Hope in the Face of Death

Here is my sermon from this morning on the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:17-44 and Paul’s words about Jesus’ return in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. I hope it encourages you.

Here is the text of the sermon, if you’d prefer to read it:

It was filmmaker Woody Allen who once famously said: “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Much truth is spoken in jest. And of course the truth is that human beings have a 100% mortality rate. We all face the reality of death, both our own and that of our loved ones. With respect to our own death, we will be there when it happens.

Yet many choose not to face this reality or give it any consideration. Death means loss which means grief and pain. None of us wants to deal with this stuff if we have the option. People have a lot of fears and anxieties around death. And understandably so.

And yet our story from John’s Gospel—the story of the death and the raising of Lazarus—confronts us with this reality. How do we handle death and dying, even the mere specter of it? When we experience this most profound loss, how do we grieve? And what does it mean to live with the hope that death is not the end?

“Lord, if you had been here . . .”

You may not have realized when we were reading the passage from John’s Gospel that right before where we started we’re told that Jesus delayed his trip to Bethany. He knew Lazarus was deathly ill. He knew he could heal Lazarus. But he didn’t. He waited. In fact, he waited for Lazarus to die.

And when Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, he is met by Lazarus’s two sisters, first by Martha and then by Mary. Both of them utter the same words when they first see Jesus: Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.

Think of those words: Lord, if you had been here. How often have we or someone we know prayed or thought very similar words? When someone we love dearly is very sick and perhaps even dying, don’t most of us want God to reverse the situation?

Because, you see, Martha and Mary knew Jesus had the power to heal. Even if they couldn’t fathom how, they knew that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Jesus could have prevented his death. Why didn’t he?

It’s because he had something else in mind. Before going to Bethany, Jesus told his disciples: This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. And then a little later he says: Lazarus has died. I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there so that you may believe.

Jesus wanted them to know that not only did he have power over sickness but that he had power over death.

Indeed, when Martha is talking with Jesus she says: I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you. Her beloved brother has died. She knows Jesus could have stopped it. But then she seems to suggest that she thinks perhaps Jesus can still do something.

And then Jesus says to her Your brother will rise again. And she replies: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Martha believes that death isn’t the ultimate end.

And now we get to the theological heart of the story. It’s here that we see one of Jesus’ most well-known “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John: I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. And then he asks her: Do you believe this?

So what is Jesus claiming here? What is he saying? Jesus is explicitly connecting any hope of eternal life, of a life beyond death, to his very person. If there is hope of resurrection, of life beyond our physical death in this world, it is through him. It is because of who he is. Not only is there resurrection, but Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  He is the one who can give us life beyond death.

And this is why Jesus waited for Lazarus to die. Not because he was uncaring. Not because he didn’t want Lazarus to get better. Not because he was insensitive to the grief of Mary and Martha. And not because he isn’t ever going to heal someone of an illness. But because he wanted to demonstrate something infinitely more profound, more important, and more earth-shattering: that because of him, death no longer has a hold on us. That when we are united to Christ in faith, we can be confident of our resurrection.

Having hope in the face of death means trusting that Jesus has power over death.

“Lazarus, come out!”

Now some of the others who were ask: Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying? Their words very much echo the words of Martha and Mary.

Here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t so much interested in postponing death by healing people as he is in eliminating death as a reality altogether. And that’s what’s going on in the story of Lazarus.

And so Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb and to have the stone removed. At this point Lazarus has been dead for four days. There is no doubt as to his condition. Martha even points out that removing the stone will mean noticing the stench of death in the tomb.

Still, Jesus insists. And he says to her: Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?

Sometimes it’s one thing to believe in something abstractly. I believe that I will experience a bodily resurrection in the future. I can’t, however, even begin to imagine what such an experience is going to be like. It seems afar off and far removed from my present everyday experience.

Martha speaks of the resurrection at the last day. She speaks of something in the future. But Jesus wants to give her, her sister Mary, his disciples, and anyone else who is present a taste of what’s in store, a glimpse into the power and glory of God now.

The stone is removed. And Jesus, standing before the open tomb, lifts his face to heaven and prays: Father, I thank you that you heard me. I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this so that they may believe you sent me.

In other words, Jesus wants us to believe in him so that we can have hope in the face of death. This is the reason he waited for Lazarus to die: to demonstrate his power over death.

And look what he does. We’re told that he shouted with a loud voice. He speaks with authority. He speaks knowing what’s going to happen. He speaks with power. Jesus’ words make things happen.

And here Jesus is also foreshadowing what will happen on the last day. Remember how Paul describes Christ’s return? For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout. And what does he shout? Lazarus, come out! And what happens? The dead man came out. He who was dead was now alive again. Jesus tells them: Unwrap him and let him go.

And while Lazarus wasn’t raised to eternal life at this time, his coming back to life was a sign of what Jesus would one day for all who believe in him. And one day he will shout these same words except with our names. He will look squarely at my grave and shout, “Derek, come out!” And he will do the same with you (and you and you . . .).

Having hope in the face of death means trusting that Christ will one day reverse our death, raise us from the grave, and usher us into his kingdom.

“Jesus wept”

And, you see, this is why what Paul says in our passage from 1 Thessalonians is so important for us as Christians today. Paul was speaking to Christians who were wondering what was going to happen to their fellow Christians who died before Jesus’ return. He wanted to assure them that Christ would raise the dead upon his return and that those who believed in the Lord would be with him forever.

This is why, therefore, he says: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.

Notice that he assumes Christians still grieve. We still experience sorrow and sadness when someone we love dies. Loss is painful even for the believer. At the same time, we do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.

