The Meaning Of Life

This Thursday my Irish grandmother will be 101 years old. She was interviewed last year by the southern Irish papers and one reporter asked what she thought was the secret of long life. Her reply: 'Having no money, working hard and drinking a terrible lot of tea. A terrible lot of tea,' she said as if it was a dreadfully wrong habit. She was also asked whether she disliked the modern age with all its gadgets like videos and TV. 'Not at all,' she said. 'How else could you watch all the football?' She'll be loving the World Cup. Well, that's the secret of long life. But what's the meaning of life? That's the question on the invitation card for this service. (And if you're here through an invitation can I say thanks for making the time to hear something about Jesus and why he matters in life.) Life. I looked it up in the dictionary: 'Life 1. The condition or quality of being a living person or animal'. I moved onto definition two, hoping for something more illuminating. '2. The period between birth and death'! So, we know the secret of making it last, we know how to define it. The question is: what's the point of it? I don't know if you saw the film Shirley Valentine. She's basically bored and lost her way. She wins a holiday to Greece, leaves her husband behind and goes off to try to find herself again. The film ends with her sitting on the beach, glass of wine in hand, having had an empty fling with a local waiter. And as the sun goes down she asks out loud, 'Why are we given so much life? What are we meant to do with it?' And to answer that question of life, funnily enough, you have to begin with death. What you and I believe about death will determine what we do with life. There are various parts of the Bible where the Christian message gets put in a nutshell and these issues are tackled head-on. And one of those parts is 1 Corinthians 15. It's the end of a letter written to Christians in a place called Corinth by one of the first Christian evangelists, called Paul. It was written about the year AD55, 25 years after Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead:

Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel [that just means the Christian message, the news about Jesus] I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. (vv1-2)

Before the Christian message got to them, these people had been living their lives basically how they wanted. They decided what they were going to do with life. A year ago, I spoke at a University meeting on the title: 'Sex for Christians.' And I taught what the Bible says. And at the end, a rather offended guy came up to me and said, 'I disagree with what you said. I'm a Christian and I sleep with my girlfriend and I think that's OK.' So I said, 'Tell me, how do you make your decisions in life?' And he said, 'I do what I think is right.' And I said, 'In that case, you've just proved you're not a Christian.' And he looking even more offended. 'How have I?' he said. And I said, 'A Christian is someone who does what Jesus thinks is right. A Christian is someone for whom Jesus is Lord of their life. You've just told me you live by doing what you think is right. Which makes you Lord of your own life. Which makes you not a Christian.' And to my surprise, he agreed. And for many people living in a Christianised country, that's the first step on the way to faith. Working out that you're not a Christian. Well, these people in Corinth had been very definitely not Christians. They'd lived their lives basically how they wanted, and basically was the word. Corinth was a city high on sex and drink and low on moral scruples. It was a party-city, an 'Eat, drink and be merry' city, a 'Live life while you can' city. It was a city that would have understood the title of that recent book by Neil Postman on the entertainment industry in our own time. The title: Amusing Ourselves to Death. But they'd heard the Christian message about Jesus. And believed it. They'd found out that the meaning of life was not (as they'd so far thought) having sex or money or things or even people in your life, but having God in your life, through Jesus. And it had changed them. Or rather, he had changed them. And now Paul is worried that they won't stand firm. He's worried that the pressures of what people around them believe will draw them back into the same old life - as if Jesus had never happened. So he wants to remind them of what did happen, real facts in real history. Verse 3:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance. That Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep [ie died]. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (vv3-8)

That's the Christian message in a nutshell. It's all about Jesus Christ. The thing he came to do was to die on a cross so our sins could be forgiven. Without which, we face big trouble on judgement day. And the thing that proves he was God's Son was that he was raised from the dead three days later. Those are the facts. But some people in Corinth were saying, 'You can't believe that sort of thing.' Verse 12:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

'Some' of these Christians were beginning to say, 'You can't seriously believe in life after death. No-one around us does. Not seriously.' And perhaps they thought it really didn't matter what you believed about life after death. It was enough if Christianity 'helped you' in this life. So Paul starts pushing things to their logical conclusions. Just glance to verse 32, half way through it. Paul says:

If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'

