Sunday, November 28, 2010

Have a Merely Christmas

Personally, I’m hoping for less than a merry Christmas this year…I would be happy with a merely Christmas. Perhaps it’s just the influence of Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, but I’m longing for the truth of Christmas…plain and simple. I was at a Target the other day with Lisa watching the store make preparations for Black Friday and the beginning of “Merry Christmas.” We were picking up a few things for a get together with friends. “What time are you opening on Friday?” we asked the checker.  "The store opens at 4:00am in the morning," she replied with a sigh. As we all know, lines of people were already forming on Thursday to enter the store the next morning.  Now don't get me wrong, I like to find a good deal too, but I can’t help but think that this whole Black Friday phenomenon is a very strange parody of Christmas. It’s about people desperately trying to get in, to be first in line, to get the best deal, when in reality, Christmas and Jesus' birth is about being invited into the very life of God, not to buy something but to receive God’s greatest gift... but who bothers to get in line for that?  The message of "merely Christmas" is truly astounding, if virtually ignored -- that Jesus was born to bring us into the very life of God… and to show us what that life is like

So, here goes.  In honor of "merely Christmas" I'd like to suggest three astounding things about the life of God that Jesus' birth reveals and offers to us.  (i) The birth of Christ means that God is purposeful.  Listen to the words of Paul: "But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs" (Galatians 4: 4-7).  For many Jews and contemporaries of Jesus, the timing of Jesus’ birth appeared to be no accident.  "When the time had fully come, God sent his Son," says Paul.  It was the fulfillment of God’s plan from the very beginning....

Two thousand years before Jesus’ birth, the Lord solemnly vowed to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation...and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). God fulfilled part of one of that promise through Abraham and his seed...and we bless them because of it; but the question remained: How would God fulfill his promise to bless "all the families of the earth" through his people?  As followers of Y'shua (Jesus) we affirm his mission as "the light of the world" and God's blessing to Jews and Gentiles alike. To David the Lord declared through the prophet Nathan: “I will raise up your offspring after you...and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam. 7:12; 13-14). No earthly king ever fulfilled that prophecy; yet it was the experience of the multitudes that through his  matchless life, his atoning death, his victorious resurection, and his indwelling Spirit that the Kingdom of God had indeed come near.

Seven hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah wrote these words: “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold a [young woman] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel [trans. God is with us] (Isaiah 7:14).” He goes on to predict that Immanuel will come to bring God’s forgiveness as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53).  Did Isaiah have a contemporary ruler in view...or was he given insight into a future king and "suffering servant" unlike anything the world had ever seen?  Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord promises to make a New Covenant with his people (Jer. 31:31); and through the prophet Micah we’re told where he would come from: a small town, outside Jerusalem – Bethlehem of Judea (Micah 5:2).  Again, we assert that prophets were speaking of events beyond their immediate experience...events made crystal clear in the coming of the Messiah, Jesus.  Therefore, when Paul speaks of “the fullness of time” he certainly means the fulfillment of ancient prophecy…but perhaps also the unique time itself in which Jesus was born; a time that seemed just right for the coming of the King…

There was the Roman peace: Never before, in the history of humankind had so much of the world been unified under one basically just government The Romans called it the Pax Romana, and it enabled citizens to travel freely and safely throughout the known world  There were the extraordinary Roman roads which facilitated rapid communication and the spread of the gospel. There was the rise of the Jewish Faith – the belief in one God that had spread throughout the Empire because of the Dispersion (721, 597 BC). There was a universal language. Greek was understood across the Empire, much like English is today. The gospels and letters of Paul were all written in Greek. If God were going to send a Messiah, this seemed to be the time. All this is to say that God is purposeful…that he sent his Son to us in a purposeful way, in fulfillment of his own promises, at a time of his own choosing. And this means that when Y'shua (Jesus) came to bring us into the life of God, that he came to bring us into a life that is purposeful and meaningful...

Do you sometimes question whether there is any rhyme or reason to your life; that your life is like a puzzle that can’t be put back together? God does nothing without purpose. God created this world for a purpose. God sent his Son for a purpose. God made you and me for a purpose. And our life with such a God…if we will trust in him…will be a life filled with purpose (not just in this world, but in the world to come).

