St Michael’s 1st March 2017
Reading – John 3:16-21
There are many different reasons why we celebrate Lent. For some of us, Lent is a time to give up old habits, to see if we can actually live without little luxuries like chocolate or alcohol. For some of us, Lent provides the opportunity to take up a new spiritual discipline, such as reading our Bible more regularly or carving out time for prayer. For still others, Lent has become a season for carrying out practical acts of service and generosity, and putting our faith into action.
Now all these are good and important reasons for celebrating Lent. But tonight I want to think about Lent from a different point of view. On 16 April this year we will be celebrating Easter Sunday and I presume we will want to go out and share the good news of Jesus. After all, the whole point of Easter is that it should be a great time of praise and proclamation, and letting people know we have a risen, living Saviour who changes lives even today.
However if we are to share the good news of Jesus with others, I believe it is important that we first have a season where we apply that good news to ourselves, where we reflect and remember what the good news is all about it, and why it matters so much to each and every one of us. Otherwise we run the danger Lent can be become an end in itself, and we simply count off the days when we can next eat chocolate, or relax our newfound spiritual discipline, or stop doing acts of generosity. Lent was never meant to be a stand-alone season, but a season of preparation, of looking forward, of making sure we are ready for the task Jesus gives us.
So how exactly do we apply the good news to ourselves? That is a big question, and it’s no accident that Lent gives us forty days and nights to consider the answer. The good news of Jesus is meant to touch and permeate every part of our lives, and if we ever think we can simply accept His message and keep on living as before, we really haven’t understood what it’s all about. The good news is meant to produce lasting and ongoing change in our lives, and Lent provides us the opportunity to reflect on just how far it has taken root in and among us.
That’s why I can hardly sum up all that the good news means in one single sermon tonight. But what I can do is remind us of three simple truths that should at least provide some starting points for this season of preparation and reflection.
The first truth is one that is so obvious that we often tend to overlook it completely, namely: that the gospel starts with God.
Or to put it another way, the whole story of the Bible is about who God is and what He chooses to do. We are told right at the start, in Genesis 1:1: In the beginning, God… The most famous verse of the Bible, John 3:16, which we heard just now, begins, For God so loved the world… At the very end God tells the apostle John, in Revelation 22:13: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. The story of the Bible, and the good news we have to share, is all about God, from start to finish.
Why do I mention this? Well, all too often I have heard presentations of the gospel which have gone something like this. Are you weary and heavy burdened? Come to Jesus. Are you confused and don’t know which way to turn? Come to Jesus. Do you want to receive God’s blessing and be free to become the person you were meant to be? Come to Jesus. Don’t get me wrong – I believe Jesus bears our burdens, gives us guidance, and pours out His blessings on us. But at the centre of the gospel message is not us and our needs. It is the reality of God, who made us, who knows the secrets of our hearts, and who rules the whole world. And unless we make this God known, we run the risk of making the gospel just another kind of therapy to serve people’s needs.
So this Lent I want to challenge you to spend time considering whether God really is at the centre of the good news you believe. You see, the constant danger that we face is that we make ourselves, or indeed anything else, the centre of our lives rather than God. This constant danger the Bible calls sin, and the thing about sin is that it creeps in by the back door. We don’t decide one day we can do without God. But in the heat of the moment we rely on ourselves to make that important decision, or follow that particular course of action. And gradually, bit by bit, without realising it, God gets relegated to the edges of our lives, as a kind of spiritual backstop we turn to when nothing else works.
Of course if we are to put God at the centre of our lives, we need to have an accurate understanding of who God is. Otherwise our lives will reflected a distorted and wrong image of God which will undermine the good news we are trying to share. So, for example, if at the centre of our life is a fire and brimstone God ready to zap us at any moment, our faith will be based on constant fear and terror at being judged. Conversely, if at the centre of our life is a soft and fluffy God, our faith will be based on warm and fuzzy feelings, and not deal with the real issues of human sin and weakness.
How, then, do we have an accurate understanding of God? This is again, where we have to turn to our Bibles, because the whole reason the Bible was written was to present us with the reality of God. This may be a point I have often made before, but again, when I ask people what God is like, all too often I hear the answer, “I like to think God is…” Who God is, and what He is like, is not up to us to decide.
Some of us have been gathering once a month recently to look at the Big, Big Picture of the Bible. So far we have only covered the first three chapters of Genesis, but we have already learnt so much about God. He is the one who created everything. He made the stars and the universe, the plants and the creatures of the earth. And He also made us, man and woman, in His own image. He cared for the first human beings, Adam and Eve, and placed them in a beautiful garden where He met their every need.
Yet as we have also seen, God gave Adam and Eve the ability to choose whether to accept or to reject Him. And tragically, Adam and Eve listened to the serpent, not to God. They ate the fruit they were commanded not to eat and they ended up expelled from the garden, out of relationship with the One who made them and loved them.
This leads to the second truth we need to remember about the gospel, namely: the gospel is the only hope for a world full of bad news.
