Imagine for a moment that you were an extra-terrestrial visitor here tonight – perhaps a Martian who’s been sent to find out what Earthlings believe. So here you are in this somewhat alien environment of church. I realise you may feel that way tonight as a non-Martian, and if you’re not a regular, but here through an invitation, can I say thanks for coming.
But back to being an imaginary Martian. On the strength of this service alone, what would you put in your report on Christians? It might run something like this: ‘They believe in singing. They don’t believe in cushions. Their beliefs centre on a man called Jesus. They believe he wasn’t just an ordinary man, but God’s Son become human. They talk a lot about his death – as if that was more important than his life. And most incredibly of all, they believe he came back from the dead and is alive and that you can relate to him personally today.’
If that’s what you’d put in your report, you’d be a pretty perceptive Martian. Because that’s exactly what the words of the songs and Bible readings have tried to get across. And my job now is to do some explaining - of why we believe these things, and why we believe everyone needs to hear them and respond for themselves.
So I wonder if you’d turn back with me to that Bible reading we had earlier from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 15.25-39). This was written within 35 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection that first Easter. And what the Easter story shows us is:
Firstly, THAT WE WANT TO GET RID OF JESUS
And by the way, when I say ‘Easter story’ I’m not implying it’s fiction. I mean true story – story that really happened. So let me read out again Mark 15.25 onwards:
It was the third hour when they crucified [Jesus] The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!"
In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. (Mark 15.25-32)
Let me explain what led up to this point by quoting C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity:
“Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says he has always existed. He says he is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say he was part of God or one with God; there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since he was a Jew, could not mean that… God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who made it and is infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.”
And that’s right. If you read through Mark’s Gospel to this point, you find that Jesus did claim to be God’s Son. And if you imagine our lives to be mini-kingdoms, he claimed to be our rightful King. Which makes perfect sense. If he made us, he has owner’s rights over us – just like you do over anything you’ve made. And so he came into the world, on behalf of his Father, to say, ‘Your lives are not your own to live as you please. You have no right to ignore the person who made you. And I’ve come to call you back into relationship with him.’
That was the message that got him crucified. Because it’s not what we want to hear. I didn’t want to hear it before I came to Christ, which is why I kept saying ‘No’ to the poor Christian friend who kept inviting me to things like this. And if you’ve not yet come to Christ, you won’t want to hear it, either. You’ll be thinking, ‘I know God is there, but I don’t want that to be true. Because I don’t want to have to re-start my life with him in his rightful place with all the changes that would mean.’
And so we want to get rid of Jesus. Eg, we say ‘No’ to coming to things like this - as I did for a long time. Or, having been, we say it’s probably not true and doesn’t need looking into. Or that we’ll think about it later (making a mental note not to). Or whatever. Anything to get rid of Jesus.
But the Easter story shows us,
Second, THAT WE CAN’T GET RID OF JESUS
Our first Bible reading (Mark 15.25-39) ends with Jesus’ death. So now would you turn to that second reading we had from John’s Gospel (John 19.41-20.18). That first Good Friday, Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in burial cloths and put in a tomb. So let me read from John 20.1:
Early on the first day of the week [that is the Sunday after Good Friday, because they’d had their rest-day in between], while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene [one of Jesus’ followers] went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved [ie, two of the 12 apostles who’d been with Jesus for three years], and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" (John 20.1-2)
So, notice in passing that they’re not pre-scientific, gullible idiots. They don’t leap to the conclusion that he’s risen from the dead - any more than we would. They assume the natural explanation: that someone’s moved the body.
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. (John 20.3-7)
So imagine you took a balloon the size and shape of a man, wrapped it in Jewish burial strips and head cloth, laid it on a tomb slab and then popped the balloon with a pin so that the cloths just collapse where they are - as if a body’s just passed through them. That’s what they saw.
Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead [ie, they weren’t expecting a resurrection like this].) (John 20.8-9)
But by itself, an empty tomb proves only that a body is missing. It’s what happens next that proves he’d risen from the dead. Look at v14:
At this, [Mary], [who’s outside the empty tomb] turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
"Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."
Jesus said to her, "Mary."
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).
Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' "
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20.14-18)
So, Jesus claimed to be God’s Son. The crucifixion was man’s way of saying, ‘We deny that claim.’ And the resurrection was God’s way of saying, ‘I uphold that claim. He really is my Son.’ Now you may need time to look into the evidence for all that. But if, as I’m persuaded, Jesus rose from the dead and is back in heaven with his Father like he said, then there are two huge implications. One is that death is not the end. There is life beyond this life. The other is that we will meet Jesus beyond this life as our Judge. And if in this life we’ve said to him, ‘Keep out; I don’t want you as King’, then with no pleasure at all he will say to us, ‘Keep out.’ Because you can’t be part of the kingdom of heaven if you won’t accept the King.
Now it’s easy to think, ‘I just don’t believe that.’ But we can’t change reality by believing something else. Eg, you can jump off the Tyne Bridge saying to yourself that you don’t believe in gravity, and that you’ll just float gently over to the Sage for the evening concert. But you won’t. You’ll drop like a stone. Because you can’t escape gravity - whatever you believe about it. And in the same way, you can’t escape Jesus. Whatever you believe about him, he rose from the dead, he’s there and you will meet him one day as Judge. And that’s the second thing the Easter story shows: we can’t get rid of Jesus. We can reject him, but we can’t escape him.
So, the Easter story shows: that we want to get rid of Jesus, that we can’t get rid of Jesus. But most important of all, it shows us,
Thirdly, THAT WE CAN BE FORGIVEN BY JESUS
And this is the heart of the Christian message.
I remember talking to a friend who’s not a Christian, and he said very honestly, ‘I know God is there. I just don’t want him interfering with my life.’ So I said, ‘But can’t you see how offensive that is to God? And what trouble you’d be in if you met him having lived your whole life like that?’ And he said, ‘I suppose you’re going to say I need to change and start making up for that.’ And I said, ‘No. There’s absolutely nothing we can do to ‘make up’ for offending him.’ And I said, ‘Actually if you do try to change, you’ll only find you can’t, and that you do a whole lot more wrong to add to your offences - even when you’re trying not to.’ There was a long pause and then he said, ‘Then aren’t we all doomed?’ And I said, ‘Without forgiveness, yes.’
So would you turn back one last time to Mark 15 and v33 to see how it is we can be forgiven by Jesus. It’s Good Friday and Jesus is on the cross:
At the sixth hour [ie, midday] darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15.33-34)
So two things tell us what was happening as Jesus died. There was a supernatural darkness - which was a sign of God’s judgement falling on Jesus. And there was this cry from Jesus himself, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Up to that moment, he’d lived the only perfect human life the world has ever seen - God’s Son in perfect relationship with his Father. So why did the one person who’s never deserved judgement end up under judgement?
Well, Jesus’ own answer was this. He once said, ‘I have come to give my life as a ransom for many’ [ie, to die, to pay for you to be forgiven].’ (See Mark 10.45)
Now people often ask, ‘But why can’t God just forgive?’ After all, when we forgive one another, we don’t demand some kind of ‘payment’ or ‘sacrifice’. And the answer is: when we forgive, the whole justice of the universe isn’t at stake. Whereas when God forgives, it is. You see, the Christian message calls us to trust that every sin of ours – every offence against God – can and will be forgiven if our faith is in Christ. So that when I meet Jesus beyond this life, I trust I’ll be accepted despite all that I’ve done wrong. But at that point, someone could object and say to the Lord Jesus, ‘How can you possibly forgive his sins? You’re the Judge of this universe! You’ve got to see that justice is done and responsibility taken.’ And Jesus will be able to say, ‘Justice was done on every one of these sins I’ve forgiven, because I took responsibility for them on the cross and died under my own judgment. I willingly took the treatment Ian Garrett deserves so that Ian Garrett might get the treatment he doesn’t deserve.’
There was actually one other thing that tells us what was happening as Jesus died, and it’s in verse 37 and 38. Let me read from v37:
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. [That happened on the cross just outside Jerusalem. But at that moment, something happened inside the city itself, v38:]
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15.37-38)
The temple building was basically a visual aid to teach us about our relationship to God. In the middle was a room which stood for God’s presence – it was ‘God’s space’, if you like. And outside it was ‘our space’. And between the two was this massive curtain, like a ‘Keep out’ sign. It was there to say, ‘You can’t have relationship with a God you’ve offended - not without forgiveness from his side.’
And at the moment Jesus died, God’s invisible hand ripped down that curtain as if to say, ‘Forgiveness is paid for. My Son has opened the door for you to relationship with me. Come in.’ And that’s the most important thing the Easter story shows us – that we can be forgiven by Jesus.
