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Sunday, April 30, 2017

“Worthy Is the Lamb!”

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 5: 1-17
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
April 30th, 2017, Easter Series, 3/9: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today

“Dad, we should have turned back there!”   We were driving toward the beach.  I had hardly begun school and could hardly read.  But I could read maps.  I was fascinated by them, as far back as I remember.   Perhaps it was because I was adopted and needed as sense of control or place.  Who knows?  All I know is that I’ve always been able to read maps well.  During my missionary journeys in Europe, German locals used to tell me that I knew their roads better than they did.  They lived there, but I had studied the maps.

Back to my story.  My Dad was on the wrong road, but he wouldn’t listen to me.  He thought I was too small to know where we were going.  I tried to make him understand.  It didn't work.  I didn’t know what else to say.   I knew we were going to be lost, so I started crying.  “Dad, you don’t believe me!” When I started crying he didn’t seem to pay much attention, but my mother did.  “Charlie,  you need to listen to him”. That was a mother’s love and Dad knew he had to listen to mom.   He turned the car around and headed in the direction I suggested.   Now, we were on the right road.  We would actually get to the beach.   As far as I remember, my Dad never admitted he was wrong.  Mama did it for him.   I laugh when I remember.

Where are we?   Of course, we are at church.  You could also call out the postal address, or you could locate us with geographical coordinates, either with a map or with GPS.  This is one way of locating ourselves, but there are others ways.  We could locate ourselves, culturally, by saying we Americans.  Or we could locate ourselves chronologically, saying this is, April, 30th, 2017, or maybe even more historically, saying that we are living in the early years of the 21st century.  There is almost no limit to how we can describe ourselves---by time, family, culture, or even by faith, as either Baptists or as Christians.  All these descriptions we use help us define and identify ourselves and our time and place in the world.

Our text today in the book of Revelation is a kind of spiritual road map; a kind of religious GPS.   It is, however, not a map that enables us to see everything that is specifically going to happen in our own future.  In short, John is saying that if you know who Jesus is, you don't really have to know anything else.  The  ‘revelation’ was never intended to be a revelation of all the specifics of the future, John’s or ours.  It is rather, as it defines itself,‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1:1)..  This ‘Revelation’ is intended to put us all on God’s map so we can locate ourselves in the future which belongs only to God.

The “Revelation of Jesus Christ” starts to unfold as a ‘vision’ in chapter 4 and 5.  It begins as John sees a ‘door standing open in heaven’ (4:1) and then hears a trumpet-like voice calling him to ‘come up here’ to be shown ‘what must soon take place after this’.   What ‘after this’ does John mean?   Here, we need to remember that John was exiled on an island and left to die. He was ‘suffering’ there ‘because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus (1:2,9).   John, like any of us in  ‘life and death’ situation, is trying to locate himself on God’s map. He wonders about what will happen next.  He hopes that the troubles he, and all the people of God are going through,  will somehow fit into the grand scheme of God’s eternal purpose.

His answer begins while he is “in the Spirit” and John sees  ‘a throne in heaven’ (4:2) with sights very similar to what the great Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel saw.  In the powerful right hand the  one sitting on the (heavenly) throne, John sees a sealed scrollHe hopes this very mysterious scroll might be opened.  Perhaps it will contain the answer John seeks.  But his hopes, along with ours, are immediately crushed when no one, not on earth, nor even in heaven, and not even the one on the throne, can break the seal to open the scroll.  

Having to face the unanswerable, the unknowable, and perhaps, even the unthinkable, John begins to weep.  In his book, Seeing Through Our Tears,  one of my Counseling professors, Dan Bagby wrote that Tears are one of the most expressive ways we (humans) communicate. We cry, he's says, for many different reasons.  From the moment we are born, our limited vocabulary requires tears to express ourselves.   Did you hear what he said?  Our tears express our human limits.  Tears, Bagby concludes, often reveal what we cannot put into words…  Tears have been the language of the soul…”  Tears are often mysterious and surprising, but they are never meaningless.  Tears point to the deepest feelings and greatest longings of our inner selves.  They ‘clothe our hearts’ with (or without words).   We always need to value what tears tell us.  As an old gospel song warmly put it, “Tears are a language God understands”.

What we should stop and  ‘understand’ from John’s tears is what we all feel when we also have to face the unanswerable questions of life.   If you haven't been there, you will get there.  Life has a way of finally bringing us all to our knees.  Even the strongest, smartest, and most proud among us, will have to finally and fully bow to circumstances, to powers, and we must all ultimately give in and give up to pressures and realities beyond our control.  We will all face asking what happens ‘after this’?  At some time, tears will be our only language too.

Most specifically, John ‘wept and wept because no one in heaven or on earth was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside’ (v.3).  Again, you must remember that John means that the ‘one seated on the throne’, who is constantly praised as ‘worthy’ and ‘Lord and God’  as creator of all things (4:11) is also not found to be ‘worthy’ to open this scroll.   This is the very contradiction of life and faith that John feels and sees.   It is the same kind of contradiction we all feel when we face the unthinkable and the unanswerable in our lives.

I have been there, with many people, in the worst moments of their lives.  I was with my Sunday school teacher as his pastor when his kidneys failed and he died.  He was the one who as a child influenced me with both fun and faith.  There were no words I could say except to share his fears and tears.  I was also with a family right after their daughter most unexpectedly committed suicide.  I was also there in in spirit, and later in flesh, with a friend whose husband drowned in a freak boating accident.  I also comforted her after her daughter was murdered.  We even took her young child into our home for a few months.  

I have been there in many, too many, unthinkable situations, including my own, and I have had to face the unanswerable along with everyone else.   It's a hard place to be.  Many Christians, even some pastors have a hard time being there too. Not long ago I was in a meeting with some other pastors.  A pastor’s spouse was facing cancer treatments and the one who offered a prayer for her stumbled for words and then said he believed in a God who would heal her.  While I understood what we all wanted to happen, he couldn't dare have said that he and we also believed in a God who might not answer our prayer.  That’s the contradiction of faith, isn't it?  We are not called to trust in the one on the throne because of what he has done, but we are also called upon to trust in the one on the throne when he he doesn't do what we want in the way we want it.  This is the unanswerable, the unthinkable, that brings us to tears too.

Still, even as he is brought to tears, John still receives hope, even though he doesn't get the answer he wants, when he wants it.   This hope comes to him from ‘one of the elders’ who tells him not to weep but to look to ‘see’ the a “lion” who can open the scroll.  But strangely, indeed very strangely, when John looks to see this lion, he sees a lamb.  And it is not just any lamb, but it is a ‘lamb, looking as if he had been slain’ who is now ‘standing in the center of the throne’.   Only this ‘slain lamb’ proves ‘worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals.

We all know ‘who’ John is looking at.  This is God’s lamb, the lamb ‘slain before the foundation of the world’ who is beheld as the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’  This lamb is none other than Jesus Christ, who was crucified, buried, and was also raised from the dead.  For as we also see, this lamb, though slain, is still ‘standing in the center of the throne.’  He is no ordinary lamb, but he is God’s resurrected lamb.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves.  Before we come to the triumphant truth, we need reflect upon this first, hard, and very tragic truth---the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.  How does this very tragic and ugly cross become our hope; even when all else fails and also before that?   Paul himself said that he had nothing better to proclaim than ‘Christ and him crucified.’   How does he come to suggest that the only hope we really have in the unthinkable, unanswerable, and unknowable and very tragic nature of all our lives has broken through to us in the message of the cross and in this most tragic hero we call ‘the Christ’?

As we must be reminded, in John’s Revelation, it is only this slain lamb who opens the scroll.  It is only slain lamb who points us to the redemption from our sin and from the  sin of the whole world.  What both Paul and John see, is what the entire New Testament sees.  The  redemption we all hope for can only come through this suffering and through the most tragic, not by going around it. 

To make this plain, you nor I will ever be saved by having fun, being entertained, with sheer excitement, nor through the memories we can make in life.  We will only be saved by following this suffering Christ .  Only by our own participation in the redemptive suffering Christ will we find salvation.   “By his stripes we are healed” the great prophet Isaiah said.  This is why Paul is determined to preach nothing but ‘Christ and him crucified’.   The cross is Paul’s primary message because, as strange as it still sounds,  its God’s redemptive answer.  As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom…, God chose the weak,…the lowly,…the despised things---and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are.’ 

