Tag Archives: hope

Dealing with death.

Remembering the dead – it might seem an occupation for the bereaved, and the military, but in fact it may be important for all of us, and for the way we live. On the one hand, we live with modern medicine removing so many of the threats of early death (TB, typhoid, cholera . ) and in a time of peace (at least in Europe). On the other, the news reminds us of those who value life little, and sometimes lose it – on the roads, in fights with knives or guns, by self-destruction with drugs or alcohol.

Paul wants those in Thessalonica to understand “the truth about those who have died” (that’s verse 13 of today’s reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Perhaps he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and when some of the congregation died, they thought they might have missed it.

At any rate, he is clear that the Christian reaction to death is very different to classical fatalism (or contemporary attitudes). Since Jesus died, and rose from the dead, believers can look forward, even at death, to resurrection. (He is not talking here of those outside Christian faith – there are other places in the New Testament which suggest for them both justice and mercy in judgement, which involves some not gaining heaven – but this is the hope for Christians). There is to be no fatalism, no imagining that all ends with life on earth. Nor is death an escape from justice.

He goes on to describe how, on the last day, Jesus will return, and his faithful followers – both those still alive at that time, and those who had died – will all meet him and stay with him. It is a picture of heaven worth reflecting on – does the thought of an eternity with Jesus appeal to you? When I was a child the thought of endless church services was not one I liked at all! Now I see the challenge more in being fully known for what I am – no secrets, no self-deception. Again, you may feel that being gathered up in the clouds is a bit primitive. See it rather as a place of power (a storm contains much more energy than a nuclear reactor), a place we cannot go without help – so a new order.

So Paul tells these Christians that those of their number who have died will not miss out, because Jesus resurrection means a future beyond the grave. He tells them to encourage one another with this. That, surely, is part of the point for us. Our attitude to death will affect our attitude to life. Socially and culturally we don’t handle death well. Better medicine and smaller families mean less familiarity with bereavement. That’s good, but we have lost the ways of expressing grief, and sympathy, through rituals of mourning. We find it harder to help others to adjust to life without someone, and sometimes add our embarrassment to their burden.

Christians ought to do better. Let’s use the fact of Jesus resurrection to face our own deaths with hope, and encourage others to do the same. Facing death without fear, let’s recognise that life is to be lived with purpose. We are to serve. Perhaps the forces are helped by military discipline, but the Christian is not just to “follow orders”, but to follow Jesus, and find the purpose of our life in using gifts and opportunities in that service.

Of course death is still a shock, and for the young (in uniform or out of it) untimely and difficult. Some, in war, will have found identity and opportunity to serve in its fullest sense. Some, in peacetime life, will have learnt rapidly what they have to give, and given freely. Perhaps the loss of their early death is ours, not theirs.

Let the dead, whom we remember, remind us to live well: fully, and in the service of one worth serving. Let the living encourage one another with the Christian hope, as Paul reminded the Thessalonian church.

Bleak?

In Wales, we are half way through 2 weeks of Covid lockdown; England are just about to start 4 weeks of staying at home; other places also struggle. It is hard in many ways, and for once we share in difficult times.

Christians have to be realistic, and this is not an easy situation – but neither is it the full story. November 1st is often kept as All Saints day. Having survived Halloween, we turn to celebrate and give thanks for the less famous of God’s people. Revelation 7:9-17 is the fuller of the New Testament passages set for the day, and it has an encouraging picture to offer. Here is a picture of God’s kingdom, with much to celebrate and much to look forward to:

  • here is a crowd of people united. It’s not that they are alike: they are of many backgrounds, races, languages; but you might say they are singing from the same hymnsheet. They have a common purpose which makes their differences insignificant. Their focus is God, and together, happily, they worship
  • God is at the centre. Not because he insists it be so, nor because he is some sort of successful dictator. He is recognised for his love and faithfulness. This crowd know how he has healed, forgiven, and brought them together in a wonderful way which has given freedom, not taken it away.
  • And then there is the comfort and reassurance of the closing verses

and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

Revelation 7:15b-17

This is God’s kingdom, which we want to celebrate and live in. We start now, knowing that we haven’t got it all sorted, but that turning our backs on what is wrong and following Jesus is the way in, even when its not easy. Some of that crowd of saints had a hard time – so did Jesus – but the kingdom is worth it. Those promises are kept. That hope is realistic. That destination will not be in lockdown. Join the celebration, enjoy the view, keep on until arrival.

The God who smiles First

We have many different pictures of God. Sometimes they give stern suggestions of the never-satisfied perfectionist; sometimes they are more tolerant of failure, even expecting our poor performance. Too often they reflect nothing more than our human experience, and the feeling that “you get out what you put in”. But we want – need – more than our imaginings, based as they often are on our experience growing up.

