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cappucino and cross“When you make up your mind that you will do whatever it takes to get people to come to church, then you will get just the kind of church you deserve: a congregation of fickle religious consumers who will leave you as soon as the church next door opens an espresso bar.”

That was one of the better lines from my recent, two-part sermon series called “The End of the Road.” I had been talking about how the church in America is in decline, and how some church leaders seem willing to do whatever it takes to get people back into the pews and their dollars into the plates. I followed it with this story:

Not long after I graduated from college I was I was called to serve as a part-time youth minister at a small church in Kentucky. I wanted to have the biggest and best youth group in town and one of the first things I did was weigh every kid who came on Wednesday night because it sounded so much more impressive to say that we had a 1,136 pound youth group than to say we had a group of fifteen kids. I did everything I could to increase attendance: we started our own radio station, held the “World’s Biggest Kite Contest,” and made regular trips to the amusement park. But I remember the day it changed for me, when I called to invite one of our youth to something we were doing and he said no thanks, that he and his friend were planning to go to a movie. And that’s when it hit me that I could never compete: that these kids had all the entertainment they needed and a whole lot more, and the only thing I could give them that they weren’t getting everywhere else…was Jesus. So, I made up my mind to do that—to give them Jesus—and to keep it up even if the youth group withered away to less than a thousand pounds.

In one way or another, that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.

But what I said in the sermon is this: that “giving people Jesus” can mean more than one thing.

I was reminded of that when I was at the BGAV meeting in Fredericksburg recently. There we were—a thousand Baptists from Virginia all gathered together in a single room. You would think that we all held the same views, wouldn’t you? But as one speaker after another talked about Jesus I could tell that we thought about him in different ways, and maybe that shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does. After all, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, which means that we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. And then there are Paul’s letters, which are more about the risen Christ than the earthly Jesus, and about what his death and resurrection mean for us. And then there are the other writers, like Peter, James, and the author of Hebrews, who each have their own perspective. And finally the Book of Revelation, in which the risen Christ appears with “hair as white as wool and eyes like flames of fire” (1:14). So if I’m going to “give them Jesus” I have to ask: which Jesus am I going to give them?

Because I think we tend to “cut and paste” when it comes to Jesus. We take what we like about him from the Bible, and from the hymn book, and from the pictures that hang in our Sunday school classrooms, and the songs we learned as children, and we put them all together to make this composite picture we carry around in our heads, and that’s “our” Jesus. Sometimes the confused looks I see on your faces when I’m preaching are not because you don’t understand what I’m saying, but because “my” Jesus doesn’t look like “your” Jesus. My Jesus is always talking about the Kingdom, and urging people to join him in the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. Your Jesus may be saying, “Go, make disciples of every nation,” or, “Come to me, all you who are weary,” or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I was thinking about that on the way home from Fredericksburg when it occurred to me that even if you put all these cut-and-paste images together you still get the picture that God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us. I said it out loud: “God sent Jesus to love us, save us, change us, and send us.” And something about that rang so true I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Stage One: to Love Us. In John 3:16 we learn that God loved the world so much he gave his only son. I’ve pointed out to you before that the word world is often used in a negative way in the New Testament, as in, “Love not the world, nor the things of the world” (1 John 2:15). We are led to believe that the world is a sinful, dirty, and unrepentant place, and yet God loves it anyway; he loves it so much he gave his only son for it. And if you read the Gospels even casually you can see that the son he gave loves the world just as much as he does. Jesus is always spending time with the sinners and the tax collectors, always hanging out with the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. God sent him to love the world and he loved it, he loved it enough to die for it, which makes me think that as the body of Christ we should love it, too. What if we believed that our first responsibility, as Christians, was simply to love people? Not to judge them, or condemn them, or convert them, but to love them? Is this the way Jesus approached his ministry? Did he think, “I’ve got to begin by loving the world, because that’s what my father sent me to do”?

Stage Two: to Save Us. Jesus himself says that he didn’t only come to love the world, but “to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). I’ve told you before that the word save in the Gospels is a bigger word than we sometimes imagine. It doesn’t usually mean to save someone from hell; it usually means “to help,” “to heal,” “to make well,” or “to make whole.” More often than not, this is how Jesus used it. He said to the woman with the flow of blood, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to that one leper who came back, “Your faith has saved you.” He said to Blind Bartimaeus, “Your faith has saved you.” In other words it has helped you, healed you, made you well, and made you whole. What if we believed the second responsibility of Christians was to do that? To help people, to heal them, to make them well, and to make them whole? One of the most important ways we can do that is to let people know that their sins can be forgiven—those things that fill them with guilt and shame, that cripple them and keep them from becoming all God made them to be. They need to know that all those things can be forgiven, forgotten, washed away, so they can move on to Stage Three.