Consider Jesus himself in this story. Did he not know from the outset what the conclusion was going to be? He had waited for Lazarus to die because he knew he was going to raise him from death. And yet it’s in this story that we have the shortest verse in all of the Bible. Do you know what it is? Jesus wept.

Jesus, who was going to summon Lazarus from the tomb, wept. Jesus, God in flesh and blood, cried. He shared in Martha and Mary’s grief. Lazarus was also his friend. And no doubt Jesus wept because suffering, grief, and death are all enemy invaders in God’s good creation. Jesus felt the weight of all of this.

I think this is important. Because when we find ourselves grieving, God shares our grief. We have a Savior who understands grief. Who has experienced it. In Jesus, God identifies with us when we grieve. And when we find ourselves dealing with the pain of loss, Jesus promises to be right there with us.

Having hope in the face of death means having a Savior who is with us when we grieve and who promises that our grief is not the end of the story.

In our passage from 1 Thessalonians, after he speaks about Jesus’ return and resurrection, Paul says this: Therefore encourage one another with these words.

One of the ways in which we experience the presence of Jesus in times of grief is through the comforting presence of other believers. Romans 12:15 tells us to weep with those who weep, knowing that one day all weeping will come to an end. We don’t always know what to say or when to say it. But through our loving and supportive presence we both embody the hope we have in Christ and perhaps open up the door speak of our hope with gentleness and grace. So, yes, we most certainly grieve, but we do so with hope.

Conclusion

Here’s the thing: hope is not wishful thinking. It’s not crossing our fingers and hoping that we and our loved ones go to a “better place” when we die. I’ve officiated funerals where family members have said something along the lines of “I hope so and so is in a better place.” And, frankly, it can be awkward, especially if I didn’t know the deceased. More to the point, the kind of hope they’re expressing is much more a wishful thinking. This is not Christian hope.

The Christian hope is the firm conviction that because Jesus is the resurrection and the life that death is not the end we can live forever with God in his kingdom. But only with Jesus can we have this hope. Apart from Christ, there is no hope of eternal life.

This means, by the way, that what we believe about Jesus and our relationship with Jesus is the most important thing about us. And what our loved ones, neighbours, coworkers, and classmates believe about Jesus is also what’s most important about them.

I remember early on in my ministry in Nerepis having the privilege of leading a woman to Christ on her deathbed when visiting her in the hospital. We should be having those conversations long before then, not least because we don’t always have the opportunity to speak to someone on their deathbed. Such conversations need to be bathed in prayer. At our weekly prayer meeting, Allen almost always reminds us to pray for our unsaved loved ones.

We need to pray—and to pray sincerely, earnestly, and perhaps sometimes even with tears—for loved ones we know who do not yet have Christ as their hope. Because death is a guarantee; eternal life in the presence of God is not.

And so having hope in the face of death always means sharing our hope with those who do not have it. This hope is Christ. It is Christ that we are called to share with others. It is Christ we cling to in our times of grief. It is Christ we share when comforting others in their grief. Because it is Christ who has defeated death. Because it is Christ who, as the psalmist says, reveals the path of life and in whose presence is the fullness of joy.

Living Now with Eternity in Mind#1: Living with Hope

This is the first of a series of sermons I preached a number of years ago on 1 Peter. Looking at my files, I realized that some are missing. It’s possible that some are missing because my laptop wasn’t working and in for repairs and therefore prepared my notes by hand. So I will post the ones I have that (I think) are worth sharing over the next several days. I hope that they bless and encourage you.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ:
To those chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient and to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ.
May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. You are being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith—more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who prophesied about the grace that would come to you, searched and carefully investigated. They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified in advance to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you. These things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—angels long to catch a glimpse of these things.

1 Peter 1:1-12

What is hope? To answer that question, let me ask another one: do you like getting something in the mail? Or have you ever opened your mailbox just hoping that maybe—just maybe—there’s something in it for you? Now, here’s the thing. This can happen in two ways. I can just go to my mailbox hoping that maybe there’s something there for me. Maybe somebody sent me a surprise. Usually I’m disappointed! But there’s another way this can happen. There’s that feeling I get when I’ve placed an order with Amazon and I’m waiting for it to arrive. So I know something’s coming. Usually books. Unless something goes wrong with the order or with Canada Post, I can be sure there is something on its way to my mailbox.  So what is hope? Is hope going to my mailbox and not knowing if something is there or not but wishing there will be? Or is hope like waiting for an Amazon order that is definitely on its way? We often use the word “hope” in the first sense. What might it mean to have hope in the second sense? What difference might that make?

You know, in our world, people need hope. Hope beyond their circumstances. Hope beyond our flawed and often disappointing political leaders. Hope beyond cancer and other sicknesses. We need hope. Jeff Goins writes: “As humans, we need hope. We can’t live without it. It is the lifeblood to our spiritual survival, and the only thing that pulls us out of the deep trenches of the pain and hurt of life.” And whether we realize it or not, we all put our hope in something. So it’s not a question of whether or not we have hope—but where does our hope come from? What is our hope in?

1 Peter tells us much about hope. Our passage begins with Peter telling his readers that God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He calls it a living hope. What does this mean? In the Ashbury Bible Commentary, it says: “Those who are reborn have a hope that animates their present lives . . . rebirth equips Christians with the ability to see all of life in the light of the glory to be revealed when Christ returns.” The hope we have should change the way we live—and really be a living hope.

What we hope for changes how we live. Our hope represents how our beliefs about our future impacts our present. When I was growing up my mother would sometimes enter these Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes contests. Other people play the lottery or gamble in other ways. Now, I realize that not everyone who plays these games puts all of their hope in winning, but what of those who do? How does that affect the way they live in the present?

