(1 Corinthians 15:19-28) If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (NIV)
I think it was Dr. Johnson who said, “Men live in hope, die in despair.”
I first heard that quote in college—not in an English lit class but in the Student Union, where I was playing ping-pong with my college roommate and dear friend George Ashok Kumar Taupu (Dr.) Das. He’s the one who taught me how to play and, looking back, I’m amazed at his patience. In our first games, he beat me 21-3 or 21-4 and, even then, I only scored points when he stopped paying attention.
But after months of playing almost daily, I had become competitive. He was still beating me every game, but by this time the score was 21-10, then 21-14, then 21-18 – and he was paying attention. I could see that he was trying.
It was during one of these contests – sometimes tied, sometimes the lead changing by a point or two – that the finish line came in sight for me. I could taste victory. The game nearly over – just a couple of more points – and I might finally win. But George buckled down, shut me down, and handed me yet another defeat.
I must have said something about how I almost had him or how I would get him next time. And that’s when our other great friend, our resident genius John Erdel, who was sitting there, idly watching the game, gave me his deadpan look and said: “Men live in hope, die in despair.”
“Men live in hope, die in despair.” What a dismal view of life. What a demoralizing view of death. Anyone who actually believed that could never live in hope – could only live in despair and die in despair. But the resurrection of Jesus means that we can live in hope, die in hope, and be raised in glory. The death and resurrection of Jesus is both the biggest thing that has ever happened in the world and the biggest thing that has ever happened to you, whether you know it or not. The resurrection is our assurance that hope will abandon us in the end.
As we saw last week – and if you missed that sermon, you should go to www.lockwoodchurch.org/media and listen to it online – our story is not that we will fly off to heaven after we die to live eternally as disembodied spirits. That’s Plato, not Jesus. Our story is that God has come to earth in Jesus and is, even at this moment, working out his plan for us and for the world.
From that story, which is our story, comes a transforming hope that will change the way we think, the way we feel, and the things we do. What happened to and through Jesus then can change us now, change us for the better. Let’s drill down into this passage and see why that is true.
Paul writes in verse 22: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” and later quotes the prophet Hosea (verse 54), “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” The resurrection of Jesus means that death’s reign of terror is coming to an end. Death has tyrannized our race since the time of Adam and Eve. The fear of death is a constant throughout history and around the globe. The fear of death lies behind, and feeds, all other fears. Life without it is almost unimaginable.
Susan Sontag, the atheist writer and filmmaker, was 71 when she died from cancer. The doctors and nurses tried to talk to her about death and help her prepare, but Sontag would not listen. The thought of death terrified her. She fought to keep it at bay. It was too terrible. She must not die.
She thought of this world as a foul tomb, filled with the stench of decaying corpses, yet she didn’t dare leave it. “She thought herself unhappy,” her son said, yet she “wanted to live, unhappy, for as long as she possibly could.” Even though life was a nightmare, she was terrified of waking up.
Susan Sontag did not have the hope of the resurrection. But we who believe in Jesus, in whom his life is already present by the Holy Spirit, can face death courageously and even joyfully. The author of Hebrews writes: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Contrast Susan Sontag’s fear with the courage of my good friend and colleague, our former Children’s Ministry Director, Amy Snapp. Amy has been battling cancer. Like Sontag, she improved and the cancer was in remission. Now it has come back.
I spoke to her yesterday. She is not hiding from the future. She told me: “I’m good. Ready to go. I’m not afraid.” Amy says she expects dying to be an adventure, like Lucy going into – and through – the Wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia.
When Amy mentioned Narnia, it brought to mind my favorite passage, which comes at the very end of book 7. The Lion Aslan, the Christ figure, says to the children: “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”
(Now I am quoting.) “Lucy said, ‘We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.’
‘No fear of that,’ said Aslan. ‘Have you not guessed?’
Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.
‘There was a real railway accident,’ said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream has ended; this is morning.’
And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus, gives his people hope in the face of death. In 1973, during the reign of Idi Amin, the Butcher of Uganda, the people of Kabale were ordered to come to the stadium to witness the execution of three men. Bishop Kivengere asked for, and was granted, permission to speak to the men before they died. He approached them from behind and was surprised by what he saw when they turned around. Their faces were radiant. They smiled. One of them said, “Bishop, thank you for coming … I wanted to tell you: Heaven is now open, and there is nothing between me and my God. Please tell my wife and children that I am going to be with Jesus.”
The bishop thought the firing squad needed to hear that, so he translated their remarks into the soldiers’ own language. It left the firing squad so flummoxed that they forgot to pull the masks down over the Christians’ faces before executing them. The condemned men were looking toward the people in the stands and waving, handcuffs and all, and the people waved back. Then shots were fired, and the three were with Jesus.
The next Sunday, the bishop preached in the hometown of one of the three men. As he spoke, the huge crowd that had gathered erupted into a song of praise to Jesus! This is what the hope of the resurrection can do for us. It can free us from the fear of death.
