Sunday, December 05, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
On Sunday, December 5, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: I Corinthians 15:12-28

I must confess that until recently I had given no thought to the signs in coffee shops that say, “NO LOITERING.” I have often gone into coffee shops and spent considerable time, but recently, sitting in a coffee shop on Bathurst Street, at a table two away from me, all of a sudden the owner came over, grabbed hold of the man who had been sitting there and started to escort him from the premises. He said, “Can't you see the sign up there? It says, “NO LOITERING.”” The man just shrugged his shoulders and left. Never have I drunk an extra-large coffee with double cream so fast in my life!

I couldn't help but think, when I recall this story of “NO LOITERING” and saw what was transpiring, of the words of Victor Sheppard who wrote a book entitled Seasons Of Grace in which he talks about the Christian life and he says, “We wait on God, but we do not wait aimlessly, we do not loiter mindlessly but we wait on God and put our trust in the future into God's hands.” When I thought about what Victor had written, I realised how true that is ? that in this life given by Almighty God, there is no time to simply just loiter. There is no time to hang around or linger aimlessly. With all our talk, as we approach the end of a millennium and century, I have been thinking a great deal about time and how short it is and how little of it we actually have. Within the span of 2000 years or 1000 years or 100 years, the life that God gives us is short and for those graced with a full and long natural life, not to be taken before its time, even so, the span that we have, the window of opportunity that we possess, to make a contribution, to live to the glory of God, to help others, is very short indeed. There is not much time to loiter and to linger aimlessly.

For us to live this life, to make the most of what God has given us in the days that we possess, it seems that there is one thing above all that we require, something not only to breathe and to live, but for us to make a contribution to this life and that is the very gift of HOPE. It is in the power of hope that you and I can go into the future; it is with the power of hope that we can live here today. Unfortunately there are afoot within our world two emotions or attitudes which diminish the power of that hope. The first is the abandonment of a sense of a present hope or a hope that lives here and now.

Not long ago I was conversing with a university student who started talking about the hopelessness that he feels. The thing that triggered it in his own mind was the thought that the Old Age Pension would be extended from 65 to 67. He looked at me as if I was to blame and said, “By the time you baby-boomers have spent all your retirement money there will be nothing left for me and my generation.” I don't know about you, but when I was at university I wasn't thinking about such things ? retirement plans or what would happen in the future. But there is a sense, and I think Copland in his book Generation X points out that there is very much a spirit that sometimes grips young people with worries about the future and worries about the sense of hope that is here right now.

There is even a false teaching when it comes to the glorious belief in the second coming of Jesus Christ, in what is known in the Scriptures as the parousia; for there are some who take the parousia and believe that they know the time and place when Christ will come again and history will somehow cease to be. In so doing they exploit it; they lead to a laziness, to a sense of abandonment that there is no need to struggle for the things that are needed now, no need to care about others, just a self-centred preservation. Make sure that I'm right and I'm ready and literally “to hell with the future.” This was something that gripped the church in Thessalonica and Paul had to deal with it very firmly. Though believing that Christ would come again, he saw that there was an endemic laziness, a sense that one could just sit back as if there was nothing required and no hope in the present.

There is also within our generation another very dangerous sign: the growing degree of fatalism that grips our world, that somehow everything is in the cards, that the world is always headed for something and all we have to do is sit back and go for the ride and that everything is going to happen regardless of what we believe or what we do. That spirit of fatalism is alive and well in the world in which we live and it is paralysing. It causes us to lose hope now.

The second problem is the belief that there is no future hope. I sometimes see this gripping people; it is perhaps what I would call ”˜The New Religion Of The Day.' That we live and we die and that's all there is. Therefore we make hay while the sun shines, we accumulate what we can when we can regardless of how, and we just simply hang on because this is all there is, there is nothing more. We even deny at times, through our myths and ideas, icons and images, that there is even a death so therefore people don't have to think about the future, that there is no future hope. We live behind a smoke screen and pretend that death is not a reality. This was brought home to me in a lovely story: three men died in a car accident and they all went to heaven and when they arrived there they are asked the question, “When you are in your coffin and people are looking at you, what do you want people to say about you?” One of them said, “Well, I want them to say that I was a great doctor, a fantastic family man, that's what I want them to say.” The second one answered, “I want them to say, ”˜This was a great teacher who contributed to the future of young people and paved the way for the development of young minds.' ” They asked the third man what he wanted people to say as they stared into his casket and he said, “I want them to say, ”˜Look! he's still breathing!' '' Isn't that the hope that people want? But it isn't a real hope, it is a false hope but one nevertheless that people cling to and then deny the power of the future and they deny the power of the Eternal because they are holding on to something that unfortunately will not happen. So whether it is a denial of hope now or whether it is a tacit denial of hope in the future, the belief that there is more, that there is an eternity, in both these cases, either erodes a sense of hope that men and women have in their lives today. That is why I agree with the great theologian Jurgen Maltman who said, “The Christian lives for the future which has already begun here and now.” I state that by the two texts read for us today.


The first is a hope that exists now and comes from the wonderful story of Simeon in the Bible. Simeon is a faithful Jew and Mary and Joseph present Jesus to him in the Temple and there are the immortal words spoken by Simeon, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, your servant now can depart in peace for mine eyes have seen your salvation!”

