I have thought recently about how to come alongside people as they walk through life. God calls us – “us” being the church – to walk alongside one another through the difficult times in life and to share the gospel of his salvation with those who don’t know him and to help one another when help is needed. Care; evangelism; compassion; prayer – we are called to these things.
Four of us, along with 12 others from other churches will go Ethiopia in April to tell 100 children about Jesus’ love. The participants on this trip are hard-working middle class Americans. Most Ethiopians who are employed and have their own apartments would be considered poor by American standards. Most among those in that nation who would be considered to be doing well – would be seen as impoverished in our nation. We are not visiting people who are doing well by Ethiopian standards. We are not even visiting those who are poor by that country’s measurements. We will spend a few days with children who have nothing, those at the very bottom of the latter.
What do we know about their lives? How can we possibly tell them what is good? We fly in on a big metal bird, rich people who appear for a few days and then leave. We want to answer God’s call and share the good news and carry his love. But it’s not easy. It is a struggle.
People around us are grieving: husbands die; fathers die; family members are sick with cruel, chronic illnesses. Some of these illnesses impose suffering on families for years before they finally end the sick person’s life. What good is the good news for a person who is in the middle of that?
I have spent time with people who are in the midst of tribulation. The father has left and the family is falling apart. Or, the police kicked in the front door of the home to arrest the oldest son. They are trying to make the neighborhood safe, but how safe does it feel when the police don’t protect her son; they violently haul him off in chains.
She just lost her job. At some point she’ll pull herself together, polish up the resume, get her name out, and move on. Right now, she’s devastated, hurt, and paralyzed by fear.
Jesus came to bring Heaven to Earth. In his first coming, He established once and for all the Kingdom of God, a kingdom where sins are forgiven, where there are but two rules – love God with everything that is in your and about you, and love your neighbor as yourself. It is a kingdom where God himself is in real relationship with human beings.
But she doesn’t want to hear about kingdom or forgiveness or relationship; she wants a job. That mother wants her son home, safe. That family wants to wake up and realize it was all a bad dream and daddy is still there. In the hospital waiting room, there is no desire for sermons, not usually. All things are a blessing from God. He’s gone on to a better place. How about this? How about healing? That would be a good blessing!
And those hundreds of kids in Ethiopia who experience multiple 30 and 40 hour famines not because of their spiritual discipline but because the school that feeds them has run out of food– what is good news for them? Kids, not only do you get fed, you get seconds.
I have been thinking about preaching and giving a witness in contexts where pain makes it impossible to hear the good news we have to share. I know that the answer is presence.
The best way to describe ‘heaven’ is not as a place but as being in the presence of God uninterrupted and without any obstacle. To be with God in physical, bodily form, knowing we are completely forgiven of sin, that’s heaven. I suppose there is a place called heaven. But mostly in the New Testament, the description is about presence. Revelation talks about a city and a river and an orchard – the images are piled on top of one another, superimposed. The images help us envision it. The bulk of the description though is implication with more weight being given to presence than some dreamy place. Our endgame is resurrection –these bodies, in some form, are raised to life just as Jesus was, and in resurrected form, we are with him.
That’s presence – God come to earth in bodily form in Jesus, and again in Jesus’ second coming, or appearing as it says in Hebrews 9. As we live between his appearances, between his coming and dying on the cross and rising from death– between that and his second appearing, our opportunity to talk about Jesus and share the Gospel comes through presence. We show love before we tell of it. As he showed what God is like, we show love before we tell of the redemption we have when we give our lives to Jesus.
I know this. I know the good news starts with just sitting at the hospital bedside for a few minutes or silently waiting in the waiting room, maybe for hours; listening as the pain is described. Listening and caring deeply, feeling the hurt along with the one who is hurting – this comes before words are spoken.
I don’t have to go through what you’re going through if I am willing to listen and let you tell me about it. You don’t have to know what your friend is suffering. You don’t have to have endured her struggle. Simply walk alongside her in it as she invites you. Be present, open, and filled with grace. Be persistent in love and care. I don’t need to know the specifics of going hungry to travel to Ethiopia and hug a child and hand him a simple care package and hug him again. I should educate myself about hunger and poverty facts. I should, as much as possible, know what I am stepping into – the airplane that takes me to the third world school compound; the metal detector outside the courthouse where I will sit with my friend throughout the custody hearings; the elevator that takes me to the ICU wing; the doorway leading into the broken home; the gates of the cemetery. I know as much as I can and proceed even with what I don’t know because as God was present in body in Jesus and is present in Spirit, we make ourselves a presence of his love.
