Some years back, someone (I'll call him John) came up to me after an event like this and said, 'I really ought to give God some thought.' So we agreed to meet once a week to talk. And to begin with, his attitude was very much, 'Shall I have God back?' What's in it for me? What would it cost me? Ie, he was the judge, and God was in the dock having to answer the case for his relevance and general usefulness.
But over time, John grew convinced that the Bible's message was true. And his attitude changed. It dawned on him that in fact, God was the judge and that he was in the dock, having to answer for ignoring God for the first 19 years of his life. And one day I finally asked him what was stopping him from committing his life to Jesus as his Lord.
He went away to think. And he came back a week later and said, 'I'd like to. But I'm not good enough, and I could never keep it up.' Which is a very different attitude. Because he'd seen that the real question is not, 'Will I have God back?' but 'Will God have me back? After all I've done - actively and passively - to ignore him, would God possibly have me back? And in one way or another, most of the world's religions ask that question. They assume that something is wrong between us and God. And they all prescribe a way back to God.
A while ago I saw one of those team challenge programs on TV. The challenge for the teams was to get into this little castle in a wood. So team A came along and planned to make a ladder to get over the walls. They set to, chopping down trees and so on, but ran out of time. No points. Then, along came team B, which included this nervous, bespectacled tax inspector - the kind of person you always write off, but who actually turns up trumps. Well, while his team were beginning to build their human catapult (or whatever it was), he bumbled around the castle and just decided on the off chance to try the door. Which of course was unlocked. It had been open all along. So within 2 minutes, team B were inside without even trying.
Well, if the castle represents God, the other world religions are all like team A. They're all about us trying to get in - whether by trying to be good, or by rituals or mystical techniques. The Bible's message is unique because it says the door back into relationship with God is open. If only we'll realise it and use it. And that door back to God is Jesus - and, specifically, his death on the cross. And I want to try to explain that by going through those verses from Marks' Gospel which we had read earlier. They're printed on p4 of the service sheet, or you can find them on p1023 of the Bibles. Please do follow them as we go.
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in [to Jerusalem] from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh but Jesus did not take it. And they crucified him. (vv21-24)
First, WHY WAS JESUS CRUCIFIED? - BECAUSE WE PUT HIM THERE
Why was Jesus crucified? That's the question that gets to the heart of the Christian message.
My old headmaster wrote an autobiography. He says in it that he regarded the school chapel as a means of moral influence over the pupils. And you may have suffered in the past as I did under such watered down Christianity, and launched your hymn book graffiti career. But he had the honesty to write this: "I knew, however, that Jesus did not just go round telling people to be nice to one another as I did. I knew he came with a far more radical message about himself and the demand to follow him. I knew people do not get crucified for going round telling others to be good."
So why was Jesus crucified? What did he say and do to make people want to get rid of him? Well, verse 25:
It was the third hour [ie 9am] when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.
Early that Friday morning, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had brought Jesus in front of the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. They wanted him dead. But only the Roman authorities could execute capital punishment. So they accused Jesus of what was a treasonable offence in Roman eyes. They said Jesus had claimed to be their king. Which by implication denied that Caesar was. It was clever and it worked. And it was true. Jesus had claimed to be their rightful king. But it was a claim far more massive than Pilate ever understood.
Jesus had actually claimed to be God, and therefore to have the right not just over one nation, but over the entire universe and every human life in it. And he'd actually backed up that claim by miracles. And Mark's Gospel records eye-witness accounts of many of them - Jesus calming a storm at sea, Jesus healing the legs of someone paralysed, Jesus bringing a dead girl back to life. That's why they couldn't ignore him or laugh him off as a nutter. He not only claimed for himself what only God can claim. He did what only God can do. So that people in those 3 years of his public ministry were confronted with God in the flesh. And when you're confronted by someone claiming to be God, there are only two courses open to you. Complete surrender - if you believe them. Or complete rejection - if you don't. And for the leaders of the day, it was complete rejection.
