Today we gather to remember with thanksgiving our loved ones who have died. Ever since we began this annual service at St. Margaret’s back in 2009 I have been amazed by the response to it, and by the number of people who choose to bring a carnation forward in memory of a loved one and to offer their name in remembrance and prayer. Obviously many of us have been touched by the sobering reality of death, and so it’s good for us today to pause for a few minutes, lift our loved ones up in prayer, and think about our Christian hope. As many of you will know, I have a special interest in this service this year, as my own father died on August 12th; I preached at his funeral on September 3rd, and since then I’ve found myself reflecting often on his life and death, and on this subject of our Christian hope.
What do I mean by this phrase ‘Christian hope’? Well, it’s expressed in some words of a prayer I’ve often used at the graveside after a funeral service: ‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister or brother’.
‘In sure and certain hope’. The word ‘hope’ has a different meaning in the Bible than it does in popular culture today. If I were to say to you, “I hope it doesn’t get too cold during the night tonight”, you’d know exactly what I meant: “It would be nice if this happened, but it might not”. In other words, there’s no certainty about hope (as we understand the word in the modern world, that is); we’re expressing a wish about the future, but we know our wishes don’t always come true.
But when the Bible uses the word ‘hope’, it’s talking about something different. ‘Christian hope’, in the Bible, means the future that God has promised, for the world and for us as individuals. We look around us now and see a world in which bad things happen to good people, in which people are oppressed and exploited and in which they die of deadly diseases. But the Bible promises us that things are not always going to be this way.
This is especially relevant for us in this service today. In many cases, our loved ones suffered a lot before they died, and as we get older and we approach our own death, many of us are going to suffer too. Is that the end of the story? Does human life inevitably end in pain and suffering, with no relief except extinction? Or is there a better hope, a better future, something that God has promised and that we can look forward to?
I want to share with you this morning some words from the Book of Revelation. They tell us of a time in the future when the wounds of the world will be healed, when God’s perfect will is done on earth as in heaven, and when God’s people will share with him in eternal joy. These things are all far beyond our ability to understand, so John the author of Revelation gives us three images to try to help us grasp what God is saying to us. Listen as I read from Revelation 21:1-5:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.He will dwell with them;they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them;he will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.’And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
So let’s think about the three images that John uses here. The first is the image of the new Jerusalem. Verse 2 says ‘I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. What does this mean?
Artists often experience difficulty translating the glorious picture they can see in their imagination onto the actual page in front of them; they often finish the painting, step back and say “No - that’s not the way I wanted it to look!” And the same can happen with human communities; we have a picture in our mind of what good community life should be like, but the reality doesn’t quite live up to our ideal. Even the most wonderful communities are still marred by human selfishness and sin, and of course by other evils beyond our control. And the same is true of our lives as individuals and as families. We have many good experiences and many happy memories, but our lives are also marred by pain and suffering; they don’t quite measure up to our dreams, just as the picture the artist paints doesn’t quite measure up to the vision he had in his head when he started out.
John, the author of Revelation, tells us that God’s future kingdom will be like a glorious city with all its imperfections removed. He looks into the future and says,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them;he will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.’ (vv.3b-4).
What a wonderful vision this is! Everything we have legitimately enjoyed will still be there – whether the joy of friendship, or our favourite recreations, or inspiring times of worship – all of that will still exist, but all of the imperfections that spoil our experience of life and community will be gone. For our loved ones, all the suffering of their last days will be gone; ‘no more death or mourning or crying or pain’. This is hard for us to imagine – but isn’t that exactly what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 2:9-10? ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – these things God has prepared for those who love him’.
The second image is the image of the sunshine of God’s presence. In verse 3 again, we read
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them’.
And in chapter 22 verse 5 we read
‘And there will be no more night. They need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light’.
I spent three years in the high Arctic community of Ulukhaktok, and in the winter we went for six weeks without seeing the sun, although we did have a couple of hours of twilight in the middle of the day. I remember once going musk ox hunting with a friend in the middle of December; it was thirty below that day, and we drove in the dark for a couple of hours so that we would arrive at the place we thought the musk ox would be found just as it was getting light. But we didn’t find anything; we did, however, spend half an hour sneaking up on two rocks that my friend had mistaken for musk ox in the dim light!