We love until we are invited to share.
Ironically, the passage in Hebrews 9, about his absence, is a source of words for us when it is right to speak the Gospel, after we’d lived it.
“So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time.” He came and is coming – but right now, he’s not here. All I have talked about is presence. How does Jesus’ absence give us words of hope to share when we are present with people who are burdened by grief and pain?
First, his absence means he accomplished what he came to accomplish. He came to die! He died for the sins of the world and because he did, Hebrews 9 reports that when he comes again, it won’t be for the sake of sinners or for the purpose of removing sin. That’s accomplished. We can say with utter confidence that the Bible states emphatically that Jesus has borne the weight of the sins of the world. All who turn to Him for salvation and give their lives to Him are forgiven.
Second, the promise is clear here just as it is in Luke and throughout Paul’s writings. He who came and is now in Heaven at God’s right hand will come back. Jesus is coming back. We don’t know when. But just as we are completely ignorant of when, we are 100% assured it will happen. The one who came to save us and goes before God on our behalf and is himself God in the flesh inviting us to be sons and daughters of God is returning. We will see Jesus in his bodily, resurrected form. We will touch him as sure as touch one another in warm handshake or a firm embrace or an exchange of the kiss of peace.
Third, he who has paid the price for sin (it is accomplished) and is coming back (there is no doubt) will complete salvation. At His appearing, the new age will have begun. In these last days, between his departure and his return, the new age, the age of the Kingdom of God, is beginning. As we grow in our knowledge of the Holy Spirit and in our relationship with God, more and more, in our time we step through the last days and into the eternal kingdom. Salvation is being completed. When Jesus comes at the final hour, at the judgment, Salvation will be fulfilled.
That’s when, as it says in Revelation, there will be no more tears, no more, pain, and no more dying. We are moving toward that. When Jesus comes, we will have arrived. That hope is what we share with those around who have fear, doubt, pain, grief, and struggle; and hunger. We share it after we have given the hungry bread, sat at the bedside of the one whose body is dying, hugged the brokenhearted, and invited the lonely into our homes.
Complete forgiveness of sins; promise of Jesus’ appearing; the fulfillment of salvation – this is Hebrews 9:27-28. We live this by being in the lives of people no matter what their lives are like. We inhabit one another’s lives walking alongside each other through good and bad.
Even then, there are days when it is hard to see the good news. N.T. Wright says, “The point of stressing ‘appearing’ [Jesus’ second coming] here is that, though in one sense it will seem to us like he is‘coming,’ he will in fact be ‘appearing’ right where he presently is – not a long way away within our space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven. This world is different than ours (earth) but intersects with it in countless ways, not the least in the inner lives of Christians themselves” (Surprised by Hope).
When we care and are present with those in pain, we are in those places where heaven and earth intersect. I don’t mean and N. T. Wright is not saying that we speed up Jesus’ appearing by reaching out to one another in love. Jesus is here in Holy Spirit and will come in bodily form in God’s time. What we are saying is in a life of caring, we set ourselves up for moments where we are blown away as we feel the power of heavenly hope. A lot of times, caring is just hard.
Right now, I know a family who is helping a woman in her late 80’s clean out her apartment. She has no family and she has never thrown anything away. She’s got an apartment that’s floor-to-ceiling full and in her weakened condition, she cannot empty. She’s already in the nursing home bed. This Christian couple I know in another town, they’re retired, and working harder than they did before they stopped employment. When I talked to them this week, they did not say anything about holiness or “thin places,” those places where you can sense Heaven’s presence. They just said they were exhausted.
They are entering this woman’s pain. They and she will see the hope of sins removed, Jesus coming, and salvation fulfilled. In their love, they’ll know heaven. That’s how it works. That is church. We are the church. We lock arms, we sing praise, we lift one another up, and together we eagerly await his appearing.