St Augustine's Grove Park

 August 30th 1992

... and the life of the world come Part I

For the last three Sundays we have been looking together and what it means to be the people of God.

This week and the next three Sundays we shall consider in some detail the promise which God has made to his people. In other words we shall be asking what it is we are working towards. For if, as I suspect, most Christians have only the foggiest idea of what lies at the end of their earthly pilgrimage there is more likelihood of their giving up when the going starts getting difficult.

Inevitably then when people haven't given much thought to a subject, one has to begin by clearing away some dead wood so that at least we can make some progress down the path of knowledge.

Or to put it another way if the windscreen of our car is so caked with mud and grime and dead insects that we cannot see out of it, the best way forward is to stop and give it a clean. That may sound curious advice: stop if you want to go forward - but it makes good sense. For no matter how brightly the sun is shining or how powerful your headlights are, a dirty windscreen will only make matters worse by reflecting what is lying on it rather than by its transparency revealing the road ahead like a clean one will do.

There are two particular areas of grime obscuring many people's minds about the life everlasting. The first is the idea that we've oughtn't to ask questions about it or know anything useful; the second is to suppose that we can't find out anything worthwhile even if we tried.

Those views are, as I shall show, quite wrong and misguided, but because they are so widely held, even by experienced Christians, it is worth spending time in explaining what is wrong with them.

The first view - that we should not look at God's promises to us springs, I think originally from the abhorrence that many people feel of the whole concept of bribery. "Virtue should be its own reward", they say. "It surely can't be necessary for God or anyone else to entice us to do his will for us by the prospect so to speak of an ice-cream or a box of chocolates as a reward for obeying him.

But this is confusing two very different things: the means and the end.

Forget for a moment the whole idea of duties and ice-creams and chocolates. Think instead of an architect and a group builders' erecting an office or hospital building or a house or a block of flats.

If it is going be a success as a building then it must start off with a Plan or a Drawing for them to work to. And that Plan itself will have started life as an idea in the architect's mind.

Now it's very important that everyone involved in this building should have at least some idea of what it is going to look like. And that means learning how to interpret the plan, which is on a piece of paper, in terms of bricks and mortar and glass and wood, and enable the others to see how it all fits together as a whole which will in the end look infinitely more interesting than the isometric drawing on the blueprint.

It's up to the architect of course to produce a good plan in the first place; but it's up to the foreman to try and explain what the drawing on paper means to the people who are putting things together. And an essential part of that process for him will be to try and encourage a sense of achievement and pride in their work amongst his labourers as they see what was once a building site come to resemble little by little the drawing that the architect has made of the final result.

That sense of achievement, or success, or satisfaction or progress, call it what you will is a vital ingredient in achieving anything. If for instance after six months hard work there was absolutely nothing to show for it then the builders would have every good reason to think that something was badly wrong. They may well feel cheated and give up and work on something else.

But if on the other hand they can see that something really worthwhile has already come out of their efforts they will be motivated to want to see the finished article as soon as possible and work all the harder as a result.

Do you see the difference between a reward and a bribe? If the only purpose in building was to give builders' labourers a nice feeling of satisfaction or keep them out of mischief then it would be a different matter. But that, if I may so put it, is not what God's building is all about. The Chief End of building is a building, at least for those involved in putting it up. Achievement, pride in workmanship, and decent wage, a sense of teamwork are essential ingredients to achieving this end; as necessary as any raw-material so like bricks and glass.

"Without vision" the Scripture says "the people perish". Unless Christians like us have a reasonably clear idea of what God has planned, (and he has given us some quite detailed plans to work to) then we shall soon lose interest. We need constantly to be comparing what has been achieved, with the picture of what it will look like when it is finished - insofar as our limited human understanding can manage. This will involve both satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Satisfaction that so much has been achieved; dissatisfaction about what has been botched or left undone; and in either case an eagerness to press on with the good work is essential.

Now the second big mistake that people make is to think that we can't know anything very much about the life everlasting even if we wanted to.

Now it's true that Christians are forbidden by God to delve directly into matters supernatural. Seances and magic and tarot cards and ouija boards and playing around with mediums are not allowed, largely because like X-rays, they are too dangerous, not because they simply "don't work", or because their results are misleading though they often are.

But when we say that we shouldn't play around with X-rays or drugs because they are too dangerous it's very different from saying that we can't or shouldn't know anything about how they work on the human body. Indeed so important is this knowledge and so widespread is people's ignorance that I always spend one whole session or more with confirmation candidates on the most basic principles of human biology to show them what a wonderful piece of design the human body actually is.

And by the same principle there is a good deal we can find out about the Chief End for which God has made you and me, namely as the Shorter Catechism puts it, "the Chief End of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever".

Note those three key words: Glorify; Enjoy ; and For Ever. They will be figuring a lot in what I shall be saying the next two Sundays. But here are some quick thoughts for you to take away today.

God's plan for us and for creation entails Glory. If we are to enter into it wholeheartedly then we need to get some idea of what glory really is, otherwise we shall be working blindly with no idea whether we're doing anything worthwhile or not.

God's plan involves Enjoyment. Unless we can relate what we are striving for with the things we currently enjoy we shall have nothing to go by. And because we all enjoy different things to different extents our pictures of heaven will necessarily differ in detail from one another. But that in itself is no bad thing. Several photographs of the same building taken from different heights and different angles may well give a more accurate idea of what it is really like.

We are considering what is to be "for ever". That isn't the same as something which goes on and on for a long time. Much of the muddy and muddled thinking which is sticking on people's spiritual windscreens is there because people haven't understood this.

Clever quips like the fact that Heaven must be boring if all we are going to do is sit around playing harps all the time really belong to the nursery. But the Church is less like a nursery than it is like a school and less like a school than a university. The lessons which are taught in the top-class may be too difficult for you and me at the moment; but that's not to say they always will be or that they are too difficult for everyone else.

If, in the way our Lord explained in the Gospel, we are willing to begin so to speak on the ground floor but always with the vision of progressing higher, then we shall find in next to no time that we are getting a clearer idea of what it's all about. Buildings begin with foundations and foundations are necessarily near the bottom of the pile. But once they are laid the whole building can start to take shape. And we shall begin to share in God's satisfaction and glory and enjoyment in something which is eternal, built to last for ever and ever. Amen.

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