So what? - Acts 17:29-31
On Shrove Tuesday 1660, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary, "Very merry,
and the best fritters that ever I did eat in my life." He's probably still
the most famous diarist of all - even if few of us have read what he wrote.
If we did, we would see there his great love of life, and learn much about
the life of his times, including such momentous events as the Great Plague
and the Fire of London.
I confess that I'm not a diary person. I haven't got what it takes to keep an account of what I do and my thoughts on life. Mind you, there is a certain fascination in reading other people's diaries - to discover what they've been up to, to learn what their thoughts are, to see what's really close to their heart, and to see what they say about you! Whose diary would you most like to read if you could?
A week ago was Easter Sunday, when we celebrated the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. In churches across the world, in countless different languages, the leader would have shouted, "Christ is risen!" for the congregation to respond, "He is risen indeed, Alleluia!" But how many of us stopped to ponder what the resurrection is really all about? What does it mean that Jesus rose from the dead? I fear that for a great many people, sadly including many who would call themselves Christians, the most appropriate response to the cry "Christ is risen!" would have to be "So what?"
I want to try and answer that "So what?" this morning, by turning to the sermon Paul preached in Athens, the one read to us earlier. We're told, v 18... Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. This confused some of his hearers, who thought he was talking about foreign gods - one called 'Jesus' and one called 'Resurrection'. Invited to explain himself, v 22, Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus. This was a kind of debating chamber, where the learned men and intellectual leaders of Athens met to discuss the latest thinking.
We're only going to look at the very end of what Paul said that day, as he spelt out what it means that Jesus was raised from the dead. And this brings us back to diaries. Because Paul opened a diary for them. Not his own, with his travel plans. Not theirs, with their appointments for the week, but God's. And what more important diary could he open than that? What diary could be more vital for us to get a look at? We're shown three days in God's diary...
1. The Day of Judgement v31: For he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice. Judgement Day is fixed. God has set a day when he will do it. It can't be changed. The date's a secret to us. We don't know when it will be, but it's in God's diary. It's set.
On that day, God will judge the world. That is the people of the world. The judgement will focus on human beings. And it will be a judgement with justice. What a relief that will be. There's so much injustice in our world today, a completely right judgement will be most welcome. It isn't just young children who complain "It's not fair." So much that we see and experience simply isn't fair. But it will be on that day. It will be absolutely fair.
Those are some of the details of the judgement. But Paul's overwhelming message is that there will be a judgement. He simply declares that truth. He doesn't threaten them. He speaks of judgement because God does. The Bible speaks of judgement because God does. The preacher speaks of judgement because God does. And God speaks of judgement because he loves us. He wants to warn us, so that we don't die in our ignorance, thinking that nothing's going to happen.
It's the devil who wants to hide from us the fact of judgement. He's been doing that from the very beginning. Do you remember him talking to Eve in the garden, when she was thinking about eating the fruit which God had forbidden? He said, "You will not surely die." Even though God had said they would. The devil lied to her: "You can do as you like and there'll be no consequences, no judgement." And she believed him. And the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve have grown up ever since, believing there will be no judgement.
If there's going to be no judgement, then I can do exactly what I want, it doesn't matter. But that's a horrific thought. The film Schindler's List gives us a grim insight into that kind of world. It tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who risked his life to rescue Jews from the Nazis in the Second World War. At one point, he is shocked to see the SS murder a mother and her son right in front of a three year old girl.
But, later in the day, as he ponders what he's seen, he realises they could do that because they didn't expect the witnesses themselves to survive. As far as they were concerned, there would be no accounting, no judgement, and they could do as they liked. Towards the end of the war, when it became clear that they were losing the war and that there would be a day of accounting, the SS began trying to destroy the evidence, digging up and burning the corpses of their victims. Isn't that a picture of our world in miniature? Men and women doing as they please, because they think they will never have to account for their actions.
I remember shopping one day in a large department store. As I got to the top of the stairs, I saw a large notice, "Danger. Men working overhead." I looked up and saw the scaffolding erected for the workers to paint the walls and ceiling on the staircase, although there wasn't anybody painting at that moment. How did I react to that sign? Did I start feeling miserable, muttering to myself, "Now, that's wrecked my day. A pleasant time shopping, totally ruined by the thought of something happening to me under that scaffolding. It's quite wrong of them to frighten people like that!" No.... Just imagine what would happen if someone was injured and there had been no warning notice!
Some people have the idea that to talk of judgement as I am doing is not only unkind, but unsophisticated. It may have been all right in ancient days and for primitive people. It was understandable then. But we know better now. We've grown up. But, have we?
I can't think of a more sophisticated bunch than these philosophers gathered to hear Paul in Athens. They would make most contestants on University Challenge or Mastermind look like pea-brained half-wits. They were thinking people if ever there were any. And Paul warns them of the Day of Judgement, when God will judge the world. That's the first day from God's diary.
