Looking Forward

Faith in Christ is forward-looking. The past and the present point forward to the future, to the coming endless Day that was signified by the 7th day in Genesis. No evening, no morning, just endless day in the light of Christ, in the presence of the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. You might say that our faith in Christ is anchored in the past, believed and lived in the present, and oriented toward a future that is bright and glorious. The Lord we worship is the One who was, who is, and who is to come, and He is the same, “yesterday, today, and forever.”

Viewed through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the future looks bright even as the present descends into darkness and death. The labor contractions of the new creation seem to be growing in intensity and frequency these days. I don’t know about you, but I wake up every morning wondering what the disaster du jure is going to be: earthquake, flood, fire, volcano, oil slick covering the Gulf of Mexico, market declines, global financial meltdowns. The daily headlines are looking more and more like an apocalyptic checklist from the book of the Revelation. I’m just waiting for famine, plague and pestilence to enter stage right.

It’s terribly easy, and indeed tempting, to get caught up in despair, to abandon all hope for the future, to live radically in the present with a kind of “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” attitude. I’m afraid many in our culture have already succumbed to this already. Grab for all you can today because we don’t know about tomorrow. People rack up enormous debt with no intent to repay. Young people walk around aimlessly with no coherent plan or purpose, living day to day from one Frappachino to the next. Perhaps you yourself have wondered what the point of it all is when it seems that nothing is lasting, everything is disposable, today we live, tomorrow we die, so what the heck.

Jesus was preparing His disciples for His impending death and resurrection and ascension. He was “leaving the world,” visibly speaking, and going back to the Father from whence I came. He was about to accomplish the Father’s plan and purpose in giving His life as the atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world. And He would rise again too, demonstrating the power of His death over Death itself, showing that the Death and the grave had lost their sting. And He would ascend to His glory, glorifying our humanity in His. That’s our future – resurrection to life and glory, all thanks and praise to Jesus.

When we despair of the future, when we can as though there is no hope, no glory, no life awaiting us, we betray our own unbelief. We have forgotten the past – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ now reigns. We have failed to embrace our present sufferings as signs of future glory, as the birth pangs of the new creation that they are. In other words, when we despair of the future, we have failed to grasp in faith the present “now” of our salvation. Now we already have everything in Christ. We have been crucified with Him, raised with Him, glorified with Him. Everything that He died to win for you, you already have in Christ, held in trust for you until you take possession of it. And you have the gift of the Holy Spirit as “earnest money,” as a pledge toward a future filled with resurrection from the dead and life everlasting. You have a future in Jesus.

Our faith in Christ is anchored in the past. It is tied to a cross driven into the earth outside of Jerusalem, the tree on which the incarnate Son of God gave His life for you. That’s the anchor point. This is why the Church is mandated by Christ to proclaim His death until He comes. This is why the Sacrament of His Body and Blood is so central to the worship of the Christian. This is the very point of our Baptism, that we are united with Jesus in His death. That once for all people, once for all times death on a cross is ours. Without the death of Jesus, we have a free-floating faith, perhaps even verging on idolatry, but we have no concrete reference point. Without the sacrificial death of Jesus, our faith would be nothing more than a philosophy of life and pie-in-the sky- by and by optimism at best. Philosophy cannot raise you from the dead, nor can optimism change the course of the future.

This is what is so incredibly toxic about many religions that pass themselves off as authentic Christianity today. They are oriented entirely in the present and in the self. It’s all about now and it’s all about me. The reality of “now” is that we live by faith and not by sight. We live in love toward God and others in spite of and in tension with the lovelessness that resides in our own hearts that really cares only for ourselves. What passes as true religion today, is little more than pandering to the self. If past ages bowed down before idols of wood and stone, this present age bows down before the mirror and worships the self. Even faith itself comes an idolatry when we speak of having “great faith” or a “strong faith.” The question is faith in what? What is the object. I can say, “I trust, I trust” but you will quickly ask in what or in whom do you trust? I may trust that the elevator I am about to step into is in good working order, but my trust won’t make it go or down safely.

