Sunday, November 19
The Divine Conspiracy, Week 10
Scripture: Revelation 21:1-5 & 22:1-7
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Death
God called me to ministry a little over 14 years ago. I can vividly remember the details of that moment. Jess and I were home with our newborn daughter. I was reading a book that was preparing me for work as a campus minister at the University of Michigan. I put the book down, looked at Jess and said, “I’m supposed to be a pastor.” It was just crystal clear to me in that moment.

Now, when I uttered those words as a 25-year-old new father, I had no idea what God was getting me into. Probably what was on my mind was the chance that I could teach people about the way of Jesus and see God at work in our lives. There might have been a little ego in there telling me, “Troy, maybe you can become a great preacher! They’ll hear what you have to say, think that I’m right, and totally turn their lives around.” That just might have been in there.

Certainly I wasn’t thinking about death.

Yet, I have learned that there is an enormous pastoral privilege that comes from journeying with people as a loved one is dying and to being with a family at a funeral service.

As a society, we’re uneasy with death, and I was in that place too when I started ministry. But now I’ve been with people while they’re breathing their last, for these are holy moments. I’ve seen the great resolve people have to live. I’ve seen people at peace with the end of life on this earth. I wept with those who have wept and mourned with those who have mourned.

I have come to love ministry at memorial services. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want more to services to do, so please all of you, stay healthy! But what I mean is this: People drop their pretenses when a loved parent, partner, or friend has died. They cry without worrying who will see it. They talk about deep things that matter. Their love for another is so much more evident than it is in normal day-to-day life. People get real.

Let’s face it: We don’t want to think about death. It’s unpleasant. It’s sad. It’s hard. So we do all we can to delay it. We rub our skin with anti-aging cream. We elect to get cosmetic surgery. Can you believe that in 2016 Americans spent over $16 billion dollars on elective cosmetic surgery?[1] We Photoshop and airbrush models for magazines to give the image that they don’t have wrinkles or stretch marks. Everywhere we are surrounded by images of youth and beauty that are unrealistic and unattainable, but they drive us to spend more and more on possible solutions to the vexing issue that each of ages one day at a time, that inexorable march towards the end.

But here’s what this desire to deny aging reveals about our worldview: Even as Christians, often we do not live as a people who will live eternally. Or at least we assume that little in this life has carry-over to what happens in eternity, as though God’s eternal future is just a giant reset button for all that has happened before.

As we are taking our final lap through The Divine Conspiracy, I must drive home the point that Jesus is making in the Sermon on the Mount and that Willard is making in the 400 pages of his book: What you do with your life on earth matters. It is the time and space where God has invited you to participate in what God is doing, to learn how to live fully into what it means to be God’s creature, and to prepare yourself for an eternal future. We must live as a people who have no fear of death because we are already living in the kingdom. We also must live the lives God has given us with a sense of purpose, motivated at its very core by the desire to be disciples of Jesus, learning from him what it means to live eternally.

Eternal
Chapter 10 of The Divine Conspiracy zooms far back from the Sermon on the Mount to dwell on where the Bible tells us that all of creation is headed – the renewal of all creation and the reunion of heaven and earth, as we heard in our two passages from the final two chapters of the Bible already this morning. “To live strongly and creatively in the kingdom of the heavens, we need to have firmly fixed in our minds what our future is to be like,” Willard tells us.[2] That is, in order to live as best we can right now, we also have to hold a vision of God’s future in front of our eyes, for, my friends, we are eternal beings. That’s the way God has made us.

Zig Ziglar once said that, “You hit what you aim at, and if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” Fixing our minds on the future gives us the right thing to aim at, and it will help us in the present to get where God wants us to be.

There are examples of people who have held heaven in their hearts that allowed them to live fully into today. Their example should be a reminder to us that what we do with our lives matters, including trying to make straight what is crooked. In his final speech, the evening before he was assassinated in Memphis, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concluded with these words, where King sounds quite a lot like Moses at his own end:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!![3]

King knew God’s promises and was living the kingdom reality by living in the way of Christ as best he could. There is freedom in not fearing death.

