Victory

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:50-57 (NIV)

Competition is a part of everyone’s life. There are all forms of athletic competitions. Beauty pageants and performance competitions are held all over the world. Spelling bees, academic decathlons and game shows test skills and knowledge. With the rise of reality television shows, a whole new form of competition has entered our society. Then there is the fact of competition in our everyday lives. Competition exists in the work environment as employees vie for positions, promotions, and raises. Businesses compete against one another for the consumer’s money. The list of life’s different competitive situations can appear to be endless. Competition is not an exclusively human dynamic either. Throughout creation competition exists for food, water, mates and shelter.

The passage which we read today from Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth speaks of a competition. This competition is between life and death. It is a competition not just for the physical nature of humanity as much as it is for the spiritual aspect of humanity. Yes, Scripture tells us that at the point of resurrection, the physical body will be raised and reunited with the spirit just as with Christ but a person’s spirit is even more important to God. The competition was ended by Christ as he defeated death by his destruction of sin and his resurrection. Christ claimed the victory.

For you and me, being given a victory which we have done nothing to earn is amazing. Paul tells the Corinthians and us that God has given us the victory over death through Jesus Christ. We obtain this victory because death is due to sin. Since Jesus wiped away our sin through the cross, there is no need for death anymore. The victory is ours in a competition we could never win. Jesus is the only way we have victory.

An Invitation

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

In that day they will say,

“Surely this is our God;
    we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
    let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25:6-9 (NIV)

Imagine receiving an invitation to attend a banquet. This banquet is being hosted by a very important and powerful person. The individual is known to have access to the finest food, wines and drinks known to humanity. You are also aware that the location of the banquet has been described as having unparalleled views, amazing furnishings and ideal weather. You are not required to bring anything or pay any sort of fee to attend. What you wear to the banquet does not matter because a special robe, exactly your size, has been prepared for you to wear once you arrive. Would you even consider turning down the invitation?

The passage which we have read today from Isaiah is part of a song of praise. The song speaks of God’s faithfulness to Israel. God’s protection of Israel from foreign enemies and the destruction of those foreign cities is lifted up. Then the words of the song switch to the telling of the Lord preparing a great banquet for all people. This is where our reading begins. The song moves from speaking about a great feast to God’s work in destroying death and its power over humanity. The Lord will remove the tears and disgrace of all people. The celebration then begins.

You have received an invitation to a banquet. The Lord has invited you to come to a celebration where death, tears and shame no longer exist. You know the host and the host’s abilities. The location has been described throughout Scripture.  There will even be people who you have previously known there. The price of admission has been provided. A special robe to cover all the dirty parts of your life has been made especially for you. Only one thing remains to be done, accepting the invitation. Will you?

All You Need

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:3-11 (NIV)

When a person is preparing to complete a project, it is important to ensure that you have all the items you need for the project. Whether it is cooking a meal or building a doghouse, you cannot successfully achieve a satisfactory outcome if you are missing ingredients, materials or necessary tools. Planning out your work, collecting necessary items, and organizing allows you to succeed. If you are lacking in anything, the end result will be subpar or possibly a total failure.

In the letter we refer to as 2 Peter, we are told that we have been given everything we need for a godly life. This can be found in the knowledge of the Lord who called us; called us to be heirs of the kingdom of God. We have been given promises which allow us to participate in God’s divine nature. The letter continues by encouraging us to gather the elements which will make us effective and productive in our knowledge of the Lord. We are to confirm our call and election as heirs to God’s eternal kingdom.

What exciting news is found here. We learn that we have been given by God all that we need to confirm our eternal kingdom inheritance. We have been given the knowledge of who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. The knowledge that Jesus is God’s Son who obtained for us the removal of our sin is what we need to be called inheritors of the kingdom. Adding to this an adoption of Christ-like behaviors and traits makes our knowledge even more effective. We only need to confirm this by publicly declaring what we know to be true about Jesus Christ. It is like picking up our free pass into the kingdom.