2. The Day of Resurrection v31 again... Now perhaps that sounds strange. Do you know that word game where I say a word and you have to say the first thing that comes into your head. So, I might say "Bill", and you think "Clinton", or maybe "Telephone". Or I say "Manchester" and you say, "United", or perhaps "rain". Now, what if I say "Resurrection." What comes into your head? According to this verse, one of the first things that should come is "Judgement". God has given proof of the judgement by raising Jesus from the dead. Here's the answer to our question: "Christ is risen! So what?" So, he's the Judge.
The resurrection of Jesus is the sure sign that God's new world is coming. In fact, it's begun in Jesus. That new world, which we often simply call heaven, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of that new world. The judgement will bring the old order to an end. When the new world begins, it's a sure sign that the old order is passing away. The end hasn't come yet, but it surely will. It's like playing injury time at the end of a football or rugby match. The final whistle is coming, it's just a matter of time.
We shouldn't think of the resurrection as just some kind of vague life-principle. That has more to do with spring-time and the emergence of fresh life from the death of winter, than with the real meaning of Easter.
More to do with flowers and blossom and new-born lambs, than with the Son of God rising from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus brings an end as well as a beginning, The new world has begun. The old order is passing away. Resurrection means judgement. Jesus was raised, to show that he will be the judge. The chocolate-makers don't really seem to have taken this on board, with their chocolate bunnies and eggs. Although how you would depict it in chocolate I have no idea. But how many of us have taken it on board? The day of resurrection means that God has appointed the Jesus as the judge.
We've looked into the future in God's diary and seen the day of judgement. We've looked back at the past and seen the day of resurrection. Now we turn to another day...
3. Today v29-30... God has set a day for the judgement. He has appointed the judge for that day. Now he tells us to get ready for the judgement by repenting, by changing our thinking. There was a time when things weren't so urgent. In the past God overlooked such ignorance - the stupidity of not treating God as if he is God. It wasn't that God didn't notice. It wasn't that he didn't care. He saw it, he cared, and he was offended. But he didn't come with the judgement they deserved. It was as if God said, "I'll overlook that for the time being." But the resurrection of Jesus has changed all that. That period lies in the past.
But how can God judge people who are ignorant? Surely it's nobody's fault if they're ignorant? They just didn't know. How can they be held responsible? There is ignorance which isn't my fault. I don't know what you had for breakfast this morning, and I can't be expected to know. You haven't told me and it's not public knowledge. And there's also ignorance for which there's no excuse. A couple of years ago, I got caught by a speed camera in some motorway roadworks. I had no idea there was a speed restriction there. I also knew that I had no excuse. I could have known if I had wanted to. I should have known. The signs were there, if only I had looked at them. Signs of God are all around us. In the fantastic and beautiful world he has created. In Christians when we meet them, and especially when they meet together. In the Bible where God addresses us directly. It's not so much that people are ignorant of God, but that they refuse to acknowledge the God they ought to know. Please don't let that be true of you. There's no excuse for such ignorance.
Once, when I was listening to the radio I heard Easter Day described as "the most important day in the Christian calendar." But it's much, much more than that. It's not only an important day for Christians, but for the whole world. Because it tells us that God will judge the world. He has given proof of this to all men (v31). Now he commands all people everywhere to repent (v30). That doesn't seem to me to leave any of us out - no loopholes, no escape clauses.
But what does it mean to repent? If you drive in the United States and try to go the wrong way on some highways, you will find a large red and white sign: "Wrong Way." Very simple, and very clear. It's saying, "Stop this at once. Turn round. If you carry on going this way you will die - whatever you may have seen in the movies." It is not to be understood like this, "If I were you, I would just drop your speed a fraction, see if you can't stay more in the centre of your lane and think about giving your car a good clean when you get home." God says, "Repent"... Wrong Way. Turn round or you will die. He's not just asking us to make minor alterations to our lifestyles, or giving advice to make our lives happiest. He's telling us to change our thinking. This is what I'm being told to believe: There is a God. I am not that God.
I need to let God be God in my life or face the consequences of trying to take his place. That's the third day in God's diary: Today, when he commands us to repent.
We've been looking into God's diary. It's not that we've had to sneak a look when he's not watching. He's held it open for us. He want us to know what's there. These dates aren't just in his diary. They're also in mine and in yours.
A while back I bought a personal organiser. All I really wanted was the binder. But, before I threw the other bits away, I noticed the headings on some of the dividers. One was headed "Don't forget", another "Key dates", and another "Things to do." We would be very foolish to throw away the headings which God has given us.
Don't forget. Don't forget the day of judgement, when God will judge the world. Have you forgotten that fact? If so, now is a good time to remember it.
Key dates. The day of resurrection, when God appointed Jesus as the judge.
Have you registered what it means that Jesus rose from the dead? Christ is risen! So what? So he's the judge.
Things to do. Today, God commands us to repent, to acknowledge him as God, to let him be God in our lives. Have you done that? Today would be a good day to do what God says.
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