When Grace Came Down there was Hope

Below is the sermon from November 29 at First Baptist Waynesboro preached by Pastor Barrett. It is the first Sunday of Advent and is focused on Luke 21:25-36.

In one of the greatest scenes of one of the greatest movies of all time, the protagonist Andy Dufresne writes a letter to his friend Red saying, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Do you know the movie? Shawshank Redemption. 

Little does the protagonist know, he’s articulating one of the most important themes in all of Christendom — hope. It's one of the themes for Advent and it's the candle we light this morning. 

Hope is what allows you to still be a Washington Redskins fan . . . or to believe UVA has a shot at a bowl game next year.

It’s what allows Syrian refugees to keep marching towards a new home believing there’s a better tomorrow. It’s what compels you to stay up late studying for a test or waking up at 6am to run three miles. It’s what makes you ask a girl out on a date or book a vacation.

Hope is why activists fight for equal pay for women, equality for the LGBT community, organize around the theme of black lives matter, or climb flag poles to remove Confederate flags. Hope points to the future. 

For us Christians . . . we know this as God’s future. And that’s what I believe Christian hope is. It’s God’s good future. 

C.S. Lewis describes this future in his book Mere Christianity in a chapter coincidentally titled “Hope”. He says when our cravings aren’t satisfied in this world, it means we were made for another world. 

For C.S. Lewis, our spiritual needs can’t be met on this side of eternity because we’re built for another world. Hope, then, is the belief that we’re taken into God’s good future. Unfortunate for me, I read more into this other world than intended. 

In the early years of my spiritual life, I was overcome by the thought of heaven being another world and I longed for it. Earth, for me, was a waiting room. It only offers temporary satisfaction. It’s worldly while heaven is eternal. And the longer I lived with Lewis’ claim, the sharper the dichotomy became. 

The world was something I learned to hate. It was sin, and nothing sinful is worthy to stand before God. 

Soon enough, I constructed a theology that wrapped around this premise. I’m wretched. God isn’t. My thoughts are impure, God’s aren’t. I must seek forgiven or else I’m condemned. I am completely wretched.” 

Eternity, for me, was somewhere else. Away. Other. Sin free and off this planet. It’s other-worldly and we’re taken there in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. 

At least this is what my theology told me, and I arrived at this conclusion because of C.S. Lewis, The Left Behind series which we don't have enough time to talk about how damaging and incorrect they are) and a few Contemporary Christian songs, namely Crystal Lewis’ “People Get Ready.” 

You know the song: “People get ready. Jesus is coming. Soon will be going home. People get ready. Jesus is coming; he’ll take from the world his own.”

These ideas shaped me as a teenager, and they’re everywhere still. Hollywood. Music. Art. Culture. We bump up against these themes of earth is broken and heaven is out there somewhere, and they shape our thinking whether we realize it or not. 

The central identifier for nonchristians about Christianity is that we think the world is evil, and God removes the faithful by sending Jesus just in the nick of time. 

But this is wrong. 

No offense to both C.S. and Crystal Lewis, but because of Luke 21, I can’t in good conscious think Jesus takes from the world his own, and seeing earth as a waiting room is too under-developed for me now; it dismisses the true gift of hope. 

Luke says this: 

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” 

“Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Luke’s words are about our future. There will be cosmic disruptions, painful confusion, the world will see how her interests tie her to something that’s disintegrating. The world, as we know it, is coming to an end, and it will implode from the inside - right? 

Sort of, but honestly, no. 

Luke is looking out as far as he can see and predicting what lies just beyond it. But there’s more we need to discuss. 

Revelation 21 furthers Luke’s vision when it says, 

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 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.”

The world as we know it will change . . . Luke tells us the powers of evil will be confronted: ISIS, bigotry, racism, poverty, terrorism, war, violence, greed, self-hate, slavery, human trafficking, murder, child abuse, disease . . . they will all be dealt with and fully redeemed in the coming of Jesus. 

Revelation picks up on this same image and furthers it by attaching an entire city to Jesus’ back. Jesus isn’t coming alone. The New Jerusalem will come down out of heaven . . . the old heaven and the old earth will pass away . . . and God will abide here on earth . . . among mortals. 

So what does this mean? God's good future is a fully redeemed, fully inhabited earth. 

I’m not saying there’s no evil in the world now - just turn on the news and see the bigoted terrorist who gunned down two citizens and police officer in Colorado Springs at a Planned Parenthood building. There’s evil in the world. But God's in the process of redeeming it. 