Paul’s astounding words are everything John now sees in his heavenly vision too, but they are still not easy words to understand or to appropriate into our lives.   Understanding the cross wasn’t easy for Paul, for John, and it still isn't easy for us either.   A lot of Christians come to church every Sunday all their lives, even trust Jesus as their savior, but the truth of the cross still evades them.    The rest never stop learning about or living this way of the cross. 

For it is one thing to believe in the Christ of the cross, but it is quite another thing to ‘take up your cross’ and to ‘follow’ this ‘crucified  one’ as as your own way, your own truth and your own life. But isn’t this exactly what the cross ‘at the center of the throne’ means? Only ‘the slain lamb’ can take away the ‘sin’ of he world’ which begins with the greatest ‘sin’ that must be removed from all of us.  This universal ‘sin’ is  the ‘pride’ of the most  ‘self-centered life’ we don’t want to give up.   But only by fully surrendering to God and his perfect will, will we find the most hopeful answer that only comes when we follow this Christ of the cross.

Now of course, there are many ways to try to express the meaning the cross and how it is the ‘power’ that ‘saves’.   Neither the story of the crucifixion, nor the letters of Paul, and not even these very strange images from the Revelation, could ever exhaust nor fully explain the mystery of the saving power of the cross.   We continue to find new allusions to the cross in movies, in novels, books, music, and in the events of everyday life, which can be just as powerful as Scripture.  These facts, and even some fictions informed by facts, can’t replace the biblical story, but the story of the saving cross continues to pop up in both the facts and fictions of life.  In fact, cross is the only fact that will constantly prove to be true to in this life until that coming day when ‘all things are made new’.

All of you have heard that truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fiction is as strange as the truth.  Today, in Denmark, there is a set of very popular, fictional novels are being written about a detective who is a very ‘tragic’ but gifted sort of fellow.  He is grumpy.  He is rude.  He is a loser.  His wife has left him.  No one at the office likes him.  In fact, his boss gave him one last chance to redeem himself by making a whole new department where he can work almost completely alone.  This department is called “Department Q” where the detective is supposed to write up all the ‘cold’ unsolved cases, and then turn them in as ‘lost causes’.  Strangely, however, it is exactly by giving himself to these ‘lost causes’ that he finally begins to find his redemption in life.   By giving himself to crimes no one else cares about, and then reaching out to people who have been almost forgotten, this detective comes to finds himself.

One of the most moving scenes comes in a novel about a man who is falsely using religion as a way to trap and to kill innocent children.  This man seeks to injure other children similar to how he was injured as a child.   On the way to solving this crime, the very agnostic detective finds himself at a funeral service in a church.  He hears the gospel of hope, perhaps for the first time, he really hears it.  His face is filled with tears.  It’s as if he comes to realize that there is no other hope than the hope the true gospel gives.  Though the detective has not yet found the way to faith---that would spoil the story---he has at least for now, discovered the real need for faith in this very tragic world.

Whatever the cross of Jesus means, it means that we only find hope and redemption by walking straight into the good, important, ‘lost causes’ of life, not by walking away from them.   You, nor I will be able to avoid the tragic, the hurts, or the pains of life, so why not walk straight into them by faith, with the sure hope that by giving ourselves to doing, being, and seeking the good for and with others, we can come to find purpose, even in the midst of pain and hurt.   In other words,  we will never find lasting hope, nor find the redemptive way by seeking our own comfort.   We don’t find the hope we need by avoiding the nursing homes, the hospitals, the prisons, the lonely, or by doing our own thing.  No, we only find redemption by working to redeem those who are among ‘the least of these’.  Just like we can’t find happiness by actually trying to find it, we only find the joy and purpose of life as a by product of doing the right, good, and necessary things of life as acts of redemptive love.

I don’t mean to sound too overly philosophical, but the cross of Jesus, if it teaches us anything about life, is that right where it looks like Jesus was involved in a lost, cause, which was trying to redeem unredeemable Israel, that Jesus proved once and for all, that he was ‘a righteous man’ and  ‘Son of God’.   When we also follow Him by giving and sacrificing, even suffering for what is right, good and loving, we also prove ourselves as God’s children.  If the slain lamb at the center of the throne means anything,  it means that redemption is found in this God who calls us to join with Jesus in this ‘lost cause’ that can’t be lost.   The ‘lost cause’ of the cross can't be lost because you are being redeemed through that cross.  As Paul says, ‘to us who are being saved, (the cross, through Christ) is the power of God.’

nThis lamb of God is a lion exactly because he was slain for being ‘faithful and true.’   This slain lamb not only still stands before God’s throne, because God raised him from the dead, but this slain lamb is finally praised as worthy ‘to take the scroll’, ‘to open its seals’ because ‘with his blood’ he ‘purchased people from every tribe, language, people, and nation.”  He alone is able to ‘make’ us  ‘to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God’ (5:10) and finally rule on earth.

 Now, as John finishes this opening to his vision, he takes us to the end where everything is going.   Only the faithful, slain, lamb is worthy, who can take us, and this world to where we all want to go---toward hope for a future full of ‘power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!’   None of us are there yet, but the lamb leads the way, if we want to have hope.  As one preacher put it, this what it looks like when the lamb wins, once and for all.  Life doesn't look like that now.  Earth is not yet as it is in heaven.   But for now, as the example in heaven, the lamb is the only one who wins.

There was once a small little Quaker Church in England that was located next door to a large business firm known simply as ‘Lewis’.   When “Lewis” decided it was time to enlarge, it wrote a letter to the small little church that was in its way, setting on the land in needed to expand.  In the very nice letter written to the church, an very fair offer was made to purchase the church and the land.   The said that with the money the church could relocate and find build a very nice new place to worship, because the firm needed their land.  The signature at the bottom of the letter said it all.  It was simply signed, “Lewis”.

Not long afterward, the firm known as Lewis got a return from the little Quaker Church. The letter told Lewis that it appreciated the very fair offer, but it reminded Lewis that the little church had been on that land for generations, long before Lewis was ever established.  It told Lewis to name the price, and the little Quaker church stands ready to buy out Lewis and all its holdings.   The letter was signed with one single name, Cadbury.

If you don’t know what Cadbury means in England the name Cadbury is equivalent to the name Hershey.  All the wealth of Lewis was nothing compared the wealth uncovered in that little Quaker church, where one with an even bigger shadow was cast, where all the Cadbury’s who had buried for generations,  and where one of them who was still very much alive in his faith.  So, pointing toward the power, wealth and wisdom, of where this Revelation of Jesus  is going, and toward where you are going to, I ask you; what are you investing in? Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"What the Spirit Says ..."

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 2: 1-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
April 23th, 2017, Easter Series, 2/9: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today

When Wayne and Martha Campbell visited us while we were living in continental Europe, we took a vacation together and decided to drive to England and Scotland.  But in order to get there, we had to decide whether to take the new ‘Chunnel’ under the English, or to go the traditional way, by Ferry across the Channel.   Teresa said she always dreamed of approaching England and seeing the “Cliffs of Dover”, so that settled it.  We would arrive in England sailing across the English Channel.  On our return trip we would return by the newly constructed ‘Chunnel’ under’ the channel.

When we arrived in Normandy, France, the winds were already gusting at around 40 knots.  They told us that when they reached 50 knots, no more Ferries would be allowed to cross.  This was to be the final Ferry for that day.   We spoke about the winds, but decided that we all wanted for Teresa to realize her dream of seeing the “Cliffs of Dover”.   Who knows how the weather would be on our return trip.

When we got on the boat, it wasn’t too bad.  We parked our car and headed to the upper deck.  It was windy and cool, so we had to remain inside.  Fortunately there were large windows everywhere.  Our boat took up anchor.   All was going well, until the winds started to increase.  As we approached the middle of the Channel, the waves got bigger and bigger too.   The boat was constantly tossing us to and fro.  Teresa has always had a tendency toward motion sickness.  It was getting to me too.  I told her that my Dad said, as he traveled by boat in the war, that he was told to keep his eyes on the horizon.   That’s what I did.  That’s what Teresa did too.   It was working for me, but it wasn’t working so well for her.  She was still experiencing more and more nausea.  