The light and warmth of the sun is very important; in fact, physical life on earth is impossible without the sun. It gives us light to see by, and warmth to keep us alive. It makes growth possible for the plant world, and it gives us joy too. After a week of gloomy skies, you know how much better we feel when we wake up and see that the sun has come out and it’s a bright and glorious day outside!
This passage is telling us that, as the sun is to the earth, so God is to us. God is light for our eyes and warmth to our souls; God makes life and growth possible and he gives us joy. But sometimes we go for weeks and months and years when the light of God seems less clear to us. It’s like living under perpetually cloudy skies, where we find it difficult to believe that there is such a thing as the sun, because we never see it. That’s the way it is for us in our life with God sometimes; we believe he’s there because other people tell us so, but our own experience of him is pretty cloudy! But one day, John is telling us, the skies will clear. God’s presence will be obvious and we will experience him in all his brightness and warmth.
Surely this will be the best part of living forever in his kingdom! It’s going to be wonderful to see our loved ones again – perhaps this morning that’s the thing we’re all thinking about – and that’s understandable. But I think that when that day comes and I am joined together before God with all my loved ones and friends who have gone before me, the most wonderful thing of all will be just being together in the presence of God in all of his glory and love.
So we’ve looked at two images or metaphors of what our future life will be like: it will be like a perfect city with all its blemishes removed, and it will be like being in the permanent sunshine of God’s presence. The third image John uses in this passage is the image of something old that is made new again. Listen to verses 4 and 5:
“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away”.And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new”.
“I am making all things new”; I want you to notice that wording very carefully. ‘Making all things new’ is not the same as ‘making all new things’, is it?
Let me share an illustration I’ve often used for this. I have a prayer book at home that I’ve had since 1986. I’ve used the book almost daily during that time, and after about twenty years it was getting a little the worse for wear. The cover was coming to pieces, the pages were coming loose from the binding, and some of my friends were shaking their heads at it and saying ‘When are you going to get a new one?’
The trouble was, I didn’t want a new one! The book had all my pen and pencil markings in it, I had a nice arrangement of thumb tabs on the page edges to help me turn to the different sections when I needed them, and the whole book just felt comfortable to me. I didn’t want ‘all new things’; I wanted ‘all things new’ – in other words, I wanted this same old book, which I knew and loved, but somehow made young and strong again! And so about five years ago I took it to my friend Rod, the book binder, and three weeks later he gave it back to me with a new, strong binding which will last for a long time yet. Behold, all things were made new!
C.S. Lewis uses another illustration in the book Letters to an American Lady. The anonymous ‘American Lady’ donated these letters to the publisher after Lewis died; they were written when both Lewis and his correspondent were getting on in years, and in one of them he jokes with her about how their bodies are wearing out. So much of their correspondence, he says, seems to consist of comparing notes about how they are creaking along in their old age, needing more and more parts replacing! ‘But’, he says, ‘don’t worry about it; our brand new heavenly bodies are waiting for us, like new cars in the heavenly garage!’ That’s what it will mean for God to make ‘all things new’ for us: we will still be ourselves, but somehow renewed, as Jesus was renewed after he was raised from the dead.
Let’s go round this one last time.
This is what John wants us to know about what our prayer books call our ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead through our Lord Jesus Christ’. First, it will be like living in a perfect community, the kind of city we’ve always dreamed about, with all its blemishes removed. Second, after perhaps years of living with the presence of God partly obscured, like a cloudy day, it will be like the parting of the clouds so that we can live forever in the bright sunshine of God’s presence. And third, it will be like having our tired old bodies made new again – still our bodies, yes, but with no more death or decay.
In John’s gospel, in a passage that we often read at funerals, Jesus says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:6). So let us do as Jesus suggests here; let’s put our faith in God, trusting our loved ones into God’s care, and walking in God’s ways in this life, so that, when our time comes to die, we may have confidence that we also will see the new Jerusalem, experience the bright sunshine of God’s presence, and be made new forever. Amen.