Well, if you’re here through an invitation, can I say thank you for coming to cut through the trappings of Easter – the eggs, the bunnies, and so on – to get at the message of Easter. And I guess the service so far has made it pretty clear that it’s all about Jesus’ death on the cross and then his resurrection – i.e., his coming out the other side of death, alive. And I wonder what you make of that message. You may be thinking, ‘I really doubt it could have happened – dead people stay dead.’ You may be thinking, ‘Even if it did happen, how is it relevant to me?’
Well, I remember speaking at a similar event to this and afterwards I asked someone what he made of it. And he said, ‘I think it might well be true.’ So I said, ‘Does that mean you’ll look into it a bit more?’ And he said, ‘To be honest, I don’t really want to.’ So I said, ‘But what if it is true – that Jesus did rise from the dead and therefore 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.’ There’s nothing like confidence, is there? Because he was really saying, ‘I don’t think it matters whether or not you have faith in Jesus and God. I think what matters is simply trying to be a good person – so that if it turns out at the end of the day that God is there, you’ll be OK.’ And, clearly, he sincerely thought he would be OK, that he would be good enough. And maybe you’re like him.
In contrast, I remember speaking to someone else – an older lady. And she later wrote to me and said this, ‘It must be lovely to be sure about God and where you stand with him. And I wish I had your faith. But I’m afraid I’ve left it too late.’ Which shows that she had the ‘pension-plan view’ of God – the idea that if we pay in enough, regular instalments of goodness over the course of our lives, we’ll qualify for the lump sum of heaven in the end. The trouble was: she hadn’t given God any thought in early life and now she felt it was too late – that she wasn’t good enough, and couldn’t be. And maybe you’re like her.
Well, the message of Easter is that Christianity is not about us trying to be good enough for God. It’s about God being good enough to forgive us, and about his invitation to come into relationship with him – whoever we are and whatever we’ve done. And to those of us who know we’re not good enough, that’s a really wonderful message. Whereas to those of us who think we are – or, at least, can be if we try – it’s really offensive. And nowhere is both the wonder and the offence of the Christine message clearer than in that first Bible reading we had tonight. 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 from verse 39 to 40:
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him [i.e., at Jesus]: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" [Which is pure sarcasm: he’s saying, ‘You’re not the Christ – you’re not God’s Son sent to save us – because if you were, you wouldn’t have ended up there – dying on a cross.]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."
Now the Roman authorities of the day crucified people for murder, for armed robbery and for treason or terrorism against the empire. So that’s the kind of person this criminal was. So this is where it gets offensive, if you look at verses 42 and 43:
“Then he [this second criminal] 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."
So here’s a man who’s led a thoroughly evil life, and right at the end- near his last gasp - he turns to Jesus and is told he’ll be accepted into heaven. And our natural reaction is surely to think, ‘That’s not fair. That can’t be right – especially if you’re telling us that someone who led a better life, but rejected Jesus, would not be accepted in the end.’
A church minister I know worked as a chaplain in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland and he’s seen many terrorists come to faith in Christ and be transformed by Christ. And he’s received hate-mail and all kinds of threats because of his ministry – 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 our natural way of thinking is that God must surely accept people on the basis of fairness – i.e., justice. We think of the human race spread out along a line: down one end are the really evil people – like terrorists; up the other end are the really good people – like aid-workers in Africa; and somewhere along the line is the point where you’re good enough to deserve God’s acceptance. Which is what fairness (or justice) is all about: being given what you deserve.
