22/09/2002 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
I wonder if you'd call yourself a sceptical person? Ie, someone who doubts things more naturally than you believe them.
In some ways, we're all sceptical. Which is a good thing because you don't want to believe everything you hear. Eg, a while ago, the back of my cornflakes packet said, 'Free sweatshirt with every 4 tokens'. And then I read the small print which said, 'Post and packing £9.99'. Which made me think, 'That'll be a £9.99 sweatshirt, then.' And you ask yourself, 'Do they take me for an idiot?' Which of course they do. And at that time of the morning, by and large they're right.
Some scepticism is a good thing because it stops us believing what's not true. But today there's more extreme scepticism around. Here's how one writer puts it:
"For some people, scepticism is their whole outlook. You talk to them and they say you can't know anything for sure. However, there's an easy way to show that they don't really believe that. Simply drop into the conversation the comment, 'By the way, did you know your flies were undone?' If it's so impossible to find the truth, why do they always look?"
Well tonight we're going to look at an incident from one of the Gospel accounts about Jesus. It tells how one sceptic came to believe in him. And for the rest of our time I want to ask and answer two questions:
I. How did one sceptic come to believe in Jesus?
First, HOW DID ONE SCEPTIC COME TO BELIEVE IN JESUS?
The sceptic in question is this guy Thomas in John 20.24:
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus cameThomas was one of the 12 eye-witnesses whom Jesus had chosen to be with him for the previous 3 years. So he'd seen Jesus put cripples back on their feet; give blind people their sight; even bring one man back to life four days after he'd died. You can read about that and more earlier in John's Gospel.
And Thomas had also heard Jesus making massive claims. He'd heard Jesus say, 'Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father [ie, God].' He'd heard Jesus say, 'I and the Father are one.' You can read those claims and more earlier in John's Gospel. So that as C.S. Lewis says in his book Mere Christianity:
"Then comes the real shock. Among these 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 us get this clear God in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had 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."
Thomas had heard Jesus make those claims and he'd seen Jesus be crucified for making them. You see, when someone comes along and says, 'I'm God, I'm the one who should be in charge of your life,' you can't just be neutral. You react either for him, in belief; or against him, in unbelief. And in Jesus' day, the people in power were against him. They accused him of blasphemy ie, of being a mere man claiming to be God and got him executed by crucifixion.
Jesus was crucified on a Friday and buried the same afternoon in a tomb. John 20 records the events from 48 hours later on the Sunday. And two things had happened before this Thomas incident.
First, Jesus' body was missing. John 20.1-9:
1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"Imagine you could get a balloon shaped like a body. And then you wrapped it from toe to neck in Jewish burial linen, with the separate face-cloth around the head of the balloon. And you laid it down. And then you popped the balloon so that the grave cloths collapsed where they lay. What you'd see is what these two eye-witnesses saw in Jesus' tomb: a grave, and grave cloths, missing their body.
But then secondly, people were beginning to claim to have seen Jesus alive from the dead. Look on to v19:
19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.Which brings us to Thomas, v24:
24Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."And if that's not scepticism, I don't know what is. 'Dead men stay dead,' Thomas was saying, 'And unless I see good evidence to the contrary, I will not believe.'
And he's got a point, hasn't he?
A friend of mine called Paul tells the story of how he once looked after the neighbours' pets while they were away on holiday they had hamsters and cats and fish and a rabbit. And the first day they were away, Paul went round to feed them all - and he took his dog with him for a bit of a run. And he'd done all the indoors stuff and was just coming out to do the rabbit in its hutch when he saw the dog with the rabbit in its mouth, with the rabbit looking very much like it wasn't going to need any more feeding. Sure enough the rabbit was dead. So Paul thought 'Help! What am I going to do? Confess, or cover up?' He went for cover up. He decided to try to find a replacement. Thankfully it was black, so it wasn't like it had any distinctive markings to match, so he trailed round various pet shops until he found a reasonable match for size and shape. And he bought it, and popped it in the hutch.
The day after the neighbours got back, they phoned him - the call he'd been dreading. The conversation went:
Paul: Hi! I hope the pets are all OK.
Neighbour: They're all fine, thank you. We just wanted to ask about the rabbit. (Paul feeling the plot is unravelling already.) We were just a bit surprised when we found it in the hutch. (Paul wishing he'd chosen more carefully.) It's just that it died the night before we went away, so the kids insisted we bury it at the bottom of the garden, and we're trying to explain to them how Sootie seems to be alive again and why there's only a hole left where we buried her.