Stage Three: to Change Us. Marcus Borg says that every major religion is about transformation, and Christianity would be at the top of that list. Jesus didn’t think it was enough to save us: he wanted to change us, to help us become what we have it in us at our best to be. And Paul, perhaps more than any other writer in the New Testament, takes up that charge. In dozens of different ways in his letters he describes what a Christian life might look like. In Galatians 5, for example, he talks about giving up the works of the flesh in favor of a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—the fruit of the Spirit. Those of you who have tried it know what a constant struggle that can be: the flesh keeps doing its work. And yet, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called to keep on trying, keep on changing, until we grow up at last into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph. 4:15). And well before we get there we may be ready for Stage Four.

Stage Four: to Send Us. After Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to his disciples and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). As I’ve said before, this is the moment when the disciples became apostles: when they were no longer “learners,” but “sent ones.” And you’ve also heard me say that I think Jesus intends for us to do the same: to graduate from Sunday school and go out into the streets, to be sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we need to give up gathering for Sunday morning Bible study, but when we stand before Jesus I don’t think he is going to ask us where Paul went on his second missionary trip; I think he’s going to ask us where we went on ours. That’s what KOH2RVA was all about, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with KOHx2 as we look for partners who will work with us to bring heaven to earth, in Richmond and around the world. We believe that we too have been sent, that we are on a mission, and that we can’t give up until it is accomplished.

Which stage are you in? Which stage are you in today? Which stage will you be in tomorrow? And which stage will that person be in you encounter on the street, the one who shuffles along with her head down, wondering if there’s any reason to go on?

Which Jesus will you give her?

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At the end of Sunday’s sermon, the one about Jesus cleansing a leper, I referred to my tenth grade yearbook picture. Several people have asked to see it, and although it pains me to post it (I’ve saved it under the file name “Yikes!”) here it is, along with the last few paragraphs of the sermon. Be gentle.

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Last week some of my old classmates from Sherman High School in Seth, West Virginia, caught up with me on Facebook.  They were happy to find me.  They didn’t know what had happened to me.  And they have been very, very kind.  But as I looked through some of the yearbook pictures they had posted on that site I began to realize why they hadn’t heard from me: those two years at Sherman were some of the most painful in my memory. 

My dad, as I’ve told you, was a kind of missionary to the desperately poor in that county and I felt like a missionary kid.  We lived in a house with no running water and no indoor plumbing, which meant that I went to school most days looking kind of rumpled and smelling sort of…unwashed.  And I was a little kid!  I went to high school a year early and didn’t get my growth spurt until two years later.  I was about five feet two with teeth that seemed way too big for my mouth and the worst haircut I’ve ever had in my life.  When I looked through those yearbook pictures I remembered those tall, handsome, confident boys, and those pretty, outgoing, giggly girls, and suddenly there I was, looking like a scared rabbit, trying to hide my face under my crooked bangs when the photographer took the picture.     

When I look closely I can almost see the pain in those eyes. 

But I would guess that I’m not the only one in this room who had that kind of experience in high school.  In fact, there may be a third of you who don’t have your yearbook picture hanging on the wall at home.  Those are such vulnerable years, and we feel so tender; one unkind word can cut us to the quick.  “If you want to you can make me clean,” the leper says to Jesus, and maybe all he really means is, “If you want to you can save me from being a social outcast, you can bring me into the community, you can help me find a place.”  And Jesus says, “I want to,” and then he reaches out and touches the leper.  Who knows how long it had been since anyone offered to do that?  But in that moment, in that action, his leprosy is cured.  He is made clean.  Jesus told him not to say anything about it but he couldn’t help himself. 

It was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

Think about those people, not only in high school but in every church, who have trouble fitting in, who are almost terrified to visit a Sunday school class where everybody already knows everybody, and where there aren’t any available seats.  Think about how hard it is for some people to walk up the front steps of this church for the first time, not knowing if they will be made to feel welcome or turned away at the door.  Think about those people who have failed at life, who have lost a job, who have been divorced; people who are struggling hard and who need a home; people who have been pushed to the fringes of society because in one way or another they have become “unclean.” In this first chapter of his Gospel I think Mark is being very deliberate in showing us three different things that have no place in God’s kingdom: 1) evil, 2) illness, and 3) exclusion.  Jesus takes his stand against all of these.  He drives out the unclean spirits (vss. 21-28), he cures those who are sick (vss. 29-39), and he welcomes the outcasts (vss. 40-45).  And when he does those things God’s kingdom comes, and God’s will is done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

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When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea (Matthew 14:23-25).

