What We’ll Find in the Future (According to the Bible)

(An excerpt from the sermon Good News About the Future. Reading Time: Less than three minutes.)

Some things will, thankfully, be missing from the future. But some of the things that are missing now will, thankfully, be there in the future. The most important is God’s presence. Because of Adam’s sin in the Garden, the God-with-us became the God-away-from-us. All our woes followed on that absence. All of us have experienced the feeling that something is missing. That’s because something – no, Someone – is missing and nothing has been right while he has been away. Or, rather, while we have been away. But he will be God-with-us again. That is good news.

The promise of God’s presence has sustained his people. To Jacob: “I will be with you” (Genesis 26:3). To Moses: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). To Joshua: “I myself will be with you” (Deuteronomy 31:23). To Gideon: “I will be with you” (Judges 6:16). To his people: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you” (Isaiah 43:2). The promise of the New Covenant, which was brought into effect through Jesus, was: “I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Hebrews 8:10-11).

These are promises we cherish and yet how often God has seemed far away! Like Zion, we say: “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14). God-with-us has been, because of sin, God-away-from-us.

But here is what the future holds (Revelation 21:3): “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

But if God has desired to be with us all along, why hasn’t he? Because we couldn’t endure his presence. I don’t mean just emotionally but in every way. Sin has so unraveled us that the near presence of the holy God would unmake us entirely.

Well then how can he be with us in the future? What has changed? Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ has sent his Spirit into our hearts. The resurrection will transform us, remake us, into People of the Presence. We will grow and thrive in God’s presence, like a plant that loves the sun. That is good news.

What else awaits us? Every good thing awaits us. In God’s future, nothing good will be lost. “The kings of the earth (Revelations 21:24) will bring their splendor into it.” This echoes Isaiah who said that the wealth of the nations will be brought into God’s future kingdom.

(Want to watch this sermon? Click here.)

Picture it this way. You are standing in a train station. There are two tracks, running into the distance, as far as the eye can see. One comes from the east and ends at the station while the other, after a span in which they overlap, begins at the station, and runs to the west. The trains that run on those tracks are unimaginably long. The first, which arrives at the station with innumerable cars, is filled with all the riches of earths’ history.

Its treasures include business, technology, art, music, science, literature, sports, games, and more – all the good things a society (whether ancient or modern) has ever produced. But these precious things are like raw ore and are filled with impurities.

Mixed in with these good things, even embedded in them, are toxins, injustices, greed, hatred, bigotry, and inequality. The sheer volume of these evils outweighs the good things they pervade.

As the first train reaches its terminal point, it is unloaded and all its treasures are purified of their contaminants. The ugliness that has defaced earth’s beauties, the toxins that have poisoned them, the hatred that has scarred humanity’s best efforts, is removed and incinerated. This is called “The Judgment.” What is left – and there is a great deal left – is loaded onto the second train.

The age to come will not start with a blank slate. “The wealth of nations” will be brought into it. Earth’s natural beauties and every good work will be preserved by the God who never wastes anything – least of all people. The things we have rightly loved will not be lost but they, like us, will be purified. That is good news.

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What Will Be Missing in the Future (According to the Bible)

(An excerpt from the sermon Good News About the Future.)

There are things that have been so much a part of our experience that we cannot imagine life without them. Fear is one. Even people who have no cognitive apprehension of fear are nonetheless restrained and unsettled by it. Fear was the first emotion Adam and Eve experienced after the rebellion, and it has been the quintessential human emotion ever since.

When the fear we have carried all our lives is gone – and it will be – we will feel a heavy load has been lifted. We’ll be buoyant, as if gravity itself has changed. Like Neil Armstrong bounding across the face of the moon; like the man crippled from birth who was healed at the temple gate, we’ll go “walking and leaping and praising God.”

There are other things that will not make it into God’s future kingdom. Revelation 21 and 22 mentions some of them. One, according to Revelation 21:1, is the sea. How could there be no sea?

It is important to remember that The Revelation belongs to an ancient (now extinct) genre of literature called apocalyptic, for which symbolism is its stock and trade. The symbols in Revelation are drawn largely from the Old Testament, which is the key to understanding them. One example is the sea. John says in verse 1: “And there was no longer any sea.”

This makes sense when we understand that in Old Testament symbolism the sea regularly represents chaos and evil. For example, in the Book of Daniel (which belongs to the same genre), the beasts that devastate the earth arise out of the sea. When John says that there will be no more sea, he is telling us that the source from which chaos and evil arise will be gone. There will be no more turmoil, disorder, and confusion. That is good news.

(Want to watch this sermon? Click here.)

Look at verse 4: “There will be no more death.” Death is an intruder. It was smuggled into our world, our lives, and even our bodies through Adam’s sin. If you have been around for any time at all, you know The Book of Common Prayer is right: “In the midst of life we are in death.” But it is even worse than that: not only are we in death; death is in us. But through the resurrection of Jesus Christ our ancient enemy has already been defeated and at our resurrection it will be obliterated – expunged from the universe. That is good news!

There will be no more mourning or crying – no more tears. The inconsolable hurt that resides in the depths of the human soul will be gone. The bitter spring from which those tears flow will be dried up. In the words of Isaiah, “sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

There will be no more pain. Can you imagine? No more arthritic pain. No more pain from disease or injury. No more emotional pain. For some people, pain is the “enemy that is closer than a brother.” It keeps them awake at night, haunts their sleep, and meets them first thing each morning. Pain too is an interloper, but it will be stopped at the border. It will not enter the age to come.

There will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain because there will be no more sin. Imagine walking into a room you’ve never been in before. Every inch of you is dirty. You are bedraggled, weary, and sad, carrying a weight that nearly buckles your legs beneath you. But as you cross the threshold – you don’t even know how it happens – the weight is lifted; the dirt is gone. You not only feel good, you feel better than you have ever felt, better than you knew it was possible to feel. That is what the future holds for those who belong to Jesus Christ. That is good news!

There will be no more sin (verse 8) because there will be no more sinners. And that includes you and me. We will be changed. Sin, and the devastation it has caused, will be gone. The world will be changed. No more greed. No more hatred. No more violence. No more lies. No more preying on innocent people. Sin will not be around us and it will not be in us. That is incomprehensible. That is incomparable. That is good news!

There will be no more darkness and night (21:25). In the Bible, darkness and night symbolize confusion, deception, and sin. But in the age to come, there will be light, transparency, and truth, for “the glory of God gives it light” (v. 23) “and the Lamb is its lamp.” That is good news!

There will be no more shame (21:27). Since our first parents’ sin, the black thread of shame has been woven into our very nature. It caused Adam and Eve to hide, and we’ve been hiding ever since. They hid their shame in the trees of the Garden. We hide ours in distractions and work. But shame will not enter into the age to come. No more fear of what others think. Even the possibility of shame will be removed. That is good news!

Another thing that will be missing – a very consequential thing: There will be no more curse (22:3). Adam’s rebellion brought a curse that has affected every aspect of life on earth. But the curse will be no more. And this because of Christ who, in Paul’s words, “became a curse for us.” He made all this possible. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Jesus Christ.

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HOPE: Good News About the Future

The Bible gives many reasons for hope. Christians believe that the future will be good – incomprehensibly and incomparably good! This sermon shows us why.

Viewing Time: 25:51

(Excerpts will be posted later in the week.)

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Masks in America: Hiding, Revealing, Transforming

It would not be surprising to learn that the various words for “mask” around the world have been used more in the past year than in all recorded history combined. That is impressive, given the length of time masks have been around. In 2018, archeologists discovered a 9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask in the Middle East. One could argue that the earliest masks, although not face masks, were worn by Adam and Eve when they donned fig leaf coverings and tried to hide from the Lord. 

Ancient Egyptians wore masks in religious rituals. They also placed masks on the faces of the dead to protect them on their crossing to the afterlife. In the Far East, masks were worn both for religious ceremonies and for theatrical productions. Classical actors routinely performed in masks, which explains why the ancient Greek word for actor was “hypocrite,” which means, “the one under the mask.”

Masks sometimes serve as identity markers. The mask marked the stage performer as an actor, the shaman as a healer, the chief as an authority. In West Africa, certain masks identified their wearers as intermediaries through whom petitions might be delivered to the dead.

More often, though, masks are worn to hide one’s identity. In ancient religious ceremonies, masks sometimes hid the wearer from malicious spirits. Historically, judges in many cultures have donned masks to protect themselves from reprisal from both friends and enemies of the accused. Today, companies are working to design “masks” that hide people’s identity from facial recognition software.

The KKK’s white, cone-shaped hood served both purposes. It both identified its wearer and hid his identity. Whenever anyone saw the white hood, they knew what its wearer stood for and with what group he was associated. At the same time, it concealed his personal identity from authorities who might call him to account.