A fellow passenger saw Teresa turning a little ‘sea-green’ with motion sickness, she moved over toward Teresa and tried to comfort her.   The passenger was a young, very nice, Christian, Pentecostal lady.    After seeing Teresa continue to struggle, she could not help but ask whether or not she could pray for Teresa.  “May I pray for you?”  She asked.   By this time Teresa was so overwhelmed with nausea feelings that she was about to explode.  “Prayer will be O.K.”, she told the lady, but she said, “I would just as soon have a bucket”.

Sometimes, we all have a bad moment.   On this Sunday after Easter, it is traditional to come down from the Glorious message of Easter and face the challenging realities of faith.  Normally the focus is on Thomas and his doubts.  But today we are going turn the tables, and focus on God doubts about us.   Early in John’s vision of Revelation, the Spirit voices concerns about the churches and instructs them about what they must do to refocus.  The words are still important for us because we too have moments of difficulty, challenge, and even failure; we have bad days and hard times, and we need to be helped to get back to being who God called us to be.

One of the most depressing religious realities I have ever had to face was when I visited Turkey back in the summer of 1994.   I had to face the reality that none of the churches , mentioned in the book of Revelation, are actually in existence today.   In fact, hardly any Christianity exists in modern day Turkey at all.   While there is still a Christian congregation still in Symrna, now called Izmir, only about 0.4 percent of Turkish population claim to be Christian.   Back in the early 20th century, Christianity was practically and finally wiped out—through a massive genocide of 1.5 mission Christians under the Islamic, Turkish, Ottoman Empire in 1915, which was part of the tragic events surrounding first World War.

When we got off of the boat that landed at the seacoast town of Kusadasai, the sound that will never escape my ears was the Muslim call to prayer, where loudspeakers oppressively announce that everyone should stop what they are doing, and bow facing east and spend time in prayer to Allah.   We were not forced to bow, but because we were not doing so, it was easily recognized who we were and weren’t.    We were made to stand out as strangers in a very strange land.  Now, I’m not telling you this to be anti-Muslim.   I’ve meet a few Muslim people who were quite nice, considerate and respectful of my faith in Jesus Christ.   Not all Muslims are the same, just like not all Christians are the same.   In fact, when we were riding on the bus from Kusadasai to Ephesus, our tour guide himself called himself a Muslim. But he told me that he appreciated my faith because, he said, ‘we worship the same God’—the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.  

Now, I’m not affirming exactly .what he said or meant, but I must admit that as a visitor in his country, it was reassuring to hear that he respected and affirmed my faith to be in solidarity with him, rather than contrary to him.   I’m sure that humble, peaceful Muslims here in America would also appreciate that we show respect for their faith too, and try to find ways of agreement rather than dwelling only on the ways we are different.   You certainly can’t expect anyone to listen to your heart-felt faith, unless you also listen to their heart-felt-faith.   Even Christians get it wrong, and sometimes God uses others and their own religion to set us right.  The best missionaries have always known that we have nothing to fear in honest, open, an respectful dialogue that remembers the biblical words of Jesus who said,  ‘those who are not against me, are with me’.

But what still resounds is not the simply the ‘nice’, ‘warm’ conversation we had, but the reality that was all around me.   This was a very different land with a whole different approach to religion or freedom.   Today, in that very land where Paul was born, where Polycarp gave his life for his faith, and where many of Christians lived, witnessed, and died, there is no open, visible church anywhere in the surrounding countryside.   In the country where many churches used to be, and were mission to be a worldwide church really began, there is practically no church left.   The church is in ruins, just like the ruins of ancient Ephesus.   While there is secular freedom in Turkey, there is no open affirmation, appreciation, nor acceptance of the Christian faith in the real world we were driving through.   As we toured the ruins of Ephesus, I was actually witnessing the ruins where they used to be a great church that was the mother to many others.  But now that church is gone.    Also, all of those living, breathing, witnessing, shining congregations of Jesus named in John’s revelation are now gone.  They simply don’t exist anymore.   Their ‘lampstand’---the place where the light of Christ’s love and hope once shone brightly, has now been ‘taken away’  (2:5), just as the Spirit warned could happen.

I know this warning that ‘the Spirit’ gave Ephesus is not what we want to hear, especially this Sunday after Easter.  The scolding words of this text are harsh:   “Remember….where you’ve fallen…repent…do the first works, or else I will …. remove your lampstand ...”  These words are almost too direct for most of us to hear, and they are painful too.   But unless we are ready to ‘hear’ and willing to ‘heed’ ‘what the Spirit says’ to us, the situation will get worse for us too.

Why does The Spirit have something against the church?   Isn't God for us, not against us?  Yes, of course.  But my mama was for me too, more than anyone else in this world.  But when she turned against me, it was for my own good.  That’s how you need to read this text too. Let me explain why The Spirit was giving such a dire warning to his church.

 To guide us in our understanding consider another text about the church.   It also speaks of the church and the threats to its existence.   In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, when Jesus was establishing the community, an assembly of people, to be called, ‘church’,   Jesus made a promise to Peter.  He said to This one Jesus named ‘Rock’:  “…On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell (Hades) shall not prevail against it (NKJV, Matt. 16:18).  

This promise has normally been interpreted to assure us that the ‘church’ will never die and that the Christ’s church will continue to exist until Jesus returns to earth in glory.     Now, that a beautiful and very hopeful way to interpret this promise, but this way of interpretation has real problems.  First, one problem is that in history, and still today, churches have died.   Just like those seven churches of Revelation, individual churches still die. Even today, in our own time, many, many churches close their doors every year.   4,000 churches closed their doors last year.  Of course, some of them merge.  Others relocated.  But most of these 4000 close down completely.   Death happens.   Just as death happens to people, it can happen to churches too.   That is evidently not what Jesus was promising; that an individual church would always exist.  Churches die.    And most sobering of all: this church can die too.

Another way to look at the promise here is to say that while individual churches, like the one in Ephesus, Europe, or even in America might one day die, this does not mean the church “universal” will die.   The continued existence of the Catholic Church, and even of many, many Protestant churches in the world, even the new emerging ones we call ‘contemporary’,  or that Christianity is moving to the Southern Hemisphere, or is alive in China must mean that there will remain some form of church on earth, and some type of faithful, remnant of churches until Jesus returns.  That the ‘gates of death’ shall not prevail against ‘the church’ must mean that the church is indestructible in a great, global, or ultimate way.   That’s a better interpretation, and it may be true, but it’s still not what most scholars have found that Jesus really meant.

No, the picture here is not a picture of a church defensively sitting on a hill, or rock,  withstanding ‘death’ no matter what happens, but the picture here  is more like a church that is marching straight into the ‘gates of hell’ or ‘death’ sharing its message and needing not to be afraid.   As long as the church is doing what it's supposed to do and being who it's supposed to be, it need not fear death.  The key word to grasp here is the word, ‘prevail’.   What Jesus means is that death can’t overcome a church that is on the offensive.  While the church  may need to make a  ‘defense’ from time to time, it is only the ‘offense’ that will  score and give the church it’s life.

When the Spirit speaks to the churches of Revelation, it was what the churches were ‘not’ doing that was killing them.   It wasn’t what the world was doing to them.   Even the church ‘built’ next door to the Satan himself, was the church that was most alive, to whom Jesus said:  “I will give you the crown of life…”  Jesus says.   It wasn’t the devil or the evil on the outside that could hurt the church, but it was only the evil on the inside, of not doing, not being, or not becoming the church the church is supposed to be. 

Once I had missionary colleague who had once been a pastor in both northern and southern Germany.   The northern part of Germany is mostly Lutheran, and the Catholic churches there are a minority.   In the southern part of Germany, it is mostly Catholic, and the Lutheran churches are a minority there.   What he noticed from being a Baptist missionary in both areas was this.   That in the land where the church, whether Catholic or Lutheran, was in the majority, the churches were political, powerful, but very spiritually weak, floundering, perhaps dying too.   But in the area where the church was in the minority, whether Lutheran or Catholic, the churches were usually spiritual strong and vibrate.    The political alignment, even when it was most favorable, most always sucked the spiritual life out of the true church.    But when the church remained personal and worshipful, and spiritually strong, they remained stronger and faithful to the witness of God’s love.  