Or in the words of Jim Elliot, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”[4]

There are plenty of people who have learned the art of living eternally now who did not die prematurely. They fearlessly teach children who are at risk. They open their homes up to the stranger. They live with a sense of abundance and gratitude because God has given them life and provided them everything they need.

Recently I came across an article about a church in the capital of El Salvador that is in ministry to people who want out of the violent gangs that are terrorizing that country. Many of these men joined the gangs as early teens, wanting to find meaning and an identity. They ended up in prison, where Christ met them. When they served their time, the church filled the meaning-making space in their lives that they used to fill with their gang activities. One pastor said, “These young men need an identity. They can find that within the gang or the church.” The former gang members in the church are known to say, “I used to be a gang member, but now I’m a Christian. The church replaces the gang identity completely.” Churches like this one in El Salvador have their eyes firmly fixed on the future so that it shapes how they handle the present. Their ministry is constantly at risk, but they are living in the kingdom.

Three Stages
As a people who are trying to live according to the way of God as revealed by the Bible, we know that the Bible speaks about eternal life, but in this world that is so preoccupied with extending life, it’s important to remind us that there really are three stages to living, and only one of them is long. The first is the time of growing steadily – that is, now. This is your life, and God has given it to you, desiring that you choose to live fully into God’s purposes for you. That’s what we are dealing with in 95% of Willard’s book and, frankly, in 95% of what we do as a church.

The second stage is the time of passing that we call “death,” which is sometimes fast and sometimes slow. We all go through it, but there is nothing to fear in this passage because God is there too.

But the third stage is the time of reigning with Jesus. This is forever. In the scope of forever, both this life and this death are blips in eternity. I had a friend in high school whose dad was Muslim and whose mother was Catholic. To my knowledge, none of them practiced much of their faith, but this friend came to church with me for a time. We were talking about eternity one day – you know, like most teens do! – and this friend said this to me, “I like to think of eternity this way. Imagine you had a gigantic boulder. One every 1000 years a small bird came and pecked at that boulder once and then went away. When that bird had finally obliterated that boulder, eternity is just beginning.” Pretty astute for an agnostic/Muslim/Catholic, I should say!

Yes, life now absolutely matters, and I will work with you to do all I can to have our lives matter, but life now is but a blip in the scope of what God has coming. Willard reminds us that, “The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do.”[5]

One of the final thoughts Willard leaves us with in his book is this, “Perhaps it would be a good exercise for each of us to ask ourselves: Really, how many cities could I now govern under God? If…Baltimore were turned over to me, with power to do what I want with it, how would things turn out? An honest answer to this question might do much to prepare us for our eternal future in the universe….When I think about this I am impressed with how few who want to ‘rule cities’ could actually be trusted to do it. If I had to assign rules, I suspect I would try to find a few humble believers who don’t look like much from the human point of view but who have learned to have no confidence in themselves and put their every hope in God.”[6]

This really hit home to me as I read this given the unmasking of the sexual immorality of so many of our politicians and celebrities. We have endowed these people with so much power in our world, and they don’t deserve it and haven’t earned it. But, how would you be if God gave you this kind of power? Would you serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, which is what we ask of the leaders of our own church?

How we live now reveals what we believe about how we will live forever. The image in Revelation 21 – of things as they will be for most of eternity – is of God coming down and living with us. “The vision is not of creation passing away in favor of something totally different the likes of which we’ve never experienced. No, it’s [the stuff of this creation] that will be renewed and restored to their original splendor.”[7] Heaven is earthy but renewed, and God has a role for all who are ready to stand it to be a part of this unimaginably wonderful and creative work.

So, my friends, have your eyes fixed on what will be because it will help you know how to direct your steps today. You have nothing to fear because God holds your every step in his hands.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/04/12/americans-spending-more-than-ever-plastic-surgery/100365258/

[2] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy, 376.

[3] http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Elliot

[5] Willard, 379.

[6] ibid., 398-399.

[7] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/easter-5c/?type=lectionary_epistle