Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon - Now What?

For the word of the Lord is upright, and all His work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LordBy the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; Hputs the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lordlet all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him! For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm. The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; He frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lordthe people whom He has chosen as His heritage! The Lord looks down from heaven; He sees all the children of man; from where He sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds. The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great  strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love. - Psalm 33:4-18

(You can hear the audio of this sermon here.)

On Wednesday morning this week, the New York Times’ editorial board’s opinion had this headline: “The Democrats Won the House. Now What?” [https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/ opinion/democrats-house-control-pelosi.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage]
The election is over. Upwards of $4 billion, more than the cost of making all 19 Marvel superhero movies combined, was spent on this non-presidential election. [https://www.marketwatch. com/story/why-spending-on-this-years-midterm-elections-should-shatter-records-2018-05-10] They are still counting ballots in Florida and Arizona. I don’t know if your favorite candidates won or lost. Not all of mine won. Not all of mine lost. About like normal.
            Now what?
            Today is November 11, Veterans’ Day, Armistice Day. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, exactly 100 years ago, the First World War came to an end. At Compiėgne, the armistice was signed, ending fighting on land, at sea, and in the air and marking a victory for the Allies and a complete defeat for Germany. Between 9 and 11 million military deaths, including those of over 53,000 American soldiers, and another 8 million civilian deaths had resulted from this war. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_ casualties] This “Great War” did not end conflict; a young corporal on the losing side would, within fifteen years, see his Nazi party rise to power, and the next world war would start within six years after that. We can certainly picture soldiers who had come home from the First World War asking, “Now what?”
            Now what?
            You may have noticed that, when we set up for worship here at Trinity River Church, we remove the American flag from directly behind me. I have no problem with an American flag in a sanctuary somewhere, but I have a real issue with its being placed in the center, as a focus of attention. We should not act as if we believe that God is an American, much less a Republican or a Democrat, and we don’t say the pledge of allegiance during our worship services. Our focus, our attention is elsewhere.
            Similarly, you will not hear me preach a rah-rah patriotic sermon. That does not mean that I am not a patriot. I have strong political and patriotic beliefs, but there is a time and a place. Whatever I believe about our nation, it is far behind the importance of God and worship and discipleship on our priority list. For this hour each week, we shut out the noise of the politics and we concentrate on the Father. I have been in so-called worship services where the emphasis was said to be “God and Country,” and in truth you could not tell where the worship of one stopped and the other began.
            That said, I do believe that there is a time – now that the election is over – to talk about our country and our politics and our military and the history of all those things from this pulpit. I am not going to preach my political view, but I do think it is time to say, as Christians in our nation, “Now what?”
            Like you, I have seen the various memes and ten-word sermonettes on social media that remind us that God is still on His throne, that nobody voted God out of office. I could focus this sermon on how we should rise above the public political squabbling and be nicer to one another.
            All of that has a place.
            But why, do you suppose, the election in particular and our political interplay in general cause such rancor? Why has what we all think we remember as a more genteel, reasoned debate of the past become the extremism of today, the “’you’re anti-American’ – ‘no, you’re a fascist’” discussion that overwhelms the airwaves and the internet?
            Well, in the first place, the political rhetoric of the past was not actually quite so genteel and polite as we like to think or pretend we remember. In 1800, a pro-Thomas Jefferson poster described the opposition as “hireling toads” who “want to enslave you [and] reduce your families to distress.” [https://i.pinimg.com/736x/fd/b7/21/fdb7219ecb118668e 0ee426cba0c2319.jpg] LBJ’s famous “Daisy” attack add from 54 years ago, showing exploding nuclear bombs reflected in the eye of a little girl picking flowers as she takes her last breath, is the stuff of legend. This is not new.
            In the second place, the bitterness and the ostentatious language hide something much more basic: worry, mistrust, a lack of faith. I am not talking about faith in one party or the other, or faith in a platform or a policy, or faith in America. I am talking about misplaced confidence, dependence on self and other people and what we human beings can do.
            The Bible says something different.
            Verse 12 in our scripture, right in the middle, is the one you have heard all your life: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.” That verse gets misused a lot. Since it goes on to talk about the nation that God has chosen as His heritage, in context it is undoubtedly talking about the ancient chosen people, not the modern people of America. Its first, literal meaning is “Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh” or “Blessed is Israel.”
            What does such a scripture have to teach us about how we, as a nation today, relate to God?
            To start with, I am confident the Bible does not teach us specific policy. The Bible teaches us goals as followers of Christ. We should help the poor, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and, so far as it is up to us, live at peace with all. We should do to others as we would have them do to us.
            C.S. Lewis said it this way:
Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political program … that is not how Christianity works. When it tells you to feed the hungry, it does not give you a lesson in cookery. When it tells you to read the Scriptures, it does not give you lessons in Hebrew and Greek, or even in English grammar. It was never intended to replace or supersede the ordinary human arts and sciences; it is rather a director which will set them all to the right jobs, and a source of energy which will give them all new life, if only they will put themselves at its disposal. [Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952, in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, (Harper One: 2002) at 74]

