Starting at university is full of first things. For many of us it’s our first time away from home. I vividly remember walking back to my room having just waved the parents off and thinking, ‘well, this is it: you’re on your own.’ Then there are first attempts at self-catering. I was chatting to one first year at freshers’ time and he confessed he’d started a fire in one of the kitchens, trying to cook spaghetti. So I said, ‘Did you let it boil dry?’ And he said, ‘No, I didn’t know it needed water in the first place.’ How do you get that far in life without knowing that? For me, there was also the first time I came back from church and the other guys on my corridor asked me where I’d been. And that was the first chance to nail my Christian colours to the mast (I was a Christian by the time I arrived at university).
So imagine that later tonight one of your neighbours or flatmates comes and says, ‘Hey, we were looking for you earlier to see if you wanted to come on the Union’s guided tour of ASDA... I can’t tell you how much we’ve found out about pasta – like did you know it needed water? - where have you been?’ And the question is: do we nail our colours to the mast? And if we don’t, is it because we are Christians but have temporarily lost the nerve to nail our colours? Or is it because we’re still not sure that those really are our colours - still working out whether we really do believe and follow Jesus?
Well if that’s you, now is a great time to do that working out. I guess many of us here have had a Christian background – Christian parents, going to church, Christian school. And moving away to university is like having all that scaffolding around you taken away. And you find yourself asking, ‘Is there a faith of my own left standing?’ Well, one thing we aim to do as a church is to give people the space and opportunity to think through what they need to, and to ask what they need to, in the process of making up their own minds about Jesus.
So for the rest of our time we’re going to look at part of the Bible which will help each of us clarify in our own minds where we stand in relation to Jesus tonight, and where we might go from there. It’s the part of the Bible we had read earlier – Mark 15.21-39. This is taken from Mark’s Gospel – one of the four accounts in the Bible of Jesus’ life, death and rising again from the dead. It’s Mark’s record of Jesus’ death and of the two different reactions to it in the people who were there. And it’s like a mirror. As we read it, you’ll see yourself reflected in one of these two reactions to Jesus. So let’s look at
First, THE FIRST REACTION TO JESUS - REJECTION
Let’s read this Bible reading from v21:
“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 [that is, a Roman centurion and an execution squad of soldiers] forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh [which was a kind of anaesthetic to dull the pain], but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him [i.e., nailed him to a wooden cross to die the Roman death-penalty]. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get. 25 It was the third hour [i.e., 9am] when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. 27 They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. 29 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, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!" 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! 32 Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.”
So there’s the first reaction to Jesus: a group of people saying to him, ‘Come down from the cross and then we’ll believe in you - pull off that kind of miracle, show us that level of evidence, and we’ll believe. But like Mark says, that’s mockery, not sincerity. Because these are the very people who wanted Jesus crucified.
Let me back up a bit and explain how Jesus came to end up crucified. This is how C.S.Lewis puts it in his book Mere Christianity:
Then comes the real shock. Among the Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if he was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says he has always existed. He says he is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let’s get this clear. Among pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say he was part of God or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since he was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside this world, who made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
And if you read Mark’s Gospel, that’s a fair summary. Jesus claimed to be God’s Son come into the world to re-establish God’s rule over our lives (e.g., Mark 12.6, 14.61-64). And this first group of people rejected that claim. They sentenced him to death for blasphemy. But since they were living under Roman occupation and couldn’t carry out the death-penalty themselves, they had to manipulate the governor, Pontius Pilate, to do it. Which they did.
So why did they reject Jesus? It wasn’t because he didn’t make his claims clear. Nor was it for lack of evidence to back up his claims. Just look back to v31 of that reading:
31 “In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves.”He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself!”
Just notice the first bit of what they said there. ‘He saved others.’ Mark chapters 2 and 3 imply that some of these Jewish leaders had actually been there when Jesus had healed people. E.g., in chapter 2, he put a paralysed man back on his feet simply by saying, ‘Get up, take your mat and go home.’ And Mark tells us, ‘He got up, took his mat, and walked out in full view of them all’ – probably including some of these very people at the cross. They’d actually seen some of Jesus’ miracles with their own eyes. (Mark 2.1-12; see also Mark 3.22.)
People often say, ‘If only I’d been there and seen with my own eyes...’ Maybe you’ve said that yourself. And the answer is: these people were there and did see with their own eyes. They didn’t deny that Jesus did these things. But they didn’t believe that he was who he claimed to be. Which shows that for them and for us it’s not a case of, ‘Can’t believe’ – as if there’s no evidence, as if you have to commit intellectual suicide to be a Christian. No, for them and for us it’s a case of, ‘Won’t believe’ – it ultimately comes down to a matter of the will.
And this first reaction to Jesus reflects what we’re all like by nature. According to the Bible, we all start out not wanting to give God his rightful place in our lives. Just like the classic student thing is wanting to be free of parents telling us how to live, so the Bible says the classic human thing is wanting to be free of God telling us how to live. Because we basically don’t trust him. We think that if we do give him his rightful place in our lives, as our King, as our Ruler, we’re going to miss out.
