Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Living and Dying, Earth and Heaven
Preached on Sunday, May 7, 2017
Scripture readings: Psalm 73:21-26; Philippians 1:19-30
“How many of you want to go to heaven?”
An old-time preacher asked the question, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” And everyone raised their hands, except one child. The preacher asked the child, “What about you? Don’t you want to go to heaven?” And the child said, “Yes I do; only I thought you were trying to get together a load to go right now.”
Paul wrote a strange, radical thing to his friends in Philippi, in the north of Greece:
“For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:21)
Paul was living the life of a prisoner. He was chained up in a stinking, underground dungeon. The remains of this dungeon can still be seen today. He was being held for trial before the emperor’s court, in Rome. He was on trial for his life.
Being on trial for his life was a very familiar experience for Paul, except for the part about the emperor. That part was exciting. But Nero was the emperor now, and Nero had started to persecute Christians as dangerous conspirators, the enemies of humanity and enemies of the order of the empire.
There had been a great fire in the city of Rome. Some citizens blamed Nero who had been making plans to redevelop the city.
Nero needed someone else to blame, so he blamed the Christians, and he had many of them tortured and killed. And once he had painted them as the real enemy, if he didn’t want to look dishonest, he had to keep it up.
Things did not look good for Paul. It was a serious time to settle the mind, to keep focused on what was truly important. But the question was: was it time for Paul pray for inner peace and strength, or else should he prepare to let it all go, and focus on heaven?
Or else, should Paul pray for a dismissal, or an acquittal in court?
And should he pray about his old missionary plans? Should his goal be traveling west to Spain; or back east again to visit the churches he had started in Greece, and beyond? What should he want?
Paul’s friends wanted him to live. They wanted him around.
But what did Paul want? Certainly he wanted to be around. But should he want this? Should he be ready to die, or ready to live? And what does it mean to die? And what does it mean to live?
Paul tells us what he believes, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Now this is sort of like saying, “To live is great, and to die is even greater.” If we found ourselves in Paul’s situation, it would be understandable if we considered our life to be over and hopeless. But, for Paul, sitting in the stink of one of Rome’s worst jails, waiting to have his case heard by an emperor who was politically motivated to torture and kill him... for Paul, in that time and place (even there) to live was Christ.
When he says that “to die is gain” he doesn’t mean “There is nothing left for me here.” There is more to it than meets the eye. Even here, in this prison, in the shadow of death, life is Christ.
I once heard a professional mountain climber being interviewed. This man was well on his way to his goal of climbing the fourteen highest mountains on the earth, and doing it without any bottled oxygen. We are talking about heights of twenty-eight thousand feet, and more. Up there, the air is so thin that the muscles and the brain begin to starve, for the lack of oxygen. The muscles are depleted. The brain loses judgment, and a clear sense of time and direction. Up there, the exhaustion and cold are torture.
Climbing each mountain takes months of training, and preparation, and attack. By the time of his interview, this climber had conquered nine of the fourteen mountains. He loved doing this! For him to live was mountain-climbing.
Paul was a spiritual mountain climber. And he was facing the tallest mountain of his life. And he said, “For me, to live is Christ.”
I want to list for you a few of the parts of Paul’s life that were NOT what he meant when he said “to live is Christ”. Here are some things that Paul, as a follower of Jesus, could point to and say, “To live is a great thing.” Yet these are not the same as saying, “To live is Christ.”
Here is the Christian life as a great thing. For a follower of Jesus, having sisters and brothers in Christ is one of the things that make living great. There are people you belong to, and they belong to you. But this sense of belonging doesn’t happen only because you share a common cause, or because you’ve spent time together, or even because they may be your very own flesh and blood. There is a sense of belonging that can include all that, but it’s much more than that.
There’s a sense of belonging that comes from knowing the fact that we don’t own each other. The greatest sense of belonging comes from knowing that we are given to each other by God. Actually, everyone we know, everyone we meet, is God’s gift.
The most normal thing in the world, when you think of your brothers and sisters in Christ… the most normal thing in the world is to give thanks. In every letter but one (Galatians), Paul starts out by giving thanks for the people to whom he is writing; even when they are driving him crazy with their backsliding, and their immaturity, and their conflicts.
When Paul says that he hopes to remain with them, and he says, “I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you,” the word translated as continue is really a side-by-side-continuing. “I will stay, and I will stay beside you, with all of you.” This staying side-by-side with people who are given to you by God, and made a part of you by God, is a part of following Jesus. It is something that makes following Jesus a great thing.
Other things that make following Jesus great are these: standing for the truth, being witnesses of good news in a world that is crying out for good news. There is having a God-given purpose in life. There is standing for compassion and mercy. There is being prayed for by others, and praying for them. There is being a servant. There is the help of the Holy Spirit, or the supply of the Spirit. This comes when the Lord renews your strength, or gives you insight into life and shows you the way. To live (following Jesus) is great.
Partly, this is a matter of what is important to you. For instance, you might say: “Farming is my life”, or “Education is my life”, “My work is my life”.
You might say: “Success is my life.” You might say, “Survival is my life”. Or you might say: “My family is my life”. Or you might say: “My happiness, my comfort, is my life”. These are answers to the question: What is the most important thing for you? And then you could say: “Christ is my life”. That brings us closer to what Paul is saying.
Now what if you are like me, and you have a lot of different things are important to you? What if there was a conflict between your work and your family, and both were in competition for the center of your life? What if your work was not good for your family life; or your spouse and children hated the work you did? That happens to people working in the ministry.
