Monday, September 2, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Hope

Preached on Sunday, September 1, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 25:1-9; 1 Corinthians 15:1-28

The first funeral I ever did was for the still-born baby of a family I didn’t really know. They had a farm outside of the little town of Hazelton, Idaho. I think the baby was a boy. I seem to remember that the parents were about forty, or slightly younger. They had two other children, a boy and a girl, about eight or ten years old each.
Old Family Photos
I met with the family at the hospital, and at their home. I thought and prayed about what to say.
I remember, after the mother came home from the hospital, one of the church deacon’s and I went to their house with some food. We didn’t find them at home; and they had locked their doors, even though they had dogs.
Serving in Hazelton had taught me, in a very short time, to think that was odd. How could anyone get into their house to leave something for them, if they locked their doors when they were gone?
The scripture and the outline I used probably still exist in a folder, in a box somewhere. There was a graveside service in a cemetery in Twin Falls, in December of 1980.
I know I said something like this:
"Some people may say that this child never lived, but that is not true. This child lived in the hearts of the mother, the father, the sister, the brother, and the rest of the family. This child lived in their hopes and their expectations.
"This child is still alive in the mind and heart of God. This child actually lives with God. This child is a real, living child; and the father and mother still have this son they will not see for a while. The sister and brother still have this brother who is living with God and they will see him someday.
"The sadness for this family is that they were not able to meet, and know, and grow to love this child the way they expected. That has been truly lost. They will grieve for this. The sadness for this family is that they have to say good bye to this child they truly loved, long before they will ever be able to say hello.
"We believe that they will be able to meet, and to know, and grow to love this child when, at last, they get to say hello. We will all get to say hello to this child. God has made this possible through the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead."
That was really about it. I knew it would be a bitter cold winter day. I knew that what we did at the cemetery had to be short. I remember the tiny coffin.
It all made a huge impression on me so, even though it all happened more than thirty years ago, I know I am not too far off from remembering the whole thing. I’ve talked to people about this experience and that short sermon many times.
One of the things I had never fully understood before my first funeral was why I was afraid of death and funerals. My understanding began to shape itself because of that funeral for that baby and my meetings with the family who was so confused and grieving.
I began to understand (and I began to be able to say) that I hate death. I just hate it, and I firmly believe that God hates death too. I believe the Bible teaches us this.
Funerals can be wonderful and beautiful as tributes to a life that has passed, and to the promises of God. Funerals can even be fun. But they are wonderful, beautiful, horrible fun.
I welcome doing funerals as an honor given to me and as a sacred trust. But I know that, in my work around a funeral, I am ministering to broken hearts and lives.
There are no human words or actions of mine that can heal; only love, time, fellowship, prayer, and the comfort of the scriptures. And these only heal as instruments in the hands of God, who says, in Jesus, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18)
In my own personal experience, I have had visions of heaven. I have died in the sense of drowning at the age of seventeen, inhaling water because I was underwater and couldn’t hold my breath any longer.
I remember God telling me to trust him, but not what I should trust him for. I remember everything going dark, finding myself in a place where there was nothing but light. There was no here or there. There was no this or that. I had no body. I was in a place where I saw no one else, but I was not alone. I was surrounded, and I was with God.
I didn’t see heaven at that time. I know people who have seen heaven under similar circumstances. This church has had a pastor with a past experience of dying from a massive heart attack in a hospital emergency room, going to the borders of heaven, meeting Jesus, and being sent back to life in this world. That was Jim Jennings.
Jim told me all about it once. But he also told me that he was still afraid to die, because dying meant separation. Dying meant saying good bye. Even if that good bye was to be a short one, it was a radical one. Jim was a humble, honest, faithful Christian man and a loving husband.
He had enormous love for God. He had enormous love for his wife. He had enormous faith in God. I know it was love that made Jim afraid of death. I think it was his faith that made him hate the thought of death.
The Apostle Paul hated death. He called death the enemy. He wrote to the Corinthians and said that, even for God, death was the enemy. Death is an enemy that God has conquered. And God promises to put death under his feet to be crushed and destroyed. Paul writes: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:26)
Paul teaches us that the healing of death is the resurrection. Paul also teaches us about heaven: but heaven and the resurrection are not the same things.
Here are some lines from Paul (in Second Corinthians) that describe heaven as our home when death separates us from our bodies and our physical life. “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith and not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9)
When we die, our soul (our spirit) finds itself at home with the Lord. There is a place where it is a comfortable and joyful thing to be a soul (a spirit) away from the body. That place is called heaven.
In Philippians, Paul also says this about heaven. “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” (2 Corinthians 5:1)
In this same letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote about being on trial for his life. There was a real chance that his work to spread the good news of Jesus would earn him a death sentence. His friends were afraid and they were praying for him. He wrote this to comfort them. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24)
Here you see that there was a fear of death, on the part of Paul’s friends at the thought of losing him. And Paul had a definite reluctance at the thought of dying, which would require saying good bye to his friends who loved him. The Bible is not only true; it is also very honest about this.
But there was something besides heaven that Paul also wanted. It came through the death of Jesus, and yet it was the very destruction of death. “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
