I wonder how you’d describe your relationship with God. I guess, for many, it’s a bit like our relationship with the Queen. I mean, I’ve sung the school song to her when she came to visit; and she sent my granny a telegram for her 100th birthday. But to be honest, she’s just a distant figure with whom I have no personal relationship.
And at one time I’d have said the same about God. I come from a non-Christian home. Dad would call himself an atheist; Mum would say she’s agnostic. And they only took me to church the two times they had to – once for a funeral; and once for a wedding (at which, embarrassingly, I was a page boy, and from which I’d like to destroy all photographic evidence.) And yet without anyone encouraging me to believe in him, deep down I knew God was there – as we all do. I just didn’t have a clue how I could relate to him – until I was invited to something like this, and heard what God did that first Easter to bring us into personal relationship with him.
And that’s what I want to talk about – from those readings we had earlier (John 19.16b-37 and John 20.1-18). So let me re-read from John’s Gospel chapter 19 and v16:
So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him… (19.16-18)
And that’s how the Roman Empire did the death-penalty. So that’s what happened that first Good Friday. And if you understand why Jesus died, you’ll have the answers to three of the most important questions there are:
Firstly, WHAT’S GONE WRONG BETWEEN US AND GOD?
I have an older brother called Niall. He’s a senior Vodafone executive, so if you’re with them, thanks for subsidising my Christmas and birthday presents. He’s a very generous brother, but doesn’t share my faith in Jesus. And I said to him one time, ‘So do you believe there is a God?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I definitely believe he’s there.’ And I said, ‘So if it could be true that he’s made himself knowable through Jesus, wouldn’t that be worth looking into?’ And he said, ‘To be honest, I don’t want to.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘I just feel a real antipathy towards God.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I guess because I just don’t want him interfering in my life.’
And Niall doesn’t normally use words like ‘antipathy’ (except maybe when playing Scrabble). But it was very well chosen. Because if we’re honest, deep down that’s the natural attitude of every single one of us to God, isn’t it? We’re ‘anti’: we don’t want him interfering in our lives, telling us what’s right and wrong and what has to change.
And at one level, that’s why Jesus died on the cross. Because he came into the world claiming to be God’s Son and the rightful ruler of our lives. And the Jewish leaders of the day didn’t accept that because they didn’t want him to be that in their lives. And by political manoeuvring with the Roman governor, Pilate, they got Jesus crucified in order to get rid of him (or so they thought). So John chapter 19, v19 says:
Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews [ie, the people responsible for getting Jesus crucified] said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’, but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’”. Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (vv19-22)
So when they crucified someone, they would fix a sign to the cross to say what the charge against them was. And to spite the people who got Jesus crucified, Pilate wrote exactly what Jesus had claimed – namely, that he’s our rightful King. Because Jesus had basically said, ‘I’ve come from God my Father to say you’re in the wrong to be living without reference to him – and to call you to start life over again with God in his rightful place as king.’ And the irony of that sign on the cross is that that’s exactly why Jesus was crucified: because people heard his claim to be their rightful king – and were ‘anti’.
So when you look at the cross of Jesus, the first thing you see is your own, natural attitude to God mirrored there – ‘I don’t want you to be my king.’ And I wonder if that’s where you are in your relationship with God right now. The funny thing is: I never realised that was where I was until friends started inviting me to things like this Easter event. Because when they did, I consistently said, ‘No.’ We were at boarding school, and on Sunday morning there was compulsory chapel so I couldn’t say ‘No’ to that. But straight after chapel was this voluntary Christian Union meeting. And one friend in particular would find me during the week and invite me to come. And I’d say, ‘I’ll think about it’ – which bought me time to find an excuse. But finding one was pretty hard work because absolutely nothing happened between Sunday chapel and Sunday lunch, so for integrity’s sake I’d have to try to organise a prior engagement like a game of squash, or someone taking me out for coffee. But one week, this friend did the dirty by inviting me to come just as we were walking out of Sunday chapel. And the only reason I said ‘Yes’ is that I couldn’t think of an excuse quick enough. And I actually came to faith through that very first meeting I went to. But looking back, the way I was saying ‘No’ to that friend showed that I was really saying ‘No’ to God – because deep down I resented the idea of him being king.
And maybe that’s the sticking point for you. Maybe you resent the idea of anyone else – let alone God – telling you how to live. Maybe you’re from a Christian home, still working out what you believe – and you resent the thought that perhaps others are having more fun than you – or at least an easier time. Or maybe it’s not so much God’s moral rule you resent as the way he’s ruled over your circumstances. Maybe it’s something that has happened to you, or hasn’t happened to you, which leaves you thinking, ‘I don’t want a God like that.’
