What's the choice? - John 3:16-21
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
“It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere.” How often have you heard that said? Here is another one: “Who needs God to live a moral life?” That is the taunt of many an atheist. In fact it was the line of argument that the atheist philosopher Jonathan Glover was taking in a debate with the Jewish social commentator, Dennis Prager several years ago. And this is how Prager replied: “If you, Professor Glover, were stranded at the midnight hour in a desolate Los Angeles Street and if, as you stepped out of your car with fear and trembling, you were suddenly to hear the weight of pounding footsteps behind you, and you saw ten burley men who had just stepped out of a dwelling coming toward you, would it or would it not make a difference to know that they were coming from a Bible study?” Of course, you bet it would! It would be quite different to knowing that they were coming from a crack house. In many ways it is so obvious but it has to be spelt out that what you believe affects how you behave. The way you see the world will shape the way you act in the world. In other words; belief matters.
Now, over the last few weeks that is what we have been seeing. There are different ways of viewing reality and they can’t all be right, some may be nearer to the truth than others, but at vital points there are incompatible. And what we have been doing is steadily building up, piece by piece; the Christian World View which, we have been arguing, best makes sense of the world as we know it. It explains why we experience life as a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly; how in so many ways it is a wonderful world full of beauty and mystery and yet a spoilt world, broken and twisted. It offers a compelling account of why we feel deep down that there is a God, someone more for whom we were made and to whom we are accountable. It shows that we are significant beings, making real and meaningful choices and that people do matter- we are not nothings. It also tells us of God’s great rescue operation to put things right through the most brilliant and outstanding figure in human history, Jesus Christ. The Bible’s account of life best fits the way things are, like an Ordinance Survey map of Yorkshire best fits what we see on the ground rather than a map drawn up by a GCSE schoolboy. That is the claim being made. Call it arrogant if you like, outrageous even, but the challenge being thrown down is to take it seriously and have our lives radically changed as a result.
Now, tonight I want to bring the series to a conclusion by showing how each strand or picture of what is called the ‘Two Ways to Live’ presentation, fits together and what God expects us to do in the light of it.
So let’s go back to the beginning and the diagram which shows us what the world is meant to be like. And what is central is not the world or even human beings, but God. Remember how the Book of Genesis actually begins. It starts with God making the heavens the earth. He is the eternal God, the One who is self-existent, self-sufficient, all knowing, all powerful, all loving. And what other God could you want than that. Who would want a God who was all powerful but wicked? Or all powerful but stupid? Then it would be a very dangerous and unpredictable universe to live in wouldn’t it? But the true God depends upon nothing but everything depends upon him. And so God is represented by a crown, a crown that covers the whole world, for he is the rightful, loving ruler of it all-he made it and owns it. What is more he has made us, men and women, as his image bearers or representatives to take care of this fascinating world he has made, to be good stewards of the gifts he has given us. That is why the little figure of a person is placed in top of the world and under God, for that is our proper place in God’s universe. At least in this sense we are god-like; as God is a personal relating God within his own being, an eternal community of love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so we too are meant to lovingly relate to one another. As God is a creative and working God, we too are meant to work and explore this world through scientific investigation and celebrate it through the arts. We are meant to look after the world but do it under God’s loving rule, referring things back to him who knows how we best function. And so we have that verse from the Book of Revelation which is a great chorus of doxology declaring this unyielding truth: ‘You are worthy our Lord and God to receive glory and honour and power for you created all things, by your will they were created and have their being.’ (Rev 4:11).
And I would suspect that in our heart of hearts we wouldn’t mind living in a world like that. It would be terrific wouldn’t it? But that is not the way many of our contemporaries would view things or say that it is the way things should be. What form would a 21st century, Western view of reality look like? Maybe something like this: The crown would be removed or at least become a vague shadowy figure. The circle, the world or universe, would fill the entire box and we would call it ‘the environment’ for that is all there is-there would be no room for the transcendent, spiritual dimension, no external source of values, we would have to make it up as we go along. In the phrase of the late Hans Rookmaker, it is man in a box. Human beings then would be portrayed as being within the circle and very small indeed, as being simply part of the environment and from an evolutionary point of view of no more moral worth than any other animal. Indeed, according to some extreme environmentalists, to claim superiority is ‘speciesm’ akin to racism. And so Ingrid Newkirk, President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals writes: ‘” A rat is a pig, is a dog, is a boy.” Her point is that a human baby is not innately better and should have no higher privilege than a dog, a pig or a rat. And that is logical if this is the way things are. But can you really believe that if you had a straight choice between saving the life of a baby or a rat it makes no moral difference if you choose the rat? It goes against the grain doesn’t it? But why? Well, because the Bible’s claim is true that there is a God who has made us to be intrinsically more valuable than a rat.
