The least important

Text: Matthew 25:35-40
(The King will say), I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ The righteous will then answer him, “When, Lord, did we ever see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we ever see you a stranger and welcome you in our homes, or naked and clothe you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison, and visit you?’ The King will reply, “I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’

Do you remember the scavenger hunts that were held in back in the days when you were a member of a youth group? At the beginning of the hunt you’re given a list of things you have to accumulate. All kinds of things might be on the list. Maybe an empty drink can, the name on the foundation stone of the church, the number plate of Mr Schwartz’s truck. The first group back with all the items and information wins. But before you get the prize, the leader checks off each item to make sure you have got everything you say you have.

Is that the way it’s going to be on the final Day of Judgment? The King, Jesus says, will be seated on the throne of glory and will gather all the nations before him. Then, he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.
“Let’s see… yes, you once gave food to a hungry person. Check.
There was the time you gave a drink of water to the thirsty child. Check.
Visited a jail? Check.
Called on someone who was sick? Check.”

Is Jesus suggesting that you can make it into heaven by giving food to one hungry person?
Or do someone a kind deed and say,
“There! That’s my good deed for the day; my ticket to eternity with the sheep!”

It wouldn’t take too much effort to put this kind of emphasis on Jesus’ parable about the Last Judgement and come to the conclusion that it just takes a few charitable deeds to get into heaven.

Of course it works the other way too. We read this and realise that there is no way that we have been kind enough and generous enough to with Jesus’ approval and his invitation to “come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you since the creation of the world”. The parable leaves us with this feeling of failure, guilt, and shame that we have ignored so many people who have been crying out for our help but for some reason we were too busy, too preoccupied, too prejudiced to help. What chance have we got of escaping God’s judgement? To put it bluntly, about as much chance as a snowball in hell.

Of course guilt can be a great motivator as well. We would rather be doing something else but the feeling of guilt prompts us to do more for the least important. We know that doing something out of guilt ends up a chore; we do it not because we like to but because we have to. There is no joy. There is no generous spirit. We are like the child who does a chore grudgingly because he knows that if he doesn’t he will get into trouble and he won’t get any pocket money.

So if Jesus isn’t telling us that a few good deeds will get us past the pearly gates and isn’t using guilt as a motivator to care for others, what is he getting at?

The parable is asking whether we have seen Jesus in the face of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison.
The message of this parable is that Christ is mysteriously present to us in those who need our help. When we see the loving face of Jesus in the faces of the needy and disadvantaged then we will want to respond with love and meet that person’s need. It follows that when we don’t see Jesus in the face of others, we will not want to reach out in love to that person, in fact, we could be quite harsh, judgemental and critical.
The parable calls us to show compassion and spring into action for the least important just as Christ has had compassion on us who can be considered the least important because of our sin and rebellion against God.

We worship a God who is entangled in the suffering of humanity, in our sufferings and in the suffering of people everywhere. In fact, we worship a God who chooses not to untangle all the knots and problems of our world from the safety of heaven, but invites us all to be partners with him, to join our love to his love, and reach out to the suffering people in our world. This means reaching out to our sick friends,
making a meal for a grieving family,
welcoming the stranger here at church,
visiting people we know who are depressed, doubting God’s love and need words of reassurance and hope,
being understanding and supportive of the members of our families,
showing genuine love for our friends.
We are to see the face of Jesus in the faces of these people and minister to them in the same way Christ has ministered to us in our times of need.

But Jesus’ parable goes even further than this. Remember he is talking about the least important.
People whom others regard as insignificant.
People who are easily forgotten.
People who are out of sight so out of mind.

This parable is about how our faith in Jesus and our worship ought to penetrate and be interwoven with the ordinary everyday things of our lives. Religion isn’t something just for certain times of the week but it infiltrates every moment of every day. The love of Christ makes us eager to do something for the least important people of this world.

Here is a story of which there are a number of versions. Conrad, the old cobbler, dreamed one night that Jesus would come to be his guest. He was up as the sun was rising and set about decorating his little shop with bright flowers and greenery. He set the table with milk and honey and bread, and waited.

