Why is the Gospel Good News?

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Well can we say a big thank you to Ofonimeh and friends for the music tonight. Ofonimeh, it's great to have you back and to see your ability to get even the most British people if not actually swaying, definitely measurably off-vertical. That's a real gift.

Well, I don't know what music you're into, but there are so many different kinds, and most of us couldn't begin to say what they were. So, for example, if you think 'garage' is what they play at petrol stations or that 'hip hop' is for one-legged dancing, you'd be wrong. And I only have to mention trance, grunge, ska and dubstep to take most of us well out of our depth.

But mention gospel, and people know what you're on about – especially with the new Arethra Franklin film, Amazing Grace, out right now. People know you're on about music inspired by the good news about Jesus. Because the word 'gospel' just means good news of something that's happened which makes all the difference for you. So 4-0 against Barca in the Champions' League was gospel for Liverpool fans, and made Anfield sing. 6-0 yesterday and the treble of trophies was gospel for Man City supporters and made them sing.

And the first Christians called their message 'the gospel', because they were sure that what Jesus did is the ultimate good news for all of us. Because they were sure that Jesus was God's Son, come into this world as a man, to bring us back into the friendship with God we were made for. And that makes Christians sing, like we have tonight.

You've probably not heard of Gladys Aylward. She was a missionary to China. And a local doctor acted as her guide into part of the country where Christians had never been. And it got so uninhabited, she stopped to pray about what to do, and then started singing gospel songs. And out of nowhere, up popped this lama priest. And he said he'd heard her singing and that she had to come to his lamasery (in other words, monastery) – which was an unheard of invitation to a foreigner. And she later wrote:

I hesitated, but he said, 'We've waited long for you to come and tell us of the God who loves.'
So we followed him to the lamasery and were escorted into a courtyard where five hundred lamas sat cross-legged. [And remember, these are monks. If you're thinking alpacas, this is going to cause major crunching of gears in your head.] We were seated in the middle. And I wondered what to do.
'You sing,' said the doctor.
So I sang a Christian song and the doctor explained it.
'Now sing again,' he said.
So I sang and he talked, well into the night.
Later the lamas came in pairs, all asking the same question, 'Will you explain why Jesus died and how he could love me?'
(The Little Woman, Gladys Aylward)

Finally, she met the head lama, and asked why, against all protocol, he'd let her in. And he showed her a leaflet with a Bible verse in it. It was John 3.16:

"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."

And he said that, on a trip away, one of his lamas had been given this leaflet, along with copies of the Gospels about Jesus. But he said, 'We couldn't understand them. So we've been waiting for someone to explain them. And we knew you were the one, because.. only people who know the God who loves sing.'

And Christians do sing unlike people in all other religions.

Because other religions basically say, 'You do something and God will accept you.' But since you can never do the something enough, or well enough, you can never be sure of God's love in a way that makes you sing – and means you can build your life on it.

Whereas the gospel says, 'God has done something to make you acceptable with him, when you were unacceptable.' It says, 'He loves you so much that he's done something which means you can be forgiven back into friendship with him, just like that – whoever you are, whatever you've done.' And that something was: giving his Son, Jesus to die on the cross and then rise again for us.

So in the rest of the time I just want to explain why Jesus had to do that for us, and how it can bring us back into friendship with God today. And I want to do that from the first reading we had from Luke's Gospel – which is one of the four records in the Bible of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And I'm going to read the start of it again (Luke 23.32):

"Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with [Jesus]. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left."

So crucifixion was the Roman Empire's worst punishment for its worst criminals – like terrorists and murderers. And these two criminals were getting what they deserved for what they'd done.

Whereas Jesus wasn't there for what he'd done but for what he'd said – which was: that he was God's Son and the rightful ruler or King of all our lives. But back then, like now, people didn't want that to be true.