I saw a spot on television this past week about Half Dome, the rock in Yosemite and the cable trail that people take up the back side of Half Dome to get to the top. These are not experienced climbers, mind you, but ordinary tourists who trudge up the near vertical trail clinging in trust to a cable. If that cable isn’t any good or if that cable isn’t tied down and anchored properly, it doesn’t matter how great your trust is or how firm your grip is. If the cable lets loose, you may hang on to it with all your might, it won’t save you.

The death of Jesus on the cross is the anchor point of your faith. Without it, “faith” is really nothing more than wishful thinking, and nothing more sure than clinging tightly to a cable tied to nothing. The cable that connects you to the cross is your Baptism, a cord that extends from the wounded side of Jesus to you in this present time. “Now is the time of your salvation.” That “now” is fraught with tension. We Lutherans have a number of ways of saying it. We are now both sinners in Adam and saints in Christ, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously justified and sinner. We are now both dead in ourselves and alive in Christ. We are now residents of this earthly city and citizens of the heavenly city that comes down from above. We now possess all things in Christ, and yet we do not now possess all things for ourselves. We now have peace in Christ, and yet, as Jesus told HIs disciples, we also have trouble, tribulation, hardship. There is now, and there is not yet.

Jesus spoke to His disciples of a coming day and a coming hour when theology would no longer be analogy as it now is, but the Father would be known plainly, when Jesus would no longer be the intermediary of their prayers but they would be able to deal directly with the Father and everything for which they asked in His name would be granted. How often we’ve been mistaken or mislead into thinking that day and hour is now, that all we have to do is append “in the name of Jesus” to whatever we ask and we will receive it like a can of soda from a vending machine.

Even the disciples thought this. They said, “Ah, now you’re speaking plainly and we know you know all things and we believe you….” And Jesus looked at them and said, “Really? Do you think you now believe? No. The hour has come when you will scatter and hide and leave me all alone. That’s how great your faith is. So get your eyes off of yourselves and look to me. In me you have peace, but only in me. In the world in which you live, you will have trouble and heartache and sorrow. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

The death and resurrection of Jesus have overcome the world. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus now reigns over all things, even though all things do not yet appear to be under His reign. And you’ve undoubtedly heard the questions or perhaps have asked them for yourselves, “If there is a God why does He allow….” Fill in the blank for yourself. If Christ has already overcome the world, if Christ now reign over all things at the right hand of the Father, if all things are now put under His feet, why is there yet tribulation, suffering, disaster, disease, death?

We have no simple answer, and any answer would be trite. It is the way God wishes to do things. He leaves the old and dying in place, even as He brings the new. He allows the city of Man to decay and collapse under its own idolatries, even as His city comes down from heaven glorious as a bride on her wedding day. The sufferings of the present, together with all the doubts and ambiguities of living by faith and not by sight, do not compare with the glory that will be revealed on that Day we see what we now must believe.

John caught a glimpse in the Revelation. A perfected, symmetrical city made of translucent gold with Israelite gates and apostolic foundations, a city paved in gold unlike any gold in this world, transparent as glass. A city of endless day and light illuminated by a single lamp, Christ the Lamb who was slain but lives. A city where all the achievements, all the good that was done in this life, all the glory of the nations is seen in the light of Christ without the stain of sin, with all the greasy fingerprints of Adam wiped away. A city with no temple, no sacrament, where worshippers see face to face the object of their worship – the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb He sent to save us. The vision reminds us that this city does not rise up from below by our work and ambition. That was Babel, the city of man’s ambition. This city comes down from above, whose architect and builder is God.

It is a city whose boardrooms and bedrooms and staterooms are pure and holy. Nothing unclean shall enter through its gates. Nor anyone who does what is false and detestable. That would exclude you and me as well, were it not for the blood of the Lamb and His writing our names in His baptismal book of life. We enter those gates of pearl by God’s undeserved kindness, by grace, through faith, for Jesus’ sake.

Then we will know in full, what we now can only experience in part, dimly. Then we will see what we now must believe. Then every prayer, every petition, every supplication uttered in the name of Jesus will find their “yes” and their “amen.” It is as sure as Jesus risen from the dead is sure. It is as sure as the water of Baptism poured on you. It is as sure as the Word of Christ spoken to you. A past anchored in the death of Jesus, a present lived in baptismal faith, a future filled with joy and peace in the light of Jesus, the One who was and is and is to come, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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