Now imagine you knock on my door, and I open it and say, ‘Come in.’ The fact that I’ve opened the door doesn’t automatically mean you’re in. And it’s the same with relating to God. Jesus has opened the door. But that doesn’t automatically mean you’re in. So I have to ask: where do you stand in relation to God and the Lord Jesus? Are you in relationship with them, or still standing outside?
Some people will be standing outside because you’re saying, ‘I’m not sure any of this is true – not sure Jesus really did claim to be God, or rise from the dead; not sure you can trust the Bible.’ If that’s you, can I say: then please will you look into this further? Eg, you could pick up a copy of Mark’s Gospel, and read it through asking yourself, ‘Does this have the ‘ring’ of truth?’ They’re on the Welcome Desk at the back. Or you could have a proper conversation about this with whoever invited you along – tell them exactly what you think, what your questions and sticking points are. Or a great way to take this further is to join one of our Christianity Explored groups – they meet once a week over 7 weeks to look in more detail at what I’ve had to put in a nutshell – so there’s one week on what Jesus really claimed, one week on whether he rose from the dead, and so on.
But some people will be standing outside relationship with God not because you doubt this is true, but because you don’t want it. Which is where we began – we don’t by nature want Jesus as King because of all the changes we know he’d call for. But the Easter story says: he is King. He rose from the dead, he is there and we will meet him beyond this life. So we can reject him but we can’t escape him. So as you weigh up the implications of having Jesus as King or not, you must ‘factor in’ life beyond this life. Our choice is not between living as we please then ceasing to exist, and living for Jesus then ceasing to exist. Ceasing to exist when we die is not an option for any of us. Our choice is between living as we please - both in this life and then in hell. Or living for Jesus - both in this life and then in heaven. Because Jesus is King, and we cannot escape the implications of that.
But it also needs saying that Jesus is the best King. I know we distrust that. I know we think we can make a better job of running our lives than he can. But that distrust is wrong for two reasons. One is that he made us and therefore has far more wisdom on life than we do. The other is that he loved us enough to die for us, which strongly suggests he has our best interests at heart, doesn’t it?
But then some people will be standing outside relationship with God who both know it’s true and want to come inside. But like a friend of mine who reached that point, you may be saying, ‘But… I’m not good enough, and I couldn’t change.’ If you’re saying either or both of those things, then what I said to that friend is what I’d say to you.
On the one hand, none of us is good enough; that’s why Jesus had to die for us. Because the ‘way in’ isn’t being good enough; it’s being forgiven for never being good enough. I know there will be things on consciences here tonight that make you believe that God’s invitation to come back doesn’t apply to you. It may be one particular thing you’ve done. It may be the awareness that you’ve knowingly turned your back on God for years. But there’s no sin that the cross cannot deal with; there’s nothing you can admit that Jesus will not forgive.
And on the other hand, none of us can change ourselves. And the Lord Jesus doesn’t expect us to. Because he doesn’t just promise to forgive us our sins (our past sins, and our future sins whenever we commit them - which we will). He also promises to come into our lives by his Spirit and give us the will-power to change that we never had before. It would be a whole new talk to explain that, but that’s been my experience and the experience of countless other Christians. And if you want to read more on what becoming a Christian involves, please do pick up a copy of this booklet, Why Jesus? – which is also on the Welcome Desk.
So can I finish by asking you a question? What are you going to do with Jesus this Easter? Because basically you can either reject him in some way – eg, by deciding without looking any further that it’s not true. Or you can respond positively to him in some way. For some that will mean committing yourself to taking this further – reading Mark’s Gospel and/or Why Jesus?, talking to friends, joining Christianity Explored. But there may be some here who want to come to Christ now. You know he’s calling you to accept him as King, to be forgiven and to have him come into your life by his Spirit, and you want to respond. Well, if that’s you, let me simply explain how you could do that. I wonder if we’d all turn to the back page of the service sheet. At the top there you’ll see a prayer. And it’s the kind of prayer you could use to come to Christ. It may not be appropriate for you, but let me read it out so you can decide whether it might be:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I confess I have not lived for you as my rightful God and King.
I have rejected you and 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 this day on. Amen
Now you may already have prayed like that and become a Christian. Or you may be much further back than that. But if you want to come to Christ now, you could echo that prayer in your head as I pray it out loud right now.
If you’ve 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. And finally, please help yourself to Mark’s Gospels, Why Jesus?, and anything else you’d find useful.