April 8, 2007 - Easter
The Atonement as Victory
On Easter Sunday, we complete our study of the Atonement, the work of Jesus Christ which redeems us, saves us, and reconciles us to God. It is exactly right to conclude our look at the Atonement on the Day of Resurrection, because without the rising of Christ our salvation would be incomplete and ultimately pointless. It is by living, dying and rising that Jesus brings us forgiveness and new life as children of God.
We have looked at several different biblical images of the Atonement. We have viewed the work of Jesus as a Ransom paid for sinners, as a Satisfaction of God’s justice, as a Demonstration of God’s love, and last week as a Recapitulation and restoration of the human race. Yet on this day we turn finally to the image called by Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén the “classic” view of the Atonement. In 1930 he published a little book of lectures entitled Christus Victor. In it he argued that the central view the Bible takes of what Christ did is that it is a great Victory over sin, death and the powers of evil.
The victory of Jesus Christ is that when He died, He defeated death by rising from the grave; in dying sinless, He defeated sin; and in resisting the temptation to turn from the course that led to the Cross, he defeated the tempter, the devil.
This Victory image of the Atonement is both historical and biblical. It has appeared in Christian thinking from the beginning of the church, even in the writings of those like Irenaeus who offered other images. I Corinthians 15 displays both the celebration of the Victory and the link between Atonement and resurrection. Paul first argues strongly for Christ’s rising, then in verse 26 says that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Verse 54 is the wonderful Resurrection truth, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil is also a victory for us. His victory is vicarious. Romans 8:35-39 declares that in Him, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We share in Christ’s victory. By the grace of God we are welcomed into the great triumph.
In our day, it is important to affirm that Jesus’ victory over death is not just a picture. Jesus was victorious over death because He actually, bodily arose from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion. He was seen in the flesh by His disciples and by over five hundred witnesses (I Corinthians 15:6). His victory over death is not a metaphor for spring or for hope or for human memories of those we love. It is a literal, true, eternal continuing of His life as the Son of God and as a human being, risen into a new and wonderful life.
Therefore, Jesus’ victory is the guarantee of our own victory over death, our own bodily resurrection and continuing life. This great victory is the heart of Christian Easter celebration. It is reason for the joy which fills the Easter announcement, “Christ is risen!”
You will never believe that I don’t actually watch professional wrestling, because I’m about to bring it up again for the second time in two weeks. But I want to ask the question, “Why do people watch professional wrestling?” Why would anybody care about ridiculous bouts between strutting performers on cable television? Why pay attention to guys who call themselves names like the Undertaker or the Animal? What’s the attraction of watching two grown men in silly costumes prance around, shout insults and then pretend to maim each other? Why do such shows even exist?
The only reason I can imagine for the existence of professional wrestling is that people long for battle. There is a deep-seated human tendency to enjoy a fight. It’s called forth personally whenever we find ourselves angry or threatened. But you can’t physically wrestle with the people who tick you off or frighten you. You can’t throw your boss to the ground and begin twisting his leg. You can’t put your spouse in a headlock or pin your children or sucker punch your sister-in-law. So you watch professional wrestling and let a clown in skin-tight trunks do it for you.
Or you watch “24” or “Battlestar Galactica” or a football game. I still remember a high school coach asking a bunch of football players what the best part of the game was for them. The answer that stood out, the answer that felt most honest, was the young man who said, “Hittin’ the other guys!” Contest, battle—we need it. Tangible conflict that gets adrenalin flowing. Some of us more than others, but almost everyone feels its attraction.
More than conflict, though, we have a need for victory. We watch phony fights in wrestling programs and on TV series partly because we look forward to the victories. We boo or hiss at bad guys, the ones who cheat or bring terror. And we cheer for and appreciate the good guys, especially when they win. Jack Bauer saving the world once again. The Ducks pulling a win out of thin air. We savor and long for those victories.
We like a fight, but even more we like to win. No matter whether we enjoy physical violence or not, we still like the feel of victory. We want the good people, we want our side, to come out on top.
One of the most satisfying scenes I’ve ever read in literature is the final confrontation with the villain Uriah Heep in Dickens’ David Copperfield. Heep is one of slimiest, sneakiest evildoers, real or imagined, that you will ever meet. When David and his friends gather one day to confront him and to bring out proof of his fraud and treachery, it is a wonderful scene, full of all the excitement and joy you could ever want. Heep hangs his head in defeat.
The thrill of victory. That’s the thing. We seek it out, each in our own way. A television show, a golf game, a hand of bridge, a shopping bargain, office politics, a presidential election. We aim for the victory. In all kinds of endeavors, what matters to us is winning, being successful, overcoming the odds, coming out on top. But it doesn’t always happen that way.