In our passage, there are many things that show Peter was pointing his readers to the future: He mentions a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. The last time here means exactly that. He talks about the revelation of Jesus Christ. When Peter speaks of this, he means when Jesus is finally and fully revealed in all his glory at the last time. He tells them about the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. And, yes, we can be saved now. But we will receive the fullness of our salvation only at the last time. Even the OT prophets who prophesied about the Messiah did so with the future in mind and therefore in hope. He says about the prophets: It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you.

But as he talks about hope, he does so with confidence. This isn’t wishful thinking. And Peter wants believers in Asia Minor to have a confident hope because they were living in the Roman Empire in difficult circumstances. They couldn’t trust that their circumstances would necessarily get better. But they could trust that whatever their circumstances, God has something more in mind for their future.

Let’s put it this way: Living with hope means having confidence in our future. How many people experience hopelessness? How many people feel trapped in their present circumstances unable to see a way out? How many people really don’t think there is good in their future? They feel like having confidence that things could get better is impossible, maybe even laughable.

For Peter’s readers—and for us—to live now with eternity in mind means to believe that God will one day vindicate those who trust in him. Even though his readers were being ostracized in the present, it would not always be that way. Hope in our future gives us freedom in the present. To think about it in terms of identity, as we talked about last week, we’re invited and called to be hopeful people.

What is the difference between wishful thinking and hope? When we have confidence in our future, how does that help us live in the present?How would you describe your hope to someone else? Is yours a confident hope? Why or why not?

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem suggests to us that hope—genuine hope—isn’t conditioned by our circumstances but is real regardless of circumstances. It perches in the soul, sings the tune, and never stops at all. Hope is something we need in difficult circumstances that arise because of our commitment to Jesus. Peter’s readers were experiencing difficult circumstances. They were outcasts in their community. Suffering is a major theme of this letter.

And in our passage, Peter refers to this when he says in verses 6—7: In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

Peter’s readers—the believers in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia—need hope because, as he says, they have been grieved by various trials. But he seeks to help to put their trials in context. He wants them to see their trials as evidence that God is up to something in their lives. This is a test of your faith, he says. It will result in praise, glory, and honor, he tells them. Because such trials can be discouraging, he wants to encourage them with words of hope. Peter was calling his readers to stick to their faith until the end.

You might have noticed that postage stamps keep getting more expensive. But at least they have one quality that most of us could stand to imitate: they stick to one thing until they get there. We call that perseverance. We’re called to do likewise: to stick to one thing until we get there! And it our confident hope in the future God has for us that makes this possible. When you have a confident hope that God has a good future in store for you, it becomes possible to persevere—to stick with it—until that future comes to pass.

Listen to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:3—5: Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

To put it another way, suffering is the context for hope. Or in other words, living with hope enables us to persevere during suffering.Why is hope important to you? What helps us become more and more like postage stamps, to stick with it until we get there? How might having hope enable you to deal with times of suffering? What are some ways people around you need hope? Can you share your hope with them?

When I married my wife and we were about to move out of her parents’ house, her Dad told me, “When you married her, you married everything she owns.” And her parents more or less let us know that this would pretty much be all we get for an inheritance! And when my mother died, there was no inheritance waiting for me.

Our passage talks about an inheritance. Peter describes it this way: an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. It is this inheritance that we are invited to hope for, Peter says. And so, the natural question is this: what is this inheritance and how can we get it?

Peter tells us that God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And it’s being born again that secures our inheritance. And being born again is what happens when we come to faith in Jesus. And all of this—every little bit of it—is possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Our hope is based on the actual, historical, and physical resurrection from the dead of the person of Jesus. His resurrection tells us that this life—one often filled with trials and difficulties and suffering—is not all there is. His resurrection tells us that God has a better story in mind for us. His resurrection is what gives us hope.

In his discussion about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . [and] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. Our inheritance is resurrection like Jesus. Living with hope is only possible because of Jesus and his resurrection. Apart from Christ, we have no hope. Apart from Christ, all we have is wishful thinking. What does it mean that God has an inheritance in store for us? How do we receive this inheritance?Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Why is his resurrection so important?What are you hoping for? What gives you hope? Is your hope in Jesus and his resurrection?

No One “Goes” to Heaven: Redux

Below is my sermon from this past Sunday, which in turn is based on an earlier blog post.

I must warn you, if you listen to it you will hear a barking dog. There is, however, no theological significance to the barking dog. You see, during our current COVID lockdown my family and I provide what we call “Homemade Worship” live on YouTube from our living room.

And so not only are my wife and kids sitting in the living room while I preach (facing a laptop screen), so are our dogs. Usually, they are quiet (because of strategically given dog treats). On occasion, however, they make themselves known. In this instance, I deftly maintained my composure.

To that end, here is a verse out of context: Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table (Matthew 15:27).

No One “Goes” to Heaven

Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.

N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

Now that I have your attention with the title of my post, let me explain.

In Western culture, talk of what happens when someone dies usually has to do with whether or not such and such a person will “go” to heaven. Often what gets the most attention in these conversations is who gets to go to heaven and why. Is so and so good enough? Did they live an admirable enough life? Or to make it more personal still, will my good deeds outweigh my bad deeds?

And, yes, these kinds of mathematical attempts to g the likelihood of our getting into heaven need definite correction. The Bible certainly has a great deal to say on the matter. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to draw attention to other cultural misconceptions, some of which are also shared and perpetuated by well-intentioned Christians. You see, even Christians often have wrong ideas about the afterlife or what the Bible means by heaven and what we can expect to happen to us when we die.

