I read a story back when I was in seventh grade which gave me a whole new perspective on God’s relationship with me. The story started out by telling the account of a very beloved mayor of a city. He was the kind of mayor who redefined the image of politicians we picture today. His focus was on the people of his city, where he cared for all citizens, regardless of their color, social status, economic standing, etc.

He was so loved, that the citizens changed the laws so he could be re-elected again and again. This mayor put a focus back on the schools, so that all children could learn in equal settings. He took care of the aging in the community with programs which connected young and old people. He balanced budgets, and put surpluses away, instead of paying off those who did favors for him. He personally sponsored community events which supported several local organizations which took care of everyone from veterans to those with severe handicaps.

He was married for over 30 years to his high school sweetheart, who both attended the local high school. They had one son, who seemed to be following in his dad’s footsteps by being a great student body leader, team playing athlete and straight A student. This mayor was fair on crime, and cut out any shade of conspiracy at any level of the government he controlled. The previous year was unique, as the President of the United Stated hailed him as a role model for all who lead.

The mayor’s town was the place where property values rose, as more and more families tried to find housing in this outstanding town. Making sure that not only the wealthy could afford to live in his town, this mayor built housing so lower income families could enjoy the parks he helped build, schools which focused on excellence and a vibe which was humble and proud. Local business boomed, and created an incredible synergy where the town was as close to independent as a 21st century city could become.

The town was not perfect, as it did have its share of crime. However, even the jails catered towards true renovation of their prisoners. There were work programs, so when they were released they were skilled in crafts and services which benefited the community. Even the prisoners fought to be in this community’s jail!

One summer day a transient came through this town, broke in to a family’s house and killed all five members including an 18 month boy. The house was inhabited by a single mom who recently lost her husband to cancer. The police released the fact that the mother, oldest teenage daughter and 10 year old son were all sexually assaulted before they were murdered. The three year old and 18 month old died from smoke inhalation, as the criminal locked the young ones in a closet before he set the house on fire.

The criminal was later caught after he was found sleeping at a hotel 140 miles from the town, driving the car of the family of victims. He was put on trial in the town, where a jury found him guilty of the horrific crimes. He had no remorse, no regret at the trial, even stating that they family obviously deserved what they got. Most of the town and country followed the trial day by day, but many had to stop hearing about the details given how severe they were.

After the conviction, the beloved mayor visited the criminal who was held at his jail before deciding which federal penitentiary he would spend the remaining days of his life at, before being put to death. The mayor spent three full days talking to the criminal, not once talking down to him, or even brining up the crimes which he admitted to.

By the third day, the criminal had a genuine change of heart. He would later say that what changed his heart was how the mayor spoke to him. “He talked to me like the father I never knew, the father I never had… but like a father I had in my whole life”. And it was true, the mayor never once talked down to him, as he listened to his upbringing, which was surprisingly normal. On the day of the trial which would sentence the criminal, the courtroom was full of people from the community and media. The judge took the stand, as all rose, and then were told to be seated. The judgment came down, and it was what everyone had thought, the criminal was to be put to death for his crimes.

The judge continued by saying after the verdict that the major has asked for a request. The people only imagined how this mayor could sum up the pain this community felt, and waited in anticipation as he stood in front of the courtroom. “I stand in front of you today knowing everyone’s pain and agony over what this man has done to our safe and happy town”, he began. “As many of you know, I have spent the last three days with this person who has literally changed all of our lives. As many of you know, as mayor I have certain powers which many mayors don’t have. The decision I’m about to explain, is a decision I would make for any of you, whether you think I know you well or not, regardless of what you’ve done, what secrets you keep. I have chosen to excommunicate this criminal’s sentence, but because someone must pay the price, I have talked to my son which many of you know. “

The audience stood speechless, as he continued, “I talked to him all night last night after I left the jail, and explained how much I love this person who has damned himself by his own actions. There is actually more he admitted to me, which he is not on trial for, but would render the same verdict time and time again. However, there is a crime which needs to be paid for, and I have decided to have my son take the place of this person you have condemned, and spend the rest of his life for this criminal’s crime.” At this time the son stepped from back of the room and took the key from the bailiff. He went around to the back of the handcuffed killer and unlocked his cuffs and ankle chains.

The criminal immediately broke down, previously having no clue what the mayor was about to do today. The crowd was stunned, along with the jury, judge and attorneys. The mayor looked down, then back up again at the criminal. “By the powers given to me, I release this criminal as a free man”, and proceeded to say, “I know many of you are surprised by this announcement and decision, most of you feel extremely upset for my son. However, my son has fully agreed to this arrangement”. With that, the son entered the courtroom and walked down the middle isle. He slowly opened the hip high swinging door, and put his hands out in front of the bailiff. The bailiff looked over at the judge, then back to the mayor who gave him a nod.

The bailiff took out his keys, unlocked the handcuffs which were holding the criminal and placed them on the mayor’s son. Some cried, but many were still speechless. The criminal rubbed his wrists, and again wiped away his tears. The son put his bound hands behind the criminals neck and hugged him before being taken away. The mayor kissed his son one last time, and the son looked back saying to his dad, “It is done”. He proceeded through the back door, where thousands of criminals have walked before. The mayor passed by the criminal, kissed him on the forehead, and whispered, “You are free, now go live a life different than the one you lived before”.

They both left the courtroom, as everyone had stood up to try to hear the final whispered words. Although there were some obviously upset by the decision of the mayor, most realized that the son willingly switched places with the criminal. The freed criminal attempted to look at every person he passed when leaving that courtroom. His eyes undoubtedly expressed deep remorse to each person he passed, and surprisingly most people showed compassion back to him. Not necessarily compassion because of what he had done, but because what the mayor and his son had done for him.

As you read that story, who did you see yourself as? Did you put yourself in the place of the mayor or maybe one of the courtroom audience members? Were you angry at the havoc produced by the criminal, or did you feel more for the son who took the criminal’s place? How did you feel about the outcome? Were you sad, or did you feel something else?

How you felt is how you felt, and I don’t want you to feel guilty for whatever you did feel. I think most people feel angry about the pain the criminal who brought so much pain to so many lives. But I also think many others (including myself) felt a sense of unfairness for the son. What struck me the most is that I didn’t really relate to the criminal. I was angry, then I was very angry. Once he was brought in front of the courtroom I felt like his crimes were finally going to be brought and judged by justice.

You have to know that I originally read this story when I was in seventh grade, so my reaction was very pure, and I wasn’t trying to read into the story, or even guess the ending. When the mayor had his son take the criminal’s place I was floored. However, as the author closed the story, he explained what you probably already know: The mayor is God, the son is Jesus and we are the criminal. Decades later I can also see the audience in the courtroom as a form of myself who doesn’t think I need to own up to my sins.

Did I murder people, no. However, have I impacted others far beyond what I know? Probably. Weird enough my memory is jarred with experiences I’m not so happy about. The time in high school I called a girl who looked up to me, and that I didn’t really know, ugly. The times I’ve lied to my parents, and have sworn at my wife. The friends I didn’t treat so friendly, and the strangers I ignored, even though I know they needed something which was of little value to me. The time I spanked my sons out of anger, having discipline being the farthest thing from my mind, and the other times I have manipulated a person just so I could get what I want.

The fact is that I’m as guilty as the criminal on trial, and deserve whatever sentence is brought down on me. Even if a person doesn’t believe in God, I’m guessing they have fallen short of their own standards. However, we have a God more gracious then even the mayor. He just didn’t give up his only Son to serve time in prison, His Son who was without any fault died on the cross to take the place of your sins. I’m guessing you have fallen short just like I have, more than we want to admit. The blessing is that we have this “mayor”, who loves us, even if we don’t really know or love Him.

So here is my point. You’re sitting in the courtroom, obviously guilty of a long line of sins, many more than we could ever count. You have a God willing to let you free of your shortcomings, lies, cheating and a variety of other sins. Will you accept the free gift He has already given you? Or, will you stay bound in the cold handcuffs, willing to take the long walk back to your painful cell for eternity?