YOU BET YOUR LIFE
A sermon on 1 Corinthians 15: 12-20
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 17, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Along with his brothers, it is said that he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. He had honed his craft first in vaudeville, then on Broadway, and finally in Hollywood. His unique combination of physical comedy, fast-paced dialogue and his prodigious skills at improvisation helped to set the stage for many others who followed in his footsteps—folks like, say, the late great Robin Williams. His comedic performances were raucous, sophisticated and wildly unexpected—often all at the same time. The performer that I am describing is the inimitable Groucho Marx. Anyone else here a fan?
I learned to love Groucho at an early age. The wild-looking eyebrows, the goofy glasses, the mustache (that was ridiculously painted on in the early days), the hunched-over way that he would walk, the rapid fire pattern of his dialogue—I loved it all. I enjoyed watching him in classic movies like Cocoanuts, A Day at the Races, and A Night at the Opera. (Did you fans of Bohemian Rhapsody ever wonder where the album title came from? There it is…) My favorite Marx Brothers movie was probably Duck Soup—but they are all delightful and full of laughs…
But Groucho’s career certainly wasn’t an unqualified success. His popularity with his brothers Harpo and Chico (and sometimes Zeppo and sometimes Beppo) declined with age, a succession of affairs and failed marriages, and a bitter feud with his brother Chico. But in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Groucho’s career saw a resurrection that helped to cement his legendary status in American culture. It began first on the radio and then on TV with a game show. The show was called “You Bet Your Life.”
By today’s TV game show standards, I suppose that “You Bet Your Life” looks a bit primitive. No glitzy spinning wheels, no beautiful models turning letters or opening suitcases of money. But even now as I watch clips of the shows posted on YouTube, I find that they are still entertaining several decades later.
As you may remember, the format for “You Bet Your Life” would go something like this: Groucho would sit at a desk talking to the audience and revealing that day’s “secret word.” A couple would come out and would be introduced to the studio audience. Sometimes the contestants would be celebrities. Sometimes they would just be ordinary people. Groucho would ask them a few questions and get them to talk some about themselves—often with hilarious results. Contestants could win up to $10,000 on the show by answering a series of trivia questions. And during the show, Groucho would try his best to get one of the contestants to say “the secret word.” This was a common word that everyone uses. When someone spoke the secret word, a stuffed animal duck dressed up like Groucho would drop from the ceiling with the word in its mouth. And that person would win an additional $100.
I do not know where the creators of the show came up with the title “You Bet Your Life.” (Certainly no one on the show was actually putting their own lives on the line!) But it seems to me that the title “You Bet Your Life” is one way that today’s sermon text from 1 Corinthians 15 could be summed up…
Today’s sermon text is part of a longer passage that I am sure you have probably heard several times before. It is a popular reading for use in funerals—especially if the deceased was a believer in Christ. It speaks of Christ rising from the dead, and it declares that, because he arose, then we too as believers in Christ shall be raised to new life just as he was. It is an entirely appropriate reading for such occasions as funerals. It brings comfort and assurance to those who are grieving the loss of their loved one.
The passage that we are focusing on this morning serves as an introduction to Paul’s description of the hope of the resurrection. Apparently there were those in the Corinthian church who were arguing against the resurrection of the body. In today’s passage, Paul sets forth arguments refuting the contention that the dead do not rise…
It should not be surprising that there were folks in that church who did not believe that the dead will rise. In some ways, the spiritual climate of the 1st Century Mediterranean world was not much different than today. Greek and then Roman culture had made great strides in science. Everybody knew that, once a person died, that was the end of their body. It was embalmed and then set in a tomb where it would eventually decay and return to dust. That was obvious to everyone.
Not too much different than today really. O, for sure, there are plenty of popular TV shows and movies that describe a coming “Zombie Apocalypse.” But in truth, everybody knows that bodies that are buried stay buried. That is just plain science. Most of the religions that were prevalent in the 1st Century Mediterranean world followed the Greek thought that the soul was immortal, but that the body was not. This is what Paul was arguing against. There were folks in the Corinthians church who thought that the spirit would live on, but that the body would perish. Paul makes the point that, if Christ did not physically rise from the dead, than the Christian faith is a sham…
The early church contended that the physical resurrection of Christ was the very essence of the gospel message. This is the thrust of Paul’s message in this passage. The gospels unequivocally attest to the bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easer morning. For example, the gospel of John recounts stories of the resurrected Christ appearing to the disciples. John 21 tells that that Christ appeared to the disciples in a room—even though the doors of the room they were in were locked and bolted. Apparently his body was able to pass through the wall or the door to enter the room. And then, you remember how Jesus invited Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and side. This demonstrated to the disciples—and to us—that there was a physical quality to Jesus’ new resurrection body. And Luke 24:42-43 tells us that, at one of his post resurrection appearances, Jesus asked for a piece of broiled fish and he proceeded to eat it in front of his disciples. He did this in order to prove that he was real—and not just a ghost or some other kind of disembodied spirit. NO, he was real…
The point of rehearsing this is that the testimony of the gospel writers is that Jesus’ resurrection was with a physical body. Even though his disciples still recognized the body as Jesus, it is clear that this new body was somewhat different than his former physical body. And it is different than the bodies that you and I possess. For example, we do not have the capability to pass through walls or doors. The new body possesses different qualities and characteristics. But it was physical nonetheless…
Paul draws on the witness of the gospels to show that Jesus had indeed been physically raised from the dead. And in answer to those who would suggest that the resurrection was some kind of spiritual or allegorical resurrection, Paul plainly states that this is the critical part of the Christian message. Paul goes on to make a startling claim. He asserts that, if Christ has not been raised from the dead with a physical body, then Christianity is a lie. And faith in Christ is a joke. And our religion is a waste of time…He writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. Our preaching has been in vain and your faith has been in vain…”
It seems to me that the Apostle Paul’s comments in verse 17 of today’s text have an affinity with some teachings from a French scientist and theologian named Blaise Pascal some 1500 years later…I think that they have a lot in common…And I think these reflections still have a lot to say to us in the 21st Century…
Blaise Pascal may not be a name that you immediately recognize. He is perhaps best remembered for his genius in mathematics and physics, but his work as a philosopher and theologian remains the most insightful of all his works. Born in France in 1623, Pascal was raised by his father and older sister after his mother’s death when he was only three years old. Though he was often ill, he displayed a sharp intellect from a very early age. He is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant minds of his era.