But the Bible says that whole way of thinking is wrong. It says that God will never accept any of us on the basis of fairness. Because just imagine that was the way he dealt with us. Just imagine God said to you and me, ‘I’ll deal with you on the basis of strict justice, alone.’ What would that mean? Well, it would mean that when we finally meet his Son, the risen Jesus, as our Judge, he would ask us, ‘Have you always perfectly done what the conscience I gave you told you was right?’ And that question alone would silence us all – even that man I mentioned who was so confident that he’d be able to ‘talk his way in’. But then if we’ve had any contact with the Bible (which is all of us in this building right now), he would ask us, ‘Have you also always perfectly done what I told you in the Bible?’ And remember, when Jesus was asked to sum up what God wants of us, according to the Bible, he replied:
“'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' [I.e., consciously aim to please God at every moment in every area of your life – in your generosity with money, your integrity at work, your unselfish use of time, your faithfulness in marriage – the lot. And Jesus went on:] This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' [I.e., always treat all other people as you’d want to be treated yourself.] (Matthew 22:37-39)
And if Jesus asked us, ‘Have you also always perfectly done those things?’ the silence would only deepen. Because we’d realise in that moment, if we hadn’t done before, that where we fell along that line from relatively bad to relatively good was completely irrelevant. Because God doesn’t judge people relative to other people. He judges us all against his own awesome standards. And if we find those out from the Bible, and compare ourselves honestly with them, we’ll realise that, on the basis of strict justice, we don’t have a hope of acceptance with God. Not a hope.
I like the story that’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 what seemed like hours, she finally settled down. And 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 in his professionalism snapped, and he replied, ‘Madam, it’s not justice you need, but mercy.’
And the same is true of us when it comes to relating to God. And that’s why, in his extraordinary love for us, God sent his Son into the world in the person of Jesus. It was to pay the price of 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? I.e., how can he remove that big, black file, and the judgement we deserve for it, 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 verse 41. He might have been speaking for us all when he said:
“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man [Jesus] has done nothing wrong."
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)
I.e., he was taking on himself our sins, and the punishment we deserve, – so that we could be forgiven, and yet justice still be done.
But you may be thinking, ‘How do you know that’s what really happened? How do you know that it really was the Son of God dying there, and that his death really did pay for your forgiveness?’ And the answer is: because of what happened next. And if it hadn’t happened, there would have been no Christian message, no Christians – and we wouldn’t be sitting here in church tonight. Because what happened next – after Jesus’ death and burial on that first Good Friday – was that three days later, on that first Easter Sunday, his tomb was found empty and he was seen alive by numerous eye-witnesses. Now I guess plenty of us still need time to look at the evidence for that in the Bible, and to make up our minds about it. But that is the evidence which leads to believing that Jesus did rise from the dead, and that he was therefore no ordinary man, but the Son of God become man. And that then means that his death could have been no ordinary death, either. Because if he was the Son of God, and had 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 ours.
And his resurrection was the sign that he’d finished paying for our forgiveness in full – that the job was done. Just imagine you took me out for a meal in a restaurant. And at the end, you suddenly realise you’ve come out without any money. And you break the news to me. But 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 has unfortunately forgotten to bring any money, so can I offer to wash up in the kitchen to pay for the meal?’ And we agree an hour’s work for each course, and I disappear behind the swing doors into the kitchen. And the question is this: how do you know when I’ve finished, when it’s all been paid for, and you’re free to walk out of the restaurant? The answer is: when I come back through the swing doors and reappear.
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, it’s as if he came back through them and reappeared to show us that he’d finished – that he’d paid in full for all the forgiveness you and I might ever need. And that’s 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 good enough to forgive us, and about his invitation to come into relationship with him whoever we are and whatever we’ve done.
But being forgiven and being in relationship with God is not automatic. So can I ask: where do you stand tonight in relation to God right now? Imagine I were to draw a line – the line of all the different responses we could make to God. At one end would be those of us who can say, ‘I’ve accepted this forgiveness and started life over again with God in his rightful place.’ At the other end, there will be those of us saying, ‘I’m really not sure that anything you’ve said is true.’ Or saying, ‘This is all new to me – I’ve never heard it put like this before.’ If that’s you, can I say thank you again for coming. And can I invite you to keep coming and looking into the Christian message. You’re always welcome here at Sunday services. But something we lay on especially for people who are ‘just looking’ is Christianity Explored. It’s where you can meet in a small discussion group to look at bits of a Gospel like we’ve done tonight – and to ask any questions and raise any objections you like. It’s a seven week course, but we run a one-off ‘taster session’ so that you can come along with no commitment to see if you’d like to do the rest of it. And details of Christianity Explored are in the leaflet with your service sheet. The next ones not till after Easter, so for now, do take any of the free literature on our Welcome Desk – copies of Mark’s Gospel and this booklet, Why Jesus?
