What is Certain

This sermon was preached on April 18, 2021 (Easter 3B). The text of the day was 1 John 3:1-7.

We love to have things just so. We love to know what comes next. You might say you’re a surprise person, and that might be true when the surprise is usually a present, but when you honestly don’t know what comes next in life, there is anxiety.

That’s one of the things that has been so frustrating about living in a pandemic; we don’t know when things are going to change away from like it is now. When are we not going to have to worry about getting sick, or our friends getting sick, or our children getting sick? When are we going to be able to move about in the world in a comfortable way? When am I not going to have to wear a mask anymore? When are we going to have a fuller worship service? When am I not going to feel shame for dining out? Nothing is certain.

We want answers. We want to be able to plan.. We want all the comforts we think certainty brings us. Basically, we want control for that is what certaintiy Is really about.

This extends to eschatology, or the last things. A common question that pops up whether it be when I’m leading a Pastor’s class (baptism preparation class), or at the meeting before a funeral, or, simply around the dinner table is “what happens after we die?” or a more palatable remix of that question is “what is heaven like?” It’s really the ultimate question.

The truth of the matter is we don’t fully know what resurrection looks like. We don’t know what we will be like when the age to come is the age of now. We don’t know what it will be like when Jesus is fully revealed. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to provide a little certainty, to exert a little control over something we have no control over.

In the 1998 movie “What Dreams May Come,” Robbin Williams plays a pediatrician who marries his beloved and has 2 wonderful children. Both his children die tragically in a car crash and then Williams’ character himself ends up dying in a car crash too. After not realizing he is dead, lingering, and causing pain to his grieving wife, he moves on to what comes next.

He awakens to find himself in a fantastical world that is revealed to be of his own creation. He’s in heaven and it is the stuff of his wildest dreams. An art aficionado in life, he has painted his world with a brush of vibrant colors, beautiful landscapes, and textures we cannot possibly imagine. Heaven, though with some rules, is literally what you create it to be.

Then there’s the book by C.S. Lewis The Great Divorce, where the narrator is given a tour of Heaven by his self-stylized mentor author George MacDonald. The main descriptor of heaven in this picture is “reality.” Heaven is more real than anything we’ve ever experienced and to be in this new life is to have the old life transformed where one’s time in this age is simply enveloped into resurrected life; our humdrum day to day life becomes an extension of the heavenly reality.

These are just a couple of pictures of how people have tried to answer that ever-present question, to give a little bit of certainty where there is none. But 1 John’s words pour a damper on our hopes to know what it’s all going to look like: what we will be has not yet been revealed. what we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. (1 John 3:2b)

What dreams may come are unknown. Chris Stapleton sings it best,

“Don’t go looking for the reasons
Don’t go asking Jesus why
We’re not meant to know the answers
They belong to the by and by[1]

The thing about this venture of trying to find out what we are going to be like in heaven, or what the resurrection means for our lives, or whatever, is that it misses the promise God has already given to us. It misses the awe-inducing good news John led this scripture with: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. (1 John 3:1). Maybe we take for granted the amazing love this actually is.

Because it is indeed amazing. God chose you. This isn’t the general idea that God created everybody so God is everyone’s divine parent. No, God chose you. This is love in particular. God chose you. This is a shepherd who goes and finds the one lost sheep. God chose you. God adopted you. You are part of God’s family. You are one of God’s children.

It’s a radical idea in today’s society that places so much emphasis on value, worth, and status where you reach the top because you are the cream of the crop. You rise above your station. You show how talented, or smart, or hard-working you are compared to everyone else and you reap the benefits. Life is a contest of winners and losers where one becomes a winner by being “better” than others. We want to be certain of our place on the social ladder.

Just hop onto social media where people project the perfect life (or the perfectly “messy” life) for others to shower likes and hearts on them to boost their dopamine levels and tell them they are loved. I’m certainly not above it; I love it when a picture I post or tweet I share or essay I write is widely liked, hearted, read. My wife and I have a standing agreement that we’ll “like” each other’s Instagram posts so we at least get some affirmation. And that’s what this is about, I suppose, we want the certainty that we are affirmed, enough, and loveable. We do, work, prove, strive, and climb all for the hope that someday we will feel that ultimate love, that we will have earned our place.

But your status before God? It’s not up to you. The love given in Jesus’ death and resurrection? It’s not up for grabs, it’s already been given. Grace has already come to you.

You did not have to work for this love. You did not have to show sufficient good works for this love. You did not have to prove you are worthy of this love. As C. Clifton Black writes, “There is nothing that we have done or can do to earn the status of children of God. This is not an entitlement. it is, however, a reality grasped by faith, which contradicts the ultimacy of this life’s miseries and deathward slouch.[2]

Being baptized in a death like Christ’s, you are raised to new life like Christ’s. In those waters, God named you and claimed you “you are my beloved child, with you, I am well pleased.”

This is true whether you believe it or not. This is true whether you question it or not. This is true whether you achieve that perfect life you’ve always dreamed of or not.

You are one of God’s children. Together we make up God’s family. And this family is patterned after the one who saved it, who cleansed it, who adopted it. We do not fully know what we will be like in the resurrection, but we know we will be like Jesus; that’s what John tells us in our scripture. Someway, somehow the imperfections will be removed. In Jesus, there is no possibility of Sin because he is the one who takes it away. He is all that is good and true and pure. And so to be with him means that we will be good and true and pure. God makes us into that which pleases God.

The minor prophet Malachi saysBut who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. (Mal. 3:2-3) Jesus will purify us so we will be like him, Christ our brother, one of God’s children.

The trick is, this future promise impinges on our present lives. Having been given the grace of God we are in turn more graceful. Having been welcomed into God’s family as one of God’s children, we are in turn more welcoming. Having been loved regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, we are in turn more loving. We are more playful, taking ourselves less seriously, resting in the true promise.

This doesn’t mean we disengage from the world, retreat into our enclave of perceived safety away from the news of another shooting of a black man, away from the questions COVID has laid at our feet, away from the grief that continually knocks at our door. No, knowing we are one of God’s children frees us to be more fully present in the world living the vision Paul laid out for us in Romans: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Rom. 12:14-18)

Of course, if you find yourself saying, “yeah…but…what about…” and still wanting some certainty, there is the vision of a new heaven and a new earth from Revelation: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:3b-5)

Sure that as God’s children, graced and adopted into God’s family, this is what awaits us, we can and do live as if it is true today.

[1] Chris Stapleton “Broken Halos”

[2] C. Clifton Black “1,2&3 John” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Vol. X (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2015) p. 834.

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