(ii) The birth of Christ means that God is purposeful…and personal. When it came time for God to reveal himself fully, he could have sent a letter, or an email or a text message. Instead, "God sent his Son, born of a woman" [and] "God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’” He came in humility. He came as a baby. He came personally. Why? Because God is personal. In fact, he is beyond personal…he is Super-Personal (to use the words of C. S. Lewis).

The Christian understanding of God as trinity was not invented by the early church, it was the result of the disciples’ real life experience of the One True God, whom they found to be physically present in the person of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection; and afterward, in his continuing presence through the gift of his Spirit. Now, why does it matter whether God is personal or impersonal, triune, or not? It matters…because how we see God greatly impacts how we see ourselves and other people. A godless world produces godless people. A God-filled world, produces God-filled people. How we see God also impacts how we envision our future. Distorted ideas about God can lead to distorted ideas about our future...
Some believe “nothing” created this world and so “nothingness” is our future. Others take a step back from this extreme and say, “I believe in God but not a personal God.” And what they usually mean is, “God is impersonal if there is a God at all” -- that after this life, or perhaps after several lives, human souls will be "absorbed" into God; something like a drop of water that falls into the Ocean. “But of course,” (as Lewis says) “that is the end of the drop.” If that is what becoming part of the life of God is like, it really means the end of our existence altogether, the end of our individuality, the end of our personality. But Christians have a very different view of what entering into God’s life will be like. It is not like a drop of water disappearing into an infinite ocean… it is actually something like what many of us experience around the table on special holidays, or long to experience more fully…it’s like being invited to sit down at a great banquet table with those you love and who love you.

I heard about an elderly man in Phoenix who called his son in New York and said, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing—45 years of misery is enough." "Pop, what are you talking about?" the son asks. "We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the old man says. "We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her." Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. "Like heck they're getting divorced," she shouts. "I'll take care of this." She calls Phoenix immediately and screams at her father, "You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing till I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing." The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. "Okay," he says, "They're coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own fares. Now what do we do for Christmas?"

When I was a boy, my family would drive out from the valley on Thanksgiving to spend the day with my mom’s sisters and family. Their house was on top of a hillside that overlooked the ocean, and I never tired of looking at its beauty… but what I longed to be part of was my family, to sit at the table, to experience the joy of those relationships. Joining the life of God is like being welcomed into a great circle of love. And Christians can say this, because we believe God is a circle of love, a trinitarian family of loving persons. For some of us, feeling closeness in our families was not possible. Due to bitter division or unresolved anger, we felt distant from our parents or siblings. Our home didn’t feel like a “circle of love” but empty, cold, and unwelcoming. Friends, we were created to share in the loving fellowship of the three-personal God. Can we truly be part of this fellowship, this circle of love? That’s Jesus’ prayer for us! For “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 23).

(iii) When God acted in “in the fullness of time…” it tells us that God is purposeful. When we read that “God sent his Son,” it reminds us that God is personal. And when Paul says that we were adopted in Christ “no longer slaves but God’s children” it means that God is merciful. Paul writes: “God sent his Son…born under the law to redeem those under the law that we might receive adoption to sonship… So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children, and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.”

Now a slave obviously has no freedom and no hope; but God’s mercy is revealed in this way…that the Son of God was willing to be born into a world where he would be treated like a slave (crucified on a Roman cross) so that we who are slaves to sin might be treated like God’s sons.  In the first century, there was more than 60 million slaves in the Roman empire. People of that day could no more imagine a society without slaves than we can imagine a society without electricity. Today…slavery may not be as visible, but it is just as real…

If you have something in your life which is master over you…you are a slave. If you’ve always got to have more stuff, or better stuff, or bigger stuff to feel OK about yourself…you’re a slave. If you’ve got to drink something, smoke something, or snort something to survive each day…you’re a slave. If you can’t control your anger or let go of grudges…you’re a slave. If you’re living in the fantasy world of internet pornography, you’re a slave. If you spend so much time at work that you’re neglecting your family… you’re a slave. If you’re dominated by fear and worry, you’re a slave. And if you’re unwilling to admit that you’re a slave to anything…you can bet your a slave to something...beginning with arrogance and pride.