So when Jesus claimed that he was God’s Son come to re-establish God’s rule in our lives, that wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Their minds understood it. But their wills didn’t want it to be true, because that would mean massive change. Because accepting Jesus’ claim means saying to him, ‘I believe you’re my rightful Ruler and with your help, I’m going to re-learn to live my life for you from now on in every area – in my work, my sport, my relationships with family, in how I use my money, my body, my time, my future - everything. I’ll be what you want me to be. I’ll do what you want me to do. I’ll go where you want me to go.’ And by nature, we don’t want that.
So what our wills do is to send up a message to our minds to say, ‘Can’t you find a way around these claims and the evidence of the New Testament (NT)?’ And there are two classic ways around Jesus’ claims. One is simply not to look at them - not to Christianity a first or second thought. E.g., my brother and I had a big conversation about the Christian message after our grandmother’s funeral, and at the end of the conversation, Niall said to me, ‘Well, I’ll think about it later.’ So I stuck my neck out a bit and said, ‘But you won’t will you?’ And he agreed, ‘I probably won’t, will I?’ Now you may be thinking, ‘I’ll think about it later – when I’m settled into university.’ And in no time at all you’ll find yourself thinking, ‘I’ll think about it once I’ve got through university.’ And then, ‘I’ll think about it once the job settles down.’ And so on. Can I say that, whatever stage of life you’re at, it will never be easier or more convenient to commit yourself to working through what you believe than it is now.
The other way round Jesus’ claims is to look into them but explain them away. So, e.g., some people say Jesus never claimed to be God’s Son – that that’s a misinterpretation of what Mark and the others wrote. To which the answer is: read what they wrote for yourself. Or some people say it was all made up by Jesus’ followers. But this part of the Bible above all puts it beyond doubt that the Christian message was not made up. If you were making up a God, the probability that you would make up one who died like this on a Roman cross is zero.
So that’s the first reaction: rejection. That’s where we all start out. And where some of us here still are. You may not be as vocal in your rejection as these people at the cross. But as you look at these people at the cross, you see your own reaction to Jesus reflected: ‘I don’t want him to be King over me.’ Do you need to admit to yourself tonight that that’s where you stand in relation to Jesus?
Secondly, THE SECOND REACTION TO JESUS - FAITH,
Let’s continue to read this Bible reading from v33:
33 “At the sixth hour [i.e., midday] darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour [i.e., 3pm]. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 35, When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." 36, One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said. [They still had this idea that if Jesus really was anything to do with God, God would someone rescue him from the cross.]37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 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!"
So that’s the other reaction to Jesus – which, in a word, is faith. And faith is seeing who Jesus really is, and what he’s done for you on the cross, and responding. And God seems to have used the very moment of Jesus’ death to bring this centurion to faith – to open his eyes to see that this wasn’t the death of a mere human being, but of the Son of God. Look again at v37:
37, With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. [Then skip to v39:]
39 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!"
This centurion had seen a lot of people die. But he’d never seen anyone die like Jesus. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ last cry was the word ‘Finished’ (John 19.30) - i.e., ‘Job done! Mission accomplished!’ Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said but simply that it was a loud cry – like the roar that goes up from St James’ Park when a goal is scored. And this centurion had never seen anyone die like that – as if his death had achieved something. And when Mark says, Jesus ‘breathed his last’, literally it reads, ‘gave up his spirit’ – i.e., chose the exact moment of his death. And this centurion had never seen anyone die like that – as if he (Jesus) had been in control to the very end. In fact, it made him realise that Jesus – the prisoner – had been in control all along, from the moment he refused to say anything in his defence at his trial, to the moment he gave up his life. Jesus had once said, ‘No-one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’ (John 10.18). And, having watched him die, this centurion would have known exactly what he meant.
So God used the very moment of Jesus’ death to open this man’s eyes to see who Jesus really is, and something of what he did on the cross.
And here’s a simple way to clarify in your own mind whether or not you are yet a Christian. Because a Christian is someone who looks at the cross and says, ‘That was the Son of God, and he did that for my forgiveness, so that I now want to live for him.’ And as you look at this centurion that may be where you see your reaction to Jesus reflected. And if so, then you do have Christian colours to nail to the mast if they ask you, later tonight, ‘Where have you been?’
But it may be that Jesus’ death is still a mystery to you – you still wonder why Christians go on about it so much. So let me unpack a few last details of this Bible reading. Because God gives us three clues as to what was really going on at the cross. The first clue is in v33:
33 “At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.”
