The Symphony of the Gospel

April 22, 2019 | Written by Jonathan Cleveland

When I was a teenager, someone told me: I am a sinner.

That is true.
All of us are sinners.
(And I don’t know if there is any group that is easier to convince of their sinfulness than boys in their teenage years.)

I was sitting in a room listening to a preacher.
The preacher was telling me that because of my sin I had accrued a HUGE debt with God.
That I owed him so much that the only thing that would pay off my debt was that I would have to spend eternity in hell.
And that is what I deserved because of my sin and because I owed God so much.
As a teenager that sounds about right to my ears.

But then the preacher said this: God sent Jesus to earth to die in my place.
And all the hell that my teenage sins had earned was poured out onto Jesus on the cross.
And he suffered deeply for my sins and he totally cancelled the debt.
All I had to do was pray a certain type of prayer and escape that hell that I owed God.
After I died he would let me come to heaven with everyone else who had prayed that prayer.
And my sin had cost God so much that now I really owed him big time.

And then the preacher had everyone close their eyes and he said: if you want to pray that prayer with me today raise your hand…

Even though I’d prayed that prayer multiple times before, I looked at my life and I was convinced that my sins were probably still sending me to hell.
So I raised my hand again – and prayed that prayer one more time – this time hoping it would stick.

For years if you asked me how I became a Christian, I would have told you that story.
A story that starts with me feeling really bad about my sin and ends with me owing God big time.
I would have told you – basically, that is the Gospel.

You may have heard something similar at some point in your journey.

But I’m here to tell you today, while there is truth in that story I just told you, Easter shows us that the real story of the gospel is so much bigger than that.

Easter shows us that the difference between what I described and the real Gospel is like the difference between a note and the symphony.
So today I want to take a stab at telling us the gospel story in all of it’s bigness.

Because I believe it’s not just hearing that one note – but it’s hearing the whole symphony that changes us.

So let me tell you the story of the Gospel that is revealed on Easter morning.

The Gospel starts where all great stories start… in the beginning.

In the beginning God created time.
And matter.
And the universe and everything in it.
And he created the earth – but the earth was lifeless and empty – it was a thing but it had no shape.

…the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Genesis 1:2

God showed up and he hovered over this lifeless chaos that was earth.
He began to do what only God can do – He began to bring life out of chaos.
He created and created and just before he was finished, he made people.

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

And he looked at the woman and the man and he said – this is the best thing I’ve ever made.
It is very good.
And he put his image into every person so that no matter what we do we will always carry that image of God within us
even when we are sinning – even when we are confused – even when we are hurting.
No human will ever stop bearing the image of God – we have never been powerful enough to shake it off.
And that image of God within us fills every person with an inherent dignity and worth and value.

God took these first two humans – Adam and Eve – and he put them in this garden.
And in the Garden everything was as it should be.
There was a rightness to life in the garden that words fail to capture.
The only word that comes close is the Hebrew word SHALOM.
Shalom means peace – it means wholeness – or completeness.
When everything is simultaneously at rest and purposefully active – at the same time.
Where God and people and creation were entwined in this beautiful dance of relationship.
And it was so good that the people were totally at peace about who they were and their place in the world.

Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. Genesis 2:25

They were the created and God was the creator.
And that truth brought them peace.

But God had bigger plans.
God in his great wisdom desired that they trust him and love him.
And not in a robotic way, where they had no choice but to follow the path that the program dictates.
He wanted love and trust in the true sense of the word.
And to create that for these people, he also gave them freedom.
He gave them the ability to listen to other voices beside his.

This is the crazy truth: God loves you so much that he would never force you to love him.
And the love that he wants between you and him is a love that comes out of trusting him, not out of obligation.
And so he allowed us to walk away from him.
And we all have been walking away ever since.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.
She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Genesis 3:6

It was stupid.
We never should have done it.
But it was like we just had to know what our life would be like if we fired God from it and took over for him.
And like almost instantly we all realize that was a mistake.
And then the finger pointing started – and the blame – and the pain – and the death.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked… Genesis 3:7

Because suddenly we were in the driver’s seat of our own lives.
And as appealing as that sounds to all of us, we realize pretty quickly we are not up to the task.
From that moment forward human history stretched out as this story of brokenness and shame and a lack of shalom.