For this great man Simeon all the promises were fulfilled: the consolation of Israel, the hope of his nation. Although many of the priests had betrayed the sacrifices that should have been made, and though his nation had been conquered by the Romans and Palestine was once under the grip of oppression, Simeon nevertheless, in holding Christ, saw and believed that the future was now here, that everything he'd dreamed of was fulfilled in the presence of the Messiah, in the presence of the incarnate one Jesus Christ. Can you imagine what Simeon was feeling at that moment?

As this is now the end of the football season in Canada, our minds turn to hockey again (those of us who do so) and I can't help but think of a number of years ago when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup and they had waited forty odd years for this moment. I remember as Marc Messier was carrying the Stanley Cup around Madison Square Gardens, there were a number of banners in the background and one caught my eye. I've always remembered it; it said by a fan of the New York Rangers, “Now I can die in peace!” If he can die in peace because the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, do you now understand how Simeon felt he could die in peace because Jesus the Messiah was there in his very arms. Hope had arrived. The future was now here. But Simeon not only had the fulfilment; he also had the faith. Leading up to this time of Christ we read that Simeon was a man of faith, a man of prayer, a man who believed and hoped that God would act to save Israel. Through this very act of faith he was ready for the future, he was ready for God's presence when God arrived.

Brian Stiller, a friend of mine who wrote the book When Life Hurts, tells the story of the great Swiss thinker, Victor Frankel, who was in a concentration camp in WWII. Frankel has contributed greatly through his logotherapy to a lot of our thinking about the human condition. This is what he wrote: The prisoner who has lost faith in his future was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future he had also lost his spiritual hold. He let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay, usually this happened quite suddenly in the form of crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. Then Stiller goes on to write this frank explanation of why some prisoners survive and others do not. Frankel understood that at the heart of human survival is hope. We can be overcome by debilitating memories which can cause all manner of dysfunction. Much of our modern psychotherapy is devoted to discovering past violations and hurts and bringing wounds to the open so that salve can be applied for proper and lasting healing. What Frankel showed us is that although the present is shaped by our past, what helps us recreate the present is our vision and hope for the future. That is what transforms the here and now! That is what makes living in the here and now possible. It is the power of hope breaking into the world in which we live and that's what we celebrate at Advent, that's what we await at Christmas, that's what gives us the power, that's what gives us the courage to face all manner of difficulties even in the here and now. It is the vision of a hope for the future.


There is also not only hope now, there is also hope in the future. This comes from the great passage in I Corinthians. Paul said to the Corinthians, ”˜If we only have hope in Christ in this life, we are more to be pitied.' He believed in a resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of the dead is given to us through Jesus Christ and this is something for which we eagerly hope, something that we believe. It is the power of heaven, it is the power of the eternal, it is being drawn into the very power and life of Almighty God.

Very often these passages from Paul in Corinthians get abused and confused and people miss the whole point. Never was this more noticeable than a few years ago (and this is absolutely true!) when I was sitting in a hairdresser's when I was waiting for Marial to have her hair done. As I was reading in the waiting room (something inane like People Magazine) there were two women under the hair dryers. I don't think you can hear a lot when you're under these hair dryers but when you start to have a conversation the whole building can hear what is being said. These ladies were having their hair dried and a gorgeous striking woman walked in front of them and the two under the hair dryers looked at one another and one said to the other, “My gosh, Florence, I wish I looked like that!” The other said, “Well my pastor says that when we die and do to heaven we get a new body. Maybe mine will look like hers!” Oh there are all kinds of misunderstandings about eternal life and the gift of the resurrection; many are they! We must not lose sight of it as one of the great forces in the world.

The great C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity makes this argument which is one that gripped me the first time I heard it: our belief in the resurrection and in eternal life is the foundation in fact for our ethics. If we believe that there is an eternal life then we believe that each human being is an eternal creature. Then we believe that it is not just a span of this life but there is in fact the span of eternity that lies before us. How much more, he argues then, must we treat one another with justice, with love, with equity, with compassion and with kindness? Because it is not just the span of the years that we have been given, whether it be three score and ten or more or less, but that by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we will all be in all through the power of God. How much more then should we treat one another as if we are eternal beings through the gift of the holy, heavenly, risen Christ?

Some years ago I visited the former sight of a congregation that had been in what was notoriously known as District Six just outside Cape Town, South Africa. It is a place that had been flattened to the ground in the 1960s and all the people of colour had been removed out of the bounds of the city in order that this could be rebuilt as a white suburb. There is a story of a little black congregation that existed there and when they knew that they had to dissolve the congregation the members were invited to take whatever they wanted from the church and take it home. Some took bibles, some took hymn books, some chairs and pews, one took the pulpit but one elderly lady who had been in the congregation seventy years was given the last thing and she decided was what she wanted was the Communion Table. But rather than taking it home with her she decided to leave it there even though she knew the place was going to be flattened. When asked why she did that she said, ”˜Because the words Do this in remembrance of me are on this Communion Table. This table might someday be destroyed but the meal which is served on it will last forevermore. Let them flatten it for the meal still lives.'

That is our hope, our motivation. We can live now because of that power. We can have hope in the future because of that power. Like Simeon we can say, ”˜Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, your servant now can depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation.' Amen