And you can see their point, can't you? Dead rabbits stay dead. (Even though dogs will be dogs and dig them up again.) Dead rabbits stay dead. And dead men stay dead. All experience tells us that. Except the experience of Thomas and those with him. Verse 26:
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."Just try to put yourself into Thomas's sandals. It's recognisably Jesus. The same Jesus who was nailed to a cross. The same Jesus who had a spear shoved up into his lung cavity to check he was well and truly dead. But this isn't just a resuscitation a limping, wounded body at which your first instinct is to dial 999 for an ambulance. This is a body which didn't need to knock at the locked door because it didn't need to use the door at all. This is a body which has gone through death and isn't locked into time and space any more, like we are. It's a body that belongs in heaven.
Dead men stay dead. All experience tells us that. So what category do you put Jesus in? Thomas' answer is in v28:
28Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"Thomas had once heard Jesus say these words:
'For just as the Father [ie God the Father] has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.' (John 5.26)And now Thomas could see the truth of those words before his very eyes. You and I don't have 'life in ourselves' We'll each conk out one day. I know if you're a teenager you think you're immortal, but you're not. But God is. He does have 'life in himself'. He doesn't depend on anyone or anything. He'll never die. And Thomas has just seen that kind of life in a man. Which means he can't be just a man:
28Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"And notice how Thomas got to that point. Notice what the Risen Jesus said to him. Not merely 'Believe!', but, v27:
Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."Ie, Look at the evidence, and believe on the strength of it. So faith isn't something you either have or haven't got. People sometimes say to me 'I wish I had your faith' a bit like they say, 'I wish I was musical.' But faith's not like that. It's believing in Jesus on the strength of good evidence. And nor is faith wishful thinking. Thomas didn't say to himself, 'Well, I'd like to believe in God and life after death, so I'll just screw up my faith to believe it despite having no evidence.' Faith's not like that. It's believing in Jesus on the strength of good evidence.
That's how one sceptic came to believe in Jesus. To which you might say: Lucky guy. What about those of us who missed it? Well that's my second question:
Secondly, HOW CAN WE COME TO BELIEVE IN JESUS TODAY?
(Or: how can we believe more confidently, if we already do believe?)
Here we are 2000 years after these events recorded by John. And it may be you can identify very strongly with Thomas. Others around you may believe in Jesus parents, brothers, sisters, friends. But you find yourself thinking (even if not saying), 'Unless I get some strong evidence, I will not believe.'
Well according to Jesus, we have it. If only we'll look. Verse 29:
29Then Jesus told [Thomas], "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."Ie, Jesus expected people to be able to believe in him without actually seeing him like Thomas did. And he made provision for that. Because the idea was that people like Thomas and the other apostles wouldn't just be eye-witnesses, but some would also write down what they'd seen for those of us who weren't born in time. Verse 30:
30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.I don't know about you, but I believe that Newcastle beat Sunderland 2-0 yesterday. But I wasn't there. I didn't see it. I heard the result later on the radio. I relied on witnesses. And we do that all the time in life. And it's no different when it comes to believing in Jesus.
So, Thomas could rely directly on his own eyes. He had the evidence in the flesh. But what about us? It's not that we're left without evidence. It's just that we have the evidence on paper. We rely indirectly on the eye-witnesses like the apostle John who wrote this down. (Just as yesterday I relied on the BBC.) And this Gospel in our hands was written by one of the eye-witnesses in that room when Jesus appeared to Thomas. So it wasn't like Chinese whispers over hundreds of years where John told Fred who told Nigel who told Sid who told Bill who told Phil who finally wrote it down so that you've got know idea whether what was written bears any resemblance to what originally happened.
Now I realise that it's a big question, 'Can I trust what's written in the Gospels?' And to help answer that I've produced a booklet called Why Trust Them?. (When it first appeared one of our female students said, 'I see you've written a booklet about men,' but I assured her that it was in fact about the four Gospels: who wrote? When? Can we trust them? Do pick up a copy if you'd like.
But above all, I'd want to say: do pick up a copy of one of the Gospels themselves and have a look. Remember what Jesus said to Thomas: 'Look at the evidence, and believe on the strength of it.' For Thomas that meant running his eye over the resurrected person in front of him. For us, it means running an eye over one of the eye-witness accounts.
But best of all, why not join a group to help you check these things out? If you're just at the checking it out stage, there are two groups to mention. For students, there's Just Looking you'll find information and a way of signing up for it on the black 'Students @ JPC' leaflet. For others, there's Christianity Explored and you'll find leaflets on the Welcome Desk.
And if we do choose to look into it more, what do we stand to find? Verse 31 to end with:
31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.'The Christ' is just the Bible name for the person God promised would rescue what's gone wrong with the world. And, according to the Bible, what's gone wrong is that, consciously or subconsciously, we've all pushed God out of the picture and said, 'I want to run my own life.' Which is highly offensive to God - and why the world is such a mess (we are just not competent to run our lives independent of God). And the awesome thing about being human is that God gives us the freedom to rebel against him if that's what we want. But not indefinitely. Only until we die. Which is the point at which we have to face his judgement for living that way.