            If you believe there is only one set of policies that can help the poor, only one way to deal with our strangers, only one mindset that leads to peace, then you are missing the point of both politics and scripture. That a candidate believes that a certain prescription is not a good way to help the poor does not mean that he hates poor people; if a politician does not think a certain policy is the best way to handle illegal immigration, that does not make her in favor of open borders. Candidates who both love America and love Jesus can and often do have vastly different views on economic systems, military strategy, and spending policy. Furthermore, the Bible is not meant to be a political science playbook for how government should operate. Jesus does not get into the game of telling the government how to achieve these things; instead, He just keeps telling His own followers to obey Him, separate from and irrespective of what the government does. Paul does not suggest policy to the Romans but instead writes to the churches to honor the government even as they strive as disciples to follow Christ.
            So, if you are hoping I am coming today with a word on who is right or who is wrong, how the new Congress should address certain issues, or what I think of President Trump, you are going to be disappointed. I don’t think the Bible answers those questions.
A sixty-second aside for a personal word. I believe it is a good thing for Christians to be involved in politics, to run for office and serve, to vote their conscience, and to speak in the political arena; but I do not believe that that government is ever the proper arm for implementation of the gospel. Government works through law, through compulsory taxes and the power of the police and the courts to enforce majority rule and constitutional protection. I work in that system, and I believe in it, and I think it is absolutely the right way to run our political state. But that is not how God’s will is to be carried out. Separation of church and state does not mean that our faith cannot and should not influence the state – of course it should; but it does mean that no majority gets to force its religious views on the rest. We must not expect even Christians in government to pass laws just to make us happy on Sundays; if our Christian influence helps the law to be kinder and fairer and more protective, that is great, but we cannot expect lawmakers to take actions because the Bible or some preacher says so unless we are willing to have other lawmakers take action because the Koran or some Rabbi or some crystal tells them to. We Christians strive to implement God’s will – as we understand it based on scripture and prayer and the teachings of the church and the leadership of the Holy Spirit – ourselves, not relying on the government to make others do it for us. I am really tired of reading social media posts with titles like “you can’t love Jesus if you believe….” OK, enough of that. Back to the sermon: Now what?
In 2013, pop star Rihanna released a song asking the same question:
I've been ignoring this big lump in my throat. I shouldn't be crying. Tears were for the weaker days. I'm stronger now, or so I say, but something's missing. Whatever it is, it feels like it's laughing at me through the glass of a two-sided mirror. Whatever it is, it's just laughing at me, and I just wanna scream. What now? I just can't figure it out. What now? There's no one to call, 'cause I'm just playing games with them all; but the more I swear I'm happy, the more that I'm feeling alone, ‘cause I spend every hour just going through the motions. I can't even get the emotions to come out. Dry as a bone, but I just wanna shout: What now? [“What Now?,” Olivia Waithe, Parker Ighile, Nathan Cassells and Rihanna, 2013]