Now if any of us were in God’s shoes at that moment, we would have felt rejection and hurt.
And it would have twisted into anger and rage and we would have burned them all to the ground for rejecting us.
But that’s not who God is…

The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Genesis 3:21

God’s love for us never changed even though ours for him did.
Not only are we powerless to change the fact that we bear the image of God.
We also cannot change the fact that God deeply loves us.
You are not powerful enough to change his love for you.
No matter how many awful things you do, no matter how broken you are.
God’s love for you is untouchable.

From that moment forward, God began to lovingly pursue us who had rejected him.
He would never force us to love him.
But he will prove his goodness to us again and again.
And from that moment until this one he has been trying to convince us that he is trustworthy and loving and in him alone is found the shalom our heart longs for.

And so he started interacting with people like you and me.
Even though we’d rejected him, he still loved us and he invited us to trust him again.

And God said, “I will be with you… I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Genesis 3:12-14

It was as if he reintroduced himself to us.
And he told us who he was.
He told us that he was good.
And he began to tell us about what he valued.
He began to tell us about the shalom he wanted for us.
He actually gave us a list – a list of what he valued AND what life would be like if we trusted him

He told us: He longed for us to have satisfaction and contentment with who we are and what we have.

“You shall not covet…” Exodus 20:17

He told us he valued what was true.

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Exodus 20:16

He believed that everyone had rights and they shouldn’t be violated.

“You shall not steal.” Exodus 20:15

He was the sort of God who valued fidelity and commitments to each other.

“You shall not commit adultery.” Exodus 20:14

A God who wanted relationships to be safe not painful.
He was a God who valued all life.

“You shall not murder.” Exodus 20:13

He valued family – because he made us to be connected to each other.

“Honor your father and your mother…” Exodus 20:12

He valued rest and he worried that left to our own devices, we’d work too hard

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Exodus 20:9

And we would let ourselves be defined by what we produce, instead of who we are in his eyes.
He worried that we wouldn’t be kind to ourselves.

He worried we would attach his name to all sorts of stuff he never said.

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God…” Exodus 20:7

And we would get confused about who he is.
He knew that we all had this tendency to worship things.

“You shall not make for yourself an image…” Exodus 20:4-5

Because we are the created looking for that creator we rejected.
And he didn’t want that for us – to worship lesser things
And ultimately what he wanted was for us to trust him again.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3

To believe that he is good – and to love him.
To enter back into the shalom that he created us to know.
To allow him to be our God – and to love him with all our heart.

Now he knew that we couldn’t just flip a switch and do that.
He knew that we’d try again and again to fix things.
But we’d mess it up every time.
He knew that we’d often misunderstand what he wanted … we’d think that he wanted us to fix it.
Because that is what we would want if we were God.
Humans broke it… so they need to fix it.
God never wanted that.
God has never wanted us to fix anything.

What he has always longed for is what we had in the beginning – that we would trust him with it entirely.
And we would just be the created – we just be those whom God loves.

And so through the years God kept revealing himself to people.
But he also revealed to them a promise.
He kept promising that if we would just trust him, he would restore it for us.
That if we would just trust him, that he would make all things new again.

He said to us:

24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean…
26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you…
27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees…
28 …you will be my people, and I will be your God. Ezekiel 36:24-28

Like it was in the garden.

And his message to us again and again is: Trust me. I’m good.
His message is not: Try harder.
His message is not: I’m so angry with you
His message is not: You owe me big time
His message is: I will gather you… I will cleanse you… I will give you a new heart… I will put my Spirit in you… You will be my people.

And then the day came.
When God could not tolerate the distance between us anymore.
And instead of building a ladder or a bridge so we could get to him, he decided that wasn’t good enough.
He was going to come to us.

And in the most unexpected way possible God showed up.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1:23

Jesus – the most famous name on earth.
Jesus – fully human and fully God.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. Colossians 1:15

Jesus the son of God – a man like no other.
To be in his presence was to taste the shalom that we were created to know.
And the day came when he started telling people who he was.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19

And he started telling people that he had come to reintroduce them to the goodness of God.
He told people that God was for them.
And that God was establishing his kingdom on earth.

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God… because that is why I was sent.” Luke 4:43

And he told us about this kingdom God was establishing – where shalom reigned.

“…the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Matthew 12:28
“The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15
“…the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Luke 17:21
“…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” John 3:3

Where things were as they should be.
Where we trusted God and we followed him.
And he said it was happening all around us – and he invited us into it.

So many people loved what Jesus announced.
They discovered a God who could be trusted.
A God who liked them.
And they began to believe that maybe God actually would restore them and restore everything else too.