That's not what quite what you expect from the Bible is it? You'd think it would say, 'If the dead are not raised, well, that makes life pretty hopeless, but try to be nice to one another while it lasts.' But it's more honest, more brutal, than that: 'If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.' If the human dead are not raised, we're no different from animals. We're just biological machines thrown up by the universe. And our meaning in life is to feed our faces. That's more or less what Richard Dawkins says in his book The Selfish Gene. 'We are all survival machines for DNA,' he says. ' A monkey is a machine which preserves genes up trees. A fish is a machine which preserves genes in water; there is even a small worm which preserves genes in German beer mats We are machines for propagating DNA. It is every living objects' sole reason for living.' Well, how meaningful does that makes you feel? Is that what will sustain you in life, on Monday morning? 'I must get through today so as to propagate my DNA'? Or try this attempt to sum up what it is to be human. This is Professor CEM Joad, an eminent scientist of earlier this century. 'What is man?' he writes. 'Man is fat enough for 7 bars of soap, iron enough for one medium sized nail, sugar enough for 7 cups of tea, lime enough to whitewash one garden shed, magnesium enough for one dose of salts, phosphorus enough to tip 2000 matches, and sulphur enough to rid one dog of fleas.' Which at today's prices has been estimated at £31.30. How meaningful does that make you feel? But Paul's point is this. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Jesus wasn't raised. If Jesus wasn't raised, then Jesus wasn't God. If Jesus wasn't God we're left with the guesses of merely human religions about life, the universe and everything. Or with just our own guesses. If Jesus wasn't raised, he was not God come to make known the meaning of life. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then nor will we exist beyond death. There will be no judgement. So nothing about how we lived will ultimately matter at all. Nothing will have been good. Nothing will have been bad. We'll just have been animals that 'happened'.

If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.' (v32)

If the dead are not raised, we're no different from the cows on the town moor. We're just sophisticated grazers. And it's no surprise that when people want to protest about sub-human behaviour, they use the imagery of animals to do so. At the start of the year, the student newspaper described the main freshers' week event as 'the usual cattle market. Only this is meat not on the hoof, but on the stiletto.' And in case we're tempted to be superior, thinking we're well out of that, we should remember we're most of us well into other animal pursuits - the rat-race, for instance. The Bible pushes things to their logical conclusion. If there's no God, no judgement and no life after death, we're just animals. And the meaning of life is to feed our faces. Now, all beliefs need testing. And the way to test beliefs is to ask two questions. 1) Is it true? - that is, what are the reasons, the evidences for this belief? And 2) Can you live it? So let's take the belief that: there's no God, no judgement and no life after death - we're just animals. And the meaning of life is to feed our faces. And let's take the second question first. Can you live that belief? Can you believe, with Richard Dawkins and Professor Joad, that you're just an animal? And can you live that, and simply 'Eat and drink for tomorrow we die'? Sometimes we get close to that. When I first went to the hairdresser soon after I arrived in Newcastle, we got chatting and I was wondering what to do on my day off and all I'd really heard of was Hadrian's Wall. So I asked her, 'What places are there to go around Newcastle?' And at this point there was a bit of a break-down in understanding. Because she started saying, 'Well there's Ritzies and Tuxedo Royale and Offshore 44 and the Redhouse.' And it slowly dawned on me that these weren't National Trust properties and it slowly dawned on her that I wasn't showing great enthusiasm. So she paused and said, 'Did you mean places to drink?' And I said, 'Well, not especially places to drink. Why, do you?' And she very honestly said, 'That's all I do. I work Monday to Friday to go drinking at the weekend. I live for the weekend.' Her exact words. That's how you find the meaning of your life. You start the sentence 'I live for' and see what you end it with. In her case, she was very honest. A very straight forward case of 'Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die (or we're back at work for another week, which amounts to the same thing).' Our agenda may be different, but how much different? 'Let us get GCSE's in order to get A-level's in order to get to university in order to get a decent job in order to get a decent salary in order to eat and drink and buy leisure-time and fill our lives with things and experiences for tomorrow we die.' But deep down, we know we can't live it. We can't live it, because it doesn't satisfy. Julian Barnes wrote a book called A History of the World in 10 ½ chapters. The final chapter is called The Dream. It's a dream about heaven. And heaven turns out to be a place where you can have as much of your favourite food and drink as you want, have as much sex as you want, go shopping with infinite credit, meet all the famous people you'd like to have met, do anything you want to do. And one thing Julian Barnes does is to play golf. So in heaven, he plays golf. As much as he likes. And he gets better and better and his handicap comes down and down, until one day he calls one of the heavenly women (predictably!) who look after him:

