Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Big Story

If you were to ask most Christians, at least of the evangelical stripe, to tell the story of the Bible i.e. the story that the Bible is telling, I believe that most would struggle. I know, because I have asked. If forced, they will come up with something along the lines of this: "God made man perfect, but we sinned and so God had to send his son into the world to die on the cross for our sins. If you believe in Jesus, you will go to heaven when you die. The end."

And that skips over a lot of territory between Genesis 3 and the New Testament. A lot of biblical data is left out in order to make this story work, but that's exactly what is done: whole sections of the Bible are virtually ignored or, at best, read as deep background for the New Testament, for that's the only way to make that story work. Now, I'm not saying that the story is wrong, just that it's not big enough. There has to be a story that includes all the data.

I think there is.

Yesterday we had a memorial service for a really great guy, Terry Whitmarsh. I anticipated that there would be no shortage of people who would talk about Terry and what a great husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, father-in-law, friend, co-worker, church member and Christian Terry was (and I wasn't wrong. It was great.), so I decided to spend most of my time reminding everyone about the Big Story of the Bible, for we all are characters in that story, and it is where our hope lies.

I'm posting my message, properly edited in respect for Terry, because we need to know the story, the whole story, the Big Story, not just the little part of it that concerns an individual.

So here goes:

A memorial service for a Christian is a unique event, strange in its own way to those who do not share our faith and our understanding of how everything will turn out.

Paul tells the Thessalonians concerning their loved ones that had died that he did not want them to grieve as others do who have no hope. Grieve, yes, for separation, even for a time, is sad. We miss each other.

But hope tempers the sadness, and gives occasion for celebration, for laughter, even, and for an abiding peace in our hearts.

Not everyone has this hope, he says, and death leaves them wondering, hoping but with no firm foundation for that hope.

It is not so for you, Paul says. You have hope, and that hope has a firm foundation, a foundation rooted in God’s unique vision for this world, his plan that he will most assuredly carry out, that he has already begun carrying out, the beginning of which is marked out by the resurrection of Jesus, the first fruits of the resurrection.

It is the biblical vision of this plan that gives us hope, and we must be clear what that vision is, for it is bigger and bolder than I believe most people understand it to be.

But 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.

1 Thessalonians 4:13

So that we are not uninformed, let me share briefly that vision.

It begins with Creation. Genesis gives us a vision of that creation, a world created out of chaos, where the chaos was tamed, and the spirit of God hovered. The waters were contained, plants and trees emerged, fish in the seas, birds in the air, and animals, livestock, creepy crawly things, wild and wonderful animals.

And at the center of it all, created in the image of God, infused with the very breath of God, are humans. Created to take care of all this creation, to nurture it, to be stewards of it all.

And God looked at it, and saw that it was very good, and he rested.

Then sin entered the world. Humans weren’t content to be created in the image of God, but wanted to be God-like. Not content to live in this creation, humans wanted to live where God lived. Not content with knowing God, they wanted to have the knowledge of God, God’s kind of knowledge, and the divine prerogative to judge between that which is good and that which is evil.

Between that which deserves to live, and that which deserves to die.

And so violence entered the world as brother began to kill brother, and as other brothers began to avenge their brothers’ deaths, and the cycle of violence got worse and worse.

And instead of being content to take care of the earth, they began to exploit the earth, seeing it, not as something that God created for Himself, but as something created solely for their pleasure and their benefit.

So that all creation—plants, animals, humans—suffer. Paul in Romans 8 talks about all creation groaning, awaiting its renewal.

And that is the vision. The vision is of a renewed earth. An earth set to rights. Eden rebooted. That’s what he is driving toward. A world without violence. A world in which people take care of each other, and if someone lacks anything, those who have will generously share.

A world where everything and everybody is in their proper place, and God is in his—as the ruler and King over his dominion.

This renewed creation Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and it is the thing that he pursued relentlessly. It is the thing that he died for.

And his death was the victory over sin and death, over corruption and decay, over violence and false peace.

His resurrection was a visible demonstration of the victory, and he will come again to complete the victory of sin and death that began at the cross.

“But what of the dead?” the Thessalonians wondered. They were afraid that the dead would miss out on all of this.

See, the common belief was that the dead were gathered in a place called Sheol, not a place of punishment, but not exactly a fun place either. Later developments led to the idea of a place of punishment for the unrighteous and a place of reward for the righteous. But once you were in either place, you were there.

But what of these, the Thessalonians wondered, who by faith lived for the Kingdom, and yet died before experiencing it? That didn’t seem fair.

Not to worry, Paul says. In 4:14 and following he says,

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Now this passage has been much misunderstood and much abused, and needs some clarification. In the Roman world when the emperor would come to visit a city or town, as he approached a messenger would go ahead of him and announce his imminent arrival. A trumpet would sound and the messenger would announce good news, that Caesar, the son of God, was at hand, and would bring peace and just rule into their lives.

And the people of the town would not sit on their hands and wait for Caesar to arrive, but would go out of the city to meet him, and with great fanfare would escort him back into the town.

Paul is co-opting this language for the True King. And he is telling the Thessalonians that those who have died are not going to miss this, but will actually lead the way as they meet Christ in his return to earth. They will meet him in the air and escort him to the world where he will reign forever and ever.

He is the true son of God. Of his reign there will be no end. His coming is the true good news, and his peace is a true peace, his justice a true justice. And he is coming again to be with us forever.

So renewal of the world is included in John’s vision in Revelation.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. 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. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new."

Revelation 21:1-5

Both Paul and John are recalling Isaiah 25, where he writes:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Isaiah 25:6-9

Death’s warrant has been signed and in that instant when Jesus returns, death will give up his sword and keys. Death will be swallowed up once and for all!

And we will all be changed. God has always intended the people he created to have bodies. We can imagine being us without bodies; we imagine flitting here and there, living like we do now in our heads. But we are meant for better. The great Creator's highest creation is mankind, the perfect blending of body and soul. But now these bodies are shot through with dehumanizing sin. It's in our bones. It's killing us.

These mortal bodies must be changed because they won't work in God's eternal kingdom. They can't breathe there. They can't move there. They can't last there. The beauty there is too bright for these eyes, the fragrances too intoxicating for these noses, the feasts too sumptuous for these taste buds, the hymns too musical for these voices, the sounds too delicate and thundering for these ears, the leaves, stones, friends, and Savior too holy to touch with these hands.

And God will be with us. As in Paul’s explanation to the Thessalonians, as in John’s vision in Revelation, and as in one of the names that Jesus was given, Immanuel, God Is With Us, so shall God be with us. The biblical vision is of the gap between heaven and earth being closed so that where we are, so also shall God be; and where God is, so also shall we be.

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