What we need to understand is that the true church is always under attack and in the minority.   But even with this, the greatest threat is from within, rather than from without.  When we lose track of what we are supposed to be about, or we become lost in seeking political influence or power, or when we lose our own personal, spiritual focus, we are in danger of losing our light, our candlestick, and eventually, our very life.

Within these 7 letters to the churches, especially this first one, God has message to help keep the church connected to its spiritual life-source.   To the Church of Ephesus we read:  “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.   Remember…therefore…repent, do the first works, or else I will come quickly and remove your lampstand from its place…. (2:4-5).  
This word was not to insult or hurt the church, but it, and all the letters to the churches were written in hope of bringing new ‘life’ back into the churches.   The message to Ephesus sounds frank talk between married couples.  It is as if Jesus, a husband, is speaking directly to his bride, the church:  ‘You must show the real kind of love you had for me when we married, or our marriage is going to fail.’   

Love is not easy to keep alive, unless it is true love.   Certainly, true love has it ups and downs too, but it remains, survives, and even grows through hardships because it is true and continually finds ways of proving itself.   But what true love never does, at least when it is reminded of its fault and negligence, is to take love for granted.   If love is not somehow expressed, explained, or re-established, then the ‘lamp’ of love goes out.

In this day of spiritual decline in the US, and in the Western world, where Christianity has lost its place of acceptance and dominance, we in our churches are being challenged to find ways to ‘return’ to our ‘first love’ and to do the ‘first works’.   While it is unrealistic to try to ‘do church’ like we used to, when Christianity seemed easier; we must now learn to renew our ‘love’ for God in ways that make our faithful love for God alive now, because the world around us has changed.    There are churches that are growing, in spite of the new very different world we live in today.   I don’t think we have to become like any of those churches, but I do think we need to learn from them.   What is at the center of most growing churches is a ‘first’ kind of love and the a kind of ‘first works’ that makes everything alive, ‘fresh’ and ‘new’.

This kind of ‘first love’ and ‘first works’ is how the church still recovers and finds its life?  The church’s life is not found in history or heritage—no matter how great.   The death of the church in Ephesus proves that.    The Church’s life is also not found in its future---for no church is promised a future if it does not continue to have a true love that continues the ‘first works’.    And the ‘first works’ of the church is today, very the much the same as it was then.    The ‘first work’ of the church to proclaim, to preach, and to bear witness to the love of Jesus Christ, and to be ready and willing to ‘storm’ the gates of hell, in order to share the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.   A church that does the ‘first works’ is not focused on what’s in this for me, but or what do we do to make everybody happy, but the church is focus on reaching out to ‘them’.   Only by focusing on this kind of missionary, evangelistic, gospel-sharing ‘first work’ can the church prove its ‘first love’ and gain the promise of life in Jesus Christ.  

How do we do this?  Of course there are many ways the church can share the gospel, in word and in deed.  Still, most people in the church are afraid of sharing the gospel, aren’t they?   Most are hesitant to personally share their faith with others.  How do we cover the ‘first works’ of the gospel, and show our love for Christ, so that we share our faith publically and personally, in ways that show our love of Christ, and bear witness to our faith? 

Pastor Mark Roberts, in an article about Church and Mission, speaks of how simple it is for a church, made up of people like you and me, to show our ‘first love’ by doing the ‘first works’.  Mark went to college at Harvard, where he lived in the dorm where Bill Gates once lived, but Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard.   Mark says with tongue and cheek, ‘Too bad Bill dropped out, he could have been a real success if he’d stayed at Harvard.’  

Of course, if there is any place where it is difficult to share the gospel, it would be at Harvard.  Harvard used to be a place where Christians Ministers were trained.  That’s why the school was originally established.  Today, however, most of the students who attend Harvard are not from church or any Christian backgrounds.   Today the atmosphere at Harvard is overly secular.  

One of Mark’s Christian friend’s on campus was an brilliant engineer named Lance.  Lance was brilliant in Science and Math, but his verbal skills were more limited.  When Lance and Mark were getting together for a Bible Study and Prayer each week,  people would ask Lance where he was going.   Most of us, with good verbal skills would try to avoid the matter, but Lance would just come out and plainly say,  “I’m going to a Bible Study.”   It wasn’t long until people became curious, because of the kind of life Lance and Mark lived.   Some would want to attend the study too.   It was not because of any pressure, or official invitation, but they just noticed a difference in Lance and Mark from others.  

One of those who started coming to the Bible Study was named Tom.  Tom had a hard time with holding on to his faith.  He had a friend name Liz who came with him.  Liz wasn’t really interested in the faith at all; she just came with Tom.   She also watched as Tom struggled with ideas and with his faith.   Even when Tom spoke out against the faith, the others in group were very patient and understanding.  They allowed Tom to say what he felt.  They did not judge him.  Finally, one day,  Tom came to reaffirm his faith to the group.   It was then that Liz made an unexpected confession.   “Tom,” she said,  “I think I believe in Jesus too.”   “Really?”  Tom exclaimed.  “How did that happen?  What made the difference?  Did the arguments or discussion help you, as they did me?  “Not really,”  Liz said.   “Tom”, what convinced me was how much the group loved you, showing patience, understanding, and believing in you, no matter what you said.   This is when what they said about Jesus began to make sense.   I believe in Jesus because of the love I saw in them like they shared was in Jesus. (

Didn’t Jesus say that is our true faith and our true love for each other that would prove that we are his disciples (John 13:35)?    Being a witness to God’s love isn’t that complicated  when are living out of our true faith and showing God’s love.  But it’s practically impossible to be a witness to God’s love, when we don’t love as Jesus loved.    So, in conclusion, let me ask you:  Do you show the love you had at the first?  Are you doing the works you did at the first?  This is where the power and life of faith began, and this is how it is renewed.   It’s as easy as being faithful enough to go to a worship service,  a bible study, and being asked by someone, “Where are you going?”  or “Why are you going?”   When people see that you put Jesus’ love first and his works first, then the light comes on.   This is the kind of light-energy that gives the church the power to ‘storm’ the gates of hell unafraid.  It is the light of light of love the world always needs to see its way through the darkness.  It is the kind of light no darkness, no matter how great, can ever extinguish.   All we have to do is ‘turn on the light’.  Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

“Behold, I Am Alive Forever!”

A Sermon Based Upon Revelation 1: 9-19
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
April 16th, 2017,  Easter Series, 1/9: ‘Jesus Christ Revealed Today’

Happy Easter everyone!    As we all know, Easter is the church’s celebration of the risen Christ.  It is also the celebration to remind us that ‘death’ is not the end and only in Jesus Christ do we have hope of eternal life.   Easter celebration of worship that, if we take it seriously, should change our perspective on everything that has or will happen to us in life or death.

Now, that’s quite a revelation, isn’t it?   To have your complete understanding of everything turned upside down!  But isn’t that what happened to the disciples when they first encountered the risen Christ?  Seeing Jesus alive after his crucifixion changed their view of everyone and everything.   That’s exactly what I still hope Easter does for you.  I hope this annual reminder of the true meaning of Easter is the lens through which you view your whole life and also your coming struggle with death.  

Until you face this struggle yourself, as you will, unless you are taken out suddenly, it will be hard for you to imagine just how dark the world was, and how hard life was before the disciples encountered the empty tomb and heard the angels says: “He is not, but he is risen!”   This was the beginning of a brand new ‘revelation’ of the greatest magnitude.  

But we’ve not seen that empty tomb, nor have we heard angels.  How do we share in that wonderful Easter vision of hope?  One book of the Bible is completely written to do just that. This is the last of book of the Bible called “The Book of Revelation”.    Now, many still read this book as a book that might give us a ‘road map’ to the end of the world.  But this book would us rather call it, what it calls itself, ‘The Revelation of Jesus Christ.’   This ‘revelation’ does give us a vision of the end, but even this is not the ‘end’, but a new beginning.   But revelation also gives us a vision for life right now  if we will ‘envision’ in our hearts this one who was raised from the dead.  Whenever the risen Christ is rightly understood and worshipped,  our vision of him can change how we view the world, the end, and it should also change how we live each day too.

