"Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What's happened to the world?”
"A great Shadow has departed," said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count." (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King)
I love this part of The Lord of the Rings. Sam Gamgee, who had felt hopeless and despondent at the apparent loss of Gandalf, was suddenly filled with such hope at Gandalf's reappearance that he dared to wonder whether everything else that was sad would now also come untrue.
The birth of Christ ushers into time and space, the manifestation of that very expectation.
Recently I was struck with the realization of how much of our understanding of God and our relationship with him will one day come untrue. Let me explain.
The attributes of God we now cling to most desperately are his mercy and grace, his slowness to anger, his willingness to forgive, his compassion, his patience, his forbearance, the fact that he bears our burdens, his encouragement and his comfort. How reassuring it is to know that this is who our God is in relation to us; and, therefore, how shocking to realize that one day these very characteristics will no longer apply!
Every one of the traits I listed are relevant to us only because of the existence of sin. Take a moment to read over that list again and imagine what it will be like when our need for them finally becomes untrue.
In the advent of Christ we find the promise that one glorious day the very things about God that we now hold most dear will never again hold the same significance for us that they do now. Because of what God accomplished for us through Christ, they will no longer be necessary.
From the moment our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, our relationship with God and each other has been defined by sin. All of the wisdom we have about living well stems from what is broken. How we relate to suffering is at the very core of it all.
Scripture instructs us on how to deal with the inevitable suffering we will encounter on this earth. While we are promised that God will always be with us, we are also told of the benefits that can come to us even in our pain.
Romans 5:3-5 says, "[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."
Virtually everything we know about being decent human beings is summarized right there. Christians and non-Christians alike believe that suffering, when endured properly, with perseverance, will indeed produce character. Who among us does not admire a person who goes through great adversity with courage and tenacity? Who among us does not wish to be that kind of person? It is true, to the extent that we are able, or enabled, to be that kind of person, we and those around us are enriched.
The difference, however, between Christians and non-Christians is that for Christians, this process of suffering ultimately produces hope; a hope that does not disappoint us. That hope is described in verses 1- 2 of this same passage and leads right into the verses above. It is the “hope of the glory of God, which is a direct result of our being given faith in the peace with God that Christ obtained for us.
Because of Christ, the hope that will not disappoint us involves the fact that the entire concept of character growth through suffering will become obsolete! There will be no more suffering to be borne, no trials and tribulations to test us, no more strength that comes through adversity. Heroic struggles will be archaic. Bravery will be a thing of the past.
In fact, John describes that day far better than I can, in Revelation 21:3-5a: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Our entire experience of God and all of our understanding of what life is about will be recreated, with no taint of sin.
As we go through this Advent season we can be fully confident that, because of Christ, the great shadow will one day depart and everything sad will indeed become untrue.