Deep down, by nature, there’s a resentment of God in all of us. But the Bible says: if we keep saying ‘No’ to him being king, right up to the end of our lives, then with no pleasure at all he’ll have to say to say ‘No’ to us – ‘No, I can’t have you in my kingdom, in my heaven. You’ll stay outside forever.’ That’s the judgement he’ll pass – because of the offense of what we’re saying to him; and because you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King.
So that’s the first question: what’s gone wrong between us and God? So onto the next question that the cross of Jesus answers:
Second, WHAT HAS GOD DONE TO PUT IT RIGHT?
And this is where Christianity is unique. People often say, ‘All religions are basically the same’, don’t they? But that’s a bit like saying, ‘Instant coffee and real coffee are the same’ – it just shows you really don’t know the first thing about coffee. And when it comes to the other religions, none of them even asks the question, ‘What’s ?God done to put us right with him?’ They ask, ‘What do we have to do?’ They’re ‘DIY’ – ‘Do It Yourself’ – religions.
So, for example, I was doing a dinner event with a talk like this, and after I’d spoken I sat down and turned to the Muslim woman next to me. 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, we believe he’ll judge us on whether or not our good deeds outweigh our bad.’ So I said, ‘And how do you think that’s looking right now?’ And she very honestly said, ‘Not good.’ So I said, ‘And do you think that’ll change before you die?’ And she very honestly said, ‘No.’ And as I talked more with her, it turned out (that like many I’ve spoken to in other religions) she was living in quiet despair about how to make herself acceptable to God. And she was deeply afraid of him.
And, along with resentment, that’s our other most natural feeling towards God, isn’t it? Fear. And maybe right now you’re fearful that you’ve done something so bad that there’s no way back into relationship with God for you. Or maybe you’re fearful you’ve just left it too late. An elderly relative of mine once said to me, ‘I wish I had your faith, but I’ve left it too late.’ Which is the pension plan idea of God – the idea that you’ve got to pay in enough daily, weekly monthly instalments of goodness throughout your whole life for God to accept you in the end.
But that’s not the way it is. Because the truth is: that on that first Good Friday, God did everything necessary to make us acceptable to him again. So what’s unique about Christianity is that it doesn’t say, ‘Do it yourself’ but ‘Done’. It says: God has done everything necessary to bring us back into relationship with him. So look on to John chapter 19, v28:
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture [ie, the Old Testament part of the Bible, which pointed forward to Jesus]), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished”, and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (19.28-30)
Now you can understand a dying man saying, ‘I am finished.’ But what Jesus said was, ‘It is finished’. And the word he originally used was the one they used for saying, ‘Job done’, like when you’ve finished an essay or a bit of DIY. It was the word they used to write across bills or debts when you’d settled the account – ‘Paid in full’. And as Jesus died, that’s the word he chose to use to explain what he was doing – as if to say, ‘In dying, I’m finishing the job I came to do – which was to pay for the forgiveness you need in order to come back into relationship with God my Father.’
And you won’t make sense of the cross unless you understand two things. One is that nothing we do can make up for what we’ve done wrong. DIY religion says it can – but it can’t. I mean, just imagine we got talking afterwards. And first of all you spill your coffee on my jacket and then say, ‘Well, you did need a new one – that’s a bit of a rag, isn’t it?’ And then a bit later I tell you I originally come from Basingstoke and you say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry about that – I guess someone has to.’ And you just offend and offend and offend me. Well, if, later on, you did want to put things right you could try to be nice to me. But the only thing that puts relationships right is the offended party being willing to forgive. That’s the first thing you’ve got to understand.
The other thing you’ve got to understand is that God could only forgive in a way that upholds justice. So I’ve often been asked, ‘But why did he need some kind of payment or sacrifice – why can’t he just forgive like us?’ And the answer is: because he’s not like us. He’s God. Which means he’s ultimately responsible for upholding justice in this universe. So he had to find a way of forgiving us that wouldn’t look as if he was just sweeping our wrongdoing under the carpet and saying it didn’t really matter. And that way was the cross.
So imagine with me that history has just ended and it’s the day of judgement. And what the Christian message promises is this. It promises that if I turn to Jesus and accept him as king, he’ll not only forgive my entire past and accept me just as I am; he’ll also keep forgiving me whenever I need it and accept me for the rest of my life. So there we are at the day of judgement. And Jesus is just welcoming me in when someone says to God, ‘You can’t do that: you’ve got to do justice on everything Ian Garrett did wrong.’ And because of the cross, God will be able to say, ‘I have done justice on everything Ian Garrett did wrong – when my Son died in his place.’
