What Comes Next?

The Last JudgmentI’ve had a number of requests for this sermon on Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife.  Apparently one of the things that drives people away from the Christian faith is the idea of God’s judgment and the notion that God could or would send people to Hell.  But is that what God does?  Read on.

This is the last sermon in a series called “Christianity 101,” and, appropriately enough, it is about “last things.” The technical term is eschatology, from a Greek word that means “last” or “end.” Eschatology is the study of what comes at the end of human life and the end of human history. It seeks to answer the question that is the title of today’s sermon:

“What comes next?”

Back in 2011 I did a Wednesday night series called “Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife,” and I began by talking about bodies and souls. There seems to be a common assumption that while bodies die, souls do not; that our bodies are buried in the ground while our souls fly off to heaven. Maybe that’s what you’ve always believed, but it is not the biblical view. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. When God made Adam he did it by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul. Thus the body and soul which make up human beings are as inextricably part of parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire. When you kick the bucket, you kick it one hundred percent.”

I realize this may come as a shock to some of you. You may have taken it for granted that when your mortal body dies your immortal soul will float off to heaven. You may be wondering, “If I am an inseparable combination of body and soul, then what’s going to happen to me when that combination no longer exists?” Let me be blunt: someday (unless Jesus comes back first) you’re going to die. As Tony Campolo’s old pastor used to say to young people, “One of these days they’re going to take you out to the cemetery, drop your body in a hole, and go back to the church and eat fried chicken.” All the more reason then to put your life into God’s hands now and trust him—not with the immortality of your soul (an idea that comes from Greek philosophy), but with the resurrection of your body (a truth that comes from Holy Scripture).

Think about it: the only person who has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it’s like is Jesus, and he came back because God raised him up. He had a resurrection body that was enough like his old body for people to recognize him. In the garden Mary says, “Rabbouni!” In the boat John says, “It is the Lord!” At first his disciples thought he was a ghost, but he wasn’t. In Luke 24 he invites them, “touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bone as you see that I have.” He ate a piece of broiled fish in their presence. His resurrection body was physical, tangible, and yet he was able to enter a room through locked doors (John 20) and to disappear from his disciples’ sight (Luke 24). Whatever a resurrection body is like, it isn’t exactly like this earthly body. Paul says it’s as different as a flower is from the dry, brown seed you plant in the ground (1 Cor. 15). The Bible tells us that Jesus was raised from the dead and it promises us that someday, “on that great gettin’ up morning,” we will be raised from the dead, too.

Sometimes, when I talk like this, someone will get a troubled look on his face. He’ll say, “But if our souls don’t go to heaven right away then what becomes of us in the meantime? I mean…where’s my saintly grandmother right now? Is she in a hole in the ground, or in heaven with Jesus?” That’s a fair question, and here’s what I usually say in response: “Because she put her life in God’s hands, because she put her faith and trust in Christ, I believe that God has already raised her from the dead, and that she is with him now, looking as young and beautiful as she did on her wedding day.” “But she was cremated,” he adds. “How can God raise up a pile of ashes?” “Listen,” I say, “God made the first man from a handful of dust. Ashes are not a problem!” And you can see the relief on his face. “So, tell me,” he asks, “what does her mansion look like? Are the streets really gold? Is there a crystal sea? Is heaven ‘up there’ somewhere? What about the ‘other place’? Did Grandpa make it? Are there any dogs there?” And that’s when I laugh and say, “Whoa! Easy there, big fellah! Let’s talk about how to ask the right questions.” First of all:

1. We must not want to know too much. Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” The biblical writers do not and cannot tell us everything we would like to know. On most things, our best response is to say, “We don’t know and we don’t need to know.”

2. Biblical language about the future is metaphorical or symbolic. Over and over again, Jesus said “the Kingdom of Heaven is like so and so.” He was trying to help his hearers imagine something they had never seen or experienced. It’s the same with all talk about heaven and hell in the Bible. In Revelation John says, “The one seated on the throne looked like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald” (Rev. 4:3). The biblical writers didn’t have enough words or enough of the right kind of words to describe such things. The best they could do is point and stammer.

3. Scripture offers us not one but several hopes for the future. In the Old Testament, it is the hope of a perfect earthly kingdom, like the Golden Age of King David. Near the end of the OT, it is a cosmic battle that will end in resurrection of the dead—some to eternal life, others to eternal shame. In the New Testament it is the good news that “the Kingdom of the world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” So, which one of these is right? Shirley Guthrie says, “The many different biblical visions of the future agree that God stands at the end of history in general and at the end of the life of every individual person. The New Testament insists that he does all this in and through Christ Jesus. In the final analysis, that is all we know and all we need to know.”

