Who Needs God? Can't We Just Be Good?

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Well, if you're here through an invitation – especially for the first time – can I say thanks for coming. I heard the story of this boy who was in church for the first time with his Dad and his attention wandered to a list of names up on the wall, which was a war memorial. And he said, "Dad, what are those names?" And Dad said, "They're all the people who died in the services." And the boy went wide-eyed and said, "What, the morning services or the evening services?" Well you'll be glad to hear that we have a 100% track record of people coming out alive. And whether you've been coming a while, or it's your first time, the idea of today's service is to help us each take stock of where we've got to in our relationship to God.

Just as an example of that, I was talking a while back to an elderly friend of my parents called Albert. And I said, "Albert, do you have any sort of faith?" And he said quite strongly, "No: I've lived a good life, I've been an honest worker and a faithful husband – and I've managed all that without any belief in God, thank you very much", which put me firmly in my place. And I think a lot of people would want to say something similar, which is why the question on the invitation card for this morning was: 'Who needs God – can't we just be good?' And by anyone's standards, Albert has been: he nursed his wife amazingly through years of mental illness and numerous suicide attempts until, sadly, she succeeded. But here's the 'but': but in my experience, people who are most genuine about trying to live a good life are usually also the most aware of their failures to do so, because, for example, there's nothing like trying to care for someone close to you – who may be increasingly difficult to love – to expose your own lovelessness. That begs the question: how should we react to that sense of failure?

We could react by saying the standard of goodness we've set ourselves is the trouble. It's too high and idealistic. So we say things like, 'You can't be totally honest all the time – the world doesn't work that way.' But even as we say something like that, deep down we're unconvinced, aren't we? Because we know that the standard is truth – and that truth is truth.

So maybe we should react by saying it's our circumstances that are the trouble. For example, I remember preaching on that part of the Bible which says, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children." And one dad came up to me afterwards and said, "If God doesn't want me to exasperate them, why has he gone out of his way to give me children who are so exasperating?!" But, again, deep down we're also unconvinced by our attempts to shift responsibility for our failures, aren't we? It's not the children who make me angry; it's me who gets angry at the children.

So if it's not the standard of goodness or our cirumstances that are the trouble, I'm left with saying that… I'm the trouble. That's not to say that others (for example, my children) don't also bring trouble to the situation, but it is to say that my failures actually show there's something wrong with me. So a friend and I were talking about how easy we find it to be inconsiderate to our wives or impatient with our children – he has five (five children, that is, not wives). And he said, "Yes, in my experience God gives you marriage to show you how selfish you are, and children to show you how angry you are." In other words, the failures in what we do are symptoms of a deeper problem with the way we are.

That's exactly what Jesus said in that reading we had earlier from Luke's Gospel. He said: our failures to be good are symptoms of our deeper failure to relate to God as we should. And he said: the reason he came to earth as God's Son become man was to call us back into relationship with God – so that we can become the people we were meant to be. So I wonder if you'd turn back with me in the Bibles to that reading we had earlier from Luke 5.27-28:

"After this he [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, "Follow me." And leaving everything, he rose and followed him."

So Levi was a taxman – which means your reaction to him might already be less than sympathetic. If you'd lived in Jesus' day, your reaction would have been much stronger, because tax collectors then were notoriously immoral. Today, it's the tax payer who's more likely to be immoral. So for example, one Inland Revenue office got an anonymous letter saying,

"I've been unable to sleep properly because of my conscience about tax evasion, so I enclose a cheque for £2,000. If my conscience continues to trouble me, I'll forward the rest of what I owe."

But in Jesus' day, it was the tax collectors who were notoriously immoral, ripping you off more than you owed, to line their own pockets. That's why some of the people in this incident react as they do. Let me read on in verses 29-30:

"And Levi made him [Jesus] a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?""

So the Pharisees and scribes were the most religious people of the day. They took the Bible very seriously, and they took trying to be good very seriously. That was why they couldn't cope at all with what Jesus was doing here, because Jesus had apparently just accepted into relationship with him someone who was morally the lowest of the low. And the reason they couldn't cope with that was that they thought you could divide the human race into two groups: those who were trying seriously to be good – like them – and those who weren't – like Levi. And they thought God would ultimately accept those who tried hard, but that people like Levi didn't have a hope. So they looked at what Jesus was doing here and said to themselves, 'If he really was from God, he'd never accept a person like this.' Well, let me read on into verses 31-32:

"And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician [or doctor], but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.""