Our Advocate

12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:12-16 (NIV)

If you have ever been required to go into court for some reason, you know the importance of having a strong advocate to present your case. Having an attorney who understands your side of the legal matter can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your court case. A lawyer who can present the facts of your case in a competent and well-supported manner is good. If that same lawyer can explain the background and demonstrate empathy in the situation, a favorable result is even more likely.

In the writing to the Hebrews, we are reminded that each of us has an advocate which understands and empathizes with our circumstances. First we receive the counsel that nothing is hidden from God. The word of God is alive and active; cutting through any of the smoke screens we may attempt to use in order to hide our sinful thoughts and actions. Next, we receive the reminder that Jesus, who has lived and struggled as we do daily, is the one who stands before God to state our case. Knowledge of this reality allows us to stand before God in confidence since Jesus has assured our reception of mercy and grace.

There is not one of us who when God’s light of inquiry shines on us can stand guiltless. If our actions appear innocent, our thoughts and attitudes betray us. We have sufficient reason to fear justified punishment. However, our fear no longer has merit because of Jesus. Jesus stands before God on our behalf. He acknowledges our weakness in battling temptations, unhealthy thoughts, and the desires to engage in hurtful actions. He demonstrates understanding before the Father. Then he reminds God that he battled the same but overcame not just for his sake but for the sake of all humanity. Instead of punishment we receive forgiveness and mercy due to the grace of our Lord.

Anticipated City

22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:22-27 (NIV)

Traveling is an enjoyable pastime of mine. I enjoy going to new cities and locations. Exploring a city where I have not previously been is exciting. There have been many times.in which I have discovered amazing aspects unknown to me. Also, since I enjoy history, I am happy when I encounter historical sites and/or learn the history of the location. Anticipating a trip, and what I may discover, fills me with great joy.

Today in our passage, we are given a glimpse of the anticipated Holy City. In John’s vision, he tells us about the city. This city has the Lord as its temple and light. The gates are never shut because there is nothing to fear. People of the nations will bring the honor and glory of the earth into the city. No one, on nothing, deemed impure by the Lord will be allowed into the city. This is John’s vision, not because he has been there but through the power of the Spirit he has been able to see this anticipated city.

Like John did so many years ago, we anticipate our arrival to the Holy City. We desire a place where fear does not exist any longer. Fear is banished because the Lord is the light which dispels the dark aspects of life that cause fear. We expect such glory and honor to be present that we anticipate being prompted to worship and praise the Lord. Nothing will hinder our entrance into this great city where the welcome sign is always on. This is a trip which I eagerly await, why not accompany me.

Any Time

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 (NIV)

Many of us share one frustration in common, few of us are happy when the weather forecasters get the forecast wrong. The ability to accurately predict the weather into the future is a relatively new phenomenon. Humans developed the ability to notice trends in nature as signs of general weather and season changes but the accuracy was limited. With the enlightenment which opened a deeper understanding of natural science, the accuracy began to be more consistent and the amount of time into the future for the predictions grew longer. Continued advancement of scientific knowledge and the introduction of technology improved weather forecasting to the point we now know up to seven days in advance what to expect. While the forecast has a day here or there when it is not 100% accurate, if we are honest, the predictions are more often right than wrong. Yet, we crave more accurate and precise predictions.

There is another type of prediction which all believers in Christ crave. Since the time of Jesus, people wanted to know when God will fully establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians addresses this desired prediction. He echoes the words of Jesus when he tells the people that no one knows the date or time. Paul reminds them that part of the establishment of the kingdom on earth will be the return of Jesus. He indicates that many will be caught unaware. These people will be participating in all types of activities which make them unprepared. Paul tells the believers to live in the light and be alert for Jesus’s return. He says that when Jesus comes on a cloud with power and glory, the believers should stand proud for their redemption is at hand.

