The Heart of the Matter
The heart of the matter, the bottom line, the ultimate central truth that all Jesus’ followers hold to isn’t a law, a political view, a set of rules, a philosophy or even a religion.
It’s a story. Not a novel, but a true story of real people, at real places in real events, with miracles and martyrs, death and glory, and relentless, unquenchable love.
It’s a story that’s still unfolding today in this hour in every corner of the globe and we’re invited to be part of it, to be written into the script if we choose to.
It begins and ends in the same place, yet it moved Heaven and Earth to get there.
What’s the story?
Man vs Lion
There is nothing on Earth quite like humanity. God delights in the entire cosmos.
It’s all good. But humanity is the pinnacle of creation, the apex of his creativity.
People are blessed with a more acute self-awareness, greater power over nature and a higher level of conscience and creativity than any other living thing.
That was his intention. We are formed in his image.
We all wrestle with the difference between right and wrong, we yearn for justice when we read the newspapers, we debate the existence of God and we often differ as to what we think he’s like. But I’ve often wondered why these debates don’t exist in the rest of the animal kingdom.
Lions don’t sit around pondering whether or not it’s morally right to eat a zebra. They don’t feel guilty when they snatch a young wildebeest from its mother.
They’re just hungry.
When a lion goes for the kill, we look on with awe and wonder, people take photographs and others make documentaries. We watch them with fascination on wide-screens and smart-screens, but nobody phones the police and reports the lion, nobody tries to arrest it for murder, nobody calls for justice or a lion prison.
“It’s just nature,” we might say.
Even when a lion kills another lion, we’re not outraged. That’s also nature.
They’re fighting for the pride. It happens.
But when one human being kills another, we don’t say, ‘that’s just nature’, we say it’s morally wrong.
The motive may still be pride, but it’s no excuse.
Justice must be served.
Why do we have a deeper moral code than the rest of nature?
And if the difference between right and wrong is so deeply ingrained in each of us, why have we made the world as it is today?
Why is their war and jealousy, prejudice and pollution, greed and poverty?
Why are their broken homes and broken hearts?
What’s wrong with the world?
It’s a question that a popular British newspaper reportedly once put to a number of commentators.
People still answer that question today when they shake their heads at politicians, or philosophers lament the downgrade in society, or children blame their parents (and parents blamed their parents). Ordinary people the world over, have added their 2 cents to the debate.
But one answer stands out above all the others. It’s the shortest response I have ever heard. It’s thought to be the words of the English writer, GK Chesterton, but we don’t know for sure. It could, after all, have been written by anyone.
“What’s wrong with the world? I am.”
I remember the first time I heard that story.
The frankness and vulnerability of the author seemed to echo around the room.
Some wondered what the author might have done to warrant such a confession.
It’s an admission that strikes right to the heart of the gospel, for ultimately, nobody’s perfect.
This person was just prepared to admit it
God’s ultimate plan for every individual, including you and me was never a religion or a set of rules, but a relationship.
It’s a relationship where he delights in us, as a husband delights in his bride on their wedding day, or like a mother delights in her new-born baby. That’s not everyone’s experience granted, but it has been always God’s plan. His highest purpose for us is pure, unconditional, uninhibited love.
But like any relationship built on true, authentic, unquenchable love, it rests on a gift. The greatest gift that love can offer.
You can control a relationship with chains,
or you can set if free with choices.
God honoured every individual with the choice
between right and wrong.
We have the knowledge of both and the choice
of either. We can chose to accept God’s love,
to walk in his ways and to follow his lead, or we can
choose to live for number one, to suit ourselves,
to be LORD of our own life.
All of us, in one way or another, have chosen the latter.
Billions of people, all looking out for number one, makes for a messy world.
It’s not that we’re all bad. Most people are a blend of good and bad, we are capable of great wonders, but also great wickedness. We’re a mixed bag.
But a mixed bag is a far cry from the what God intended for us.
He’s better than that and so are we
The Scandal of the Incarnation
The Gospel is God’s response. Not heartless judgment, or blind
indifference, but something more scandalous, more sobering,
God wrote himself into our story.
The author of life stepped onto the stage, the creator became like
the created, God became a man. He entered the world as a helpless
baby, the same way every other person entered this world, though
granted he crawled into greater poverty than many of us will ever know.
For 30 years or so, he grew up in our dusty streets, he weathered our
storms, he felt our emotions and he fought our battles.
As a child, most of his early memories would have been as a refugee in a foreign land, far from his home.
As an adult, most of his time was spent in hard manual labour, earning a meagre living to put bread on the table for younger siblings, while paying taxes to a greedy and despotic government.
As a teacher, he experienced both unparalleled worship and unrivalled hatred.
He worked and he partied. He laughed and he cried. He feasted and he fasted.
Why would he choose this life?
For one, he can sympathise with every one of our weaknesses. He wasn’t content to stand at a distance and point the finger, he wanted to join us on the road and walk in our shoes.
He wanted to show us what we can be, to set our sights higher, to take us beyond the stunted ambition of being a mixed bag of good and evil.
Whether at home or on the road, in public and in obscurity, Jesus was only ever good.
He showed us that such a life was possible.
He was tempted by every vice common to man, yet he never faltered.
It’s not that he just kept the rules, for not every rule is good and some really should be broken. Jesus would know. He achieved something far greater than mindless obedience to a system, he overturned the system itself and showed us the raw beauty of a pure heart.
Jesus' world was rife with social barriers.
Our world still is.
But Jesus resolutely smashed through every one of them. When others marginalised the lepers for fear of infection, he knelt in the dust, placed his hands on their wounds and healed their sickness.
