Well if you’re here through an invitation – especially for the first time – thank you for coming. The story’s told of a little boy’s first time in church. He was finding it deadly dull and his wandering attention was caught by the list of names on the wall – Captain J. Harvey, Corporal S. Jones... And he whispered to his Dad, ‘What are those names?’ And Dad whispered, ‘They’re the people who died in the services.’ And wide-eyed, he whispered back, ‘What? The morning services or the evening services?’
Well, rest assured, we aim for people to come out alive. And the aim tonight is to come out with a better idea of what happened that first Easter and what it’s got to do with us. And according to tonight’s Bible readings, what happened is that Jesus Christ was put to death on a cross, buried in a tomb – and three days later came out alive. And that resurrection is what finally led those first eye-witnesses to believe that Jesus was God’s Son become man. And I wonder: what do you make of that?
I remember speaking at an event like this and asking someone that, afterwards. And he said, ‘I think it could well be true.’ So I said, ‘Will you look into it, then?’ And he said, ‘To be honest, I don’t want to.’ So I said, ‘But what if it is true – that Jesus really did rise from the dead and is the Son of God, and that we’re all ultimately going to meet him as our Judge?’ And he said, ‘I think I’d be able to talk my way in somehow.’ There’s nothing like self-confidence, is there? Because he was really saying, ‘I don’t need Jesus. I just need to be a good person – so that if it turns out God is there, I’ll be OK.’ And he clearly thought he would be. And maybe you’re like him.
By contrast: I spoke at another event – this time a dinner – and afterwards I turned to the Muslim woman I’d been talking to and said, ‘So if on the way home you were knocked down by a bus and had to face Allah, how do you think it would it go?’ (My usual light, after-dinner banter, over the chocolates.) And she said, ‘Well, we believe he’ll judge us on whether or not our good deeds outweigh our bad ones.’ So I said, ‘How do you think that looks for you right now?’ And she very honestly said, ‘Not good.’ So I said, ‘Do you think that’ll change before you die?’ And she very honestly said, ‘No.’ Ie, ‘I’m not good enough and can’t be.’ And maybe you’re more like her – much more in touch with reality.
Well, the unique thing about the Christian message, compared to all other religions, is that it does not say, ‘Try to be good enough and God will accept you.’ It says, ‘You’re not good enough, and can’t be; but God is so good, he’s made a way to forgive you for that and bring you back into relationship with him.’ And that way, strange as it may sound at first, is Jesus’ death on the cross. And if you know you’re not good enough, the cross is really wonderful news. But if you think you are – or can be – it’s really offensive. And nowhere is both the wonder and the offence of the Easter message clearer than in tonight’s first Bible reading. So I wonder if you’d turn back to it with me. It’s from Luke’s Gospel – one of the four accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – and it describes Jesus dying on the cross between two crucified criminals. Let me re-read verses 39-40:
39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at [Jesus]: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
[Ie, ‘You’re not the Christ – you’re not God’s Son come to put things right in this world – because if you were, you wouldn’t have ended up there.]
40But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."
Now the Romans, who were running the show, crucified people for things like murder and terrorism – that’s the kind of person this criminal was. So here’s where, to many people, it gets very offensive. Look at vv42-43:
42Then [this second criminal] said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
43Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise [in heaven]."
So this criminal’s led a thoroughly evil life, and right at the end he turns to Jesus and is accepted. How can that be fair? One minister I know worked as a chaplain in the Maze Prison and has seen many terrorists come to faith in Christ and be transformed by him. And he’s received all kinds of hate-mail and threats because, as he put it, ‘People can’t stand the thought that even men like those can be accepted by God.’ And that’s because we naturally think: God must accept people on the basis of fairness, justice. We think of people spread out along a line: and down one end are the terrorists; and up the other end are the aid-workers in Haiti and Chile; and somewhere along the line is the point where you’re good enough to deserve God’s acceptance – which is what justice is all about: being given what you deserve.