Darkness in the Bible is a sign of God’s judgement – of God reacting against our rejection of him and all we consequently do wrong. So that clue shows that God the Father was acting in judgement at the cross. The second clue is in v34:
34 “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
And that shows us that God the Father was acting in judgement against his Son at the cross. So here’s the one person never to reject his Father or do anything wrong, yet he’s facing judgement. So why did the one person who’s never deserved judgment end up under judgment? Well, Jesus’ own answer was this. He once said, ‘I have come to give my life as a ransom for many’ [i.e., to die in order to pay for you to be forgiven].’ (See Mark 10.45)
Now people often ask, ‘But why can’t God just forgive?’ After all, when we forgive one another, we don’t demand some kind of ‘payment’ or ‘sacrifice’. And the answer is: when we forgive, the whole justice of the universe isn’t at stake. Whereas when God forgives, it is. You see, the Christian message calls us to trust that every sin of ours – every offence against God – can and will be forgiven if we come to trust in Christ. So that when I meet Jesus beyond this life, I trust I’ll be accepted despite all that I’ve done wrong. But at that point, someone could object and say to the Lord Jesus, ‘How can you possibly forgive his sins? You’re the Judge of this universe! You’ve got to see that justice is done and responsibility taken.’ And Jesus will be able to say, ‘Justice was done on every one of these sins I’ve forgiven, because I took responsibility for them on the cross and died under my own judgment. I willingly took the treatment Ian Garrett deserves so that Ian Garrett might get the treatment he doesn’t deserve.’ According to the Bible, that’s what happened at the cross.
So as we look at the cross, we see how God ought to treat us. He ought to treat us as he treated his Son that day. So if tonight you still think you’re basically good, basically acceptable to God as you are, the cross says otherwise.
But as we look at the cross, we also see how God wants to treat us. He wants to forgive us and have us back in relationship with him. So if tonight you think you’re too bad for that, you think God can forgive the others here, but not you, the cross says otherwise. Jesus’ death means there’s no sin you can confess to him that he’s not able and willing to forgive.
The third clue about the cross is in v38:
38 “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”.
If you imagine Mark as a film director, it’s as if at this moment he switches scene - switches camera - from the site of the crucifixion outside Jerusalem to the site of the temple inside Jerusalem. And in the temple was a curtain that was a sign of the barrier of judgement between us and God. And at the moment Jesus died, God tore down that sign, as if to say, ‘Come in. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, if you come to me, I’ll meet you not with judgement, but with forgiveness and acceptance for the rest of your life.’
So those were the two reactions at the cross, and they’re still the only two possible reactions to Jesus today:
• Rejection – which looks at Jesus’ claims and says, ‘I don’t want him as King over me’ – which is where we all start out; and...
• Faith – which looks at Jesus’ cross and says, ‘That was the Son of God, and he did that for my forgiveness, so that I now want to live for him.’
Thirdly, YOU’RE REACTION TO JESUS - ?
I wonder where you do stand tonight in relation to Jesus, and I wonder where you’d like to stand?
Imagine I was to draw a line that represented all the different places we could stand in relation to Jesus. At one end of the line would be those of us whose reaction to Jesus is faith. And if that’s you, can I say: be humble and be grateful – because you didn’t get there by being smarter or more ‘open to God’ than other people. You got there by God opening your eyes to who Jesus is and what he’s done for you on the cross.
At the other end of the line would be those of us whose reaction to Jesus is not faith – but I guess the very fact you’re here means you’d like to believe, or at least that you’re trying to sort out what you believe. Well, if that’s you, thank you for coming, thank you for listening. And can I make a few suggestions about what would help you to sort out what you believe:
• Do keep coming back on Sundays – as I said earlier, one thing we aim to do as a church is to give people the space and opportunity to think through what they need to.
• Join one of our Christianity Explored groups – an opportunity to meet with a small group of other people at the same stage of asking questions and sorting out what they believe. We look at parts of Mark’s Gospel (as we’ve done tonight), watch a video talk to introduce it and then have the opportunity to ask questions about anything and everything.
• Take away a copy of Mark’s Gospel from the Welcome Desk. Perhaps you’ve never given one of the four Gospels a read as a thinking, critical adult. Why not do so?
• Take away a copy of Why Jesus? – a booklet that explains more about what it means to be a Christian than I’ve had time to do tonight.
But it may be that you’re in the middle of my imaginary line. You’ve done as much reading and thinking and asking questions as you need to. And you know that the time has come to respond to Christ, to ask his forgiveness and to accept him in his rightful place as King of your life. If that’s you, you could read over and then pray this prayer to the risen Jesus. You may have already prayed a prayer like this and begun as a Christian. You may be much ‘further back’ down my imaginary line - in which case it’s not appropriate for you. But if you know that you want to respond to Christ, you could use this prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I confess that I have rejected you as my King, and deserve your judgement.
But I believe that through your death there is forgiveness for everything.
Please forgive me and come into my life by your Spirit to enable me to live for you from now on.
If you do pray that prayer and mean it, rest assured that God will hear and answer it. And in order to get some help with where to go from here, can I encourage you to let another Christian know you’ve taken that step? They can then make some suggestions about the next step as you start this new life with Christ.