The journalist and one time editor of Punch, Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote this in his old age:
Plenty of great teachers, mystics, martyrs and saints have spoken words full of grace and truth. In the case of Jesus alone, however, the belief has persisted that when he came into the world, God deigned to take on the likeness of a man in order that men might reach out.
For myself, as I approach my end, I find Jesus' outrageous claim ever more captivating and meaningful. Quite often, waking up in the night as the old do, I feel myself to be half out of my body, hovering between life and death, with eternity rising in the distance.
I see my ancient carcass, prone between the sheets, stained and worn like a scrap of paper dropped in the gutter and, hovering over it, myself, like a butterfly released from its chrysalis stage and ready to fly away. Are caterpillars told of their impending resurrection? How in dying they will be transformed from poor earth-crawlers into creatures of the air, with exquisitely painted wings? If told, do they believe it? I imagine the wise old caterpillars shaking their heads -- no, it can't be; it's a fantasy.
Yet in the limbo between living and dying, as the night clocks tick remorselessly on, and the black sky implacably shows not one single streak or scratch of gray, I hear those words [of Jesus]: "I am the resurrection, and the life", and feel myself to be carried along on a great tide of joy and peace.
After many years of hard bitten cynicism, Malcolm Muggeridge became convinced fairly late in life that the Christian faith was true, and that he had no option but to become a believer. Nowadays people come at Christianity from many different starting points. Just as they did when another one-time sceptic turned believer, the apostle Paul, found himself at a loose end in Athens. This was just a few years after Jesus had been tortured and executed on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We heard the Bible's account of this encounter between the apostle Paul and the urbane Athenians earlier. It's in Acts chapter 17, from verse 16 to the end of the chapter. Verse 16 sets the scene for us:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.
Why is he kicking his heels alone in Athens? He had had to make a tactical retreat from a place called Berea. Riots had been brewing because of his presence there. What had he been saying to them? He had been persuading people that Jesus who had died on the cross is now alive and what is more he is the ruling the world from behind the scenes. So it is very important to get right with him, or we are in deep trouble. The death of Jesus was all part of God's plan. Jesus had paid the penalty due to rebels, before they had even given up their rebellion. As a result there is an amnesty for the guilty. Rebels against the true God who come clean and surrender are treated as if they had never rebelled. This was not a popular message. Hence the threatened riots. Now if you had known Paul when you were undergraduates together in Tarsus, or while he was doing post-graduate study in Jerusalem, you would have been amazed at the change in him. Paul had at one time gone beyond scepticism in his attitude to Jesus. He hated him. He hated all those who believed in him. Later he told how he stood by as one bold disciple of Jesus called Stephen was stoned to death by an angry mob. And he liked what he saw. He even acted as a kind of living coat rack for those who were throwing the stones, I suppose to give them extra freedom of movement with their throwing arms. After that he took up Christian bashing as a professional occupation. As far as he was concerned, people who were on the side of Jesus should be in one of three places. Under torture; in prison; or in the grave. It was all out war. What changed his mind? He met Jesus, risen from the dead. He was heading towards Damascus to flush out another nasty nest of Christians and there on the road he met Jesus. And he changed sides. Quite a shock to his friends. Even more of a shock to his enemies. But in time, the total transformation in Paul became undeniable. And he ended up spearheading the Christian campaign to call on everyone to lay down their arms and come over to the side of Jesus. So he finds himself in Athens, waiting for his friends to join him. He sees a city full of idols. It distresses him. We might expect him to be impressed by the great Athens. This is a city with a major visual arts initiative going on. Great architecture. A great historic legacy. Great universities. Packed with students. A regional capital. In the centre of the city a great edifice with massive terraces towering up on all four sides. Sounds familiar! A premiership city if ever there was one. But Paul is not impressed. He sees a city full of people in open rebellion against the true God. He is distressed for the sake of all these people who he knows are in serious danger of missing out on the abundant and eternal life that only Jesus can give. He is distressed for the sake of Christ who gave his life for these people and whose glory was being trodden underfoot in the muddy streets. So what did he do about it? His campaigning strategy had been transformed by his encounter with Jesus. No more violence. His strategy now was simply to tell the truth to anyone who would listen. And that is what he did. Verses 17 and 18 give us the picture:
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him.