'I'm worried about the golf,' I began. 'That's not really my speciality.' 'No. You see, when I first arrived, I shot a 67. Now I'm down in the low 50s.' 'That doesn't sound like a problem.' 'And I'm likely to go on getting better.' 'Congratulations.' 'And then one day I'll finally do the course in 18 shots.' 'Your ambition is admirable.' She sounded as if she was making fun of me. 'But then what do I do?' She paused. 'Try going round every time in 18 shots?' 'It doesn't work like that.' 'Why not?' 'It just doesn't.' 'I'm sure there are many other courses' 'Same problem,' I said, interrupting her, a bit rudely I suppose. 'Well, you could switch to another sport, couldn't you? Then come back to golf when you're tired of the other one?' 'But the problem's the same. Id have done the course in 18 shots. Golf would be used up.' And he realises that this 'heaven' doesn't satisfy. He complains further to the heavenly assistant, who finally says: 'Well, everyone has the option to die off if they want to.' 'I never knew that.' 'No. There are bound to be a few surprises. Did you really want to be able to predict it all?' 'And what percentage of people take the option to die off?' She looked at me levelly, telling me to be calm. 'Oh, a hundred percent, of course. Over many thousands of years, calculated by old time, of course. But, yes, everyone takes the option sooner or later.'

It's a very shrewd observation. A 'heaven' which is just the best of this-life-without-God wouldn't satisfy. We cannot live the eat and drink philosophy of life. It doesn't satisfy. And we can't live it because it denies the values we each have. We're not just bundles of appetites. We have values. Values that say some things are right and some things are wrong and which over-ride our appetites and desires. (However, without God, we can't know and we can't agree on what is right and wrong. That's where our culture is right now, very obviously. But we know that there is such a thing as right and wrong. Even though, without God, we are lost for knowing what is right and wrong.) And we find life meaningless unless at least personally we have our own idea of right and wrong and play by it. Two weeks ago, during that brief summer we had, I got out onto the tennis court for the first time. And we knocked up for a while. And knocking up is OK for a while. You feel uninhibited; you play some shots, you experiment a bit. But all the time, you know it doesn't really matter. There's no 'in' or 'out'. Nothing you do really matters - until you say, 'Shall we have a game?' And you start playing within solid values, absolutes like 'in' and 'out' and 'fault' and 'good shot' and 'bad serve'. You can't knock up all day. You get bored without values. Nothing really matters. It doesn't mean anything. And so it is with life.

If the dead are not raised, says Paul, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (v32)

But can you live that? No. It doesn't satisfy - we just get hungrier for more. And no it doesn't satisfy - because we need values. We need to matter. We need today and what we did and who we are to matter. We can't live the belief that we're just animals without God. And then secondly, more importantly, That belief is not true What the Christian message says is that there is a God, there is a judgement that gives everything ultimate value, and there is a life after death for us - in one of two places. The belief that we're just animals without God is not true. Because what is true is back there in verse 3:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance. That Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep [ie died]. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (vv3-8)

Jesus really lived. He claimed to be the Son of God, God made man. And he claimed to be the person to whom the job of judging our lives has been delegated - 'the Christ', as the Bible puts it. And he was crucified for that claim by those who refused to believe it. He was then buried in a publicly known, sealed and guarded tomb. Three days later, the body was gone and Jesus' followers were saying they'd seen him risen from the dead. And that is the point at which they came to trust his claim to be God. That's where they took off and told the world this message and even died for it. The facts in verses 3-8 add up to this. There is a God. This God, who sent his Son into human history to make himself known. So there is value in life, and the values are God's. And ultimately, everything in life does matter because God will judge everything and everyone. That is a great relief. For without a Person from whom values come, and who will judge and uphold those values, nothing would matter. Some friends of mine have a daughter who became increasingly unhappy soon after a change of teacher at junior school. They tried to get her to tell them what was wrong, and finally she said 'Miss so-and-so doesn't care.' And her mother said, 'I'm sure that's not true. What makes you say that?' And the little girl replied, 'She never marks my work.' Even a ten-year-old can see it. In fact, the ten-year-old can probably see it more clearly than us adults: where there's no marking - that is, where there's no judgement - there's no care. So, it's a great relief to know that there is a God who is our Judge. But it's also a great problem. Because each of us has behaved like that student I described who came up to me at the end of that talk on sex. Each of us has lived our lives by doing what we think is right. We have lived as if there was no God, whose values we should have asked. And as if there was no judgement. We have accepted the gift of life but rejected the Giver. I remember, at junior school, talking another boy into lending us his football in the playground - and then leaving him out of the game. Similarly, we have been lent life, and then left our Creator out of the game. It's one thing to offend an equal in the playground. But what we've all done is to offend our Creator. And that offence deserves the judgement of separation from him. Our sins - the thoughts, words, deeds and omissions that flow from leaving God out - deserve to be punished. And that is our problem. And that is why - verse 3 - Jesus came into the world to die on a cross:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance. That Christ died for our sins

