Easter

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Most things these days have a logo. Lloyds bank has the black horse. Macdonalds has the golden arches. Nike sports has the swoosh stripe.

A few years ago the Church of England went to an advertising agency and asked them to design them a logo. And after much thought the agency finally came up with: a cross. Trust the Church of England to pay someone to state the obvious. Because looking at what Christians wear round their necks, or at the shape they've built many of their buildings, or on top of a hot cross bun, and it's hard to miss. The logo of Christianity is the cross.

Which is very strange. Because in Jesus' day, the cross was the equivalent of the electric chair or the lethal injection. It was a method of capital punishment. Here's what the Encyclopedia Brittanica says:

"Usually, the condemned man, after being whipped… dragged the crossbeam… to the place of punishment, where the upright shaft was already fixed in the ground. Stripped of his clothing… he was bound fast with outstretched arms to the crossbeam or nailed firmly to it through the wrists. The crossbeam was then raised high against the upright… and made fast to it about 9 to 12 feet from the ground. Next, the feet were tightly bound or nailed… Over the criminal's head was placed a notice stating his name and his crime. Death, apparently caused by exhaustion or heart failure, could be hastened by [breaking] the legs… so that shock and asphyxiation soon ended his life. ('Crucifixion')"

So why is that the logo for Christianity? I want us to look back at Luke's account of that first Easter and ask: Why did Jesus die on the cross, and what's it got to do with us, 2000 years later? So:


First, WHY DID JESUS DIE ON THE CROSS?

The first half of Luke's answer is this: Jesus died on the cross because we – the human race - put him there. Verse 32:

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with [Jesus] to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they aredoing.' And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood, watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, 'He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.' (vv32-35)

That last detail gives the clue about why Jesus died. The 'rulers' Luke talks about were the supposedly spiritual leaders of Israel – the archbishops and bishops of the day. And they got Jesus killed because of what he claimed to be.

Jesus had claimed to be 'the Christ' or Messiah (same thing, different words). The part of the Bible that was written before Jesus pointed forward to the arrival of this person, the Christ. And it describes him as being both God and man, as being the Son of God and as being the rightful King of everyone. And the job description of this person was to step into human history and put an end to all that's wrong in the world thanks to the way we've ignored God.

And Jesus claimed to be that person. And the spiritual leaders of the day rejected that claim. Not because Jesus didn't make himself clear. Nor because there wasn't evidence to back it up. Look at v35: even they said, 'He saved others.' They knew he'd broken up funerals by bringing the deceased back to life (eg Luke 7.11-17). They knew he'd put paraplegics back on their feet (Luke 5.17-26). They'd interviewed a blind man whom Jesus had healed (John 9). They knew the claim. They knew the evidence. They just didn't want it to be true. Because admitting it's true means you have to change.

I got on a train a while ago and found this lady sitting in my reserved seat. So I said to her as politely as I could, 'I'm sorry, but I think that's my seat.' (As one of my American friends says, 'You English are amazing. Even when you're in the right, you first apologise and then sound uncertain as to whether you are in the right.') Anyway, I did the English thing. I said, 'I'm sorry, but I think that's my seat.' And she bristled with hostility and said, 'I don't think it is.' And I felt slightly like Bertie Wooster in the presence of his Aunt Agatha. But finally she checked her ticket and my ticket and realised she was in the wrong seat and kindly moved.

Now, if I'd made a different claim, there would have been no trouble. For example, if I'd made the claim, 'Lovely day today, isn't it?', we'd have been best friends all the way to King's Cross. Because that claim doesn't make any claim on her. But my saying, 'That's my seat,' is not what she wanted to hear. Because that's a claim that says, 'You're wrong, and you need to change.'

And when Jesus came into the world as the Christ, he didn't come making innocuous claims like, 'Lovely day today, isn't it?' or even 'Wouldn't life be better if we were all a bit nicer?' He came saying 'I am your rightful ruler.' He points at the throne of our lives - where he belongs - and says, 'That's my seat.' Ie, 'You're wrong and you need to change.'

Which isn't what we want to hear. I got the distinct impression that that lady on the train would have got rid of me if she could. If there'd been a trap door and a lever to pull (whatever the fine for improper use), I think I'd have been under the train. And it's like that with Jesus' claim. We all say we'd love to believe in a God, and how comforting it would be to know that there's someone out there - and so on. But actually we don't want to believe that. Because it's not comforting. It's deeply disturbing to face up to the fact that for 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 years you've been living your life on the wrong lines all this time, and that you need to be forgiven for that, and start life over again with God in his rightful place. That's not what we want to hear. And by nature we, too, would like to get rid of Jesus.