While he was waiting, a beggar walked down the street came barefoot in the driving rain. Conrad called him in and gave him a pair of shoes. An old woman came bent from the weight of a heavy burden. He lifted the load off her back and shared his food with her. And finally, just before the day was about to fade away into darkness, a little child came. Her eyes were wet with tears. Conrad gave her a glass of milk, and led her back to her mother. But the divine guest never came. Conrad was disappointed. The evening as he dozed in front of the fireplace he heard a soft voice say,
“Lift up your heart, for I have kept my word.
Three times I came to your friendly door;
Three times my shadow was on your floor.
I was the beggar with the bruised feet;
I was the woman you gave to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street!”

This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.”

We don’t have to look too far to find the people whom Jesus called the least.
Half the world’s population, nearly three billion people, live on less than $3 a day
the over one billion people who don’t have access to affordable and safe water;
over 800 million people do not get enough food;
More than 840 million adults, of whom 538 million are women, are illiterate.
The least that Jesus is talking about are the hundred of thousands of children who die every year from preventable diseases;
the 30 million people who have lost their homes because of conflict and natural disasters.
These Jesus calls these people least important – these people are important to God but for us it is easy to see them as the least important.

These are the people we can easily ignore because of their religion or race or life styles.
They are people we can easily forget because they are far from our own shores and we can’t begin to imagine their suffering because we have nothing like it here in Australia.
These are the people that cause us to look the other way.
But at the same time, these are the people whom Jesus claims to be among. Or better, it is in the face of these people that we see Jesus. 
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers (and sisters) of mine, you did for me.”

This brings me to the point of Jesus’ parable. He knows as well as we do that our sinfulness, selfishness, and lack of concern for others get in the way of caring for the least important. He told this story to focus not on what we should be doing but on something far more profound and basic. He wants us to ask ourselves, “What is my real heart relationship to this Lord who has redeemed and loved me from before the foundation of the world?”

He wants us to realise and appreciate the impact that Jesus has on us and the way we live our lives. Through confessing our guilt and receiving that rich, free and almost overpowering forgiveness our lives and hearts and our priorities are turned upside down.

When we are naked he clothes us in his own righteousness.
When we are in prison, condemned, shamed and guilty, he visits us and releases us.
When we are hungry and starving, God feeds us with the body and blood of his Son.

And what he does for us is what we then begin to do for others, our hands become his hands, our feet his feet, our hearts his heart, our love his love, and the least important become the most important in our eyes.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Why are you here?

Text: Matthew 25:14-15

Jesus said, “Once there was a man who was about to leave home on a trip; he called his servants and put them in charge of his property. He gave to each one according to his ability: to one he gave five thousand gold coins, to another he gave two thousand, and to another he gave one thousand. Then he left on his trip”.

Today I would like to start with a deep philosophical and theological question that has been pondered over through the centuries by learned and simple people alike.  It’s a question that has caused a lot of head scratching, deep thinking, and answers like “I dunno” as well as complicated answers that fill books.  The question goes like this, “Why were you put on this planet at this particular time and in this particular place?”  Or to put it simply, “Why are you here?”  “What is the purpose of your life?”

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi Concentration Camps observed how some people were able to survive the terrible conditions and concluded that there was one factor that enabled those people to endure the impossible – it was the driving conviction that there was still some purpose in their lives, that they still had something to live for, some important work yet to do.

“What is the purpose of my life here and now on this planet?”  Let’s go to the Book of Genesis – the book of beginnings – and see what it tells us about why we are here?  In the beginning humans are put here to care for the earth and the living things on this earth and to live in relationships – with the rest of creation, with each other and with God.

We also note that when God created the world there was evening and morning, sunrise and sunset.  That means God gives us our days.  God gives us our time and we are told that he was very pleased with what he had given us. Note also that he gives us days to work and days to rest.  So while we carry time around with us, we wear time on our wrists and live as though we own time, time is actually God’s, not ours.  He made it.  He owns it.  He gives it to us as a gift!

