradict who Jesus is. So, if some passage of the Bible, on a surface-level reading, seems to endorse hatred or exclusion or violence or whatever else, we have to slow down and read that passage through the lens of what we know about Jesus. So, we say, OK, we know that Jesus ate with sinners, that Jesus tore down walls of exclusion and division – so, knowing that that's who God is and what God is like, that teaches us how to read the Bible better, because we know nothing in the Bible can contradict who Jesus is.

And that's the second key way in which Jesus is the center. Jesus is the center of our understanding of God, the center of how we know who God in. In Colossians, in the New Testament, we read that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God." We can't see God – we can't know God by our own powers of deductive reasoning, we can't figure out who God is just by looking at the world. We can only know God because God wants to be known – and Jesus is the way that happens. We can know God is love because Jesus is loving. We can know that God welcomes outcasts and the marginalized and the poor because that's the kind of people with whom Jesus spent his time. The Bible tells a lot of things about who God is – and that's all important. The words we find in Leviticus about caring for refugees and forgiving debts, the words we find in the prophets about doing justice the oppressed and the importance of mercy and forgiveness, the words we find in the New Testament about how churches and Christians are supposed to live – that all is really important, informs our understanding of God. But the key to Christian faith is that God's character is consistent with the character of Jesus – because Jesus is God in the flesh, Jesus is God with us. So, if we can't imagine Jesus doing something, then it's going to be hard to imagine God doing that thing. If your vision of God is more interested in following all the right religious rules than in feeding the hungry our welcoming the rejected – well, that vision of God doesn't really make sense, from a Christian point of view, because what we know, first and foremost, is that our God is the God of Israel AND the God of Jesus Christ, which means that our God's character is the same character, the same identity, the same personality that we see in Jesus.

And that's because, and this is really important – that's because Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Not 50% one and 50% the other – but all the way God and all the way human. That doesn't make sense in our heads – the church describes it as a holy mystery – but that's who Jesus is. Jesus is God in every way, and Jesus is human in every way, just like we are, except without sin. I once heard someone say that Jesus is the only person ever to have been fully human, because our sin keeps us from reaching the fullness of who we are created to be, but because Jesus was sinless, he was everything human beings were always intended to be. And that's the third key way in which Jesus is the center: Jesus is the center of what it means to be human – he teaches us who we are supposed to be. The life of Jesus tells us who God is and it also tells us how we are supposed to live. Jesus invites all of us to "take up our crosses and follow him" – in other words, live our lives like Jesus would, be willing to give it all away out of our love for God. Again, when we look at our actions, we are invited to ask – are my actions consistent with how Jesus would have acted? When we try to find direction for our lives, we are invited to look at Jesus. Looking at Jesus tells us that human life, human flourishing, involves living for the sake of others, caring for those who are in need, building relationships across boundaries and borders – his life shows us who God is AND who we are called to be.

And, in the end, the final piece, the most important key, the biggest way in which Jesus Christ is the center is that Jesus Christ is the center of history, which means that he is the center of our faith. The whole Christian story – and the whole history of the universe – turns on one key moment, one key event: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian faith claim was that "Jesus is Lord and Jesus is Risen." The early Christians knew that what God had done Jesus had changed everything. As I say every Sunday morning when we celebrate communion, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again – and, because of that, nothing can ever be the same."

Christian faith is faith in the God of Jesus Christ – the God who liberated Israel from Egypt and raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Christian faith is centered on that moment, that event, described in our second Scripture reading – when God the Father raised Jesus Christ, the Son, from the dead, in the power of the Holy Spirit. As it's put in that second reading, if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then our faith is worthless – this whole thing we do together stands or falls on the story of Easter. That's the whole thing – God has ended the reign of sin, God has overthrown the forces of evil, God has defeated death itself. That's our story. That's what we believe in. That's the center of our faith. Because Jesus Christ is who he is and done what he has done – because he is God in the flesh, because he is the Lord who has also become one of us, because he has been raised from the dead and made all things new – because Jesus Christ is who he is and has done what he has done – that's why we are here, that's why we do this thing called church, that's why we have hope – no matter how the world looks.

Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus Christ is Risen. Jesus Christ is the center – of history, of Scripture, of what we know about God, of what it means to be a human being, of our lives, of our faith.

In other words, Jesus is the answer. When in doubt, go with Jesus.

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