I don’t know how often you find yourself in church like this, but a friend of mine was brought up to go every Sunday. And as soon as he was old enough consciously to stop listening, he did. Because he simply assumed that Christianity was all about being told what to do and not to do. So instead of listening, he counted the bricks in the wall at the front – and he’d get up towards 1,000 or so by the end of each sermon. And he did this for years, until one day he was so bored counting bricks that he said to himself, ‘Well, the sermon can’t possibly be any more boring, so I might as well give it a listen for once.’ And I remember him saying, ‘I got the surprise of my life. Because there I was expecting the person at the front to tell me what to do and not to do. When in fact what he did was to tell me all about what God had done to bring me back into relationship with himself.’
Well if you’ve come through an invitation tonight, I wonder what you were expecting to hear? Because plenty of people, like my friend, simply assume that Christianity is just morality – a set of do’s and don’t’s - and that if you keep them well enough, God will accept you, and that if you don’t, he won’t. But nothing could be further from the truth. Because Christianity is not about us doing things to make ourselves acceptable to God. It’s all about the one great thing God has done to make us acceptable to him. And that is: the death of his Son Jesus on a cross that first Easter.
Most things these days have a logo, don’t they? Macdonalds has the golden arches. Nike sports has the swoosh stripe. And a few years ago the Church of England went to an advertising agency and asked it to come up with a logo for them. And after much thought the agency finally came up with... a cross. Trust the Church of England to pay someone good money to state the obvious - because look at what Christians wear round their necks, or at the shape of their buildings, or on top of a hot cross bun, and it’s impossible to miss. The logo of Christianity is the cross on which Jesus died. Because the most important thing about Jesus is not his life or his healings or his teaching or his example, but his death. And I want to spend the rest of my time explaining why that is, and what it has to do with us, 2000 years later.
And to do that we’re going to look at part of John’s Gospel. These words were written by the apostle John – one of the twelve eye-witnesses who spent three years with Jesus – up to and including his death and his resurrection from the dead. And this is from John’s account of Jesus’ death, when Jesus is hanging, dying, on the cross:
28 Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thirsty." 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (vv28-30)
And the strange thing is this. You can understand a man about to die saying, ‘I am finished.’ But that’s not what Jesus said. He said, ‘It is finished’ – which, in the original language John wrote, is just one Greek word, ‘Tetelestai.’ It’s the word they used back then – just like we still do - for saying, ‘Job done’. It’s what you say when you’ve finally polished off an essay or a piece of work or some DIY at home - ‘Finished.’ It’s also the word they used back then – just like we still do – to write across bills, ‘Paid in full’. It’s what you say when you’ve finally paid off your student loan or the last instalment of your mortgage - ‘Finished.’ And as Jesus died, that’s the word he chose to explain what was going on: not ‘I am finished,’ but, ‘It is finished’ - as if to say, ‘In dying on this cross, I’m finally finishing the job I came into the world to do, by paying off a debt in full.’ And if you want the Christian message in a nutshell, it’s this: the job Jesus came into the world to do was to bring us back into relationship with God his Father. And the way he did it was to pay for our forgiveness by dying on the cross.
So I’m simply going to ask three questions and explain how the Christian message, the ‘gospel’, answers them. The questions are:
1. What’s gone wrong between us and God?
2. What has God done to put it right?
3. Where does that leave us?
Firstly, WHAT’S GONE WRONG BETWEEN US AND GOD?
If Jesus came into the world to bring us back into relationship with his Father, the assumption is clearly that something’s gone wrong between us and God.
I was talking to a friend a while ago. He’s not a Christian yet, and I asked him if that was because he didn’t believe there was a God. And he said, ‘Oh, no, I know there’s a God.’ (And in fact the Bible says we all know that, deep down – even if we call ourselves ‘atheists’ or ‘agnostics’.). So I said to this friend, ‘Well, if you know God’s there, and that he made you and that he’s the key to knowing what life’s all about and how it works best – then if you could have a relationship with him, wouldn’t you want to?’ And he rather discouragingly said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he very honestly said, ‘I don’t want God interfering with my life.’
And that shows perfectly what’s gone wrong between us and God: it’s that, consciously or subconsciously, we’ve all said to God, ‘I don’t want you running my life. I don’t want you to be king; I want to be.’ My friend’s attitude showed that perfectly. But nothing has ever shown up our attitude to God like the time when he sent his Son into the world, 2000 years ago, because he came to bring us back into relationship with God his Father, yet the response was: to crucify him. Let me read from earlier in John’s account of Jesus’ death:
So the soldiers [a Roman execution squad] took charge of Jesus. 17 Carrying his own cross [the Roman form of capital punishment in those days], he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 Here they crucified him [ie, nailed him to the cross to die], and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. 19 Pilate [the Roman governor responsible] had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews [the people responsible for getting Jesus crucified] protested to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews,' but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews." 22 Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written." (vv16-22)
And that shows at one level why Jesus died on the cross: he’d basically come saying, ‘I’m here on behalf of God my Father. And he’s sent me to offer you forgiveness for living as if you were in charge, and to call on you to accept me as your rightful King.’ But that isn’t what they wanted to hear - any more than we do. So the Jewish leaders got Jesus crucified - by manipulating Pilate into handing down the death-penalty on him. And when they crucified people, they would fix a sign to the cross to say why they were being crucified, what society had against them – so some signs would say ‘Murder’, others ‘Robbery’ and so on. And to spite the people who wanted Jesus dead, Pilate wrote exactly what Jesus had claimed – that he was ‘Jesus... the King’, Jesus our rightful king. And the irony of that sign, ‘Jesus the King’ is that that’s exactly why Jesus was crucified, that’s exactly what we have against Jesus – because we don’t want him to be king over us. So the first thing you see as you look at the cross is what’s gone wrong between us and God. We see our own natural attitude to God, mirrored there, saying, ‘I don’t want you to be king.’