When we look at the opening chapters of the Bible and then follow the message through its pages it’s clear that God puts us on this earth to look after the gifts he has given us.  This is not just about looking after the world and not abusing it, exploiting it, destroying it, but also looking after everything and everyone that God has given to us.
That includes our bodies and our abilities,
the people he has given us in our families, our friends and our brothers and sisters in the church.
God entrusts to us and wants us to look after his world and that includes the physical world and its environment, the people he has placed in our lives – those we know well and those we don’t know personally.

In all of this there is something worth noting.  The Bible never talks about us being here to get as much as we can out of the world for ourselves.  The Bible is always pointing us away from ourselves to God, to others, to relationships, to the earth itself.  
Why am I here on this planet?  
If we answer, “I’m here to work” (and we all spend a fair bit of time doing that), it’s worth thinking about why we work.  How is the energy we use at work related to this earth, to relationships, to God, to serving others?  If we are retired, how does the way we spend our days related to our purpose for being here: related to serving others, to the earth, to God, to the relationships God has given us?

We all know Jesus’ story about the rich farmer who had such fantastic crops that he decided to pull down his barns and build bigger ones.  “Lucky man!” he said. “You have all you need for many years.  Take life easy, eat, drink and enjoy yourself”. (Luke 12:16-20).  This man’s purpose in life was get from the earth all he could get and keep it all for himself – there is no connection here with God; no thought of relationships and the people around him; no inkling that he has been given so much to serve others.  He died a rich man but in God’s eyes he was poorer than the poorest.

In Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel reading a man is about to go away on a journey and so he entrusts his servants with his property “I am going away. I want you to look after what is mine!” Then he gives to each of his servants various amounts of his assets for them to manage and we note that he doesn’t give them all the same amount – he gives to each one according to his ability.  He is not asking the impossible; he knows his workers and simply wants them to manage well what he knows they are quite capable of taking care of.  There is no favouritism. All he asks is that each one is faithful in their task.  He says, “In time, I will return, and then I want to know how well you have managed what I have given to you!”

The question that you and I are left to consider is this, “How well am I using what God has given to me?  When I am called to give an account of what I have done, what will I have to report?”

First of all, how much do I do for myself and how much is for others?
As I have already said, when I look in my Bible I can’t find anything which says that I am to use my time, my talents, my wealth, the resources available to me through work to advance my own cause, to make myself more comfortable, to get myself respect and become the envy of everyone else – the emphasis being on the ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’. I don’t see any of that in the Bible but I do see a lot about others.  I am here for the other person – to build the other person up, to make them look good and feel good, to ensure that they are well off.

The Bible even suggests that the reason I work is so that I am able to be more generous – the more I earn, the more I can give away (2 Cor 9:11).  Here’s a challenge.

If I work so long and so hard that I don’t have time for my family, don’t have time for my church, don’t have time for God – how well am I using what God has entrusted to me?  The ironic thing is that we work hard and long hours to provide for others, for those who depend on us to earn an income, but if all they get from us is our income and never actually see us, or we are too tired to be of any use to anyone, how wisely are we really using our time?  If that’s how I have been managing what God has given me, then how will I answer my Master when he comes back and asks me to give an account of what I have done?

On the other hand, if I waste my time, and I am lazy, unproductive and do nothing to benefit someone else, then how do I answer the Master who asks me to give an account of how well I have managed the gifts he has entrusted to me?

When we answer the question, “what is the purpose of my life” the answer God is looking for is how our work, our money, our time, our abilities, our leisure time have actually benefitted the world and the people around us in some way.
God is looking to see
what legacy we have left behind,
what people we have touched,
in what way is our world a better place because we have lived here for however many years we have in this life.
Some are gifted in such a way that they can be an Albert Schweitzer or a Mother Theresa and leave a legacy that is famous because they touched so many lives and books have been written about them.  That’s like the servant who was given 5,000 silver coins and faithfully did great things with that money.

But there was also the servant who was given just a small amount and with that small amount he was faithful and able to do great things.  Using what we have been given to serve others and honour God, no matter how humble that might be, we will receive the commendation, “Well done, you good and faithful servant. … Come in and share my happiness” (Matthew 25:23).

When we answer the question, “what is the purpose of my life” will we be able to say that we have used the time God has given us to get to know him more, love him more, serve him more, share him more with others?