But going back to my line: you may be somewhere in the middle, saying, ‘I believe its true – but I’m not sure how to be forgiven and start this relationship with God.’ Maybe you’ve been coming along to things here for a while – maybe even for years – and you’re still not sure how to take that step, or whether you have done. So, lastly, let me try to explain that, from the end of that first Bible reading.
Just picture the scene one last time: Jesus on the cross in the middle, with these two criminals crucified on both side – and both criminals began that day unforgiven and out of relationship with God; but the second one ended the day in heaven. How? Well, look at the prayer he prayed in verse 42:
“Then he said [or prayed], "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
‘Remember me’ means ‘remember me with favour’ – i.e., he’s saying, ‘Please forgive my life’s sins.’ And then ‘when you come into your kingdom’ means he realises Jesus is about to go through death to take up his throne in heaven, and he wants to be part of that kingdom – i.e., he’s saying, ‘I want you to be my King from now on’ (even though he has no time left on earth to serve Jesus.) And all you’d need to do tonight to be forgiven and to start life over again with God in his rightful place would be to pray the same: ‘Please forgive my life’s sins. I want you to be my King from now on.’
And if you pray that, the risen Lord Jesus will want you to be assured that you are completely forgiven and accepted – just like he assured this criminal in verse 43:
“Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
But of course, unlike that criminal, you’ll still have more life to live here on earth – although none of us knows how much, do we? But if you begin this relationship, it’ll be a life of learning from the Bible what it means to live to please Jesus as your King and his Father as your heavenly Father. That’ll mean giving over every area of your life to him. E.g., if you’re a doctor, working out how to be a doctor for Christ. Or, e.g., working out how to use all the relationships you have – with friends, family colleagues and so on – to give others the chance to hear about Christ, because they need this message as desperately as you do. But in some areas, it’ll mean giving up things. E.g., if you’re not married, but sexually involved, it’ll mean living from now on by God’s will that sex is for marriage only. Or, e.g., as you live and speak publicly for Christ, some people will react negatively to your faith, and you’ll have to give up some of the popularity and easy acceptance you had from others before.
Which may leave you thinking, ‘I’m not sure I could change like that, or face the cost of that.’ So can I say: 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 motivating and helping you to change and live for him despite the cost – and countless Christians can testify that he’s done that in their experience. But you may also be thinking, ‘What if I still get it wrong, even though I’d be trying not to?’ And the answer is: you will, but God will continue to forgive you whenever you need it – because his Son didn’t just die for your past sins, up to the present moment. He died for your future sins as well – for your life’s sins.
Well, I’m going to finish now with a prayer which you could use if you know you want to begin this relationship that God is inviting us all into. Now it may not be appropriate for you – you may be much further back than this prayer, or further on. But if you want to take that step of coming into relationship with God, you could echo it to him in your mind as I lead us out loud. Let’s bow our heads to pray:
“Father in heaven,
Thank you for sending your Son to die for me.
Please forgive my life’s sins.
And please come into my life by your Spirit
and help me live for you as my King from now on.
I ask this through Jesus. Amen”
If you’ve just prayed that and meant it, can I assure you that God has heard your prayer and answered it. And if you’ve just begun this relationship with him, can I encourage you to do two things. One is to take a copy of that booklet I mentioned – Why Jesus? – it’s on the Welcome Desk and it goes over the step you’ve just taken. The other is to tell another Christian that you’ve taken that step – it’ll help you to start being public about it; and they can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here.