Easter Music 2005

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Well, if you’re a newcomer with us tonight and you came wondering what to expect, I can sympathise, because I’ve just been off sick for two months, so I feel a bit of a newcomer again, myself. And I just want to say thank you to the regulars for all your expressions of care and concern; and also to say: please don’t feel that the food parcels necessarily have to stop now that I’m up again…

Last time I spoke here was Christmas Eve, and we were celebrating Jesus’ birth. Now here we are near Easter, celebrating his death. Not mourning it; not even just remembering it. But celebrating it. Which, on the face of it, seems a strange thing to do (when did you last celebrate someone’s death?). So why does Jesus’ death matter so much to Christians?

When you think about it, we remember most deaths because of what the person did in life. Eg, back in January, we had the 40th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill. But what we celebrated was what he did for us in life: his life was the great benefit to us; his death was a loss.

But some deaths we remember because of what the person did in death. I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard of Private John Allan of the Scots Guards. If not, you need to. Because Private John Allan died for you. His is the first name carved on the war memorial just down there; and he died for us. And when, every November, we lay a wreath under his name, we’re celebrating not what he did for us in life, but what he did for us in death. His death was his great benefit to us.

And my aim tonight is to try to explain why the death of Jesus is like that – why it was for our benefit, and what we need to do, to receive the benefits for ourselves.

So would you help me by turning to that first Bible reading we had earlier. It’s from Luke’s Gospel – one of the four accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ life, death and rising again from the dead. Luke wasn’t himself an eye-witness of these events, but at the beginning of his Gospel (see Luke 1.1-4) he tells us that he interviewed the eye-witnesses and put together their evidence. And what you have in your hands is Luke’s account of Jesus’ death on that first Good Friday of that first Easter (Luke 23.32f). Let me read from the start of it, v32:

32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him [ie, nailed him to a wooden cross to die], along with the criminals— one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. (vv32-34)

My two questions tonight are: ‘Why did Jesus die on the cross?’, and
‘What do we need to do to benefit from it?’ So,


Firstly, WHY DID JESUS DIE ON THE CROSS?

Well, just like a coin has two sides, so does the answer to that question. One side of the answer is this: Jesus died on the cross because people wanted to get rid of him. Read on to v35:

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” (v35)

The ‘rulers’ mentioned there were the Jewish leaders responsible for getting Jesus put to death. And the reason they wanted to get rid of him was his claim to be ‘the Christ of God’. That’s what Jesus claimed to be, and now, as he hangs dying on the cross, they’re mocking him because they think they’ve finally disproved it.

So what does ‘the Christ of God’ mean? Well, ‘Christ’ is the same word as ‘Messiah’ – just in a different language. And a Messiah is a King-figure who comes to rescue a dire situation. Eg, when I first moved up to Newcastle, Kevin Keegan was manager of Newcastle United. And when he resigned, the headline in The Journal was, ‘Messiah leaves Tyneside: Keegan’s reign is over.’ And whoever wrote that headline understood exactly what a Messiah is. A Messiah is a King-figure who comes to rescue a dire situation – in that case, Newcastle United dropping like a stone towards the bottom of the old second division.

And the part of the Bible written before Jesus promised that God would send his Messiah to rescue the dire situation of the world.

And that’s where the Christian message throws out its first question at you: do you think the world needs rescuing? Ie, do you think there’s anything wrong with the world? I suspect most peoples’ answer to that is, ‘Yes.’ In which case, the next question is: what do you think is wrong with the world?

There was a long correspondence of letters to The Times newspaper on exactly that question. Day by day people wrote in blaming this, that and the other, and they were all published under the headline, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ And eventually the Christian writer G.K. Chesterton wrote in, with the shortest letter of them all. It read, ‘Dear Sir, I am. Yours sincerely, G.K.Chesterton.’

And that’s the Bible’s diagnosis. If you ask God, ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ his answer is: I am, you are. And I wonder whether you’re prepared to accept that? To accept that the problem with this world is me and you. Jesus once put it like this. He said:

21 “…from within, out of [peoples’] hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a [person] 'unclean'.” (Mark 7.21-23)

Ie, the problem doesn’t lie in anything ‘out there’, but in me: ‘Dear Sir, I am.’ And the Bible says: the root of it is our refusal to recognise the God who made us as the rightful King of our lives. If we each recognised God as King and lived as he wants us to, human life would look like the solar system: we’d all revolve around a single centre – God - in perfect harmony. Life would work. But by nature, we don’t do that; we each think of ourselves as the centre of the universe, and human life looks more like an asteroid belt – full of collisions and damage as we cross one another’s path in all our pride and self-importance, and our unwillingness to love and put ourselves second.

And Jesus said he was God’s Messiah – God’s Son, sent into the world to rescue that dire situation. He pictured our lives as miniature kingdoms made up of all the different areas – ambition, work, relationships, sex, money, possessions, rest and play. And Jesus came into this world on his Father’s behalf to say, ‘Give me back the throne.’