When others drew a line in the sand and said with cold tribal prejudice, ‘We’re the good guys and they’re the bad guys’, Jesus crossed those lines and befriended the enemy. Then he crossed back and befriended the enemy’s enemy. He didn’t just teach a message of ‘one love’, he demonstrated it.
When others disdained, abused and overlooked the little children, he blessed them, honoured them and showed the world not just how to teach them, but to learn from them.
When the corrupt leaders of the day exploited the poor, he lost his temper, flipped the tables of the crooked money-changers, drove the thieves from the temple courts and sealed his own fate in the process. He was labelled as a revolutionary… and executed as one. But he was not the revolutionary that everyone thought he was for his movement was neither religious nor political. It was infinitely bigger than both.
He may have taken up the battles of the poor and needy, but when it came time to fight his own battle on a cruel Friday morning, when the weight of injustice was levelled at him personally, when his arms were stretched out on a wooden beam and 6-inch nails driven through his wrists, in that moment he chose not to fight back but instead cried, ‘Father forgive’.
He loved his neighbour and he loved his enemy, even when it killed him.
His life was a pinnacle of both courageous and compassion. He showed us what it looked like to be a human being without fault or blemish.
But his ultimate purpose in entering the frame of human history was not just to instruct us, or even to inspire us, it was to save us.
The Gospel is not simply good advice, it’s good news.
He came to suffer the price for our rebellion, to pay the debt of every person who has ever lived, to carry the burden of every sin, except for his own.
Even his greatest critics couldn’t find a split-second of immorality in his entire life, yet in his early thirties, he was rewarded for his integrity with a torturer’s whip and a criminal’s death. He was condemned in a phony trial by a jealous club of religious leaders and shamelessly executed by a Roman Governor who confessed his innocence one moment, yet condemned him to death the next to appease the jeering crowds.
He was dragged through Jerusalem, flesh and muscle hanging in ribbons from his back and nailed to a wooden post, naked, beaten and mocked by the fickle masses, his arms stretched out to the world he loved, the world he created, the world that failed him and the world for whom he took the flack.
The cross is the place where judgment kissed mercy, where the punishment poured out for the mess we have created was absorbed by him, ironically the only one to whom to no blame could be attached.
Yet for all the injustice and tragedy of the event, there was a glorious twist.
It was his decision.
Jesus was no helpless victim. The man they crucified on Good Friday was
perfectly capable of calling it off, of crushing his enemy, of demanding
honour rather than shame.
The cross was his call, he orchestrated his own execution and in doing so
he redeemed the relationship that we had destroyed.
It was love, not nails that drove him to his death.
To humanity, he gave the gift of choice, yet on the cross, he used his choice to gift humanity.
And he still has the last laugh.
The resurrection and the revolution
To seal his victory over sin and death, he rose from the grave on Sunday morning and appeared to a multitude of stunned eye-witnesses, beginning a movement that spread like wildfire through the lives of the ordinary people who had seen him for themselves.
His followers weren't just carrying on an idea or re-living a dream for when Jesus was executed, they fled in fear and the movement died with him.
But three days later they saw him for themselves, alive and well, restored and resurrected, not a ghost or an illusion but flesh and bone, walking and talking, eating and drinking, teaching and guiding. Nothing could stop him, not the religious elite, nor the armies of Rome, not even death itself.
Every move of man eventually wanes, but a move of God is unquenchable.
The revolution that started with a resurrected Rabbi in Jerusalem now blazes in every corner of the globe and it’s still growing, brighter and stronger than ever before. It is a revolution of sacrificial love without political rule, national boundary or ethnic divide.
It lives and moves in the unstoppable current of the people who have laid their lives down to follow the Jesus way, just as he laid down his life to rescue us.
To begin again
The cross took us back to the beginning of the story. He won for us the gift he had given us at the very beginning. He gave us a second chance. A second… choice.
It was the greatest gift he ever gave us. It still is.
You can choose to walk away and stay LORD of your own life. He won’t stop you, compel you or force your hand. Free choice really is free.
Or you can choose to accept his offer of forgiveness and let him include your sins in the price he paid on the cross. You can stand before him reconciled, join his movement and tell others the Gospel story yourself.
God has no favourites. He loves you and he longs to lead you in a life of adventure with him. But he also loves your neighbour, and his plan to show them his mercy … is to send you.
It will cost you nothing… and everything. The price of getting right with God has already been paid by Jesus when he hung on that cross and he offers it with no strings attached. There’s nothing more to add, pay or perform. He’s already died to carry your sin and he’s already risen from the dead to forget it.
All you have to do is to accept his offer of forgiveness.
But it will also cost you everything.
Following Jesus isn’t an add-on to your life, an extra hobby or a philosophy to adapt to your own agenda. It’s an act of all-in surrender to follow him and count the cost.
It’s like a race where the cost of entry is a trillion pounds, but he has paid the fee on your behalf. He has settled the bill. You are free to enter.
But that’s only the beginning, not the end. There is still a race to run. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Ask anyone who’s in it and they will tell you it isn’t easy, but they will also tell you that it’s absolutely worth it.
And he will be with you the whole way, cheering you on, propping you up and at times, even carrying you to the finish line. If you’ll let him.
The greatest assurance is that he never preaches what he hasn’t practiced.
Whatever challenges we suffer along the way, he’s been there. Whatever temptations we face, he faced them too. He knows the struggles, he’s counted the cost.
But he also knows the unspeakable joy that awaits those who cross the line.
He freely gave everything for us, he only asks the same in return.
For Jesus, 'all-in', is the only way to live.
What does that look like?
The stories in the Bible and the testimonies of his people today will demonstrate what the life of a follower of Jesus looks like in the 21st Century.
Some of those stories are on this website.
Their lives can inspire yours, but first you have a choice…
Nobody is born as a follower of Jesus. Everyone has to decide for themselves… what will you choose?