RISE AND SHINE!
“At that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince who stands for the children of your people, and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who shall be found written in the book. And multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine as the brightness of the heavens, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12: 1-3
The junior youth faith exploration class helped me prepare today’s message. Two weeks ago our material broached the subject of eternal life, so class began with them listing their questions about post-resurrection existence. You’ll hear their questions in just a few minutes.
But first, I must acknowledge that I have been told not to preach such a sermon as this, about the next life. Not by anyone here, Thank God. But I am told, and have read, that people today mostly just want to hear about how God and the Christian faith might improve this life, and this world, here and now. And they do help much in this life, I believe. So preach about peace, about wisdom, about motivation and organization for achieving your God-given potential here and now, I read. And those are all good things. But when it comes to eternal life, or the next life, or our accountability to God for our lives, well, that implies one of the subjects we typically want most to avoid: death. As the saying goes, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.” Including me, I confess.
If that weren’t enough, doing a sermon series on Old Testament literature would make it even harder to find something to say about heaven, eternal life and the resurrection. Because for most of the Old Testament, there’s nothing about any of those subjects. You might tease out the hint of eternal life from some of the Psalms, like Psalm 73: 24, “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward will receive me into glory.” Or Psalm 23: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Isaiah also gives us a promise, just before the Exile, that “God will swallow up death in victory, and wipe the tears from all faces.” But understanding those words to mean our personal eternal lives becomes most possible looking backwards, from Jesus’ resurrection, not so much before. For most of Israel’s history, her saints risked death or faced it for their God, their faith and their people believing that God and his people would be eternal, but they were less sure about their own personal immortality.
Until, that is, Daniel’s vision recorded in chapter 12 of his book. Here we read the earliest, clearest promise of resurrection and life eternal for God’s saints in the whole Bible. I don’t know at what point in his life Daniel received this vision and assurance. If he received it near the end of his life, then how amazing it is that he had risked death in the lion’s death for his God and his people without the assurance of any part of himself surviving afterward.
Maybe it was because Daniel and others like him had risked death that he was granted this assurance of eternal life. Maybe this promise and assurance was a gift of Israel’s dire and difficult years of exile, a gift for which she was prepared by 70 years of faithfulness in pagan Babylon. Maybe Israel had to die to the nationhood she had under kings like David and Solomon, before she could hear about the immortality of her saints. Maybe Israel had to be confronted with the brutal reality of the pagan imperialism with which she had long flirted, in which most subjects lived and labored and died like mere drones in a bee hive, before she could hear something that implied the priceless and infinite worth of each individual before God. So for this week and next, I will preach on some of the gifts that came to the world and the church out of Israel’s time of Exile, or because of Israel’s heroic resistance and resilience during this time when she lost so much.
This promise of eternal life is so unmistakably clear in Daniel 12 that by the time of Jesus, those Jews who accepted Daniel as part of their sacred and inspired writings believed in a resurrection, life after death, and the divine assessment of all lives, while those who didn’t accept Daniel as sacred scripture did not believe in life after death or a divine judgment. Jesus was among those Jews who accepted Daniel. He even quoted or alluded to Daniel quite a few times. In a clear reference to the passage we just heard, Jesus spoke of the last judgment and said, “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mt. 13: 24).” Not only were resurrection and eternal life central to his teaching and preaching on the kingdom of God, he demonstrated them by walking out of his grave, very much alive.
Still, we preachers sometimes counsel each other to stick to more immediate and practical concerns. Yet the more I think about it, the more I think that eternal life is a very immediate and practical concern. May we all live long, happy and healthy lives to the age of 100. But even so, eternal life is closer than we think. People may sometimes criticize us for being “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good,” and I can see how they may be right. But I see in Jesus someone who was of such earthly good precisely because he was so heavenly-minded. His miracles and ministry were breakthroughs of the future into the present.
The Apostle Paul said that if we only have hope in this world, we are of all people most to be pitied. So let’s just eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. One can preach and teach all they like on matters of wisdom, peace, justice and virtue in this life, but if death always has the last laugh, its hard not to think that its all pointless. Death is the most unjust of the injustices we face, and the most oppressive of all our oppressors. The fear of death is the most effective tool in the arsenal of dictators and despots. Its how they keep the poor poor and the oppressed oppressed. Thus death is the “last enemy to be put under Christ’s feet.” His resurrection is God’s guarantee that he has as good as won the battle with death. If we can see beyond the humiliation and oppression of death and affirm the eternal and priceless worth of each person, that’s got to make a difference in how we view everyone we encounter, and how we live here and now. That’s one reason for the historic Anabaptist peace position: you read early Anabaptist writers and not only do they say that peace and non-violence are better for this world than the alternatives, their hope of a better resurrection to a better life is what gave them courage and comfort to preach the gospel, to arrange their lives around God’s justice, and to face their enemies non-violently, lovingly and courageously.
But eternity is not in ourselves. The Psalms don’t say that we are everlasting, but that “the steadfast love of God is everlasting.” Anyone whom God loves lives as long as God continues to love him or her, which is forever. As for judgment, its up to us whether we experience such everlasting love as heavenly or hellish, depending upon if we want such love and how we value it. That’s how I understand judgment: out of God’s respect for us, we get what we most deeply, truly want. As John the Gospel writer put it, “This is the judgment: light has come into the world and people preferred darkness.”
More than that, I cannot say. Any attempts to describe everlasting life have to use words for things familiar to us here and now. All the biblical images for everlasting life, of a city in John’s Revelation, or of a temple, only give us symbols and shadows of something better than those things. So I can’t answer fully all the following questions that the junior youth faith exploration class put to me a few Sundays ago, when we had a class on this same subject. But here they are:
- What will we do for all eternity?
