By Neil Earle
2009 was quite a year.
Osama bin Laden remained at large, a terrorist threat surfaced over the skies of Detroit, the insurgency in Afghanistan defied solution, Iraq was still a worry, the federal government looked more paralyzed than ever and our largest state slowly turned ungovernable.
These were only the top stories. You can be sure that many lost a loved one or close friend this year, and Americans now work a whole month longer, we learned, than in 1969 with less to show for it. 2009 proved one thing once again beyond dispute – this hurting world needs the healing balm of Jesus Christ and the Good news of the Kingdom. Saint Paul's profound insight in Romans 8 was never more relevant: "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it."
Yet there was plenty of good news out there as well. God gave evidence of his being in the world from the helpful, law-abiding neighbors most of us have to the rallying we saw to help Haiti at the beginning of 2010. Crime kept falling and the worst predictions for the Great Recession of 2008 were not (so far) realized. Even better, Washington began to get some of its bailout money back.
As Christians we have even deeper reasons for rejoicing. God is still on his throne, history is going somewhere and is not just an endless repetition of Greek tragedy. There is meaning and significance and a divine closure coming to history. We do not simply participate in the random round of events sketched by those puffs of neurons that make up our television news.
No. For the Christian life is real. Life is earnest. Our lives are more than a random scattergun of tragedies and bombings, diseases and lootings, wars and assassinations. There is spiritual closure promised to the events we all struggle through – collectively and privately. There is healing for the nations promised us:
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (Revelation 21:1-2, 22:1-2).
"The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."
Here is hope for a certain resolution to human struggle that overleaps the tyranny of the present, propels us into Tomorrow and convicts us that we have work to do. We are called to bear witness by our very lives of the sure future to unfold in the fullness of the Kingdom of God. We rejoice in hope, Paul said, because the kingdom is already here now in part, as Jesus taught (Matthew 11:15).
Here is a hope that moves beyond our very human tendency to become too narrowly focused on our own life struggles – dire as they may be. It is enough to know that help and hope and healing are assured. Christians. Even more so, we are to share that hope, that confidence, that conviction with others.
A Russian mystic and spiritual writer named Dostoevsky often explored Christian themes in his novels. He wrote eloquently of the need to nourish a hope for the future:
"Surely I haven't suffered simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for someone else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when every one suddenly understands what it has all been for."
"The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."
That is where it’s all going. This is part of the crowning glory of the Gospel. It points us to a promised fulfillment of our hopes. It proclaims the great good news that our human lot is not ultimately tragic. No. This often meaningless sorry round is leading to a universal fulfillment of such worth that compared to it all human suffering will be rendered manifestly worthwhile.
As Paul wrote: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (I Corinthians 2:9).
All proclaimers of the Gospel share in the hope Peter declared long ago, "that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you” – even Jesus. God has given us evident token of that promised hope being fulfilled through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (Ephesians 1:18-22).
"He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his prophets" (Acts 3:20-22).
This is what Paul pointed people to – the surety of a sense of closure on history. The confidence that there is justice in the Universe – the guilty will be punished, the innocent will be rewarded. “Even the physical creation itself will be delivered from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).
The hope that that Gospel engenders is part of what some Bible students call "the Power of the Future." The future, in many wonderful ways, tugs at us in the Now, gives meaning to what we do today. The Good News of the Kingdom of God throws light behind itself as well as ahead.
Knowing that the ultimate outcome is a good one, a happy one, not just for us but for the cosmos, for all mankind – this gives us hope to carry on, and to continue to bear witness to the Great Commission. The Great Commission text itself vibrates with a sense of divine purpose and meaning behind the random events we endure. It closes with a note of final vindication and triumph: "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
As Christians we are sent out with that glorious good news – both collectively and as individuals. All we can do now is tap out our hope on these computer screens which may not seem like much, just one man’s opinion. But that is a part of the Mystery of the Kingdom – it comes in weakness but triumphs in power (Matthew 13:36-43). It is sown in this world as a tiny fragile seed of hope but will eventually be the only Kingdom that lasts (Matthew 13:32). Remember?
We cannot in one article, one commentary deal with the doubts that paralyze us, that undermine sustaining faith. We have to keep reading, keep learning, keep studying and look up the Scriptures to check out this hope for ourselves. In those long ago days before the nation of Judah fell to her enemies, nervous King Zedekiah asked the prophet Jeremiah: "Is there any word from the Lord?" (Jeremiah 37:17).
There is. There really is. For my money, the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a great place to start in 2010. Read it. Dwell on it. Meditate on it. You’ll like it. Jesus knows all about us and yet loved us enough to die for us anyway. We who are part of his church area part of the sign of the kingdom that is here in part and will one day arrive in its fullness.
To quote the words of the vibrant musical from the 1990s, Les Miserables: “Will you join in our crusade?” “Who will be brave and stand with me?” The calling is not ours alone but the King’s and he promises us sure victory. Herod could not destroy him as a baby, and the Romans could not defeat him in death and the grave could not hold him. Let us rejoice in that ground of hope and give thanks that we can, once again, offer the world a good word from the Lord in 2010.
There is no greater calling.