The first point is this: no deceased person is presently in their final eternal resting place. Whatever else we say of heaven, no one is currently in what will be their final state.

A lot of people can sometimes talk as if a deceased loved one is in heaven right now. A popular euphemism is that the deceased individual is in “a better place.” Yet according to Scripture we also know that with the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus there will be a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and, only then, will people enter their eternal state.

I would have to say that, though it’s difficult to understand (because Scripture doesn’t unpack all of the details for us), believers who have died are present with the Lord and that until the resurrection on the Last Day, this is not a bodily existence. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:

So we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. In fact, we are confident, and we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:5-8

Paul here is contrasting our bodily existence in the present with what our experience will be like when we have died and are, as he says, away from the body. He can’t be speaking about our final state, however, because that state involves bodily resurrection. See, for instance, what Paul says in his great chapter on all things resurrection:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?”

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body . . . And just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

1 Corinthians 15:35, 42-44, 49

When a person places their faith in the person of Jesus, they are joined to him. Theologians call this union with Christ. And part of what this means is that we have both died with Christ and that we will also be raised like him too. So if Christ had a spiritual, resurrection body, so will believers joined to him when they are raised.

So in the passage from 2 Corinthians 5 he must be speaking about an intermediate state–one that is away from the body–that believers experience between death and their ultimate resurrection. I can’t see how else to make sense of what Scripture says.

This means that whatever else is true of people who have died in Christ, they are not currently experiencing what will be their final state: that of having a resurrected embodied existence like Jesus after he left the tomb. And, yet, Paul does say that people who have died in Christ are at home with the Lord. This means that somehow those who have died in Christ are in his presence now awaiting the final resurrection. To be with the Lord is what it means for a believer to be home. Those who are experiencing this intermediate state are experiencing comfort and peace and joy. But there is more to come. In fact, the best is yet to come.

My second point is this: heaven is not about some sort of eternal, incorporeal (non-bodily) existence. Though Paul speaks of being away from the body in 2 Corinthians 5, he is not speaking of what will be the final eternal state of believers.

When some people talk about heaven, they often talk as though our bodies have nothing to do with it. Instead, they conceive of it as some sort of weird, spiritual, ghostlike existence. Either that, or they conclude (altogether unbiblically, I might add) that people who have died, and perhaps were especially virtuous, get turned into angels. I think this in part because if they think someone can be in heaven in some final sense now, it is difficult to square that with the reality of a cremated or buried body. In other words, if when my Mother died in 2011 she went immediately to her final state of eternity, then it certainly can’t include her body which remains buried.

Might someone who has already died be given an altogether new, spiritual body entirely separate and distinct from their earthly and now deceased body? I don’t think so. And the reason I don’t think so is because of Jesus’ resurrection. His tomb was empty. His resurrected body bore the scars of crucifixion. There was continuity between Jesus’ pre-crucifixion body and his post-resurrection body. Resurrection is about transformation, not replacement. What was true of Jesus will also be true of those who are united to him in faith.

In any case, Scripture makes abundantly clear that whatever else we say of the final state of existence for those united to Christ, it will be a bodily existence. We will have arms and legs, fingers and toes, noses and ears. Jesus’ resurrection is an affirmation of the Genesis pronouncement over creation: God saw all that he had made, and it was very good indeed.

This brings us to the third point: those united to Christ don’t “go” to someplace called heaven; heaven and earth come together in the new creation. Heaven is not located up and away from earth. Heaven is where God’s presence is fully known and experienced. We’re not looking to escape earth; rather, we’re awaiting the renewal, restoration, and indeed, the resurrection not only of the earth but of the entire cosmos. Consider these words given to John on Patmos:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:Look, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new.”

Revelation 21:1-5

And the words of the prophet:

For I will create new heavens and a new earth;
the past events will not be remembered or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

And of the apostle Peter:

But based on his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

What we are invited to anticipate as believers is not being able to leave this world behind for a disembodied existence in some other heavenly location but rather a new heavens and new earth, where we will enjoy physical lives free of all that limits and destroys life on this side of eternity. It will be creation as God has always intended it to be, free from the stain of sin and disease and the curse of death.

Put simply, God will resurrect us and the rest of the creation he made. Pastor Tim Keller says this: “The resurrection of Christ assures us that God will redeem not just souls but bodies, and will bring about a new heavens and new earth.” And, dare I say, it will be very, very good.

And so the fourth and last important point (at least for this post): heaven is not simply about living forever but about living forever in the presence of our Creator. And this is not an incidental point. As we saw in Revelation 21, what we can look forward to with hope is that God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God.

The point is relationship, indeed, perfect fellowship, between human beings, all of creation, and the very One who gave everything existence in the first place. Shalom. Complete and total flourishing. No hint of trouble or tears. Not a whiff of sin or dysfunction.

The upshot of this is that, unlike what many in our culture would like to believe, only those who confess faith in the risen Lord Jesus will be able to participate in this new heavens and new earth. Consider the following words from famous preacher and pastor John Piper:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?

John Piper, God is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself

In other words, if you think you could enjoy heaven without God, then you will not be there. We cannot separate God and heaven. Where one is, so is the other. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that it is in being in the presence of God that the experience of heaven primarily consists. Or to put it another way: getting to heaven is not the goal; getting to God is. The apostle Peter expresses it this way:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.

1 Peter 3:18

So why did Jesus suffer, die, and rise? To bring us to heaven? No, to bring us to God, which is, in Christian terms, the precise same thing as heaven.

Now do you see what I mean when I say no one goes to heaven?

What do we do with all this, then?