Through this summer in the Revised Common Lectionary, we shall be reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, starting from chapter 5. (Today we read Romans 5:1-8). Romans has had a profound effect on many Christians through the ages, perhaps because it was written to a church Paul had not started, and gives a more systematic account of his belief and life.

At any rate, Romans 5:8 gives us a clear view of God

“While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Romans 5:8

Whatever our background suggests God might, or even should be, here is fact. The Christian God is the God who smiles first. Not waiting for us to be ready, or make an effort, Jesus comes to earth and dies for us. It is the most generous welcome to a new life – but without force. The offer is there. It remains open. But it can be accepted or declined.

The Christians in Rome already had some idea of this, and also knew that the Christian life with God was not entirely easy. Free of guilt and confident of being loved, they faced all the ordinary difficulties of life, and the threat of persecution as well. Paul won’t let them be depressed about that:

“we also glory in our sufferings”

Romans 5:3

Hard to justify? Well, read on. These Christians are not just those rescued from danger, as if to remain feeble and traumatised. They are being grown into strong disciples, to share hope and love. The Christian picture of God is of a God who smiles first, and with good reason.

The Ideal Lifestyle

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Some years ago David Atkinson pointed out that many people half believe the myths about the problem-free lives of “ideal” people, which does not help at all in facing problems. We all face problems, and many involve fear.

Peter tells us (in our reading of 1 Peter 3:13-22), ““Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”, which might sound like wishful thinking. But he gives a reason: “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord”. If Jesus is Lord, there is no need to fear anyone else. (Peter means it – he is talking to those facing persecution). It is part of the Easter message. Jesus has faced everything, and won! Since he is Lord of all, if you serve him, there is nothing to fear.

That does not mean you will lead a charmed life. V 17 “ For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.” Suffering may come, but cannot take away the really important things, so don’t worry about it.

Why do good people suffer? God knows, but it happened to Jesus, and many others, and sometimes that is how the gospel spreads. V15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”. Christians had, and have, a great impact. Arguably that comes more from simple believers sharing their faith, hope and love in difficult times than from learned arguments. Hopefully that is one of the things which will emerge from the coronavirus crisis. If Christians are known for being unafraid, practically helpful, but always gentle and respectful – that will get attention and raise questions, leading people to Jesus.

It is not about slogans, or advertising budgets, but a reality in our communities. Verses 19-22 might seem unclear, but Peter is talking about the commitment pledged in Baptism, and the grace of God which transforms people through the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

What sort of lifestyle would you really like? Have the myths of happiness in idle luxury, unconcerned with the world around, poisoned you? Or would you value a life without fear, experiencing the ups and downs, but in company with God’s family and travelling to a wonderful destination? Part of the Easter message is that the best lifestyle is yours for the asking.

If you know the truth behind “Jesus is Lord”, and claim it through baptism, then you have nothing to fear. Yes, you may still suffer (which threatens your comfort, not your security). And certainly you will be called on to explain your hope. But I think that gives most of us something to work on.

Now?

The shops are full, the advertisements loud and demanding: Have it! Have it all! Now. The glitz has an appeal, but on reflection, it is profoundly depressing. Is this all there is? Nothing beyond what you can buy and break? For Christians, the run up to Christmas needs a different view. Not “Christmas already”, but another anticipation.

Paul explains in Romans 15:4-13. HOPE. Not a vague and wistful imagining, but a looking forward to what is promised. It is the by steadfastness, and the encouragement of the scriptures, that we find that essential ingredient of purposeful life, so often missing in our culture. This hope comes from God, who intends us ” to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus” – which in itself is a blessing.

Hope, unlike so many consumer trophies, is something we can share, and share gladly. The story you know from Carol Services details creation, and human rebellion. But a loving God works patiently sending patriarchs, and prophets, looking to Christ, and then to his second coming. God has worked through the ages – he was the one explaining, preparing, looking forward in hope.

That may not be new, but remember it doesn’t stop! Scripture tells of the early Christians, looking forward in hope. They had not yet received all that had been promised. Which leaves us standing out; “Have it all, now?” No. THEN, yes. We are, still, people who look forward; who know that the promises are better than this, while enjoying what is good now, we wait expectantly for what will come.

Expectancy is important. In faith, in life, and in prayer. But especially in worship. If you expect very little – that is probably what you will get. If you are open to be reminded of God’s promises, to hear his plans and directions, to face your real needs – your hope of something good is likely to be well met.

All about suffering -?

There is also a Dialogue Sketch on Mark 1:9-15 here

What is done in church should not just be for the enjoyment of those who attend, but should glorify God by building up believers and communicating the gospel to others.  It’s a principle you find in 1 Corinthians 14, but a first look at this morning’s readings might not seem to be encouraging from the point of view of an outsider:

Such negative thoughts are hard, and might suggest doing something else, but that would be a sad mistake. Take 1 Peter 3:18-22, Christ suffered, but “the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” This is not miserable, negative suffering.  It is part of a battle to set us free. The God that Peter knows is a God who is ready to pay a great price, himself, for our redemption. He tells this to a group of people who obviously are not having an easy life – and it is good news for them, as it is for us.

