The Gospel For All Seasons Of Life
It never ceases to amaze me that every time I open this Bible, I learn or discover something new.
Here’s a case in point. I have read Chapter 21 of the Revelation to John a number of times in my life, and I have always been fascinated by its rich symbolism as John attempts to describe that which is in essence beyond description. He employs a vast array of images and word pictures to provide us with a description of the grace and glory of heaven. Included in that description are these words: “It has a great high wall with twelve gates…on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates.”
Now for years, I just assumed that John was declaring that people could come from “the four corners of the earth” to experience the glory of heaven. However, when I looked at this passage again recently, it dawned on me that that message is communicated more clearly in other parts of the chapter. That led me to ask why John so specifically mentioned the points of the compass and why he placed them in the order he did. I now believe that he had a deeper message to convey. I believe he was trying to say that Jesus Christ and His heavenly glory are accessible to people in all seasons, in all stages, in all circumstances of life. Let me try to spell that out for you…
First, John says that there are three gates which face to the east.
Now the east is the place where the sun rises. It is the place where the new day begins. It is a symbol for the place where people begin their journey through life. In other words, I think John was saying that Jesus Christ and His glory are open and accessible to those who are young.
This church is blessed with a startlingly effective youth ministry and I am thrilled at the numbers of young people who are part of this church and who are here today. And as I engage our young people in conversation I hear them asking ultimate questions. They want to know if life is really worthwhile. If life is nothing more than a course of years with a beginning and an end, and if we are the same at the end as we were at the beginning, that is, without life, without existence—If that’s all there is, why bother? There’s no purpose to that.
I think of our young people in terms of that jailer Paul met at Philippi. You remember the story. Paul was imprisoned for his faith. There came an earthquake which jolted open the cell doors and the prisoners, including Paul, were set free. At that point, the jailer said to Paul: “What must I do to be saved?” In other words, he was asking “what must I do to find real meaning and purpose for my life?” Now Paul didn’t say to that jailer what the world so often says to young people today. He didn’t say: “Don’t worry about the things in life for which there are no easy answers. Just surround yourself with the things which provide comfort and luxury and relaxation and pleasure—the things which can make life bearable.” Paul didn’t say that. And Paul didn’t say: “Look, it’s just a matter of attitude. If you start to think positively about things, then you will discover that life can be tolerated.” No. Paul knew that superficial answers will never carry people through life’s hard places. So he said to the jailer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
That’s the message I would offer to young people today. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will find in Him a purpose, a cause to live for, and even if necessary to die for. You see, when you link your life to Jesus Christ it is forever. Don’t think in terms of 70 years or so. That’s small stuff when measured against eternity.
A young man once visited William Gladstone, the great Prime Minister of England. Gladstone asked the young man what he was going to do with his life. The young man replied: “I intend to go to law school.” Gladstone said: “And then?” The young man said: “I would like to find someone to marry and start a family.” Gladstone said: “And then?” The young man replied: “I hope to become successful in the practice of law and gain a measure of accomplishment.” Gladstone pressed: “And then?” The young man was becoming a bit nervous, but he said: “I suppose I will retire and enjoy life.” “And then?” A look of bewilderment passed over the young man’s face and then he stammered out: “Well, I guess I will die.” And Gladstone thundered “And then?”
That’s the ultimate question. William Gladstone understood that nothing is more important than a compelling and consuming sense of purpose in life, and he knew that in Jesus Christ we find all we need for this life and all we can hope for in the life that is to come.
My young friends, great doorways of opportunity swing on small hinges. A decision made or not made, a lie told or not told, a sermon heeded or ignored, an invitation accepted or rejected, a yes or a no—life is shaped by such things. There are three gates to the east. Christ stands there, arms extended, offering you a glorious life here and for all eternity. Make no mistake in your deciding.
Next John says that there are three games to the north.
The north is the place of icy, harsh, bone-chilling winds. I think John may be suggesting here that Christ and His glory are accessible to those who are experiencing times of hardship, pain, and suffering.
I have learned something in my ministry. It is this: those people who declare that because there is pain and suffering there can’t be a loving God—well, those people have rarely suffered in their lives. You see, I have discovered, after more than twenty years of ministry, that great sufferers are very often great saints, because in their icy hours, in their times of harsh suffering, they encounter God in a way that many people never encounter Him. In the midst of their pain and difficulty they cry out and God draws very close to them and they find in Him a strength and a consolation they had never known before. I tell you truly, some of the most radiant Christians I have ever known are those who have walked the hardest, harshest roads through life.
In India, there is a moth called the Atlas moth. It comes forth out of an ugly little brown cocoon about two inches long, but when it is fully emerged it is enormous—a wing span of at least ten inches. The wings are ablaze with magnificent color—crimson, pink, green, terra cotta, antique gold—all woven in an intricately beautiful design. There are those who, upon seeing the difficult struggle of that moth to come out of the cocoon, have tried to help by opening the cocoon a bit When that happens the moth emerges without color. It is in the struggle, the strain, the stretch, the suffering of breaking out of that cocoon that there is activated in the moth that which produces those incomparably beautiful colors. And so it is that in the icy northern places where people are caught in the harsh grip of suffering, Jesus Christ extends to them the promise of His presence, and the gift of His glory. Three gates to the north.
