During the course of 2010 I’ll be giving nine talks under the general title "9 special offers". Each talk will be looking at something offered to us by Jesus Christ. Jesus invites people to become his followers; to become Christians. But what does that mean and what does he offer? That’s what I want to explain.
The first talk, this evening, has the particular title "You can find God." Speaking about God to a friend, Jesus once said the following words, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus said that God was hard to find, hard to reach and that there was only one way to find him: through Jesus himself.
This is a key claim of Jesus: he, and he alone, can give people the ability to find and know God. That’s the offer I want to talk about this afternoon.
"Knowing" vs "knowing about"
Now as we begin let’s be clear, first of all, about where I want you to get to. I don’t want you to find God in the sense of just knowing about him. You see, knowing about something is very different from actually knowing it. I may know all about Mount Everest from reading books, watching television and surfing the Internet; but I don’t actually know the mountain. To do that, I need to climb it and experience the view from the summit. Then I’ll start to know Everest, not just about it.
That’s an important distinction isn’t it? And it applies to my talk. I don’t want you to end up just knowing about God. God is a person whom you can find, meet and know personally. He can be your God, your Lord, your friend, your protector, your father. What I’m talking about this evening is personal, not just information. I want you to find God so that you can know him.
But getting close to another person in that way means overcoming any barriers which may be blocking you. Imagine a young man who wants to start seeing a girl that he’s fallen in love with from a distance. He’s seen her at work, or elsewhere, and is deeply attracted. But how does he actually get to know her? Initially she is nothing more than a hope inside his head, a set of day-dreams and strange feeling in his stomach when he sees her. Probably she doesn’t even realise yet what he thinks about her. How does he overcome that?
Well he’s got to pull down whatever invisible walls are in his way. Given he could just go and speak to her, why hasn’t he? Because he’s too nervous. He thinks he’ll say the wrong thing, or he thinks she’ll laugh and reject him, or he thinks he won’t know what to do next if she shows interest, or he’s worried about what others in the office are going to say. He’s nervous about the situation. Other lads have a natural ability when it comes to talking to girls, or at least previous experience. He doesn’t. So he’s got to overcome this barrier in his way: the barrier of his nerves,
Likewise with God, we need to identify any barriers between us and him. The barrier may not be nerves, but is there anything else which is sitting in the way? If so, we need to identify it and deal with it.
So in my sermon, I’m going to work outwards from that issue using three steps. Firstly, I’m going to speak about the main barrier that does exist between us and God. Secondly, I’m going to examine how Jesus Christ has removed this barrier. Thirdly, I’m going to finish by talking about what we need to do.
A clear problem
Firstly, then, the barrier between us and God.
That there is a barrier I don’t need to spend much time proving to you. It’s blatantly obvious that God isn’t easy for us to find. You can see that from the multiple religions and philosophies that exist in the world. People will tell you any number of different things about God which do not agree with one another. These range from the idea that there is no God at all, to there being only one God, or one God in three persons, or multiple gods, or the idea that the universe itself is God, or that God is inside everyone one of us or that whether there is a God or not is completely unknowable. The list goes on and on: many options for what God is like; many opinions.
So clearly some barrier exists between us and God, otherwise we’d all be sure who he is, what he’s like and how to know him. What is this barrier then? What prevents us from coming to the truth about God?
The Bible points to our problem as being pride. It teaches that the reason we don’t know God is that we think too much of ourselves: that we are self-absorbed and self-addicted little creatures who think we can be our own reliable guides to life. That pride – overvaluing ourselves; making ourselves of first importance – gets in the way between us and God.
Now don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. The Bible does not speak against wanting what’s best for ourselves. That’s an intuitive and natural instinct: we have deep longings within us to have a good and satisfying life, and be protected against misery and danger. That’s not what I’m describing with the word "pride".
Rather "pride" describes that desire for a good life when it has gone bad and mutated into obnoxious selfishness. That’s when the trouble sets in. It’s when I decide that in order to benefit myself I must consider others less important than me, so that I despise, ignore, envy or resent them. It’s when I have become the centre of the universe and all must play second fiddle to me.
