At one time or another, all of us have played one of those games where each of the players is trying to get an advantage over or to eliminate the player or players on the other side. There are a number of variations on the theme, but both sides have the same aim!
Do we have some chess-players here this morning? We try to read the other player's mind - what's his/her next move going to be? What should our counter-move be? How can we control the game so that the other player moves defensively but helplessly into our trap? We don't have to take all the opponent's pieces to win the game. The aim is to place the king in danger to our next move with the other player unable to defend the king from this attack. The result is "check-mate" - shah mata in Arabic, meaning "the king is dead".
Moves and counter-moves - aimed at blocking the opponent and gaining control of the game.
The very first chapters of the Bible record the immediate result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, "That evening they heard the Lord God walking in the garden, and they hid from him among the trees. But the Lord God called out to the man, 'Where are you?' He answered, 'I heard you in the garden; I was afraid and hid from you, because I was naked' " (Gen. 3.8-10).
They had been warned that eating the forbidden fruit would lead to death. In the event, it didn't happen "ZAP!" on that day - at least, not physically. Yet they had sealed their own fate - their move towards rebellion and independence was deadly to them. Except that we see God coming in with a counter-move. In Genesis 3.15, we read God's words to the serpent, "I will make you and the woman hate each other; her offspring and yours will always be enemies. Her offspring will crush your head, and you will bite her offspring's heel."
This verse is not just about general human dislike of snakes. The verse has long been seen not only as the first reference to the long struggle between good and evil, but as the first glimmer of the gospel. It points forward to someone - some future offspring of Eve - who will be attacked by the forces of evil but will deal the final crushing blow.
But the human moves are towards self-destruction. The divine counter-moves are towards the redemption of the rebellious creature. The human side makes its last daring move against God - check-mate! The King is dead! Autonomy and freedom at last! Alas, the on-looker sympathetic to God's side fears that the last possible hope of redemption has gone!
But you can't check-mate God without that being a deliberate part of his plan of redemption. That check-mate isn't the end of God at all, but the beginning of redemption and the possibility of a whole new relationship with God! What the evil side saw as the final victory turned out to be God's victory after all!
No! That is not our understanding of the will of God! Not suffering and rejection! Not death! That would be certain defeat, and we are convinced that each counter-move of God must press toward victory.
In this we are unconsciously agreeing with the "other side", the evil side. The death of the opponent is the way to win. A jealous King Herod will serve this purpose... Failed! So try to divert the Servant from his goal - "turn these stones into bread", "jump down from the Temple", "bow down to me"... Failed again! The jealous Jewish leaders will help us to check-mate God!
But, as we read the account of the human scheming against Jesus, we see the divine will at work. It is part of the word to the troubled Joseph, "She [Mary] will have a son, and you will name him Jesus-because he will save his people from their sins" (Mt.1.21). The aged Simeon tells Mary, "He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart" (Lk. 2.34b-35).
Jesus associated with people like Zacchaeus and said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Lk.19.10). His disciples couldn't accept that his suffering, death - and resurrection - could possibly be part of the divine plan. Peter rebuked him for contemplating such an idea (Mt.16.). As they manoeuvre to secure the best places for themselves in Jesus' Kingdom, we hear him saying, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people" (Mk.10.45).
God allows - yes, even wills - the check-mate, in order to overcome evil and bring about redemption.
Francis Schaeffer wrote, "In Isaiah 53, this great prophecy made 700 years before Jesus came, what is the centre of the matter? It is words like these: 'wounded,' 'bruised,' 'a lamb to the slaughter,' 'cut off out of the land of the living,' 'poured out his soul unto death.' These words roll down through the centuries in prophecy, and we come to John the Baptist who speaks these words: 'Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world.' This is the subject of thousands of years of prophecy. The centre of the Christian message is the redemptive death of Jesus Christ" (True Spirituality).
Today is Good Friday. Jesus died a cruel, horrible death. The King is dead - it seems the evil side has at last check-mated God. Surely that is Black Friday - in the Jewish calendar, the 13th day of Nisan.
But it is Good Friday, not just because we know (as the disciples didn't) that Sunday and resurrection are coming. Rather, grieving our own human sinfulness, we know that "we are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received" (v.5b).
The account of the trial of Jesus tells us that "Jesus refused to say a word" (Mk 15.5). The future Judge of the world says nothing in his own defence. At the end of time unrepentant accusers will appear before his judgment seat. But for the present he is opening the possibility of forgiveness and salvation for all who will respond to him with repentance and faith. And throughout this time of grace the Judge of this world continues to "refuse to say a word".
Pilate asked the people, "What, then, do you want me to do with the one you call the king of the Jews?" (Mk 15.12).
And that is still the question for us today. What do you want to do with Jesus? It is possible to refuse to admit that the game is up - that God has won decisively! to continue to try to out-manoeuvre God, to keep God out of the picture altogether! But the choice for life is the recognition that God was at work in our human check-mate, opening up the possibility of forgiveness and a whole new way of life.
Don't fight any longer! It's time to change to the King's side!