When the time comes to give account, I suspect the Master will want to know: in all the things you did in your life, where did God figure?  What priority did he have in the things you devoted your time to?  What difference did he make in the way you spoke, in how you talked about other people, in whether you criticised and gossiped, or built up and encouraged?  Did you commit an hour or so a week to God and things to do with God, or was he quite clearly your constant companion in every moment of your life?  What time did you have for God?

As a preacher of the Christian Church every sermon must have some good news in it. The truth is that there is a lot in this parable that leaves us feeling guilty which really isn’t good news.  The last words of the parable echo in our ears, “As for this useless servant – throw him outside in the darkness; there he will cry and gnash his teeth” (Matt 25:30).  Sometimes we need a challenge, we need to re-think, to re-evaluate. Jesus forces us to do that, as we listen to this story.  The parable forces us to ask ourselves,
What is the purpose of my life?
Why have I been put here on this earth?
Why has Jesus called me to be his disciple and made me part of the people of God in his church?
How am I using the time, abilities and resources that God has given me to be a blessing to others?

And as we prayerfully think through these things we will fall on our knees and acknowledge how often we have failed and how often we have believed that life’s purpose has been all about us to the exclusion of everyone else.

Jesus came to take on the heavy load of guilt that we bear.  He came to take on himself our failures, our self-centredness, our selfishness, our inability to use what God has given to benefit the people around us.  He died for those moments when we let our sinful nature overwhelm the new life that we have in Christ.  He forgives us when we think that our purpose in life is to accumulate as much as we can for ourselves and forget that we have been blessed to be a blessing to others. He gives us the Holy Spirit to renew us and fill our hearts with new desires and new plans and new ways of service to God and the people in our lives.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Learning Jesus-Permanence

1 Thessalonias 4:13-18

There is nothing quite like a game of peek-a-boo.  Face behind the hands, or ducking behind a chair, or through a door—a baby intrigued; then a moment of surprise or even shock; followed by a baby’s laughter.  It is a great game!

Mind you, it’s not entirely a game.  It’s actually part of a learning process in which a child, often around the age of eight or nine months, gets a grasp of what is known as “object permanence”—the understanding that when we see something, and then it is covered up, or removed, or a person leaves the room, that object still exists, that person still exists.  Once a child gets a hold of this you can put a toy on the floor and cover it with a blanket and the child will reach for it, look for it under the blanket.  The child will also get anxious sometimes when Mum or Dad leaves the room—still existing, but not there to be seen!  So where?  And for how long?

Of course the same learning that makes for peek-a-boo giggles is a developmental concept that also allows for separation anxiety….

There is a gentle reminder of “permanence” in our funeral service when, as the coffin is about to be lowered into the grave, or removed from sight for later burial or cremation, and these words are spoken:
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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Paul wrote these words to the young Christian church at Thessalonica—to Christians who were concerned that Jesus was taking a long time coming back.  It is hard for us to appreciate just what it was like for those in the very first generation following Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension, living each day with the wonderful promise and an imminent sense of his return!  Maybe, if we can draw on base childhood feelings—as we get just a bit agitated that Mum or Dad hasn’t returned, isn’t back in sight, isn’t visible in that comforting, reassuring way we need…not quite quickly enough.

That is how the first generation of Christians waited—wavering, at times, between joyful anticipation and expectation, and natural moments of anxiety.

And the anxiety became accentuated as fellow Christians began to die.  The waiting for Jesus of weeks, or months, became long years…and aging Christians began to die.  And for the first time the Church’s pastors had to deal with questions like, “What happens to a Christian when he dies?  What will happen in the resurrection?  What will we be like?  Will we be young or old?  What will ‘perfect me’ look like?  Will we still know everyone?  What happens in-between, after you die, before the resurrection?”

And the questions may come from all kinds of different thinking—about personal health, about relationships, about fears, about loved ones.

And how does the Bible answer these troubling questions?
In many ways, to be frank, it doesn’t.  (Not how we would like it to, anyway….)  In another way, it does so in a most direct and simple way:  it points to Jesus.  When you read through the New Testament you tend to come across a couple of expressions.  For one, it talks about Christians who “have fallen asleep in him”, that is, in Jesus.  Asleep in Jesus.  It talks about those who have “died in Christ”.  In Christ Jesus.  And elsewhere it talks about those who are “with the Lord”.  WithJesus.  All of these expressions focus Christian faith on Jesus; they direct questions—even anxious questions—to considering Jesus; in relation to Jesus.

