It’s time for our annual All Souls service, and this is what I plan to preach tomorrow night:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
If you’ve ever seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, I’m sure you remember the powerful funeral scene where John Hannah’s character Matthew recites this W H Auden poem Funeral Blues, desolate at the loss of his lover Gareth, played by Simon Callow. It picks up that bleakness we feel in bereavement, and I’m sure that’s why the film made the poem so popular again in recent years.
You might expect that at a Christian service, especially one where we have announced that the theme is one of hope, I would jump straight from that to a happy picture of heaven, all lit up with LEDs and shown on retina screens.
But no. I shall talk about hope in a few moments. However, Christians are not immune from the bleakness of bereavement. However much we believe in a future full of hope, we feel that loss now. When C S Lewis wrote his book A Grief Observed about the death of his wife Joy Davidman after only four years of marriage, he said,
The death of a beloved is an amputation.
I wonder how many of you have felt like that since your bereavements? You haven’t just lost someone you love; you’ve lost part of yourself. Elsewhere, in similar vein, Lewis says,
At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.
With those feelings in mind I chose the reading from the Book of Revelation. It’s a book some people think is weird and troubling, but at heart it’s something written to suffering Christians, and couched in code-like terms so that those causing the pain of the Christian recipients didn’t understand it. Their suffering was perhaps different from ours in that it was religious persecution. However, that persecution led to the deaths of loved ones, and in that respect we can find common feeling with them, and thus draw comfort and hope along similar lines to them.
Revelation sees a world torn apart by sin and evil, and a God who wants to put it right. He will judge the wicked and make a new world free from injustice and sorrow for those who love him. You could describe God’s project as like the renovation of a house. Our reading promises ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ (verse 1), a ‘new Jerusalem’ (verse 2), the end of ‘the old order of things’ (verse 4) and indeed ‘everything [made] new’ (verse 5).
I invite you to think of it something like this. Friends of mine have been describing recently on Facebook the renovation of an old house they own in Northumberland. Footings and block work needed to be done. The gas supply needed to be disconnected, moved and reconnected. However, if I read their accounts rightly, that didn’t happen as quickly as they would have hoped, and they had a cold night wearing extra layers of clothing. They got chilly again when the porch and utility room were demolished, and they were left without heating from 9:30 one day. They finally got gas and hot water back after three days.
God, I believe, is promising a cosmic renovation project, including the heavens and the earth, a new order of community in which to live (the ‘new Jerusalem’) and new order of life, free of sin and pain. He has already done it for his Son Jesus, in raising him from the dead on that first Easter Day. He promises renovation for our bodies after our deaths at a great resurrection of the dead.
Outside one of the chapels at Oxford Crematorium, you will find a plaque that C S Lewis had made for his late wife. He wrote an epitaph for her that is displayed on the plaque. It reads:
Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hope that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In Lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
The hope we share by faith in Jesus Christ is that an Easter Day is coming for us. As Jesus was raised from the dead, his body renovated by God, so too shall we.
Renovation projects sometimes take longer than we would like. Anyone who has had a new kitchen fitted may understand that. They can also be pretty uncomfortable, as my friends who lost their gas for three days discovered.
But they do reach completion. And in the great cosmic renovation, we can be sure that God is not a cowboy builder. We have seen his work already in the resurrection of Jesus, and he promises the same craftsmanship to us.
Meanwhile, though – what? It’s a long time to wait with that void in our lives, that amputation of a limb that C S Lewis spoke about. Is there nothing to do but wait around in our loneliness for God’s great renovation?
I think the answer is that we can actively anticipate what is to come. If we have a sense that God is going to make all things new and wipe away every tear, then we can prepare for that world. When grief comes stealthily sneaking up behind us and mugs us unawares, we can remember that life will not always be this way.
We can also live by the values of God’s new world in small ways. We can seek to bring hope to others, comforting other grieving people with the comfort we have received. We can play our little part in building for a new world where hatred and suffering do not always win.
May the peace and hope which come from trusting in Jesus Christ risen from the dead be your light in your darkness and a light for your path.