            The Bible indeed does speak to nations, and to how we as a collective should live our lives; it also speaks to us individually, to those of us with lumps in our throats who just want to scream because we are going through the motions, shouting, “What now?”. I know of no better place to begin than the 33rd Psalm.
Neither Psalm 33 nor the rest of scripture teaches us that blessing falls to certain nations and not to others as a matter of geography, ethnicity, or constitution. God’s favor falls or any nation, and on any peoples within that nation, because of things that have nothing to do with borders, language, or legislation. Instead of taking verse 12 out of context as a proof text, let’s dive in to the Psalm.
            Verses 4 and 5 - For the word of the Lord is upright, and all His work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.
            Our starting place is God. He is faithful, righteous, just, and loving. Politicians fail us. We fail ourselves. We fight a Great War and cannot maintain the peace for even two decades.
            We read the codes of Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and we hear the word of the Lord say, “You shall not pervert justice.” [Deuteronomy 16:19] The blessing the Queen of Sheba offers Solomon is, “Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” [1 Kings 10:9]
The prophets, the Psalms, and the Proverbs resound with descriptions of God as the upholder of righteousness and justice. It is Amos who pronounces judgment on the do-nothing so-called worshipers of Jehovah, announcing the word of the Lord: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [Amos 5:24] And lest you think this is just an Old Testament idea, hear these tough words of Jesus: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” [Matthew 23:23]
God is upright. We know that righteousness and justice are his watchwords. We have allowed the political world to coopt those terms, so that some of you assume that anyone who preaches justice must be a liberal, and others assume that anyone who questions their righteousness must be a conservative. And of course preaching on righteousness and justice should not implicate any particular modern political stance; no one side owns righteousness and justice. We can and do disagree about whether certain specifics constitute righteousness and justice, and some will take those terms and turn them into slogans for their particular hobbyhorse of the moment, but we Christians know in our gut what righteousness and justice are. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” [Matthew 6:32] Those are the words of Jesus.
            But the Psalmist is doing more than extolling justice and righteousness. Look at verses 10-12: The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations.  Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
            As the Yiddish proverb says, we plan, and God laughs. Thomas à Kempis said it in Latin, translated, “Man proposes, and God disposes.” [Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 1, Chapter 19] More to the point, we plan and counsel and scheme, and God is still in control. We run our campaigns and make our promises and plan our policies, and God will do what God is going to do. He brings our counsel to nothing.
When the kingdom of God is to be restored, when God will put all this foolishness to an end is not for us to know. The apostles peppered Jesus with these kinds of political questions right up to the end. Do not be hard on them; they had good reason. Living as Jews in the time of the Roman Empire makes anything we go through pale in comparison. Their little desert nation would be utterly destroyed by the Caesar within a few short decades. These questions were literally life and death to them, but Jesus demurs: “It is not for you to know.” [Acts 1:7] Instead, Jesus gave them directions to go be witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judaea and Samaria – and to the ends of the earth – with the power of the Holy Spirit. [Acts 1:8]
            You see, I am not discouraged by all the stuff we see and hear. Oh, I know that our culture has changed and will continue to change. I know that we hear our politicians speak and read their tweets and see and hear things that we would not have imagined just five years ago. Yes, our movies and our TV shows and the conversations of those around us – and if we are honest, some of our own thoughts and ideas and activities – would not have been acceptable to us not that long ago. Yet, the counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart will endure to all generations, bringing the counsel of men to nothing. When we confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then He builds His church upon that truth, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I am not discouraged because they shall not prevail.
            I have read to the end of the book.  We are on the winning side.
            So what does that have to do with this sermon?  Well, it means that no election, no law, no Supreme Court decision, no war, no declaration, no constitutional amendment, no gay wedding, no cultural cataclysm can thwart the ultimate will of God Almighty. He cannot fail. He must prevail.
            That is why the nation whose God is the Lord is blessed. We are not blessed because signing up with the right team means we will somehow have successful legislation. No, the Psalmist is speaking so much more deeply here. The people whose God is the Lord are anchored firmly. The Psalmist is not saying the nation whose statutes sound like scripture, or whose policies pass the test of any group of preachers, or whose laws fit any formula. This Psalm is not about our representatives or our president – it is about us. We are the nation, and when our God is the Lord, then we are blessed, we are chosen, we are His heritage.
            Verses 13-15 – The Lord looks down from heaven; He sees all the children of man; from where He sits enthroned, He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.
God is never far away. He watching over us slumbers not nor sleeps. We cannot pull a fast one, nor can we be hidden from Him. I don’t care who gets elected. I don’t care who wins the war.
            The Bible is not ignorant, and neither am I. Of course, policy matters. Of course, it matters who wins the wars. I am not trying to suggest that the whole election we went through, much less a World War, was meaningless. But what I am saying is this: the results of
either cannot separate us from God, whose eyes are always on us, who always knows and always cares.
            But when our lives are consumed with worry, with the cares of what “ism” controls the day and who will hold what office, we are missing much of the point of scripture and the joy of following Jesus. Nowhere does the Bible tell us that these things are unimportant, and you will not hear me suggest that they are trivial. But, crucial though they may be, they are not what we are primarily about. We have a more important task, and we are fueled not by worry but by three things: faith, hope, and love.
            Faith – We trust in God. We believe in things unseen. That was much of the point of last week’s sermon. The political ads and robocalls and endless tirades have been about what is in front of you, what will happen if someone gets into office. They are based on the empirical, the testable… or at least what the person hollering at the moment is pitching as the provable truth. Faith is something else. We act and rest in the knowledge of the One who holds the future.
            Hope. We know who wins. We know where we are going. You too have read to the end of the book.
            Love. We are motivated not by the lust to conquer or the desire to impose on others, even when we are certain we are correct and what we have to suggest would be best for them and for the nation. We are motivated by love that keeps no record of wrongs, that does not insist on its own way, that bears all things. We do not need the compulsion of the tax code to oblige us to take care of the less fortunate, nor do we require the threat of a jail sentence to keep us searching for the good of our neighbor.
            Verses 16 and 17 speak to our political ambition, to our military might, to our elections and our wars and our vain hope for control: The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.
            None of us Christians would admit to believing in salvation by army, but whether we admit it or not, there is a great natural comfort level in being the biggest and baddest on the planet. Mutually assured destruction is not nearly as cool as being the world’s only superpower.
            But our warhorses cannot rescue us. Only Jesus does that.
            Look, please do not misunderstand me. I am a political junkie. I stayed up into the wee hours Wednesday morning, long after the local and Texas races were called and with no national election on the docket, just to see what would happen in places like Montana and Arizona and Georgia. I have deep beliefs about military spending and foreign policy. I am not suggesting that any of these things is minor or inconsequential.
            But when they are the priority, when our worry about them consumes us, then we are missing the message of the Bible. And when the church is the one pushing that priority, then something is deeply wrong. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” has nothing to do with what slogans we have on our currency or what lip service we give or what pin is on our lapels.
            What now?
            Verse 18, our concluding verse for today, says this: Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love. This is not just a verse about what we say we believe, what box we check on a census form. This is about where we place our trust and how we live our lives.
            It is about how we answer the question “What now?”
            One hundred years ago, the world began licking its wounds and rebuilding with hopes of a League of Nations and a lasting peace.  Bells rang around the world to proclaim the wishes of everyone. Eleven years later, President Hoover, in his Memorial Day speech at Arlington National Cemetery, proclaimed:
These dead whom we have gathered here today to honor, these valiant and unselfish souls who gave life itself in service of their ideals, evoke from us the most solemn mood of consecration. They died that peace should be established. Our obligation is to see it maintained. [https: //www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/memorial-day-address-arlington-nati onal-cemetery]