Now recently, as you know, I spent an awful lot of time on an aeroplane. Part of the way I filled my time was to watch news channels from around the world. When you do that, it doesn’t take too long to realise just what a state we are in. There are so many stories of tragedies around the globe that it at times can seem overwhelming.
It’s not surprising, then, that as Christians to try and retreat from such bad news. We can, for instance, turn Lent into a very inward looking exercise where we shut out all the horrible things that are happening out there and focus instead on us and our relationship with God. But this Lent I would suggest you spend some time finding out what is going on in places like South Sudan, or the Central African Republic, or even in our own city. For, if we are going to have an impact with the gospel, we have to be aware of the sad reality behind all these stories, that all the evil and wrongdoing we see stems from the fact we have broken our relationship with God through our own sin and stupidity. Like Adam and Eve we have not listened to Him nor obeyed His commands, and we are paying a terrible, terrible price.
And we also have to understand God’s reaction at the mess we have made of His world. Just before the start of our Old Testament reading this evening we heard these words from Genesis 6:5-6:
The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.
We have a God who is heartbroken at the violence, at the misery, at the abuse that He sees throughout the earth. And in case you think I am exaggerating, take some time to look at the cross and consider all that Jesus suffered there on the cross. This world is never as God wanted it to be, even though He knew that we would turn away and rebel against Him.
So what is God’s response to the evil we have committed? Listen to these words from Genesis 6:11-13:
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”
Those are pretty tough words to take in, aren’t they? The idea that God might put an end to all people seems to us pretty hard to accept. Yet we need to note that God’s judgement is not some random act of a vengeful deity. It is the discipline of a Heavenly Father who has been ignored by His children again and again and finally decides to take action. And it is also a fully deserved judgement. The writer to the Genesis tells us: all the people on earth had corrupted their ways and as you read on through the Bible it is pretty clear that even with the warnings before us we still, as the gospel writer John puts it, prefer the darkness of sin to the light of God’s love.
Of course there is one important difference between the time of Noah and our own. Our reading from Genesis tells us of God’s promise never again to destroy all living creatures by a flood. But that does not mean the reality of God’s judgement is any less severe, far from it. Indeed John tells us that without Christ we are perishing.
That means one day when we will appear before the throne of God we will be declared guilty: guilty for putting ourselves, rather than God, at the centre of our lives; guilty of preferring the darkness of sin to the light of God’s love; guilty of refusing to accept Jesus as our Saviour and our hope.
So the next time someone asks you why the gospel is so important, please don’t be afraid to tell them. The gospel is not an interesting theory we can choose to explore when we have more time, or a leisure activity we follow when we gather on Sundays. It is the only hope for a world that is full of bad news and under the judgement of God.
And please don’t assume it’s just me saying this. Even though we don’t tend to take much notice, Jesus spoke again and again about the reality of final judgement. One of many examples can be found in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
The gospel is about the reality of God. It is the only hope for a world full of bad news. So thirdly, and finally, what is that hope?
There is surely no better answer to this question than to turn to John 3:16, the most famous verse in the whole of Scripture: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Now I am sure that you have heard many sermons, talks, evangelistic addresses on this verse. It is a Scripture that has been rightly treasured by Christians over the centuries as the very essence of the good news, and used countless times to explain the gospel to those who do not yet believe. But this Lent my third and final challenge to you is to spend some time meditating and reflecting on this verse, and letting it speak to you afresh.
Because, first of all, this verse reminds once again just why we need the good news. The sad reality, as we have already seen, is that without Christ we are perishing, and we need always to acknowledge this fact. Otherwise there is no place in our faith for repentance, for coming back to the cross and depending on the mercy and generosity of a loving God.
Secondly, this verse reminds us that at the heart of our faith is not a religion, or experience, but a person, a real human being called Jesus who is the one and only Son of God. Now I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need that reminder. Particularly if we are active and involved in a local church, we can get so caught up in serving the Lord, we actually do not spend that time simply getting to know Jesus better, listening to His voice and discovering His will for our lives.
And finally, this verse also reminds us that the way we possess eternal life is not through any good deeds or works of our own. It is through a simple, persistent faith in the One who died and gave His life for you and me. Which I guess we all know in theory, yet deep down I find there is so often there is this streak of pride in me which thinks I can somehow impress God the maker of heaven and earth by my own efforts, or earn some special place in His heart. And in this I don’t think I am alone.
That is why I want us all to start this Lent by focusing on this verse. Spend some time reflecting on the reality of God who loves us even though on our own we are lost in our sins, and subject to His just judgement. Consider the depth of love that led Jesus the one and only Son of God to choose the cross as the means to save us. And reflect on whether you really are living by faith, and simply trusting Jesus day by day to guide you, and provide for you.
So that when Easter comes we not only talk about Jesus, but show by our lives and our deeds that we know Him and love Him, and that through us many will see and respond to the good news they so urgently need to hear.
Let us pray…