The first thing is to stop thinking about heaven according to a false cultural narrative–one that affects people both inside and outside the church. Christians are called to be biblically minded, to have their thinking on these matters shaped by what Scripture actually says, not what we assume or wish it says.

Another takeaway is that the physical world–our bodies, the ground we walk on, the food we eat, the beauty we admire–is good. Inherently good. And one day it will be perfected and eternal. The so-called afterlife is not an afterlife after all. It is life as it was always supposed to be. It is not a consolation prize. It is the jackpot. Imagine the very best of this life brought to perfection. Contrary to what some think, we will not find ourselves bored in heaven.

Lastly, there is hope. With all that ravages our world, from the various forms of violence and dehumanization, disease and disaster, most of us long for a world without any of these things. We want to be free of pain. We don’t want to worry anymore. We want to know what real, lasting peace is like. We want our relationships to be healed of anger and regret.

And all of this is what God is going to accomplish by creating a new heavens and new earth, by making all things new. Indeed, this is what he began to do in raising Jesus from the dead. That was but the beginning, the utimate signpost to an available new reality which we can start to experience even now, but we can only fully experience on the other side of our resurrection. And to know that we will participate in this new reality, we need to acknowledge that it was indeed inaugurated through the empty tomb of Jesus. As he says in John 11:25–26, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

How do you answer Jesus’ question?

So, sure, no one “goes” to heaven. But doesn’t all this sound infinitely better?

Faith and Fear in a Time of COVID

I think it’s an obvious scriptural truth that even people of faith experience fear. Otherwise, why would Jesus (and other biblical writers) encourage us not to worry so frequently? Surely, if people of faith were never going to worry or find themselves facing fear, the Bible wouldn’t have to address it. Yet it does. All the time. And nowhere is this more true than with the very real, universal human fear of death.

Over the last year, I think COVID has brought many in our culture face to face with the realities of human mortality. And I say face to face for a reason. Because we’re all intellectually aware of death, even our own inevitable death. We know we will not live forever. Loved ones die. Celebrities and public figures we admire and follow die. Whether from accident, crime, or illness–death follows us at every turn. At the same time, we don’t necessarily live like this is true. We sequester suffering and death into nursing homes and hospitals and then only visit infrequently. No sooner do we become more acutely aware of the brevity of human existence then we quickly put it out of our minds. It’s too much to process. It’s too painful. Yet, whereas much of the time we are able to distract ourselves or avoid having to deal with the fact of physical suffering and death, this pandemic has torn away the facade of immortality.

And so, fear.

How else to explain people breaking down in hysterics on TikTok and other social media platforms over the failure of others to abide by all the guidelines and restrictions?

Whatever else we say about COVID, it has revealed what most people fear above all: death.

And so much so that this fear is–in various ways–the controlling factor in the lives of many. Though not only in a time of COVID.

Scripture is pretty clear on this. People are slaves to their fear of death. More importantly, this is the reason why God became flesh in the person of Christ. One biblical writer says it this way:

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Hebrews 2:14–15

Another translation of the second part of this verse says that people are like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death.

Jesus came into our world to free us from all this. Jesus, after all, calls himself the resurrection and the life.

Which brings us to what for some is an uncomfortable point. Even Christians–people who believe that Jesus has conquered death through his resurrection–can fear death. In some measure, we all do. If I say I have no fear of death, maybe that’s because I’ve never really had to contend with my own mortality except theoretically. Because I’m guessing that in the moment when I am face to face with the very possibilty of my own death, assuming I have the time to contemplate it at all, my knees might shake at least a little. I’m guessing maybe more than a little. And if I don’t, that will only be because of the grace of God. I can’t really know until that time arrives.

But the question we ask as people of faith is probably this: If I experience fear of death, does that mean I lack faith?

My answer might surprise you. Because it’s this: Yes. Because even apart from a fear of death, I lack faith. Even without a devastating health diagnosis, I lack faith. Even when life is all rainbows and happy songs, I lack faith. Even at my spiritual best, I lack faith. Simply put, we do not trust God as we should. We do not love God as much as we should. God is not our hope and peace to the degree he should be.

And that’s the case with anyone who confesses faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Anyone.

You lack faith. I lack faith. The Christian you’ve known and admired for years–maybe decades–lacks faith.

We all lack faith.

Do you get that? Am I making my point?

Otherwise, we’d somehow be spiritually perfect–complete in faith and trust–in this life. And while I have met many incredibly mature, faith-filled, and wise believers, I’ve never yet met a perfect one. Ever.

However, bear in mind that lacking faith or having imperfect faith doesn’t mean we are without faith. It doesn’t mean we are faithless. We need to get that too. We can have faith even when we experience fear. The latter doesn’t completely cancel out the former. Often, on our darkest days the two live in tension.

So when we berate ourselves or feel guilt for experiencing fear, believing that somehow people of faith ought to be immune to fear, we’re making the mistake of thinking our trust in God can somehow be perfect, without fault or lack, on this side of eternity. And like I said, this is not even congruent with biblical teaching. Our guilt feelings also reveal we see God the same way, that we worry or feel he expects us to be fearless in the face of our mortality. “How disappointed he must be,” we think. Not only are we frustrated with our imperfect faith, we conclude God is too.

And if we think God is disappointed in us over our lack of faith, because when we find ourselves staring death in the face we’re afraid, what kind of effect is that going to have on our prayers, our faith, on our relationship with God? How likely are we to approach God in trust if we think our fear frustrates him? What kind of heart posture will we adopt in that moment? Is he our loving Father inviting us closer or our disappointed Father telling us to try harder?