That’s what has gone wrong with the current war. A war in Iraq seemed like an easy victory. So it began as a fairly popular action. Now that it’s clear there is no easy win, no victory anywhere in sight, support for it is dwindling. No matter how exciting a conflict, we lose interest, we lose heart when it becomes impossible to win.
Near the end of a book titled A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn, a woman seems to be dying of a fever. Two friends sit by her bed and care for her through the hours and days of her illness. As he sits there holding her limp hand one of them wishes that her disease were a tangible enemy. A fire-breathing dragon which could be opposed with body and sword. But “the real dragons,” he thinks, “are always quiet, without form.” For these you need a courage that will uphold you “against the attack of shadows.”
Isn’t the reason we watch or fight all our other battles, whether real or imaginary, that we don’t know how to fight the real enemies? The attack of shadows. We don’t know how to do battle with darkness and shadows. The psalm calls it “the shadow of death.” We don’t know how to fight death. In the end, it defeats us all. It is the conflict that begins the moment we’re born and every one of us will finally, sooner or later, come out a loser. The victory we long for escapes us, and we die.
Our real struggle is not just with death, but with those two allies of shadow, sin and the devil. The opening chapters of Scripture teach us that Satan brought sin into our lives and that sin brought us death. That unholy trinity, sin, death and the devil, has been our enemy ever since. Before them, you and I are powerless. All we can do is find some other battle to fight or watch, some other enemy we might have a chance of defeating. In the fundamental conflict of human life, we’re all losers.
You know the conflict I’m talking about. We’ve all lost to these enemies. You may have lost a marriage or a friendship to sin. You’ve almost certainly lost someone you love to death. And if you’re like me, you’re afraid we are losing our society or even our own souls to the devil. And what can we do? How can you and I possibly fight enemies like those?
That, friends, is exactly what the friends of Jesus thought as the sun came up on Easter morning. They had anticipated a great victory. Jesus was the promised Messiah, the King of Israel. He was proclaimed as such just the Sunday before, as we celebrated ourselves seven days ago Palm Sunday. All that week, at any moment, they expected Jesus to take charge, to call up the forces of righteousness, to bring down the power of God, and to win them a great victory over the Romans. But it didn’t happen. The Romans instead nailed Jesus to a Cross. Sin and the devil put Jesus to death.
It was all done, all over. Jesus Himself said when He was arrested that it was now the hour of the power of darkness. He had lost, God had lost, it was all lost. We call the Good Friday service Tenebrae, “shadows.” The shadows won that day. What the disciples had expected did not happen. They lost. Feeling that deep loss, women who had loved Jesus came early to the tomb on Sunday morning to anoint their defeated Master.
They arrived to find the unexpected. Verse 2 says the stone was moved and the body was gone. As we read in John’s Gospel, they thought they had lost again, that someone had taken Jesus’ body. But this was not loss. That missing body was the sign of victory! Two angels appeared to ask them what they were looking for, to ask them why they were looking for a loser. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Jesus was not there, not in the place of the lost, of the dead. The one they were looking for was no loser. “He is not here,” they said, “he has risen!” Didn’t He tell you so? Didn’t He tell you, says verse 7, that losing the battle of the Cross was only a step on the way to winning the war of life? Didn’t He tell you He would be crucified and then rise on the third day? Jesus would lose, but then, oh then, He would win.
I stand here before you because I believe in the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has gone to the mat with our enemies and pinned them down forever. In one fall, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have wrestled with and overcome sin, death, and the devil. In the resurrection of Jesus there is a victory over shadows, over enemies you and I cannot fight. He is greater than them all!
However, you may not believe me, not really. The apostles did not, at first. They were too wrapped up in losing. They had seen Jesus die and they knew the power of death. A victory? Verse 11 says it seemed like nonsense to them. It may seem like nonsense to you.
You may have come this morning because it felt like the thing to do. People go to church on Easter. They eat ham and dye eggs and listen to stirring music. It’s what you do, so you’re doing it. You don’t expect it to make any big difference. Your life will be the same when you go away. However sin, death, and the devil are pinning you down, they’ll still be doing it when this morning is all over. That may be how you feel, and I wouldn’t blame you.
I invite you, though, into a different feeling. With all my heart I ask you to believe with all your heart that Jesus rose from the dead and gave us the victory. Or if nothing else, I hope that, like Peter you will come running back to this place next week to see what this is all about, to see if it possibly could be true. I want you to believe. I would so like to be able to make you believe the message, that there really is victory in Jesus. But I can’t make you.
All I can do is tell you about my grandmother. I wasn’t her first grandson, but we had the same birthday. The other grandkids tell me I was her favorite, although I didn’t think about that much. I just knew she loved me a lot and that we were good friends.