It's not that Jesus' claims were unclear. In their own court, he was asked, 'Are you the Christ, the Son of God?' and he replied 'I am', and he was condemned for blasphemy - ie taking on his own lips claims that belong to God alone (Mark 14.61f). It's not that his miracles were in doubt. They were never denied. All his enemies could do was to re-explain them as done by evil, rather than good, power (Mark 3.22f). It's just that they didn't want God in their lives taking his rightful place in charge. And Jesus was the Son of God, come into the world to represent his Father's claim on their lives.
I don't know if you remember back to chemistry lessons and litmus paper. It's that stuff you use to test for acid. You take a bit of blue litmus paper, dip it in a solution and if it turns red it means you've got a reaction. It shows that your liquid is acid.
It was something like that when God sent his Son into the world 2000 years ago. Jesus came into the human race claiming to be the Son of God, calling people back from ignoring God to having God in his rightful place. And he got a reaction - rejection. Which shows that by nature we human beings are 'acidic' towards God. We don't want God. Consciously or subconsciously we've all told him to keep out of our lives. And that attitude to God is what the Bible calls 'sin'. And you can exercise that attitude of rejecting Jesus in different ways.
Just think through the cast list of that first Good Friday. The leaders of the day were thought-through enough against Jesus that they could win the argument. And that may be you this evening - thought-through against Jesus, arguing against the Bible and against Christians.
Then, there were the crowds in Jerusalem, whom the leaders stirred up to shout for Jesus' blood. The crowds were ignorant and easily led by a few loud voices. And that may be you this evening. You've not really looked into Christianity; you've settled for second hand doubts that an influential few have fed you.
And then there was Pontius Pilate, who should have made a decision. He should have decided for Jesus, but failed to. And that may be you this evening. You'd say you were open, you weren't personally against Jesus, you'll make a decision sometime. But not to make a decision is to continue to decide against Christ. And Pilate would have been horrified if you'd told him he'd go down in history, in the Creeds of the church, as the man who failed to decide.
Then there were the soldiers, to whom Pilate handed Jesus over. They had a lot of fun in the way that only execution parties can. They put a mock robe on Jesus and a mock crown of thorns and mock hailed him as king before beating him so badly he couldn't carry the piece of wood they were going to crucify him on. And that, dare I say it, may be you this evening. None of the physical violence, or ugliness. But the mockery, maybe. Because making fun of the serious issues in life is often the easiest way to duck them.
Why was Jesus crucified? Well the first and most obvious answer is this: because we humans put him there. I know we weren't literally there. But had we been, we would have played out the same parts as those who were. And as we'll see next, in a deeper sense we were all involved in what happened on that cross.
Why was Jesus crucified? We humans put him there. But that's only half the truth about Jesus' death on the cross, and the less important half. The other half of the truth is this: Jesus put himself there.
Secondly, WHY WAS JESUS CRUCIFIED? - BECAUSE HE PUT HIMSELF THERE
I've had three brushes with death in my life - at least, three that I've been conscious of. One was surfing down in Cornwall. I completely misjudged the currents and came the nearest I've got to being swept out to sea. Only my board snagging on a rock as I was being dragged from the shore stopped me. Which taught me to pay more attention to what's going on under the surface.
So let's look again at this eye-witness account of the crucifixion and ask that question again: Why was Jesus crucified? Only this time, we're looking under the surface of things. Back to verse 21:
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh but Jesus did not take it. And they crucified him. (vv21-24)
How had Jesus got to this point in the first place? The answer is: he chose to be there. Back in Mark 8, after they'd heard a fair amount of his teaching and seen a fair number of miracles, Jesus asked his disciples this question:
'Who do people say I am?' They replied, 'Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.' [ie, you're another great spokesman for God, like the ones of the past.] 'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?' Peter answered, 'You are the Christ.' [ie, you're not another one of them; you're the One we've been expecting from God's side.]