Here’s the thing: God knows our fears. He constantly addresses our tendency to fall prey to it in the Scriptures he has graciously given to us. Do not be afraid. Don’t worry. Do not be anxious. He knows we can be fearful. But you know what? He loves us anyway. And he still chooses to meet us in our brokenness. In his mercy, he seeks to heal us rather than condemn us. In Jesus we meet a God who does not grow weary because our faith is often lacking. He doesn’t tire of us because of our failure to trust him fully. Instead, he invites us deeper in. He literally and figuratively condescends to us.

Recently, well-known pastor and author Tim Keller wrote an article for The Atlantic called “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the spring of 2020, he writes “as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day.” Even Keller, a renowned Christian leader, found himself wrestling with doubt and fear in the face of death. In a later interview with Russell Moore on his podcast Signposts, he spoke about his experience and what he has learned through it. You can see that interview here. It’s worth a watch.

But the one thing Keller said in the interview that I want to point out here and now is this: If Jesus was really raised from the dead, then ultimately everything is going to be ok. Keller then commented that there is nothing that could convince him otherwise at this point in his life. If Jesus was raised, then we’re going to be fine. And that on the other side of eternity because there will be no pain and death, there will be nothing at all to fear.

So what do we do? Well, we can ask that God would increase and grow our faith. We can ask that God would help us to trust him more and more. That he would help us to be unafraid when difficult moments come our way. That a vision of who Jesus is–as the one who defeats death–would gradually overtake our fear. Certainly we should read Scripture over and over and over so that more and more of the truth of who God is sinks into our hearts and comes out in our prayers and lives.

And of course we never, ever, do this alone. Jesus calls us to a family of faith. He calls us to shoulder one another’s fears. He calls us to remind each other that he is the resurrection and the life. To say it over and over and over. Until we believe it, and believe it so much that it, and not our fears, becomes the determining force of our lives. Whether in a time of COVID or not. We will all die, but thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, we can also live–and that forever.

On that note, there’s no better way to end than with the apostle Paul’s own words on the matter:

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death.

1 Corinthians 15:21-26

A Profound Statement on Grief

What is grief, if not love persevering?

Vision, “WandaVision”

One of the things my son Eli (12 years old) and I love doing together is watching Marvel movies and now TV shows. One of the new Marvel TV shows is called WandaVision, and it follows what happens to the character of Wanda Maximoff after the events of Avengers: Endgame.

While movies and TV shows about super-heroes are not the most meaningful form of art, there are times when they tap into our hopes, fears, and longings quite effectively. WandaVision, while not a perfectly executed story, is largely about grief–and, in particular, how Wanda is processing her grief over a deeply wounding loss.

There was one quiet, character moment that struck me. I thought what the character of Vision said in that scene was so perceptive I made sure to remember it. He posed it as a question: “What is grief, but love persevering?”

Wow. That’s a profound statement.

Think about grief for a moment. It is something we all know and experience. Some more than others. None of us can escape having to deal with it. And we experience grief because we experience loss, most significantly the loss of someone we love. Our grief in the present is love on the other side of loss. Simply because someone we love has died doesn’t mean our love ends. For grief, like Vision says so insightfully, is simply love persevering.

Without giving spoilers, I will say that WandaVision ended on a note of hope that perhaps our grief will one day be undone. I don’t know what that means for the Marvel universe of super-heroes, but I do know that for those who believe in Jesus and his resurrection, such hope needn’t be mere fantasy but can be clung to like reality. So even though we grieve, we do not do so in despair. Instead, we cling to the words of the apostle Paul:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

My Resurrection Sunday Message

This morning during our Easter service, I shared the reflection below by Karl Vaters. I then shared some reflections of my own.

“The Gospel Of Failure (A Good Friday Reflection)” By Karl Vaters / April 1, 2021:

“The gospel was built on failure.

The good news started as very bad news.

It was never supposed to work. For a long time it looked like it never would.

It started with a young, pregnant, single girl in a backwater town too small to be mentioned in most ancient records.

She gave birth in a barn far away from home.

The most powerful man in the country tried to kill her baby.

Her people, the Jews, were ruled by an empire of such stunning strength and ferocity that a local governor could (and did) execute thousands on a whim.

They had

• no idols

• no monuments

• no army

• no right to try their own capital cases

• no power

Just a book – which told them about a deliverer.

But even that hope was fading.

Into this hopeless setting came yet another traveling preacher.

He spoke like a revolutionary. But he had no home and minimal, if any, formal education outside his local synagogue.

Yet he astonished his listeners with his intellect and wisdom from a very early age.

He had the wrong kinds of friends from the wrong sorts of places, including the women he relied on for much of his financial support (Luke 8:1-3).

Not only did Jesus’ own religious establishment not support him, they openly despised and opposed him.

His most reliable followers were so unruly that he had to break up a fight almost every time he came into their presence, then scold them for lack of faith.

They were so poor they had no money to pay their taxes.

The disciples never understood what their leader was trying to do.

His own brothers didn’t believe in him.

His enemies hated each other. But they hated Jesus so much more that they joined forces to kill him.

One of his closest followers sold him for a small bag of coins – silver, not even gold.

When he needed them the most, his friends fell asleep.

When they woke up, most of them ran for the hills.

One of the few who stayed nearby swore he’d never met him. Three times.

His trial was a farce, but his torture was real.

On the cross, he hung naked and bleeding. His flesh hung in strips from his barely-recognizable body.

As he died, Jesus didn’t just feel forsaken by God, he actually was forsaken by God.

Jesus’ life, ministry and message looked like a failure.

Until the resurrection.

That changed everything.

For you. For me. For everyone.

Forever.”