I have an older brother, Niall who made it to be pretty senior in Vodafone. So if you're with them, thanks for subsidising my Christmas and birthday presents – he's a generous guy, but doesn't yet share my faith in Jesus.
And I said to him one time, 'So do you believe there is a God?'
And he said, 'Yes, I definitely believe he's there.'
And I said, 'So if it even might be true that he's made himself knowable through Jesus, wouldn't that be worth looking into?'
And he said, 'To be honest, I don't really want to.'
And I said, 'Why not?'
And he said, 'I guess I just don't want him interfering in my life.'

And if we're honest, deep down that is our natural attitude to God, isn't it? We don't want him interfering.

And at one level, that's why Jesus died on the cross. Because he claimed to be God's Son, come to be the rightful King of all our lives. But the people in power didn't want him to be that. So they got him crucified to get rid of him (or so they thought). So if you look down to verse 35 it says:

"And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at [Jesus], saying, 'He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!' The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, 'If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!' There was also an inscription over him, 'This is the King of the Jews.' One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!'"

And all of that is sarcasm. They're saying, 'So you're the Son of God, are you? King of everyone and everything? Then what are you doing there on the cross? Doesn't that rather undermine your claim? Tell us another one!'

But one person there did see who Jesus really is. Look on to verse 40:

"But the other [criminal] rebuked [the first one], saying, 'Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.'"

So this second criminal was saying, 'I don't believe this man has done anything wrong. And I do believe he is who he says he is.' And then he says, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' So he has this amazing moment of insight and somehow realises that Jesus is about to go through death, out the other side, into his kingdom of heaven. And he says, 'When you do that, and when I meet you again the other side as my Judge, please remember me with mercy.'

And here's where the good news may begin to offend you. Because look at verse 43 again:

"And [Jesus] said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'"

In other words, 'Rest assured, when you follow me through death, you won't face my condemnation; I will welcome you into my kingdom.'

Now does that offend you? Because, remember: This man was the worst of the worst. It's like: someone I know was chaplain in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, and saw IRA terrorists come to faith in Jesus. And he received regular hate mail and threats from those who couldn't stomach the thought that men like that could be accepted by God.

But if we are offended by Jesus accepting this man, it's because it sweeps away to the boundary our favourite religious idea – which is: that God will accept us if we're good enough. But this shows that God obviously doesn't accept people on that basis. And in fact, what Jesus said, over and over, was that the only way God will accept any of us is on the basis of forgiveness. Because if you compare yourself honestly with what God wants from us in the Bible, you'll see that you haven't done it, and that actually, you haven't even wanted to, and that the basis of God accepting us has to be his forgiveness of how we've ignored him and said 'No' to him.

And at the deepest level, that's why Jesus died on the cross – to pay for the forgiveness we need.

And the way I first heard that explained was by a speaker who used this illustration:

He held out one hand and said, 'Imagine this hand stands for you or me.' And then he said, 'And imagine the light up there stands for God. And we were made to live in friendship with God, looking up to him to tell us how to live. But the Bible says we've all turned away from God, to do our own thing. And that's an enormous offence to God and bring us under his judgment.'

'So now,' he said (picking up a thick file), 'Imagine this file is the record of everything God should hold against us in judgement.' And he laid the file on the hand representing us.

And he went on, 'The good news is that God has never stopped wanting to relate to us. And in his love, he's pulled off a way for us to be forgiven back into friendship with him, without ignoring what we've done wrong, and the judgment it deserves.'

'So now,' said this speaker, 'Imagine that this other hand stands for Jesus – God's Son – who never turned away from his Father and never deserved any judgement for doing wrong. But the Bible says that on the cross he took the judgement we deserve (and here he moved the file representing our sin from the hand standing for us to the hand standing for Jesus) – so that on the one hand we could be forgiven our sins, but on the other justice was done on our sins.'

And that's the heart of the good news. It's that God loved you enough to give his Son to do that, and his Son loved you enough to be willing to – so that you can be forgiven back into friendship with God, whoever you are, whatever you've done, however long you've kept him at arm's length.

