The Whole World’s Waiting
By day, I am your ordinary, run of the mill, Episcopal priest. But by night, I am a fantasy novel junkie. You may have heard about it, but there was some buzz in the world of fantasy this week. There is a series of popular fantasy books, the first of which is called A Game of Thrones, which is also an HBO series. The most recent installment, A Dance with Dragons, was published just this week. The series A Game of Thrones is Harry Potter meets Lord of the Rings with political intrigue. Take my word for it, the books are incredible.
The story, the story of some mythical land that was simply conjured up by the author has me captured. I couldn’t, and I still can’t shake out of it. So by now I have read well over 5,000 pages in this series and I still have no idea how it is going to end. The plot twists and turns and twists back again with such madness that the story as it started looks nothing like it does now. So the end, when it comes, two books from now, will most definitely surprise me.
Being surprised is what makes good fiction. And to be honest, it’s what makes good religion as well.
God’s story is one full of delightful surprises, one with plot twists and turns. Take Joseph, for example. His brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt, he manages to work his way out of prison, becomes a chief counselor for Pharaoh in Egypt, and then Joseph eventually saves his brothers from a famine; the very brothers who sold him. Talk about a great story.
Or take the story of Jesus, that’s another great one. God himself is born to an unwed teenage mother. He is poor. He dies on a cross, and then takes up his body again. All so that you and I can have new life in God. That’s a great story too, filled with plot twists and delightful surprises.
This is simply the nature of the Christian story. Paul was out to arrest Christians and became one himself. The church was persecuted by the Roman empire, and then it managed to take over the Roman empire. You and I are drowned in water at baptism only to rise again with Jesus.
God’s stories for us, the stories of the Bible, the stories of the church and all the generations of Christians, are full of surprises. The stories twist and turn, guided by the author of our salvation. God surprises us with new friendships, with a kind word from a stranger, by showing up in the most unexpected places.
So if God has surprised us so many times in the past, we should expect God to surprise in the future. It’s in God’s future that we rest our hope. For in hope, we were saved. And we hope, in the unexpected.
For the religions of the world, here’s the expected end to our story. Everybody who lives good lives, or even relatively decent lives, and profess a certain god, goddess, or both, can expect to wind up in some eternal state of spiritual bliss. You know the drill: angels, harps, clouds, pearly gates, whatever. That’s the expected thing. But seriously, that is so boring. Hanging out in heaven, floating around on a cloud, forever? And I don’t even like harps. The God of Joseph, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of Paul and the God of this church is a much better author than that. Surely God can write a better ending to the story.
Well, the good news is that there is a better ending. And the author of our salvation has given us a sneak peek at the ending, so that we can have a taste of what to expect.
At the end of God’s story, souls do not fly off to heaven. Heaven is a big deal, but it’s not the end of the world. On Easter morning, Jesus’ spirit wasn’t whisked away into the clouds. No, Jesus was a body again. He ate, he drank, he breathed. Our souls and our bodies are not two separate things. They are one and together. We are flesh and spirit in the same person.
So at the end of our days, when death comes knocking on the door, it’s not that our souls are released from our bodies. That story is old and boring. The story of Jesus Christ and our story is that both our bodies and our souls are made perfect together. God actually wants to redeem us, to save us, flesh and blood. Our redemption is not that we become spiritual beings or ghosts, but that we become new people. That’s one delightful twist the to plot.
But there’s more than that. God has given us another small glimpse of the end of the story. Our passage from Romans speaks of the hope that all creation has. The hope that everything will be set free from its decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. All creation, everything, is looking forward to that day when it is remade, re-created by God. This is surely not expected. This is not the story from the religions of the world.
But this is God’s story, and God’s story is full of twists and turns. When God writes a story, it has to be big, real big. In God’s story, it’s not just humanity that is made new, made perfect, it is all creation. Every rock, every tree, every hill. Every stream, every lake, every drop of water. Every dog, every cat, every mosquito, every dinosaur. Every planet, every star, every comet, galaxy and black hole. Every cloud, every thought, every day that has ever been, is looking forward to being remade perfectly. With us, all of God’s creation groans inwardly, awaiting that great and glorious day when the author of salvation shall write in big, loving script, “The End.”
Now in the meantime, it’s not good enough to just wait around. Like reading a great, big, fantasy novel, our life is lived one page at a time. If you skip right to the end, you miss the build-up, the anticipation. In the meantime, as we await our redemption, we have to take care of ourselves – our souls and our bodies. What we do with our bodies affects the health of our souls. We are unified people, body and soul together, and they will be redeemed together. Don’t think of your body as some prison that is holding your soul back – instead use your body along with your soul to serve God. When you kneel to confess your sins, humble also your heart. When you physically eat and drink, allow God to nourish your soul. And take care of your bodies, because your bodies are the only way that you know your soul.
And as the whole world awaits redemption, this means that we also have to care for creation. We don’t escape our bodies to know God. In the same way, we don’t leave this earth to know God. In fact, we can know God simply by looking around at creation, at a tree, at the stars, or through a microscope. Just as we care for our bodies, we need to care for this world. This is living hopefully; living as if the end of the story has already been written, an ending in which God makes all things new.
Christianity is materialism, holy materialism. We care for our flesh and blood, we care for those who are hungry and thirsty, we care for the trees and the waters. And we care, because God cares about these things, cares enough to write them into the end of the story. And though we don’t see it now, we live in hope that God will redeem all that we see and all that we know. We hope for what we do not see. So that at the end, all that we see will be made new.