Try and imagine, again, if you can, those living in the years immediately following the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The witness of Jesus’ first followers to Jesus’ teaching, to Jesus’ miracles, to Jesus’ compassion, to Jesus’ sensitivity, to Jesus’ loyalty, to Jesus’ power, to Jesus’ care; to the way Jesus included people, forgave people, welcomed those sometimes rejected by others, his generosity, his patience, his honesty, his directness, his gentleness, his wisdom, his mercy.  The immediacy of the events for the witnesses who then spread out through the world and proclaimed hope because of God’s love—the immediacy of the events was translated into an energy and capacity to create an experience of Jesus’ presence, even for those who, like the Thessalonians, had not seen him for themselves.

The specific question that Paul addresses is a concern that if a person dies before Jesus’ return then will he or she somehow miss out on the big event?  Paul assures them that those who are “dead in Christ”, or those who “have fallen asleep in him” are in him, are in Christ—the nature of the relationship is there, is real, alive or dead—in the reality of the risen Jesus, no matter what we seem to see or perceive or even fear because we can’t see, or don’t know….  Paul asserts this emphatically to a people who are anxious and confused—(we know how that feels!)—he asserts this emphatically because he does not want us, in our grieving—(and grieving is real; it means giving up control of a situation; it means change in a situation, in a relationship)—he does not want us to grieve “as others do who have no hope”.  Christian hope is about a certainty in something that is real, but not yet realized.  If we are to hope—even in a time of grief—if we are to hope in Christ, in Jesus, we hope based on a relationship with Jesus that is real even before we see him face to face when he comes again.

Where does that “real” come from?  Not one of you here has lived at a time when Jesus has walked among us in the way that he did during his time of ministry in the first century.  (I allow that some of you may have well heard his voice or seen his smile or known his reassurance in dreams or visions or experiences where you’re not quite sure what was going on.)  But it hasn’t been, for us, like it was for the first apostles.

And yet, by faith, our hope is real.  Our hope in Christ Jesus.  Where does that come from in this day and age?

Of course, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And the Spirit works through God’s Word, in all the variety of ways that we proclaim it; the Spirit works through the Sacraments of baptism and communion with a visibility and physicality that connects each of us personally to God’s Word, God’s grace, God’s promise; and the Spirit works through these means through the on-going day to day ministry of people—teachers and pastors and friends and parents (and you get the drift)—ordinary and extraordinary people—who help to give an experience of the concrete reality of God’s saving love and saving presence through day to day faithfully “being Christ” to others; being the presence of Christ in the lives of others.  When the Bible speaks of us, the Church, as the body of Christ, it is much more than a picturesque metaphor for how Christians should relate to each other under Christ; it is a rather powerful statement about Jesus’ real presence in the world today!

About 20 years ago I read an article written by an Anglican school chaplain, in which he asserted that for large numbers of young people growing up in Australia, the school chaplain would be the concrete symbol of God and God’s church which they encountered in life.  While I have a much broader picture of what happens in a church school than that it was a comment which made me realise the significance of the opportunity which I have to “make real” and “meaningful” in the life of a person the Gospel of God’s love in Jesus, which I proclaim.  Every time I speak a word of forgiveness, every time I show some care, every time I teach or direct or counsel according to an understanding of the gracious will of God, every day I remain loyal and patient, every time I bounce back from disappointment and make a new beginning with someone struggling or in a situation of pain and loss—these all give me the opportunity to make Christ real, to make Jesus’ presence real.

Most of us will know well that it is a lifetime of knowing the reality of God’s love spoken and shown to us that enables us to know the real presence of Jesus’ love remains, and is constant even at those moments when we can’t seem to see what we trust without seeing; when our hope, our assurance in the promise is filled with an experience of knowing faithfulness in the past; when our grieving at the tomb is balanced with our celebration of the life we have known.  Every sermon you have listened to, every lesson taught from the Scriptures, every hymn or song sung in worship, every speaking of God’s word of forgiveness, every wafer and sip swallowed, every splash from the waters of the font, every gesture of comfort or aid or encouragement or acceptance in the name of Christ has been for you, through others—God’s servants of every kind—the presence of Jesus in your life in way that has taught you “object permanence”—Jesus permanence, grace permanence, life permanence.