            And yet, peace was not maintained. Despite the great speeches and the solemn resolve and the treaties signed by dozen of nations and the power of the United States of America, soon Europe, and then the world, would be at war again. Millions more would die.
            And again, the world would say, “Now what?”
            That’s a question that extends beyond elections, beyond wars. Whether you are a newspaper editorialist or a pop star or a soldier returning from war or a Christian facing a world that seems less and less like home every day, we ask it in so many different contexts.
            I don’t mean to be elementary. I am not trying to insult your religious intelligence. I know you have been in church all your life. But sometimes it helps to go back to the basics. The answer to the “now what?” question is found in Acts 1 and Matthew 6 and Psalm 33 and throughout the Bible. Regardless of who wins elections and who wins wars, the answer for those of us who call ourselves Christians is to be witnesses for Jesus, to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, to fear God and hope in His steadfast love.
            That is not a sexy answer. It does not have much rhythm or lend itself to a pop song. It will not keep people up into the wee hours of the night watching cable news.
            But let me ask you… how are you doing with it?
            “You shall receive power after the Holy Ghost comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” How are you doing with that? Do you spend half as much time bearing witness to the greatness of God, to how Jesus Christ has saved you, to the incredible power that is ours through the Holy Spirit as you do discussing Cruz v. Beto, or President Trump, or what policy should be implemented?
            “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” How are you doing with that? Are you fretting over elections, or over what you will wear or what you will eat? Over the lumps in your throat as you try to figure out why you are unhappy? Do you consider the lilies of the field?
            “The eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, who hope in His steadfast love.” How are you doing with that? How much time are you standing in awe of the one who spoke the world into existence? How much energy are you putting into analysis of the warhorses of the world instead of the righteousness and justice of the one who brings the counsel of the nations to nothing. How are you doing with relying completely on, and giving your self completely to sharing, the steadfast, eternal, incredible love of God?
            The Great War ended a hundred years ago. The election is over.
            Now what?

