Truth Rejected and Truth Received
On the third day of our recent mission trip to Haiti, a local pastor, Matthewe Celestin drove his scooter into the compound where our team was staying and asked me to go with him to see his church. While we were there, he introduced me to one of his longtime friends and asked me to share the gospel with him.
I did. Since I had spent my morning working on a sermon from 1 Thessalonians on the Lord’s return and the resurrection of the believers, I took Matthewe’s friend there.
In the end, he dismissed the message. He could not believe in Jesus, he said, because someone had stolen his couch. If Jesus were real, he would not have let his couch be stolen.
Later that evening, with the help of a Haitian translator, I delivered my sermon to a group of Haitian believers. They took it in as though they had not had water for days.
Why did some receive this word while another rejected it?
Because God had prepared them to hear it. Here are some of the truths that the believers could see while others remained blind.
The Comprehension of a Bigger Hope
At the beginning of the sermon I told my audience I wanted to concentrate on the subject of hope. In order for a person to have hope, three elements must be present:
- The person must believe in a big story. For the Christian, the cosmic story begins with the creation. It becomes corrupted in the Fall but is redeemed in Christ’s death, resurrection, and return to heaven. That is not all, however.
- The story must have a happy ending. We who believe the biblical message understand that the story will be complete when Christ returns to take his chosen people home to be with him forever. Yet even that is not the end.
- By themselves, the first two points are academic. In order for hope to be hope, we must believe that we will be included in the ending.
The dear people in the church understood the big story, and because of that they were able to look beyond their circumstances to the promise for the end.
Understanding the Difference between Deferred Hope and Lost Hope
The three points that make up hope lie at the heart of Paul’s message in 1 Thessalonians 3. Historically, the believers at Thessalonica looked for Christ to return within their lifetimes. When some of their members began to die, their belief system was shaken. They were not sure if they would see their loved ones again.
Paul wrote to them to explain the whole picture. The believers who had died would not be left behind at Christ’s return. They would rise from the dead to join the living, and all of them would meet Christ together in the air.
Christian hope does not involve immediate gratification. As often as not, it calls us to wait. The Haitian believers understood this. Pastor Matthewe’s friend did not.
Hope, Grief, and Joy
I explained to the gathering that hope does not mean the absence of grief. Eleven years ago, I mourned the death of my wife, Marie. I told them that they certainly carried their own tales of grief.
I explained that I looked forward to seeing Marie again, and that promise gave me the strength to go on. Hope generates a sense of joy because it looks beyond the grief to the happy ending. Joy does not signify the absence of grief. It is the proof of hope in the midst of grief. They understood.
The man whose couch was stolen had no joy, because he could not look past a lost present-day to a guaranteed future.
The Incompleteness of Hope in the Incomplete Story
Toward the end of the sermon I could sense that the people understood the message on a far more profound level than I had expected. I decided to relate a recent personal discovery.
Before our team left, my wife Patty insisted that I write her a letter that she would read if we did not return. As I wrote, I began to feel the tension between two focal points. I wrote as one still living, but my projected point of view was from heaven, as one already with the Lord.
This offered a significant insight into two truths. The first is obvious. We who experience the loss of loved ones on the earth mourn their passing because we have become incomplete with their departure. We grieve the loss.
The second became clear from my projected point of view. Those who die and go to heaven to be with the Lord obviously find the joy of being with the Lord. But they do not find completeness. For that they must wait for the rest of God’s children to join them.
This is the meaning of the pivotal passage at the end of Hebrews 11, the chapter that describes the faith Hall of Fame. “And all these [Old Testament saints], though they have been commended by their faith, wait to receive the promise, because God has provided something better for us. For without us, they will not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).
The commendation means that their jobs are done. Christ has welcomed them home and has recognized their contribution to the faith. But they remain incomplete because the history-long relay race continues. The writer of Hebrews uses this metaphor. Immediately after these verses, reminds his readers to remember the cloud of witnesses that surrounds them and to run their race with endurance (Heb. 12:1-2). When I wrote the letter to my wife from that perspective,that truth drilled itself into my consciousness.
I related the story at the meeting, and my translator went on for a lot longer than what he needed to go from English to Creole. Then the audience laughed. Probably because of the romantic American. Fortunately the shouts of “Amen” gave weight to the humor.
Witnessing the Power of Hope
The people got the message. They understood the critical call in Scripture to look beyond the immediate to the eternal. If we try to find completeness in this life, it starts to become cluttered with things.
That sounds funny to us, but mainly because of the scale factor. Poor Haitian—if he only knew. Now if we were to toss in a six-figure career, the latest Ipad, a cushy 401-K, and a new hybrid vehicle, we could get serious. Except that our more serious posture would be only a bigger and more populated version of couches. We look just like the poor Haitian.
There is nothing wrong with any of those things. Each is a blessing brought about through the creative ingenuity that God gave us. When things begin to eclipse the eternal weight of glory, however, they become idols, and that is the problem.
But not everyone is fooled. I know some believers in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere who are rich.