Our desire to know exactly when to expect the events of the establishment of the kingdom comes from a combination of fear, control, and need for preparation. We fear that we have not been acting and behaving in ways which would please the Lord. We desire to control the events in our lives. Our wish to be prepared is because of our wish to place our best before God. However, there is nothing we can or not do which will make God love us any less. Our fear is unwarranted. Yes, in response to God’s love and grace, we should strive to be our best in following Jesus’s teaching but this will not include or exclude us from the kingdom. We anticipate the kingdom fully on earth but the exact day and time is irrelevant because we are the redeemed children of God already.

Afterlife Truth

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV)

I have had the privilege to assist families and friends when someone who they are close to has died. I call it a privilege because being with individuals at such an intimate time is not something everybody gets to do. When you work with people who are grieving the death of an individual, you often see their raw emotions. A person in my position would usually get a good indication how someone perceives death, resurrection and the afterlife. Grief is a very individualistic emotion and never the same twice. Those who trust in the Lord’s promise of the resurrection and an afterlife in God’s presence grieve but you also notice a sense of hope in their response to death.

Paul writes to the believers in Thessaloniki regarding resurrection, ascension and hope. He states that he wants them to understand the truth of the resurrection so they can grieve with hope. Paul tells these believers that when the Lord shouts the command, there will be a voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet call. At this time those who have died will be resurrected and join the Lord. Then those still living will also join the Lord. Living and dead will be united in the presence of the Lord. This assurance brings hope and not fear.

There are limited details in Scripture regarding our death and resurrection. We tend to fear what we do not know or understand. However, if we listen to the promises of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, we know that our earthly life is not the only life. Death is not an ultimate ending, we continue. God has provided a way that when our earthly life ends, we begin our spiritual life fully in God’s presence. Paul speaks of the day when our earthly body becomes our resurrected body and is rejoined with our spirit. This truth gives us hope in the face of our mortality.

Not the Same

27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[a] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Luke 20:27-40 (NIV)

Growing up, I enjoyed watching Sesame Street just like countless kids have over the past sixty-one years. A frequent segment on the show featured four items with three of them being similar in some way and the fourth being dissimilar. They would sing the song, One of These Things, and challenge the viewer to determine which item was not like the others. The exercise was intended to assist children in looking for commonalities. Maybe you can still sing the song just as I can if you also grew up on Sesame Street.

In today’s reading we witness an encounter between Jesus and a few Sadducees. The Sadducees are attempting to trip Jesus up by bringing to him a question about the resurrection using a very unlikely scenario. What is interesting is that Sadducees said that there was no resurrection so why they used this scenario seems puzzling. The Sadducees use earthly marriage laws and customs to attempt to challenge Jesus on the resurrection. Jesus basically says to them that one of these things is not like the other. Earthly situations do not apply to the resurrection life. Then he continues by pointing out the reality of the resurrection using Moses’s words and the fact that God is God of the living and not the dead.

We can be guilty of the same mistake which the Sadducees made in regard to applying earthly understands and norms to the resurrected and spiritual reality of God. In one respect can be forgiven for this mistake because we live an earthly existence which we know and understand. Our understanding of the resurrected life is very limited. Knowing this should be a warning to us though. We have to remember that one is not like the other. We cannot assume that our customs and norms apply in any way to God’s reality. When we assume God will respond in a certain way, or our resurrected self will live as we do on earth, we are projecting earthly realities on the spiritual.

God is the God of the living both on earth and in the resurrected life. However, the two are not the same. So when you are tempted to try and make them the same, remember what we learned from Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the other.

Wonderment

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. 13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

15 The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. 16 The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia[a] in length, and as wide and high as it is long. 17 The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits[b] thick.[c] 18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. 19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.[d] 21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.