This astounding Revelation of Jesus was given to John in a vision that took place on the island of Patmos.   I've been there.   It's a very small island about 8 nautical miles from Ephesus, where tradition says John had been the elder pastor.   John was not there on Patmos for a vacation, nor was he touring on a romantic Greek isle.  John was a there as a ‘prisoner of Jesus Christ.’   He was put there to die for his ‘testimony’ to Jesus as his Lord. 

It’s not hard to envision what John was going through.  There is no water on that island.  Prisoners only stayed alive as long as the Roman government wanted them to.   John was probably living in a cave.  This is where it is believed he had the revelation.  It’s a place to hide from the hot, summer sun.   Today, many Greeks still worship in dark, cave like sanctuaries.   But the cave John was in was also cold and damp in the winter.  John would not live long under these conditions.  His days were numbered.  This may be why he saw Jesus.  Did I say he was a prisoner?  He was a prisoner, not only of Rome, but of Jesus Christ.  Strangely, it was his imprisonment to Jesus that gave him a vision of hope for all the rest of us.

In our free America, we take for granted our freedom to believe in Jesus in Christ.   It’s hard for us to imagine anyone being imprisoned for speaking the truth, or giving testimony of the saving power of Jesus Christ.   But that world is out there.  Our vision of Easter hope and Easter truth is constantly under threat.

Back in the late 80s, my wife and I began praying about the world.  We ended up going as missionaries to eastern Germany where communism said no to God.  It was a challenge to work where God had been considered enemy number one.   Even after Communism fell apart, people were still hesitant and resistant.   For me, the darkness of that world surfaced in a young boy needlessly thrown by bullies in a trash can.  This is what happens to people’s lives when a culture says no to God.   It happened during Nazism.  It happened under communism.  It is still happening in our own secular and capitalistic minded society.  When God doesn't matter, finally people don't matter.   When the world says no to God, the moral center will not hold very long.

Do we see loss of our moral center in our own culture?  One of the proofs of the loss of a moral center in Nazi Germany was the loss of individual responsibility, as I once heard explained on a tour of the Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald.    For you see, many ‘good’ Germans took part of the culture of death, but no one took full responsibility.   When they marched a person into a room in Buchenwald to exectute them, one person brought the victim into the room,  another performed a physical examination,  another stood behind a hole in the wall to pull the trigger without seeing their victim, another came in an removed the body,  and finally another cleaned the room of human blood.  They all had a part, but no one saw themselves as morally responsible.  They were all just cogs in a killing machine.    Today, I see resemblances of such an impersonal machine when I call my insurance, my banker, or even my doctor’s office and no one knows what's happening, or has time to care more about me than the ‘system’ they are being paid to uphold.   It's scary to think where this is leading, even in the churches.

Again, this is not just a world problem, it is also a church problem.  It doesn’t take long for a church that must exist in the world to start to reflect the culture of the world.   This has happened before.     Did you realize why we have Baptists and other Protestant denominations?  It was the Baptist vision to challenge the world's no which was infiltrating the church at the end of the Middle ages.  It was the Baptist vision to bring reform and renewal to the established church that has lost it shining light.   But now you and I are part of the established church.  How quickly are our churches also losing those their calling, their testimony, or their leaders who will actually lead and assume true responsibility for the witness of the church in the world?   As I saw when attending a large, mega church near Mooresville; masses still go to church, but fewer and fewer assume responsible roles.  Many love to be entertained, but fewer and fewer care to take up the towel, wash each others feet, to the work to serve in their community and be the church who are Christ’s body in the world.  It’s the way it has been many times before:  “Many are called, few are chosen.” 

Yes, there are always, have always been, and will always be a world who says no's to God call, God’s love, and to the work of sharing God’s grace.   That’s the kind of bad news, we still encounter as we see true revelation of Jesus in the world.   We will always have to be an “Easter” congregation, sharing and living the message of risen Christ in a “Good Friday” world!

But it was also in a world of constant and continual ‘noes’ that John had this powerful vision of Jesus.    In a world that was still saying ‘no’,  John very distinctly heard and clearly envisioned God's yes in Jesus.     What John saw in the risen Jesus, even on that dark, deserted island,  coincides with exactly what the apostle Paul, who founded the church in Ephesus, once wrote to the Corinthians:   "...but in Him it is always “Yes.”   For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.”  For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God.”  (2 Cor. 1:19-21).

John's own vision of God's yes in Jesus Christ is John’s “Amen to the glory of God”, even in a no saying world.    The vision is given to us in most graphic detail.    There’s a lot to consider in this picture of Jesus with ‘fiery eyes’, but don't over think or interpret it.  This is a theological picture of the risen Christ, the living Christ, the Easter Jesus and it’s also a vision of the up and coming Christ.   This graphic picture of Jesus with blazing eyes, bronzed feet, and a mouth spitting sword are visuals of God's vindication of everything Jesus was and still is.  God raised Jesus to give his “yes” to his Son.   And God also raised Jesus to give his “Yes” to us so that we can still find ‘life’  in the Son.  Let me explain:

In Jesus God gives his yes to all Jesus taught and saidThat's the sword--the word of truth coming from Jesus' lips.  Jesus told the truth about who Israel was and wasn't.   He told us the truth about God, and his love.  Think of the Sermon on the Mount--- blessed are the peacemakers, love your enemy, and forgive as you are forgiven.  Jesus resurrection says these strange words are still true.  If you live what Jesus said, you for more than yourself, more than for what is, but you live toward God's kingdom that is still coming.  What broke into the world as a vision then, is still a viable picture of what can be and is still coming.  If we will follow what Jesus taught, and what he lived, a new world is coming, and is already here, in us.

Also, this means that by raising Jesus Christ, God gives us his Yes to how we should live, now. 'Seek first God and his kingdom and all these things will be added.'   In other words, make you priority God's priority, and the rest will take care of itself.  Leave God's priority out, nothing works out in the end.  You know what Jesus taught and what Jesus did.  He preached good news to the poor.  He touched the outcast.  He challenged the established elite who could care less.  Jesus even challenged the religious traditions that protected the elite status quo who had no real concern for the needy.  Jesus was hated for this, and was crucified too, but still God raised him up.  God raised Jesus to provide us an example of how to live too.  God still keep raising up the truth about life.   If we neglect the truth of what matters most, we will bring an end to ourselves, but the kingdom is still coming.

Most of all, God raised Jesus to be the living Christ of the church.  Do you see that this resurrected Jesus is one who lives among the lampstands?   The lampstands are the churches who are trying to shine and show the light of Jesus in the world, then, and now.  When we do what Jesus said, live with Jesus as our example, and when we 'let our light shine before others, ' we also experience a God's yes in our own midst.   How have you experienced God's yes through Jesus?  How are you experiencing this yes through the living Christ who still walks among his people we call Church?  God's yes still comes.  God still validates Jesus.  The only difference is that now he raises us when we live Christ in the world through the call and work of the church.

Can I give you an example of Christ, God's yes, still walking, shining, and living among the church, today?   You are the examples.   “Christ in you is the hope of glory!”  When you care, love, pray, go, and tell, Christ is walking among the lampstands.  What examples do you see?  If you don’t see them, know them,  and experience them, it’s because either you are looking in a mirror and seeing Christ, or you aren’t living as Christ came to live through us?   Recall that illustration our Revival speaker at Flat Rock, Shane Nixon gave, of being new and misbehaving in elementary school and having his teacher, Mrs. Wall, send him walking up and down the hall and saying to him, “Yes, I see you walking just like your grandfather.  Shane could not stop walking like this grandfather, because his grandfather’s DNA was in him.   That was an image I will not soon forget.

We live in a secular society.  What this means is that our world thinks it is fact based, rather than faith based.  So, it thinks living faith is myth.  People still put their faith in something, but today it's more about stuff than people, more about material rather than spiritual, and more about self, than others.  People are more excited about finding life on another planet, than find life on this planet.  People are more excited about photographing themselves doing something, than actually doing something that ought to be photographed.  So, to share with people like this, who we believe is the very source of life, we must show them, more than tell them.  People will not be convinced by words.  People will only be convinced with the words come alive through us.

