I don’t know how closely you follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we are entering into Phase 4, a whole bunch of new movies and shows building on the characters and storylines established through the whole Avengers Infinity War saga.
One of the interesting ideas they’re bringing into Phase 4 is what’s called the “multiverse” - the idea that there are many similar, but different universes side by side where small changes to one event can have hugely different outcomes in the world.
They even have a show coming out called “What if…?” Asking questions like what if Peggy Carter got Captain America’s powers instead of him, or what if T’Challa as a child had been taken by Yondu to grow up and become Star Lord?
Asking “What if…?” is a great way to think differently about very familiar ideas. Even ideas from the Bible. It’s a way to exercise our minds and grow our faith like we talked about last week.
For example, we all know that Jesus lived 2000 years ago. We all know he taught his followers. We all know he died and we all know he rose again. But what if he didn’t?
How would our world be different today without Jesus in the picture? That’s what we’re asking in this sermon series which will take us right up to Easter.
My hope and my prayer is that, by stretching our minds in this way, we will understand the meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection better than we ever have before.
THE LIFE OF JESUS
Today, I want us to start by asking an overall question for the whole series: what if Jesus didn’t live at all? What if he was never born?
Another way of asking it is, what actually changed in our world because Jesus existed?
Now, there is a whole conversation out there about what has happened in world history because of Jesus’ followers.
Some would argue that hospitals were invented because of Christians, or the monastic system kept knowledge alive in Europe through the Dark Ages.
Of course others would say that the crusades happened because of Christians, or that the Church kept Europe in the Dark Ages longer than it needed to be.
So, yes, all of those things technically did come about because Jesus lived. It was all a consequence of that. But I don’t just want to speculate about alternative histories of Western culture.
What I really want us to talk about is what changed in our universe because Jesus lived. How did his coming to earth alter the trajectory of humanity as a whole? What would our situation be if he hadn’t?
To begin answering that, I want to look at how the Apostle John begins his gospel, because he puts the coming of Jesus in pretty cosmic terms.
Let’s read a few verses and then talk about what this means.
In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.
John starts with the words, “in the beginning.” Where have we seen those before? Oh yeah, at the beginning of the Bible.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
If you remember, in the creation story God speaks, “let there be light,” and it’s his Word that brings reality into being.
“The Word of God” is a way of talking about God’s intentions for creation. His will. His desires being realized.
And as John says in verse 4, it’s his desire - his Word - to give “life to everything.” And it’s that same Word who came into our world as Jesus Christ himself.
By starting the story of the life of Jesus by going all the way back to Genesis, John wants us to think in terms of the whole biblical story, because to him, the coming of Jesus was part of a much bigger narrative.
And what is that narrative? Well, put simply, God desires to bring life, but humanity desires, apparently, to do the opposite.
Literally the first human child who is born eventually kills the second human child who is born. And it only gets worse from there. Sin, death, brokenness, corruption, darkness… humanity spreads this kind of stuff through Creation like a plague.
Page after page. It’s like we’re trying to snuff out the light that God created.
And yet, look at verse 5. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
This right here? This is the story of our world. This is the Bible in a nutshell.
Because even though humans keep on screwing everything up, God keeps on giving us another chance.
There’s one story in Exodus that probably captures this pattern better than any other (John references this story a little bit later, which I’ll show you).
God rescues the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, right? He takes them through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. The whole way there they’re being complete jerks and disobeying all the things he told them to do.
(Again, this seems to be our M.O. as a species.)
But then, God makes a covenant - an agreement - with the people. Moses puts it down on stone tablets. This agreement includes the 10 commandments - a way to be part of the light and not the darkness: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t worship idols…
And what do they do immediately? They worship a golden calf - an idol. Moses smashes the stone tablets because… come on, guys.
Now if I was God, at this point I’d just blast them. I’d go find some other family to be my representatives.
And yet, what does God do? He gives them another chance. Moses makes two new stone tablets. God reestablishes the covenant. And then he says this to explain why:
“Yahweh! The LORD!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
This is the character of our God in a nutshell. Slow to anger. Filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
And by the way, this phrase “unfailing love” is actually one Hebrew word: hesed, and you’ll find it all throughout the Bible because, to the biblical authors, it’s at the core of who God is.
Yahweh is the God of second chances.
The story of the Israelites begins with God giving the people a second chance at Mt. Sinai.
So what does this have to do with Jesus? Or our big question for the day: what if Jesus never lived?
Well, if you follow the story through the rest of the Old Testament, you see that this moment on Mount Sinai gets repeated over and over.
God offers light and life to the people.
In their sin, the people reject God and experience the consequences.
But because of his unfailing love, God gives the people a second chance and offers them light and life again.
But the people reject God and experience the consequences.
But he’s a God of unfailing love, so he gives the people a second chance.
Rebellion, consequences, second chance, rebellion, consequences, second chance, rebellion…
Over and over and over this pattern repeats. And it builds.
To the point where, eventually, in their rebellion the nation of Israel is completely defeated and carried off into exile. They choose the darkness, and they experience the consequences.
And even when the exile is over, it’s not really over, because the nation doesn’t really recover. Always under the thumb of a foreign power. Always living in darkness. Second chance, rebellion, consequences…
That’s where the Old Testament ends.
The New Testament begins with the coming of Jesus. So let’s imagine for a moment that that never happened. How would the world be different if Jesus never lived?
Well, if Jesus never lived, then the pattern of God’s faithfulness would have ended. We would still be living in the consequences of rebellion. It would have become clear that God’s “unfailing love” did, ultimately, have a limit.
