Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:25-27)
Almost 2,000 years later, Jesus looks you and me in the eyes, making the same claims and asking the same question.
Sooner or later, you need to decide whether or not to allow the crucified and risen Jesus Christ to be your personal Savior and Lord. Many of us have already made that decision. Today we celebrate the most epic event in all of human history: the life, death and resurrection of the Creator-Sustainer God who came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ to die for your and my sins and to rise from the dead in victory over both sin and death, offering you and me eternal life, God-quality life, for this life and for the life to come.
Do you believe this? Have you repented of sin and put your trust in Him alone for salvation? Do you trust Him as your personal Savior and Lord?
Forty-one years I have served as a pastor. Throughout those years I have been bombarded with questions, honest questions, by sincere men and women who are trying to decide whether or not to say “yes” to Jesus.
Most of these questioners are genuine people, serious in their quest for spiritual reality. Some are young people, raised in the faith, who are now ready to throw it all out or have already thrown it all out, because of a cynical professor and/or friends who have put questions to them that they had never heard addressed before and are urging them to lifestyles contrary to biblical standards. Some have gone through life tragedies that have caused them to question everything. Some, in their intellectual development, have just come to honest questions for which they want answers.
Some of the questioners are adults who, for years have been nominal, cultural Christians, attending church because that is what you did in the communities where they were raised. They have never had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They have always thought that church attendance was a good thing to do and have put it at a level beside joining a service club, such as Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis, and taking leadership in the local PTA. But now they are discovering the pluralism of American culture. Some of their friends have totally dropped out of church; they don’t have time for civic and specific religious organizations. Others of their friends are claiming a “born-again” experience with Jesus Christ and are not just attending church occasionally but have become extremely active in what they call “the family of God,” personal Bible study, prayer, faithful worship attendance, weekly participation in a small group, reading books and attending Bible classes. Not only this, they are engaged in local and world mission projects, even giving ten percent and more of their gross income to the work of Jesus Christ.
Others who raise these questions to me come from completely non-religious backgrounds. They know nothing about the faith. A few have never been to church before. They tell me that the first time they came they didn’t know when to sit and when to stand, and the language was foreign. It was all new. They were raising questions they had never raised before.
This morning, I would like to talk with you honestly about some of these basic questions that frequently get tossed my way. I could make a life work out of trying to answer each one of these. These are big questions, not easily resolved. But, sooner or later, you have to make a decision whether or not to receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Let me, at least, identify and make some brief comments on several of these questions I have singled out as most frequently asked.
Question 1: Is there really a God?
That’s the starting point, isn’t it? If there is no God, the jig is up. I am a fool to waste my time doing what I am doing. If it’s all an accident anyway, I may just as well eat, drink and be merry, pleasing the immediate, feel-good sensations I can get out of life. After all, tomorrow, or maybe even before tomorrow, I am going to die.
Now, to be honest with you, not too many of my questioners sustain this one very long. The reality is that every culture has some sense of the divine. Atheism has a tough time prevailing. The dialectical materialism of Marxist thought, which was so prevalent in my youthful years and so threatened to take over the entire world, is now bankrupt. Religion has survived.
Written into the very nature of who we are as human beings is a sense of the divine. There is a power or force beyond us. One bows before some pagan idol or stands in awe before the Creator-Sustainer God of the Bible who came in human form as a Redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ and is present in the lives of all who follow Him in the person of the Holy Spirit. There is at the heart of every human being a God-sized vacuum, filled only by One distinct from us who has power over us.
In my moments of doubt, when I am inclined to question my own personal experience with God, I still have to confront the intellectual conviction that all that is couldn’t have happened by chance. The cosmos, the universe, the earth, nature, the complexity of the human body, all this couldn’t have happened by chance. The continuance of it without our planet being either fried by heat from the sun, or frozen into oblivion by the lack of the sun’s warming rays, convinces us of an intelligent Designer, doesn’t it? I see a watch laying on a counter, intricate in design. I may never meet the watchmaker, but I’ve got to believe there is one.
The chances of anything as complex as the human body happening by evolutionary chance without a Creator-Designer is much less than, as one observer stated, a tornado hitting a print shop and throwing all the type up in the air and bringing it down in a fashion that goes through the presses and comes out with a fully bound edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
The Bible states it succinctly. Genesis 14:1 reads: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.'”
Question 2: Just who is the true God?