I continue to be struck by the story of Gary Haugen, a devout follower of Christ and president of International Justice Mission, whose life was changed when as a gov’t worker, he was sent to Rwanda following the war between Hutus and Tutsis that led to the deaths of millions. As a result he dedicated his life to rescuing the most vulnerable members of society from slavery and violent oppression. In a speech delivered to the White House, one of his co-workers said this: “While there are millions of girls and women victimized everyday, our work will always be about the one….The one girl deceived…The one girl needing a rescuer. To succumb to the enormity of the problem is to fail the one. And more is required of us.” That’s a perfect picture of God’s mercy, God’s unrelenting love for each one of us…who sent his Son not only to free us from slavery, but to make us part of his family, heirs of the grace of life, life abundant and life eternal.

It’s not Black Friday…it’s the first Sunday of Advent; and probably because it’s merely Christmas around here, Christmas plain and simple the lines at the door of our church were a bit shorter (and a whole lot quieter) than they were at Target the other day….But my prayer is that this Christmas will be the season in which you do walk through the open door, and invite a few others to walk through that door with you…knowing that as you place your trust in the Child who was born in Bethlehem’s manger…you too can be part of God’s life… you can be part of his purpose and plan …you can know his mercy and amazing grace…and you can be part of his continuously expanding circle of love, with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit… forever and ever. Amen!






Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Faith: Is it Reasonable?

Director Brian Flemming, a self-described “atheist Christian,” has taken on a tough assignment. In his documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There, he is trying to prove that Jesus never existed. In an interview with Christianity Today, he says, “I think that knowledge is basically the enemy of faith, and so I’m basically encouraging people to seek knowledge.” I couldn’t agree more or less… I couldn’t agree more because I believe we should seek knowledge. I couldn’t agree less because I don’t believe that knowledge must be the enemy of faith.

True faith is reasonable: it’s the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods.  True faith is built on facts. In Lewis' Mere Christianity, he emphasizes that he's not asking anyone to believe in Christianity if his best reasoning tells him to do otherwise (Book III, ch. 11). We believe something to be true because there is good evidence for it. Now as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). That is, some of the things we believe to be true, that we have good evidence for, are unseen.

We believe in oxygen not because we can see it, but because we can breathe it. We believe in the sun not because we can directly look at it, but because we can see everything else. We believe a man named Abraham Lincoln existed not because we have met him or spoken with him, but because of the historical evidence and that big statue of him in Washington D.C.  When I go into the operating room for the first time, I have no direct experience of anesthesia or of the skillfulness of the surgeon, but based upon the testimony of others, and my own research into the facts, I have faith and believe that I will be OK.

We believe in Christ in the same way…not because we have walked with him on earth or have heard him speak in an audible voice, but because of the facts. Woody Allen said that he would believe in God if God would send him a sign –a large deposit in a Bank Account under the name, “Woody Allen” would do the trick. I’m not talking about that kind of fact, but I am talking about things we can measure...

I’m talking about the gospel record, as well as the Jewish and Roman historians who speak of him and his movement. I’m talking about his impact on the value of life…Consider Telemachus the 5th century monk who climbed down into the middle of a Roman arena and said, “In the name of Christ stop!” When he was attacked by one of the combatants and died, the crowds silently emptied out of the arena – History records this was the last gladiator contest in the Roman empire. But we could also speak of abolitionists like William Wilberforce or John Woolman or the compassion of Mother Theresa.

I’m talking about his teaching that inspired the building of colleges and universities around the world and some of humankind’s deepest thoughts; his impact on government, through those who have stood up against totalitarianism and the abuse of human dignity in his name.

I’m talking about his impact on those who have sought to expand human knowledge… like nuclear physicist Peter Hodgson who says that “Christianity provided just those beliefs that are essential for science, and the whole moral climate that encouraged its growth,” and were we to remove every trace of Jesus from history, how much of the world’s great art, music and literature would be left?

I’m talking about his impact on the soul… the millions who testify to the gift of his grace, beginning with his first disciples who gladly faced death to tell us that the one they had seen crucified had risen from the dead, and will raise us up too.

The point is that faith is built on facts, and reliable evidence, but if this is true… what about our feelings? Doesn’t faith owe a lot to good feelings, feelings of joy, contentment, peace, and love? Anyone who has been a Christian for a while knows that feelings are unpredictable. We may be totally in love with God and his people, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have days when we feel spiritually dry and unmotivated. Consider for a moment...when we hear some bad news, or we get into some financial difficulty, or we find ourselves surrounded by a lot of people at school who don’t believe in Christ, or we’ve been hurt by a church member, or there comes a moment when we want to tell a lie, or do something immoral; a moment when it would be much more convenient for Christianity not to be true…a moment when we’re tempted to throw in the towel, a moment when our emotions begin to do a blitz on us; that’s when our Faith comes.  Here is a classic reflection by Lewis....

Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.  For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods "where they get off," you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith (Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 11).

So feelings change, moods go up and down, but faith holds on to what we’ve accepted on good evidence to be true despite those changing moods. And therefore, we must train the habit of faith. Now how do we do that? As Lewis reminds us…we need to spend daily time in prayer, focusing on the truth of God’s word, spending time with God’s people in worship and service. “We need to be continually reminded of what we believe.”  Most people who drift away from the Christian faith do not do so because they were argued out of it, but because they simply drifted away. Their faith withered and dried up for lack of food and water. I’m concerned that there may be a great number of Christians whose faith depends primarily on good feelings…the good feelings they get when they are in church, or when they are with their Christian friends, or when they are singing their favorite songs, or doing their favorite church activity.

Good feelings are great, but good feelings alone will not carry you through suffering or persecution. They will not carry you through the crucible of doubt or the ridicule of a teacher with a bias against Christianity. You’ll need more than feelings to get through that. And faith that depends on nice feelings will not hold up well when you’re sitting there in church, feeling bored out of your mind, angry at somebody in the next pew, or not getting your personal needs met. We’ve got to get serious about knowing Christ…and the power of his resurrection (as Paul once said). To exercise our faith, like we would exercise our bodies…so that, fed by the truth of God’s word, prayer and serving others, it will weather the storms that inevitably come. And, ironically, as we do that… we shall also discover something deeper about faith. That faith is ultimately built on the solid rock of Christ himself….

True faith is reasonable, but it’s also humble: it means coming to the end of myself, believing that Christ alone empowers both my belief, and my best actions. We just got through saying that true faith is based on facts, not just feelings, and that it's nurtured by action. Now that raises an important question Christians have been debating for a long time. What is more important: faith or action? There are two caricatures of the truth which Christians have been accused by other Christians of believing…

One is that “Good deeds are all that matter”; helping the poor, a consistent Bible study and prayer life, or giving money to the church. If you do that, God will bless you with a pain free life with heaven thrown in. But can we put God in our debt? Can God’s blessings be bought with our money, or our good deeds? The other is that “All you need is faith,” that what you do doesn’t matter at all. You can sin all you want, God doesn’t really care...it’s believing in Christ that makes the difference. That’s ludicrous, of course, because a faith that pays no attention to what Christ called us to actually do is not faith at all. As Lewis points out, asking which is more important (Faith, or Good Actions) is like asking which blade on a pair of scissors is more important? True faith leads to action; and action nurtures true faith. But there’s a deeper truth here…and that is that faith means coming to the end of myself altogether and realizing that God alone is the source of both my faith and my best actions. Paul says it best:“Therefore, my beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

True faith is humble. As a Christian my faith is not in my faith, nor is my faith in my actions. My faith is in a Person. “Apart from me,” says Jesus, “You can do nothing.” Yes, I must work out my own salvation, but only to realize that “apart from Him…I can do nothing,” that God is the one at work in me…enabling me to work for him and to believe in him. This is faith in the highest sense: faith in a Person, the Person. Not faith in my reason. Not faith in my spiritual discipline. Not faith in my moral character. And certainly not faith in my power to judge this messy thing called the church! It’s sad to think of how many people probably sit on the sidelines, unwilling to get their hands dirty and risk serving alongside God’s people because they have more faith in their judgment of the church than they have faith in Christ. True faith is not faith in me at all, but in Christ and what he can work in and through me, and even in spite of me. True faith is not only reasonable…it’s humble.