Remember that the process of knowing something, as the people of the Bible understood it, was an experience of intense intimacy. It was like the relationship between a husband and wife. Being away from the body and at home with the Lord is a kind of intimacy, and (as such) it must be a wonderful thing.
Knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection by being a fully resurrected lover of Jesus would be an even greater form of intimacy. Paul says that this would mean an intimacy with the cross of Jesus, as he had never known it before: “becoming like him in his death.”
It would mean knowing the cross as something more than forgiveness. It would mean knowing the cross as life from the dead. It would mean knowing the death of Jesus as someone who had gone through death with Jesus to being resurrected with Jesus.
God hates death. Some people seem to think that God chose death for our world as the punishment for our sins, as if it was up to God to devise a way to make us hurt for what human being had done. Death is no more a punishment for sin than getting burned is a punishment for touching a hot iron.
I did that once. My mom had warned me not to touch a hot iron, but I did it and I used to have a scar because of that. The burn and the scar were my punishment. Even though my mom had warned me, she didn’t have to punish me. She even ran to get some ice to put on the burn, to give me relief.
Paul says (as he does in Romans 6:23) that “the wages of sin is death”; but he only means that death is what comes from the fact that sin has become a part of our lives. Sin is a separation from God that comes from a choice of the heart. We still choose sin because we don’t want to be interfered with, not even by God himself, no matter what excuses we may make.
Sin is getting away from the control of God. Sin is going outside of God, which is the same as going outside of life. Anything that takes us away from God can never be anything other than death.
In a way, death is very much the mercy of God. It actually provides some relief from sin. It’s an interim arrangement to help us cope until God destroys sin, and death along with it. Death means not having to live forever in a state of war; in a confusing, fearful, hateful, and brutal world.
Death doesn’t actually heal anything. It hurts those who grieve, but it also protects life, and allows life to go on. If God only destroyed death without destroying sin, the world would be a much worse place than it is. Imagine a world where Hitler and Osama bin Laden could never die
Since death is only the consequence, or the damages, of sin, if God only healed our sin by his forgiveness of our sins, without destroying death, then at least some of the damage caused by sin would go on and on. Life would still be broken in a world where love had to say goodbye in death.
If God were not strong enough to destroy both sin and death, then he would not be strong enough to destroy even sin, in the first place. That’s what Paul means when he says, “If Christ is not raised your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (15:17)
Isaiah tells us that a God who is strong enough to be truly trusted is a God strong enough to destroy all the brokenness of this world, including sin and including death. “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.” This is the trust that Isaiah said would come from the death of death at the hands of God. “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord; we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:7-9)
The German pastor and spy Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for his involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler during WWII, wrote this as he contemplated all the destruction and death that was going on around him. “Death reveals that the world is not as it should be but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death…. God wills the conquering of death through the death of Jesus Christ. Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death been drawn into God’s power.” (Conspiracy and Imprisonment: 1940-1945, vol. 16, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, ed. Mark S. Brocker, etc. pp. 207-08)
Heaven is a glorious half-way house in the grace of God and in his battle with death. From the point of view of a faithful God, even heaven is not enough. There must be a true resurrection. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God will give us more than glory for our soul. God will give us the glory of a new body and soul, in a new heaven and earth.
We will be a new creation because we will be recreated in the image of the resurrected Jesus. We will have the look and feel of people who carry the very antidote to death in our veins. Perhaps we will be too happy and full of love to die. We will have what Paul calls a “spiritual body” because everything that Jesus did on the cross, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to reconcile us to God and to each other, will live and breathe in us.
The cross is more than God’s weapon against sin. It is his weapon to give us life. We live trusting in the promise that God will not only give us rest but actually make all things new. God will put an end to all goodbyes. God will recreate everything better than before.
I served a church where there was a great older couple named Dale and Mabel. Dale had diabetes and got a horrible infection in his leg. The leg had to come off, and the doctors had an artificial leg made for him. Dale was able to use that leg, but it was not the same. He even had ghost feelings of the leg that was gone.
The resurrection will be more than a new leg for Dale. It will be more than a sort of spirit-leg for the soul of Dale in heaven.
Why wouldn’t a spirit-leg in heaven be enough? Isn’t heaven wonderful enough for us? Heaven will be full of the presence of God, and of his angels, and of countless people from all times and places experiencing the victory of their faith. When we are there, it will be so good that we won’t want anything else.
But, as good as heaven will be, there is a hope beyond heaven, something even better than heaven. The resurrection will be a kind of luxury that we could (maybe) live very well without, but we have a God who wants to surprise us with gifts beyond our wildest expectations. We simply have a God who rejoices in making more and more possible and in knowing the growing eagerness in our hearts.
So through Jesus we live in a daring and almost incomprehensible hope. We have the power to buck all the trends. We have the power to live in resistance to the world. We live in contradiction to the world. We take risks. We live sacrificially. We love unconditionally. We forgive the sins of others completely (or we pray to so forgive them). We live for the redemption of others (and of the world for which Christ has died).
The cross is more than forgiveness. It is hope. The cross creates a whole new reality that no one can see who does not also see Jesus.

We live in hope. We trust the Lord so much that we know (when all is said and done) we will be able to say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us.”

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