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sermon - I'm Going to Live Forever


For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on[a] we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. 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 are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. [2 Corinthians 5:1-8]
(You may listen to the audio of this sermon here.)



My brethren I have found a land that doth abound
with fruit as sweet as honey.
The more I eat, I find, the more I am inclined
to shout and sing ‘Hosanna.’
My soul doth long to go where I may fully know
the glory of my savior.
And as I pass along, I’ll sing the Christian song:
“I’m going to live forever.”
Perhaps you think me wild or simple as a child,
I am a child of glory.
I am born from above; my soul is filled with love;
I love to tell the story.
My soul doth long to go where I may fully know
the glory of my savior.
And as I pass along, I’ll sing the Christian song:
“I’m going to live forever.”
and contemplates the hour
When the messenger shall say “Come quit this house of clay,
and with bright angels tower.”
My soul doth long to go where I may fully know
the glory of my savior.
And as I pass along, I’ll sing the Christian song:
“I’m going to live forever.”
[“Pilgrim Song” Traditional American folk hymn]

When I was in elementary school, we received something called the Weekly Reader. I don’t think it exists anymore, but way back then, we got these periodicals aimed at kids with age-appropriate articles to try to entice us to follow current events. Once a month or so, the Weekly Reader included a form to order books, and I was all over that. Fortunately, my parents were too, so every month I got to order a couple of little paperbacks that I wanted to read. One time, in about the fifth grade, the book I ordered was called Life After Life by Raymond Moody. It was a collection of case studies of people who had had what are called near-death experiences – the doctors might say that they actually died in the sense of certain bodily functions’ having stopped – and then returned to consciousness. They told remarkably consistent stories of things like floating outside of their body towards a big light and a sense of warmth and peace. I am not shilling for the book – I don’t know how Moody cold claim to have tested any of these experiences that others write off as hallucinations or publicity seeking. But ever since, I have been fascinated by the concept.
I happily say that I do not believe in ghosts, but I just as readily will tell you that I believe in spirits, in the soul, that part of us that lives on after our bodies. On this All Saints’ Day, I have something of an understanding of what Hebrews means when, after listing the Bible’s own roll call of the saints, the writer describes the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us. [Hebrews 12:1]

I don’t always give you an outline, but today, I have a very simple one. 1. Death is not the end. 2. Death is not bad. 3. Death is not eternal.

I love Christian funerals. I know that sounds morbid to many and downright weird to many others, but, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, if we Christians cannot celebrate at a funeral of a brother or a sister, then we are above all people to be pitied. [1 Corinthians 15:19] We do not grieve as do those who have no hope. [1 Thessalonians 4:13] At a Christian’s funeral, I see faith displayed in a dozen ways, and I hear my story in the story told of the departed saint. I mourn with the family and weep over their loss, and I leave reaffirmed once again that the end is really the beginning.
 Mark Twain famously quipped: “Why is it we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral?  It is because we are not the person involved.”
At the outset, let’s differentiate between death and dying. Those are two different things. It’s the old Loretta Lynn song that says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
Let’s not fool ourselves. Dying is scary.
·    We fear the unknown. Stepping into the dark, no matter your faith, always comes with qualms and foreboding.
·    None of us wants pain, and we have seen too many TV shows – and far too many of us have experienced it up close with friends and families and patients – that teach us that the process of dying can be painful.
·    We have stuff we want to do.
·    And probably more than any of that, we naturally cling to those we love. Leaving them behind is not on any of our priority lists.
It would be dishonest of me to preach about death and make it sound as if I am longing to die, as if I do not plan to fight off dying as long as possible, as if I will not cling to life while I can.