Now some here will immediately accept that. You know that’s true - and that certain areas of your life show it pretty obviously. But others will find that very hard to accept. You may be saying to yourself, ‘I just don’t recognise myself in what you’re saying: I’m not a God-rejecter by any means.’ But the Bible says to all of us, ‘You are.’ A friend of mine was preaching on this, and to make the point he said, ‘Would you please raise a hand if you’ve ever told a lie?’ And a forest of hands went up. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Hands down. Now would you please raise a hand if you consider yourself to be a liar?’ And hardly any hands went up. So he said, ‘That’s very interesting. You’re all prepared to admit that you’ve said untrue things. But only a few of you are prepared to admit that you are untruthful by nature.’ ‘So,’ he said, ‘What do the rest of you think you are? If you really were truthful by nature, you’d never say anything untrue. But the fact that you say untrue things shows that you really are untruthful by nature.’ And you can widen that lesson out and put it like this: if you and I really were God-respecters, giving God his rightful place, we’d never do anything wrong. But the fact that we frequently do what we know is wrong in God’s eyes shows that we are by nature God-rejecters. Every time you do something wrong you’re showing that in fact you reserve the right to live as you please. I.e., that you’re saying to God, ‘I don’t want you to be king; I want to be.’
And that attitude, and all the wrongdoing and damage to others that it leads to, is more offensive to God than we can imagine - which is why our consciences tell us we’re in trouble (when we’re prepared to listen to them), and why the Bible spells out exactly what the trouble is – namely, that at the end of our lives we’re going to meet God as our Judge. And if to the end of our lives we’ve said to him, ‘I don’t want you to be king,’ then with no pleasure at all he will have to say to us, ‘Then I cannot have you in my kingdom, in heaven. You’ll stay outside forever.’ That’s the judgement on God-rejecters. Because you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King.
So that’s what’s wrong between us and God. So onto my second question.
Second, WHAT HAS GOD DONE TO PUT IT RIGHT?
And this is where the Christian message is unique. People often say, ‘All religions are basically the same,’ but that’s completely false. Because none of the other religions even asks the question, ‘What has God done to put things right?’ The question in all the other religions is, ‘What do we have to do to put things right?’ In fact you could say that all the other religions are ‘DIY’ – ‘Do It Yourself’ - religions, where you have to do enough to make yourself acceptable to God. So, for example, I was doing a dinner event with a Christian message, and after I’d spoken I sat down and turned to the Muslim woman I’d been talking to over the meal and I said to her, ‘So if on the way home you were knocked down by a bus and had to face Allah tonight, how would it go?’ (my usual light, after-dinner banter). And she said, ‘Well, the basis we believe he’ll judge us on is whether or not our good deeds outweigh our bad.’ So I said, ‘And how do you think that’s looking for you right now?’ And she very honestly said, ‘Not good.’ So I pushed it and said, ‘And do you think that’ll change before you die?’ And she very honestly said, ‘No, I don’t think it will.’ And that’s ‘DIY religion’ – ‘Do enough yourself and God will accept you.’ Which is why I’ve never met anyone of any other religion who’s been able to say they’re sure God accepts them. Because in ‘DIY religion’ you can never be sure because you can never do enough.
Whereas the Christian message is unique because it says not, ‘DIY’ but ‘Done.’ It says God has done everything necessary to bring us back into relationship with him. And he did it at the cross. So let me read, one last time, from John’s account of Jesus’ death:
30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." [i.e., ‘Job done’, ‘Paid in full’.] With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (v30)
And the job was the job of forgiving us - because what’s false about the ‘DIY religions’ is the idea that good deeds can make up for bad deeds and put a relationship right. But they can’t. I mean, imagine after the service, that we got talking and you told me that you thought my tie was horrible. And then a bit later you discovered I originally came from Basingstoke and you said, ‘I am sorry about that, but I suppose someone has to.’ And you offended me and offended me and offended me. Well, later on you could try to be good to me - you could buy me boxes of chocolates and so on. But nothing makes up for bad deeds, and the only thing that puts relationships right again is if the offended party is willing to forgive. And the thing that always seems to me too good to be true, and yet is true, is that the God of the Bible - the real God – is willing to forgive us everything, whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, and have us back in relationship with him.
