Today’s sermon concludes our series called “A Brief History of Time.” The title of the series, as explained before, was borrowed from Stephen Hawking’s book by that name, but while he looked at the physical history of the universe, things like big bang theories and expanding galaxies, we’ve looked at what can be called “salvation history” – a history of God’s relationship with humanity.
For three weeks we looked at the Past: the creation of humanity at the beginning; humanity’s insistence on sinning, which became obvious very shortly after the beginning; and God’s act in the life and death of Jesus Christ to reconcile God and people, to bring us together, in spite of that sin. Last week’s topic was labelled “Today,” or the Present: How do we respond to God’s love? And today’s topic is labelled, very loosely, the Future, or “Tomorrow”: what will be the outcome of a relationship with God?
I delivered the first four sermons in this series, and you’re probably a little tired of listening to me. So I’ve invited three guest speakers to tell us a little about what kind of future is possible with God. As it turns out, they come from the Past – as far as I know, it’s only in movies that people from the Future come back to our time – but I think they can shed a little light on what a future with God can be like. Unfortunately, all three of them look quite a bit and sound quite a bit like me, but let’s listen to what they have to say.
My name is Bilcaiah (See? B?) and I was born in Jerusalem in the year 630 B.C. I am a Levite, and a skilled metalworker, and my job was to provide the metalwork for the Temple, the ornaments and fixtures that help beautify the House of the Lord. It is a great privilege to be in that type of service; I am glad to have been born a Levite.
I only wish . . . I could have done my job longer. But in 597 BC, when I was 33, the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, invaded Jerusalem, and brought me away from the Temple. Babylonians, you see, are not like those dreadful Assyrians were; they don’t wreck everything and completely tear down cities when they take over. Babylonians leave all the houses and buildings in place, and even most of the people. They carry away only two things: all the wealth of the city, and all the leaders, soldiers, and skilled workers. Without the leaders and soldiers, there’s no one to organize the remaining people into rebellion, and without the skilled workers, like me, there’s no one to fashion any weapons.
So the people left behind were poor, mostly uneducated, and without leadership or weapons – they posed no threat to the Empire. It’s a very civilized, but very effective, way of making another people subservient. And I found myself faraway here, in Babylon, doing little jobs for those people instead of God.
For ten years, it really wasn’t a bad life. We were homesick and missed friends, but we were convinced that any day God would send us back home, back to our beloved city. After all, when the Assyrians threatened Jerusalem, when they were lined up right against our walls, threatening to destroy everything and slaughter everyone, when they were just about to break our doors down, God suddenly intervened. It was a miracle! For no apparent reason, the Assyrians suddenly left, our city was saved, and shortly afterward their leaders were killed. God does love the city of Jerusalem, we realized. The promise to David was true: his kingdom shall never end. So we were confident we would soon be sent home to that indestructible kingdom – the leaders and artisans would return, and we would recreate the glory of King David’s time.
Then in 587, at the end of those ten years, the news came to us. The people of Jerusalem had tried to rebel anyway, despite Babylon’s steps to prevent it, had tried to join up with Egypt against Babylon, and Babylon had responded by smashing the city. The walls were torn down, the buildings, the palace – even my beautiful Temple, smashed into rubble. And this time they brought almost all the people away. There would be no one left there to cause any more trouble for them.
We had been wrong about Jerusalem. It wasn’t sacred, wasn’t magically indestructible. The prophets had been right: God will not tolerate evil, and when our evil practices continued, our evil society was torn down and we were sent into exile.
We were no longer a people. We were dead. There was no promise that we would go home soon, and no Jerusalem to go home to even if we were released. We had no songs left to sing in this foreign land, just one bitter saying: “Our bones are dry; our hope has gone; we are done for.”
There was a man named Ezekiel with us in Babylon – a very strange fellow. He used to put on these bizarre little one-man dramas, where he would live outside for weeks at a time, or build and then smash little clay buildings, or walk around with all his belongings in a sack, like a hobo. I never paid much attention to him those first ten years – he kept saying Jerusalem would fall and, like I said, we were all sure it couldn’t and that he was just a crazy man.
He came again after it did fall, and he didn’t say “I told you so,” which we appreciated, and he didn’t continue to forecast doom and gloom. He listened to our despair, and he heard our theme: “Our bones are dry; our hope is gone; we are done for.” And then he told us a story – a story about God coming down to a collection of dry bones, and putting them together, and breathing life back into them, putting hope back into them. Just like at the Creation! God did two things – assemble the body, and breathe life into it. Ezekiel said, “Thus saith the Lord: I shall raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel. I shall put my spirit in you and you will revive, and then you will know that I am God.”
And this time we listened – not just because the crazy old man was right the first time, though that certainly helped. But because his message called to mind things we had heard from other prophets, about a loving a faithful God, never abandoning Israel completely. And because that sounded like the kind of God we had always believed in. And most of all, because we could feel hope come alive in our hearts as he spoke about it; we could sense that we had a future, that there could be new life.
That’s a wonderful feeling, that sudden discovery that there will be a future after all, that there are possibilities never dreamed of. Some people experience it when they shake a dependence on drugs or alcohol for the first time in years: “I can have a life, a new life,” they discover. Others, including some of you I’m sure, experience it when they first come to know God: “I was partly dead before, but now I am fully alive. There are all sorts of possibilities for me.” We experienced it when Ezekiel told us his story, when we were reminded of God’s promise. We were dead, make no mistake. Our king, our Temple, our land, our will to live as a people – all gone. But God was going to raise us from the dead, to give us new life. God breathed new life, and God’s spirit, into us, and we were no longer dry bones, with no hope.