Jesus spoke against such pride. He told people to love their neighbours as themselves: to create an equivalence in our minds between our own well-being and the well-being of others. We should want them to benefit from life just as much as we wish to benefit. Of course all of us do this for some people in our lives: family, friends, people whom we pity. What was radical about Jesus’ demand was that it should be done for all. He even said that those who follow him should love their enemies.
Humble like children
But how is it possible to have such love? Only through humility. In other words, putting away pride: not making ourselves as of first importance but instead putting others first.
Speaking about those whom God would rate most highly, on one occasion, Jesus said that it was those amongst his followers who became like little children. A child in Jesus’ society had no status, had nothing to offer – he or she needed to grow up before people would take them seriously and value them as equals. Jesus invited his followers to become like children: to leave behind any obsessions they had with how others saw them, how highly others praised them, what others did for them, and instead to be concerned with serving others, loving them and doing good for them. Such people, said Jesus, God would value most.
Well we could go on to think further about Jesus’ words but I want to come back to the main thing I’m trying to communicate. What does the Bible see as the barrier between us and God? What does it attack? Our pride. Jesus, in his teaching about love and humility, was speaking against that. The Bible speaks against it in many other ways besides. It’s the reason why we’re no longer clear on who God is, what’s he’s like and how we can know him.
But maybe you think this is a bit unfair. Is pride really so serious? Really so damaging? How does a bit of self-interest get in between us and God? Well, it’s because our pride isn’t only limited to the way in which we treat other people. It is most visible in the ways we’ve treated God. And that’s why it has separated us from him.
The Bible tells us that when we were first created, the human race had easy and ready contact with God. He was pleased to be known by us. But we chose a pathway which destroyed that relationship. We decided that God placed too many demands upon us and we needed to break free; we needed to raise ourselves up to be God’s equals; we needed to decided for ourselves how to live our lives without reference to the wishes of our creator.
The Bible’s name for this is sin. Sin is our way of thinking whereby we decide how we’ll behave: what’s right and what’s wrong. We don’t ask how God wants us to behave; what he says is right and wrong. Rather we go our own way. Every day people live this way and the human race has done so for thousands of years. That’s why we no longer have easy contact with God. This is the barrier that we’ve created between us and God.
The evidence of sin is all around you, and inside you. Just look at how the world is in a mess. People mistreat one another, make war on one another, hate one another, abuse, fight, resent, deceive, cheat, let one another down. Why? Why hasn’t the human race learned to get along with itself after all these years? Why is it so hard? Why haven’t the countless religious and moral rules that people have invented fixed everything? Or on the other hand, if life is simply like this, why haven’t we just accepted it and learned to cope? Why do we always have this feeling inside that things ought to be better than they really are?
That’s the evidence of sin. Deep down we know we ought to behave differently. We know that there are better ways to live than the ones we choose. We know that we’ve gone against our creator’s design, even if we’ve lost touch with him.
This is why we have that feeling inside called our conscience. It’s an inner voice which prompts us when we are doing what we should not do and makes us feel guilty. Why is it there? Because God made us to live in his ways and so he has left a reminder for us when we go wrong. Our conscience says to us: "Your choices are wrong; your actions are wrong; there is a better way".
Of course, in many situations we ignore our consciences and eventually they go silent. Or we corrupt our consciences so that they turn bad into good. But we can’t do this all the time. For each of us there are things we do which leave us feeling guilty, ashamed and dirty: when we know we have done something we should not have done, even though we chose and wanted to do it. This is the evidence of sin inside you.
All around the world, all around us, and inside our own minds, we know that sin exists. We know that we are behaving badly. We know that ruling our own lives isn’t working. This is the barrier between ourselves and God. It’s real and we know it is. It’s a barrier which we have erected; we’ve put it in place. Our proud determination to live our way, to decide our own rules, has pushed God away from us.
And indeed God has responded to that. Since we were determined to live without him, God has withdrawn from us. He stopped making it easy for us to find him. No longer do we see him, hear him or know him. All we are left with is an inner sense that there is a God somewhere whom we ought to know, which has triggered the endless contradictory religions that we’ve invented to fill that inner longing for something greater than ourselves.
So what’s the answer to this barrier? How do we overcome it and so know God again? How can our selfish pride be dealt with and our lives changed? Well, that brings me to the second thing I want to say. It’s the Bible’s answer to that question and it’s very simple: there is nothing you can do. There is nothing you can do. Sin has so damaged us and God has so distanced himself from us, that there is nothing we can do. We are helpless.
Of course, we tend to resent that idea because it challenges the very pride which was our problem in the first place. So in our made-up religions we deny our hopelessness. We say that people must try harder, follow a set of rules, implement a certain morality and way of life. And then we can discover God for ourselves; we can make our own way back to God. It’s all down to us.
The Bible says not. It describes our sin as so destructive that we have wrecked our ability to know God and have so offended God that we simply make him angry.
So is there an answer then? Yes, says the Bible. But it all depends on God choosing to do something. We cannot initiate a way of knowing God; but he can bring us to know him. And he has. That’s who Jesus Christ is. He is the person who brings us to God. But why and how? What is so unique about Jesus that he can do this? And if he can do this, how does it work?
Jesus – God’s Son
The answer lies in the fact that Jesus himself is God, come to us as a man. He combines in himself both God and man; divinity and humanity. He unites God to the human race, and makes God therefore knowable by the human race. He brings God down to us. Come to know Jesus and you come to know God.
Let’s return to that quotation I used earlier and hear a bit more of it. This is Jesus talking to his friend Philip: John 14:6, "Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him." Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. "
What was Jesus saying about his life, in those words? He was saying that he is the eternal Son of God. That he has always existed alongside God; equal with him and in a perfect relationship of love. But that didn’t make them two separate gods. Jesus is one with his Father; their lives fully and perfectly intertwined with one another. Two persons, who together are the one God who made everything. If you want to know God, you simply need to know Jesus. He is the way, and the only way, to discover what God is like. He is the truth about God.
This is the Bible’s claim. In Jesus, God has chosen to do something about the barrier which exists between us and him. God has chosen to send his son to break through that barrier. God has chosen to come near to us. Come so near that people could look him in the eye, listen to him speak, even share a meal with him. God has broken through the barrier which we caused between us and him.
Earlier on I spoke about a lad who is interested in getting to know a girl in his office. But he doesn’t know how to approach her. He’s too nervous. But one morning he finds an email on his computer from the girl herself asking if he’d like to accompany her to a show in London later in the week. In that moment she’s overcome the barrier of his nerves for him. He didn’t know she was even interested; he thought it was all down to him. But now he discovers that she’s opened up the way for him to speak with her.
God has done something similar. He’s approached us. However, he’s done so in a very much more generous way than the girl in my story. God has come people who have badly mistreated him in the past, and who continue to do so in the most appalling ways in the present.
Remember that the barrier which God has overcome is not our nerves but rather our sin. We have been – you and I – we have been proud rebels against God, determined to despise his way of living and do our own thing. So in coming to us, through Jesus Christ, God hasn’t approached loveable friends; he’s approached enemies and shown a willingness to love those who have ignored him.
Why should God do this? The Bible tells us that it comes down to "grace". God is gracious. In others words, he is willing to show kindness, mercy and love to people who do not deserve them from him. God, simply because of what he is like – because he is generous – has broken through all the barriers and come to us in Jesus. God has initiated contact with the very people who so mistreated and abused him, and who deserved only his anger and judgement.
So, then, God has done what we could not do – he’s reopened the possibility of us knowing him. But what must we then do? How should we respond to this?
Well the first response must be one of sorrow and regret for the mess we’ve made of life. We cannot simply ignore how we’ve treated God and say to ourselves, "Ok God wants to be friends again – that’s fine." If we do then nothing has been sorted out and we’re simply rebuilding the barrier. If we fail to apologise for our abuse of God and want a fresh start living in a new way, if we don’t do that, then it proves our pride is continuing and the relationship with God will break down once again. We’re effectively saying to God that it’s very nice of him to come to us but that he’s still got to put up with whatever we feel like giving to him.
