ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 17, 2013
WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN: NOT YET HOME
Romans 8:18-22; Philippians 1:19-26; John 14: 1 – 7
Home. It’s an evocative word. We all have memories, some good and some painful, of the home we grew up in. Home is the place where there are memories of laughter, kids birthday parties, Christmas mornings. Home includes the chores that were ours to do. Or a tree fort. Or an attic filled with treasures. I got a lovely Christmas card this year with a picture of a farm house and a cutter pulled by horses. The note inside said, “I chose this card because it was like the home I grew up in.” Whatever else home is, it is the place where we have first experienced love. Diane’s little grandson recently suggested to his mom that they put a sign outside the house pointing at the door that says, “Hugs given here.” But life changes. Children grow. People move. Calamity can strike. Parents die. The homes we create are not permanent, are they?
As the years pass by the people I bury are getting closer to my age. I’m not sure how this is happening; apparently my peers are aging at a much more rapid rate than I am. Many of you have kidded that as you get older you no longer read the front page of the newspaper first, rather you go to the obits to see if you’re still alive. That happened to Gallagher. He opened the morning newspaper and was dumbfounded to read in the obituary column that he had died. He quickly phoned his best friend, Finney. ‘Did you see the paper?’ asked Gallagher. ‘They say I died!!’ ‘Yes, I saw it!’ replied Finney. ‘So…where are ye callin’ from?’ I realize that those of you still in the bloom of youth with hopefully a full life ahead of you, may think about death more in philosophical than personal ways. However, we all know the earth is not our permanent address. It never has been and it never will be.
According to the Bible God created the earth and us – and it was all good. God’s hope was to create a home with humanity; a place where He would walk and talk with us; a home where our chores would be to partner with God in the creative process working within his divine plans. God wanted a happy, safe home, where people loved Him as He loves us. Since real love can’t be forced we were free to love our Creator or not. It didn’t go well. We wanted to decide what was right and good for us without a concern for what God had in mind. We call this ‘sin’ and it had consequences. God disciplined us as any loving parent would do, “…the Lord God sent us forth from the Garden of Eden.” (Genesis 3:22) telling us that life would be hard “until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (vs. 17-19). Then we were told “at the east of the garden of Eden God placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.” (vs. 24). Death became part of the human story; from the moment we’re born we are dying.
St. Paul reflected this when he wrote, “creation was subjected to futility … We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves … groan inwardly while we wait for adoption” (Romans 8: 20, 22 – 23). In this section of Romans 8 Paul used some pretty strong words about the present state of things: suffering, futility, bondage, decay and groaning. While God made the world beautiful and frequently we see and enjoy that beauty, the reality is the world is stained and imperfect and the result is that bad things happen. Paul wasn’t being pessimistic, he was just describing the reality of things.
But Paul also lived with hope and excitement about what was to come. Paul believed God was up to something that will make things right. “I consider that the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom. 8:18). The time is coming when the stain will be fully and permanently removed. Not only is God working on this new life in the present moment, the framework for it has already been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are central to God’s action plan. Because of these events, there comes a time when “no longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 22:3). Life will be free from the stain of sin. In an ironic twist, the blood of Christ washes away the stain of sin. As Paul pointed out the implications of this are enormous. Imagine a world where security systems will be needless, guns of no value, “child abuse” a meaningless phrase, war and starvation will be dark chapters in the annals of history. Floods, hurricanes and tsunamis will be blanked out of our consciousness by amnesia. No one will know how to spell cancer or Alzheimer’s. “Death will be no more; tears will be no more; suffering will be no more”. (Rev. 21:4). And I’ll be out of a job as there will be no need for the gospel to be preached – it will be the way of life. Our efforts to grow in faith will be meaningless – we will know for certain. Our attempts to reach out to those in need will be replaced by joining them in praising God.
But I believe it was the match maker in Fiddler on the Roof who said, “In the meantime we suffer, O how we suffer.” A friend of mine once asked me whether the Kingdom of Heaven is here and now or if it is something in the future. I said it was both. While we see glimpses of God’s World in this one, we also experience difficulties of a work in progress, a reality yet to come. While on this earth there is suffering and death and tears. Life is not idyllic. And maybe the questions we need to be asking are not “Why do we suffer?” and “What does God do with our suffering?” but “What do we do with our suffering? How do we as Christians suffer?” On one occasion in Paul’s life he was sitting in prison because people had taken offence to his preaching about grace and forgiveness. Adding insult to injury, he learned as he sat in his cell that there are those in the church who are quite happy he was there. “It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight … they see me as competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better – they think – for them” (Philippians 1:15, 17). Instead of being overwhelmed with his misfortune and his physical and emotional pain, instead of feeling betrayed and abused Paul kind of shrugged his shoulders saying that if Christ is preached he is happy. Even if he has to die in the course of his mission, he would be joy filled. How could he say that? Well, this was Paul’s philosophy of life, “For me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (vs. 21). He goes on to explain, “I am hard pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (vs. 23). Paul believed to the core of his being that his home was not here. His home was with Christ in that eternal place that knows neither sin nor death. We are reminded by Paul that the purpose of our lives is not to have an easy time, it is to glorify God. In light of that, whether life is good or bad, our focus is on Christ. We can use our sufferings to honour and witness to Christ. That can be as simple as telling friends “Jesus is getting me through this” to as personal as using our pain as a reminder to pray for others, to as joyful as proclaiming, “The Holy Spirit brought healing to me.” Usually with the aid of modern medicine, but sometimes not. Secondly, we can live with the knowledge and hope that although his life is not perfect, there is a glorious, happy and safe home being prepared for us. The kingdom of God will come.
Given that is our future, it’s amazing how we cling to this life. Father Murphy walks into a pub in Donegal, and asks the first man he meets, ‘Do you want to go to heaven?’ The man said, ‘I do, Father.’ The priest said, ‘Then stand over there against the wall.’ Then he asked the second man, ‘Do you want to go to heaven?’ ‘Certainly, Father,’ ‘Then stand over there against the wall.’ Then Father Murphy walked up to Brian O’Toole and asked, ‘Do you want to go to heaven?’ O’Toole said, ‘No, I don’t Father.’ The priest said, ‘I don’t believe this. You mean to tell me that when you die you don’t want to go to heaven?’ O’Toole said, ‘Oh, when I die, yes. I thought you were getting a group together to go right now.’ Woody Allen noted, “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”
Painful seasons remind us this is not our home. We all await a time when we’ll be making a permanent change in address. I have held the hands of grieving widows. I have been by the graveside of babies that lived only a very short time. I have attended the funeral of a young man who had the world at his doorstep and took his own life. Heartbreaking tears streamed down cheeks as good-byes were said. Hope was stirred with the conviction that they had gone to their permanent ‘home’ where suffering is unheard of. Comfort came in knowing we will one day see them there again – and what a joyful reunion it will be.
The story is told of an elderly missionary couple who had served Christ overseas for faithfully and sacrificially for many years. They travelled by ship. When they arrived in the harbour there was a large band playing stirring music and a huge “Welcome Home” banner. Photographers from all the major papers were there and dignitaries stood by solemnly. The old missionary smiled and thought to himself how wonderful it was to be greeted home in this way. As he and his wife disembarked they were pushed aside by the crowd who had come not for him but for President Roosevelt. In fact, no one was there to greet the elderly couple who had given so much and suffered so much for God’s kingdom. There was no banner, no band, not even a pastor to give them a welcoming hug. Holding back his tears at the reality that absolutely no one was there to greet them the missionary heard a small voice say to him, “Don’t be upset. After all, you’re not home yet.”