- Will we see all the other people who are in heaven? And who will we be with? Our family and church, or more?
- Will there be animals in heaven, and if so, will we be able to communicate with them?
- What will we look like? Will we recognize people familiar to ourselves, or everyone? Or will we need name tags?
- Can we see people on earth who haven’t died yet?
Oh boy. I won’t do like Sylvia Browne, the self-proclaimed psychic and regular on daytime TV talk shows, and claim to answer all those questions about heaven. But I think they reveal some important and universal things about ourselves: that we care about people and relationships, and yet we feel some painful estrangement and separation in this life, and that we are looking for harmony, even union, with God, others and creation. That also implies some justice in this life and the next. We don’t want the estrangement, oppression and suffering of this life to continue nor to triumph.
So I’ll venture a few ideas in response to the reasonable questions of our youth:
As for what will we do in the next life, don’t worry about getting bored after several hundred thousand years. God is timeless and time-free. Could it be that we will be timeless and time-free too? If so, we may literally not have time to get bored. Furthermore, we’ll be with God, who is infinite. Why wouldn’t getting to know God also be infinitely exciting and delightful? The same can be said for everyone else here: infinitely interesting and delightful to get to know in their realest, most intimate selves. We’re also told that we will rule the world with Christ. Rule in the same servanthood sense of Christ. The world is an infinite universe. No way to get bored there, either.
As for being with other people and seeing them, how would eternal life be a restoration and reunion otherwise? All the biblical images include people, not just persons. There’s nothing in the New Jerusalem for anyone who prefers isolation to community, injustice to justice, war to peace, feuds to forgiveness, or revenge to reconciliation. All the more reason to live in justice, love and forgiveness now.
As for how we’ll recognize each other: on that mount of Transfiguration, when the disciples saw Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, they knew who they were. They didn’t ask, they weren’t introduced, Moses and Elijah weren’t even wearing name tags; they just seem to have recognized Moses and Elijah in their eternal persons. As the words of the old hymn put it, “We shall know each other better when the mist has rolled away.”
As for animals in heaven, and being able to talk with them, I’d really like that to be the case. Many times in the Bible we read about how God loves all of his creation, and delights in his animals especially. The Bible speaks of redemption in terms of liberation for all of creation, not just for us humans. “Let the mountains rejoice and the trees clap their hands,” we read again and again. If anything, I suspect that our relationship with creation will be restored to God’s original intent. So if you have ever felt like your pet dog or your pet cat was a true companion and a source of delight and joy, or if you delighted in the power and partnership of a horse, then perhaps that was something quite spiritual, a foretaste of the coming restoration and renewal of all creation and its intended harmony. I just hope that all of the fish I have caught over the years are forgiving.
As for whether or not the saints now with God can see what is going on among us here and now, part of me looks at the state of the world and says, “I kind of hope not. The fare on the evening news, or the TV Reality shows would only spoil it for them.” From what I read in Daniel 12, I get the impression that their bodies at least are awaiting resurrection. From elsewhere in the New Testament, I get the sense that their souls or spirits are safely resting in God until the day comes when all of God’s saints, body and soul, will “rise and shine” like the sun. For them to rest and delight in God, all they need to contemplate is God. As Paul told his Corinthian disciples, “We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5: 8).” You go through ancient European graveyards and one word you often see on tombstones before the 18th Century is “Resurgam,” Latin for, “I shall arise.” I think they had it right: the resurrection that Daniel foresaw will happen in the same moment for all of us, and it will be a reunion of the soul with the body, a resurrection body like that of the resurrected Jesus.
What that resurrection body shall be like I’m at a loss to say. The class wanted to know at what age our resurrected bodies will be. I’d like my 30-year-old body back, when my pants were four sizes smaller. But that’s assuming again that we’ll be living in time the same way we do now. We cannot venture far onto this topic before we must confess with the Apostle Paul, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it entered the human mind, all that God has prepared for those who love him (I Cor. 2:9).”
No, let’s come back to the present and lay hold of what this promise meant to Daniel and his fellow Israelites in exile, who had lost a war and a country, but who triumphed by surviving, a people who had lost their nationhood but not their identity, who had lost the respect of other mortals, but not the love and faithfulness of God, who had even lost their temple, only to catch a glimpse of how God would dwell with them forever, not only as a nation, but as persons.
I’ve got to believe that Daniel’s glimpse of the glory to come says the same thing for us, twenty-five centuries later, because of all the ways that Jesus and the apostles build upon this very vision. Especially since we, too, live as an exile people awaiting reunion in that city which God is building. What Daniel saw, in that vision of all mortals rising from the dust for a final accounting, tells us that we each matter, dearly and deeply, to God; that our choices and decisions matter, for eternity; that each person we see is of infinite and eternal value to God, including the person we see in the mirror; that no evil, injustice or oppression has the last word over us, not even the injustice and oppression of death. “So let us not weary in doing good, because in due time we shall reap what we sow.” In effect, life wins. So does God. And so do we. Amen.
In a moment we shall sing a hymn that was sung during most of the memorial services over which I presided when I pastored in Kansas, with the words of the recurring refrain, “O seek that beautiful stream.” That’s from a biblical image for eternal life: a stream that never stops flowing, free, clear and refreshing. I think it was requested so often by Kansas Mennonites precisely because such streams are few and far between there, and all the more prized. Also, the generation that was passing had learned the song in the original German during their childhood, and had come to treasure it all the more, for all the memorial services they had attended. I hope I make it through the hymn, because singing it feels like one of those thin places, between time and timelessness, where you feel how much you are already invested in the next world, the resurrection life, because of the beloved friends and family members you have entrusted to the hope of everlasting reunion. Remember, whenever that is, its sooner than we think.