The Bible says there is one God who reveals himself and functions in three persons–Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Genesis 1 says that in the beginning God created all that is. The very spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep. In the New Testament book of John, the Bible declares that Jesus Christ was present in the creation. It declares in John 1:1-5:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The Apostle Paul makes this magnificent statement of the divinity of Jesus Christ in these words:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
Question 3: Can I know this God personally?
Yes, by all means. He is the Savior God, who wants to have a personal relationship with you.
The most basic statement of the Bible is John 3:16, which reads: “‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.'”
Jesus said, “‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly'” (John 10:10).
In Hebrews 4:14-16, we read: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Yes, you can know God personally. That’s what historic Christianity is all about. The glory of Christmas and of Easter is that God has broken into human history, wrapping His arms around you and me, reconciling us to himself through Jesus Christ.
Question 4: Can I really be forgiven?
Many people come to me with guilt. They are dealing with broken relationships they want healed.
I remember one man coming to me and opening up his heart. His story was sordid. He quickly admitted that for a number of years he had been having an affair. He had done his best to hide it from his wife and children, because he really wanted the marriage to last. On the other hand, he had played his girlfriend along with the promise that soon he would be divorcing his wife and then they could get married.
This went on for years until finally he was in a real bind. His wife found out, he was divorced, and now his girlfriend was expecting him to marry her and he wasn’t certain that he wanted to do it. Could God really forgive him for his years of adultery and the duplicitous spirit that had such a negative impact on his wife, his mistress and his children?
My privilege was that of sharing with him the Good News of salvation, which follows the bad news of the human predicament. I opened up the Bible, as any faithful pastor should, and told him how he was created in the image of God to live a full and meaningful life. I explained to him that something had gone wrong in his life, as in everyone’s life. The Bible says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that the wages of sin is death, spiritual separation from God in this world and in the life to come.
But that’s not the end of the story. God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ to offer forgiveness. That’s the Good News. I shared with him that word in 1 Peter 2:24, which reads: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”
I explained to him that Christ died for all sins; for his sin of adultery and for my sin of prideful self-righteousness that I have not committed adultery. I described to him the fact that Jesus had greater problems with people like me, who were self-righteous religious leaders, who thought of themselves as being better than adulterers, murderers, liars and cheats. All of us need the embrace of God’s forgiveness. And I shared with him that wonderful word of 1 John 1:8-9: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Jesus came to offer forgiveness. The price of that forgiveness is costly. That’s what the cross is all about!
Michael and Robert Shannon, in their book Celebrating the Resurrection, observe that John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach, always keeps a cross in his pocket. He says he keeps it there to remind himself that there is something more important in life than basketball.
What’s most important in your life? What to you is the equivalent of what basketball has been to John Wooden? Are you willing to acknowledge that the cross of Jesus Christ and the empty tomb are more important? On the basis of what God has done for you, you are privileged to have forgiveness from Him and to forgive others and to be free to allow others to forgive you.
Bill Flanagan, in our Divorce Recovery Workshops, says that the major breakthrough for persons recovering from the brokenness and the pain of divorce is the willingness to forgive their former spouse, even if that former spouse doesn’t think they need any forgiveness. Forgiveness is critical for life. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ enables you to be a forgiven person and a forgiving person!
Question 5: What about those people who have never had a chance to hear about Jesus?
That’s a big question. I don’t have an easy answer to it. One reason they haven’t heard is that we haven’t been faithful in going into all the world and preaching the Gospel to every person. The reason more have not heard is because we have not been that faithful.
All salvation, past, present and future, according to the Bible comes through the person and work of Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection. The Bible declares there is only one name in heaven and earth by which we can be saved, and that is the name of Jesus Christ. At the same time, the Bible declares, in Jeremiah 29:13: “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.” And Jesus refers to having other sheep, of which we know not.
How this all fits, I don’t know. But I do know this: That no one will stand before God on the day of judgment and be able to say with genuine feeling, “God, you are not fair!” How God handles those who have never heard is God’s problem when you and I have been faithful in sharing the Good News.
What concerns me is the person who puts up those who have not heard as a “straw man” to defer on making a decision for Christ themselves. That person has heard and in the day of judgment will be held accountable if they have refused so great a salvation. You and I are called to respond on the basis of the light we have received. Ours is not the responsibility to understand everything about God and not to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord until we understand everything.