When I was a boy we used to visit my grandmother’s home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.  She lived in a house on a hill with a big front porch and a breathtaking view of GrandfatherMountain.  At the bottom of the hill was a clear, mountain stream that rushed over smooth, round rocks, and it was there, in one of the still pools at the side of the stream, that I first saw something walk on water.  It was a bug, a “water strider” to be exact, but as I watched it make its way across the pool my eyes grew wide with wonder.  How did it do that?

My brother Scott explained:  “Surface tension,” he said.  Something about the way the water molecules held together.  If you were small enough and light enough, like that bug, the surface of the water would behave like a sheet of Saran Wrap; you could just walk from one side to the other.  I was fascinated.  I filed that information away in my brain so that someday, when someone asked me how bugs could walk on water, I could lift my chin just the way Scott had, put on one of my most knowledgeable looks, and say “surface tension.”

On the surface, there is some tension between what we read in this passage from Matthew 14 and what we see in the world around us.  Matthew says that Jesus walked on water, and that—for a little while at least—Peter did too.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a man walk on water.  I saw my cousin water-ski barefoot once, but that’s not the same thing.  That’s called hydroplaning, when something is moving so fast that it skims across the surface of the water.  It seems to defy gravity in the same way an airplane lifts off the runway and into the sky by skimming on a cushion of air.  But if that airplane came to a sudden stop it would drop from the sky, and if that boat had come to a sudden stop my cousin would have sunk like a stone.

This is what observation has taught us, this is what experience has taught us, but this story from Matthew 14 wants to teach us something else, and on the surface at least is seems to want to teach us that once upon a time a man did walk on water.  For some people that’s a problem.  Although they won’t usually admit it (especially not in church) there are some sincere Christians who have a hard time believing that things really happened the way Matthew says they did.  Luke may have been one of them.  Although you find versions of this story in Mark and John you do not find it in the Gospel of Luke.  Is it because Luke, the beloved physician, the thoughtful scientist, just couldn’t believe it?  There’s really no way to know that, but we do know this: that, for whatever reason, he left this story out of the gospel he was writing in the same way some people leave it out of the gospel they are reading.  They turn the page and skip over it; their rational minds just can’t accept it.

They gag on a story too big to swallow.

I once heard someone say that Baptists are people who get together to argue about who believes the Bible more.  If that’s true, then this would be one of those stories they would argue about.  Someone would jab his finger into someone else’s chest and ask, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” Yes.  “All of it?”  Yes.  “Even that part about Jesus walking on water?”  Yes.  “Do you believe that he did it physically, literally?”  Um…maybe.  “Aha!  An unbeliever!”  Do you see how quickly we might divide ourselves into those who are able to believe everything in the Bible is literally true and those who have some doubts?  “Here,” we would say: “if you believe the sun stood still as it says in Joshua 10:13 sit on this side of the church.  If you’re not sure, sit over there.  If you believe a fish swallowed a man as it says in Jonah 1:17 sit up front, and if you don’t then sit at the back.  If you believe Jesus walked on water as it says in Matthew 14:25 then sit in the balcony, a little closer to heaven, and if you don’t then sit down here, a little closer to the other place.”

We could do that.  In fact some Baptists have done that—made belief in the literal truth of Scripture a test of fellowship.  But let me ask you: what purpose does it serve other than making some people feel superior and others feel inferior—second-class citizens because, for whatever reason, they are unable to suspend their disbelief?  I don’t mean that they are unwilling to believe, I mean that they are unable!  Suppose we asked everyone who could lift a hundred pounds over their heads to sit on one side of the room and everyone who couldn’t to sit on the other.  What would it prove except that some people are physically stronger than others?  Why do we try to separate ourselves on the basis of whose faith is the strongest?  And for that matter is an ability to believe the unbelievable the same thing as faith?  I know people who believe that Elvis is still alive.  Does that mean their faith is strong?  Or does it only mean that some people will believe anything?

