A sermon by Margaret Hall
If we live long enough, we reach a stage when we’re having a lot more appointments with the health professionals – and attending more funerals.
In the busyness of living, it’s easy to put off serious thought about what lies ahead. But as age catches up with us, the questions become more pressing. Is there really something beyond this life? If there is, what’s it like? Where will we be?
Ancient burial customs and the beliefs of most religions suggest that humankind instinctively feels there is something more. The materialists among us say that’s mere wishful thinking. But if you do believe in a God who’s beyond this world because he brought it into being, then belief in life beyond it follows, as night follows day.
The words ‘eternal life’ were frequently on Jesus’ lips. What did he understand it to be? What gave him the right to offer it, as he assuredly did? To be assured we have it would be wonderful, but how can we be?
One day a man came up to Jesus, and knelt in front of him, addressing him as ‘good master.’ He was probably quite used to being shown respect himself, because although he was only young, he was very wealthy. Wealthy people in those days were considered to be the people God had blessed. Life as this man knew it was good.
But he did have a question for Jesus about what his position in the future might be. Being Jewish, he would have believed that one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, God would act to put this world to rights, so that good people wouldn’t suffer, and evil people wouldn’t get away scot-free. The suffering of his people under the Roman Empire’s rule may have been uppermost in his mind.
According to Jewish belief, history was divided into two ages – this present age of suffering all manner of troubles, and the age to come when God would appear, through someone like the great King David, to restore the peace and justice and victory over their enemies they longed for. When that happened, all people, living and dead, would face God’s just judgement.
So the young man posed his question, concerned perhaps about how he’d survive God’s judgement. “What should I be doing to inherit eternal life?” – literally, ‘the life that belongs to the age.’
It’s possible that little by little, over the centuries, what Jewish people of Jesus’ day meant by eternal life has undergone a subtle change. For many people now eternal life means going to heaven when you die, which they understand as entering into some kind of ethereal, timeless existence beyond our imagining.
But for Jesus and his contemporaries, it meant life as it will be, in the age that will begin when God finally executes his judgement on every kind of evil. It will be the full, rich life God always intended his world to enjoy under his loving rule. Obviously, how to escape God’s judgement – what sort of people will fit into his restored creation – were pressing questions. What was it about Jesus. we wonder, that caused this privileged young man to defer to him as an authority on them?
“You know the commandments,” said Jesus, reeling off six of them. “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud, honour your father and mother.”
“I’ve always kept all those,” was the response. Lying unspoken between them were the first four commandments about honouring God, which include not giving to mere things the place in our lives that rightly belongs to the Giver of life.
Mark tells us that Jesus, looking at that young man, loved him. He said to him, “There’s one more thing. Go and sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me.
In answer to the young man’s question of how of be sure of a place in the coming age, Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. It was something Jesus never told anyone else he called to follow him. But in that man’s case Jesus was testing his claim that he’d always kept God’s commandments.
Right then and there, he had to decide between his possessions and his Creator – the ultimate Giver of every good gift. Jesus was standing before him, in all his compelling God-likeness, offering him the only thing that can satisfy our deepest need – the love that lasts. He chose to stick with his idol. He turned away sadly, unable to look beyond the life, which, for the time being at least, his money was giving him.
Jesus watched him go, and then said to his disciples, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!” For Jesus, ‘to have eternal life’ was another way of saying ‘to enter God’s kingdom’ – to live under God’s authority. The disciples phrased the same idea in terms of being saved or rescued, when they said to Jesus, “Well, if the rich can’t be saved, who can?” Jesus replied, “With God, everything’s possible.”
Has God really made possible our rescue from the finality of death? Is it really possible to be sure we’ll be welcome in his restored creation?
However blessed that young man was in this life, however respectable he was, it wasn’t possible for hium to inherit eternal life by keeping all God’s commandments – because he hadn’t kept them. His refusal to rise to Jesus’ challenge made that clear – as clear as it is to us that not one of us is capable of always keeping all God’s commandments. If we were, the coming of God as Jesus of Nazareth, all his successful confrontations with the destroyer of human life, including his death on our behalf – all of that was for nothing.
The Jewish expectation was that the age to come, when everything would be as it should be, would be set up by the one God had anointed for the task – that is, the Messiah or Christ – someone greater than King David and wiser than King Solomon – the one the prophet Daniel saw in a vision – a human being to whom God would give all authority for ever.
Jesus announced himself as the one they were all expecting – from the first time he preached in his home synagogue, when he said God’s promise of a Saviour had been kept, that very day, in their hearing. He kept on declaring who he was, saying things like, “I am the one who raises the dead and gives life …. I’m the food from God that gives life to the world …. I’m the way to God, I am the truth …. I’m the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep, …. the door through which you enter God’s sheepfold.”
Another question Jesus was asked was this: “What should we be doing in order to do what God wants?” His answer? “What God wants is that you believe in me, the one he’s sent.” He went on to say, “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to his Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Believing in Jesus means trusting he’s the sacrifice that takes away the sin that cuts us off from God. It means trusting that his rising to an indestructible life is God’s sign to the world of the new creation to come. It means trusting that Jesus will raise up those who, unlike the rich young ruler, respond to his call to follow him. And trusting in Jesus is the way by which God’s made possible something else that’s humanly impossible – full assurance that we will indeed enjoy the life of the age to come – free forever from everything that mars our life now.
When the great scientist Michael Faraday was dying, he was asked for his speculations about life after death. He replied, “I know nothing of speculations. I’m resting in certainties. I know that my Redeemer lives, and because he lives, I will live.”
Eternal life is described in the Bible in picture-language – quite often as a feast, as in some of Jesus’ parables about God’s kingdom. That tells us that in the age to come, every need we have will be met.
Here’s one of Isaiah’s descriptions of how it will be when God fulfills his plans. The mountain Isaiah refers to is the one on which, centuries later, Jesus was crucified. Isaiah wrote:
The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich foods for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain, the Lord 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. In that day they will say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him and he saved us.”
The story’s told of an old man singing as he worked in his garden. A passer-by called out, “You seem very happy today.” “Well,” said the old man, “if the crumbs of joy God lets fall in this world are so good, what will the great banquet of his glory be like!”
An ancient songwriter sang these words we find in Psalm 73: Besides God, earth has nothing I desire. … My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.
C.S. Lewis wrote this about the glory of the age to come:
The promise of the glory to come, possible only through the work of Christ, is that any of us who really chooses shall actually survive God’s examination … shall please him. To please God … to be not merely pitied but delighted in as an artist delights in his work, or a father in his child – it seems impossible – a burden or a weight of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
Here’s a prayer from Psalm 39:
Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You’ve made my days a mere handbreadth …. Everyone’s life is but a breath. We are mere phantoms as we go to and fro: we bustle about, but all for nothing; we heap up wealth, not knowing who will get it. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My trust is in you. Amen.