The apostle and evangelist John put it like this in the first century:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.  We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

That tradition of ministry has made Jesus’ presence real for us.

You are a part of that tradition.  You know the constant grace of Jesus.  So encourage one another with these words, and encourage people, with the word of his love, and his life, to know his presence, his permanence.  Amen.

There is hope!

Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13,14
Our friends, we want you to know the truth about those who have died, so that you will not be sad, as are those who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will take back with Jesus those who have died believing in him.

One of the lessons that we learn early in life is that things in this world do not last forever. Often we learn this lesson with a good deal of sadness and along with that sadness a good deal of confusion.
As our children were growing up we always had pets – cats, dogs, budgies, bantams, chickens, guinea pigs, even a horse. These were pets that they loved to hold, cuddle, wrap in blankets, push around in their prams, pretend they were babies. Our eldest daughter was often found out in the chook yard nursing a bantam. Another daughter loved her guinea pigs. When one of our dogs was suffering from a back injury and it was clear that he wasn’t going to get any better, our son carried the dog into his room and took special care of him. When the dog died each child disappeared to their own rooms and we found them on their beds with tears running down their faces. They were old enough to know (primary school age) that when something dies it doesn’t come back again. Their grief was enough for Miriam and me to agree that we would not have any more dogs, though that decision was overturned by our youngest daughter’s pleading for a puppy of her own. 

Those who are keen gardeners know that the most beautiful bed of flowers doesn’t last forever. Eventually they droop, drop their petals, and we pull them up and throw them into the bin.

We are approaching the end of the church year. At this time of the year we begin to look at the end of things. We look toward the end of time when Christ will come again and the world as we know it will come to an end.
We look to the end of our own lives when we will pass through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. We can’t be certain when this will happen but we can be certain that it will happen.

The church father St. Augustine once said, “On the first day of our lives, someone might look into our cribs and mutter, ‘I’m afraid, you are in a bad way. You won’t get out of this alive.’” We, you and I, are terminal. And the older we get the more we realise that life is short.

On the morning of my 40th birthday my son greeted me with all the sensitivity that a young teen can muster, “Happy Birthday, Pops. What’s it like knowing that half your life is over?” We laughed but I didn’t really need to be reminded of that fact at that very moment. But as much as we might deny it, life does pass by quickly and our bodies start to slow down and show signs of wearing out. We might even go into a panic as we realise that the psalmist was right, ‘We are like weeds that sprout in the morning, that grow and burst into bloom, then dry up and die in the evening… Seventy years is all we have – eighty if we are strong … life is soon over and we are gone (Psalm 90 5,6,10).

A writer once said, Looking at death is like looking at the sun. A man can look directly at it for a moment, but must then turn away.

That’s how so many people live with death. They cannot bear the thought of either a last day for the world, or their own last day. So many people these days have grabbed on to the idea of reincarnation – they will come back again in another life. That idea is plainly not true. Some simply go into denial; they shut their eyes to it and try to pretend that it won’t happen to them. Others adopt a more fatalistic approach. It’s going to happen and there’s nothing anyone can do change that.

All this talk about how short life is and our inevitable death can be rather depressing. It hurts all the more when we recall those special people who have left this life. Maybe the death of someone who was near and dear to you is still fresh in your mind. You recall with sadness what these people meant to you, how they impacted on your lives, the fun times you had with them. But now they are gone. Their memory is firmly fixed in our mind, but their presence in our lives is missed.

Will we hope ever to see their faces again?
Is it only wishful thinking, pure fantasy to believe that there is something beyond death?
As we say farewell to love ones, or look ahead to the day when we will gasp our last, is there any hope that will ease our grief and help us to be more relaxed about our own day of dying?