Rather than arguing about who believes the Bible more or dividing ourselves into the weak and the strong let me suggest another way.  When I talk about the Bible I like to say that it is the Word of God for the people of God, and that it is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.  To put it simply, the Bible tells us what to believe and how to behave.  But even before that the Bible is the Word of God.  It is how God talks to us.  Therefore the appropriate question to ask when looking at a passage like this is not,

Did it actually happen this way? but,

What on earth is God trying to say? 

What does it mean to say something like Jesus walked on water, and in this story what does it mean to say that Peter did, too?  Let’s take a closer look…

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This is just one of the things we discussed at Preacher Camp: the whole question of biblical authority and what to do with difficult passages of Scripture.  If you’d like to read the sermon in its entirety (“Surface Tension,” preached at First Baptist, Richmond, on August 10, 2008), you can just click HERE.

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These were my closing comments on Sunday, February 20, at the end of our DiscipleNow event for youth.  The theme of the the weekend was “Center Stage,” and raised the question of how your life might be different if Christ–and not you–occupied center stage.  It reminded me of an illustration I’ve used for a while now in talking to people about faith.  I shaped it up and shared it in worship that morning.  I’d like to share it here with you.  Thanks for reading.  –Jim

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I once had a visit from a man who told me his wife was leaving him, but he didn’t know why.  I didn’t know why either.  He was good-looking, successful, a regular churchgoer who appeared to be devoted to his wife and children.  But now she was leaving him, and he wanted to know why.  “Tell me more,” I said.  So he did, and as he talked it became clear to me that his wife was only one of the planets whirling around him in his personal solar system.  His faith, his career, his political ambitions, his new house on the lake, his Harley-Davidson motorcycle…all of these things were also important to him but only insofar as they made his life richer and better.  He finally stopped talking and asked me what I thought.  I asked him if he had ever heard of Nicholas Copernicus.

Copernicus was a 16th century Polish mathematician.  He was the one who came up with the idea that the earth went around the sun instead of the other way around.  He’d had the idea years before, but it was only after years of working out the mathematical proofs that he became convinced it was true.  I picture him working in his study, coming to the end of a long, complicated mathematical equation, and writing down the result.  And then I picture him staggering out into the back yard, looking up at the sun and—almost literally—feeling the earth move under his feet, feeling the sky tumbling down, tumbling down as he imagined himself standing on the surface of a planet that was rotating at some 600 miles per hour while it hurtled through space around the sun.  It was such an earth-shaking idea that he didn’t publish the results of his investigation until the year of his death. 

His book was immediately banned by the church.  It was banned because the Bible made it clear that the sun went around the earth.  It was banned because, if Copernicus was right, the earth wouldn’t be the center of the universe anymore, and neither would we.  What this man who came to see me that day had to come to terms with is that he was not the center of the universe, either.  I challenged him to put God in that place instead and take up his rightful orbit around God instead of the other way around.  I promised him that if he would only do that, he would find that all the other things in his life would take up their proper orbits as well.  It was a whole new way of thinking for him, and it wasn’t easy to imagine.

One of the Greek words for “conversion” is the word epistrephein, which means to turn around, but the other word is metanoia, which means to change your mind.  I think it is this kind of thing the Greek word refers to: a change of mind so radical that it completely reorients you and your way of thinking.  The Copernican Revolution was so-named because it revolutionized the way people thought about the universe, the world, and themselves.  They were no longer at the center.  Conversion can be just that kind of displacing phenomenon.  If you put God at the center of your personal universe, then you can no longer occupy that place.  You have to take up your proper orbit around God.  But I believe that if you do everything else will fall into place, in just the way it’s supposed to.  You don’t have to take my word for it, though.  You can try it for yourself. 

Only then will you know if it’s true.

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I did a funeral today for a lovely lady named Eleanor Wiley.  In my remarks I quoted an old poem by Rossiter Raymond that says:

We give them back to Thee, dear Lord, who gavest them to us; yet as Thou dost not lose them in giving, so we have not lost them by their return. Not as the world giveth, givest Thou, O Lover of Souls. What Thou gavest, Thou takest not away, for what is Thine is ours always if we are Thine. And Life is eternal and Love is immortal, and death is only an horizon, and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

I picked up on that last line and agreed that life is eternal.  Jesus said that “whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Eleanor was one of those “whosoevers,” and I believe she has already laid claim to her everlasting life.  I also agreed that love is immortal.  I asked Eleanor’s husband, Herb, if he loved her less today than before she died and he said, “No, of course not!”  That’s because his love for her is still alive and well.  It is stronger than death.  Finally I agreed that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.  I said it like this:

If you stand on the shore long enough and watch a cruise ship sail out to sea, there comes a time when you can’t see it anymore.  It sails beyond that curve in the earth’s surface that obscures it from your sight.  It doesn’t mean that it isn’t there; it only means that you can’t see it any longer.  For those people on board life is going on as it rarely does on shore, with fine dining and ballroom dancing and moonlit walks on the promenade deck.   In her death Eleanor Wiley has sailed beyond the horizon.  We can’t see her anymore, but that doesn’t mean her life isn’t going on.  It is.  Although I have a feeling that as we gather here this morning to mourn her death she is standing at the stern of that ship, looking back toward the shore, standing on tiptoe and waving her handkerchief to let us know that she’s all right—that death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.

Bon Voyage, Eleanor!

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I was out at Lakewood Manor this afternoon, preaching a sermon called “Will We Meet on That Beautiful Shore?”  It was a sermon inspired by a conversation I once had with a man who had been told that he wouldn’t know his deceased wife in heaven, and the “proof” he was given was a passage from Luke 20 where the Sadducees (who don’t believe in the resurrection) come to Jesus with a hypothetical question:

“There were seven brothers,” the Sadducees began.  “The first married a woman and died, childless; and then the second, and likewise the third married her; and so in the same way all seven died childless and finally the woman died, too.  In the resurrection of the dead, therefore, whose wife will she be?  For the seven had married her.”  Jesus said, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Luke 20:29-35).  And that’s what somebody had told this man: that he wouldn’t be married in heaven, that he might as well just get over that idea.  He told me about it through tears.  It was this idea—the idea that he would someday be reunited with his wife—that had kept him going.  Now what was he supposed to do?

I sat with that man in his car for a long time, looking at that passage, and then I said, “Look, it doesn’t say that you won’t be married in heaven.  It just says that in the resurrection people don’t get married, see?  ‘They neither marry (present tense) nor are given in marriage.’  It’s another way of saying there are no weddings in Heaven.” 

That seemed to help him.  But I made the mistake of reading on to find out why there aren’t any weddings in heaven and the reason Jesus gives is because there won’t be any death there, as if the only reason to get married were to make babies, to replenish the population, and thus ensure the survival of the species.  “I don’t know if that’s why you got married,” I said, “but when I got married the survival of the species was not really the first thing on my mind.”  I had love on my mind, as I think most of us do these days.  But if you read closely you will find that’s not really the biblical view of marriage.  Marriage, in the Bible, seems to be little more than the creation of a stable social structure in which children can be born and reared. 

So, when we talk about marriage in America these days we had better be careful not to embrace too quickly the biblical model of marriage in the same way we want to be careful not to embrace “biblical family values.”  When people begin to talk to me about those values I say, “Which biblical family did you have in mind?  Cain and Abel?  Lot and his daughters?  Jacob and Esau?  David and Absalom?”  Those biblical families had some terribly twisted values.  And when it comes to marriage it’s true that if marriage is all about making babies then, yes, it has to be marriage between “a man and a woman.”  We are human beings, after all; we reproduce sexually.  But it wouldn’t necessarily have to be marriage between “one man and one woman.”  Not in the Bible anyway.  If making babies is the point then the more wives you have the more effective your efforts, right?  Look at Jacob: he produced twelve sons and at least one daughter through his two wives and their two maidservants.  Solomon—who set some kind of record—had 300 wives and 700 concubines (he practiced nation-building the old fashioned way!).

The problem comes for the Sadducees when they try to imagine one wife with seven husbands rather than the other way around.  If wives were considered property, which they were, whose property would she be?  The seven would be fighting over her in the resurrection, making the whole notion seem ridiculous.  That’s just what the Sadducees wanted to do, they wanted to make the whole notion of resurrection seem ridiculous, but Jesus sees things another way.  They don’t marry there, he says, neither are they given in marriage, because there isn’t any death there.  Remember that child’s letter to God that says, “Dear God: Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don’t you just keep the ones you got now?”  In the resurrection that’s just what God does—he keeps the ones he’s got.  And so there isn’t any need for a social structure in which children can be born and reared just so the species can be preserved. And there isn’t any need to have children so you can secure your social status or achieve some small measure of immortality.  And I’m going to bet my bottom dollar that those women who are considered worthy of the resurrection are not going to be treated as anyone’s property ever again.  Things are different there, thank God.