The Bible says he who never sinned took our place and faced the judgement for our sins. So that we could be forgiven. But also so that no-one could say justice was never done on those sins. God could only be satisfied with just forgiveness. And that is what he achieved, through his Son dying for us on the cross. So, to people like us, who've left the Creator out of our lives, who deserve judgement, God offers a new, forgiven start. He offers what the Bible calls 'grace': forgiving love which is totally undeserved and totally unexpected. And no-one understood it better from first-hand experience than Paul He writes:

For I am the least of the apostles, and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. [You can't be more wrong than Paul was about the meaning of life: he wasn't just passively rejecting God. He was actively hostile to Christ and to Christians.] But by the grace of God, I am what I am (vv9-10)

Paul knew what it was to be going the wrong way in life, to meet Jesus, to be brought to his senses, to be forgiven and to start off afresh with Jesus as Lord. The news of grace melted his rejection of God. And he discovered the meaning of life. How about you? I wonder how you respond to all this? You may be saying, 'I don't believe there's a God. And I don't believe there's life after death. And I'm happy just trying to 'Eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.' My question to you is: 'Can you really live that?' You may be saying, 'I don't believe there's a God. And I don't believe there's life after death. But I do believe in values. I believe in right and wrong. I believe in love over against selfishness. I believe in relationships over against using people. My question to you is: 'But where do you get your values from? How do you know they're the right ones? And what (or rather who) is to stop you giving up on them or changing them when it gets inconvenient or difficult to live them?' You may be saying, 'I do dimly believe there's a God. And I do vaguely believe there's life after death. But I've never had solid reason to. I've never had evidence. They're not beliefs I've been able to commit myself to in such a way that it makes a personal difference.' Well, if that's you, the thing to do is: look into the reasons. Read over the whole of 1 Corinthians. Read one of the four Gospel accounts about Jesus. Try Luke to start with. At least, read Luke 23-24 to see the full evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. But you may be saying: 'I believe this is all true. I believe what the Bible says about Jesus - that he is the Son of God and that he died for my sins and rose from the dead. And I believe what the Bible says about me - that I've left God out of my life, and that makes me lost for meaning, and under judgement.' And you may now want to take that fresh start that God offers. If so, I'm going to end with a prayer that you could echo in your own mind. Jesus calls us to receive him into our lives as Lord, and to let that be publicly known. So I'd only encourage you to echo this prayer if you're ready to be known as a Christian believer. But if you're ready both to receive Jesus as Lord, and to be known as his, you could respond to him with these words. Let's pray:

Lord Jesus,

I recognise that you are God and have the right to my life. I have rejected you, sinning in thought, word and deed. I am sorry for the way I have lived, and I ask you to forgive me. As best I can I want to turn away from rejecting you to living for you. Thank you for dying for my sins on the cross. Please come into my life and be my Lord and God from now on.

Amen.

If you have prayed that prayer and meant it, you can be assured that the Risen Lord Jesus has heard and answered. In another of his letters, the apostle Paul wrote:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy, so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1.15-17)

In other words: if the Lord Jesus would forgive the apostle Paul and give him a fresh start and come into his life as Lord, he will do it for anyone who asks. No-one is too bad. If you've prayed that prayer, trust that the Lord Jesus has heard and forgiven you and come into your life. And let another Christian know you've begun. It will be the beginning of being known publicly as belonging to Jesus. And whoever you tell can help you take the next steps in living for Jesus as the new Lord of your life.

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