There is third reason, particularly in primitive rituals, that people wore masks: to transform their identity. When Pueblo ceremonial dancers wore masks, they believed they were taken over by the spirit whose identity they had assumed. In many cultures, masks were considered a means by which their wearers could become one with the character they represented.

In Max Beerbohm’s story The Happy Hypocrite, a dissolute aristocrat falls in love with a virtuous young woman. She refuses his proposal, telling him that she can only marry a man with the face of a saint. The aristocrat then buys a remarkable mask which provides him with a saintly appearance. He marries the girl and immediately begins to change how he acts, returning ill-gotten gains, giving to charity, and adopting a simple lifestyle.

He is, however, soon confronted by a woman who knows his true identity and insists he remove his mask. A scuffle ensues and in the fracas the mask is torn off. To his surprise, his face has come to look like the mask.

It seems to me that the facemasks that people around the world are now wearing serve each of these purposes: to identify people, to hide people, and to transform people.

Today’s ubiquitous masks are certainly meant to hide us (or others) from COVID-19, but they also identify us. In the United States, facemasks – or the lack thereof – quickly became identity markers. Conservatives who wear masks are mistakenly thought to be liberals and liberals who don’t wear masks are assumed to be conservatives. People are identified – or misidentified, as the case may be – by their masks.

Today’s masks also have had a transformational effect, both on those who wear them and those who don’t. By wearing – or refusing to wear – a mask, many people have aligned themselves with a cause. Whenever people do that – whether the cause be political, social, or religious – they adjust their thoughts, attitudes, and actions to the support of that cause.

This transformational effect of masks could be put to good use. Christians should perhaps wear masks that say “Christ-Follower” or feature a Bible verse like John 3:16. All of us could wear masks that simply say, “American.” If we were to adjust our thoughts, attitudes, and actions to these identities, the transformation would be positive and the world would be a better place.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Our Shame and Our Hope

Humans were designed to rule the world but powers they do not understand now rule them. Under God’s rule, they could rule, but the moment they stopped being subject to God, they became subject to fear (verse 10) and were ruled by desire (verse 16). The earth that once cooperated with them no longer yielded to their touch. On the very day of their revolt, there began a struggle between man and God, man and earth, and man and man. They were expelled from the garden, and the world began to fall apart. And so did the humans. And, to all appearances, so did God’s plan.

But the Creator is not easily stopped. In fact, he can’t be stopped. He made the world so that it would fall apart, should the humans turn away from him. It was a safeguard and a mercy. The recalcitrant earth, the relational conflict, the pain, fear and, above all, death were God-designed consequences of man’s rebellion. Why? Because God wants revenge? No. Because God wants us. Sorrow and failure and struggle are a mercy. The Creator knows we will not come to him without them. And if we don’t come to him, we cannot come to ourselves, to our rightful place, and to our joy. Only when we have fully come to God, can we fully be ourselves.

The man and woman were expelled from the safety of the garden into the world they had betrayed. Immanuel – the God with them of the Garden – was now God away from them. And the distance they had introduced into that relationship had also come between them. They were no longer with each other in the same way they had been. Their disobedience introduced a painful new reality into their world: distance. They were far from God, increasingly far from each other, and even far from themselves – the selves they were made to be.

Physicists tells us that the universe is constantly expanding, which means the distance between constellations and solar systems is growing. Theologians tell us that what is happening on the physical level is also happening on a spiritual one. Adam’s and Eve’s sin – not eating a fruit but rejecting their Creator and the role he’d given them; going their own way and setting up as their own god – has been repeated by all of us and has led to heartbreaking distance between humans and between humans and God.

The result of the choice they made (which we too have all made more times than we can count), is chaos. There is injustice, hatred, misunderstanding, malice, and bitterness. And these things not only bubble over in society, they bubble over in us. Chaos without and chaos within. This is what happens when God-with-us is God-away-from-us, and even God-against-us. Nothing can be right while we are our own gods.

The humans rejected the Creator, and that is our shame. But the Creator did not reject the humans, and that is our hope. Instead, he went looking for them. Genesis 3:8 says, “They hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’” Rather than crushing the rebellion, God chose to reverse it. The relationship between the Creator and his creatures was not the same. Groomed to be regents, they had become rebels. The damage had been done and it was horrendous, but God knew how it could be undone and set about the task of undoing it. This is where Jesus comes into the story.

(You can watch the entire sermon here.)