I’m not saying that Jesus isn’t needed. Jesus Christ is the fullest expression of God’s love, our moral influence, and the giver of eternal salvation. Jesus is very needed and is teaching us how to partner with God.  

But I am saying the language of “being removed from this earth” or “Jesus takes from the world his own” needs to be questioned because it is a hopeless and future-less faith. God is bringing the kingdom here. 

If you have questions rattling in your head, I get it. I'm throwing a lot out here. 

In 2008 I heard NT Wright speak about his book, Surprised by Hope. In this book he deals with our topic at hand. After two hours of waxing poetic, Wright comes down out of the pulpit and engages the crowd in a Q/A/

In 2008 I heard N.T. Wright speak at West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN, about this exact topic. His book Surprised by Hope just came out and he was on a book tour. Rusty Grace and I drove to Nashville to hear him. Wright waxed poetic for two hours and then took questions. In the Q/A time, Wright disclosed something interesting. His publisher changed the title of the book. Wright wanted it to be called, “Life After, Life After Death.” The publisher changed it to “Surprised by Hope.” 

When asked to explain Wright said this, “Our hope is that there is life after life after death. When we die, we go to be with God. That’s life after death. But then Jesus comes back and a new heaven and new earth are created in place of the old heaven and the old earth . . . and this new life that is created is for all to experience pain free. This new life is life after life after death.” 

My jaw dropped to the floor. I’d never heard anything like this. But it makes sense. 

And this is why C.S. and Crystal Lewis are

wrong. We aren’t waiting around in this world for a Savior who is going to sweep us up. We aren’t in a waiting room. We aren’t so wretched . . . so broken . . . so pitiful that God wants nothing to do with us now.  

As Luke says, "stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near now.”

That’s the message of the gospel. That's the story of Christmas. That’s the hope that exists for humankind. We aren’t innocent by-standers watching a spiritual war between the forces of good and evil. 

We’re participants in the game of good and evil. We join God in the work of redemption. through acts of mercy and kindness.

Jesus didn’t come to the world, show us how to live, just so we can wait around for him to show up again. 

Jesus comes into our world, our brokenness, our woundedness and shows us hope. Hope for a better tomorrow. Hope for a future with God. And he wants us to join in. 

The story of the gospel is that this hope can be found now. God’s future is arriving now. The church is called to serve now. People need redemption now..

We aren’t here waiting for the sweet bye and bye. We’re called to affect change, showing love, building hope, casting out fear, partnering with God now; we’re feeding the hungry and clothing the naked now. We’re protecting and cultivating the earth now.  We're on mission now. We're partnering to help redeem now.  

This is a huge theological shift - moving from the waiting room mentality to being an active participant in God's good future is huge, and it exponentially effects for how we talk about the Incarnation. 

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent seems ambidextrous. As we’ve noted, it points us to the Second Coming of Christ. The Word “Advent” means “arrival.” 

But it also points to the arrival of Jesus through the story of his birth. Advent is a season of preparation and it provides needed space for us to prepare for the birth of our Savior.  

The Holy Night that Jesus was born, changed everything. The world was given a future it didn’t already have. Emmanuel has come, and Emmanuel means “God with us,” God was born into our world, and so was the kingdom of God on earth. 

It's important to know this about me, I honestly believe the kingdom of God was ushered in at Jesus’ birth. 

This is the gospel for me. Throughout Jesus' life and ministry, He gave us eyes to see this kingdom. He pushed against our worldview so we murder him just to shut him up. 

But God’s good future had already been unleashed. Death could not smother this hope. 

When Jesus resurrects and ascends back to God, e Holy Spirit replaces him. So there has never been a time since Jesus’ birth that God wasn’t with us in the here and now. This is why I believe God cares about what we’re doing as a church now. 

If you haven’t ever thought about any of this, you should. These movements directly impact why we do what we do. They answer why we gather as a church. They amplify the reasons we give money to the poor and feed the hungry. They’re why we support families at Thanksgiving and have a Angel tree full of families in need. They align our actions and ideals, with the coming of God’s good future. 

We're participating in God's good future now. We're offering the world hope. 

And remember, hope is the belief in God’s good future. And it’s where everything is moving to. 

So as you experience this grace that comes from God . . . may you see and give hope. 

Here’s to God’s new future!