And then Jesus demonstrated this kingdom.

“I am willing. Be clean!” Mark 1:41
“Stretch out your hand.” Mark 3:5
“He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still.” Mark 4:39
“Go, your faith has healed you.” Mark 10:52

And no one had seen anything like this.
Most people couldn’t help but believe and everyone wanted to be around him.
And he invited it.
It was as if he threw the doors of heaven open and said “I’ve been saving a seat for all of you.”

“Follow me.”

It was amazing.

As amazing as it was, some people were challenged by what he said and they didn’t like it.
They felt threatened by the idea that God would chase after every person.
They didn’t like the idea that in God’s eyes everyone had equal dignity and value because they had been working hard to gain extra value.
They had been working so hard to fix this mess that we had all made.
And then Jesus showed up and told them that God didn’t need their help and in fact they are making it worse with their hyper-controlling religion.
When Jesus challenged them to turn from their efforts and trust in a God who would cleanse and restore them, they felt insulted because they thought that their obedience was so much better than everyone else’s sins.
And Jesus pointed out the shallowness of their righteousness

And so they plotted. They schemed because they were jealous.

“Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him.” John 11:47-48

It was as if they were back in the garden.
And again they took that fruit.
They chose to trust themselves.
They chose moralism over God’s goodness and they chose their efforts over the grace Jesus offered.
They chose to kill him so they didn’t have to listen to him anymore

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46

It’s silly how we sometimes think we are smarter than God.
It’s silly how we sometimes think we are powerful enough to change his plans.
And that our evil could overcome his goodness.
And the people who killed Jesus on that day discovered what we all discover.
The goodness of God cannot be stopped.
And as it turned out what these religious leaders did was exactly what Jesus expected.
He didn’t go to the cross because he was trapped.
He went to the cross because he was willing.

And while he was hanging there and his enemies were gloating, he was doing two things:

First, he was removing the final barrier of our sin.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1

He was forgiving us for the pain we caused to the heart of God.
He was forgiving us for all the times that we reject God and go our own way just because we can.
He was absorbing all the anger of God so there wasn’t any left for us.
That was the plan all along.

Second, he was proving to us for all time that God is good.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31

That his arms are always open.
That he can be trusted.
That for everyone who wants it – no matter how far we’ve run – we can journey back to his shalom.
So he died.
Willingly.
And they placed him in a tomb.

And in John 20 we read this about one of his friends and followers named Mary… This was the very first Easter moment

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb
12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” John 20

I think those two questions are the questions the risen Jesus has for everyone one of us.
Why are you crying?
Why is your heart troubled today?
And the risen Jesus asks us to share that pain with him

We use fancy spiritual terms like “confession of sin” to talk about that process.
But all that really means is we share our brokenness with God.
We tell him we see it too.
This world is broken.
We are broken.
We know that we are lost and we have lost.
And we tell him about it.
We don’t tell him about that stuff because we are afraid of hell.
We tell him our brokenness and sin because he is kind and good.
He’ll listen.

…God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? Romans 2:4

And he asks: Why are you crying?
And then he asks a second question of Mary that I think he would ask of each one of us too: Who are you looking for?
Who not what.
We are not looking for a what.

We aren’t looking for a set of doctrines to believe.
We aren’t looking for a set of commands to obey.
We aren’t looking for a religion to join.
What our soul longs to find can never be satisfied with a “what.”

It is Jesus. It is only Jesus. 

If you have him, nothing else matters.
If you don’t have him, nothing else matters.

Mary responds to his questions:

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). John 20

I don’t know why she didn’t recognize the risen Jesus.
I know so often I don’t recognize him because I’m caught up in my own world.
Maybe Mary was distracted by grief and fear.
And into all of her distractions, Jesus just says her name. “Mary.”
Mary is shaken.

In that instant she realizes that the goodness of God is better than she ever could have thought.
She realizes not only that Jesus cared enough to die but he was powerful enough to be risen from the dead.
And a God that caring and that powerful could be trusted.
And she didn’t know anything about what was next.
She just knew the God she had been looking for her whole life.
The God of shalom said her name.
And she believed whatever came next…
He is good. He can be trusted.

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. John 20

On Easter we see the gospel for what it is.
We don’t just hear one note. We hear the whole symphony

On Easter we see the Gospel is not primarily a story about how bad you are.
It is primarily a story about how good God is.

