I told you last Sunday about a man who rang me on talk-back radio demanding evidence that Jesus actually existed. We used the best of logical argument and historical records from Greek, Roman and Jewish historians who refer to Jesus outside the New Testament. But now a deeper issue than that of evidence: how can we know Jesus lives?
Dr James Kennedy has a new book out "What If Jesus Had Never Lived?". He shows the enormous impact on the world of the influence of Jesus. But I suspect that even if we produced mountains of evidence to prove Jesus lives it may not prove to you Jesus lives. Proof is a funny thing. Often, mountains of evidence leave a person unmoved. Logic and evidence do not convince some people. But first hand, personal friendship with Jesus convinces. I learnt that fact in an unusual way. Nothing changes a person like the discovery of the personal friendship of Jesus. It lasts even beyond death. When I was a ministry student, I preached in two wooden churches in Melbourne's inner slums. For seven years during the 1950's and 1960's those people were my parish whom I came to love dearly.
My early preaching was disastrous. I was seventeen. By the time I preached my second sermon I had used everything of worth in a year long collection of suitable material. I had not yet started theological college. I wondered what I could preach. I had been a Sunday School teacher and a boys club leader and had led youth camps and teenage study groups, but preaching was different. It required understanding, not only of the Bible but of the human condition and how the Bible answers our needs.
I gathered every book of theology I could find. Everything was dry as chips and difficult to present. I felt in utter despair. What on earth could I preach to these people in the inner suburban churches who were waiting for some word from the Lord? I wrestled with the great intellectual challenges to the Christian faith and started to prepare a sermon on "God and Evolution". That was interesting but it was not working as a sermon. I wrote on "Christ and the Philosophy of The Ages" compressing thousands of years of history. But it was irrelevant. Like most university students I was taken with politics so I prepared a sermon "Communism and the Bridge of Time." I declared it a failure before I preached it. I grasped the intellectual issues of suffering, a modern understanding of heaven and hell, economic and political theories, but to no avail. There was nothing there right to preach.
My first sermon had given me much delight. It was copied very largely from the then popular Rev Peter Marshall, Chaplain to the United States Senate and the man about whom the film "A Man Called Peter" had been made. What really captured my attention was he made the person of Jesus Christ come alive. That inspired me. Jesus was real to me and I wanted to tell people about Him. As I kept asking myself what I should preach, I kept coming back to one word: Jesus. I would preach Jesus.
So I prepared a sermon entitled "The Central Character of the Centuries". I retold the marvellous story of Jesus and of His significance to us on the text "What Think Ye of Christ?". I discovered that night people responded enthusiastically as Jesus of Nazareth became alive to a few once more.
That immediately led me to thinking about the strength that we gain from Jesus for the living of our lives full of burdens and difficulties. My next sermon was entitled "Our Unfailing Resources in Christ". The next was entitled "Enthused with Christ", the next "The Person of Christ" and so on. Very soon the titles read "The Most Unforgettable Person I've Met", "Investigating the Christ", "Our Unfailing Source of Personal Power", "To Whom Shall We Go?". Then "The Universality of Jesus", "A Modern Vision of Jesus", "Why Jesus Never Wrote A Book", "Christ Himself is Christianity", "The Man of Many Parts", "The Man For All Seasons", "When Jesus Said No", "Do You Know The Shepherd?". I preached sermons on "The Gift of His Friendship", "The Reality of His Friendship", "The Cost of His Friendship", and "The Consequences of His Friendship".
The congregations grew. Every week additional people were present. At my first service only 14 people present and 11 of them were my relatives and friends who visited especially for the occasion! But now we were seeing larger numbers of people week after week 50 turned into 60, and 60 went to 75. I preached a new series on "Christ and Your Pleasures", "Christ and Your Friends", "Christ and Your Answer" and so on.
In brief I became fascinated with the person and doctrine of Jesus Christ. He really is the central character of the centuries. The more I taught about Him the more people came, and then as miracles of God's grace, people's lives were changed through their friendship of Jesus, especially some of the dozens of young men I had been assigned as the State's youngest Probation and Parole Officer.
I remember the night Big Bazza came to Church. Church members feared him and worried about his influence on their teenagers. Big of build, wide of shoulder and unshaven in appearance with slicked long black hair, Bazza was at church because I had insisted he come. At age 14 he was bigger than any man. He worked in the abattoirs. After six hours of drinking in a pub an argument broke out with a much older man. This man pulled a boning knife out of his belt. Bazza then pulled his boning knife out of the side of his motor bike boot to defend himself. They fought with knives and Bazza plunged his into the stomach of a man and ripped it up through his rib cage just as if the man had been a bullock hanging from the chain. The man's insides heart, lungs and intestines spilled to the floor.