4. The best insight we have into what God will do is found by looking into what God has done. If that’s true, then the future-oriented book of Revelation may not be our best source. When we look back through the acts of God in the past we find that he has been working constantly to redeem us and the world he loves so much. I believe that’s what he will do in the future (these four principles are derived from Shirley Guthrie’s theology textbook: Christian Doctrine).

Having said all that, let’s turn our attention away from ourselves and toward others, and the world, and especially on a day when the world is still reeling from the attacks in Paris. Will it always be like it is now, with every day’s newspaper full of bad news? Will we human beings continue to disobey God, hate one another, and destroy the planet? No! We Christians believe that one day God in Christ will “judge the living and the dead,” and “create a new heaven and a new earth.” What does that mean? Let’s look at both of those things, beginning with God’s judgment:

When I did that Wednesday night series back in 2011 I showed a slide of a 15th century painting where Jesus is sitting on a rainbow, separating the righteous from the unrighteous like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The righteous were being ushered into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, while the unrighteous were being dragged into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. It was a frightening picture, and it was meant to be. There were demons with leathery wings flying around, snatching up victims in their claws, while others with pitchforks prodded naked sinners closer and closer to the fire. It asked in the most vivid way imaginable, “Where will you spend eternity?” But is that really the way it’s going to be? The great theologian Karl Barth once said, “In the biblical world of thought the judge is not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes others; [but the one] who creates order and restores what has been destroyed.”

Let’s pause right there for a moment. If order could be created in this crazy world, if what has been destroyed could be restored, wouldn’t that be good news? Friends, it is good news! Shirley Guthrie (one of my favorite theologians) reminds us that, in the end, the biblical view of judgment is this: “Evil will be condemned and rooted out of God’s good creation once and for all!” That’s good news, but there’s more: the judge is Jesus! He is the only one who can be trusted with the job of judging the world, the only one who knows what it truly means to “make things right.” He is the one who was sent because God loved the sinful world so much, and who died for us while we were yet sinners. He judges us not out of anger, but out of love, and if there is any penalty to be paid, he willingly offers to take it on himself. This is good news, not bad, and if this is what God’s judgment looks like then I say bring it on!

But when will it happen? When will the Judgment Day come? Aristotle said that every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. God’s good story had a beginning, it has a middle, and some day it will have an end. We don’t know when that day will come, but we do know that someday our own story will come to an end. It came to an end for some people in Paris on Friday night. There they were, sitting in a concert hall when terrorists opened fire and killed them. They died—body and soul. But, here’s what I believe: I believe that we live our earthly lives on the time line, with one second ticking into the next relentlessly. We can’t stop time, hard as we try. We can’t go back and correct our mistakes. We are bound by time until…the moment of our death. Then we are set free. We step off the time line into eternity, into the realm of God, because God is bigger than time. If the only thing separating the day of our death from the day of our resurrection is time, then when time drops out of the equation those two come together—our last breath on earth is followed by our next breath in heaven—and there we stand, shaking the dirt off our grave clothes, wondering what comes next.

What does come next?

The New Testament teaches there are two kinds of future life: life in heaven and life in hell. But remember: 1) We must not want to know too much, and 2) The clearest clue to what is going to happen in the future is what God has been doing in the past. So, what is heaven? According to Shirley Guthrie it is “Not a place located somewhere in outer space where we will escape from our humanity to become angels or disembodied spirits. Heaven is an eternal life of genuine, completely free realization of our humanity in a new heaven and a new earth. It is the life we were made for.” And what is hell? Dr. Guthrie says, “It is not a fiery or dark place of eternal torment located somewhere underground between the United States and China. It is living apart from or in hostility toward God and other people, and therefore denying one’s own true humanity—forever. It is not eternal life, but eternal death.”

Now, you are free to accept or reject Dr. Guthrie’s definitions. Maybe you think of heaven and hell in a different way, and if you do, that’s OK. There is only so much we can know; most of this is speculation. So, can I tell you what I’ve been thinking lately? This is not the word of God; these are just the words of Jim. But I love that biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth. I love it because it suggests that the world is not going to be destroyed, but made new again. Can you imagine? This beautiful blue-green planet as pure and pristine as it was on the day of creation, so you could scoop up a bucket of water from the East River in New York and drink out of it? I love that, because I love the world God made the first time.

And I love that vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. Imagine it settling down somewhere on that new earth, maybe where the Garden of Eden was. And then imagine everybody who has ever lived standing there, watching it come down, and hearing a voice that says, “Now the dwelling of God is with people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more,” and watching as those pearly gates swing open and we are invited in.

But then imagine this: that some people don’t want to go in, that if that’s where God is then it’s the last place on this new earth they want to be. So instead of streaming forward toward the New Jerusalem they skulk off in the other direction, away from it, as far away from it and the presence of God as they can get. So, there’s heaven, which is wanting to stand in the presence of God and feel him wipe the tears from your eyes, and there’s hell, which is wanting to be as far away from God as possible. The difference between the two may have much more to do with how things stand with you and God than where the two are located.

So, how do things stand with you and God? Where will you spend eternity? And where would you want to spend it: with God, or without him? Your answer to that question may be the best indication of whether or not you are headed in the right direction, and if you are not this may be your best opportunity to change your course, to step out of your pew, to walk down the aisle, as if you were walking toward the wide-open gates of the New Jerusalem.

—Jim Somerville ©2015

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Well, here’s something you may not have known:

For several months now I have been working on a project called “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” which was conceived as a way to help small, struggling churches that don’t have preachers, but has evolved to include churches in the interim, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Wednesday night programs, and Sunday school classes.

The idea is simple enough: with some help from my friend David Powers I have been recording sermons by some of America’s best preachers for every Sunday of the liturgical year, so that when those small, preacherless churches get to the Third Sunday of Advent (for example) they can simply push a button and hear a sermon from Bishop Michael Curry (above).  Other “Every Sunday” preachers are William Willimon, Brian McLaren, Lauren Winner, David Lose, Brian Blount, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Andrew Foster Connors, Grace Imathiu, Rolf Jacobson, Gary Charles, and Karoline Lewis.

How does it work? Here’s a possible scenario, straight from the website:

Imagine that the bright young pastor of a country church is called to a church in the big city…

The congregation is faced with a decision: do we call another pastor?  Can we afford to?  They hear about “A Sermon for Every Sunday,” a way to get America’s best preachers into America’s small churches, house churches, Bible studies and small groups–on video.  They decide to give it a try, at least in the interim.

With the money they save they buy a big, flat-screen TV and a quality DVD player.  They put the lectern on one side of the chancel and the TV on the other until the two are nicely balanced.  Some of the older members shake their heads.  They never thought they’d see such a thing in church, but again, it’s only for the interim.

On that first Sunday the English teacher at the local high school–a member of the church–leads the service.  She opens with the call to worship, announces the hymns, invites members of the congregation to read scripture and say prayers.  When it’s time for the sermon she reads the Gospel lesson and then nods to the high school student who has downloaded the video from the web site.  He pushes a button, and the congregation waits, breathlessly.

What they see is high-definition video of one of America’s best preachers, looking straight into the camera and preaching the Good News.  It’s as if he is talking only to them.  The sermon lasts 12-15 minutes, and when it’s over the congregation responds with a murmur of approval.  The English teacher steps back to the lectern and says, “I had a chance to watch the sermon last week, and I was thinking about how it applies to our context…”  She takes a few minutes to make some connections between what the church has just heard and what they live with every day, and then she moves on with the service.

When she greets them at the back door later even those older members have to admit, it’s been a good day in church.  And they want to know:

“Who’s preaching next week?”

Click on the link below to visit the website, and then, if you feel inclined, share it with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or simply by word of mouth.  I’d like to make sure that the people who could benefit from such a service would have access to it before the launch date on November 28.

It may seem a little crazy—but in times like these, when churches are struggling and technology is everywhere—maybe not so crazy after all.

Click HERE to find out more.


Preacher Camp

For six years now I’ve been getting together with a group of colleagues so we can plan our preaching for the year.  It was Amy Butler’s idea.  When I was at First Baptist, DC, she was at Calvary Baptist, just a few blocks away.  We would get together at Starbucks on Monday mornings with a few other preachers to talk about what we were going to do the following Sunday and one day she said, “You know what we ought to do?  We ought to do this for the whole year!”

And so we sent out some invitations, and a few months later six of us spent several days at a big house in the mountains of West Virginia, looking over the lectionary texts for the following year.

Each of us had an assignment.  I was supposed to bring some good ideas for preaching through those Sundays after Christmas and before Ash Wednesday.  Others in our group had the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and that long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost, often called “Ordinary Time,” which we divided into two parts.

We talked about a lot of things in those days.  We talked about our lives and churches and ministry, but we also ended the week with a pretty good sense of what we would be preaching in the year ahead, and that felt good.

We’ve been doing it ever since.

Last year we had the idea to do it in the summer instead of the fall, and to bring our families along.  We got the use of a big house on Lake James in North Carolina, and Russ Dean brought his ski boat.  So, we planned our preaching each morning and then, each afternoon (sometimes after naps), we went down to the dock for swimming and sunbathing, skiing and tubing.   In the evenings we would sometimes share our favorite sermons with each other.  One night we sat on the front porch telling the stories of how we met our spouses.  Another night we ended up in a free-spirited dance party in the living room.  The kids loved that.  And so did the grownups.

On the last night we gathered around the campfire to sing songs and make S’mores and it really did feel like we had been at camp for a week.  We all felt a little closer to God and a little closer to each other.  Plus, I had some idea of what I will be preaching each Sunday from now through Advent 2012.

You don’t have many weeks like that in a year, and when you have one you just want to thank somebody for it.  So, thanks to the family who loaned us their lake house, and thanks to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which gave us some funding for the event, and thanks be to God for colleagues who have become such close friends: for Russ Dean, and Amy Butler, and Don Flowers, and Dorisanne Cooper, and John Ballenger, and for our time together at…

…Preacher Camp.

Write-In Candidate

Yesterday was Christ the King Sunday, and I closed out the sermon with this story:

Back in 1984 I went to the polling place to cast my vote for president.  That was the year Walter Mondale was running against the incumbent, Ronald Reagan.  I was 25 years old, I had just started seminary, I was out to change the world.  To tell you the truth I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign and as I made my way to the polling place I found that I didn’t have strong feelings about either candidate.  I’ve never had a lot of interest in politics, never pinned all my hopes on any elected official.  I stood in that voting booth for a long time, looking at those two names, and finally I chose the third option: I wrote in a name, and the name I wrote in was my dad’s.  When I told people about it later I told them that, honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would make a better president.  No offense to those two candidates who were running but I knew my dad, I knew he was good and kind and wise.  And I also knew this, that if it ever came right down to it my dad would lay down his life for me, and that’s the kind of president you would want, isn’t it?

“If you are a king,” the religious authorities said to Jesus, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the soldiers said, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the other thief said, “then save yourself.”  But Jesus turned out to be the kind of king who cared more about saving others than saving himself, and so he hung there on that cross, beneath that sign (“This is the King of the Jews”), until his work was done.  I don’t know what kind of king you want, but if I could choose, I would choose a king like that. 

For the full text of the sermon click HERE.  And if you want to write in my dad’s name next election, it’s James Somerville, no middle name.

Preachers’ Kids

Sometime during last week’s annual sermon-planning retreat we started calling it “Preacher Camp.”

I’m talking about the event I referenced in my last post, where I get together with five of my closest colleagues for a week to map out our preaching for the year.  The difference was that this year we brought the kids.  They were sitting at the breakfast table on that first morning still rubbing the sleep from their eyes when I said, “Welcome to Preacher Camp, boys and girls!  When breakfast is over we’re going to have Bible study, then take a nature hike, and then go to crafts.  We’ll follow that with lunch and rest time, and then we’ll all go down to the lake for a swim.  Sound good?”  I got a lot of blank stares in return, and only after several minutes did three-year-old Adam say, “You’re teasing, right, Mr. Jim?” 

Yes.  I was teasing.  But while the preachers sat at a table on the side porch and had Bible study (working through every Sunday of 2011) the children read books and drew pictures and played ping pong and took a hike, and after lunch and naps we all went down to the lake for a swim.  So, in many ways, it was like camp, especially the last night when we built a campfire and sat around it singing silly songs and roasting marshmallows. 

What I learned is that this collection of preacher’s kids is sweet, smart, kind, and funny.  Five-year-old Audra Ballenger was full of interesting questions and comments, and one of my favorite pictures from the week is the one of her delivering a long lecture to Russ Dean as she sat on his stomach while he lay on the couch.  Eleven-year-old Bennett Dean came into his own on Thursday night, busting some sweet moves at a spontaneous dance party and encouraging the rest of us to toss inhibition to the wind.  My own daughter Catherine (the oldest by far at nineteen) was sweetly patient with an adoring “fan club” of small children and happy to engage in conversation with their parents while sunning on the dock. 

Unlike some of the warnings you hear about “preachers’ kids,” these were the kind you would want to spend a week with.  It makes me think that this generation of preachers, or at least the ones I hang out with, have given up on the idea that their children will be neatly dressed and perfectly behaved at all times, that they will know all the books of the Bible and want to come to church three times a week.  They seem much more willing to let their kids be kids, and that’s not a bad thing, especially if they are the kids of people whose relationship with God and whose saturation in his Word has led them to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled.  The fruit of the spirit is evident in the lives of their children, and the apples don’t fall far from the tree.

So, this is an expression of appreciation not only to those preachers’ kids I spent the week with, but to the preachers who are raising them.  Thank you Don, John, Russ, Amy, and Dorisanne—for being the people you are and for passing so much of that goodness along to the next generation. 

The world needs people like your kids.

How I Make a Sermon

This week I will be attending an annual sermon planning event near Asheville, NC, where five of my closest colleagues and I will try to map out our preaching for an entire year.  Three years ago we decided to call this event “Homipalooza,” from Homiletics (the art of preaching) and Palooza (which is apparently some kind of crazy party).  Imagine six Baptist preachers sitting around in shorts and T-shirts planning their preaching for a year and any notion of crazy partying will quickly fade.  There are lots of books involved, manilla folders, laptop computers, endless discussions, theological debates, and abundant snacks (OK, maybe it is a party).  If we do it well, at the end of the week we will each come away with a three-ring binder full of handouts and a few good ideas for every Sunday of the year.  Even if we don’t do it well, we will have had some time to talk about our work with people who understand it, who know what it’s like to try to meet a long list of expectations each week (usually our own) and still find time to write a sermon.  I’m hoping that in this week of sermon planning I will still be able to find some of that kind of time, and that I will come back to Richmond inspired and ready to preach.

Before I go, let me leave you with this answer to the question someone asked me last week: “How do you make a sermon?”


1  juicy passage of Scripture, ancient but somehow still fresh
2  hours of writing down every thought that comes into my head
3  thoughtful friends or colleagues to talk it over with
4  good commentaries to answer most of my questions

Mix ingredients together and let them simmer on the back burner for three days, stirring occasionally.  Add some of the illustrations and anecdotes that have come to mind in those three days (but be careful not to use all of them).   Lift the lid from time to time and inhale to see if there’s anything in there that smells like a sermon.  Season to taste. 

In an ideal world you would simply serve the sermon up like stew at that point, and everyone would eat and be satisfied.  In the real world it is only after the sermon has simmered on the back burner for a few days that I’m ready to put my thoughts into some kind of order, and only after I’ve put them in order that I’m ready to put them into words.  For me, that’s the most time-consuming part of the process.  I spend most of the day Saturday writing and re-writing in an effort to get it just right.  But when Sunday comes I serve up what I’ve made in the hope that it will nourish and sustain the people who have come to hear it, and when it does I’m as grateful as your mother used to be when you looked up from your empty plate after Sunday dinner and said,

“Thanks, Mom!”


Last week was a busy week for me.

  • I preached three times at the bicentennial celebration of Wingate Baptist Church in North Carolina, a church I served from 1991-2000.
  • I went from there to a sermon-planning retreat in South Carolina, where five other Baptist pastors and I planned our preaching for an entire year.
  • I went from there to an Episcopal camp and conference center near Houston, Texas, to lead a preaching workshop for a group of newly ordained priests.
  • I came back to Richmond in time to preach (twice) on Sunday, dedicate three children, and run with the 10K training team.

I can sum up the events of the week in a few bullet points, but it would take much longer to describe how it felt to step to the pulpit in the sanctuary of Wingate Baptist Church last Saturday night and look out over the beautiful, beaming faces of people I loved and served for nine years.  I told them it reminded me of a dream I’d had about heaven once, and it did—almost exactly.  Or to describe what it was like to share ideas with five of my closest colleagues as we sat around the living room of a lake house in Greenwood, South Carolina, bundled up in fleece pullovers, taking notes and jabbing our pens in the air for emphasis as the sun went down on a January day.  It would take too long to describe that moment when the nervous young Episcopal priest stood in front of our group and told the story of how she learned what ministry was about during a summer on the pediatric intensive care wing of a hospital, as the rest of us swallowed at the lumps in our throats and wiped our eyes.  And it would take even longer to describe what it was like to come home to Richmond, finally, and preach to a sanctuary full of people who feel—more and more these days—like family, to catch those winks and nods, those smiles and knowing looks, that can only come after you’ve spent some time together.

It was wonderful.

I will say this: it seems that every time I come back to Richmond from somewhere else I feel a little more at home here, as if you needed to say “I’m home!” out loud a few dozen times in a new place before you really felt it.  I’m feeling it, and it feels good, and except for the quick trip I’m taking to Orlando on Wednesday and the drive up to New York at the end of the month to take some things to my daughter,

I’m home.