On Easter we see the Gospel is not a story about how much you owe God.
It is a story about how much you can trust God.

On Easter we see the Gospel is the truth that the risen Jesus has been calling your name your entire life.
Because he’s good and can be trusted.

Here’s the thing – you don’t need to raise your hand.
You don’t need to come down front.
You don’t need to fill out a form or pray a specific prayer.

All that stuff is great, but Jesus makes it so much simpler.

15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15

Repent just means to turn from one thing to another.
To turn from what you’ve been counting on in your life – to Jesus.

When Jesus said her name, the Bible says, “Mary turned toward him.”
She turned from fear and worry.
She turned from focusing on herself.
And she believed in the good news that Jesus was there.
That he was good.
And that he could be trusted.

That’s what God has always wanted from us – our trust.
That’s what he wanted from the beginning.
Because he’s only ever been good – and the risen Jesus proves it.

Who is it that you are looking for?
Could it be the God who is good and who knows your name?
The God who would happily give up everything he has so he can have you?
The God who is for you and who wants to share his life with you forever?
That is the risen Jesus Mary discovered on that day.

What makes the real gospel challenging for us is: It is really tempting in life to start focusing on what instead of who.
What do I need to know?
What do I need to stop doing?
What do I need to start doing?
What do I need to do because I owe God big time?

All of those questions are well intentioned, but they subtly put us back in control and put us back in the driver’s seat.
And without even thinking we start trying to control our way into the life that we think we need.
We start pursuing what instead of who.

Easter cautions those of us who believe in Jesus from thinking that we don’t still need the gospel.

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7 which is really no gospel at all. Galatians 1

We are saved by the gospel, and we live by the gospel. 
We need the gospel every day.
Every day we need to encounter WHO we are looking for.

Do you know what I suspect about Mary?
I suspect that there was not a day from that one until her last that Mary didn’t think about that moment at the tomb.
I suspect that every day for the rest of her life she lived in that moment.
I suspect she kept hearing Jesus call her name… and call her to trust him.

See, when we make the gospel about escaping hell – it becomes a one note event in our past. But when it is about discovering a good God who knows your name and can be trusted, it becomes the symphony of our life.

I don’t care how long you’ve believed in Jesus.
The Gospel is for you today and every day.

Let me tell you how this Gospel story ends… for all of us.

So there I was as a teenager.
With my hand up high.
Praying again that I could escape the hell that I deserved and be let into God’s heaven.
I was totally focused on myself.
Totally focused on my sin and my failure.
Totally focused on praying just the right way because I was convinced that God made hell for people like me.

You may have been convinced of the same thing at some point in your life … God made hell for you.
Can I tell you what Jesus is trying to convince you today?

1“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.
2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?
3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. John 14:1-3

God didn’t make hell for you.
He made heaven for you.

Jesus is getting your room ready.
And he created this earth for you too.
And he has something for you here.

And whether it is here on this earth, or one day after we die, what he has for you is what he’s always had for you.
Shalom.
Peace.
His goodness.

That is where our story began and that is where the Gospel story ends.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” Revelation 21:1

God recreates it all.
Only this time there is trust – and as we trust his goodness something incredible happens.

3 …Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4

One day everything will be restored.
Because that was what the good God wanted all along.
He IS restoring it right now… and we get to help him with that.
And one day he WILL restore it… and we get to watch and enjoy.

The risen Jesus is here today asking you: Why are you crying? And who are you looking for?

Hear him.
He is saying your name.
Believe and turn to him in trust.
Trust that he is good.
That he’s only ever been good.
And what he has for us is what he’s always had for us … the shalom our heart longs for.

That is the symphony of the Gospel – and he has invited you into this song.

Believe the good news – because it is really, really good news.

Related Stories

The Problem with Church (Definitively Explained) … And How to Fix it in 3 Easy Steps.

It seems like literally every week someone is releasing a new book, hosting a conference or posting an angry blog that basically says “I know what is wrong with church, and I know how to fix it.” Could it be, perhaps, that the only thing that needs to be “fixed” about church is the way we view it?

On Fences and Wells

There are two approaches to the spiritual life that have remarkably different outcomes: fence building and well digging. I don’t know if there is a theological shift that is more important for our day and age than this one.

male teenager in beanie facing a lake

When it comes to sex, language matters.

Parents and the church should be leading the way in conversations about sex, creating safe places for discussion so truth can root down in the hearts of the next generation. Silence is not an option.

Comments

Leave a Comment