He was 14 years of age. This was his first serious offence, the dreadful crime of murder while under the influence of alcohol. He was given an amazing sentence. Taking into account the time he had spent in remand, the judge released him on probation for 104 weeks in my care. I was determined that Bazza should come under the influence of the friendship of Jesus and insisted he report to me three times a week and on Sunday night as well.
One Sunday night when I gave the invitation for people to come forward to accept Christ as Lord, Big Bazza in his leather jacket and swept back black hair, came to the front and stood with bowed head, with tears streaming down his face. I asked him why he had come forward and he said "Because I want to find Jesus as my friend too. If Jesus can be my friend, I am sure He can make me a different person. He is the sort of mate a guy ought to have."
The miracle of the Gospel worked in the life of Big Bazza. The friendship of Jesus became real to him. He repented of his sin in tears and was baptised. Big Bazza became a member of the Church. Adult members of the church who feared this young murderer were thrilled at the change in his life. He became Vice President of the Youth Fellowship. He kept out of trouble. Eventually he married a girl from the Church Youth Club, advanced in his new position with the Victorian Railways and eventually became a station master. The friendship of Jesus had made a disciple from a rather unlikely person. Jesus had said "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me.". Somehow we had stumbled upon one of the everlasting truths of the Gospel. If we present Jesus according to the Scriptures, and get out of the way ourselves, His friendship will change lives.
My understanding was confirmed not long afterwards. The great Methodist missionary Dr. E. Stanley Jones visited Melbourne. I went to the Camberwell Methodist Church to hear him speak and afterwards asked him what a young preacher should preach. He answered by telling a story of how he first started to preach.
"I had prepared thoroughly and a large crowd was present. They were all anxious that the young man should do well. I began on a rather high key too high. I used a word I had never used before and I have never used since, the word "indifferentism". A young lady attending college put down her head and smiled. It so unnerved me that when I came back to the thread of my discourse again, it was gone! My mind was a blank. I could not think of a thing to say.
I did not know how long I stood there inwardly clutching wildly for something to say but nothing would come. I finally managed to blurt out "Well friends, I am sorry to tell you, that I have forgotten my sermon." After about six sentences and a stumble over the word indifferentism I stumbled into complete failure. So I left the pulpit and went down to my seat in shame and confusion for I felt I did not belong up there in the pulpit. I was about to take my seat in the front row when God spoke to me: "Haven't I done anything for you?" And I replied: "Why yes Lord, of course you have." "Then couldn't you tell that?" And I decided that I could.
"So instead of taking my seat I came round in front and said "Friends, as you see I cannot preach, but you know my life before and after conversion and while I can't preach, I do love Jesus, and I'll witness for Him for the balance of my days." And a strange thing happened. Stanley Warfield, a young man came up to me and said earnestly, "Stanley I want to find what you have found." I wondered what he saw amid the wreckage of that night that he so wanted. But evidently there was something there, so we knelt together and he was converted, soundly converted. He became a minister and his daughter became a missionary in Africa. As a lawyer for God, putting up His case, I was a failure. As a witness for God, telling what He had done for me. I was a success. In a flash I saw the nature of my ministry, I was to be a witness to Jesus."
Dr E Stanley Jones looked at me. He did not need to say anything else. I understood. In my own hesitant and stumbling way I had made the same discovery. I was not to argue God's cause.
My task was to lift up the friendship of Jesus and be His witness. For the last forty years, in more than 400 country towns and cities in Australia and in a score of countries overseas I have simply been His witness, telling of the friendship of Jesus. For nearly twenty years here in the heart of Sydney in the Lyceum and in Wesley Theatre, on radio and television, I have preached, argued, debated and proclaimed Jesus is Lord. The last forty sermons have intellectually grappled with theologians who seek to diminish Jesus, but tonight I share my witness: the friendship of Jesus changes people.
I know that if we faithfully speak about Him, He has the power still to change lives for eternity as He offers us His friendship. How can we know Jesus lives? I could attempt to argue the case and mound up a mountain of evidence. But it is far better to simply testify to you of what he has done in my life and then ask you to try Jesus for yourself.
Experience Jesus as your friend. Know the difference He can make in your life. So Peter spoke about Jesus: 1 Pet 1:18-21 18 "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. 20 He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. 21 Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God." Put your faith and hope in God and discover for yourself the transforming friendship of Jesus. That will prove to you Jesus lives!
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