Don’t let the question, “What happens to those who have never had a chance to hear?” stand in the way of your decision as one who has had the opportunity.
Question 6: If God is so good, how come there is evil and pain in the world?
This is perhaps the question I run into most frequently. You would be amazed how many people come to me, deeply upset by clergy sexual abuse. One person shared with me most recently the stories of people he knows personally who have children and adolescents who were used by pastors and priests for their own heterosexual and homosexual gratification. Years later, these trusted leaders deny their diabolical activities when men and women, now in their adult years, lift the veil of secrecy and tell their heartbreaking stories.
What about television and radio religious stars who profiteer financially on their unsuspecting followers?
How can a good God allow disease to run rampant, divorce to crush children, murder to snuff out lives, and corporate greed to wipe out decades of employee pension investments?
If God is all powerful, why should my own daughter, Suzanne, have her senior year at Princeton University so abruptly disrupted by her cancer diagnosis? Courageously, while going through chemotherapy, she completed her senior thesis and graduated Magna cum laude, only to have the cancer come back with a vengeance the following year and take her life at age 23. Why did she and others like her die, when we know stories of some who have been healed? Is God diabolically capricious? Does He zap one, inconsiderately shattering the hopes and dreams of one family, while, in cavalier fashion, healing another, causing those to celebrate the goodness of God?
These are heavy questions, aren’t they? I don’t have easy answers. But let’s look at the alternative. The fact is that God has given us some degree of freedom as human beings. From Adam and Eve to the very present, you and I have had the opportunity to choose to obey God and live the smart way, or to go our own way.
Let’s assume that instead He has created us as automatons, mechanical men and women, with no choices. We are programmed so that we can’t live near beaches where tsunamis might hit. We are not free to engage in premarital sex. Therefore, because everyone is living according to the smart way, as outlined in Scripture, there is no such thing as venereal disease and AIDS. We are not free to choose our own marriage partner, political ideology, or to say yes or no to God’s claims upon our lives. Is that the kind of world in which you would want to live, a world in which there are no choices, no opportunities to distinguish between the shades of the better good or the greater evil?
God could have, when He saw our human predicament, chosen to not have Noah build the ark. He could have wiped civilization out completely. He could have started all over again here on Planet Earth, or have gone to another planet, creating new arbitrary ground rules in which His creation had no capacity to choose.
I doubt that any of us would want to live in a world in which we had no choices. The price of being created in the very image of God means that we are able to distinguish between right and wrong. Sin has its consequences. And there is the endemic buildup of sludge of generations of sinful behavior that cause the innocent to suffer. In our greed, we foul our environment and refuse to keep our marriage commitments. We greedily grasp for everything, with our hearts closed to the widow, orphan and prisoner. We create an environment that is not God’s dream for us.
Imagine what this environment might look like if it were not for the cross, the resurrection and God’s revelation of himself in the Old and New Testament Scriptures, teaching us how to live the smart way. This world would be a much bigger mess, wouldn’t it? Imagine if every single influence brought about by the historic witness of God in His revelation through the Old and New Testament Scriptures, and all the lives through history that could have been changed by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, were removed and there were no such influences on Planet Earth. What would life look like today?
I will be the first to add that, although I don’t understand suffering and I don’t like it, I have found that the crosses I have been forced to bear, or even willing to bear, have brought their positive results. I have learned in my almost 65 years the truth of what the 17th century writer, Francois Fenelon, wrote, “God uses the disappointments, disillusions, and failures of your life to take your trust away from yourself and help you put your trust in Him.”
I am encouraged by those words of the Apostle Paul, who said that now we see through a glass darkly. We don’t understand everything. But someday we shall see God face to face, and, in that day, we will understand what we do not now understand.
Question 7: Is there life after death?
Absolutely! That’s why Jesus died on the cross. He died, not only to forgive you your sins, but to give you eternal life, God-quality life, both here and in heaven. That was the essence of what He said to His friend, Martha, that day her brother, Lazarus, had died. He had raised him from the dead and declared to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). To which Martha responded, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Jesus told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them. He described heaven as something far beyond what we as human beings could understand. He talked about coming back to take them to be with Him in that place. The Bible describes life beyond this life that is no longer broken by sin, heartbreak, alienation. It is a place where the lion and lamb will lie down together. Every tear shall be washed away. Loved ones who died in Christ will be reunited, having recognizable bodies in an existence that goes beyond anything we can comprehend.
And we dare not forget to say that this life He has promised us in heaven exempts us who have put our trust in Him from the specter of Hell, most specifically defined as eternity spent away from the presence of the God who created us, loves us and yearns for us to be in relationship with Him, both in this life and the next.
Question 8: How do I achieve this peace with God?
Simply stated, open your heart to Jesus Christ. The Bible says that He stands at the door of your life, knocking. Admit your need of the Savior. Acknowledge your sin, those things you have done that you shouldn’t have done, and those things you have left undone that you should have done. You know what they are. Then acknowledge that which you don’t understand about life, about God, about yourself, about other people. It is humbling to claim His direction and meaning, living your life with the help of the Holy Spirit, according to His Word in the Bible.
A few warnings. First, don’t just take what you like about the Bible and reject the rest. Remember, this is the whole counsel of God. If you live by it, acknowledging just some of what is in it, you will never understand that you are not God and I am not God.
Second, let God be God. It is the Christian faith, not the Christian proof. You will never understand it all here on earth.
Third, don’t put off the opportunity to receive Jesus Christ right now. You do not know whether or not you will ever have this opportunity again.
Every Easter I preach my heart out and call people to faith in Jesus Christ. Some do receive Christ, and their lives are changed. Others simply smile and say “hello” at the door. In verbal and non-verbal ways, they say, “Great service. See you Christmas Eve,” somehow oblivious to the fact that the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection has an existential reality for 365 days a year and for all 24 hours of each of those days. It is a life in which you and I walk in daily relationship with Him.
Perhaps the best way to end this message is to remind ourselves of the poignant story of Ashley Smith. Armed with only the Bible and her copy of The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, she handled the seven-hour encounter with Brian Nichols, who was wanted for raping one woman and murdering another woman and three men. The resurrection answers to our deepest questions are embodied in God’s grace, His unmerited favor. The best contemporary expression I have read of the essence of what I am trying to say are in these words written by Andrew Sullivan, a man facing his own issues, in his Time, March 28, 2005 essay, titled “When Grace Arrives Unannounced:
We latch onto this story not just because it’s a riveting end to a high-stakes manhunt. We find ourselves transfixed and uplifted by the sordid ordinariness of it all. He was an alleged rapist and murderer. She was tied up in a bathtub, clinging to the wreckage of a life that was barely afloat. One was a monster, the other a woman unable to care for her 5-year-old, looking for cigarettes in the dark. And out of that came something, well, beautiful. He saw his purpose: to serve God in prison, to turn his life around, even as it may have been saturated in the blood and pain of others. She saw hers: to make that happen. These people weren’t saints. Grace arrives, unannounced, in lives that least expect or deserve it.
I say that as a believer. The crimes Nichols is suspected of are inexcusable. The serenity of Smith is close to inexplicable. But the message of the Gospels is that God works with the crooked timber of human failure. That was an exceptional moment of redemption. But every day we have smaller, calmer chances to turn another’s life around, to serve, to listen. How often do we simply not see what is in front of us? How often do we believe that the world’s evils–from terrorism to crime to emotional cruelty–are beyond our capacity to change? Or that there is no one in front of us whom we can serve? Smith and Nichols’ story is a chastening reminder that we may be wrong.
I watched a man in this community for almost 15 years. He didn’t seem to have much time for God. I told his story in more detail last weekend. He began to come to St. Andrew’s infrequently. He sat in the back row and left during the final hymn. Then I noticed him begin to come more frequently. I heard through the grapevine that he had accepted Jesus as his Savior. On occasion, he would greet me at the door after church. Then he began to battle cancer. He battled it for many months, and then my friend died.
His daughters came to my office. They had his DayTimer with them. They opened it and pulled out a piece of paper with these words, which they wanted me to share at his memorial service. I share them now with you in the hope that you, too, will be able to express the essence of what he expresses here, finding resurrection answers to life’s deepest questions:
“Dear God, I admit that I am a sinner. I am sorry for my sins. Please forgive me and save me. I ask this in the name of Jesus who died for me. I trust him right now. I believe that the sinless blood of Jesus is a sufficient price to pay for my salvation. Thank you for hearing me. Thank you for saving my soul. Amen.”
Jesus looks you in the eyes and makes this claim to be the resurrection and the life. And then He asks you, “Do you believe this?”
Just what is your answer?