My sister and I would visit Grandma for long stretches in the summer. We would stay with her in Arizona and spend lots of time at our cabin in Oak Creek Canyon. Summer there is hot. One afternoon, when I was maybe ten years old, Grandma took us down to the creek, mostly to get cool. I never missed a chance to fish, so I took my pole. The trout there don’t bite well in the middle of the afternoon, but I managed to catch one. We didn’t know about catch and release and this fish was big enough to keep. So I put it on a stringer.
That was the only fish I caught that day. When it was time to go home, Grandma looked at my one, lone fish. It was too late to throw it back, but she didn’t want to dirty up her kitchen sink to clean just one fish. So she asked me to clean it there by the creek.
I dug out my pocketknife and proceeded to gut that trout and throw the “offal,” as she called it, in the bushes for a raccoon or skunk to eat. I hung the fish back on the stringer and we began to walk back up the hill to our cabin. To my grandma’s horror, that poor, gutted fish flopped around all the way home. It was a goner, but it didn’t know it. It’s simple nervous system kept its tail moving long after its vital organs were gone—flop, flop, flop.
I told you that story because I want you to know that sin, death, and the devil are in the same position as that fish. They are caught and gutted but they don’t know it. As Gregory of Nyssa so wonderfully put it, they took the bait of Jesus life, but God hooked and hauled them out gasping on the shore. Jesus defeated sin, death and the devil but they still flop around. The victory is won but as awful losers they hang on. And that makes it appear sometimes that the victory didn’t happen, as if Jesus didn’t really win, as if sin and death and Satan are still winners. But they’re just flopping. They’ve lost but they don’t know it.
Sin, death, and the devil still hurt us. They still cause untold misery in our lives. But it’s just the flopping of dead fish. They are defeated. They are no longer victorious over us. Jesus Christ walked out of the tomb on Easter morning and sealed their fate. He rose from the dead and gave us the victory.
I have here a copy of my grandma’s devotional book from the beginning of 1983. She had moved to the Arizona Pioneer’s Home in Prescott less than a year before. Grandma wrote in her book as she read each day. You can read see that sometimes she was up and sometimes she was down. On April 3, which was Easter that year, she wrote, “Doesn’t seem like Easter.” But on April 17, after reading about the resurrected Lord appearing to Mary Magdalene and to Thomas, she wrote, “I know that Christ is risen.” At the beginning of the reading for April 24, she wrote, “I didn’t get to church.” After reading about the beauty of song birds, she wrote, “No birds sing here at the home. They spray to keep them from nesting.” Up and down. Some victory, but also defeat.
But then there is her entry for April 21. There she read to herself a poem, which has these lines:
And when on that last day we rise,
Caught up between the earth and the skies,
Then shall we hear our Lord
Say, Thou has done with doubt and death,
Out of place, out of sync with the calendar, Grandma wrote there, “This is the 25th. I have been so miserable. Hope they X-ray me today. I see the doctor Wednesday. I think I’m ready to meet the Lord in the sky.” That may have been the last thing she wrote. She died early that Wednesday, April 27, 1983.
Our enemies flopped around for Grandma. Sometimes they made her miserable. She believed in Jesus’ victory. But they would flop and she would doubt. She wrote prayers here, asking for more faith. Christ assured her again of His victory and she believed and wrote, “Thank you God.” And so it went, Grandma and the flopping fish of sin, death, and the devil. Finally, that ugly fish we call death flopped its tail at Grandma one last time and she died. But it only looked like death won.
We flew out for her funeral that next Monday. They asked if I wanted to say anything in the service. I said that I wanted to read scripture. We entered past her open casket. I looked down at her and knew she had not lost, that she was still alive. Then I stood up in front of our family and Grandma’s friends and read I Corinthians 15:54-57,
the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
That was Jesus’ victory for Grandma. Since then I’ve seen that victory come to my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, and to my own mother. I’ve seen it come here among us. It is still the place where I see Jesus’ victory most clearly. She did not lose. They did not lose. Grandma is with Jesus. Her death was swallowed up in His victory. Every Christian’s death is swallowed up in His victory.
The angels asked the women why they were looking for Jesus. They said, “He is not here; he has risen!” In a great sermon on the Resurrection, George MacDonald said that because of Jesus it will one day be possible to say of anyone, “He is not here; he has risen,” “She is not here; she has risen.” It will be said over the casket, over the grave of every Christian. Believe in His victory and His victory becomes your victory. Die and you will rise with Him. He is risen. So will you be raised. That’s our victory.
I leave you with the word of the angels, our Easter victory cry: “He has risen.” He is risen! Raise that cry today. Raise it over the grave of every believer. Raise it in the midst of every loss. Raise it up in the shadows and the darkness. Raise it up when it feels like you are losing the battle. Because Christ has won. Jesus has been raised. He is victorious. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and He lives to raise up you!
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj