A month ago we started emphasizing our new year-long theme at Central Presbyterian, taken from I Corinthians 13: “Faith, Hope, and Love Abide, but the Greatest of These Is Love.” We are trying to take on the overwhelming negativity and cynicism of the world and much of the church by focusing on the positives offered by the Christian Faith. We spent a couple of weeks focused on love, and last week on Reformation Sunday we focused on faith as we remembered the Reformation motto that we are saved by grace through faith alone. Today, on All Saints Day, we focus appropriately on hope. Because on All Saints Day we come face to face with our mortality, as we remember those we have loved whose earthly lives have ended this year, and as we remember that our time on earth will also end sooner or later. Christianity has a deep and abiding hope to offer on this subject.
We live in a culture which is defined in many ways by unrealistic expectations and deep disappointments. Everything from toothpaste to shoes to cell phones to alcohol and drugs promise to make us happy, popular, and fulfilled. Every politician promises that he or she will be able to succeed in doing things that no one else has been successful doing. Churches compete against each other to offer the greatest, most uplifting, most amazing experience for you and for your children. Our expectations about everything are sky high and when they are not met time after time after time it creates tired, eye rolling cynicism in us.
This is not new. In 1969 Peggy Lee had a hit song called “Is That All There Is,” whose cynical sentiments are still timely. One verse says,
“When I was 12 years old my daddy took me to a circus,
‘The Greatest Show On Earth.’
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching, I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over I said to myself,
‘Is that all there is to a circus?’”
Then the refrain:
“Is that all there is? Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing;
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is.”
The circus proved to be a let down. Love is next:
“And then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day he went away and I thought I’d die.
But I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself,
‘Is that all there is to love?’”
And when you keep getting disappointed in earthly things, it’s easy to shield yourself from getting your hopes up again, either about earthly or heavenly things. So the song ends this way:
“I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
‘If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?’
Oh, no, not me.
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
‘Cause I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
That when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself – is that all there is?”
Getting into college or a sorority or a fraternity or getting a sports scholarship or academic scholarship; getting married; getting your dream job; getting retired – for a lot of people, after a little while with each of things after having such high expectations, the letdown of reality leads them to ask, “Is that all there is to this?” And the devil is in that. Everybody needs meaning and purpose in life. Everyone needs goals and things to look forward to. When that all gets reduced to just making it to the weekend and partying that away, well, what a waste.
Well, the Bible is full of hope and reasons to be hopeful as we walk toward the future. There is plenty of hope offered for this life, but today I want to focus on the hope of a life to come. Christianity has been criticized for its focus on a happy ending, pie in the sky by and by. Karl Marx rejected Christianity as the “opiate of the masses,” because he thought it focused so much on a heaven to come in order to get people to be content with a sorry state in this life. Certainly there have been times in the church’s life when the hope of heaven has been used to “keep people in their place” in this life, but that does not mean it is an invalid or unimportant hope.
The basis for the Christian hope that there is a blessed life beyond our earthly lives is based first and foremost in the words of Jesus Christ, upon whom our faith is built. Shortly before his own death he gave these words of assurance to his closest friends, the disciples: “In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I am going to prepare a place for you there. I will come again and I will take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1-2) And when Jesus was hanging on the cross, one of the thieves hanging beside him said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded, “Surely, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) Jesus really didn’t offer much specificity about what heaven is going to be like, other than to say that people will come from all over – north, south, east, and west – to sit at table in the kingdom of God. All we need to know is that we will be with him and we can trust that everything we need will be provided.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “Those who believe in me shall live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
In many ways we would all be better off if other New Testament writers had not muddied the issue tremendously with the variety of things they say about heaven and what the end times will be like. The talk about a trumpet sounding at the last day calling forth the dead in Christ, the talk about thousand year periods of trials and of Christ’s reign on earth and raptures and horsemen and wars largely serve to confuse Christians and distract us from the important things of faith. Yet even those writers said some important things that fit well with what Jesus taught.
I Thessalonians is written to people who were beginning to get discouraged and confused because Jesus hadn’t come back yet and some of their number had died before the second coming. They and many early Christians had been sure Jesus was returning almost immediately, based on some things Jesus said. In this letter Paul offers these words of assurance: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” He wants to assure them that God has included those who are already dead in his plan just as fully as he has those who are alive.
Grief is a disabling emotion, even when you have faith and hope. When someone who is tremendously important in your daily life dies, the absence and emptiness created by that loss pervades every moment of every day. Just imagine what that would be like if you did not have the hope of salvation and eternal life and reunion with loved ones. It is a very bleak thought. Paul says, “We do not want you to grieve as those who have no hope.” We want you to have a new and living hope through Jesus Christ our Savior, who loved us and gave his life for us. Whoever lives and believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life. Elsewhere Paul writes that nothing in life or in death will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. He also wrote, “We know that when the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” (II Corinthians 5:1, 6-9)
And then we come to the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, which has given so many Christians so much trouble and has led people down countless rabbit trails trying to figure out when the world is going to end and exactly what all the bizarre numbers and imagery in the book are related to today. They are never right! If you ask Professor Google to pull up all the different dates that people have established as the date the world will end based on signs in the Bible you get several pages of results. Some people revised their date three or four times, and it is impossible for me to imagine how they retained any credibility with their followers. Jesus said that even he did not know when the second coming would take place, so it takes a lot of audacity for any human being to claim to have that knowledge. Such predictions have done great damage to the credibility of the Christian faith in my opinion.
With regard to the end times, I take Jesus at his word that the way to approach the kingdom is with a child like faith. I trust God to take care of all those details in God’s time and in God’s way. I don’t even know the day or hour of my own death, much less the date of Jesus’ return. When a total eclipse threw the Continental Congress into panic and disarray, Ben Franklin remained working calmly at his desk. Asked how he could remain so calm, Franklin is said to have responded something like, “If this is indeed the end, I would like to be found doing my duty.” I like that approach very much.
Revelation was a pastoral letter written around the end of the first century. It was written by John, who was exiled on the island of Patmos due to Roman persecution of Christians, to the churches in Asia Minor for which he served as bishop. Since he was imprisoned for his faith, he could not write openly about the things he wanted to say to encourage his friends in their faith, so he couched what he said in Old Testament images and numbers that would be familiar to his churches but not to the Romans.
His message was “Don’t give up! Don’t compromise your faith! Remain firm! Rome’s days are coming to an end, just as every other great empire has. God is in charge and will be triumphant, even though I know it doesn’t look like it now. Let me give you a glimpse.” And through the high drama in which the action is constantly switching back and forth between earth, where Rome rules and Christians suffer, to heaven, where God rules and provisions are being made for the ultimate security of the faithful, he paints a vivid picture.
In the throne on earth there is a beast that wreaks havoc and destruction. In the midst of the throne in heaven is a lamb standing as though it has been slain, which is also the lion of Judah – both images of Jesus, the lamb of God who gives his life for the sins of the world for our salvation. There are in heaven a multitude of people whom no one can count from every tribe and people on earth. They and all earth creatures and all heavenly beings unite their voices in praise of God and of the Lamb.
When it comes time for the dramatic climax, the curtains part and John reveals a new heaven and new earth taking the place of the old ones, and the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, shining in splendor and beauty. And a voice from the throne makes clear what is different about this new creation, both in terms of what will be there and what will not be there.
“See, the home of God is among people. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” He says it four times in these two verses: there will be no distance between God and people in this new creation. They will live together and God will wipe the tears from each eye. So what will be in the new Jerusalem? God and people, together.
What will not be in the new creation? Death will be no more. Grief will be no more. Crying will be no more. Pain will be no more. Tears will be no more. The one who is seated on the throne says, “I am making all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” That Caesar who seems all powerful today is just dust in the wind of history – his time will be short and someone else’s time will come. But the one on the throne in heaven was there when it was all created and will be there when a new creation takes its place. He is the beginning and the end.
And in the last chapter this wonderful invitation is offered: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
The Bible, as I said, offers abundant hope about a lot of subjects, but none more so than what happens after this life ends. I encourage you to focus on those passages which give the blessed assurance that our times are in God’s hands and that no one cares for and about us more deeply than God. Our future is guaranteed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who loves us and gave himself for us and has gone to prepare a place for us so that where he is we can be also. And our ultimate destination is a place where God will be at home with his people, wiping the tears of grief and exhaustion and loneliness from our eyes and offering us freely the water of life, which wells up within to eternal life.
So face life unafraid, and when turbulent times come continue doing what you are called to do so that when the end comes you will be found doing your duty.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 1, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church