Today is All Saints Day so I’m going to talk about hope.
What is hope? In everyday speech hope is by definition something we’re not sure about, something about which we have no great assurance or confidence.
In the Christian faith hope is exactly the opposite. Hope in the New Testament is not wishful thinking: it is a solid, well-defined vision of the future which we are commanded to get our heads round and to hang on to.
What is that vision for the future?
First of all, it’s the promise of a new world: a new heaven and a new earth. In other words, a new everything. A new cosmos. But a particular kind of new. The Greek word means renewal rather than replacement. The new world will be recognisable but also gloriously different. There will be both continuity and discontinuity. Just as was the case with the resurrection body of Jesus. Sometimes he was easily recognized but sometimes not. Always he was able to do both ordinary things like making breakfast on the beach and extraordinary things like walking through locked doors.
God himself speaks:
I am making all things new.Revelation 21.5
… which is not the same as making all new things. He is going to take what he has created and fill it with new life and possibilities. He is not going to chuck it in the bin.
Apparently there will be no sea. For lovers of the sea that sounds like bad news. But we need to understand the symbolic meaning of the sea. For Israel, the sea meant chaos, nature in rebellion against humanity. So when the Sea of Galilee threatens to drown Jesus and his disciples he “rebukes” it: he tells nature to behave, to get back in its box (Mark 4.39). The absence of sea is a promise that nature will finally be subject to us as God’s co-workers that he always intended us to be. We will be in charge; nature will do our bidding. That should be quite something!
Then there will be a wedding; but not just a wedding but the wedding, the wedding for which all our weddings are merely a foretaste, an amuse-bouche.
Why a wedding? The wedding reminds us, if we needed reminding, that the story of God and humanity is a love story: the passionate love of God reaching out to humanity to draw us into loving union with him. A wedding is also a celebration of a great future which the couple will forge together. This is a story which has only just begun. There is so much more in store. Think of Paul’s image in Romans 8 of our present struggles as the birth pangs of God’s new world. Labour pains are a sign that something new and glorious, a new future, is about to burst on the world – a whole new miraculous life full of promise and possibility.
What can we learn about the bride? Here is what Revelation tells us:
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!Revelation 19.7-8
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
Every bride prepares for her wedding. She may even have a vision for that day in her mind for years. She doesn’t just put on her jeans and trainers to walk down the aisle!
We are meant to be prepare for the wedding. Losing weight to get into the dress: not literally – but cutting out of our lives things that aren’t good. Sins, whether great or small. Waste, excessive consumption… plastic! And putting into our lives love for God and other people. Note that the clothing the bride is given is the righteous acts of God’s holy people. She has had a part in it. She has sent her clothing on ahead of her, the fruit of a life lived in love and holiness before God.
What we do now will last. We can contribute now to God’s future. We are daily investing in that future – for good or ill. David Attenborough says that if COP 26 doesn’t get it right it will be too late. He may be right. I have no way of knowing.
But one day God will put it right. This is the Christian hope. So do we just sit back and not bother? No, we put effort into contributing whatever we can to that future. Which in the meantime will make a contribution to making the present better too.
Finally, we are promised the presence of God among his people. His presence will no longer be hidden but immediately accessible. The rift between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, which started in Genesis 3 in the Garden is now definitively healed, repaired. The easy intimacy and friendship with God which was always his purpose is there for all to enjoy.
So there will be an end to tears, pain, suffering and death. God himself will come personally to each individual to heal their pain, wiping away their tears. You can’t wipe away tears en masse – it has to be done one person at a time.
The old order has passed away. At least that’s how the NIV translates it. In fact the verse says: “The first things have passed away”. What happens after the first things? Presumably the second things and then the third things and then… Paul hints at something like this in his letter to the Ephesians:
God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 2.6-7
There are many ages – many planned phases – in God’s future. This life is only the first part of the story – perhaps the first chapter. But there are many more chapters to come. The real adventure is yet to be revealed.
So what is hope? It is both the concrete vision of the future God has planned and our hold on that future in our hearts. It is not a feeling. It is not a matter of temperament, like being an optimist: glass half full rather than half empty. It is a virtue. A muscle we have to develop until it becomes second nature. We have to practise hope, like practising the piano or golf. We practise the virtue of hope through worship and prayer, through reading the scriptures, through consciously holding on to the promises of God for the future.
And, most importantly, we practise hope by preparing for God’s future in tangible and practical ways: purifying our lives as a bride prepares for her wedding day. Getting rid of whatever doesn’t fit in God’s new future. Investing in things, particularly love for God and other people, which will last forever.