That is the world as it should be. So what has gone wrong to make the world into the place as it is now experienced? That question brings us to the second picture. We have wilfully stepped out from under God’s loving rule. And so we have cast to one side our God given responsibilities to care for the world and each other. As far as human beings are concerned, in practice we cross out God’s crown and place a smaller one on our own heads because we think that we can run the world better than God. And it is this rejection of the kind and wise government of God that the Bible calls sin. Sin is rebellion. Sin is placing the ‘I’ at the centre of all our horizons as the letter ‘I’ is at the centre of the word ‘sin.’
And you can see the results of that. When one person is self-centred or egocentric one might be able to cope, but a world full of them and you are guaranteed trouble. This explains why we can’t agree as to how we should live with each other, and why we have become more and more individualistic, so no one is going to tell me what to do, or even a 5 year old what to do, we are to decide for ourselves. In his letter in the apostle James asks the question many people today are asking: Why are there wars? This is the way he puts it in chapter 4 verse 1 ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.’ Why he tells us, ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God.’ We don’t ask God because either we think he is not there to ask or it is too demeaning to ask. Non- Christians also recognise where the real problem lies. Rousseau wrote in ‘Emile’, ‘Man seek the author of evil no longer. It is yourself.’ And notice too what happens, the figure is placed outside the circle, not because we have left the world, but rather that the further we move away from God, the further we move away from reality and so life becomes mixed up and more and more unbearable. So whether it is by immersing yourself in the world of drugs, drink, promiscuous sex, or materialistic hedonism-pleasure seeking, all this amounts to is an escape from reality and eventually we are going to crash.
But again let us ask; how might the modern man or woman represent our real problem? It might be like this: the world is full of people hurting each other-there are bombs going off. Environmental concerns are great too, so we might have a factory billowing out smoke. But the problems are essentially external to us, located in bad politics, bad ideologies, bad economics, bad education. But that is too superficial an analysis and so any solution offered is bound to be superficial too. The Bible’s diagnosis is much more profound and locates the problem deep within the human heart: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one, no one who understands, no one who seeks after God, all have turned away.’ Romans 3:10-12. If the real problem is internal and relational, something woven into the very fabric of our being then the solution has to be very far reaching indeed and affect our inner being doesn’t it? In fact the Bible goes even further and says there is more bad news yet to come. Hence picture 3.
We have seen what the world should be like, what the world is like, now we see what is going to happen as a result. Actions have consequences and we all know that. Throw yourself off a building and gravity takes over with serious results. Well, throw yourself outside of God’s rule and the moral law of God’s judgment takes over just as surely as the law of gravity does with equally devastating results. God is still God in his universe whether we like it or not or believe it or not. And God being God will have the last word. He will not sit back and just let things happen, he cares about what he has made far too much to do that. In short he will judge. Some of God’s judgement takes place in the here and now. According to Romans chapter 1, God gives us over to the things we want and to suffer the consequences. If we want to ‘do our own thing’, then we shall reap a society which ‘does its own thing’ and the streets will not be safe to walk. We want free sex, increase is STD’s and unwanted pregnancies will result and all the emotional trauma that comes with it. But these are not the judgement; they are but the overture to the main event which is yet to come. And so we represent God’s righteous judgement on us for mucking up his world with a figure of a dead body. Physical death is, if you like, an ugly, visible sacrament of sin. It is awful to behold and is meant to be. It is the devastating reminder that all is not well between us and our Maker and that he takes our choices seriously. But let me say that it is the Lord Jesus who spoke the most chilling words about God’s judgement, not the apostle Paul, when he said that on the last day people will be ‘thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ In other words, our predicament is far, far more serious than most people realise. ‘Man is destined to die once’, says the Bible, ‘and then to face the judgement.’ And that word ‘judgement’ is meant to send a cold shiver down our spine.
What is the 21st century alternative to picture 3? Maybe this: a musical note. What I have in mind is the song from the King and I, ‘Whistle a happy tune’- ‘Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect and whistle an happy tune and no one will suspect I’m afraid.’ Let’s hope that we will muddle through somehow. But we can’t muddle through death. We might postpone it, but we can’t get around it. It was Woody Allen who said, its not that I am afraid of death, it’s just that I don’t want to be around when it happens to me.’ But in one of his more sober moments said this: ‘The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless. As Camus wrote, its not only that he the individual dies, or that man as a whole dies, but that you struggle to do a work of art that will last and then you realise that the universe itself is not going to exist after a period of time.’ So, is there any message which tells us that death need not be the end, and that our accomplishments can have lasting value? Well, yes there is. In fact this message is so unusual and so stupendous that the Christians adopted a special way of speaking about it when announcing it to the world. They called it ‘great news’, ‘good news’ or Gospel.