Then Mark continues:
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man [ie him] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8.27-31)
And Jesus walked straight into it. He walked deliberately into the arms of his enemies in Jerusalem, because he chose to die. He said nothing to defend himself from the false accusations at his trials, because he chose to die. In v23, he refused this sedative that they used to drug their victims, to dull the pain, because he chose to die, absolutely conscious and willing. Then look onto verse 27:
They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and the other on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, 'So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days [which was one of their false accusations against him], come down from the cross and save yourself!'
In the same way, the chief priests and teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. 'He saved others,' they said, 'but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.' (vv27-32) The irony of all that is that Jesus could have done. He could have come down at any moment. After all, three days later he rose up from the grave. So presumably he could have come down from the cross. It wasn't a question of 'can't save himself', but won't. He chose to die - just like he'd said back in Mark 10:
For even the Son of Man [ie Jesus himself] did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10.45)
Ie, Jesus came to give his life as the price for getting us out of trouble. And from v33 onwards, Mark records three clues that tell us what was going on under the surface as Jesus died on the cross.
Clue number 1 - the darkness (v33) At the sixth hour [ie midday], darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour [ie 3pm]. This was not Newcastle, so these were not natural weather conditions. This was supernatural. And even those of us with little or no Biblical background know, thanks to Star Wars, roughly what darkness and light stand for. Only the Bible reveals not a Force but a personal God of whom it's written, 'God is light and in him is no darkness at all' (1 John 1.5) - ie, God is utterly, morally pure. So, that darkness at noon over his own Son was God's way of saying, 'I am turning away. I cannot stand being in the presence of what is down there.' Why? Because at that moment Jesus was willingly taking responsibility for the sin of the whole world. He was shouldering it and owning up to it as if it was his. It was as if at that moment all the dustbins of our evil and inhumanity were emptied on him.
Clue number 2 - the cry (v34) And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' The judgement we deserve for our sin, and all the evil and inhumanity that flows from it, is to be separated from God. Which stands to reason. The heart of sin is to say to God, 'Keep out of my life. I want to live it on my own, my way.' The ultimate judgement is to be given what I want: life without God forever. That's the judgement that God's justice demands. But the Bible says, 'God is love' (1 John 4.16). And his love moved him to create a way back to him for us. A way by which our sins could be forgiven and yet justice done and seen to be done. That way was Jesus' death on the cross. He who had no sin of his own willingly took our place, took responsibility for our sin, and received the judgement for it himself. That's what happened to Jesus on the cross. Which makes sense of the darkness, makes sense of the cry, and also makes sense of:
Clue number 3 - the curtain (v38) The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The temple was a gigantic visual aid to teach the problem that exists between us and God. It had a central area called 'the Most Holy Place'. That represented the presence of God. It was sealed off by a curtain, which was like a 'No-entry' sign. It symbolised the fact that sinful people couldn't come into God's presence, because they were in danger from judgement. And the sacrificial system - the repeated slaughter of animals - was a stark reminder that only if judgement was transferred to a substitute could a sinner be forgiven. But of course an animal cannot substitute for a human sinner. Only a human can substitute for a human sinner. We sin consciously and willingly; any substitute must receive our judgement consciously and willingly - and be perfect. And since only God himself can live up to his own standards, it had to be God's Son become human. And the moment he died (v37), then, (v38), the 'No-entry' sign was ripped down from God's side. As if to say, 'Justice on sin has now been done. Forgiveness is now available. The door is open. Come in.'
You may remember that song, 'Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree.' Behind it lies the true story of a man who was kicked out by his wife after she'd reached the end of her patience with him. He left town, came to his senses and wondered whether possibly she might give him one last chance. So he wrote to her. He said he quite understood if she never wanted to see him again. But he wanted to ask for just one last chance. So he would get the bus back through town. And if she was willing to have him back, would she tie a yellow ribbon on the old oak tree where they'd used to meet? And if there was no ribbon there, he wouldn't even get off the bus. He'd pass through, forget it, and never trouble her again. The day came, he got on the bus and it drew into the town square. And there was the oak tree covered in huge yellow sheets. A huge work of forgiveness had gone on in her; and a huge sign was needed to say, 'Come home.'