I’m reminded of a conversation that Aslan has with Lucy & Edmund before they leave Narnia for the last time to return to our world in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. "You won't be returning to Narnia, dear ones," he tells them.  Lucy begins to break down and cry: ‘It isn’t Narnia, you know,’ sobbed Lucy. ‘It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?’ ‘But you shall meet me, dear one.’ said Aslan. ‘Are - are you there too, Sir?’ said Edmund (now much humbler). ‘I am,’ said Aslan. ‘But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’’

Those words remind me that Christ has brought us into a new world in which we are learning to recognize his voice …and it is called the fellowship of his friends, the Church. The reason we are called into this fellowship is so that we may learn to recognize him in the world beyond its walls. If we don’t recognize him out there in the everyday arenas of life, it’s probably because we haven’t sought him among his people either… “for wherever two or three are gathered in my name there I am in their midst.”  There, in the midst of our brothers and sisters, is where we see the face of our Lord; where our faith is strengthened and we are prepared to follow him where he is often not welcomed or honored.  May he bless you with a faith that is reasonable, based on facts not just feelings, that can ride out the storms of life; and with a faith that is humble, that is powerless apart from Him; but through whom all things are possible.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Heavenly Hope

As Jesus hung on the cross, “[one of the criminals hanging beside him] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23: 43). Do you want to be in Paradise? Many of us aren’t so sure. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain describes a Christian spinster Miss Watson, “a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on,” who thinks Huck Finn is spending entirely too much time going on adventures, wearing filthy clothes, slouching in his chair and, generally, having too much fun. So she tells him all about the bad place, and why he should try for the good place.
“Well, I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it.  But I never said so, because it would only make trouble, and wouldn't do  no good. Now she had got a start, and she went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn't think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together” (Samuel L. Clemens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1963, p. 3).
Like Huck, a lot of us could care less about going to "the good place."  We’re quite happy living right here…and thinking about heaven may seem more like an escape from reality, or an eternity sitting in the clouds playing harps. But looking forward to heaven is more than escapism or wishful thinking, it’s what we were born to do. Today I want to address three questions about heaven…

The first is, what is “heaven” … and how can we get there? I want to begin by pointing out that much of the descriptive language about heaven in the Bible is figurative because it speaks of an experience beyond words. When we read about streets paved with gold, we should think of heaven’s perfection and beauty (gold does not rust). When we read about music, harps, and singing we should be reminded that heaven will be a place of beauty and joy and, yes, worship. And when we read that we will receive a crown on our heads we should know that heaven will be a place of victory, authority and responsibility.

Jesus describes heaven as “Paradise” to the thief hanging beside him – a Persian word that means “walled garden.” When a Persian king wanted to honor one of his subjects, he would invite him to walk with him in his paradaiso. It was the gift of the king’s friendship.  What a day it will be when we are able to walk and talk with King Jesus in the Paradise of God. Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” That is, “Today (without delay) you will be with me, alive and well, in the heavenly realm.” Beyond this, Jesus’ own resurrection reminds us that we will not only experience a new spiritual life with him immediately after death; but (at the end of the age) a new super-bodily life (a life after life after death) that will be like his own. How these two experiences are seemlessly related we cannot say for certain...but we know by faith that  when we are "away from the body" we shall be "at home with the Lord" (2 Coritnhians 5: 8); and that "when Christ returns, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

In Scripture, the word trans. “heaven” (Greek: ouranos) can also be trans., “air” “sky” or even “atmosphere.” When Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father who art in heaven (literally: 'in the heavens'), he was telling us that the kingdom of heaven is as near and accessible as the air we breathe. Heaven is not confined to outer space or beyond space, or the Twilight Zone, it’s as close as the atmosphere that surrounds us; and yet, and yet...our sin separates us from that eternal realm. Modern "string theory" (a branch of theoretical physics) speculates that there may be as many as eleven dimensions in our universe -- though we can only experience four of them. Other theories calculate the possibility that there are countless alternate and unseen universes (The TV show "Fringe" is loosely based upon such theories).  If scientists can hypothesize about multi-dimensional and alternate universes; how difficult is it to believe that there is a transphysical realm which we will experience after death by God's grace, a dimension we cannot now see but that is closer than we ever imagined, like a room separated from us by a thin wall and a door…