And God came through. I never went back to Jerusalem, but my grandchildren did. And they helped rebuild the city and the Temple, and the Jews became a people again. The Assyrians? They’re gone. The Babylonians? Nothing but dust. All the conquerors of Israel have not a trace, not a bit of their empires remaining. But the Jewish people survived. NO, not survived. We got a new life, a new start. We started it in Babylon when we became a religion of the Book, knowing God through our writings and our stories and our law, rather than animal sacrifices at a Temple. And our descendants made the actual trip back home. We stood at the beginning of a new life. It’s a wonderful feeling.
I know what he means. My name is Lazarus. You have a popular story that begins “Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that . . . Marley was dead as a doornail.” And that describes me: I was dead. I was in a tomb for four days; there can be no doubt whatever that I was dead. And Jesus brought me to life. Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life” and then he proved it, just like when he said “I am the light of the world” and then brought light to a blind man. Light and life to all he brings.
Bilcaiah is right; that experience of suddenly having a new life to live, when you thought everything was over, is profound. But I’d like to tell you about another aspect of the new life that God brings – and that is that it’s life with God. Sure, it’s great to have more years tacked on to your life than you expected, but what’s even better is that the new life can be a God-led and God-accompanied life. When I started my new life, there was Jesus right there, and I was able to live my new life studying his teachings, examining what he stands for, despairing at his death, reflecting on its effect on me, rejoicing at his resurrection.
New life is not just a matter of days added on, days like those passed before death; new life can be just that – a new life, a different one, a changed one, one that realizes what God wants to give us. It can be one spent in fellowship with other believers, one that experiences the joy of doing right and helping others, one that is free from earlier enslavements or addictions to things that drain our life and energy, one that looks with hope to the future, that sees potential and possibilities instead of time to be wasted and irritations to be dealt with.
New life isn’t just more of the same old life – it is new life with God.
Jesus . . . brought me that kind of life.
My name is Paul. And I too experienced the new life that friend Lazarus has talked about. I was hostile to Christians, hostile to Christ, until he met me as I travelled to Damascus one day and gave me a new life, one led by him. Then I could live a life in accordance with his love and his wishes, a life in touch with God. But I’m here to talk about still another type of new life: eternal life.
First I want to apologize for one thing, and that’s the difficulty of my writings on this subject. They’re scattered throughout several letters, with no cross-referencing; they’re hard to understand; and I’m afraid the grammar isn’t very good what with the incomplete sentences and meandering asides. All I can say was that I was frequently in a hurry, and that writing’s never been one of my strong points anyway.
What I was trying to say in that passage from my letter to the Romans you read today was this: While we are still on our own, whether we’re talking about before Christ came to earth, or before Christ came into our own individual lives – while we are still on our own, we inevitably start doing things that God is displeased with; we inevitably sin. I noticed your translation said “our human nature” and “our natural inclinations” lead us into sin; I like that better than the older translations, which say “our flesh” leads us to sin, as if somehow our physical bodies are evil – they’re not; they were created by God too. We sin, and when we’re on our own, without Christ, sin leads to death.
But the wonderful thing is, we’re not on our own. Jesus Christ has died for us, and God has sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. See? It’s right here in verse 9: “the Spirit of God has made a home in you.” It doesn’t stop us from ever sinning, and it doesn’t mean we’re not going to have a physical death, but because the Spirit of God is in us, and it cannot die, we will not come to a complete end either.
It’s just like Genesis and Ezekiel said: God breathed the Spirit of God into us, into earth or dry bones, and that’s what the life is, not the earth or the bones themselves. So we shed those bodies eventually – so what? Snakes and locusts do it all the time. It doesn’t mean life is over.
I tried to explain it to the Corinthians once, what little I know. They wanted to know how dead people are raised and what kind of body they’ll have when they are. Well, as far as how they’re raised, I don’t know. Even when John described the raising of our good friend Lazarus, he didn’t worry about how it was done. The point wasn’t how, but who did it – Jesus did. And as far as what kind of body it will be, well, I think it will have to be some other type of body than the ones we have now. Because the type of body we have now wears out – it’s built-in; “planned obsolescence.” Right after the warranty expires, bingo, that’s it. I figure the next body will be a different kind, an imperishable body. I call it a “spiritual body,” because it will have the Spirit God has put in us – and that’s the important part anyway.
And then, like I told the Thessalonians, someday God will give a signal and we shall all rise, to meet the Lord, and we shall be with the Lord forever. That’s eternal life. That’s the third angle on new life: besides the energizing prospect of new life and the presence of God in that new life, there is also eternal life – the most mysterious, but my personal favorite.
I’d like to thank our three guests who came all this way to speak with us, and conclude with one last note: We are in the period of Lent, and Lent is often thought of as a time of solemnity and sorrow, a time when we anticipate the death of Jesus, and pretend that we don’t know that Easter joy is right around the corner.
I think it’s more appropriate to describe Lent as a time of reflection than sorrow. We can reflect on what the life, death , and resurrection of Jesus mean, and we can reflect on how our life has contributed to the need for Jesus’ death, and we can reflect on what God has given to us. But I find it hard to be sorrowful throughout the whole reflection. Because when we look at the whole picture, the whole history – God’s creation of us, God’s response to our sinfulness, God’s providing for the chance for us to be with God now and forever – the whole picture is anything but sorrowful. After all, we call it the Good News.
So let’s reflect on the past, respond in the present, and look forward to a new life, but do it with the confidence of those who know that the brief history ends with our being with God, as people who know how Paul’s chapter 8 of Romans ends: “I am certain of this: neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nothing already in existence and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”