Life is full of contrasts, and this is certainly true of the Christian life. This is especially because of our dual nationality. We are citizens of two kingdoms – the earthly and the heavenly – so there will always be contrasts, tensions, and the need to attempt a balancing act.
A number of contrasts occurred for me this weekend. Last night at a church in Sydney we had an hour of wonderful worship, in which the ‘things of earth grow strangely dim’ as the old hymn puts it. One becomes bound up with the beauty and wonder of Almighty God and the problems of this world quickly subside.
But given that I was the speaker, I had to remind those present that we had to descend from the mountain top back into the valley of despair as we face some very real cultural and social issues. We had to temporarily leave the joyful presence of the Lord as we dealt with some pressing challenges in this life.
Indeed, I mentioned that the topic would involve those things which come straight out of the pit of hell, and that we must not forget the battle we are now in. So that was an evening of contrasts. Then today as I flew out of Sydney for home another stark contrast presented itself.
Sydney had been covered in dark, rainy clouds all day. As we ascended out of the city, the plane burst through the grey clouds into blue skies and sunshine. And all the while the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah was playing on the classics channel. What an incredible and appropriate combination.
Listening to words like “And he shall reign forever and ever” as I escaped the ugly conditions below for the glorious ones above was most fitting, as eternity had been in my mind of late. The phrase comes from Revelation 11:15 and refers to the end of all things when the Messiah returns and judges all evil and establishes all righteousness.
In addition to his second coming, every single believer in Christ will be raised with him on the last day, and be united with him and each other. This is our “blessed hope” as Titus 2:13 puts it. We await the day when every tear will be wiped away and death shall be no more, and “there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
This is all very real to me at the moment because of another stark contrast occurring in my life. My flight home today took an hour. But soon I will embark upon a 14 hour flight, the first of many. Indeed, getting back to my family home in the US will probably mean a trip of around 32 hours from door to door.
I do this for both joyous and quite sad reasons. I go to see my family, or those who are left. But I go to my dad’s funeral on Saturday. The joy of being back home with loved ones will of course be offset by the tragedy and despair of loss.
But because my 94-year-old father was a Christian, he is now in a far better place, along with my mom. So the contrast is quite stark here. The Apostle Paul spoke of exactly this when he considered death and what lies beyond the grave.
In Philippians 1 he spoke about his ministry, albeit a ministry in which he was confined in Roman chains. But he wrote positively about his imprisonment, and claimed that whatever it takes to see the gospel proclaimed makes it all worthwhile. He would love to be with his Lord, but he also longs to continue his ministry. He says this:
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.” (vv. 20-26).
That is always a dilemma for the believer. This life of toils and sorrows (like that bleak Sydney afternoon) is lived through with the expectation of a wonderful new beginning (like breaking through those clouds). Who wouldn’t rather go to glory and relish and adore our Father throughout eternity? But we also have work to do here on earth.
Much remains to be done. We have so many people yet to hear the good news. So the Christian life is a life of contrasts and tension. The brief words I may give at the funeral will reflect that truth. We who know Christ can rejoice that my father is now free from all his hardships and suffering, and with his beloved Jesus.
But mourning and tears will remain for those of us left behind. So there will be both joy and grief as we reunite in a few days time. Life is always such a bittersweet affair. But that tension and duality is only temporary. For those who have put their trust in Christ, this short life will seem as nothing when we are united with Him for eternity.
I will see my Lord, my mom and dad and others who have gone before me. What a day it will be. Then the contrasts will disappear, and our full purpose and meaning will become apparent. And whatever difficulties and opposition we went through in this life will be seen as entirely worth it.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2).