I don't know about you, but I'm hopeless with needles. I almost always faint after injections, and last time that happened I was just on my way out through the waiting room of my doctor's surgery. So down I went, and I woke up lying on my back with this toddler's terrified eyes staring into mine. You can reconstruct the scene. His mother had just spent the whole morning explaining that the doctor was really nice and that going to the doctors was nothing to be afraid of, and then he arrives, and the first thing he finds is a dead body on the floor. But while I was down there being kept under surveillance, I read all the posters, one of which said:

"Are they really sick? Only call out the doctor if absolutely necessary."

And that's what Jesus was saying here. He was saying, 'I'm the moral and spiritual doctor you need. And I wouldn't have done the 'call out' from heaven to earth to die for you, if you were alright as you were. But you're not. You're all morally and spiritually sick, even if your symptoms of failing to be good seem much less bad than others. You're all morally and spiritually sick, and that's what I've come to deal with.' That's what Jesus is saying to us here.

The name he gives our sickness is 'sin', and this is where good people, like Albert who I mentioned earlier, can get offended, because they think that by calling them 'sinners', Jesus is talking about their behaviour and that he's saying they've lived badly – even that he's lumping them together with all the other bad people in the world and saying they haven't really lived any differently. But Jesus isn't saying that at all, because 'sin' isn't a word for describing our behaviour. It's a word for describing our attitude to God: sin is the attitude that says to God, 'I don't want you in charge of my life. I want to define for myself what's good and what's not.' So Levi would have had no problem accepting he was a sinner – he'd been re-defining theft as good for years. And like Levi, you may have been living so far off God's definition of good in some areas of your life that you have no problem accepting the label 'sinner' either.

The people who have the problem are the people like Albert, because a lot of the time, a lot of Albert's definition of good actually overlapped with God's. For example, he obviously defined good as being true to his marriage promises, even when it cost a lot. But on the other hand, I can remember him bending the truth and appealing to the category of the 'white lie', and so on, which shows that deep down he was actually saying, 'I'm in charge. And I reserve the right to change my definition of good when it suits me.'

And Jesus is saying: that failure to give God his rightful place is the sickness that underlies the symptoms of all our failures to be good, because it's only when we give God his rightful place that we're able to stick to saying, 'This is his absolute standard – not mine to change as I please.' It's only when we trust in him and his goodness behind the standard – that his standard is actually good for us, however hard it may be at times – that we're motivated to aim for it. And that's the kind of relationship with God that he sent his Son to call us back into. Read verse 32 again. Jesus says to us:

""I have not come to call the righteous [in other words, those who think they're alright as they are – that's the one kind of person Jesus has nothing to offer], but sinners to repentance [which means 'turning'].""

And just like we talk about 'turning to someone' in the sense of turning to them for help, for something we need, that's what Jesus is on about here. He's on about turning to him for the two big things we need to come back into relationship with God.

The first thing we need from Jesus is forgiveness.

Once you've admitted that you've failed to be good as God defines good, and once you've admitted that's a symptom of your much deeper failure to give God his rightful place in your life, it's a pretty short step to realising you need God to forgive you. Because whoever else you may have let down and hurt along the way, you've offended him more than you can know.

This is the way a friend first explained to me how we can be forgiven. He held out one hand and said, 'Imagine this hand stands for you or me. And imagine the light up there stands for God. Well, we were meant to live in relationship with God, but actually we've all turned away from letting him be in charge of our lives to living them our own way.' Then he picked up his Bible and said, 'Now imagine this is the record-book of everything you do wrong in your whole lifetime – everything God should hold against you in the end.'And he laid it on the hand representing us, cutting it off from the light above, and said, 'That's a picture of the judgement we deserve from God. That's why we feel God shouldn't accept us. That's why we feel he's against us as our Judge.' (Which he is – at the same time as being committed to us as our Maker.) And then this friend said, 'But now imagine my other hand stands for Jesus – God's Son come to earth as a man, who lived the only perfect life that's ever been lived. So he never did anything wrong like we've done, and he never deserved any judgement like we do. But what happened on the cross was that he took on himself the judgment our wrongdoing deserved (and here he moved his Bible from the hand representing us to the hand representing Jesus), so that on the one hand justice would be done on it, and on the other, we could turn and be forgiven.'

