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God Has Given us a Simple Promise

James Joyce is the author of a book of short stories called Dubliners, the last story of which is the longest and the most beautiful. In fact, it’s been called one of the greatest short stories ever written. The story is called “The Dead,” a name which seems incongruous as we are plunged straight into the scene of a merry dance party at Christmastime, though it gradually becomes apparent through Joyce’s masterful writing that the partygoers are spiritually as stuck in place as the dancers in the Quadrille, and emotionally as frozen as the frigid weather outside. As Gabriel, the main character of the story, comes into the house, “a light fringe of snow lay like a cape on the shoulders of his overcoat and like toecaps on the toes of his galoshes; and, as the buttons of his overcoat slipped with a squeaking noise through the snow-stiffened frieze, a cold, fragrant air from out-of-doors escaped from crevices and folds.”

The people at the party — and, indeed, the people of Ireland as a whole, Joyce would have said — are trapped in patterns of ritual and habits of behavior that allow them to pantomime their way through life without ever really living. “One by one,” Gabriel thinks, “they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” They are passionless and purposeless.

“The Dead” isn’t primarily meant as a religious story (though Joyce had lots to say about the church in Ireland), but we can draw out what he is saying here. We can relate on a meaningful level because, whether we realize it right now or not, we are all the dead. You and I. We are just like Gabriel and the other partygoers, playing our assigned parts, going through the motions, striving endlessly to create a life of significance and fulfillment in a world that often seems empty or chaotic or unfair. The luckiest of us get a glimpse of this truth, as Gabriel does at the end of the story, and maybe even a chance to do something about it. The rest of us keep striving. Some simply give up.

Jesus tells us in John 5:25, “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” The hour is now here, friends. We, the dead, have heard the voice of the Son of God, and he has given us life!  As God tells the prophet Ezekiel, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” 

If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that God always keeps his promises. God has given us a simple promise. It is this: whoever hears the word of Jesus and believes in the Father who sent him has eternal life and passes from death to life. Jesus goes on, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” It is Jesus, with the Father’s authority and through the power of the Holy Spirit, who bring us back to life.

As genuine born-again fully alive people, we find there is no longer any need for playacting or pretending. We become unstuck. We see things as they truly are. People are no longer our enemies but beloved children and image-bearers of God. Problems become opportunities for growth and sanctification and reliance on God. The church is no longer a religious safety net or a checklist of Christian duties but a body of believers on mission together to transform the world. We do not have to live any longer like Gabriel, going through the motions, checking the boxes, fighting and failing and “fading out into a grey impalpable world.” We can be alive.

And Jesus did not bring us from death to life simply so that we can go to heaven when we die; he gives us eternal life starting right now. He gives us living water so we can pour it out for others. He gives us awe so we can sing praises to him. He gives us joy so we can celebrate. The hour is now here. John Piper wrote, “We waste our lives when we do not pray and think and dream and plan and work toward magnifying God in all spheres of life. God created us for this: to live our lives in a way that makes him look more like the greatness and the beauty and the infinite worth that he really is.” We are not dead any longer, dear friends. Let’s live like it.

Written By: Jess Upshaw Glass

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