I love Karl Vaters’ reflection. The resurrection changed everything.

What about you this morning? What does Jesus’ resurrection change for you?

Are you trying to live on your own terms?

Are you resisting God’s call on your life?

Are you letting fear and worry control you?

Are you hiding from your need for forgiveness?

Are you trapped in feelings of guilt, failure, or shame?

Are you stuck in past hurts and mistakes?

What do you think God sees when he looks at you?

What do you think God wants for you?

And how does Jesus’ resurrection help us answer these questions?

What does the empty tomb mean for you and me now?

Most importantly: Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?

Let me put it this way.

Roughly 2,000 years ago a dead man walked out of a tomb.

And not just any man—a man who claimed to be God in the flesh.

And because he did, we can have hope.

Because he did, we can know we’re never alone.

Because he did, our wounds can be healed.

Because he did, this life doesn’t have to bear the weight of all our dreams.

Because he did, there is more to life—to being alive—than we can ever see.

Because he did, we don’t have to invent meaning and purpose for ourselves.

Because he did, our sins can be forgiven.

Because he did, our failures don’t have to end us.

Because he did, we can have a joy this world can never provide.

Because he did, we can have peace—with ourselves, with one another, and, most importantly, with God.

Because he did, we can have everlasting life. This is never all there is.

This day—Easter Sunday—we celebrate all of this. This day we celebrate that everyone can have hope.

Do you still need to put your hope in Jesus?

Do you need to have your hope in him strengthened and renewed?

Do you still need to confess Jesus as the risen Lord?

The question is: are you willing and ready to receive the life, the hope, and peace he is waiting to give?

Because he is alive. He is here. And he can give you peace in the present and hope for the future.

Living on Holy Saturday

It is Holy Saturday, the day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

It’s a day of waiting.

It’s a day when we anticipate new life.

It’s a day when we cry out to God to right the wrong.

It’s a day when we prayerfully entrust to God our deepest wounds, with the hope that he can and will heal.

We live much of our lives on Holy Saturday. That’s why we need to remind ourselves of the promise articulated by the psalmist:

The LORD is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

It’s why we turn the psalmist’s words into prayers like this one:

“God of compassion,
you regard the forsaken
and give hope to the crushed in spirit;
hear those who cry to you in distress
and bring your ransomed people to sing your glorious praise,
now and for ever. Amen.”

If this is a prayer that speaks to you, remember that Sunday is coming. Resurrection is near. And Jesus is with you. Always.

Living Our Holy Week

Today is Palm Sunday and is the beginning of Holy Week, that week in the church year where we acknowledge and celebrate Jesus’ journey to the cross and eventual resurrection. It is also the end of the Lenten season, a period of sacrifice, repentance, renunciation, and fasting.

When I think of Jesus during this time, I think about how he prayed in Gethsemane in great sorrow because of his impending suffering; how he was betrayed by a friend for 30 silver coins; how he underwent an unjust trial filled with false testimony yet didn’t defend himself; how he was mocked and beaten; and how he carried the same cross to Golgotha on which he would be publicly crucified.

This same Jesus forgave the thief crucified next to him; and forgave even those who took it upon themselves to put him to death and those who stood and jeered at the foot of the cross. And entrusted his mother to the apostle John. The night before this same Jesus washed the feet of his disciples who would desert him at his arrest.

I also think, of course, of the great Sunday morning reversal, when upon visiting Jesus’ tomb, the women found it empty. I think of the dismay and joy of the disciples when they experienced their risen Lord.

What do we make of all this? What do we do with it? How do we live because of it?

Our lives in this world as followers of Jesus are our version of Holy Week. We live on this side of resurrection and eternity. We experience sorrow, distress, betrayal, pain, unjust treatment, and eventually death.

Do I grieve with hopelessness? Do I try to get even with those who hurt me? Do I try to numb myself to the hurts of life? Do I live as though only this life matters?

Much of the world does.

Jesus certainly didn’t.

Luke 9:23-24 says:
Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it.”

We live through our Holy Week following in Jesus’ footsteps because that is the path to our resurrection. We die now to live forever later. We lose ourselves so that we might truly gain our lives. What feels now like dying and losing will eventually be reversed. Mourning will turn to dancing. Grief to joy. Death to life.

That’s the promise. That’s the hope. And that’s what Holy Week and indeed the whole Christian life is about.

Good Grief

Image

Probably few things hit us as hard as the death of a loved one. The painful absence of someone whose presence added joy and richness to our lives leaves a void no one and nothing else can fill. And while they say time heals all wounds, grief leaves us with scars that never seem to go away entirely. Next to breathing, losing someone we care about is probably the most common human experience. That commonality of shared suffering doesn’t always make it easier, however. While there is some comfort in knowing you’re not alone in what you’re going through, the pain can still be acute.

In our culture, death and dying are especially complicated realities to deal with because we are often so much farther removed from death than people in generations past. Life-expectancy is much higher thanks to improvements in medicine and health care. Each of us can anticipate a much longer life than our more recent ancestors. But this also means we all potentially experience a greater number of health issues. Indeed, the line between someone who is genuinely alive and someone who is not has become a thorny ethical conundrum that is only going to grow thornier in the future.

And thanks to our culture’s obsession with youth and the desire to escape the trappings of age, we have the tendency to cordon off those who remind us of our own mortality. Nursing homes and hospitals are filled with people who may not be terminally ill but who are elderly enough to need round the clock care immediate family is either unable or unwilling to provide. Seeing once vibrant family members and friends succumb to diseases and conditions that rob us of who these people once were frightens us. Such experiences become a mirror into which we dare not gaze. Seeing them, we see ourselves. We see our future. We’d rather not look.