Revelation 21:9-21

One of my favorite places to go is the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. I especially enjoy being there after sunset because when the lights come on, everything seems even more magical. Cinderella’s castle, in the heart of the Magic Kingdom, sparkles in a magnificent way at night. I think one of the reasons for my enjoyment of the Magic Kingdom is when I am there at night, I am transported back to my childhood home where I watched The Wonderful World of Disney every Sunday night. The show began with Tinkerbell flying around a beautiful castle at night. That imagery comes alive for me when I stand on Main Street of the Magic Kingdom. I am in complete awe and great joy as I gaze on the beautiful, gold-accented, and sparkling castle under the lights.

This sense of awe is noticeable in the words of John as he relays his vision of the Holy City. The angel takes him to a vantage point where the city is fully displayed before him. John provides a detailed description of the city which allows us, the readers, to feel transported to the location of John and our mind’s eye is filled with the beauty described. The accuracy of the details in this vision here may be up for discussion, the emotional response which it elicits is fully intended. One cannot read John’s account without feeling awe. The described massiveness and beauty of the Holy City is almost overwhelming. When thinking about the eternal dwelling place of God, and each of us, having this imagery makes a person eager to arrive at the Holy City. I would be remiss if I failed to remind you that this is imagery intended to create a specific emotional response in the reader. This should not be seen as a factual description of the Holy City.

Each time I walk into the Magic Kingdom, the same memories and feelings flood over me. Whenever you read this portion of John’s vision, a similar experience can occur for you. Do not get caught up in the accuracy of the details. Instead, experience the wonderment and joy which these words can provide you. Let the anticipation sweep over you. Be secure in the knowledge that these words cannot fully capture what awaits us in the full presence of the Lord.

Is This It?

Seems that not a day goes by anymore which does not contain some message about death. Recently I have heard about the deaths of individuals who I attended worship alongside. There have been deaths of celebrities. Tragic deaths such as the ones occurring in California at a garlic festival and those of hikers in Canada have made the national news. Locally, living in a large metroplex, death from accidents and violent acts of humans are daily mentioned on the television or in the newspaper. At times, it seems that death surrounds us all the time. Actually, that is more accurate than we may wish to acknowledge.

I have been thinking about how we respond to death. These thoughts have included both our societal responses and the responses we have as individuals, specifically in regard to our faith. I worry occasionally that as a society we have become so accustomed to death that we hardly even notice it anymore. Yet, I also am aware that some of our apathy towards death stems not solely from the frequency of encounter but also from our unwillingness to look at it honestly. We do not wish to affirm the reality of death because in doing so we have to face our own mortality.

Facing our mortality requires us to think about what we concern regarding the afterlife. Since there is no solid proof about the afterlife, we are afraid. For a large number of people, this fear leads us to ignore or push thoughts of death out of our thinking. We adopt an attitude of if we do not confront death, we do not have to think about death. Death seems too unknown to us and the fear is overwhelming, so we attempt to push it aside.

As a society and as individuals, we often want to hide death. One example is in how we talk about death when a person is deceased. We use phrases such as, “He has passed on,” or “She has parted.” Our avoidance of using the word death is a way to lessen the reality. By reducing the finality of death, we can evade dealing with it.

I have a much different view towards death. My view of death is very dependent upon my understanding of my faith. Through my reading of the Scriptures, the development of my beliefs, and my own experiences, I see death as a transition. There is no finality in death for me. Instead, there exists a belief that at death a person transitions from an earthly existence into a spiritual realm. Since I believe in a bodily resurrection, this does not mean that a person only exists as a spirit in this spiritual realm but that the same joining of the body and spirit which occurred during our earthly birth happens within the spiritual realm. I also believe that in this spiritual realm a person experiences the fullness of God.

Due to my understandings and beliefs in regard to death, death is not something I fear either for myself or those whom I love. Just because I do not fear death does not mean that I do not grieve when a person dies. I grieve though not because I fear what happens at the point of death and after, I grieve because I know that for a period of time I will be separated from that person. Once fear has been removed, the grief is a little easier to bear. Once fear is removed, you can talk honestly about death and the afterlife.