That's why Jesus was crucified. And if we'd been there, we'd have got rid of him too. The Bible doesn't take the view that these people who got rid of Jesus were super-evil people who did something of which we are incapable. It takes the view that they're typical of us all. And they only did what we would have done – and in fact do, by nature. So, like Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who gave permission for Jesus' death, some of us will reject Jesus by simply failing to make up our own minds. Like the crowd that was stirred up by a few opinion makers to call for Jesus' death, some of us will reject Jesus by following the 2nd hand unbelief of the latest religious TV program or Easter weekend papers article. And like his fiercest enemies, some of us underneath will be rejecting Jesus fiercely because of the threat he is to our moral independence – because of the darling sin – that thing, that relationship - which we want more than we want God in our life.

Why did Jesus die on the cross? Because we – the human race - put him there. Look at the cross and it shows you what the human race will do to God given the chance.

But the second half of Luke's answer is this: Jesus died on the cross because he put himself there. Verse 35:

The people stood, watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, 'He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One. 'The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, 'If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.' There was a written notice above him which read, 'THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS'. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: 'Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!' (vv35-39)

You can see the way they were thinking. What kind of Messiah gets crucified? How credible is it that if God did step into his world, he'd end up dead on a cross at the hands of his creatures? So they taunted him: 'He saved others; let him save himself.'

As if he couldn't have done. As if hands that had multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed 5000 people couldn't have freed themselves from mere nails. As if feet that had walked on water couldn't have climbed down from a mere cross. It's not that he couldn't save himself. But that he wouldn't. They thought he was up there on that cross by their decision. But first and foremost, Jesus was up there by his decision.

Back in chapter 9 of Luke's Gospel, Luke records a conversation Jesus had with his disciples, when:

he asked them, 'Who do the crowds say I am?' They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.' But what about you?' he asked, 'Who do you say I am?' Peter answered, 'The Christ of God.' Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, 'The Son of Man [which was just another name he used for himself] must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.' (9.18-22)

And in the same chapter, Luke writes:

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. (9.51)

Ie, deliberately set out for the show-down that would get him crucified. He died on the cross because he put himself there. And while, v35, they were saying, 'He saved others; let him save himself', the irony is that he was saving others at that very moment. Which may sound odd until you remember how many times you hear of one person's death saving others.

A few years ago, an aeroplane crashed just after take-off from Washington airport. It was winter, it was freezing and the plane came down in the Potomac River. It crashed so near to a bridge that TV cameras were able to line up along the bridge and millions of Americans watched it all live on prime time news. They watched a helicopter lowering a winch-line to people in the water. And they watched one man in particular grab the line, clip another person into it and see them lifted to safety. The line came down again, he clipped someone else in and up they went. He did it three times before he drowned. And I guess millions of Americans were sitting there saying, 'Why doesn't he save himself?' And the answer is: he was saving others.

And so was Jesus as he died on the cross. But from what? It's pretty obvious what those crash victims needed saving from. It may be less obvious to you what we need saving from. But the answer is: from the judgement of a God who is deeply offended by us.

Just think back to the first half of Luke's answer: 'Why did Jesus die on the cross? - Because we – the human race – put him there.' That shows us our natural attitude to God. Namely, that we want rid of him. We don't want him in our lives, as our rightful King. We want to live how we please. So how offended by that would you be in God's shoes? How offended would you be if you gave someone their life, their abilities, their opportunities, their families, their children, their friends, - everything - and they just ignored you? And consequently messed up your world, other people and themselves with any amount of wrong-doing.

The Bible says that's how it is between us and God. It says that God is offended. And that for refusing to relate to God as we should, we deserve the punishment of God ultimately refusing to relate to us.

Some friends of mine have a son and when he was going through his teenage years, he had a phase of not relating to anyone in the house. He wouldn't talk at meals. He'd barely come downstairs. He lived in a cocoon of music in his bedroom. And I remember once even seeing this wire stretching from his room under the door to the loo. Even there he'd shut everything else out with his headphones.

Now what if that hadn't been a phase? What if he'd gone on, through 6th form and university and beyond, saying 'No' to relating to people? Ultimately he'd have brought on himself the punishment of being left alone. And that's how it is between us and God. If in this life I keep saying 'No' to God, 'I won't have you as King of my life', then the punishment will be that I get whet I've chosen - life without God. In this life. And after death - when that choice becomes irreversible. That's the punishment. That's what we need saving from.

And God has acted to save us. His aim is to end the mess caused by our ignoring him – our rebellion against him, if you like. And when you think about it, there are two ways to end a rebellion. One way is simply to overthrow the rebels. And we've seen that in plenty of coups and counter-coups in the news over the years. The other way is to offer the rebels a pardon and call them back onto your side before you finally take action. And in his love for us, that second way is the way God has chosen.

What we need is a pardon for our rebellion against God. And pardon, means the opposite of judgement. But God can't just suspend judgement. He can't just turn a blind eye to our rebellion or say it doesn't matter. He has to punish what is wrong to be true to his own character. But he also wanted to save us from that punishment.

And that's why he sent his Son to become man and die on the cross. Because what we needed was a substitute.