The Bible doesn’t really say that one kind of work is more holy than another. It just says to work, if you can, and to do honest work.
The Bible says to work so that you can eat. It says to work so that you can have something to give. Otherwise you’re free. You have lots of options; unless God gives you only one.
And then the Bible says to be a good husband or wife. Be a good parent. Sons and daughters: be good to your parents by obeying them. These are not options. Here we are not free. Surely your family life is more important than the work you do. And if they are more important than your work, then they will motivate how you relate to whatever work you do; so you do the right work, in the right way.
If Christ is your life, then Christ will win in any competition with any other part of your life. But Christ will also motivate you in every other part of your life. Christ will motivate you as a worker, and Christ will talk to you about the kind of work he calls you to do, and he will make your special calling become a way of following him in holiness; in the Lord’s unique purpose for you.
If Christ is your life, then the Lord will make your relationships with your family into ministries. Your spouse, your parents, your children will all be holy ground for you. If Christ is your life, then even your relationships with strangers will turn into ministries. Christ will give you your priorities, and he will show you where to sit tight, and when to hang loose.
But you can say “Christ is my life” and still not understand what it means to say, “For me, to live is Christ.” You can say “Christ is my life” and be only a slave in the way you live for Christ. You can be a drudge for Christ.
To say, “For me, to live is Christ” is more like being in love, which is wonderful, and scary, and joyful, and challenging, and frustrating, and exciting, and confusing, and fulfilling, all at the same time.
The word atonement, in the Bible, which refers to something that brings people together with God, and brings peace with God, means the action of making them “at one”. Atonement means “at-one-ment”. There (in “at-one-ment”) to live is Christ.
It’s like marriage, where two become as one. In love, there is passion and the desire to be together all the time, and even if that seems to cool down, there are always thoughts like: “She would love to see this.” or “This is something he wouldn’t like.” To say, “For me, to live is Christ” means “He is my reason for living. And he is not only my reason for living; he is the very source of my life. He is the love of my life. He is my joy and my peace.”
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I think this means something like, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is to gain more of Christ.” Paul surely says this very thing when he writes: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far...” (Philippians 1:23)
But better than what? Better than being of use to his friends and family in Christ? Paul loved being useful.
Heaven will bring us the pure enjoyment of love and thanks in a way that is separate from usefulness. This is very strange. When Paul talks about staying, he talks about his presence with his people being necessary, and then he talks about leaving that behind.
Going on to be with the Lord will be something different from usefulness. It will be the end of being of use, and of being necessary. Or it will be a graduation to something better. Perhaps there is something more wonderful than being of use, and much better than being necessary.
I do believe that there may be some kind of joyful work or service to do in the everlasting life, after we depart to be with the Lord. It’s possible. But we will not do it because we are indispensable, or even merely useful. We will not be loved for what we do; we will do because we are loved, and because we love.
If we want to know anything about the Lord, we have to know that the whole message of the good news of Jesus Christ is that he did something for us that we could not do for ourselves. Until we get that, we don’t get anything. And here we fret and we think that our life has no purpose if we cannot do things for others, or even for ourselves.
But that isn’t true. We have a purpose because God made us, because God loves us, even when we are helpless and useless. This is the truth. But it is very, very hard to grasp.
A new born baby has a purpose in life. An unborn baby has a purpose. A flower in a vase has a purpose. A hug and a kiss have a purpose. The clasp of a hand has a purpose. A song has a purpose. A sunset has a purpose. None of these things are of any material, practical use to us at all. But they are priceless: absolutely priceless.
Craig Barnes was a young pastor when he faced a long and difficult battle with cancer, and the treatments left him too sick to be of any use to his congregation, or his wife, or his children, and he didn’t know if he would ever recover. This made him feel completely helpless and hopeless. Then, one day, he felt that the Lord was telling him this: “You are too important to be necessary. You deserve to be loved.”
Part of heaven will be the experience of this love. “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” To die is to gain more of Christ.
Often the Bible compares death to sleep. The body stops, and takes a long, long rest. Other times the Bible talks about death as moving away from our bodies and this world, into the presence of the Lord. “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.”
“I desire to depart and be with Christ.”
The word that’s translated as “depart” tells us what it means to die. The word could be used a number of different ways. It literally means the loosening or the untying of something. It’s the word people said when they struck camp; when they loosened the ropes and the stakes on their tents, to pack them up and move on.
When I was a kid, we went camping every summer, and it was one of the great rituals, setting up the tent. And it was just as important a ritual to take it down exactly right, so it would go up exactly right, next time. And when we struck camp for the last time, then it was time to go home.
The word “depart” means loosening, and untying of the moorings of a boat, so that it can launch out.
In one of the churches I served, we went for an annual rafting and kayaking trip every summer. On these trips, we had this great ceremony in the mornings, when the rafts were packed and ready, and everyone was in their places, we said a prayer, the knots were untied, and we pushed off down the river.
The word we translate as depart also means, of all things, unraveling a problem, it means finding the solution. There’s a time and a place where all the hurts are healed and all the questions are answered. Those who wait till the end will understand.
There’s a phrase from an old prayer that goes like this: Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who are ready to go forth and live, so that whether we live or die our LIFE may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
Paul said, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Earth is for life. Heaven is for life. Living is for life. Even dying is for life. In Christ, it is like being in love.
This is what Paul believed. This is what the Bible teaches. This is what we believe.