So it’s no wonder that people then – like us now – instinctively wanted to get rid of him. Because you and I don’t want to admit that we’re what’s wrong with this world; don’t want to admit that our lives are not our own; don’t want to lose the final say over our lives and face all the change that involves (even though any change that Christ insists on in our lives is only ever for the best).

And so they got him crucified. And as you look at this scene of Jesus on the cross, it’s like a mirror. You’re really seeing your own natural attitude to God that says, ‘Get rid of him. I want to remain king.’ The Bible says that is what is wrong with you and me. And I wonder whether you’re prepared to accept that?

Why did Jesus die on the cross? Because people wanted to get rid of him. But like I said, like a coin, the answer has two sides. And the other side is this: Jesus died on the cross of his own free will, for your sake and mine. Look down again to Luke 23 and v35:

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (vv35-39)

These people were all thinking, ‘If this man was God’s Son sent into the world as the Messiah, then surely God would never have let him end up dying on a cross.’ But the truth is: God the Father planned it, and God the Son willingly went through with it.

Now Luke’s Gospel is the only one of the four that has this conversation between Jesus and the second criminal on the cross. And when Luke got it from one of his eye-witnesses, he must have dashed home to his wife and said, ‘This is definitely going in, because I can’t think of any better way of showing people in a few simple words why Jesus died and what benefit it is to us.’ So look down to v39 of our reading:

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don't you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (vv39-43)

This second criminal was the only person that day who saw what was really going on. As he looked over to the man on the middle cross, somehow he recognised Jesus for who he really was – God’s Messiah. Somehow he recognised that Jesus’ death was not like any other human death and that Jesus was about to pass through death into his kingdom, into heaven. And in v41, he somehow sees to the heart of what’s going on. He says:

41 “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Imagine a black file that stands for the entire life-record of this second criminal – every thought, word and action of a life lived without reference to God; every way in which his life had been an offence to God; every reason why, on the day of judgement, God should shut him out of the kingdom of heaven. Imagine that file being the list of charges written above him.

And now imagine a white file that stands for the entire life-record of Jesus, who as God’s-Son-become-human lived the only perfect human life the world will ever see.

What Luke wants us to see is that on that first Good Friday, files were swapped: the man on the middle cross was taking responsibility for black files that were not his own; taking responsibility for sins he’d never committed, so that people like the criminal beside him – and people like you and me – could be forgiven. If at that moment, Jesus was not paying the price for his own sins, then as the sinless Son of God, he can only have been paying the price for ours.

Which is why Jesus was able to make that final promise. Look down one last time at v42:

42 Then [this second criminal] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [Ie, when we meet again in your kingdom, please show me mercy. V43:]
43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (vv42-43)

So he asked Jesus to forgive him for everything. And Jesus did.

So just imagine the scene later that day. This second criminal dies and the next thing he’s conscious of is being in the presence of Jesus again – not, now, the pathetic-looking man on the middle crossbody on the cross, but Jesus in all his glory. And an angel is sent to get this criminal’s file – and the angel’s thinking as he goes, ‘I remember this one – one of the worst I’ve ever read.’ But he comes back a slightly perplexed looking angel, carrying a white file. And Jesus says, ‘Is that his file?’ And the angel says, ‘Well, it was under his name. But surely this is yours.’ And Jesus says, ‘It is mine; but it covers him now, because he’s with me.’ And the angel says, ‘But what about his original file?’ And Jesus says, ‘I dealt with that. And I never want to hear it mentioned again.’

Why did Jesus die on the cross? The other side of the answer is: he went of his own free will to pay the price of us being forgiven back into the relationship with God for which he made us.

I said earlier that I had two questions tonight: Why did Jesus die on the cross, but then also,


Second, WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO TO BENEFIT FROM IT?

You probably never even realised that Private John Allan of the Scots Guards died for you. And in one sense, that hasn’t mattered. You’ve still benefited from his sacrifice – from that one death that in some small way helped to turn the course of a war. You’ve benefited automatically – without even asking for it, without even knowing about it.

But the death of Jesus is not like that. It doesn’t benefit anyone automatically. If we want the forgiveness and the fresh start in relationship with God that it paid for, we need to respond. So I want to finish by explaining what response God is looking for. So then each one of us can work out whether or not we’ve really made that response yet - and whether we want to.

So, let me ‘build the bridge’ from these events of 2000 years ago to Sunday 13 March 2005 - and us… Jesus died about 3pm in the afternoon that first Good Friday. And, as we heard in our two readings (see Luke 23.32-24.8), his body was put in a tomb that evening. Saturday was rest day, so it wasn’t until first thing on Sunday that his followers went to finish off the burial - only to discover the tomb was open, the body was gone and a couple of angels telling them he’d risen from the dead (as he’d said he would). And if you read to the end of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24.13-53), you get eyewitness accounts of people who saw Jesus alive from the dead - before he returned permanently to heaven.