Some time ago I was watching a news report.  Today most news shows end with feel good stories.  This particular story was about a wealthy woman who had retired to Florida.  But instead of relaxing in retirement, she was organizing activities and often using her on wealth to help seniors in need.  Why aren't you spending your retirement on yourself?  They asked.  "I am spending it on myself.  I couldn't exist without working for others.  I'm not helping them, but they are really helping me!

Folks, this is how God still gives us His ‘yes’ in Jesus, and this is how Christ still works and walks on earth through us.   For you see, there is no other way to know Jesus, than through working, caring, loving,  helping and ministering ‘to the least of these.’   There is no other way, Scripture says for people to know God than to see us feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, showing hospitality to the stranger, putting clothes on the naked,  and visiting the sick and imprisoned.    There is no other way to get close to Jesus than by getting close to someone who needs someone.  This is what troubled Jesus about the Judaism in his own day.  It had all kinds of politic, all kinds of religion, all kinds of activity, but it also had very little life, light, and almost no love.

Several years ago, I got to know Chris Fuller, who was a campus minister.  He is the son of Millard Fuller who gave away millions and started Habitat for Humanity.  One day the father, Millard was working on a house for a poor family.  One of the young Hispanic children in that family came and asked to help.  "Stay back, kid, you might get hurt."  But the kid kept coming back, again and again until finally Fuller gave up.  "Ok kid, I find you something to do.  But first you must tell me your name.  What's you name?  He said that his name was "Jesus".  That was a hispanic name that reminded him of who this boy really was.  He was ‘one of the least of these’ that showed up and became ‘Jesus’ alive and walking among the lampstands.  
For you see, Jesus is not simply a person who once lived in history, but Jesus is The Spirit that still haunts us with the truth about life and the truth about us.   Jesus confronts us with the ‘truth’ that really matters about them, and the truth that really matters about you, and me. It is through loving, and living the being the truth of Jesus, that Jesus still shines his light of hope through his church, and gives the world God’s ‘yes’. 

The only question left is about us, here and now.   This is Easter.  It’s Spring.  It’s a Season of Hope?  It’s putting on new clothes?   Everyone likes ‘new clothes’ except the one who can’t afford them.    Can we afford to put something ‘new’ from Jesus in our lives?   There are many, many ways that Jesus offers to be or do something ‘new’ in our lives, but will we put on God’s ‘yes’ into our life right now?   Can we see the “no” that confronts us, and the “yes” that Jesus’ love and truth calls us to answer in our own life? 

This is the question Easter brings us year after year:  How will we live God’s ‘yes’ in this year of our life that us just ahead?   For John on Patmos, to ‘see’ and to ‘live’ God’s ‘yes’, was to spiritually look into Jesus eyes and see hope, not despair.  For us, the need is similar.  We need to more than just how things are, but we also need to see see things as they should be.  But isn’t this what we are in danger of losing, in our own time?   Aren’t we always in danger of seeing something we want to see, but losing sight of what really matters? 

Coming back from Charlotte, after a post-surgical visit back in 2009, Teresa and I stopped to eat at a popular restaurant.   While waiting on our meal, we and observed parents with their two children sitting at next table who had just ordered.  One child, a boy looked to be 10 or so.  The other child, a girl was a teenager.  As they were also waiting on their meal, both children starred into space, while both parents were busy on their own cell phones.   Who knows what was really going on?   Maybe I was being judgmental.   I wasn’t trying too.  But honestly, I thought to myself; How could these parents miss this very important time with their own children?   What if they could see what I was seeing? 

It is said that the most important spiritual resource that ancient people had over us is ‘time’.   The time they had, which we don’t have, and must make, gave them an ability to see God’s light more clearly.   But to see God was not some strange ability to look up and see a ‘man upstairs’ , but to see God was cultivating the ability to see, to really see, the person who was standing right in front of you. 

Isn’t this still the greatest spiritual gift--- the ability to see.  Isn't this how we discover God's yes in our own lives?  Like John, we need to see the risen Christ walking among the lampstands---in our churches.  We need to see a vision of how things are---and how we need to respond.   We need to see Jesus, but we need to see him in someone around us, who needs us.  We need not to be deceived by what we want to see, but to really see what we need to see.  Then we need to act and to follow by ministering to 'the least of these' as we become the body of the risen Christ, who is walking and working among the churches, being the church in this world.

Isn't this how Christ is revealed in our world---through us, and our faithfulness?  Isn't this how hope comes in times like these?   We are God's “yes” of hope in this world.   But how can we be that yes if we keep saying ‘no’.   A religion of “No” will never hope to the world.  As the great founder of the Methodists, John Wesley said:  "Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can.  In all the places you can.  At all the times you can. To all the people you can.  As long as ever you can.”   If you live like that, you will see Christ walking ‘among’ the church again and again and then, every day, will be Easter.  He is Risen! Amen

Sunday, April 9, 2017

“The Resurrection of the Body”

A Sermon Based Upon 1 John 3: 1-3
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
April 9th, 2017,  The Apostle’s Creed 15/15

An airplane full of tourists was returning from a cruise in Florida. The holiday mood and the party continued as they took off.   There was much excitement on the flight, except for one woman who was clearly in some difficulty.   One of the stewards noticed she wasn’t well, and asked if there was a doctor on board. Two doctors immediately came forward and started attending to her, but after about five minutes she died, right there in her seat. Death came suddenly and spoiled the after-cruise party.

As you can imagine the mood in the airplane changed in an instant.   The pilot made an emergency landing at the next major airport and the body of the woman was taken away. After about ten minutes the flight continued, but the sense of shock remained.   There happened to be a Christian minister on board, and he went to the chief steward and introduced himself. He said if there was anything he could do to help, or if any of the passengers needed someone to talk to, he was available.   The chief steward said, “Oh I think everyone will be okay. The captain has told us to give them all free drinks. That’ll make them feel better.”

And that’s how the non-believing world deals with death. “Let’s just give them all free drinks, and they’ll feel better.”

Today we come to the concluding phrase in the Apostle’s Creed:  “The Resurrection of the Body and Everlasting Life.”  While ‘The Resurrection of the Body’ remains mysterious to each of us, I certainly hope we have much more hope than trying to ‘feel better’ with ‘free drinks.’    Most of us have some sort of concept of ‘eternal life’.  Most of us think of  ‘going to heaven when we die’.   It goes to the heart of our Christian hope to trust that when we die, we will immediately be in the presence of God: “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:6, KJV).”  Also, when Jesus was on the cross, he told one of the thieves crucified with him: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).”  

Of course, as Christians, we believe that when we die there is more to come.  But have you ever wondered why the Christian faith speaks of ‘the resurrection of the body’?   What did Paul mean when the said ‘the dead in Christ will rise first?’  Why do we pray ‘thy kingdom come’, and why do we hope for ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ and most of all, why will we need a body?   And if all we are look forward to is “going to heaven” why has the traditional practice been to bury people in church cemeteries facing east?  With our loss of faith, this practice is only beginning to wane in the United States.  Still, over 70 percent of the cemeteries have graves facing East. Why?   Both of our cemeteries, Flat Rock’s which was established in the 18th century, and Zion’s which was established in the 19th century, are both facing that way.  Personally, I think most all cemeteries in Iredell and Yadkin County face east. 

So, here’s my question:  If we are all ONLY going to heaven when we die, then why did my forefathers and your forefathers decide to bury people in hope that one day, when Christ returns, there would actually be ‘a resurrection of the body’?  What is it about our Christian faith created a respect, honor for the human body?  This faith included a hope that somehow, someway, the future would not be reincarnation,  not just the immortality of the soul, and not only going to heaven when we die; but also had some sort of hope in a coming resurrection of the dead with bodies similar to what we have now, only better?  What fixed their hearts on ‘the resurrection of the body’ as part of having everlasting life?

To guide us in thinking about our Christian hope of resurrection, I’m using the wonderful, simple, and short text from the First Letter of John, chapter three.   These words begin where we all should begin when we think of our hope for the future: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God” (1 Jn. 3:1).  

