On Finding Yourself In a Burning Building or Sinking Ship.

“Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be…” (2 Peter 3:11)

The issue of faith–to believe or not to believe–says John Ortberg, “is never just a question of calculating the odds for the existence of God.  We are not just probability calculators. We live in a burning building.  It’s called a body. The clock is ticking.”  (“Know Doubt,” p.32)

Ortberg doesn’t mind mixing metaphors.  We live in a burning building; the clock is ticking.

So true.

Yes, and the Titanic which we call Earth is sinking (with too many people occupied with re-arranging deck chairs). The universe is winding down.  The sun which supports life on earth and is the center of our solar system has an expiration date, scientists say.

The physical creation has a shelf life expiration date.

A plethora of metaphors come to mind, all directed toward establishing one giant fact: You and I should not be planning to live forever, in this body or on this earth.

These abodes are temporary.

It is true that these are all we know. I’ve never lived outside this body or anywhere but on this planet. And that’s where faith comes in. There is something else out there, something better, something higher, more solid, more lasting, awaiting the redeemed in Jesus Christ.

The Old Testament prophet must have had this in mind when he said: “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field… The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). 

Life is brief and fame can be measured in 15-minute segments.  But there is something eternal on the horizon. The wise are making plans. The foolish are debating the details, while the faithless refuse to act without more information.

Nothing drives this home like 2 Peter 3:10-13….

“…the heavens will pass away with a noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.  Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of person ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat.  Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

Scientists keep affirming these prophecies about how the known universe will meet its demise: noise, heat, fire, dissolving.

Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” fits here. Some say the world will end in fire.  Some say in ice.  From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire.”

Awaiting the faithful, the redeemed in Christ, will be “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  You may want to call it Heaven or Paradise or “home” or something else entirely. Our Lord Jesus called it “a kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34) and “my Father’s house” (John 14:2). We will leave the particulars to Him.

As though we had any say-so in the matter.

Jesus is a native of Heaven (see John 3:13).  He knows.

Therefore, says Holy Scripture to those paying attention, we need to take precautionary measures and do so now while it still matters.  Plan to leave this earth; plan to move to our Heavenly Home; plan to be admitted into glory upon the Father’s say-so.

Some stories to press home this point….

1) Water.

Before the government agencies flood a valley to create a massive lake–Ross Barnett Reservoir in central Mississippi and Smith Lake in north Alabama, two I’m most familiar with, come to mind–the authorities do all in their power to remove every resident and anything of value.  We can imagine someone holding out, refusing to move to higher ground. “This was my grandpappy’s place and I’m not budging.”  The federals inform him that soon his property will be 50 to 100 feet underwater and suitable only for fish.  Only the most unreasonable would remain in place.  That “condemned” sign is important!

2) Earthquake.

Harry Randall Truman comes to mind.  This old gentleman refused to leave Mount St. Helens prior to its massive eruption in 1980.  After the largest volcanic explosion in the recorded history of North America, the lodge which Truman directed was buried under 150 feet of lava. Spirit Lake, beside which the lodge sat, disappeared completely.  Fifty-six others died on that mountain at the same time.  That is the fate of those who refuse to heed the warnings.

3) Flood.

The city of New Orleans (my residence for 3 decades) considers August 29, 2005, its own personal “date that will live in infamy,” to borrow FDR’s line.  Hurricane Katrina blew through, leaving the usual devastation behind, but doing far worse damage on the Mississippi coast. New Orleans was said to have “dodged a bullet.”  And then the levees broke.  This below-sea-level city was flooded and hundreds were drowned.  Entire neighborhoods were wiped out and the city was changed forever.  I have sometimes wondered what if you and I gone up and down the doomed streets of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward a few days in advance. What if we had cried out, “It’s coming! The hurricane will flood our city.  Your neighborhood will be completely underwater!  Hundreds will die in their homes! Get out now.”  Would anyone have heeded our warnings?  Or would they have considered us nuts?

4) Fire.

Somewhere I heard of a preacher who was working on his sermon on a Saturday afternoon and having trouble coming up with an appropriate illustration.  He said to his wife, “I need a break.  Let’s go for a drive.”

A few miles out in the country, they came upon a farmhouse that was in flames. Neighbors and first responders were everywhere, manning fire hoses and bucket brigades. People were concerned, excited, involved, and working together. It was an unforgettable display of compassion and cooperation.

The pastor told his wife, “That’s it! That’s the perfect illustration for my sermon tomorrow morning!”

The next day in his sermon, the pastor told the congregation how he and his wife were taking a leisurely drive in the country and came upon this scene where everyone was alarmed and excited, working together, helping each other, no one standing around watching.  It was a great example, he said, of brotherhood, compassion, and cooperation.

On the way home, the pastor said to his wife, “I was disappointed in the way the congregation reacted to the story. It didn’t seem to touch them at all. They just sat there.”

The wife said, “Honey, you forgot to tell them the house was on fire.”

When we preachers find that our sermons are making small impressions, that few seem to be listening, that the congregation has no sense of urgency, it may be that we are forgetting to tell them the house is on fire.

“All these things shall be dissolved.”  All of them.

That is not so bad so long as we ourselves are living somewhere else in far better digs.

“We who are in these earthly tents do groan, earnestly waiting for our dwelling from heaven.” (2 Corinthians 5:2)