Jesus did that on the cross for all the wrongdoing of everyone here. So there's nothing on your conscience – however big – that Jesus can't forgive. That's how being a Christian starts – by being forgiven everything in the past, and accepted – and that's how being a Christian carries on. Every day you blow it and don't follow Jesus as you should, but every day you're forgiven everything again, and still accepted. But we need Jesus to do more than just forgive us our sin. If you've really begun to feel your sinfulness, you won't just want to be forgiven. You'll want the sinfulness inside you changed. And that's the other thing Jesus promises to do if we turn to him.

The other thing we need from Jesus is his presence in our lives to change us.

Having died on the cross and risen from the dead, the Jesus we've been reading about in Luke's Gospel is now alive in heaven, and he's able to come into your life by his Spirit and give you the desire and the resources to be what God wants you to be, rather than just continuing to be shaped by your sinfulness.

So those are the two big things we need to turn to Jesus for: his forgiveness, and his presence in our lives by his Spirit.

I remember chatting with a friend called James – who was on the brink of turning to Jesus (which may be where you are right now). And I said to him, 'What's stopping you?' We'd talked over months about all sorts of things – like, 'Would I have to stop sleeping with my girlfriend?' (answer: 'Yes.'), and, 'Would I have to become weird like some of the other Christians I know?' (answer: 'No, they were probably weird, anyway, before they became Christians – it wasn't cause-and-effect.') So I wondered if it was still one of those things, but what he said was this: 'What's stopping me is that I'm not good enough, and I don't think I could change.'

But those are precisely the two needs that Jesus can meet. We're not good enough, which is why he died to forgive us. And we can't change ourselves, but he, by his Spirit, can.

Well I said earlier that the idea today was to help us each take stock of where we've got to in our relationship to God and the Lord Jesus. So imagine I were to draw a line of where everyone here stands with God. At one end there will be those who are saying, 'Well, I haven't yet turned to Jesus in the way you're talking about.' And if that's you I hope this part of the Bible has shown you what Jesus offers, and why you need him, and why this is for you – however relatively good or bad you may think you are. Then at the other end of my line will be those who can say you have turned to Jesus. And you know what it is to be forgiven, and to have Jesus in your life, by his Spirit, working to make you more the person he wants you to be. Or you may be in the middle of my line. You know this is all true, and you know that today and maybe over the past few weeks and months, Jesus has been calling you to respond to him. And I want to say: wouldn't today be a great day to do that?

So I'm going to end with a prayer which would be a way of turning to Jesus for the first time. Let me just read it out before I lead us in prayer, so that you can think whether you'd want to make this your own, personal prayer. I'll say:

Lord Jesus, I'm sorry for turning away from you and living my own way. Thank you for dying for me, so I can be forgiven. Please forgive me, and come into my life by your Spirit, and help me to live for you from now on.

Now you may be further back, and not ready to pray like that. Or you may already have begun this relationship with Jesus, in which case, you don't need to begin all over again. But if you want to turn to Jesus for the first time, you could echo the prayer in your mind to him, as I lead us now. Let's bow our heads to pray.

Lord Jesus, I'm sorry for turning away from you and living my own way. Thank you for dying for me, so I can be forgiven. Please forgive me, and come into my life by your Spirit, and help me to live for you from now on.

I know I'm into extra time, but let me just say two things to anyone who's just prayed that prayer.

One is: tell another Christian you've done that. You'll find that helps you underline the reality of what you've done – that you mean it, and they can also suggest what would help you to go on from here. Feel free to talk to me or one of the other church staff, if you like.

And the other is to take away a copy of this 'Why Jesus?' booklet. It's about the step of turning to Jesus, and whether you've just done that, or are still thinking about it, you'd find it a really helpful thing to read.

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