And this criminal whom Jesus accepts at the 11th hour – or probably the 11.99th hour – he plays us all onside, doesn't he? Whatever he was – terrorist, murderer – the message is: if Jesus could forgive him, he can forgive anybody – he can forgive you, whatever's on your conscience.

Now in the last couple of years, I've met up with two people who weren't Christians at the start, but who wanted to make up their minds about Jesus. And after a while they both said the same thing: 'I'd like to believe it, but how do you know it's true?'

Which is a great question. How do you know it really was the Son of God dying there, and that it really did pay for your and my forgiveness?' And the answer is: because of what happened next. Because what happened next – after Jesus dead body was put in a tomb on Good Friday – was that three days later, Easter Sunday, his tomb was found empty and Jesus was seen alive, bodily risen from the dead.

Now you may still need to look at the evidence for that in the Bible, to make up your own mind about it. But there is solid evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. Which shows he was no ordinary human, but God become human. And that means his death was no ordinary death, either. Because if he had no wrongdoing of his own to pay for, the only thing that makes sense of his death is that he was paying for the wrongdoing of others – of us. And his resurrection was the great sign that he'd done it.

So just imagine you take me out after this for a meal in a restaurant. And at the end, you suddenly realise you've come out without any money. And I don't have any on me, either. But to spare you embarrassment, I call over the manager and say, 'My friend has unfortunately forgotten to bring any money; can I wash up to pay for the meal?' And he agrees and I disappear behind the kitchen swing doors to do my stint. And the question is: how do you know when I've done enough, when I've paid for it, and you're free to walk out? And the answer is: when I reappear through the swing doors.

And on Good Friday, if I can put it like this, Jesus went behind the swing doors of death, to pay for our forgiveness. And on Easter Sunday, he reappeared, risen from the dead, to show he'd done it – and to show that he really is God's Son and the rightful King of all our lives, whether or not we want that to be true.

So that's the good news of what Jesus has done to bring us back into friendship with God. But it isn't automatic – and we each need to receive it for ourselves, as and when we get to the point of realising we're in the wrong with God and need him to put us right with him again.

So just imagine I could draw a line of where everyone here stands in relation to Jesus.

At one end would be those who can say, 'I have received what Jesus has done for me. So I know I'm forgiven and accepted. And as a thank you, I'm trying to live for him as King. And I know that beyond this life I'll be with him in heaven.' And there's nothing better than being able to say that. And it does make us sing – even if we're too British to sing like we've done tonight, every week.

At the other end of my line would be those who can't say any of that, yet. But who are maybe saying, 'I'm really not sure this is even true.' And if that's you, can I say: please keep coming – you're always welcome; and please keep looking into the good news and questioning it until you can really make your mind up about Jesus.

But maybe tonight you're in the middle of my line. You know it's true, you know you need to be forgiven and re-start life with God where he belongs. But you've not yet received what Jesus has done for you. So I want to end with a prayer which you could use if you know you want to do that. Let me read it out first, so you can decide whether it would be appropriate for you:

Lord Jesus,
Thank you for loving me so that you died for my forgiveness.
Please forgive me for turning away from you.
And please help me to live for you as my King from now on.

Now you may be further back than that, or further on. But if you want to respond to the good news and come back into friendship with God, you could echo that prayer in your head as I lead us in prayer now.
Let's pray.

Lord Jesus,
Thank you for loving me so that you died for my forgiveness.
Please forgive me for turning away from you.
And please help me to live for you as my King from now on.

I'm into extra time, but as football has shown us recently, important things happen in extra time. So let me say three, quick important things if you've just prayed that prayer.

The first thing is to trust that God has heard and answered your prayer, and that that will become real in your experience – as it has done for hundreds of others here tonight. The second thing is to take a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? – it's on the Welcome Desk and the stands at the doors – and it goes over the step of becoming a Christian more fully. And the third thing is to tell another Christian that you've taken that step – because that'll help you start being public and definite about it; and it'll help them be able to make some suggestions about how to go on from here.

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