‘Joy is the serious business of Heaven’

This morning I was at St Margaret’s in Frankton (part of the Wakatipu Community parish) where I met some wonderful folk, resisted going fishing, and preached on Luke 15:1–10. The sermon was partly inspired by these words on joy by CS Lewis, and those of Karl Barth on the miracle of the love of God:

‘I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order – with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order? How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? – either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?: No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven’. – CS Lewis, Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (London: Collins, 1977), 94–5.

‘God’s loving is concerned with a seeking and creation of fellowship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved. God’s love is not merely not conditioned by any reciprocity of love. It is also not conditioned by any worthiness to be loved on the part of the loved, by any existing capacity for union or fellowship on his side … The love of God always throws a bridge over a crevasse. It is always the light shining out of darkness. In His revelation it seeks and creates fellowship where there is no fellowship and no capacity for it, where the situation concerns a being which is quite different from God, a creature and therefore alien, a sinful creature and therefore hostile. It is this alien and hostile other that God loves … This does not mean that we can call the love of God a blind love. But what He sees when He loves is that which is altogether distinct from Himself, and as such lost in itself, and without Him abandoned to death. That He throws a bridge out from Himself to this abandoned one, that He is light in the darkness, is the miracle of the almighty love of God’. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 278.

Here’s how I concluded:

If these two parables teach us anything at all about repentance, it is that the whole of our life is ‘finally and forever out of our hands and that if we ever live again, our life will be entirely the gift of some gracious other’ [Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, 39]. The Gospel is the announcement that God finds us not in the garden of improvement but in the desert of death. It’s precisely from death that we are brought home. And these parables are about coming home. They speak to us about the nature of lostness, and about the necessity of experiencing lostness if we are to experience homecoming. ‘Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful, He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home’ [Marilynne Robinson, Home, 102]. So they teach us something about the nature of God.

They also give us a hint … of what history is about: that history is the time that God creates in order to find and to restore the lost. And, finally, these parables give us a hint about how that time will end, offering us every hope to believe that our stories do not end at the grave. Even hell is no obstacle, for this is a God who, in Jesus Christ, comes not only into the far country in search of us, but who also descends into the very depths of hell in order to carry us home. This is the God of relentless grace – the Hound of Heaven – and it is he and not death or any human decision who will decide how history ends. This is what it means to call God the judge of the living and the dead. Like the good shepherd in Ezekiel 34 who searches for the lost and rescues them from all the places where they are scattered, Jesus’ work is not done until all come home. He keeps seeking the lost, even in the grave. He seeks those who have refused his love. He seeks those who have abandoned his love. He seeks those who have never known of his love. He seeks those for whom life has ended prematurely. In Christ, there is no such thing as empty time, or ‘dead’ time, for all time is filled with Christ’s lordship over the living and the dead, and filled with experience of the Spirit who is the giver of life …

And here in Luke 15 we are given a picture of the nature of God, an insight into the purpose of history, and, I believe, a glimpse of how history ends, of how your life ends and my life ends – of how the lives of those we love and of those who have made life hell for us, will end – with celebration, with a banquet, with the extravagant joy with which God welcomes the found and eats with them, … with homecoming.

4 comments

  1. I’m familiar with the Lewis quote, but not with the Barth one(s). Great statements either way. I presume you’ve read Robinson’s ‘Home’, since you quote that as well. What did you think of it? I read it and it had some great moments in it (and like its predecessor, a wonderful ending), but it seemed to be stretched over almost too long a frame.

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  2. Home was, as expected, a wonderful read, and that not least, I found, precisely because it is, as you say, ‘stretched over almost too long a frame’. Insofar as it reads thus, it is trademark Robinson. With one of her books in my hand, I am given the sense that there’s nowhere I rather be. Time, as it were, stands stiller, breathing happens at a different pace, and so the question of an economy of time becomes inconsequential.

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  3. I guess after the previous book, it seemed like a rubber band pulled to its utmost point. Not that I didn’t want to finish it; and I wanted to jot down quotes from it at every point (but was too busy reading it). I think it was so focused on three characters who only occasionally heard each other, or read each other accurately, or allowed themselves to open up an inch more, that it felt quite claustrophobic. Which was probably intentional. Perhaps I should have guessed the nature of the ending, but I didn’t. (I seldom guess the murderer in a detective novel either!)
    Whether I’d read it again…? I’d certainly read Gilead again (for a third time, that is), but this one might take a bit more space and time….

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  4. Joy is the one thing I have in common with C.S. Lewis as regards conversion. I was a practicing, professing atheist the night I was converted (Dec.7,1957), and I was as surprised as Lewis when I cried tears of joy for the first time in my life. One other time in my life invovled tears of joy and that was in late September or early October of 1972. I awoke one morning in our seminary apartment, crying tears of joy just like the night of my conversion. The Lord was present in that room, though I saw no manifestation of Him as I did when I was converted. He was just there, real, live, present, and the joy was constant for about a half hour as I prepared to go to my first class for the day. Three to four weeks later, I would preach for a church, then meet with the committee, then preach a trial sermon with view to a call, receive a unanimous call that day, speak with my mother that evening, and the next day my brother-in-law would call to tell me my mother and her family (my two half sisters and step father) were all dead. During that awful week, I felt that presence that I had felt in our seminary apartment. Sometimes it was so real that it was like someone standing at my shoulder and I would turn to look. It was a presence and a burning sense of joy in the midst of a terrible tragedy. A strange experience, indeed!

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