The God he speaks of is the same God who in Genesis makes a promise – a covenant – to Noah. A promise which is to Noah’s advantage, for his security and reassurance. A promise which he has kept faithfully.

Yes, its the season of Lent. We think of Jesus going into the wilderness, not because he was the sort of person who could not enjoy himself, or who enjoyed suffering, but to get his ministry on the right track – to avoid mistakes and distractions.  If we review our own disciplines and rules of life, it is not for their own sake (as if they had an importance of their own), but to ask if our lives, our service of God, our ministry, is on the right track, avoiding mistakes and distractions.  Perhaps we need to do something more to prevent our life being self-centred?

This is a message of hope – something in short supply, and valuable as most scarce commodities are.  You won’t be thanked for hate, but hope is properly precious. (There is a Lent Study by CTBI, using prisoners’ stories of hope – see the website.)  Our hope is not in human nature, nor the beauty of creation, or the possibility of education.

Our hope is in God, who cares for us enough to plan our rescue, and to follow the plan through. That is not just for you (though it is – and that’s important) but for all.  If an outsider should join my group, or just get to know me, they should find a focus on God, and hope in his love and saving action.

– and that is the reason for us to train ourselves

to advertise and proclaim good news.

Reality

This Sunday we leave the sequence of readings from Matthew to read a strange story for 6th August (Luke 9:28-36) – 3 disciples seeing Jesus all lit up, and talking to 2 Old Testament characters from long before. What is it all about? Does it matter?

It starts before this of course with Peter recognising Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” (Luke 9:20). Messiah? – The promised King, the one who would put everything right, who would bring all God’s promises true!!!

It’s true. Jesus is that person – but it’s not going to work the way the disciples expect. The Great King will win his place by dying on a cross.  It’ll be a shock and a disappointment to the disciples, but they really need to know this is the best way – this is God’s plan. So a week later they see Jesus in heavenly glory, discussing his “departure” (the Greek is “Exodus”) with Moses and Elijah, representing all the Old Testament hopes and promises Jesus will fulfill. And to underline it, a heavenly voice says  “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” v35

They are not allowed to stay and enjoy the experience for long – they have to get back to the journey to Jerusalem, and the cross. Later, they will remember, and understand. [There is a point there about Christian experience. The nice ones are not for prolonging and repeating, but for preparing us for better service.]

Do you think this has anything for you?  Jesus is the Messiah / the Great King / the one bringing all God’s promises true!  We like that bit, and prefer to forget: Jesus wins by sacrifice. Only by allowing himself to be killed, and rising to life again, can he win. And he invites us to be his friends and followers, saying that some of the same things will happen to us. We may not always enjoy being Christian.  Doing the things we are told to do may be difficult, unpopular, and hard. But it is the way to get things right, the way we find God’s promises come true.

[I’m sure Peter could have imagined things turning out another way – and took time to understand it was not going to happen like that, and for good reason. We also need to understand that God has to be in charge].  I like to think I know better. It isn’t really like that, I don’t really need to . . . And I need to read this story again and listen to that heavenly voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

Rotten?

We seem to find it easy to point out what is going wrong.  Whether it is in the wider world, or locally to us, we know what we don’t like.  We complain, and gather people who make the same sort of complaints, but don’t often do anything positive.

Jesus will not let us get away with that.  “You are the salt of the earth . .” he says at the beginning of today’s gospel (Matthew 5:13-20).  Salt was vital when it preserved food – and Christians are still meant to stop things going rotten. They should, even in small amounts, prevent corruption and decay.  Of course salt is less popular in diets now, as Christian ideas seem to be in some parts of society.  We might want to moan about the cost – in broken families, or lives endangered by addictions, but again, Jesus won’t encourage moaning.  If we are to be salt, we have to preserve what is good.

“You are the light of the world . . ”  It is so much easier to criticise than to live a better way.  But that is our calling.  Be light, show the way, bring hope – not to make a personal reputation or build an ego, but to bring glory to God.  This is not easy reading, but an invitation to be part of the solution.

God has been working on that solution for a long time.  Jesus will build on Old Testament Law and prophecy – but will avoid some of the tradition that has build up around religion.  He is more faithful to God and the promises, yet heavily critical of those confident of their own goodness.  How can we hope to do better than those known for their devotion to “professional religion”? Only by knowing our need of forgiveness and grace.  “Religious observance” is not enough.  We have to let God do what we cannot – forgive, transform our motivation, make us part of the family together bringing light and hope.