But the Bible says: God will never accept any of us on that basis. I mean, just imagine he did deal with us on the basis of strict justice. It would mean that when we finally meet him as our Judge, he’d say, ‘Have you always done what the conscience I gave you told you to?’ And that question alone would reduce all of us to silence, wouldn’t it? Even the guy who said he thought he’d be able to talk his way in somehow. But then if we’d had any contact with the Bible (which we all have), he’d say, ‘Have you also always done what I told you in there?’ And when Jesus was asked to sum up what God asks of us in the Bible, he said this (Matthew 22.37-39):
37" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' [Ie, always aim to please God in all you do.] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' [Ie, always treat all others as you’d want to be treated.]
And if God said, ‘Have you also done that?’ the silence would only deepen, wouldn’t it? And we’d realise that where we’d been along that line from relatively bad to relatively good was irrelevant. Because God won’t judge us relative to other people, but against what he’s asked of us. And if you find that out from the Bible, and compare yourself honestly with it, you’ll realise that, on the basis of strict justice, we don’t have a hope.
The story’s told of a rather crusty-looking old lady who went to have her picture taken at a photographer’s studio. And she fussed endlessly over her dress and her hair and her make-up; and then over the background and the lighting and the angle she was sitting at. And after finally settling down, just as he was about to take the picture, she leaned forward and said, ‘Young man, I do hope you’ll do me justice.’ And something inside him snapped, and coming up from behind the camera, he said, ‘Madam, it’s not justice you need, but mercy.’
And the same is true of us when it comes to relating to God. I wonder if you’ve admitted that, yet.
And that’s why, in his extraordinary love for us, God sent his Son into the world in the person of Jesus – to pay for the forgiveness we all need. And he did that as he died on the cross.
You see, the Bible says the reason we’ve all failed to live up to God’s standards is that we’ve all turned away from him in our hearts – we haven’t lived for him because we don’t really want to. So now imagine that, in God’s eyes, above the head of each of us hangs a big, black file. In it is the record of everything we’ve each ever done wrong – everything that God should hold against us, if he did deal with us on the basis of strict justice alone. And the question is; how can God forgive that record? Ie, how can he remove that big, black file, and the judgement it deserves, that hangs over our heads – without it looking as if he was saying, ‘It doesn’t matter – let’s just put it to one side and forget about it’? Because it’s that which would be unfair, unjust – and it would be impossible for a just God to do.
So how can God forgive and still be just? According to the Bible, this is how. He sent his Son into this world in the person of Jesus, and he lived alongside us the only ever sinless life. And this is where we get to the truth of what that second criminal said in v41. He might have been speaking for us all when he said, v41:
We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man [Jesus]
So what was Jesus doing there on the cross? Well, one verse of the Bible puts it simply like this:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross. (1 Peter 2.24)
Ie, he was taking on himself our sins, and the punishment we deserve, – so that we could be forgiven, and yet justice still be done.
Now how do we know that’s what really happened – that it really was the Son of God dying there, and that it really did pay for your and my forgiveness?’ The answer is: because of what happened next – namely, that after Jesus’ death and burial on the first Good Friday, three days later on the first Easter Sunday, his tomb was found empty and he was seen alive by a whole load of witnesses.
Now I guess plenty of us still need time to look at the evidence for that in the Bible, and make up our own minds about it. But that is the evidence which says that Jesus did rise from the dead, and that he was therefore no ordinary man, but the Son of God. And that then means his death could have been no ordinary death, either. Because if he was the Son of God, with no sins of his own to pay for, the only thing that makes sense of his death is that he was paying for the sins of others – for yours and mine. And his resurrection was the sign that he’d finished doing that in full.
So just imagine you’ve taken me out for a meal in a restaurant. And at the end, you suddenly realise you’ve come out without any money. And because I thought you were paying, I’ve also come out without any. However, to spare you embarrassment, I call over the manager and say, ‘My friend’s unfortunately forgotten to bring any money; can I wash up to pay for the meal?’ And we agree an hour’s work for each course, so I disappear behind the kitchen swing doors to do my five hours (because you’ve so generously pressed me into a starter, two puddings and the cheese board.) And the question is: how do you know when I’ve finished, when it’s all paid for, and you’re free to walk out? The answer is: when I reappear through the swing doors.
Well, on Good Friday it’s as if Jesus went behind the swing doors of death, to pay for our sins. And on Easter Sunday, he reappeared, to show us that he’d finished. And that is the message of Easter. Which is why I said at the start that Christianity is not about us trying to be good enough for God. It’s about God being so good that he’s made a way to forgive us back into relationship with him, whoever we are, whatever we’ve done.