St Paul often tackled this very difficult subject in his letters. For instance, when he wrote to the Thessalonians he was speaking to a church in grief. The little congregation had risked so much; they had gone against their culture and the local authorities and stood firm in their faith in Jesus. They firmly believed that Christ would return soon. But where was Jesus? They had been waiting for years now. And while they were waiting some of their most beloved leaders and saints had died. Since they had died before Christ’s return are they lost forever? Will they be part of that great day when the dead will rise again?

Paul tells his readers not to grieve as if there was no hope; as if there was nothing more to look forward to once we reached the end of our life on earth. And what hope do we have? He says, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again …. Those who have died believing in Christ will rise to life …. We will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:14,16,17). In his letters Paul encouraged those Christians who were anxious about what will happen when time will stop and the world will end as well as comforting those who were concerned about what will happen when time will stop for each of us and our life will come to an end.

Like the Christians in Paul’s time, we too are sad when someone leaves this life. But this sadness does not lead us to despair or lose all hope. Because of Jesus we know there is life beyond death. There is no need for hopeless despair. There is no need to fear what will happen to us beyond this life.

Of course we will still have our moments of panic as we face our own mortality. As we wait for surgery, or realise how fast life is flying by, or stand by the grave of a loved one, we will still have those pangs of fear shoot through us.
We may wonder what will death be like;
how will we die;
what will happen to the family we leave behind;
and how we will miss seeing our children or grandchildren grow up and having their own families?
But these moments of panic are replaced with the confidence that Jesus has everything under control. And that includes death. Because of Jesus ‘
death has been swallowed up in victory’.

Jesus has prepared the way. He has died to cleanse us from our sin and make us ready to enter into God’s presence in heaven. There is no reason to fear the outcome of our last day at all. Christ has died for us. We trust in him as our Saviour to rescue us from everything that would stand in our way to enjoying eternal life. There can be no doubt about our resurrection to eternal life. Paul talks about what will happen when Christ comes again, when he says,
“When the trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised, never to die again, and we shall all be changed. For what is mortal must be changed into what is immortal; what will die must be changed into what cannot die. So when this takes place, and the mortal has been changed into the immortal, then the scripture will come true: “Death is destroyed; victory is complete!” (1 Cor 15:52-54).

The witness of the Scriptures is clear. Death is not the end because our Saviour Jesus has changed everything to the point that death is no longer the penalty that it was. Jesus took care of death’s power over is through his own death and resurrection. He has made death the doorway to eternal life with God in heaven. Death is no longer a terrifying and frightening thing for those who trust in Jesus, but is the stepping off point to eternal life.

Last week we celebrated All Saints Day and we heard about that wonderful vision of heaven that John gives us in the Book of Revelation. He sees all these people from all around the world dressed in white robes standing before the throne of the Lamb. He asks, “Who are these people?”
This is the answer he receives, 
“They are the people … who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. That is why they stand before God’s throne” (Revelation 7:14,15).

We are certain of eternal life because our sins have been washed away in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus has made us holy, clean, pure and perfect through the giving of his own life for us and thus making us fit to enter God’s presence in heaven. God offers this to everyone and invites everyone to trust in the love and forgiveness that Jesus offers.

As the end of the church year gets nearer our eyes are focused beyond this life to the eternal joy that we will experience when we pass from this life. And we know that heaven will be a wonderful place. We read, “God himself will be with his people, and he will be their God.  He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain” (Rev 21:3,4).

Nick, a ten year old, had been diagnosed with leukemia 3 years ago but all attempts by doctors had failed to hold back its devastating course. His parents sat by his bed helplessly as the colour drained from his cheeks. Nick was buried on the Tuesday of Holy Week. Easter Day dawned unusually warm and bright. Late that day, Nick’s parents sat on their verandah watching the sunset. Their six-year-old daughter, Hannah, played beside them. Nick’s dad said to Hannah, “Look at that beautiful sunset. Do you see all those beautiful colours – the pink and blue and gold colours in the clouds?”
Hannah thoughtfully replied, “Do you think Nick can see all those beautiful colours?”

Her dad replied, “He sees an even more beautiful sunset than we can see, Hannah. He’s in heaven with Jesus the most beautiful place that anyone can imagine”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy