Revelation 21.1-6 & John 11
Before we moved to Portsmouth, I wasn't much of a gardener. But when we moved into our new Rectory, the place had been vacant for a long time. As a result the garden was SO overgrown that we simply had to do something about it.
We started by having a series of bonfires, which I fear did little to endear us to our new neighbours. Great clouds of smoke billowed into the air all around North End...But we didn't have a choice! There was a huge pile of garden rubbish in one corner of the garden! It would have taken 30 or 40 car-loads to take it all to the tip! So for a few days, we were forced to fill the air with smoke...and fill our own lungs and eyes with the stuff as well!
But now, after a year of hard work in between parish duties, we have finally got the garden looking reasonably neat and tidy. This summer we've had some delicious veggies to munch on for free - and a blaze of colour in our flower borders. But now, as the winter nights draw in, we are experiencing something that every gardener experiences; after all that work, and all that planting and weeding and watering and tending...everything's dying! It's so infuriating! We do everything we can to prolong the season. We've got a green-house, thanks to a gift from my Mum and Dad, which enables us to grow tomatoes for a few more weeks. We keep the weeds at bay in the hope that a bit more light will help our plants to grow...but its all in vain. Everything's dying! Or perhaps more accurately - everything's moving into a new state of being. It's inevitable. Change is inevitable. Leaves drop from trees and flowers, and are then broken down to form nutrients for the next generation. Plants pull in their resources, hunkering down for the cold.
And that's true of all life isn't it? Eventually, everything and everyone dies - or, again, we should really say 'everything moves into a new state of being'.
The Bible's great Genesis Myth teaches us that we are made of dust. You and I are made up of billions and billions of particles of dust, or matter...molecules of elements like hydrogen, oxygen and carbon. For a number of decades, these particles of dust come together to make you and me, well, you and me. For the length of what we call our life-time, these molecules spontaneously start doing all sorts of things in co-operation with each other. They form our body, they process nutrients, they fire electrons at each other in our brain so that we can think. But then, for reasons that we are only beginning to understand, after an average of 7 or 8 decades...all those molecules, fairly suddenly, go off to be something else.
Even our Sun, the physical source of all life on earth, will one day change to such an extent that it will no longer give it's life-giving heat and light to the Earth. One day the molecules which make up the Sun and the planets will gradually, or in the blaze of a Super-Nova, go off and be other things.
Seasons come and go. Nations rise and fall. People live, and they die. This is part of the journey...the Journey of Life that some of us have been thinking about on Monday nights for the last couple of months. Life is, indeed, a journey. There will be changes in direction, challenges along the way. There will be trials and temptations - good times and bad. And all our journeys are reflected in the journeys that we read in the Bible.
Do you remember last week's sermon? I gather that some of you missed some portions of it, thanks to an apparently enormous spider which had threatened to eat some of the choir! So for those who missed it, let me just recap briefly! We were thinking about how the Bible contains story after story - and that each story is given to us so that we can read our own lives on those pages. As we read about the stories of Abraham and Moses and the Prophets and Jesus and Paul and Peter - we are invited to make connections with our own lives. As we read stories of trials and temptations, we are invited to think about our own trials and temptations. How have others handled these things? How should we? As we read about the conflicts and the peace-making of others, we are invited to think about our own conflicts and peace-making. How have others handled these things? How might we? When we read about the death of great people, which is somehow, again and again turned into triumph...we are invited to think about our daily deaths and resurrections.
As we read about the constant change and variability of life as others have lived it, we are reminded of that wonderful hymn, sung at many funeral services..."Change and decay in all around I see". But then comes the surprise. "Thou Changest Not O Lord, Abide in me"
In all of human experience, in all the changing scenes of life, the one thing we have discovered which never changes - is God. The writer to the Hebrews taught us that: 'Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever." (Heb 13.8). This is wisdom from above - handed on to us from previous generations. This is the notion that whatever happens to us, to our planet, to our bodies, there is a Great Spirit, a Great Consciousness, a Great God who remains unchanged...holding it all together. The Great Myth of Genesis describes a God who breathes life into his creation - and, as in that other old song, 'holds the whole world in his hands'.
But not only does God hold our lives in his hands...he holds our deaths as well. "Listen," says St Paul, "I will tell you a secret. We will not all sleep. We will all be changed. In a flash. In the twinkling of an eye. At the sound of the Last Trumpet. For the Trumpet shall sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed." (1 Cor. 15. 51-52)
It is not just life that is full of change then. Not just our gardens. But also our lives after death. The reading from the book of Revelation that we just heard reminded us that our lives after death contain even more change - but glorious change. "Now the dwelling place of God is with people, and he will live with them...He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21.3-4 edited)
The Bible then presents us with a picture of change and transformation all through its pages. There's the change of dust particles, molecules and matter, into human beings - infused with God's own breath of life. There's the changes of life - the ups and downs, the joys and the sorrows, the little deaths and little resurrections, all taking place in the loving gaze and concern of our unchanging Heavenly Parent. And then, after death, the change continues. We are, in Paul's phrase, changed from glory into glory (2 Cor 3.18) in this world and in the next as we draw closer to God. St Paul talks about that drawing closer as being like the drawing aside of a veil, or a curtain. As the curtain is removed - like the curtain in the temple was removed at the death of Jesus - we have the capacity to draw near to God, to be able to gaze upon God's face, and to be transformed more and more into his likeness. We who are made in the image of God have the capacity, and the invitation, to change so that we become like God's self.
That's an amazing thought, when you ponder it for a moment. Jesus himself reminded those around him that the Hebrew Bible teaches that we human beings can be called "gods" - with a small 'g'.(See John 10.34 for the reference). In other words, we who start our lives as clumps of molecules, bound together by the breath of God, have the capacity to change and grow - to be changed from one degree of glory into another - so that we become kinds of gods. What are gods? They are immortal beings. That's what you are I are...according to the Scriptures...immortal beings! Because of the gift of life given to us by the greatest, unchanging, Immortal Being of them all. God does not change...but God draws us, by a process of change, deeper and deeper into God's own self. He changes us from clumps of molecules into gods!
That deserves a 'Halleluiah!' doesn't it?!
And that, my brothers and sisters, is what we believe is happening right now to those we have lost in this changing world - those who have gone before us into the Great Adventure - the life after death. We don't know what is happening precisely to each of them - because we can't know, really know, about a process that we can't yet experience. But from our own lives, from our own observation that to change is to grow, we can be sure that our loved ones - the souls who from their labours rest - they too continue to grow...being drawn ever deeper into the heart of the Divine Spirit who made us all.
And so, today we pray for them. But we pray not out of fear of a vengeful God who is looking for reasons to get tough with our loved ones. Instead, we join with all the company of heaven, with Angels and Archangels and say 'Holy, holy, holy'. We pray with joy...thanking God for the lives of our loved ones among us, but also glad that they are now even closer to the heart of God than us. We give thanks that they live in the midst of inexpressible joy, and that they are even now being made into gods by our loving Heavenly Parent.
Is there room for doubt? Is there a possibility that some of those who die do not, ultimately end up transformed into gods? Perhaps. The Bible certainly points to the idea that it is possible for someone to be so self-centred, so wrapped up in themselves, so closed to the possibility of a life transformed by God, that they may consign themselves to oblivion. As C.S.Lewis said so eloquently, 'the doors of hell are locked on the inside'.
I've lost a bit of weight recently - nearly 4 stone actually. So I'm feeling rather chuffed with myself. But if I gave up eating altogether, then I would eventually die. The tragedy of life is that there are some who give up feeding spiritually from God altogether. They never open themselves to love, to companionship, to acts of kindness, to family, to generosity...let alone to the idea of belonging to a church. Such people, the Bible suggests, the people who never raise a finger to the sick, or the poor, or the oppressed...such people's hearts have become like rocks. Rocks don't change very easily. It's hard for a rock to be changed into a god. It's not impossible. But its hard. And some, perhaps never make it.
But ask yourself this about your own loved ones. Did they know any goodness in their life? Did they know what it meant to love and to be loved? Then how could they possibly resist the love of God when they encounter it? How could they want to do anything more than accept God's free gift of life, in heavenly City where there is no more mourning or crying or pain? If you sometimes doubt where your loved ones have gone - hold on to that thought. Did your loved-one respond to love on earth? Then how much more will they respond to Love in heaven! Or in Jesus' words: "which of you if your child asked for bread would give him a stone? How much more then will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask for them" (See Mt 7.9ff)
Jesus raised Lazurus from the dead. Jesus reversed the normal process of decay that follows death - showing that God, who changes not, can yet bring about enormous change. God who changes not change us. It’s glorious change. It's change that we should welcome, look forward to, anticipate, and begin to embrace today. We who have been born again by the Spirit of God are on the glorious, ever-changing Journey of Life.
And it’s change that I promise I'll think about differently the next time that I moan about my garden.