There are actually five different groups of people mentioned there. They all heard something of what Paul had to say. There were: the Jews; the God-fearing Greeks (in other words people who were not born Jews but who had taken on board Jewish religion); those who just happened to be there (walking back from Eldon Square); Epicurean philosophers; and Stoic philosophers. Over the centuries and across continents the trappings of culture vary enormously. But people remain basically the same. May be you would belong to one of those five groups. Let me redefine them for today. There are those who might say: "My parents believed in God and so do I. I always have. That was how I was brought up. I have high moral standards. I do my best to keep them. I may not be perfect. Nobody is. But I live a decent life. I do nobody any harm." There are those who might say: "My parents didn't take me to church or anything. They weren't the religious type. They wanted me to make up my own mind. But I've got more interested in religion as I've got older. I do believe in God. I do try to live a moral life. The lack of standards nowadays frightens me. But I cannot see how Jesus fits in to all this." Others might say: "I'm really not quite sure why I'm here. It somehow happened without any planning on my part. I don't really know what to make of it. Good music - though some parts more my style than others. Maybe I'll just slip away and not come back. Or maybe I'll stick around for a while and try to figure out what this is all about." The Epicureans amongst us would be inclined to say: "I am an agnostic. I don't know what to believe about God. In fact I'm pretty convinced that we can't know anything much. I don't have much time for religious mumbo-jumbo. Life is to be enjoyed. Not that I'm silly about it. You can have too much of a good thing. But I do try to make the most of life. What else is it for? If I took Jesus seriously, I'd have to stop doing some of the things I like. And that would be ridiculous." The Stoics do not find themselves able to be quite so positive: "Life is pretty hard going. God may be out there somewhere. I believe in some kind of life force. But it's not much help to me. I believe in being independent. I stand on my own two feet. At times it's tough. But that's life isn't it? I don't need God. Christianity has always seemed to me to be a crutch for the weak. I can cope." Maybe one of those perspectives is a pretty good match for you own. Or maybe you are more ready to take seriously the teaching of the apostle Paul. Certainly there was a wide range of responses to what Paul had to say in Athens. Just as Paul spoke to five groups of people, there were also five initial reactions to what he said. We might sum them up in this way: it's babble; it's foreign; it's new; it's strange; it's interesting. It's babble. Verse 18: "What is this babbler trying to say?" The word refers for instance to birds that just pick up whatever scraps they can find. Paul is here being accused of concocting his own nonsense out of rubbish. Or it's foreign. Verse 18: "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." It's alien to my world. It's not my culture. It's not where I'm at, so it's nothing to do with me. It's fine for the religious types. But not me. Or it's new. Verse 19: "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?" Today I suppose that would apply especially to those who have grown up with little or no contact with the Christian faith or knowledge of the Bible - an increasingly large proportion of us. "I just don't know what he's on about" would be the cry. Or it's strange. Verse 20: "You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears." All this talk of Jesus being the Son of God, dying for our sins, being raised from the dead, ruling as King - I hear it. But it seems to me to be seriously weird. Are you really saying it's true? I can see you believe it. But it's pretty way out, isn't it? Or it's interesting. Second half of verse 20: "we want to know what they [these ideas] mean" Babble, foreign, new, strange, maybe. But strangely fascinating as well. Strangely compelling. I want to know more. And Paul was never one to pass up an opportunity. So, v22 and 23:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: "Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."
We need to understand just how much Paul is claiming here. We miss the point if we think he just wants to share another opinion to liven up the discussion. He is claiming to speak a message direct from God. It is, as verse 18 puts it, "the good news about Jesus and the resurrection." So it is either the truth, or Paul has got more than one screw loose. And then everything he says, and indeed the whole of Biblical Christianity has to be put out with the garbage. Don't patronise Paul by telling him that he's got a some good ideas but they could with a bit of reworking to bring them into line with modern thinking. What he is saying is this: "The risen Jesus told me to tell you these things. Listen hard. Your life depends on it." So what does he say? You can read the summary for yourself in verses 22 to 31. But let me try and draw out a bit what he said to the Athenians, and what he says to us through the pages of the Bible. It is this. You believe in a spiritual dimension to life. But you yourselves acknowledge that you do not really know God. I am going to tell you about him. The truth is this. God made everything. God rules over everything. Don't imagine that he lives in religious buildings.. And don't imagine he needs you. He does not. But you need him. Everything we have including life itself comes from him. And this one God rules all the nations, cultures and races of the earth. Now God wants us to seek him and find him, but that does not involve some long religious quest. He is not a distant and inaccessible God. The trouble is that we are spiritually blind and deaf. We have turned our backs on him, even though we belong to him and are utterly dependent on him. Rather than knowing the true God, we have preferred to create our own man made gods - things that become more important to us than God himself. But God is not man made. We have claimed conveniently that we do not know the truth about God. And in the past God has been patient with us and our so-called agnosticism, even though we have wilfully shut our eyes to the truth. But now, with the coming of Jesus, things have changed. We live in a new age. And God is commanding every single one of us to acknowledge how wrong we have been. He is commanding us to turn back to him. The fact is there is a Day of Judgement up ahead. Everyone will be raised from the dead and stand before the judgement seat of God. Those who are still in rebellion will rightly be condemned to eternal destruction. Those who have stopped rebelling against God will enter eternal life with him. You can be sure that this judgement will be just, because God is just. There is no way of avoiding it. Only if we stop rebelling will we avoid condemnation. Now God has appointed someone to be the judge on that day. And he has demonstrated this unmistakably by raising him from the dead. That is why Jesus didn't stay dead. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead proves that he is all he claimed to be. It proves he is the Son of God. It proves that he has begun his rule of all things behind the scenes. It proves that he will judge the world. So turn back to God. Stop your rebellion. Believe in Jesus. And the most astonishing good news is this. When you believe in Jesus, you will be forgiven everything in the past. Jesus has already died the death we deserve. And you will find that he really is close to you, strengthening you to live for him. Such is Paul's message. In 1815 the French under the command of Napoleon were fighting the Allies under the command of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. In England, news of the battle depended on a system of signals. Apparently one of these signal stations was on the tower of Winchester Cathedral. Late in the day it flashed the signal, letter by letter: "W-E-L-L-I-N-G-T-O-N- - - D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D- -." Then the fog rolled in just at that moment and made it impossible to read anything further. News of defeat quickly spread throughout the city and the surrounding countryside. But then the fog lifted, and the remainder of the message could be read. The message had four words, not two. The complete message was this: "W-E-L-L-I-N-G-T-O-N- - -D-E-F-E-A-T-E-D- - T-H-E- - -E-N-E-M-Y!" In a few minutes the good news had spread. Sorrow and fear were turned into joy and victory. It was rather like that when Jesus died. Hope seemed to die with him. Evil seemed to be triumphant. But the Message was not yet complete. It looked like "Jesus defeated." But three days later Jesus was raised from the dead. God's message was completed: "Jesus defeated the enemy." Such was the substance of Paul's message from God to the Athenians. What happened then? How did they respond? Verse 32:
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Some of them sneered. They decided that Paul was an idiot talking nonsense. That is an option that is open to all of us. At least it is more honest than having a vague belief in the fact that Jesus rose from dead, without working through what all the consequences of that are if it is true. If it is true, of course, writing it off as rubbish will not make it any less true, nor the judgement before Jesus any less real. Some of them wanted to hear more. Maybe some of them had no real intention of ever making up their minds on the central question: Was Paul speaking the truth? But some, it seems, just didn't think they understood enough. They had genuine questions that needed an answer. If that is roughly where you are, let me make a suggestion. There is a need for an opportunity to consider carefully the claims of Christ. That is why we run what we call Just Looking groups. They are for people who want to find out what it is that Christians believe, why they believe it, and what difference it makes. We are going to be starting more Just Looking groups after Easter. On the pew in front of you should have an orange card that says Just Looking on the front. Inside are all the details. There is also a Reply Slip. If you want to know more about the good news about Jesus and the resurrection that Paul was preaching, fill in the Reply Slip at the end of the service, then give it to one of the staff or put in one of the boxes at the exits, or return it to the church office. So some of them sneered. Some of them wanted to know more. But there was also a third group. There were those who, as verse 34 puts it, "became followers of Paul and believed." That is, they knew in their hearts that what Paul said was true. They wanted him to teach them more, so they went with him. And they believed in Jesus. They began to trust Jesus with their lives. They stopped rebelling. It may be that you know that you have reached that point yourself. You find that you are sure this is all true. You know that you have been rebelling against God, and it is time to stop. You know that Jesus is the Lord and Judge and Saviour of the world. You know that you cannot put it off any longer. It is time for you to turn your life over to Jesus, and to begin trusting him. It is time for him to be in the driving seat of your life. If that is roughly where you are, then you can turn back to Jesus here and now. But how? Well, just by doing it in your heart. But it might help if I say a prayer that you can echo silently in your own mind. I will tell you first what I will pray, so you can be sure that it is right for you. It is simply this:
Lord God, I believe that you raised Jesus from the dead. I believe that one day I will stand before Him as my Judge. I'm sorry that I have been living in rebellion against you. Please forgive me. I now turn my life over to you. Help me from now on to begin to live for Jesus, who is my Lord, and my risen Saviour. Amen
I will repeat that so you can say it quietly in the silence of your own heart. Let's all bow our heads.
Lord God, I believe that you raised Jesus from the dead. I believe that one day I will stand before Him as my Judge. I'm sorry that I have been living in rebellion against you. Please forgive me. I now turn my life over to you again. Help me from now on to begin to live for Jesus, who is my Lord, and my risen Saviour. Amen
In closing let me say this. If you have prayed that prayer, you have started on a new life with Christ. Here are three simple things that would help you. First, come to church every week. Secondly, tell someone that you have made a start as a believer. I am going to stay up at the front here at the end of the service. If you would like to come up round the side and tell me that you have taken that step of faith, then I can give you a booklet that will help you. But in any case, tell someone. And then thirdly, sign up for a Just Looking group on the orange card if you can. That would be a great encouragement to you in the weeks after Easter.