But that’s not automatic. The fact you’ve heard about this, maybe grown up with this, doesn’t mean you are forgiven and in relationship with God. We have to respond. It’s like a wedding. The groom’s asked if he’ll have her to be his wife. And hopefully he says, ‘I will.’ But the bride then has to respond – she’s asked, ‘Will you have him?’ And in theory she could make him sweat a bit by asking the vicar how long she’s got, or talking it over with the bridesmaids. Well in giving his Son to die for us, God has said his ‘I will’. To everyone here tonight, God has said in Jesus, ‘I will forgive and accept you back into relationship with me, if you’ll come.’ Which begs the question, will we? Will we have him in his rightful place as King of our lives, where he should have been all along?
I wonder where you stand tonight in relation to God? Imagine I were to draw another line – this time, the line of all the different responses we could make to God. At one end there’ll be those of us saying, ‘I have accepted this forgiveness and started life over again with God in his rightful place.’ At the other end, there’ll be those saying, ‘I’m not even sure any of this is true. Certainly not sure enough to make any sort of commitment.’ And if that’s you, can I say thank you again for coming. And can I invite you to keep coming and looking into it. But you may be somewhere in the middle and saying, ‘I know it’s true – and I want to respond; I’m just not sure how you begin this relationship with God.’ So to finish, let me try to explain that, from the end of our first Bible reading.
Just picture the scene one last time: Jesus on the middle cross and these two criminals crucified on either side. Both began that day unforgiven and out of relationship with God; but the second one ended it in heaven. How? Well, look at the prayer he prayed in v42:
Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Now it’ll be another 48 hours before the disciples find Jesus’ tomb empty and see him risen from the dead. But even before that evidence, this man somehow realises who Jesus is and that he’s about to beat death and go through death and take up his throne in heaven. And he says to Jesus, ‘I recognise you as King; please remember me when you come into your kingdom’ – ie, ‘Accept me when we next meet.’ And look at the promise he’s given in v43:
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
... not because he’d lived a good life – that’s not the way to acceptance with God. But because the person on the next cross was paying for the forgiveness of every sin he’d ever committed. As well as for yours.
And all you’d need to do tonight, to be forgiven and start life over again with God where he should be, would be to pray the same prayer to the risen Jesus: ‘I recognise you as King; please forgive and accept me.’ If you do, he’ll want you to be assured that you are fully forgiven and accepted – just like this criminal. But unlike this criminal, you still have more life to live. And it’ll be a life of learning from the Bible how to please Jesus as your King. That’ll mean giving over every area of life to him – eg, learning how to do your work for him, how to be a husband or wife or parent for him, how to use your money for him, play sport for him... you name it – for him. As well as learning how to give others the chance to hear about him – which is part and parcel of following Jesus. So it means , which includes giving up some things – anything that lies outside God’s will. Eg, if you’re not married, but sexually involved, it’ll mean giving up that sexual involvement and living by God’s will that sex is for marriage alone.
And you may be thinking, ‘I’m not sure I could change like that, or face that kind of cost.’ But if you do pray that prayer, God will answer it not just by forgiving you, but by coming into your life by his Spirit, and giving you the willpower to live for him despite the cost – and countless Christians can testify that he’s done that in their experience. You may also be thinking, ‘If I did go for it, I’m hardly going to be perfect, so what about when you fail as a Christian?’ And the answer is: you will, but God will continue to forgive you whenever you need it – because Jesus didn’t just die for your past sins, but for your future sins as well.
Well, I’m going to finish with a prayer you could use if you want to begin this relationship that God is inviting us into. Let me just read it out first so you can decide if it’s appropriate for you:
I recognise you as King, and admit that you’ve not had that place in my life.
Thank you for dying for me, and rising again.
Please forgive me, come into my life by your Spirit, and help me live for you from now on.
You may be much further back down the line than that, or further on. But if you want to begin this relationship that God is inviting us into, you could echo that prayer in your own mind. And if you do pray it and mean it, can I assure you that God will hear and answer it. And can I also encourage you to tell another Christian if you’ve taken that step – it’ll help you underline to yourself that you really have done so; and they can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here in the Christian life.