When we start to speak of the Christian Hope of ‘things to come’, or about ‘last things’; we are must remember that we are trying to talk about things for which Scripture says, ‘eye has not seen, nor the ear heard, nor has ever entered the human heart, which God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9).   Here we begin where the gospel begins, with God’s love:  “For God so loved the world…” the great text begins, only to conclude: ‘whoever believes on him (God’s Son), will not PERISH, but shall have everlasting life (John 3:16).  Everything, not just the last things, but everything that make a Christianity “Christian” and also makes it differ from all other religions or beliefs in the world, is that ‘the greatest of these is ‘love’.

How love determines our faith and trust was explained wonderfully by the great Austrian Sociologist Peter Berger, who told of story of a child being frightened, and the mother picking up the child, holding the child close and saying,  “Everything will be alright.”   Either that mother is expressing the world’s greatest lie to that child, brainwashing the child against the dark, dying, cruel world, or that mother speaks of a truth the heart longs to know and needs desperately to discover.  “Everything IS going to be ALRIGHT!”  But how can everything be all right, if everything ends in death?  How does a mother’s ‘alright’ become a sign that there more to life and more to come, than a life that ends in death?

John reminds us that our hope has already begun. “Beloved, NOW we are the children of God.”  Hope is here, now!  When God raised Jesus from the dead, the new life, the new reality, and our hope of ‘newness of life’ and that one day, ‘all things become  new,’ is something that has already begun ‘now’.  Now God loves us.   Now God’s love changes us.  Now, we are being redeemed. Now, is the day of salvation!  When a person responds in faith to this God whose loves and when we turn toward and into this ‘hope’; a hope that has broken into our present, forgiving all things past, offering us the first-fruits of His tomorrow, even now.  And because this eternal God is the source of time itself, God himself can offer us a new day, a new hope, and a new life.  This is the ‘new’ that is already breaking into our present time, now!

There is a wonderful scene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, where a wealthy young Russian aristocrat named Pierre, finds his life meaningless and empty, in spite of his inherited wealth.  He drinks too much.  He’s awkward in high society.  His wife only loves his money.  He’s lonely and angry about life.  He’s too smart to believe in God.  Then, one night, while traveling on business, he encounters a Free-Mason.  The Free-Mason challenges his unbelief.  He offers Pierre a way to meaning and purpose that focuses on faith in God and service to others.  Pierre accepts the challenge.  Now, instead of limping through his life, he is empowered to care, to help, and serve, even his own servants.  Pierre finds joy in putting new roofs on his servant’s homes, building schools to educate their children.  In a faith that is practiced, he finds new hope and a new life because the kingdom has broken into his self-centered life.  By giving, by losing, and by dying to self, he gains a way to a resurrected life, and he gains it now!   

A new way of living our lives was revealed in Jesus Christ, and hopefully, you too have received the promise and potential of new life; or you can, beginning now.  But, still, as John goes on to write, ‘What we will be has not been revealed.”   There something very important being said here, even in this negatively shaped statement.  What is to come for us, for the world, and for the life to come ‘has not yet been revealed’; at least not completely.  We live in a waiting room of sorts, between what has ‘already’ come, and the ‘not yet’ of what is still to come.   It is in this very place that some lose faith, others over-speculate, and still a few will be tempted to lose heart exactly because we must live by faith, and not by sight.  Life as a ‘waiting room’ is not an easy place to live. .

I have a friend who is a semi-retired pastor, living in the mountains.   I meet with him and several other pastors monthly, as part of a peer-learning group.   We read books together.  We talk about the challenges of pastoral ministry together.  We talk and pray about life, as we all are growing older together.  Recently, his wife, who was a nurse, had to retire early due to an Alzheimer's diagnosis.  It is a disease everyone fears.  It is slow, difficult, and heartbreaking on so many levels; physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  When my friend gives us updates on her condition; such as telling us what she forgets, what she fears, how she gets agitated, and how they struggle with simple tasks, we hurt with him.  Along with his difficult situation, we must face our own fears too. 

How can a God who loves, redeems, and makes all things new be in the midst of illnesses like this, or like ours?    When I ask myself such questions about sickness, disease, and suffering, especially as I also deal with it too, I must remind myself that years ago, most people didn't have to deal with things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, or stokes.  And do you know why?  They just died.  They either died much younger before such problems developed, or they died, not knowing what they died of.   But today, because we have longer lives, we also have greater risks of what happens to our bodies.  As one doctor told me once, “Your back was designed for you to live until you are about fifty”.  If you live past that, you will most likely have some kind of ‘back’ issues, along with other health issues too..

Our days in this life are numbered.  We should have three score and ten years.  If we are strong and healthy, maybe eighty or ninety.  A few go even longer.  The other day I read about an Indonesian fellow who was 148 years old.  That’s hard to believe, because the truth is that our minds, our bodies, our lives, will and must eventually decline and die.  But surprisingly, and against all odds, there is still hope, even in this.  As Scripture says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”(1 Cor. 15:36 NRS).   The old must die, before the new can come.  But how can a Christian think, believe, or say such a thing?   Some say this is just wishful thinking?  How do we face the ending of our lives with faith, hope and of course, with a love stronger than death?  And if a whole new life and new world are coming, why doesn’t God just give it to us now?  Why do we have to wait?  Why do we have to live by faith and wait for all things become new?

When we ask questions like this, it is most obvious that we are thinking mostly of ourselves, which is understandable.  But what if we could find a way, in faith of course, to think on a much grander scale?  What if we could understand that life is bigger than just what happens to me, to you, to us, or only thinking just about our own people?  I realize this is not easy, and we still wonder about what will happen when we die.  And we certainly do and will miss our loved ones, but thinking on a bigger scale is most important for hope because only thinking of ourselves can be deceptive, cause us to become delusional about life, and treat diminutively the grand scope of God’s great will and purpose.

So, now, think about this: What if what God is doing in this world now, and what God is taking us all toward, is something that includes us, but is also much more than ‘just’ about us?  What if what life is about, what we should hope for in God is so big that it only began to be fulfilled in ancient Israel, it culminated in what God accomplished in Jesus Christ, but It continues with us and in what is still unfolding in the future of our world.  What if this purpose has been unfolding in the millions of years before life arose on earth?  What if what God is doing is as big as God himself, and it will take all history, and is as large, maybe even larger than the entire universe?  Can you think of ‘hope’ so big, that hasn't been revealed, because it can’t be revealed, because it is not finished yet?   Didn't Jesus even hint this to his disciples that their own eternal future is ‘a place’ he had to ‘go and prepare’ for them until he returned.   As the ,  majestic King James translation puts it, Jesus said: “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.  (Jn. 14:2-3 KJV)

So, how big is what God has in store for those who love him?  You might think of it this way: Long before Jesus, the very first traces of humans living on this earth included primitive cave drawings of the dead traveling on journeys to another world.  The pyramids of Egypt are stairways to heaven.  In that ancient world the religions had only shadowy, limited, impersonal, foggy pictures of what ‘hope’ for the ‘afterlife’ might look like.   Still, clues about ‘eternity’ were written into the ‘hopes and fears of all the years’, as the song says.  These were hopes of reincarnation  (Hinduism); hopes for the immortality of the soul  (Greek Philosophy), and even more philosophically, hopes of some type of eternal blending into the greater purpose or spiritual mind behind all things (Hinduism, Buddhism).  These are what we might call natural and humanistic ‘signals of transcendence’ (Peter Berger) that there is ‘more’ to our lives than what ‘meets the eye’.   Negatively, when you walk through the experience of loss, grief, and struggle, or more positively, when you look at the sunset, the sunrise, or the vastness of the stars or the sea, you too might gain a perspective for hope of life to come, even without the aid of the a religious imagination or divine revelation.  But how will you gain a sure and solid hope when you staring directly into the unknown of the grave itself?

Even Judaism, out of which Christianity was born, had only vague (Sheol, Hades), or general hopes for the future of human existence.  One of those was a young, tentative, but developing hope for a coming, general ‘waking’ of the dead.  Daniel wrote: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt…. (Dan. 12:2).  A more specific hope of ‘resurrection’ continued to develop during the period between the Old and New Testaments. But it wasn’t until the time of Jesus that a hope of ‘resurrection’ exploded onto human history.  In Christ, God catapulted human hope to a new level of promise and possibility when God raised Jesus from the dead.