So, as someone trusting in Jesus his Son, I believe that God has forgiven me everything I’ve done wrong in the past, and that he’s committed himself to forgive me whenever I need it in the future. That’s the certainty that a real Christian can have. So I believe that when I finally meet God at the end of my life, he won’t judge me, but welcome me in. Now just imagine that on that day someone objected, and said to God, ‘You can’t do that: you can’t just ignore everything Ian Garrett has done wrong. If you’re a just God, then justice should be done on his wrongdoing.’ And God will be able to reply, ‘It has been - when my Son died in Ian Garrett’s place.’
Just imagine for a moment that this white file in my hand stands for the record of Jesus’ life. And because he was God’s Son become man, it was the only perfect life ever lived, the only one that never deserved judgement at its end. And now imagine that this black file in my other hand stands for the record of your or my life – full of wrongdoing and fully deserving that judgement of being left outside. And the Bible says that on the cross, Jesus took our place and took the judgement for the black file of every one of us, so that we could be forgiven - and yet justice still be done. So, imagine the scene. There’s this objector on the day of judgement saying that Ian Garrett can’t possibly be accepted in. So you can imagine God saying to a nearby angel, ‘Go and get Ian Garrett’s record.’ And the angel scurries off and comes back with a white file with my name on it. And God says, ‘Did you find anything else?’ And the angel says, ‘We found a black file with just one sheet of paper inside it.’ And God says, ‘What did it say?’ And the angel says, ‘Paid in full.’
When Jesus said, ‘It is finished’, he meant his death has done everything necessary to forgive you and me back into relationship with God. So uniquely, the Christian message doesn’t say, ‘Do it yourself’ – try harder, make up for the past. It says ‘Done.’ So,
Third, WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
Three weeks ago yesterday I was standing at the front of church and I was asked the question, ‘Ian, will you have Tess to be your wife?’ And I said, ‘I will.’ And at that point you could say I’d done everything necessary for Tess to be married to me. But that didn’t mean she was married to me. Because the question still had to be asked and responded to, ‘Tess, will you have Ian to be your husband?’
And it’s like that in relation to God. In giving his Son to die for us, God has said his ‘I will’ to us. He’s said, ‘I will forgive you and have you back, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.’ But that doesn’t mean you are forgiven and back in relationship with him. It’s not automatic. Because the question still has to be asked and responded to, ‘Will you have Jesus, God’s Son, as your forgiver and your King?’ And I wonder what you’d say?
Many of you, I know, can say, ‘I have already received Jesus as my forgiver and my King’ (ie, ‘I am a real Christian.’) But for others, there will be different answers. You might be saying, ‘Right now, I don’t even know whether what you’ve been saying is true.’ And if that’s you, can I say you owe it to yourself to look into it more and resolve one way or the other what you believe. And one thing we lay on to help people do that is a course called Christianity Explored. It runs over a number of weeks, but we do a one-off ‘taster session’ – so you can just come once and see whether you think it would be any good for you.
But you might be saying something else. You might be saying, ‘I don’t really want Jesus as King – I’m a bit like your friend who said he didn’t want God interfering in his life.’ And your issue is the cost of coming back into relationship with God - what you know would have to change in your life.’ Well, there’s a lot I could say to that. But all I have time to say is: if he loved you enough to die for you, why wouldn’t you trust him with the running of your life?
Or, you might be saying, ‘I don’t feel I need forgiving. I don’t recognise myself in what you’ve said and I think my life is good enough for God.’ Again, there’s a lot I could say to that. But all I have time to say is: if that were true – if we could ‘do it ourselves’ - why on earth would God ever have given his Son to die?
Or you might be saying, ‘I don’t think I can be forgiven. You don’t know what I’ve done. You don’t know what’s on my conscience.’ But the answer is: I don’t need to know. All I need is to be able to assure you that when Jesus said, ‘It is finished’ he meant every sin, including all of yours, was paid for in full. So there’s nothing you can admit to him that he can’t forgive.
And if any of those are the kind of thing on your mind, you’d find the Christianity Explored course a real help.
Bu it may be that you’re saying, ‘I know this is true; I want to respond, but I how do I?’ Well, the answer is: you simply pray to the Jesus we’ve been reading about in John’s Gospel – the Jesus who died on that cross, who three days later rose from the dead, and who is now back in heaven, from where he can read your thoughts and hear your prayers. And if you want to respond to him now, to receive his forgiveness and to receive him as your King from now on, you could use this prayer to do so:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I confess I have not lived for you as my rightful King, and I deserve your judgement.
And yet you died and rose again, that I might be forgiven.
So now I come to you.
Please forgive me all that is past.
And by your Spirit, come into my life to help me live for you from now on. Amen
Now you may already have prayed like that and become a Christian. Or you may be much further back – and not ready to pray anything like that. But if you want to respond to Jesus the Son of God now, you could say that prayer in your head or out loud. And if you have prayed that prayer and meant it, rest assured that the risen Lord Jesus has heard and answered it. The thing that would most help you now would be to tell someone you’ve done that, so they can help you get going as a Christian. Equally, if you’d like us to contact you with details of the next Christianity Explored group that might suit you, please do just let us know.