Then John says that there are three gates to the west.
Of course, the west is the place where the sun sets, when the day ends. It seems to me that John is saying that Jesus Christ and His glory are open to those who are coming to the end of life, those who are older.
It’s a beautiful thing to know people who have wintered and summered with Jesus for many years. Early last December, after a speaking engagement in another city, I arranged to stop over for a visit with my dad at the Presbyterian Retirement Home in Mobile, Alabama where he lives. That night they were having a party and a fashion show and I got to go. It was wonderful and it was wild! With the help of a local department store, the residents became models for the fashion show. Men and women in their 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s were all dressed up to the nines, and with music blaring, they marched up and down modeling fancy clothes to the cheers of the crowd. The place was awash in joy and laughter. Then during one of the intermissions in the fashion show, one of the older ladies seized the microphone and said: “You all are as old as Methuselah, just like I am, so I thought I would like to share some thoughts with you.” This is what she read:
“Remember, Old folks are worth a fortune, with silver in their hair, gold in their teeth, stones in their kidneys, lead in their feet, and gas in their stomach.
I have become a little older since I saw you last, and a few changes have come into my life since then. I am seeing five gentlemen every day. As soon as I wake up Will Power helps me get out of bed. Then I go to see John, then Charlie Horse comes along, and when he is here, he takes a lot of my time and attention. When he leaves, Arthur Ritis shows up and stays the rest of the day. He doesn’t like to stay in one place very long, so he takes me from joint to joint. After such a busy day, I’m really tired and glad to go to bed with Ben Gay. What a life.
P. S. The preacher came to call the other day. He said at my age I should be thinking about the hereafter. I told him, “Oh, I do all the time. No matter where I am, in the parlor, upstairs, in the kitchen, or down in the basement, I ask myself, what am I here after!”
Needless to say, the place erupted in laughter. I submit to you that there is nothing more wonderful than older people in love with life and with their Lord.
I have a marvelous mailbox which I wouldn’t trade for anything. It has just enough junk mail in it for me to complain about…just enough bills to keep me on my toes…just enough negative or critical letters to keep me humble…and just enough business mail to make me think that there is some point and purpose to it all. But more wonderful than that is that I get letters from people who are part of this church or who are in our television congregation. Those letters are encouraging and cheering and uplifting. And the vast majority of those letters come from older people, people who have known Jesus for a long, long time. Out of the richness of their relationship to Christ and the vast power of their spiritual life they write to me—and it frankly overwhelms me with gratitude.
Of course, I know that there are some older people who do not know Jesus. There are those gates to the west, but they don’t seem to be able to find them. There may have been some point in their lives where they felt close to God, but now the flame of faith has flickered or perhaps even died. That may be the way it is for some of you. Well, the Gospel says that it is not too late. Like Jacob in the Old Testament, you can go back to your Bethel, back to the moment when you felt close to God. Perhaps it was the day of your wedding, or maybe it was when you presented your first child for baptism, or maybe it was the memorial service for your mother. But there was some moment in your life when you sensed the whispers of God’s spirit in your soul. Go back to that moment. Claim it again. If you do, then you will know the joy of crossing through the westward gates into the glory of Jesus Christ.
Then John says that there are three gates facing south.
If you’re not old and you’re not young and things aren’t going hard for you, then you need to be aware of those southern gates. The south is the place where balmy breezes blow, where the barometer reads “fair,” and where life is comfortable. And that’s precisely why it is a dangerous place to be. The young cry out to God for purpose, the old cry out to God for peace, the suffering cry out to God for power, but when you are comfortable, you tend not to cry out to God at all. That’s the way we are, isn’t it? When things are going well, we begin to let God drift to the back of our minds and we begin to think that we can go it alone. We begin to say down in our hearts: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul”—and we can actually get to the point where we think we don’t need God anymore.
But my friends, life will work only one way and that is Christ’s way. Every other road leads to a dead end. Every other gate will be slammed in our face. Holman Hunt has a wonderful painting called “The Light of the World,” picturing Christ as He knocks at the door of the human heart. A little boy looked at the painting long and hard, then he turned to his mother and said: “Do you think He ever got in?” Well, if you’re not young, and you’re not old, and you’re not suffering, I want you to know that Jesus Christ is knocking at the door of your heart now. Are you going to let Him in? Are you going to admit your need for Him? And if you don’t feel that you need Him in your life, then at least admit to Him that you don’t want to admit to Him that you need Him in your life. Let Him begin there. But please, for your life’s sake, let Him begin somewhere…today. Three gates to the south.
Here’s what I learned from John’s description of the twelve gates. I learned that Jesus Christ and His glory are accessible to us all no matter what season or stage or circumstance of life may be ours. Therefore, I commend these words to you:
You asked me how I gave my heart to Christ,
I do not know;
There came a yearning for Him in my soul so long ago.
I found earth’s flowers would fade and die,
I wept for something that would satisfy,
And then, and then, somehow I seemed to dare
To lift my broken heart to God in prayer.
I do not know, I cannot tell you how;
I only know He is my Savior now.