The implication is very simple. This Jesus we’ve been reading about is still alive. And he will be alive for all eternity. And his rising from the dead is the ultimate proof that he really is God’s Son and your and my rightful King. And you and I will each meet him – whether we believe in him or not; whether we want to or not.

And if we’ve not yet responded to his claim on our lives, then we’re on a collision course with him. Because although he’s given us the freedom to live our lives with our without him, it’s a time-limited freedom. And at the end of this life, we will each meet Jesus; we will each be part of that scene at the threshold of heaven that we imagined a moment ago for that second criminal. And if throughout this life we’ve continued to say ‘No’ to Jesus - ‘I do not recognise you as King’ – then, with no pleasure whatsoever, he will have to say, ‘Then I will not have you in my kingdom.’ Because you can’t be part of a kingdom and enjoy the benefits of that kingdom if you won’t recognise the King. That’s citizenship lesson no.1, whatever kingdom you’re talking about.

This is how the Christian writer C.S. Lewis described that way of responding – saying ‘No’ to Christ. He wrote:

I … believe that [those who go to hell] are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside… They [experience] forever the horrible freedom they have demanded and are therefore self-enslaved: just as [those who’ve turned to Christ and been forgiven], forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.

Now I say this with no pleasure, but it’s what Jesus himself said, so I’m bound to say it. And C.S. Lewis said it with no pleasure, either - and he knew people would object, so this is what he wrote next:

In the long run, the answer to all those who object to the [reality] of [people going to] hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start…? But he has done so, on [the cross]. To forgive them? [But what if] they will not be forgiven? To leave them alone?... Alas,… that is what he does. (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, ch 8 ‘Hell’)

We may choose to let it come to that. But that is not what God wants it to come to. And if you take away nothing else from tonight, please take away this: that the fact God gave his Son to die for you says loud and clear that he loves you – whatever you’ve done in life, and whatever you’re going through right now in life - and that with all his heart he wants you forgiven and back in relationship with him, for this life and the next.

And the response he’s looking for from us is exactly the same as the response of that second criminal on the cross: on the one hand, God is calling you to recognise Jesus as your King. To say to Christ, ‘You have every right to the throne of my life, and I should never have taken your place. I surrender to you and from now on, I will do what you want me to do, I will be what you want me to be; I will go where you want me to go.’ But at the same time, we need to admit that we haven’t lived like that in the past, and that this side of heaven, we won’t manage it anywhere near perfectly in the future. So on the other hand, God is calling you to ask Jesus for forgiveness. To say to him, ‘I believe you died for me, to wipe out my ‘file’. Please forgive my entire past. And please commit yourself to forgive me in the future, whenever I fail you.’

That’s the response God is looking for.

And if you imagine a line, at one end of the line there will be people here saying, ‘I’m not ready to make that response.’ Maybe this is the first serious thought you’ve given the Christian message. Maybe you’re thinking, ‘I’d need to know a lot more to work out whether I think it’s all true,’ or, ‘I’d need to know a lot more about what being a Christian involves.’ Well, if that’s you, thank you for taking the time to come tonight; you’re always welcome to come along to find out more; and one of the best things I can suggest is the course we run called Christianity Explored (details available from the Welcome Desk at the back of the church building).

At the other end of the line will be the people here who can say, ‘I’ve made that response already. I do go out day by day to live for Jesus, and I do depend day by day on his forgiveness for all the ways I fail to. And I celebrate his death – I live on it!’

But then the middle of the line is where I’d put people who are saying, ‘I know this is all true; and I also know I haven’t responded yet; but I would like to.’ And for those people especially, I’m going to end with a prayer which, if you want to, you could pray as a way of making that response. Here is the prayer, so that you can decide whether you’d want to pray it yourself:

Lord Jesus Christ,
I admit that I have lived my life as though I and not you were King.
And yet you died for me, so this and all my future sin can be forgiven.
I now ask you to forgive me, and by your Spirit to come into my life and to help me live for you as King from now on.
Amen

You maybe somewhere else on that line. But if you’re in the middle and you want to respond to Christ tonight, you could use that prayer and make it your own:

Lord Jesus Christ,
I admit that I have lived my life as though I and not you were King.
And yet you died for me, so this and all my future sin can be forgiven.
I now ask you to forgive me, and by your Spirit to come into my life and to help me live for you as King from now on.
Amen

If you’ve said that prayer and meant it, rest assured that the Lord Jesus has heard it and answered. He does forgive everyone who asks and means it; and he does come into our lives, spiritually, to help us and change us. That’s my experience, and the experience of countless Christians. And if you have just responded to Christ, the best thing you can do now is: tell another Christian - and they can give you some help with how to go on from here in this relationship with Christ you’ve just begun.

If you’d like something with that prayer in it – so you can think more before responding – do please take a copy of the booklet Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk. And if you’d like to read one of the Gospels and start making your own mind up about whether this is all true, there are also some free copies on the Welcome Desk that look like this. Please be our guest.

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