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Creation and the Butterfly Effect

Adam and Even needed to be trained for the awesome task before them, but they didn’t want to wait. They spurned the opportunity to rule under God and the preparation it required and chose instead to rule beside him. They believed that they would be better off – happier, more fulfilled, more who they were meant to be – if they were autonomous. They decided that they knew more than God, which is the mindset that lies behind all our sorrows. When they ate the fruit, they were not acting like naughty children but like rebellious conspirators and, at least to some degree, they knew it. What happened in the garden was not a slip but an attempted leap that ended in a fall – not just for them but for all of us.

Here’s why. God designed the world in such a way that everything exists in relationship to everything else. Because of this, a solitary action may have enormous consequences. Physicists call a system like ours “dynamical.” A small change in initial conditions has the potential to bring vast changes later on. Some such design was necessary if humans were to fulfill their calling to rule the world under God.

The scientist Edward Lorenz famously illustrated dynamical systems by suggesting the beating of a butterfly’s wings in the southern hemisphere two weeks ago may lead to a major storm in the northern hemisphere today. The butterfly’s wings affect one thing, which affects another, and another, moving like a wave across hemispheres. The butterfly beats its wings in the Amazon rainforest and, after a progression of cause-and-effect incidents involving a number too large for us to grasp, Kansas has a tornado.

What Adam and Eve did in the Garden led to storms of evil in the world. The wave that began with a desire in their hearts spread to a thought in their heads, then to an action in their hands, and then to a break in their relationships with God and each other. The wave swept out of the garden and Genesis 3-11 chronicles the wreck and ruin it caused. The relationship between Adam and Eve was damaged. There was envy and hostility between their sons. Families were torn apart. Corruption spread through society as a whole and violence ensued. Successive generations were overwhelmed by it, as the wave caused by the original sin swelled into a tsunami.  

The Bible teaches that Adam’s sin has washed over every one of us and has distorted everything that makes us human: our spirits, bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships. But the wave doesn’t stop there. It pervades the structures humans create: economies, governments, companies, businesses, schools, police departments, service clubs – everything. Even the earth itself has been affected.

(See the entire sermon here.)

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When God Became Immanuel

It was not in a stable that the Creator became Immanuel. It was in a Garden. Do you remember what the Scripture said? “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” Genesis 3:8). The Creator, this being of inconceivable wisdom and power, who brought into existence the visible universe and, along with it, realities that are not visible (at least to creatures like us) was with humans: with them in ways they could readily perceive and in ways that caused them to flourish. He was Immanuel. The gospel rests on, and returns to, this happy truth.

The Creator made the earth to be a place that would beautifully and remarkably sustain biological life. We today talk of sustainable resources. The earth was created a sustainable resource. We talk about renewable energy. The humans had it. Everything was perfect. The Creator placed them in an ecosystem (Eden) that was the ideal environment for the kind of biological life he had given them.

The Creator had a plan. Unlike the angels and like the animals, he gave the humans a biological makeup so that they could reproduce and fill the earth. Unlike the animals and like the angels, he gave them a spiritual makeup, so that they could live forever in relationship to him. And unlike any other creature that we know of, he made them in his image. They were designed so that they and their descendants would be like the Creator himself. They were both animal and spiritual, perfectly suited to represent earth to heaven and heaven to earth.

The Creator then conferred on them the awesome responsibility of ruling the earth as his regents. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over … all the earth…’” (Genesis 1:26-27). His plan was to set up images of himself (that is, humans) all over the planet – and who knows, perhaps someday all over the galaxy – to represent him. They were to wisely care for the planet and its creatures as his representatives. Think of the earth and the universe as a kingdom, the Creator as the king, and the humans as the king’s wise and loving regents.

It was for that sacred calling that the man and woman were being prepared. We don’t know how long their preparation in the garden was intended to last. For all we know it may have been hundreds of years: learning how to govern the earth and its creatures wisely is no small thing. Think about what that might entail: A mastery of biology, physics, engineering, zoology, and much more!

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The Backstory to the Gospel Story

The sermon The Backstory to the Gospel Story gives us a big-picture look that will help us better understand and share our faith. Excerpts will be posted during the week, but you can views the sermon below. (Length: approximately 26 minutes.)

The Backstory to the Gospel Story (Genesis 3:1-9)
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Hope, Presidents, and Inauguration Speeches

I write this on the day that Joe Biden was sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States. I thought President Biden’s inauguration speech was well-written and, at times, dynamically delivered. The theme, to which he returned again and again, was the need for national unity.

