Getting old has its tensions. The grip of earth intensifies as good things – children, grandchildren, ministry, friendships – bind our hearts to life here and make us want to stay as long as possible. Life is full of goodness and we all have a plethora of reasons for wanting to hang around a little while longer.
But each of us faces the reality that “the end” is coming. Notice how we describe death: “the end.” Frank Sinatra sang of “the final curtain.” Must we approach this certainty we call “death” with a sense of finality, fear, and gloom?
And what does this potentially depressing theme have to do with missions? I think a lot! We proclaim a Gospel that says that Jesus, on the Cross, defeated the one who has the power of death and who holds people in bondage to the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15). Surely a deep confidence in the Cross must lead believers to increasingly approach their earthly demise in a different manner than those who do have not experienced the liberating power of the Gospel. And if God’s people, who are called to be engaged with his mission, are negatively preoccupied with our eventual demise, our pessimistic approach to departure from this earth actually belies the Gospel message we proclaim as true.
The author of Hebrews would have none of this nonsense. There is a palpable sense of exhilaration as the letter crescendos from chapters 2 through 12 in a tsunami that celebrates a single thought: Death is not “the end” but a continuation of what God has already begun!
One clear example of this is found in Hebrews 11. While we are accustomed to highlighting the characters in that great chapter who “lived by faith,” we may be inclined to give short shrift to those who “died in faith.” And yet the earthly passing of four characters – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph – actually emphasizes their dying by faith, not how they lived (Heb. 11:17-22).
Much could be said about those six verses in Hebrews 11 – maybe a topic for a future blog. But suffice it to say, the entirety of chapters 11 and 12, reveals the secret of dying by faith. Those who live by faith view themselves as exiles on earth and have their hopes invested in their actual country, their heavenly city, their eternal homeland. It is there that all of the adversity and affliction in life will be put in perspective as we join in with myriads of angels in a grand “panegyric.”
“Panegyric” (a “festive celebration”) is an English term that comes from a Greek word that occurs a handful of times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, usually in reference to both legitimate and illegitimate festal occasions. But it is used only once in the New Testament (Heb. 12:22). In that text, the writer is valiantly attempting to describe the excitement awaiting us in eternity:
“You have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to countless hosts of angels in festive celebration, and to the assembly of the firstborn ones who are enrolled in heaven… “(Hebrews 12:22-23)
God loves a good party, and he has hard-wired into all of us a love of good music and cuisine, celebrations, sunsets, laughter. All of these experiences capture a little of the flavor of the “festive celebration” in Hebrews 12:22 to which we are invited as “members of the assembly of firstborn ones enrolled in heaven.” This is one more incentive that the Gospel provides to encourage us to approach our deaths in faith and hope.
One of my favorite movies, Babette’s Feast, is a story that captures this heavenly panegyric spirit. Babette is a famous French chef who flees from counter-revolutionary activity in Paris and arrives as a refugee at an austere Danish religious village where she offers to serve the community as a housekeeper.
Of course, the elderly members of this dwindling congregation have no idea of the amazing talents of their visitor as they assign her the tasks of a menial servant. They even instruct and correct her as she prepares various meals! And she patiently endures their “lessons.”
Babette serves this community for 14 years. Though these pietistic Danes are reluctant to admit they find pleasure in any of the five senses, gradually Babette earns their grudging respect.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, a friend has continued to renew Babette’s subscription to the French lottery. One day she receives the news that she has won the lottery! Babette secretly decides to spend the entire sum on an elaborate feast, a “panegyric,” if you will, for the community of twelve.
With elaborate preparations under way, the leaders of the community fret that this event may appeal to their baser desires and foment an inappropriate spirit of revelry. But once the participants begin to eat and imbibe, their resistance fades away. The amazing cuisine and buoyant atmosphere lifts their hearts and they find themselves emotionally and spiritually renewed. Old hurts are forgiven and superstitions are dispelled. And they realize how they have devoted a lifetime to suppressing the enjoyment of their God-given sensory pleasures.
After the dinner, it is discovered that Babette had spent her entire fortune on the “panegyric” and is once again destitute. A Parisian who had coincidentally attended the feast, declared: “But this is not the end, Babette. In Paradise you will be the great artist God meant you to be.” He then embraced her with tears in his eyes saying, “Oh, how you will enchant the angels!”
This is how this delightful story ends. This is also the “final” note that the Scriptures leave us with as well. Not the dismal expectation of “death,” but the eager anticipation of a wildly exuberant panegyric event the likes of which none of us can imagine. We will be as we were meant to be. In attendance will be a myriad of the heavenly hosts as well as all of the saints who have gone before us.
Our Groom will be there, for this festivity is a unique wedding party, a veritable jamboree that will overwhelm us with joy and gladness. Death is not “the end” but the start of a great panegyric!
As the old hymn declared with exuberance: “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!”