I'm sure many of you have read the old Christian classic called "In His Steps." It tells the stories of several folks who made a commitment to follow Jesus fully for a whole year –– every decision, every action, every word, every thought had to line up with what they believed Jesus would say or do, according to scripture.
The characters got into some heavy situations, but they did well, learned a lot, and everything came out OK in the end. And that's good. We like a happy ending!
And then … we get a reality check in Hebrews 11. It talks about the incredible trials and tribulations some of our ancestors in the faith went through: torture, mocking, flogging, poverty, persecution, imprisonment, things we can barely imagine. Yes, there were miracles: people who, faith, conquered kingdoms, quenched raging fire, shut the mouths of lions, and more.
Those are the stories we love! But Hebrews says clearly that many of those who were persecuted for their faith did not receive what was promised. They were commended for their faith, but they died without ever receiving the promises.
Following in Jesus' steps is the best, most deeply satisfying life we can have, now and through eternity. But we forget, sometimes, that while Jesus' steps may sometimes lead to joy and glory and prosperity … they also lead to the cross.
And if we really want to follow in his steps, we need to understand that the cross may be part of our journey, too.
Have you ever heard someone pray for a person who's having difficult times, and it's as if they're trying to REASON with God? "Lord, he's such a good person, and he does so much for the church … please heal him … please fix this … please bless him." It's good to pray for others and we have to trust God no matter what, but a prayer like this one seems to assume that life is fair, and if we're really, really good, then nothing bad will happen to us.
Hebrews 11 promises us otherwise. It tells us about saints and martyrs who were persecuted and executed for their faith. And they died without receiving the promise; in fact, it was their very faithfulness that assured their death.
Life is NOT fair. Bad things are still happening to good people. And even when we ask God to make the bad things go away … many times, they're here to stay. Let's face it: if we're really following in his steps, Christianity is downright risky. So why, even when we know that Jesus' steps can lead us to the cross, why do we keep following?
I Corinthians 15 says it all: If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
I wonder how often most of us think about heaven? Nine days out of ten, we're pretty focused on the here-and-now. Folks most likely to remember heaven are those who have followed Jesus to the cross: the persecuted, the oppressed or enslaved, those who live with chronic pain or illness … people who live lives of such pain that they feel heaven is their only hope, and they anticipate it eagerly.
But the promise of heaven is for all of us, even when our lives AREN'T a daily ordeal. We need to remember the promise of eternal life with Jesus, to think about heaven, and to look forward to it. This life, which can be so hard sometimes, is NOT the whole story!
We may not have every detail about what heaven's like, but God has revealed enough for us to know that in heaven, all our worries will be over. There will be no more illness, no more pain, no more loneliness. We're in Jesus' presence, and joy is our daily bread.
We need to use our minds and hearts to create a strong and vibrant picture of what we believe heaven's like, and remember that this life is not the end, but just the beginning of our eternal life with Jesus. We have hope! Hebrews says about Jesus, "Who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God."
No, the idea is NOT to become "so heavenly-minded that we're no earthly good!" But because life isn't fair, and life doesn't always promise us a happy ending, we need to remember that we have the promise of the best existence we could ever imagine, in the presence of God himself. And when hard times hit our lives, we know that we have Jesus, not only for eternity, but right now, too.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.