A secondary theme, a prerequisite for presidential inauguration speeches, was hope. The president brought those themes together when he called all Americans to unite to fight hopelessness. Picking up the hope theme later in the speech, he promised, in the words of Psalm 30, that though “weeping may endure for a night … joy comes in the morning.” Near the conclusion of the address, he said: “Together we will write an American story of hope…”

Every U.S. president in my lifetime has spoken of hope at his inauguration. This may be because inauguration day is a day of hope in the U.S. or it may be that Americans are naturally a hopeful people. They extend hope like a line of credit, placing it at the incoming president’s disposal.

What is the substance of this hope to which presidents routinely refer? Dwight Eisenhower spoke of it as the hope for the healing of a divided world. George W. Bush called freedom the hope of millions worldwide. Ronald Reagan thought of our hope, indeed “the last, best hope of man on earth,” in terms of an “opportunity society” where all of us “will go forward.”

Peace also figures into inauguration day hopes. Jimmy Carter hoped for a peaceful world built on international policies rather than on weapons of war. John Kennedy pledged to engage in a “peaceful revolution of hope” to assist “free men and free governments” south of our border.

Peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom form the substance of hope in inaugural speeches, but how to obtain them is far from obvious. Certainly, the united efforts of the American people play a necessary role. But presidents have assumed another dynamic is in play and that assumption is questionable.

That dynamic can be described in a word: progress. Politicians take it for granted, as they have for nearly two centuries. A world of peace, justice, prosperity, and freedom is coming, and democracy, science, technology and, in some circles, capitalism, are speeding its arrival.

The belief in progress has saturated modern western thinking and lies behind the promises made and believed by so many politicians. But the idea of inevitable progress is a myth, fairly new to the world (dating from the time of the Industrial Revolution), indemonstrable by argument and unverifiable by experience.

The idea of progress draws on and is a distortion of the Christian vision of hope. In the Christian vision, God sovereignly moves all things toward a glorious end. In its utopian knockoff, it is progress itself that is sovereign. In the Christian vision, Christ is central. In its secular counterpart, good-intentioned humans are at the center.

“The real problem with the myth of progress,” wrote N.T. Wright, “is … that it cannot deal with evil.” The inauguration day speeches, so full of hope, have often run aground on human evil. In 1957, Eisenhower called the authority of the United Nations the “best hope of our age,” an authority he pledged to fortify. Sixty years later, another Republican president called the same international body “pointless.”

Richard Nixon, who promised to “set as our goal the decent order that makes progress possible and our lives secure,” ordered the Watergate break-in.

John Kennedy claimed that “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty.” Lee Harvey Oswald, holding a mail-order rifle in his mortal hands, ended Kennedy’s life.

Eisenhower’s “hope of progress” has proved helpless against actual evil. Greed pushed Kennedy’s hope of ending poverty further away than it was in 1961. Reagan’s “strong and prosperous America, at peace with itself and the world,” has suffered from racial division within and the longest war in its history without.

I’m grateful for hopeful presidents and gladly join them in their hopes. I will not, however, rest my hope on some vague idea of progress. I will instead place my hope in God.

(First published by Gannet.)

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How Can I Talk with Others About Faith?

Do you have friends and family you’d like to talk to about your faith? A good place to start is with talking to God about your friends and family. Ask him for opportunities to speak with them. If that is how you are praying, you’ll be more likely to recognize opportunities when they come – many of us don’t!

A coworker says: “We’ve got a teatime on Sunday morning but one of our guys can’t come. You interested?” That’s an opportunity. A gracious answer might be, “I’d love to, but I go to church. Maybe I could go to early service this week.” Something as simple as that may lead to another question: “You go to church every week?” And that to another. Pray for opportunities.

Second, lead a life that raises questions. “I was sure you were going to tell him off. Why didn’t you?” “Why are you still taking to her after what she did?” “Are you guys always have people over to your house?” “I’ve noticed you don’t put people down. Are you, like, religious or something?” “You volunteer at the food pantry? What’s that like?”

Third, get prepared. Try taking a practical apologetics course. (Christianity Explored is one option offered in local churches around the world.) Read a book on the subject. Ask questions of people who have been around for a while – the questions you’re afraid someone will ask you. There are answers – good ones.

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People want those answers … but they need the Answerer. In the end, answers don’t satisfy; the Answerer does. The best thing we can do for others is to follow St. Peter’s advice and set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts. It’s our relationship with Jesus that makes our kingdom conversations worth having. It makes all the difference.

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