Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Final Word is a Word of Grace” (Revelation 22:21)
June 2, 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When you read a novel you pay particular attention to the opening and closing sentences. The opening sentence often sets the tone for the entire novel, and the closing sentence brings resolution, or the lack thereof. Perhaps when you were young and read fairy tales you likely remember the frequently used opening words of “Once upon a time” and the closing sentence of “They lived happily ever after.”
Here are a few famous opening sentences from classic novels—see if you know which novels: “It was a pleasure to burn” is the ominous opener of Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece about burning books, Fahrenheit 451. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is how Charles Dickens begins A Tale of Two Cities. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is the first sentence from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” of course begins Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin.
Referring to the address of 124 Bluestone Rd. where the ghost of a murdered child dwelt, Toni Morrison begins her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved, “124 was spiteful.” And perhaps the most famous opening sentence is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” By the way, before settling on “Call me Ishmael” Melville also considered “Call me Bubba” and “Call me Kanye”, both of which would of course had set a very different tone for his masterpiece, but I digress.
Similarly, here are a few famous closing sentences from classic novels: “He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” is the conclusion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind famously ends with “After all, tomorrow is another day.” “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” is the final sentence of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The haunting last sentence from George Orwell’s 1984, “He loved Big Brother” reveals that in the end Big Brother won.
What is the first sentence of the most famous book of all, the Bible? Genesis 1:1 sets the tone for the rest of scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (KJV). Scripture opens with God creating the heavens and the earth, and throughout the rest of the Bible this theme recurs again and again. God creates a chosen people in Israel. God creates a clean heart in repentant sinners (Psalm 51:10). Scripture goes on to tell us that Jesus Christ, the Word, “was in the beginning with God” and that “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:2-3) and again, “in (Jesus Christ) all things in heaven and on earth were created…all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). God’s creating and creative work gives a new start to all of us, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And finally, near the end of the final book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus reassures us, “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). God’s work of creation set everything in motion, continues now, and will continue forever.
And how does the Bible end? Today’s passage from Revelation contains the final sentence of the entire Bible, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen” (Revelation 22:21). Scripture ends with entrusting the resolution of God’s cosmic work of creation and salvation to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And this true not only universally but also individually as we sing in Amazing Grace, “’tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home” (The Hymnal 1982 671).
The final word is a word of grace.
Some famous authors left novels that were unfinished. Geoffrey Chaucer, considered by some the “Father of English Literature”, was still working on The Canterbury Tales when he died in 1400. Jane Austin was in the midst of a novel entitled Sanditon when she passed in 1817. Charles Dickens was working on The Mystery of Edwin Drood when he died in 1870. Scripture tells us that the same One who created the heavens and the earth created us “in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). Unfortunately, whether or not you think you have finished the work God has prepared for you, or the novel you may be working on, the time will eventually come when you die and are buried—sobering but true.
In his 2006 novel Everyman the late award winning author Philip Roth wrote about an unnamed man as he aged and considered his mortality. There is a particularly moving passage as he visits the cemetery where his parents are buried, and where he himself will later be buried, and strikes up a conversation with the longtime gravedigger. He asks the gravedigger many questions about the specifics of his work, and the gravedigger kindly answers each and every question. “And you’ve been doing this work how long?” “Thirty-four years. A long time. It’s good work. It’s peaceful. Gives you time to think. But it’s a lot of work. Starting to hurt my back” (176). Roth continues:
He was watching from beside the gravestone to the rear of which the gravedigger had laid out the square patches of sod that he would return to the plot after the funeral. The sod was fitted perfectly to the piece of plywood on which the patches rested. And still he did not want to go, not while by merely turning his head he could catch a glimpse of his parents’ stone. He never wanted to go.
Pointing to the gravestone, the gravedigger said, “This guy here fought in World War Two. Prisoner of war in Japan. Helluva nice guy. Know him from when he used to come visit his wife. Nice guy. Always a decent guy. Got stuck with your car, the kind of guy who’d pull you out.” “So you know some of these people.” “Sure I do. There’s a boy here, seventeen. Killed in a car crash. His friends come by and put beer cans on his grave. Or a fishing pole. He liked to fish” (177-178).
A few moments later he says to the gravedigger, “I want to ask—I wonder if you dug my parents’ graves. They’re buried over here. Let me show you.” The gravedigger followed him a ways until they could see clearly the site of his family stone. “Did you dig these?” he asked him. “Sure, I did them,” the gravedigger said. Knowing that this same gravedigger would likely dig his grave he continues:
Well, I want to thank you. I want to thank you for everything you’ve told me and for how clear you’ve been. You couldn’t have made things more concrete. It’s a good education for an older person. I thank you for your concreteness, and I thank you for being so careful and considerate when you dug my parents’ graves (180).
Some people, perhaps like the elderly World War II veteran in that passage, live long enough to finish their life’s work. Others, like the seventeen year old who died in the car accident, barely have time to start their life’s work, let alone finish it. In his final letter the Apostle Paul, who was imprisoned in Rome and awaiting martyrdom, wrote this to his protégé Timothy:
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
And the good news of the gospel is that “all who have longed for his appearing” includes you. Jesus Christ, who created you and has been with you every second of your life, giving you grace whether you were aware of it or not, finished the work he became incarnate to do, the work of your salvation—as John recorded Jesus’ final words on the cross, the final words he uttered before he breathed his final breath, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Regardless of whether you finish the metaphorical novel you have started writing, the work of your salvation has already been finished by your Creator, the One who created the heavens and the earth, the One who can create a new heart in you today. Yes, Jesus’ death and resurrection happened once upon a time, but the gospel is no fairy tale. It is the real deal that means real salvation for you. The love of God in Jesus Christ for you could not be any clearer, any more concrete.
And when your years of beating on “boats against the current” are done, when you write your final sentence, when the final earth has been placed on the grave neatly dug for you—you will not be “borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” but will indeed live happily ever after in heaven with your Creator and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, whose grace has always been with you. The final word is a word of grace.
Today “the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints”…including you.