So imagine this white file in my hand stands for the record of Jesus’ life – the only perfect life ever lived, that never deserved judgement. And now imagine that this black file stands for the record of your or my wrongdoing – which does deserve the judgement of being left outside. And the Bible says that on the cross, Jesus took our place and paid the penalty for the black file of every one of us – so that we could be forgiven and yet justice still be done. So, coming back to our scene on the day of judgement. There’s this objector saying I can’t be accepted. So God says to a nearby angel, ‘Go and get Ian Garrett’s record.’ And the angel comes back with this white file with my name on it. And God says, ‘Did you find anything else?’ And the angel says, ‘There was a black file next to it but it only had one sheet of paper inside.’ And God says, ‘What did it say?’ And the angel says, ‘Paid in full.’
When Jesus said, ‘It is finished’, he meant that his death has done everything necessary to see you forgiven for everything forever. So whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, however long you’ve been keeping God at arm’s length, he could forgive you and have you back in relationship with him right now. Or I should say, he would love to do that – because that’s why he gave his Son to die for you and why his Son so willingly came. It was out of love for us. And I wonder if you’re prepared to believe that?
Which all leaves us with one last question about the cross of Jesus:
Third, HOW DO WE NEED TO RESPOND?
My wife, Tess, and I have just had a wedding anniversary. It was six years back that I was standing down there and was asked, ‘Ian, will you have Tess to be your wife?’ And I said, ‘I will.’ At which point I’d done everything necessary for Tess to be married to me. But that didn’t automatically mean she was. The question still had to be answered, ‘Tess, will you have Ian to be your husband?’
And in giving his Son to die for us, God has said his ‘I will’ to us – ‘I will forgive you and have you back, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done.’ But that’s not automatic. The question still has to be answered, ‘Will you turn to Jesus and ask his forgiveness and accept him as your King?’ And I say, ‘Turn to Jesus’, because although he died he’s not dead. He’s alive in heaven and calling on you to respond to what he’s done for you on the cross. And you can see that if you look briefly at that second reading we had from John chapter 20.1-18.
Jesus’ dead body was put in a tomb on Good Friday. The Saturday was their rest day. So it was on Easter Sunday morning that his followers came to give the body its final burial treatment – only to find the tomb open and no body – just the grave clothes looking as if the body had dematerialised and passed through them (that’s John 20.1-10). And then Jesus began appearing to them, bodily resurrected from the dead (John 20.11 onwards). So look at John 20, v16, where he appears to a follower called Mary.
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me [presumably she’s grabbed hold of him], for I have not yet ascended to the Father [ie, I’ve not yet returned permanently to heaven, so this isn’t the last resurrected appearance I’ll make]; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (20.16-17)
And that’s where Jesus is now – ascended back to heaven. And he wants you to respond to what he’s done for you on the cross so that you come to know his Father as your Father – so that instead of resenting and fearing God, you come to know him as the perfect Father who can be trusted with the rest of your life.
Let me end like this. Imagine I could draw a line of where everyone here stands in relationship with God. At one end would be those who can say, ‘I know I’m forgiven, I know God as a Father, I’m trying to live for him in response, and I know I’ll ultimately be with him in heaven.’ And there’s nothing better in life than to be able to say that. Then at the other end of the line would be those who can’t yet say any of those things – those for whom, right now, God is that distant, Queen-like figure with whom you really have no personal relationship at all. And if that’s you, can I say: thanks for coming – and do please keep coming and looking into the Christian message. Because God isn’t playing hard to find: he’s made himself known through Jesus and he wants you to know him as personally as others here do.
But maybe tonight you’re in the middle. You know it’s true. But you’ve not yet responded to what Jesus has done for you on the cross. So I want to end with a prayer which you could use if you want to. Let me read it through, before I lead us in prayer, so that you can think whether it would be appropriate for you:
Thank you for your love in sending your Son to die for me.
Please forgive me and accept me as your child.
And please help me live for you as my King from now on.
You may be further back than that, or further on. But if you want to pray that prayer, you could echo it to God in your mind as I lead us now. Let’s pray.
Thank you for your love in sending your Son to die for me.
Please forgive me and accept me as your child.
And please help me live for you as my King from now on.
I prayed a prayer like that on 27 September 1981 – at the end of that Christian Union meeting I was so keen not to go to. And from my experience I can say: if you have just prayed that prayer and meant it, you can trust that God has heard and answered it – and that will become real and clear in your experience, too. And if you have just done that, can I encourage you, lastly, to tell another Christian? Because that will help you start being public about your faith. And they can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here.