And resurrection is real.  Jesus proves it to the Sadducees be referring to a story from Exodus, one of the few books in the Bible they accepted as authoritative.  It was that story from Exodus 3, the one about the burning bush, where God identifies himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He doesn’t say he was their God.  He says he is, right now.  For he is not the God of the dead, but of the living.  “You want to know if there’s a resurrection?” Jesus asks. “Take that!”

It’s a good answer.  At least it works for them.  In the very next verse the Scribes who were listening burst into applause.  And after that no one dared ask him any more questions.  But I’ve got one: I accept the fact of the resurrection but what about reunion?  Will we meet on that beautiful shore?  Will that man who wept in his car that day be reunited with his wife?  And in what way?  Will they have a little cottage right there beside some golden street in heaven where they can sit on the front porch in their rocking chairs as they hold hands and watch the sun set over the crystal sea?  And if so what about the second wife that same man later married?  Where will she sit?  And whose hand will she hold?

As far as reunion goes—I’m sure of it.  Not only from this passage in which Jesus speaks of the eternal family reunion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also in that passage from John 14 where he tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them so that where he is there they may be also.  If that’s not reunion I don’t know what is!  And as far as the kind of relationship we might enjoy in that place?  Is it possible that the most loving and intimate relationships we have known in this life are but a foretaste of the relationships we will enjoy in the life to come? 

I can imagine that man seeing his first wife in heaven and embracing her with tears in his eyes, telling her how much he missed her and how glad he is to see her again.  I can imagine that all the best memories of the life they lived together would be fresh and new for him there.  But I can also imagine him introducing her to his second wife without any fear that she would be jealous or angry.  All that small and fearful, greedy and grasping, love would be gone, replaced by the kind of love God has for us—abundant as the ocean and just as full of grace.  Maybe the two of them would go strolling off hand in hand—those two wives—the first one saying to the other, “Boy, have I got some stories to tell you!” while he watched them walk away, shaking his head with wonder.

Who knows?  Only God.  The best we can do is speculate.  But we can know this much at least, thanks to Jesus: that resurrection is real, that reunion is real, and that in that resurrection reunion things will be really . . . heavenly.

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trashI thought I had Sunday’s sermon all wrapped up. 

I started early—on Monday afternoon—sitting in Starbucks with a tall coffee, reading over the text I had chosen from Revelation 21 and taking copious notes.  By the time I got to my lectionary study group on Tuesday morning I was overflowing with ideas.  I looked at the commentaries on Tuesday afternoon and talked with my worship planning team about how all this might come together.  I was excited.  I followed up with further study on Wednesday and then did what I usually do on Thursday, my day off, which is to let all those ideas simmer on the back burner of my brain, hoping that late in the afternoon an “Aha!” will come to me—an interesting way to preach that particular text.

That didn’t really happen for me on Thursday, and I ran out of time to draft an outline on Friday, which is something I usually try to do.  So, on Saturday morning I sat down with my laptop at the kitchen table and began to write.  By five o’clock that evening I had written nearly eight pages, double-spaced, which is more than enough for a sermon.  But when I sat down in front of the fireplace later to edit what I had written (and give out candy to the occasional trick-or-treater) I didn’t like it at all.  It looked like three different ideas that didn’t really hold together as one sermon.  I began to strike out whole sentences, and then paragraphs, and by 10:30 last night I was down to only the introduction of the sermon, which I liked better than anything else I had written.

So, I did what I usually do in a situation like that.  I went to bed and asked the Holy Spirit to come whisper in my ear during the night and tell me how to salvage the sermon.  When I woke up at five I had some ideas about how to do that.  I started jotting down fresh outlines and trying the words out loud while the clock kept ticking toward time to go.  Because I had set the clock back the night before I had an extra hour, but it still wasn’t enough.  I showered and dressed and hurried out the door into the rain with some radically revised pages in my hand and very little idea what would actually come out of my mouth when I began to preach.

I’m not writing this so that those of you who heard the sermon will console me with your comments.  I just wanted you to know what it’s like to be the preacher on those weeks when things don’t come together in the way you had hoped.  After a day like today I’m always grateful that I got through, and that when I opened my mouth some words came out (I hope they were good and even more than that I hope they were God’s), and I’m grateful that the people of God are usually willing to give the preacher another chance next week.  It makes me all the more eager to get an early start.

So, as darkness falls over the city of Richmond on this Sunday evening, I’m thinking ahead to next Sunday’s sermon, and already starting to take notes…

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