If Jesus never lived, then the words of Israel’s prophets, who declared that the ultimate second chance was coming… those words would have proven hollow. And the world would still be covered in darkness today.
But… Jesus did live. Not just as a representative of God’s unfailing love, but as our God of love himself walking among us. The very Word and intentions of God made real.
Look at how John describes the coming of Jesus Christ to our world.
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son…
From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses, but God’s unfailing love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
John is directly referencing Exodus 34 here (the golden calf story). It’s not explicit, but he’s quoting what God said there, he references the law, the tabernacle, the glory of God…
He’s implying that that moment on Mount Sinai, where Moses and the Israelites get a second chance - the new stone tablets - that moment has happened again, but this time on a cosmic scale.
It’s like he’s saying, “Remember when the law was given through Moses? Remember the golden calf episode? When the Israelites experienced God’s unfailing love and faithfulness and got a second chance?”
“Well, God’s faithfulness has come again - this time through Jesus Christ. The Word of God personified. He’s the ultimate second chance. When we look at him, we’re seeing the unfailing love of God lived out with our own two eyes.”
Through Jesus, God brought light and life not just to the Israelites but to the entire world.
And not just to continue the pattern of rebellion for another cycle, but he broke that cycle for good on the cross.
Yahweh is the God of second chances. Jesus is his ultimate act of unfailing love.
And because of Jesus, that unfailing love extends to you and me.
And I’m really grateful for that. We’ve all rebelled against God’s intentions for the world. We’ve acted selfishly. We’ve sinned. We’ve hurt one another.
But because Jesus lived, that doesn’t have to be the end of our story. We too get a second chance.
Hopefully that gives you something to chew on. And as we go through the rest of this series, I hope these big questions help to deepen your faith.
For now, though, I’d like to talk specifically to three groups of people and share my heart for you.
First, I want to speak to those of you who have been followers of Jesus for a long time. We’ve heard all the stories. We’ve sat through countless sermons. We’ve done all the Bible studies.
I know from experience that this faith stuff can sometimes lose its luster. We can fall into routine. We can take it for granted.
If that’s you, my hope is that you’ll take some time this week to really reflect on the absolute ridiculousness of God’s unfailing love and faithfulness. On the wildly impractical nature of God’s grace.
We don’t deserve the love of God, and yet he pours it out on us again and again. He’s the God of second chances.
During this series, as you try to imagine a world where Jesus never lived, I hope that drives you to a renewed gratitude and awe that we live in a world where he did.
Second, I want to talk to those here who have yet to really take the plunge into following Jesus. Or those of you who are Christians, but it’s not that big of a deal in your life.
Let me tell you the truth. If Jesus is not calling the shots in your life, then something else is. And I hate to break it to you, but that something is not you.
To use a metaphor I stole from the theologian N.T. Wright, it’s as if humanity built a dark, impenetrable prison for ourselves. We gave power to jailers like greed, and lust, and violence, and addictions, and brokenness, and they keep us trapped inside.
We are enslaved. Why do you think we spend so much of our lives scrambling to be liked, or wealthy, or powerful, or influential, or comfortable, or entertained? We do it because our jailers tell us to.
We spin our wheels all day long and yet we’re never satisfied. In this prison all we end up doing is digging ourselves deeper and hurting the people we love.
But… something changed when Jesus came.
You see, Jesus has offered us freedom from this prison. On the cross he overpowered our jailers. By rising from the dead he ripped the jail’s door off its hinges.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
The truth about this prison is that you can walk right out.
You can leave your chains behind and walk out into the light. To go and start living the life God intended for you. A life of peace and abundance and joy and harmony with others, and the promise of an eternity in a new creation where there is no darkness at all.
That’s what Jesus has offered you. So why would you stay in the dungeon?
Why are you slaving away for the jailers of wealth and sex and addiction and pride? They’ve been defeated. The door is open. All you have to do is walk out.
But you’ve got to walk.
Look, if Jesus never lived, then I wouldn’t blame you. Sure, do your thing. Wallow in the darkness and try to be the king or queen of your own universe. It’s what everybody else is doing.
But if Jesus did live, then that door is off its hinges and you can be free.
I’m encouraging you as your pastor: take your faith seriously. Give your life to following him. Leave this jail behind.
If you do, then you will experience - as I have, as Christ-followers throughout history have, as the Apostle John has in v.16 - “one gracious blessing after another.” Grace upon grace upon grace.
You can live free. But you’ve got to walk into the light. Take that step.
Don’t’ just call yourself a Christian. Give your life to Jesus and watch as his unfailing love transforms you.
Finally, I know there are some of you who are following Jesus. Who want God to call the shots in your life. But you keep messing up or your doubt your salvation.
Maybe it’s a sin pattern you keep falling back to. Maybe it’s an addiction you can’t shake. Or maybe it’s something awful you did in the past that just haunts you.
If that’s you, I imagine there are times you feel like despite all this talk about the unfailing love of God, that you’ve somehow lost that privilege.
You worry. You agonize. You despair.
If that’s you, I want to remind you of something: The love of God is not conditional.
Sure, if you mess up, you’ve got to change the direction you’re going. That’s what repentance means. Turn from your sin and back to God.
But here’s what I want you to hear: every time you do God is waiting for you with open arms. He is the God of second chances.
Jesus did live. He did reveal the unfailing love of God for you. And I’m sorry, but there is nothing you can do that can change that. As the Apostle Paul says,
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Don’t believe the lies in your head. God loves you and Jesus proves it.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.”