For those of who are Christians, handling issues surrounding death and dying, the suffering and loss of loved ones, isn’t necessarily any easier. Even believing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life doesn’t exempt us from grief. Indeed, when Jesus went to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, John’s Gospel tells us “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And Jesus wept even while knowing he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So when we lose someone to cancer or to aging or even to a seemingly meaningless accident, we also weep. We grieve. And when we’re brought face to face with the possibility of our own death, fear can become a storm that threatens to capsize the boat of faith.

Yet Scripture reminds us that even though we grieve, we do so as people of hope. The apostle Paul says as much to believers in the city of Thessalonica: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Our grief shares much with the grief others feel. Yet, there remains this tinge of hope, of knowing that new life emerges from the tomb for those who know Jesus as the resurrection and the life. Like Jesus tells Lazarus’ sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25—25). Then Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe?”

But in the meantime, we comfort one another. We encourage one another. We weep with those who weep. But we weep as people who know the grave cannot hold us, who know that, thanks to Jesus, the last enemy—death—has been defeated. And this is no small thing; in fact, this is everything.

Trying to think about this in a practical way, as a pastor I struggle with how to counsel and help believers whose grief is so great that it keeps them from living life. For instance, imagine trying to worship with hope in the same place where the funeral for your son or mother or wife was held. There’s no way this would be easy. It’s like returning to the scene of a traumatic experience. Associations abound. Everything is a reminder of who you’ve lost. No longer a safe refuge, it is instead a symbol of what we’re seeking refuge from.

What’s difficult is that it’s possible to reach a point where what we once did as a means of dealing with our loss becomes an obstacle to healthy grieving. In other words, we might be avoiding the very thing that may help us on the road to healing. Not to say that wounds of loss ever heal completely; scars will always be there. There is a kind of healing to be found, however. The mourning can turn to rejoicing once again. But it might mean having to disinfect the wound of loss, and this process can also be painful.

Sometimes we cling to our grief as means of honouring the one we’ve lost. We desperately want there to be meaning in the face of such suffering. If nothing else, our ongoing grieving shows that this person meant something to someone. Relaxing our grip on grief feels like we’re doing the deceased a disservice.

Sometimes we’re afraid of forgetting the pain because it seems to mean losing why someone meant so much to us. When pain over loss is an indicator of the depth of our love for the person in question, letting go is unimaginable. Moving on because “life must go on” seems to trivialize our pain and our love.

Maybe this is what provides content to the notion of grieving with hope. If we refuse to face the possibility of healing, if we allow our pain and grief to continue to define us, then hope is simply a future reality, not one that has any real power in the present. Hope is only about eternal life, not about how we live now even when facing loss. We take comfort in the notion that the person we love is with God and that one day we will see them again, but the shelter we hide in now is not God himself and the hope he provides but our grief.

What concerns me, therefore, is when our grief overshadows our hope. And certainly there are a myriad of interconnected things to consider in dealing with loss even from a Christian perspective. But even believers who have suffered loss are still called to worship God, follow Jesus, and allow the Holy Spirit to shape them and use them. If our faith cannot survive such pain, our hope is insubstantial.

One of the things churches perhaps fail to do is to allow people genuine space for grieving. Mourning used to be something of a public reality. Widows would wear black for a period of time. But like death, we want grief to be hidden. We’re largely uncomfortable with pain, death, and grief. Such realities disturb how we want our lives to be. There is the sense that when coming to church we all have to be happy and put smiles on. We even offer theological rationales for such attitudes. We’re called to express the joy of the Lord. We’re called to offer praises and thanksgiving. Church is only an hour a week, after all, and we don’t want it to be a downer.

You see, the truth is God can take our anger, our pain, our cries, and our incomprehension. Church worship ought to be—at least in part—a safe place to express and deal with our pain: the pain of loss, of suffering, of grief. The Psalms are filled with lament over pain and struggle, over loss and confusion, over God’s apparent absence to those who are in “the valley of the shadow of death.” If our hymns and gospel songs and church experiences don’t give us opportunity to work through our pain in a way that genuinely reflects the good news of Jesus, we may end up with a lot of people who feel as though God has nothing to say to people in such circumstances. There will be this dissonance in their experience between what the gospel says and what they’re going through. Dissonance will lead to disconnection and a distancing from the church—and the people in question may not even consciously understand why.

I’ve noticed a trend in recent years. There seems to be a decrease in the number of funerals. I say this with only anecdotal evidence, but more and more it seems that fewer and fewer families are having funerals for loved ones. There might be a brief memorial service. And even that might be a family-only affair. Or there might be nothing at all. To the extent that this is so, it strikes me as potentially unhealthy. Grief is an experience that we have to process. And we need community support to do so.

Certainly the church ought to be a place where people can find help and support during this process. The freedom to continue praising God, even if through tears of sorrow, may be the healing balm many hurting people need but are unable to find elsewhere. Real hope, steadfast hope, hope that Jesus is the resurrection and the life can and should be a real experience even for those whose grief is deep and profound. After all, if even Jesus—who is himself the resurrection and the life—wept at the loss of a loved one, surely we should be able to do so in his presence. I have no doubt that is the place where our hope comes alive.

[Note: This will likely be the last post until late August or early September. That’s why I’ve posted a couple of reflections today. One of today’s posts has been recycled from an older article in a local paper; the other is one I’ve been working on for a few days. This second one (on grief) is longer than others are and I wasn’t even sure I would post it. But it seemed to come together well enough. As always, feel free to comment on any of the posts. Feedback, particularly thoughtful feedback, is  welcome.]