On the other hand, …
On the other hand, while dying can undoubtedly be hard, death will be, for us Christians, exceptional. Our soul now sits and sings and practices its wings.  If we are Christians, then our song is “I’m going to live forever.” Paul tells us that we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Do you believe that?
There are undoubtedly some who hear (or read) this sermon who shake their heads and want to check out at this point. Who am I kidding? How can any intelligent, well-read person in the 21st Century truly believe in eternal life? Don’t I know that is just a fairy tale we tell our children to help them get through a dark night?
This is, in fact the gospel. This is the heart of what we believe. We are going to live forever.
Are you really ready to say that while dying may be hard, death will be a victory? Is the verse “to live is Christ and to die is gain” just a nice thought for a poster on your wall, or is it the theme of your life? [Philippians 1:21] Will your dying breath be “More love to Thee, O Christ” as that band of angels comes to carry you home?

My grandfather – I called him Papa – as he approached the end said that he thought of death as what was over the next hill. He didn’t know what it was going to look like, but he knew exactly where he was heading. Helen Keller said, “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because, in that other room, I shall be able to see.” [https://www. thoughtco.com/helen-keller-1779811]
As we planned for the service today, Jim and I were talking with Debra about the music she would choose to play. I told her that we are going to be talking about death, but that we are not going to be weeping. This is going to be a service of joy and hope, so she should pick out her jazzy funeral pieces. No dirges. Your poetic co-pastor, Jim, said that we need to “Purge the urge the dirge.”
I’ll sing the Christian song: “I’m going to live forever.”
Today, the first Sunday in November, is the service in which we observe All Saints’ Day. On the Christian Calendar, the precise date, also known as All Hallows Day, is actually November 1, which is why the night before is All Hallows Eve – which of course we now know as Halloween. The idea of acknowledging All Saints’ Day in our Protestant tradition is to celebrate all Christians in the church who have died and who no longer have to practice their wings but who understand these words of the Lord: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43]
I am not interested today is trying to work through some of the minutiae of our theology of death and dying. I apologize if my reference to some of these details as “minutia” offends you. I don’t mean to say that they are unimportant – they are not – but they are little in comparison to the overwhelming message that we are going to live forever, that death is a passage, whether it is over the next hill or into the next room. Death is, like birth, the movement from one stage to another. Those details I am not talking about today are things like:
·     Will we fall asleep for a while or will we immediately be in heaven?
·    Will our resurrection bodies look like our earthly bodies? Will they be the same bodies, just fixed up and polished, or will they be entirely new?
·    What will my mansion look like?
·   If there is no marriage or giving in marriage in heaven, how will I relate to my spouse there?  [Matthew 22:30]
These are all questions worthy of discussion, and if we were doing a six-week series, we could discuss the Biblical perspective on all of them and more, but they pale in the light of the overwhelming message of the Bible that we walk through the valley but we do not fear, that Jesus has prepared a place for us and will take us to be with Him, that precious in the Father’s sight is the death of His saints.
The great Dallas Willard writes: “Those who have apprenticed themselves to Jesus learn an undying life with a future as good and as large as God Himself.  The experiences we have of this life … now fill us with anticipation of a future so full of beauty and goodness we can hardly imagine.” [The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (Harper San Francisco,1997), p.374]
On this All Saints’ Day, I encourage all of us to glory for a moment in what is to come. Yes, I know that we struggle right now. You hurt. You are aging. Your body does not work right, or like it used to, or at all. What Shakespeare called “this mortal coil” is falling apart. The prospect of cancer and radiation and chemo, or senility, or walkers and immobility and surgery, or deterioration can seem too much to bear. I get it.
But all that is temporary. Even more than that, it is the way we are built. Dr. Willard continues:
When we pass the stage normally called “death,” we will not lose anything but the limitations and powers that specifically correspond to our present mastery over our body, and to our availability and vulnerability to and through it.  We will no longer be able to act and be acted upon by means of it. Of course, this is a heart-rending change to those left behind. But, on the other hand, loss of those abilities begins to occur, in most cases, long before death. It is a normal part of aging and sickness. The body as intermediary between the person and the physical world is losing its function as the soul prepares for a new arrangement. [Id. pp. 394-95]