By the time he was thirty-one, Pascal was well-known for his contributions to the fields of math and science. For example, he invented an early digital calculator that used gears to add and subtract more efficiently than any such machine designed before. Pascal was also a pioneer in discovering and formulating various properties of physics and geometry. And he has been called “the Father of Probability Theory.” (It is said that his interest in probability theory was in response to a friend who wanted some help in learning how to increase his chances at the roulette wheel. I have no word on whether Pascal’s theories actually helped his friend at the casino or not…)
But then something happened to Pascal that changed the course of his life. In 1654, he experienced a profound religious awakening that shook him to his core. And it stirred within him the desire to turn his brilliant mind to the field of faith. Whatever doubts about the Christian faith that he may have harbored before had vanished into thin air. For the last two years of his short life, Pascal began collecting some of his random thoughts and ideas for a projected book on the reasonableness of the Christian faith. As it turned out, he was never able to complete the book. But the notes and unfinished essays that Pascal had been writing down were assembled together by friends and admirers into a book. The book was published under the title Pensées, which is French for “thoughts.” Pensées is now widely regarded by many as a classic of Christian devotional literature.
One of the most famous parts of Pensées is a philosophical argument that has become known as “Pascal’s Wager.” In simple terms, this is what the argument says…
Using the gifts of reason and science, Pascal wrote that there is no definitive, scientific way to prove that God exists. Great minds and thinkers have tried to prove God’s existence for thousands of years using reason and science—and they have largely been unsuccessful. That is because God has no limits. God is in many ways inscrutable and ultimately beyond our understanding. The existence of God cannot be proved using science and reason because God is beyond the limited power of what science and reason can prove.
Conversely, by using the very same methods of science and reason, there is no definitive way that the existence of God can be definitively disproven either. Scattered throughout this world and in all of creation, God has left us with clues and hints of his existence and of what his character is like. However, the existence of God cannot be disproven using the limited parameters of physical science and reason. It just can’t be done no matter how hard we try…no matter how much we may wish it to be so. 
Which leaves us with this: we either live our lives as if God exists…or we live our lives as if God does not exist. There really are no other choices. And everyone has to decide on which side of the “God question” he or she will fall. In essence, you are making a wager with your life. To not choose on this question is not an option. So you have to make the wager. And in considering this wager that every person must make for themselves, Pascal wrote that there are four possible outcomes—
The first outcome: you can choose to live your life as if there is no God. If you choose to live your life as if there is no God—and it turns out that you are right—then you have gained nothing nor have you lost anything in your life. You have lived your life, and when you have come to the end of it, then that will be all that there is. There is really nothing to lose and nothing to win by believing that there is no God…if it turns out that you are right…
Or second, you can choose to live your life as if there is a God. If you choose to live your life as if there is a God—and you discover at the end of your life that you were wrong—then you have not lost anything. O, you might have perhaps forgone some pleasures along the way by following a God that does not exist. You might even have made a few decisions differently that would have perhaps made your life a bit easier. But consider this: you also would have lived well. You would have lived a life that was upright…decent…productive…and honorable. You would have nothing to be ashamed of…you would have lived a life that you could be proud of as you look back on it…So in reality, you have lost nothing…if you live as if there’s a God and you turn out to be wrong…
Third, you can choose to live your life as if there is a God—and at the end of your life you discover that you are right. If that is the case, then you have gained everything. Not only will you have lived a fulfilling, worthwhile, abundant life in the truth by serving God and others, but you will also be spending eternity with the God who loves you and who cares for you in ways that words that simply defy description. The blessings of God in a life filled with meaning and purpose, and the blessings of God in the life to come…If you wager that there is a God and you are right, then you will win everything…
Fourth, you can wager with your life that there is no God and live your life accordingly. But what happens if you find out at the end of your life that you were wrong—that there really is a God after all? If that is the case, then you have lost everything. You would have squandered your life by living a lie on this earth…You would have lived an inauthentic life that had no real meaning and no real purpose…and then there would be nothing to look forward to in the life to come…This is the result of the wager if you choose to live as if there is no God, only to discover that you were wrong…
All of this leads us to this question: What about you? Where is your life wager this morning? Do you live your life as if there is a God…or not? You’ve got to make that decision, you know. You cannot NOT decide.
Our closing hymn this morning is found on an insert included in your bulletin. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that our faith rests entirely on whether or not Christ was raised from the dead. If we wager that Christ has not been raised, then Paul says that our faith is futile, preaching is nothing more than hot air, and Christians are of all people to be pitied the most. But as followers of Jesus, we wager with our lives that he HAS been raised and that he lives to bring new life to all who will receive him. It is a wager that everybody has to make. So what will your wager be this morning?
Let us stand and sing “If Christ Had Not Been Raised from Death.”
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
 Some of this bio material is adapted from Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith, eds., Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 172.
 A great book describing this argument in detail is Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.
 The most complete statement of Pascal’s wager is found at #233 in Pensées. See www.web.archive.org/web20061014231859/http://www.classicallibrary.org/pascal/pensees/pensees03.htm (Accessed February 11, 2019)