I don't know if you ever watch that quiz program A Question of Sport. There's one round called 'What happened next?' And what they do is this. They play a clip of sporting action, they freeze the frame part-way through and the teams have to guess what happened next. And one of these I saw was a football clip. A striker on the break had got clean past the defence of the opposite team and was one on one with the goalie in the penalty area, looking dead cert to score. Freeze the frame. What happened next?

So, the teams made their usual wild guesses: there's a power cut and the flood lights suddenly go out; one of his contact lenses pops out and he misses by a mile. But in fact what happened was this. The goalie basically rugby tackled the striker and brought him down. In doing so, he both gave a way a penalty and broke his arm. So he had to go off, and the substitute came on for him. And the first thing the substitute had to do was face this penalty. He hadn't caused it. He wasn't to blame for it. But he came on as this other guy's substitute and faced it for him.

And when Jesus died on the cross, he came on for us as a substitute to face the penalty of judgement that we deserve. Because he was God and morally perfect, he had no punishment of his own to face. But only as man could he take our place and face our punishment – so that we need never face it ourselves. That's what happened on the cross.

The night before he died, Jesus quoted part of the Bible and said, 'What is written about me is reaching its fulfilment' (see Luke 22.37). Let me read from the chapter he quoted. It's about the Christ or Messiah and it says this:

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray,
we have turned each one to his own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53.5-6)

So, why did Jesus die on the cross? Because he put himself there as our substitute. Look at the cross and it shows you what the human race will do to God given the chance. But even more, look at the cross and it shows you what God will do for the human race. What lengths of costly, undeserved love he has gone to - to offer us pardon and a fresh start with him as King.

I said at the start that I wanted to ask, 'Why did Jesus die on the cross?' but also, 'What's it got to do with us, 2000 years later?' So just a word on:


Secondly, WHAT'S IT GOT TO DO WITH US, 2000 YEARS LATER?

There was one eye-witness at the crucifixion who understood something of what it has to do with us. At least, he understood enough to put his faith in Jesus and end up in heaven. Verse 39:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: 'Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!' But the other criminal rebuked him. 'Don't you fear God?' he said, 'Since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.' Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.' (Luke 23.39-43)

Here was a man who knew he was just hours, even minutes, away from facing God as his Creator, his rightful King and his Judge. And he saw things about Jesus that no-one else did. He saw that there was something unique about Jesus' death – that Jesus was taking a punishment he didn't deserve. And he somehow saw who Jesus really is - 'Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Somehow he grasped that Jesus was the Christ, was from God and was going back to God to take up his place on the throne of heaven. (And he didn't even have the evidence of Jesus' resurrection which comes in Luke 24.)

And he turned to Jesus with a lifetime's sin behind him and said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Ie, when you're back in heaven as King, and I come up before you, please have mercy on me. And:

Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.' (Luke 23.39-43)

Ie, today, you are forgiven into a relationship with me that will survive death and carry on in heaven for eternity.

And Jesus' death on the cross can do the same for any of us. That's what it has to do with us 2000 years later. What Jesus did on the cross can take any of us here tonight from being out of relationship with God, with a lifetime's unforgiven track-record of sin, to being forgiven into a relationship which lasts through this life, through death and into heaven for eternity. That's what Jesus death achieved. That's what it paid for.

But like a gift that's been paid for, it has to be received. Just because you've heard about the cross doesn't mean you're automatically forgiven and in the right with God. Jesus is holding out to you the invitation of being forgiven back into relationship with him as your rightful King. The question is whether you want that. Whether you'll receive that offer. Whether, like this criminal, you're humble enough to see that you're in the wrong with God; and humble enough to ask for mercy. Because Jesus can do nothing for the 'good' or the proud – for those who think they can pay their own way into his acceptance and his heaven.

I'm going to end by leading in a prayer which would be a way of saying to the risen Lord Jesus that you do want to be forgiven and start again with him as King. Let me say what I'll pray and you can judge whether it would be appropriate for you:

Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I have refused you your rightful place in my life. Thank you for dying for me so I might be forgiven for that and for all my sins past and future. I ask you now to forgive me, accept me, and by your Spirit come into my life to enable me to live for you from now on. Amen.

For some people that prayer won't be appropriate. Some of us have already responded to Christ in that way, and we know we don't need to begin again. Others here will be much further back – still asking whether this is really all true. Well, do take away a copy of Luke's Gospel to read over the Easter period. But if you know enough and you want to make that response, you could echo that prayer in your mind to the risen Jesus.

If you've prayed that prayer and meant it, you can trust that you're as forgiven as this man was - because you've trusted Jesus as he did. The big difference of course is that most of us probably have more time left on earth than this man. So we need to find out how to live out the new relationship with Jesus which we've just begun. And the best way to do that is to tell someone you know, who's a Christian, that you've prayed that prayer, and they can suggest what would be helpful for getting going in the Christian life.

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