Let’s look at what the scripture says in our passage from 2 Corinthians 5. In verse 1, Paul starts with the recognition that at death, our “earthly home” is torn down and we are clothed with a replacement that is both better and permanent. Paul’s image of our body as a home – other translations call it a “tent” or a “house” –speaks volumes to me, for our bodies are not us, they are just where we live. You know that is true when you step up to the casket at a visitation. That corpse is not simply asleep – it is empty. The closer you were to the person who has died, the less you recognize what you see there. Oh, you doubtless can identify the body. But that is all you are doing – identifying a body. The person is long gone. Elvis has left the building. There is nobody home.
These bodies are where we live for a while, but they are not us.
Paul tells us that our flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. He uses an agricultural image of burial as planting in anticipation of the future, as “sowing” with an “o.” What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, and the dead will be raised imperishable. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. [1 Corinthians 15:36, 42-44, 50-54, 57]
That’s a pretty good place for an amen.
Back to our Second Corinthians text. Verses 2-4 recognize that we groan and are burdened as long as we are in this body. Do not feel guilty about your aches and pains – the Bible recognizes what we all go through, our mortality. (You younger folks … just wait.) Nobody chooses groaning. Nobody naturally enjoys picking up burdens, yet we are called to live in these fragile tents – Paul earlier calls them “jars of clay” or “earthen vessels” because they break and wear down – and we are called to walk in this fallen world by our Father, and we obey. Eugene Peterson, whom the Christian world lost just a couple of weeks ago, wrote, “We practice our death by giving up our will to live on our own terms. Only in that relinquishment or renunciation are we able to practice resurrection.” [2012, The Pastor, https://www.christianity today.com/news/2018/october/eugene-peterson-died-message-bible-long-obedience-resurrect. html]
Verse 5 is critical. The Spirit has been given to us as a guarantee. Even while we groan in these earthly, painful, decaying bodies, we have a promise of what is to come, for the everlasting, unbreakable, eternally healthy One lives within us. In Ephesians, Paul describes this guarantee as a seal, a promise of what is to come. [Ephesians 1:13-14] Here, Paul takes this idea a step further – the Spirit’s presence is not only a pledge on the promise of heaven; His presence is deposited into us as a little idea today of what it will be like to put on that eternal, imperishable body, what Fanny J. Crosby called “a foretaste of glory divine.” [“Blessed Assurance,” 1873, PD] We see through a glass darkly… but we get it.
Verses 6 and 7 speak of courage, knowledge, and faith. We know that while we are in this body, we are away from the Lord. Walking by faith and not by sight does not mean we leap into a void with our fingers crossed and no possible idea of what we will find. Back to the idea of the guarantee of the Spirit, we know exactly what is in the invisible; we just can’t see it. We trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding, on our own sight, because our five senses are not enough to understand, not because God is playing tricks on us and hiding the ball but because our human eyes simply cannot see in all the colors and dimensions that God creates. Like the toddler who leaps into his parent’s arms in the pool or the daughter who willingly turns the unknown corner and walks down the dark street with her father holding her hand, we lean into the unseen, into what we know God has created for us. We know where we are going, even if we don’t know what it looks like. We know something good is waiting just over that hill, and we know Jesus is there. That is more than enough.
My late friend Rus Roach, the former minister of pastoral care and senior adults at First Baptist Church Nashville, wrote a weekly column in that church’s senior adult newsletter, even as he was dying of cancer. I remember distinctly a piece he wrote one week about how vital his inner man was even as his outer body was wasting away. He was talking about this idea of knowing and relying on the unseen. Let’s turn one page back to 2 Corinthians 4, where Paul says this:
We have this treasure in jars of clay.… We who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us…. We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:7, 11-12, 16-18]

That’s another good place for an amen.

So, now back to our scripture in Chapter 5, where we get to verse 8, the key to this message. This verse is where the rubber meets the road, and you have to decide if you believe it or not.
Can you say that you would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord?
That is the test of faith, isn’t it?
It does not mean that we should all just leave our bodies now, for we are called to obedience and participation in God’s Kingdom work here on earth so long as we are able. Eternity is forever, and we need not be in a hurry to get there. The Father has placed us here, in this garden – marred though it be by our Fall – for a purpose, and to leave before He calls us home is not a decision for us to make. God is the creator of life, a great gift to us, and we are to be good stewards of that gift while we can.
But the test of faith is, when we do face that passage, would we rather be on the other side? Do we welcome the trip?
Pastor John Lowe says:

I am seventy-two years old and my health is poor; I have many issues to deal with. I am so looking forward to my inward man moving to a new address. I don’t feel at home here anymore.… I am going to see Him someday; I am going to see the face of the Lord Jesus, the one who loved me and gave himself for me. I am thrilled by that prospect. To be very frank with you, I don’t have as much conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil as I used to have. I think they have given up on me. This old house is getting old. [https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/contemplation-of-new-life-john-lowe-sermon-on-mortality-234003?page=2&wc=800]