But even then, and still in our own time, this resurrection ‘hope’ had, and still has, its cynics, detractors and skeptics.  Their negatively is fueled by what is ‘not yet revealed’ or what is still being prepared.   In Jesus’ day the Jewish religious leaders called Pharisees believed in a coming resurrection of the dead, but the more politically motivated, earthly oriented, wealthy Sadducees, did not want to believe, speak of, or be changed by such hope.  They liked their lives the way they were.   They used as an excuse for their unbelief that Moses did not speak of it.  Trying to trick Jesus into contradicting Moses, the Sadducees asked him strange, hypothetical question concerning the coming resurrection (See Mark 12: 18ff, Matt. 22: 23ff, Luke 20:7ff).  “Rabbi, Moses wrote,” that if a women has several husbands, because died and she had to remarries several times, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?  (Mk. 12:23 NRS)?”   Even though we might not be as skeptical, we too, in our own way and for our own reasons and questions about eternal life, and may become doubtful, skeptical, or even cynical  about hope beyond this life.  The view of many, even the smartest among us is that ‘when you are dead, you are dead.’  In light of all that happens, or might happen, sometimes, even for us too, hope makes little sense to our situation in life.  

What is most amazing about Jesus’ answer to those “Sadducees” is not how he specifically answers their questions, nor how Jesus dared to try to answer something that is ‘unanswerable’ or that might be refuted today.  Jesus does not answer that way.  What answer Jesus does give, is to give an answer that is as unprovable as it is non reputable.  By doing this Jesus took them and takes us straight to the main issue at stake.  After Jesus scolds these Sadducees for not believing in the Scriptures or the power of God, he validates the truth of resurrection in the very nature of God himself.   Jesus answered: “As for the dead being raised, have you not read how have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  He is God not of the dead, but of the living (Mk. 12:26-27 NRS). 

Jesus point is clear:  If you believe in God and that God is at work in our lives; then all things are possible, and resurrection is logical, and should be expected.  If God lives, those live in him are alive.  But if your God is dead, or God means nothing to you, then you will struggle to believe in resurrection.  To have faith, belief, and most of all trust in a ‘living’ and ‘loving’ God is the key to all hope in both life and death.  And even though the resurrection hope has not yet been fully revealed to us, but it is a hope that has been fully revealed in him.  As Scripture says, Jesus Christ and his resurrection, is the ‘first-fruits’ of what is still to be revealed for us:  “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.
  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
 But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:20-23 KJV).   This all means that when we live in him, and our life is hid  with Christ (Col. 3:3), we live in hope of what has not yet been fully revealed, but in the hope that it is being prepared to be revealed, so that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, we ‘shall all be made alive’ in him at his coming.

Beyond dispute, the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of our Christian Faith.  It is also how we come to focus upon our Christian hope for the resurrection of our own dead bodies. As we all know too well; one day we will be dead.  But, as Scripture says, God ‘proves his love for us, even while we are still sinners, Christ died for us.”  And because Jesus died for us and was raised for us---through Jesus we gain not only the promise of our forgiveness, but we also gain the promise of our future life in him.    When the resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his disciples, God gave the greatest indication of how and when this resurrection hope will finally and fully be revealed.

HOW: “WE WILL BE LIKE HIM…”  Even though the language of the New Testament says that Jesus was raised from the dead, it better fits the actual NT accounts to say that Jesus was transformed, changed, altered, rather than merely brought back to life.  The body Jesus was given in resurrection was not ‘alive’ as we know life now—it is new life.  Yes, of course, it was his body, including scars and all his human characteristics, but it was also his body with new qualities.    ‘They arelike angels’ (Lk. 20:36) Jesus said of the dead, not limited to time or space as we are.  Even though the resurrected Jesus did eat, he may or may not have had eat and was able to walk through locked doors, to appear and disappear at will, and was also able to make himself unrecognizable or recognizable to those who saw him.

The New Testament goes on to say that this new, transformed body is no longer subject to illness, pain, sorrow or physical decay or corruption.  As the apostle Paul wrote, it was a ‘body that God has… chosen’ (1 Cor. 15:38).  As Paul described: “So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  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 physical body, it is raised a spiritual body…(1 Cor. 15:42-44).  He continues: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.”  Notice Paul cannot say what this ‘man from Heaven’ is made of.  He can only say: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality (15:51-53).  

To put this another way, to be like Jesus, means, as the gospel song says, we will have a ‘new body, praise the Lord, we’ll have a new life…a home eternal where the redeemed of God will stand….’ This is a spiritual and eternal life, but it also a life that can have physical traits that will be improved, enhanced and much advanced beyond the physical limitations we have today.  As one Christian physics scholar, John Polkinghorne has imagined, it must be something like when you get a new computer and you save the software to load it into all new hardware.  If we, being human,  can already imagine something like this with machines, just try to imagine what God has in store for those of who will be translated and transformed into the life of God’s son.  Science is already capable of raising up new and improved animals, cloned from the ancient past.  Interestingly this work is called, “Project Resurrection.”  Now, where do you think scientists got this idea.   It is a great project, but even as great as it is, it still imperfectly and insufficently mirrors what God is preparing when he makes ‘all things new’!.

WHEN HE IS REVEALEDExactly how this transformation happens is still hidden ‘with Christ’ just like the when is hidden ‘with God’.  The closest biblical answer we have to when this, the greatest of all transformations will happen was described by Paul in his very first biblical letter that was written to the Thessalonians. He was trying to bring comfort to those who had lost loved ones and wrote:   “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died”…(4:14)…. 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.” (4:16). 

Clearly, what Paul envisioned echoes what Jesus expressed as it came from the Book of Daniel and from other Jewish expectations current in his day. The dead are kept with God until they are called to rise at the end of time and history.   Jesus answered more precisely the ‘when’ of this resurrection when he spoke directly of the ‘eternal life’ only the Father gives:  “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”  (Jn. 5:25 NRS).   Did you catch the ‘now’ in Christ’s voice?    The ‘hour’ is both ‘coming’ and is also ‘now is’.   What does Jesus mean by this? 

Jesus means that beyond this life there is no time, only now, ‘the eternal now’ (Paul Tillich), so that when we die, we see him, and become like him to be immediately resurrected into God’s new world.  This is what NT Wright calls ‘Life After Life After Death’, but is misleading, because after death there is only life.  In the coming resurrection when God gives us all spiritual bodies we are all either raised or changed to live, to serve, and to reign with Christ in his kingdom in the world to come.  We will have new bodies, to live in a new world, transform from this one, without sin, without evil, and without death, but with more freedom, with more possibilities, and filled with God’s eternal light of redeeming love.

So, God’s promise of resurrection for our bodies ought to do more than think, rejoice, or be comforted.  John finally says, “…All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 Jn. 3:3 NRS).  Here, John does not just mean that we should live hopefully, but we should already begin to be changed now,  as we live the rest of our lives in hope of what is still to come.  

Tim Keller, a Presbyterian minister in New York says “Imagine two different people who have the exact same job. They work in the same place. They have the same job description, situation, and conditions.  It’s monotonous, boring work, with no possible chance of promotion. They are both in the same jobs until they retire.

However, the first person is told that at the end of his career he will be paid a bonus of $15,000. The second person is told that when he retires, his bonus will be $15,000,000.
So they both go to work, but what happens?  They face the same situations very differently. They are basically the same people, but before long the first person is saying, “I can't bear this. It's too much.” The second person is saying, “I can take this, it's worth it. Boring, but I can handle it.   Difficult people, no problem. It's worth it.”  The first person says, “It's too much.” The second person says, “No problem.”   Why? It has nothing to do with the present. It has everything to do with the future that breaks into the difficult ‘now’ of their lives—changing them, encouraging them, and making all things look different, even now.  The one who lives in hope, lives completely influenced by the promise of hope.

Now this is a very materialistic and earthy example, but the principle is still true. When you have great hope you can face anything, and your life is changed, even before it is changed.  Do you have such hope? The faith of the church, the Apostle’s Creed is faith that should already give you and me the greatest hope---hope of life eternal through Jesus Christ.   Amen