Hence picture 4. It is the news that God has done something to put things right again in this crazy, messed up world, in that he has cleared away the rubbish that blocks up us having a good and loving relationship with him and things will never be the same again. You will notice that the fourth drawing looks a lot like the first one but with a very important difference. The figure does not represent mankind in general but one man in particular, the God-man, Jesus Christ, and so we put a capital ‘J’ beside the figure to represent him. He came into the world some 2000 years ago, born in a place which can be found on a map, grew up like thousands of other children at the time in that hot, dusty trouble torn part of the world. He lived as human beings were meant to live, living for others under his heavenly Father’s rule. He spoke the most amazing words every uttered, he made claims which if not true meant he was either mentally unstable or a clever deceiver for he claimed to be the God who made us and owns us- God the Son. And yet when you look at his life and listen to his teaching he strikes you as the sanest man who ever walked this earth: a clever man, a well balanced man, a morally attractive man. But he came primarily to die. Why? Well, as we have seen, death is the consequence of sin, yet this man never sinned, so why did he die? The answer the Bible gives is that he died in the place of others; he took upon himself the guilt that was theirs. Who? People like you and me, that’s who. 1 Peter 3:18, ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous to bring you to God.’ He takes our hand and places it in God’s hand and introduces us as his friends. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that something to have at all costs? To know the One who made you, who loves you, who gave his one and only Son to a cross to make this possible for you?
Of course the world sees things differently. It sees Jesus as just one religious leader amongst many, with Mohamed and Buddha and Beckham or whoever does it for you. And that would be understandable if it were not for the fact of picture 5. You see, after he had died, Jesus was taken down from that cross and laid in a tomb hewn out of cold, hard rock. And in part to demonstrate that Jesus had in fact died for us, in our place, so opening the way for us back into God’s presence- that it had worked, Jesus was raised from the dead- a sign of what will eventually happen to all who trust him and follow him. He was seen by several hundred witnesses, and at this very moment he is doing what humans were meant to do, he is ruling the world but from his throne in heaven, superintending all the decisions men and women freely make, weaving history into a purpose and a goal which is his. And so Jesus wears that crown. He now gives a fresh start and a new spiritual life to anyone who would come to him and ask him: 1 Peter 1:3, ‘In his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.’ And what is more, this same Jesus is going to come back at the end of history to judge us. People sometimes say to me, ‘I wish I could have seen Jesus’. Well, I have news for you, one day you will and you will have to stand before him and explain to him either, why you pushed him out of your life, rejected his kind offer of forgiveness and eternal life and take the dreadful consequences or bow before him with thanks and gratitude that he died for you and saved you and enabled you to enjoy the wonder of living with God.
And what the verdict will be on your life then is dependent upon the choice you make now. And so we come to the final and vitally important picture 6. We know how the choices we make can be life changing. You may look back over some decision made and had it been even slightly different then your life would have been totally different; maybe the choice of which university to go to, which job to apply for, which person to marry or not marry. But what about a choice which will affect where you are going to spend eternity, and how you are going to live out the rest of your mortal life? That is what this is about. There are two, and only two ways to live. We can either continue over on one side pathetically wearing our little crown, even a religious crown, a nice person crown, but it is not one which involves God as we find him in the Lord Jesus Christ. We can choose to continue like that, but you will be rejected by God, existing without him and anyone else for ever in a dreadful spiritual black hole. God giving you in the next world what you wanted in this world, ‘Life without God.’ Or there is the opportunity of entering into God’s new way of living by submitting to Jesus as your ruler, relying on his death and resurrection and the results of that decision are stupendous: you are forgiven by God, your guilty conscience is calmed, God by His Spirit comes to live within you giving you a peace and a purpose you never thought possible. And when you leave this life you go on into the next life more alive than ever. Is that what you want? It is certainly what you need. This is the way the Bible puts it: ‘Whoever believes in the Son has life, but whoever rejects the Son shall not see life and God’s anger remains on him.’ (John 3:36). This is not just a matter of making a decision, but a total change in direction, of values, of lifestyle and getting stuck in with God’s people here. Sure, it will be costly but so what? Things that really matter usually are. If all of this is true, can you look at yourself in the mirror and honestly say I am going to walk away from this? No, tonight God is calling you to stop rebelling, stop sitting on the fence and accept his wonderful offer. And if that is you, then why not pray this prayer with me now.
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