I am 53 years old. Genetics tells me that I have quite a while to live. Both of my grandfathers and one of my grandmothers lived into their eighties. My parents are both still going strong. Now, I know that none of that means that I won’t get hit by a bus or hear a dreaded diagnosis tomorrow, but the odds seem to indicate that I have much more to do in this go-round. That said, if the bus or the diagnosis comes, my faith says that I would rather be at home with the Lord. I am just practicing my wings right now.
Some of you are closer to that day than it appears that I am. Others of you see me as an old man and yourself as someone who has all the time in the world; but do not be fooled into thinking that your youth shields you. Whether through age or infirmity, whether by accident or self-destructiveness, whether from disease or attack, people all around me face death daily. I learned this week that a friend’s 15-year-old brother, who suffers from indescribable mental illness, attempted suicide this week. Age is no protector.
Perhaps there is no more joyful note in the New Testament than the defeat of death. We have already read together the triumph of 1 Corinthians 15, where we learn that the last enemy to be defeated is death. “O death, where is your victory?” In 2 Timothy, Paul writes “of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” [2 Tim 1:10] You know these words from Romans 8:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:31, 35, 37-39]

To be sure, death is called an enemy, but it is a toothless enemy for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. We do not have to be excited to meet this enemy, but neither do we fear him. And like Pastor Lowe, and like Papa, and maybe even like some of you, the approach of death and with it the glory of our savior may be welcome.
Ultimately, we sing the Christian song because we know where we are going. This world is not our home, we are just passing through, and we can’t feel at home in this world anymore. [Burton, S.D., “This World Is Not My Home.”] We have here on earth no lasting city, no permanent home. We are looking forward to the city that is to come, the city with the sure foundation built on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. [Hebrews 13:14; Isaiah28:16; Hebrews 11:10; Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11; Ephesians 2:20]
One of my favorite aphorisms is attributed to Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience. We’ve got to realize that we are only here temporarily.” [https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/5387.Pierre_Teilhard_deChardin]  C.S. Lewis put it this way: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” [Mere Christianity, 1952, in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, (Harper One, 2002), p.114] We are strangers. We are aliens. We are not of this world. [Bob Hartman, “Not of this World,” 1983]
In her children’s book The Big Wave, Pearl Buck writes:
"To live in the presence of death makes us brave and strong," Kino's father replied.
"What is death?" Kino asked.
"Death is that great gateway," Kino's father said. His face was not at all sad.
"The gateway-where?" Kino asked again.
Kino's father smiled. "Can you remember when you were born?"
Kino shook his head. "I was too small."
Kino's father laughed. "I remember very well when you were born," he said. "And oh, how hard you thought it was to be born! You cried, and you screamed."
"Didn't I want to be born?" Kino asked.
"No," his father told him, smiling. "You wanted to stay where you were, in the warm dark house of the unborn. But the time came to be born, and the gate of life opened."
"Did I know it was the gate of life?" Kino asked.
"You did not know anything about it, and so you were afraid," his father replied. "But see how foolish you were! Here we were waiting for you, your parents, already loving you and eager to welcome you. And you have been very happy, haven't you?" [Buck, Pearl, The Big Wave, (John Day Company:1948), pp.7-8]

            We do not understand everything there is to know about death, but we know this:
1.   Death for the Christian is not the end. It is a passage, a transition, the beginning of the next step.
2.  Death for the Christian is not bad. It is precious in the eyes of the Lord. It is that from which we do not wish to return. It means seeing Jesus, no longer through a glass darkly, but as He is. [1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2] It means we must purge the urge to dirge.
3.   Death for the Christian is not eternal. It simply leads to the eternal.

Hear now the Word of the Lord:
The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned. [Matthew 4:16]

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life.” [John 5:24]

The free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. [Romans 6:23]

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. [Revelation 21:4]

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” [John 6:47-51]

For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive….  The last enemy to be destroyed is death. [1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 26]

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. [John 3:16]

Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. [2 Corinthians 5:8]

And hear now the word of the American folk singer:

My soul now sits and sings and practices its wings
and contemplates the hour
When the messenger shall say “Come quit this house of clay,
and with bright angels tower.”
My soul doth long to go where I may fully know
the glory of my savior.
And as I pass along, I’ll sing the Christian song:
“I’m going to live forever.”