On Good Friday, a huge work of forgiveness went on in God, as God the Son took our place and God the Father laid on him the judgement we deserve. And a huge sign was needed to say, 'Come home.' That's what the torn curtain said.
There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.
Thirdly, SO WHAT?
Finally, so what? What's this got to do with us, here today? How does it touch our lives? How are we to respond? Well, just look at v37:
With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, 'Surely, this man was the Son of God.' (vv37-39)
This is the man chiefly responsible for the mocking, the beating and the execution. But suddenly, he sees - and I take it, God helped him to see - under the surface of things. Mark says it was the way Jesus died that really got to him. The way he seemed to choose the exact moment (v37); the way he seemed to be in control even at the last - giving his life, not having it taken. With every other victim this centurion had seen, death had obviously got the better of them. But with Jesus, there was something that made him begin to believe that uniquely, this one had got the better of death. And he changed his mind about Jesus. I don't know exactly what he understood by those words he said in v39, but he changed his mind about Jesus. He somehow saw that something to do with God had just happened in front of him.
And my question is: is that what you see as you look at these events? Are you at least beginning to see? As you look at the cross, you're beginning to say, 'My sins put him there. That is what we do to God.' As you look at the cross, you're beginning to say, 'His love for me took him there. That is what God did for us.' If so, you're beginning to see the truth. About yourself. And about Jesus.
I realise there will be a whole range of people here tonight, as there always is. Imagine a line. At one end would be those who are committed followers of Jesus. At the other would be those who are at the moment vocally against. And all points in between. And somewhere there's that line that divides those who have come to trust and follow Jesus from those who've not yet. If you're on the 'not-yet' side of that line, can I say: thanks for coming. And can I say: if you're willing to take this any further, the thing you need to do is make up your mind about Jesus. Who do you believe he was? Why do you think he died?
Those are the two crunch questions to answer. The best way to do it is a combination of reading one of the four Gospels and finding out more from Christians. But it may be that there are some here tonight who would like to cross that line for the first time. You may be like the friend I mentioned at the beginning who'd thought most things through and needed to take action. It may be that you know the God of the Bible is really there. You know you've kept him out of your life, when in fact his rightful place is to be Lord of it. And you know enough of what it would involve to come back to him tonight - you know it would mean stopping living to please yourself and starting to live his way. And you know it would mean being known publicly as a Christian, just like this centurion in v39 came out into the open.
It may be that you know all that, but you've never responded. Maybe you share the same thought that that friend John had: 'I'd like to, but I'm not good enough, and I couldn't keep it up.' Well, join the club. No-one is good enough. We've all sinned differently, but the point is: we're all sinners. And Jesus' death is there for all sinners. The door of forgiveness is open. And he died not just to cover your past sins, but to cover all your future sins as you learn imperfectly to follow him day by day. If you're 'not good enough' and 'couldn't keep it up', then you're qualified to put your trust in Jesus and begin as a Christian.
I'm going to end with a prayer that would be suitable for anyone wanting to respond to Jesus. He's risen and alive - although we can't see him. And he can hear our prayers, whether spoken or thought. Let me tell you what I'll pray so you can decide whether you would want to echo it in a moment:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I admit that it was my sin that took you to the cross. I confess that I have rejected and ignored you.I believe and thank you that your love for me took you to the cross and that you took away the judgement I deserve.I now come to you. Please forgive me, and come by your Spirit into my life to be my Lord and to enable me to live for you.
If that prayer isn't appropriate for you, then why not pray something that is? But if you're ready to pray that, and willing to be public about belonging to Jesus, then you could echo it in your mind to him as I say it.
If you have just prayed that prayer, can I say two things. One is this. On one occasion, Jesus said, 'Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away.' (John 6.37) That means, whoever comes to him for the first time, he will forgive and accept - whoever they are and whatever they've done. And, from then on he will never give up on them. So if you've just prayed that prayer and meant it, you can put your name to that promise.
The other is: it would help you to tell someone you've prayed that prayer. It helps to underline in your mind that you really have begun, and it's a good way of starting to be up-front about belonging to Jesus.