But that's not how God wants it to turn out with any of us. He loves us far more than that. Which is why he sent his Son Jesus into the world to rescue the situation.
Just back up a bit in your mind a moment. We've seen this incident with Thomas. We've seen Jesus risen from the dead. We've seen Thomas realising that he's Lord and God. But in that case, why did he ever end up dying on a cross? You see, for us death is compulsory. It's that unavoidable time for judgement. But for Jesus it was voluntary. And the way he explained it was that he was paying a ransom that would set other people free from getting the judgement they deserved.
My brother and I used to play that trick where you balance something on top of a door and then lure your victim through the door so that it falls on him/her. He once got me with a full bucket of water, but I once got him with the four volume Collins Junior Encyclopaedia - which hurt more and didn't leave so much mess to explain to the parents. But the thing about that trick is that once one person has been through and the books have fallen on them, it's perfectly safe for others to come through.
Well, imagine history is like a long set of rooms. And each successive room is a new lifetime. So we've been born into the latest room and we're moving towards the door at the end the door of death. And on top of that door we each deserve to find that book of everything we've done that God should hold against us. Imagine that book stands for the judgement that should fall on us.
And the way Jesus explained it was that when he died on the cross, he was voluntarily going through the door of death on our behalf, taking the judgement we deserve. It's as if all the books of judgement that should have fallen on us fell on him. So that we can be forgiven without anyone being able to turn round and say to God, 'Justice doesn't matter to you does it? You've just left a whole lot of matters 'hanging'.'
So, how can I benefit from what Jesus has done? How can I be 'in on this rescue'? Look at v31 one last time:
31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.Believing is partly 'believing that' certain things about Jesus are true. But John says there's a further step to believing: the aim is that by believing we may have life in his name. And that's the part of believing where you go beyond saying, 'I believe that (Jesus said these things, did these things, etc),' and where you're able to say, 'I believe in Jesus I'm trusting him personally, trusting my life to him.'
Take, as an example of that, D - who did the interview tonight. I take it that we'd all be happy to say, 'I believe that D exists.' Get to know D a bit and I promise you'd also be happy to say, 'I believe that D's a great person.' But there's one person in the building tonight who does more than believe that certain things about D are true. And that's Nic, D's husband. In a way that none of the rest of us does, he actually believes in D: he's trusted her promises to him, and committed himself to her as his wife - and so he has a new life, a married life built on believing in D.
And that's a picture of what believing in Jesus involves. It certainly means believing that certain things about Jesus are true - that he was God's Son become human, that he died to forgive us; that he rose again from the dead. But that still doesn't make a relationship, does it? I guess the day came where Nic sat down to think seriously about him and D. I imagine (!) he got out a piece of paper and started writing down his thoughts (' I believe that D is the best thing that's happened to me', 'I believe that D is a great cook', etc). But 'believing that' didn't give him the new life he now enjoys. He had to believe in her to trust her promises and commit himself to her; to marry her.
And that's what has to happen between a person and the Risen Lord Jesus. We have his promise that if we turn back to him he will forgive us for having pushed him out of our lives. We need to come back to him, trusting that promise. And at the same time we need to commit our lives to him, just like Thomas did and say, 'My Lord and my God.' I recognise you as the rightful ruler of my life and will try to please and serve you from now on.
I hope looking at this incident with Thomas has left you clearer about what you believe, what you don't yet believe and why. I hope that if you're down the sceptical end, it's encouraged you to look at the evidence. To pick up something to read. To think about joining one of those groups. Simply to come back again and hear more. And I hope, if you know you do believe, that it's encouraged you that you believe on strong evidence; that it's not just wishful thinking. Maybe your faith has taken knocks from your feelings and circumstances. Well, come back and anchor it in these facts about the Risen Jesus.
But it may be that there's someone here who was already quite close to believing in Jesus anyway; and tonight has brought you to the point where you'd like to 'cross the line' and put your trust in him. Be forgiven and start that new life with him. If that's you, I'm going to end with a prayer that would be a way of saying to the Risen Lord Jesus that you want to put your trust in him. Let me tell you what I'll pray so you can work out whether it would be appropriate for you tonight:
If you'd like to trust in Jesus tonight, you could echo that prayer in your mind as I say it out loud now.Lord Jesus,
If you've prayed that prayer and meant it, rest assured that the Risen Jesus has heard it and answered it. Earlier on in John's Gospel, Jesus says this: 'Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.' (John 6.37) Ie, I'll forgive them, accept them, and then never give up on them. And if you've just prayed that prayer you can put your name to that promise.
If you have prayed, you've begun a whole new life with Jesus. And it would help you to tell someone, so they can give you some ideas about starting off. So if there's a Christian friend you know, do tell them. If you'd like to tell me, I'd be really pleased to meet you.
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