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"Out Go The Lights"


Faith invites us to trust God even if we cannot yet view the evidence or the outcome. Nowhere is this invitation more important than when we look ahead to our own deaths.

            Here is an experience that many of us have had. The night is dark and stormy, and the power goes out in your house. The circuit box is downstairs in the back corner of the basement. You believe you know the way, but there may be obstacles in your path. As you descend the cellar steps, you try to map it out in your mind. Where did I leave that box of dishes for the next yard sale? Is that old bicycle still sitting in the middle of the room? That old lawn furniture — where was it left after it was brought inside?

            Taking one more careful step, you think how helpful it would be to have a flashlight. You could see where you are going and make your way to reset the power, but it is too dark even to locate the flashlight. You make your way forward without seeing clearly.

            Isn’t the life of faith so often like this? We have heard the promises of God, but we are still walking in the dark. We know the virtues of faith, hope and love are real, yet they are frequently out of sight. Someone once named them as “the great invisibles,” suggesting they are present but not always obvious. We declare that all sin is forgiven, yet people still sin. We affirm Christ is saving the world, but much of what we see does not seem to have been rescued. Inevitably we must claim to believe and live as we have been taught, but the way is not clear. We are walking in the dark.

            The greatest “invisible” is death, specifically what happens after we die. Do we rest with our ancestors, like the prophet Samuel?1 Do we descend to the mythical Sheol, the mythological world of the dead?2 Do we wish to transport quickly to the paradise which Jesus promised to the repentant thief on a nearby cross?3 Or might we have to await the final day of resurrection when all the dead are raised and judged?4 All these scenarios are mentioned in the Bible. So, what is going to happen when we die?

 

A death like Christ’s

            The apostle Paul takes up the question in the passage for today. He has been defending his ministry in this second letter to the Corinthian church. In his absence from that congregation, critics have stood up to question him. They have debated his authority. They have critiqued his sermons. They have dismissed his abilities and trashed his reputation. His response has been to point to Jesus, crucified and risen. The Lord was condemned and killed by his enemies, an act that was met by the supreme act of forgiveness. Similarly, Paul himself never assumed that his preaching would gain automatic approval. It did not happen to Jesus, so there is no reason Paul expected it to happen to him.5

            Just like Christ Jesus, Paul finds that he is sustained by the same “invisible” power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. He keeps at his work, even though there is resistance to the Gospel of God. This resistance goes with the territory. “For we who are living are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake,” he writes, “so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal flesh.”6 His imitation of Christ gives him confidence. This extraordinary apostle refuses to lose heart even if he should lose his life.

 

Three metaphors for hope

            To illustrate his hope, he uses three metaphors. The first describes his physical body as a tent.7 God may live in a huge mansion in the heavens, but Paul’s tired, worn-out body is more like a tent. It is temporary, not permanent. It is subject to violent storms and torrential rains. It is shaken by the winds, insecure yet still inhabited.

            Picture somebody you know, at the end of life’s long journey. This might be an ancient soul who is known and loved by you. Somehow, she keeps going. A bright light still burns in her eyes. Yet she is tired and worn out. When her grown children have left the room, she confesses, “I don’t know how much further I can go on. But the Lord still gives me one more day.” There is no despair in her voice, only weariness. Her life resembles a tent. She wants to relocate to God’s mansion.

            The second verbal picture that Paul paints is that of clothing, not housing. Jesus may have taught that the body is more than clothing,8 but Paul conceives of the body as clothing for the soul. Our bodies are subject to wear and tear. As sleeves on a well-loved shirt become worn and frayed, so our skin and bones begin to grow fragile. Eyes grow dim. Knees wear out. Our joints can hurt, and no spring is left in our step.

            Paul longs for a new body, a “new set of clothes,” so to speak. He already addressed this in his first letter to the Corinthian church,9 so he does not belabor the point here. In that previous correspondence, he compared our destiny to the Christ who has been raised from the dead, stating, “Just as we wear the likeness of the man made of earth, so we will wear the likeness of the Man from heaven.”10

                The third metaphor lies in the center of today’s text. After “tent” and “clothing,” Paul settles on “home.” Those who die in the Lord will be at home with the Lord. Once again, he does not overdraw a picture that he cannot quite view. Yet we gain a glimpse of a continuing relationship with the risen Lord. Those who trust Jesus are responding to the Good News announcing his resurrection. They can pray to him and through him. They can lean forward to listen to his claim on their lives. They can hear him continue to speak through the faithful Word of the church. They have a relationship with him.

            What happens when we die? We enter an unmediated relationship with the Savior we have not yet seen. We have had that relationship with him since faith was awakened within us. In death, however, the relationship is complete and accessible. Any veil is pierced. Any misunderstanding is clarified. We will see Jesus as he is, as he always has been, and we will live in him and with him eternally. For Paul, this is a profound joy of the Gospel. It is an extraordinary hope that sustains him through all the troubles of his very mortal ministry.

 

Trusting what we cannot yet see

            Does he see this clearly as he writes his letter? Only in his heart. He trusts all that he has heard and experienced from the risen Christ. Not only that memory of the voice and light on the road to Damascus many years ago, but the continuing confirmation that his life is conforming to the will of Jesus. Living the gospel is hard. Spreading the word and showing Christ’s love is difficult. Those who do it well are frequently wounded. Yet they are thoroughly alive. This is what renews his hope in what he cannot yet see. He longs to make his final home with Jesus.

            Pay attention to this longing, says the late writer Frederick Buechner, for it is a longing for home that all of us have. In one of his books, he reminds us that all of us have two homes: the home we remember and the home we hope for. We remember the home that was our place of origin. We hope for the home which will be our ultimate destination. As Buechner writes, “The longing for home is so universal a form of longing that there is even a special word for it, which is of course homesickness.”11 We wish for our true home, even if we cannot yet see it.

            So, we return to where we began today. We walk, not by flashlight, but by faith. We trust in God’s great promises even as we wait for them to be fulfilled. We hope for what we have heard but cannot yet see. This is the true nature of faith.

            There is a game of sorts that has made the rounds in church camps and youth groups. A tight circle forms around the one who stands in the middle. She or he is blindfolded, and then invited to fall backwards. It may take some convincing, but if he or she is willing to do it, the others in the group are asked to catch that person.

            No doubt, some are afraid to do this. They do not want to tumble backwards out of control. Yet for the one who trusts, the one who lets go of fear, there is the exhilaration of being caught by unseen hands.

            This is a parable of our future, secure in the love of Christ. All of us will fall someday. He will catch us. Can we see this in advance? No, but we can trust the love that we cannot see.

 

 

1 1 Samuel 28:15.

2 Psalm 139:8.

3 Luke 23:43.

4 Revelation 20:11-15.

5 See 2 Corinthians 4:5-12.

6 2 Corinthians 4:11.

7 2 Corinthians 5:1-2.

8 See Matthew 6:25.

9 1 Corinthians 15:35-49.

10 See 1 Corinthians 15:49, Good News Translation.

11 Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (HarperCollins Publishers, 1996) pp.19.

 

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