In the resurrection, Christ cut death down to size. Through Christ, we can rise above our fear of death. The great English poet George Herbert said, “Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel” – he’s referring to the death and resurrection of Jesus – “has made him just a gardener.” When those who are planted with Jesus come up, they will be glorious as he is glorious.
But our hope is far greater than the hope that we will somehow survive death. The resurrection gives us reason to believe that we will be – that nothing can stop us from being – fulfilled, completed, perfected. Paul puts it this way: “The body that is sown” – gardener imagery again! – “is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power…” (vv. 42-43). And verses 52-53: “we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”
Susan Sontag got it wrong. Earth is not a grave but a garden. This – weakness, sickness, inability, depression, aging, loss – is no more the whole story than the kernel is the whole stalk of corn or the acorn is the towering oak. God’s plan for humanity is not pain and suffering but joy and glory. It is not weakness but power. It is not sadness but joy. It is not the shame we know so well but a glory that eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor human mind imagined. (1 Cor. 2:9).
You, if you share resurrection life through faith in Jesus, will be happier than you can now conceive, stronger than you can now believe, and overflowing with the energy of love. The promises seem too good to believe and would be too good to believe, if we hadn’t already tasted this life, experienced this power, known this love.
Listen: the resurrection is the promise, the evidence, that the long and tortuous project known familiarly as Shayne Looper – substitute your own name, if you have Jesus and he has you – will one day be finished and it will be good. It will be very good. It will finally all make sense, when even Shayne Looper is crowned with glory and full of joy, bringing glory and joy to God himself and glory and joy to all the rest of us. This – nothing less, and certainly far more – is what it awaits the people of God.
But the hope of the resurrection is more than the hope – as great as it is – that we as individuals will be fulfilled. It is that all things in heaven and on earth will be made right, made good, made glorious. The resurrection means that God’s plan is unstoppable, and that heaven will make right every earthly wrong.
Sometimes that is hard to believe. I have seen things. I have stood in the ER with a family that hardly dared to breath as the doctor performed CPR on their son and brother, whose body lay before them, torn by a hideous gunshot wound. The doctor gave up. Too many times I’ve sat with families – sometimes a young dad and mom, the mom holding her child in her arms – when a nurse unplugged life support.
I’ve cried with too many people whose image of themselves was shattered like glass by the terrible abuse they suffered as children. You’ve known them too. We not only know them; we are them: the sufferers, the abused, the wronged, the fearful, the damaged. So what if the future holds inconceivable glory? The past holds unutterable pain. Even if we someday attain joy, will we not always be haunted by the suffering?
The plain answer is no. C. S. Lewis put it this way: We “say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”
Listen to these words of hope from the throne of God. “‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new!’”
The singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson put it to words like this.
“After the last tear falls, after the last secret’s told
After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves and the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that’s just too hard
There is love…
Cause after the last plan fails, after the last siren wails
After the last young husband sails off to join the war
After the last, ‘This marriage is over’
After the last young girl’s innocence is stolen
After the last years of silence that won’t let a heart open
There is love
Love, love, love
And in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales
‘Cause after the last tear falls there is love.
There is love because, after the last tear falls, there is God.
Our hopes are audacious. They are stupendous. Our hopes are unparalleled and unrivaled. The Marxist hoped for a better world. The Christian hopes for a perfect one: a new heaven and new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). The hope of the most enthusiastic Marxist fades to nothing in the shining hope of the resurrection, the way a candle fades before the noonday sun.
Our hope is not just that our sins – worse than we remember and more than we can count – will not be held against us, though because of Jesus, they will not! Our hope is not just that our pains will be forgotten, swallowed up in bliss. Our hope is not just that our shame will be buried with us when we die and be left in the grave when we rise. Our hope is not just that evil and injustice will be destroyed, never to return. Our hope is that God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
This hope is not like the Buddhist hope of Nirvana, in which the delusion of selfhood is finally extinguished and there is only the Unity. No, when God is all in all, we will still be us. Better than that: we will have become us for the first time, more ourselves than ever before, made to be with God and to be filled with God.
You see, what lies at the foundation of all existence is not subatomic particles or the so-called four fundamental forces. What lies at the foundation of all existence is the fundamental relationship: the overflowing, joyous relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And what rests at the pinnacle of all existence is relationship: the overflowing, joyous relationship of Father, Son, Holy Spirit and, by the triumph of grace, us.
This long story of bullets and wars, of marriages ended and innocence stolen, is different than you thought and better than you’ve dreamed. It is the story of the perfectly joyful, perfectly beautiful, perfectly perfect Trinity making perfectly joyful, perfectly beautiful, perfectly perfect beings of us and inviting us to join their party. Emptiness is not our future, but fullness, “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
Because of the joyful love of the Triune God, this is our destiny. This awaits us. And it has been made possible, made real, by the loving sacrifice and glorious resurrection of our man in heaven, who is also “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
This is why the resurrection matters. This is why we celebrate. This is why we hope. Amen.
(If you prefer to watch and listen to this sermon, you can find it on Youtube. The sermon starts at 25:17.)
 Colin Chapman, The Case for Christianity
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce ©1946. HarperCollins Edition 2001. p. 69.