That’s wrong and the Bible says it’s wrong. So the first step in coming to know God through Jesus is, therefore, repentance. The word means means a true and deep regret within us over how we have behaved towards God and towards other people. Repentance means having: a hatred of our pride; a rejection of our sins; a desire to be free from trying to do life our way; and a recognition that it’s got to be God’s way or nothing.
If you want to find God, you have got to begin with repentance. You have got to begin by saying sorry and wanting things to be mended between you and God. Are you willing to do that?
Too often, human beings refuse to say sorry. We are quick to make excuses for our behaviour: "I’m sorry but you have to understand that life was difficult then". We are quick to point the finger elsewhere: "well you didn’t exactly make things easy for me." We are quick to move on without too many demands: "Ok, I’m sorry. But let’s just forget about it now and…" We don’t like to apologise or we don’t like our apologies to be too costly.
It cannot be that way with God. God wants a real change of heart from you; a real repentance. You see God takes deeply seriously all the wrong that you have done whilst living apart from him. Every sin is something very offensive to God. You may not feel it is so but each time God sees a person doing something which he hates, which he never designed people to do, it provokes him to wrath: everything within him wants that sin punished and dead.
The great demonstration of this is what happened to Jesus. Jesus said that he came to bring God near to us; to make God known; to rebuild our relationship with God. But what happened to Jesus? He was killed. Now why was that allowed to happen if he’s both God and man? Because it was the only way to tear down the barrier of our sin.
Jesus, says the Bible, died in the place of others. He came into this world not only to show us God but to rescue us from our sins; to bring us forgiveness. But forgiveness is not cheap. It’s not simply God saying "Oh let’s just forget about it. Let’s forget about the all the violence, brutality, cruelty, nastiness, deceit, immorality, theft, selfishness and so on". God couldn’t do that. He needed to make plain how awful our sins are. They had to be punished. But Jesus took that punishment onto himself. He stepped in to take the punishment that others deserved.
This is why the anyone coming to know God must begin with repentance. Our time away from God has not been something trivial; it’s been serious enough for the Son of God to die on a cross to deal with it. Jesus’ death is the great demonstration – the great proclamation – about how evil our ways have been.
If you are unwilling to apologise to God and see your ways as wrong and his ways as right, then you cannot know him. You must repent.
But for those who do, there is a way back to God through Jesus Christ. Having repented, you can then become a follower of Jesus. You can put your trust in him, learn from him, and serve him in your life. All who do that, start to know God. Just as Jesus said to his friend Philip: if you know me, then you know God. It’s true.
And it brings the most wonderful benefits.
Firstly, to know God is to begin to make sense of life: to understand just why human beings exist; what life is about.
Secondly, to know God through Jesus Christ is to have your conscience cleared. All you’ve done wrong is taken away by Jesus and dealt with; you can live knowing that God has forgiven you. This doesn’t mean you stop doing what is wrong overnight. Further sins turn up in life; Christians can behave appallingly at times. But if they’re true Christians then they will repent: genuinely apologise to God and to others whom they’ve wronged, and seek forgiveness. And because they know God through Jesus Christ, they know they will be forgiven and their guilt will be taken away. To know God is to have your conscience cleared.
Thirdly, to know God is to have the strongest loving relationship in the world, because it doesn’t depend upon you or other people. We always fail in our relationships, but God promises that those who come to know him, will be completely cared for by him and he will not let them down. God doesn’t promise that life becomes easy; those who follow Jesus often find life tough at times – tougher than before they became Christians. But God does promise that those who know him will ultimately be looked after.
Which brings me to the final benefit of knowing God that I want to mention today: you gain eternal life. Our lives in this world are very brief: they’re over before we feel we’ve even got properly started. But God has said that those who come to know him through Jesus Christ will overcome that limitation: they will live forever. And in that eternal life, all the hindrances and problems of life now will be gone; we will at last live as human beings should have lived: life at its best, its fullest, its finest.
Life doesn’t get any better than when it’s lived knowing God. You can know him. Whatever your past has been, the guilt can be wiped away, you can have a fresh start. However far away God has felt, you can find God through Jesus Christ. Take up his offer to do so – today.