Of course, some doors, like the front gate of the White House, are tough to walk through. On Sun. July 26, 2009, one of the biggest and most famous men in the world, Shaquille O'Neil, tried to get into the White House without an appointment. At 7-1 and 325 pounds, a winning smile, and NBA championship rings on his fingers, Shaq has what it takes to walk into most places. Doors open for Shaq. And so, Shaq decided to put his celebrity, and President Obama's love of basketball, to the test. He was on a D.C. sports radio show on Friday July 24th, and he put this question to the listeners: "Check this out, I got on a nice suit, I'm in D.C. paying a visit, I jump out of a cab in front of the White House, I don't use none of my political or law enforcement connections. If I go to the gate and say, 'Hey, I'm in town, I would like to see the President,' do I get in, or do I not get in? Two days later, Shaq gave it a try, and just like the opponents who’ve tried to drive past Shaq to the hoop, the White House gate security rejected him too. Later that day, Shaq tweeted, "The White House wouldn't let me in, whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy."  Good question. And whyyyyyyyyyyyyy should we think that heaven’s Gate will open for us? One reason only: we know the Gatekeeper -- not our reputations, not our diplomas or NBA rings, not our money or our popularity.

Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9). There were two thieves who hung beside Jesus… one who believed in him and one who rejected him. Our Lord will allow us to reject him…if that is our wish. He will not force us to be with him…we can spend eternity away from his presence; yet it is not the Father’s will that even one of us should perish” (Matt. 18:14). We can hope in heaven, because we know the Gatekeeper, and because he knows us.

Here is another question: Are there sign-posts that point us to a life beyond this one? Most of us have trouble wanting heaven, because, as Lewis reminds us in Mere Christianity, Book III, ch. 10, we’ve not been trained to recognize the desire for heaven that is present in each one of us. I’m talking about our unfulfilled longings and desires. Do you remember the sweet smell of summer on the last day of school; the joy of graduation day, waking up on Christmas morning, a walk through a towering redwood forest, or standing before a dramatic ocean sunset; the exhilaration of crossing the finish line in a hard fought race, the tears down your cheeks as you saw your bride walk down the aisle, the satisfaction of a job well done, the memories of a faraway country. These are the moments we say to ourselves, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” And yet…the happiness that these sweet moments offered us were fleeting and temporary. They flew away…and as much as we wanted to go with them, we could not. Now Lewis suggests that we tend to respond to these experiences in one of three ways…

There is The Fool’s Way, which is to blame the things and people themselves that disappoint us (we look for another romantic relationship to fill our need for love, a more expensive car, or a bigger vacation…but each time these experiences fail to deliver our heart’s desire). David, of course, was well know for the affair that he had with Bathsheba. He had become bored…he was looking for a new thrill and so he took the "the fool's way" out.
Then there is the so-called Sensible Way which is to give up on the dream altogether; to settle down and not expect too much; to stop chasing the rainbow’s end. Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” Like Jim Carey, Solomon (King David’s son) had money, he had power, he had fame… he built great monuments…he had many women “and the delights of the flesh”…but he finally called all of this “a chasing after wind” (Eccles. 2: 1-11).

Finally there is The Christian Way. It is to rejoice in every signpost of beauty and eternity in this life...but to know that they point us to something beyond this world. “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy” says Lewis, “the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” I have eyes because there is something to see. I have ears because there is something to hear. I hunger for God…because God wants me to know him, and live with him forever.  The Christian says, “I love this world; but I’m not home yet.” Listen to King David: “O LORD…You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips…He asked you for life; you gave it to him – length of days forever and ever… for the king trusts in the LORD, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved” (Psalm 21: 1-7). Christ is the answer to our heart’s desire and our longing for life. King David’s prayer was fulfilled by David’s greater Son who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me…even if he die, shall live" (John 11: 25).

Thomas Aquinas was one of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages. His Summa Theologia, in which he answers 10,000 objections to the Christian faith, is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of western civilization. But on Dec. 6, 1273 Aquinas abruptly announced to his secretary that he would write no more. While worshipping in the chapel of Saint Nicholas, Aquinas had an intense experience of God’s glory. "I can do no more," he said, "such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems to me as so much straw."  May Christ himself bless each of us with such an assurance of the glory and goodness of God… as we worship, through his word, in our journey with his people….in every moment of beauty we experience in this life.

But hold on, if we believe that life’s greatest joy and deepest significance is found beyond this world….does this mean we care nothing about this one? There’s a saying that a Christian can be so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good. But I think it’s just the opposite as C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity: "If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.” Those who trust that in Christ death has been swallowed up in victory have risked everything to relieve the world's suffering: care for plague victims, defend the rights of children, guide slaves to freedom, breach war zones to feed the poor, make disciples of Jesus, and extend his kingdom on earth….

Listen to how Paul talks about the world to come, and its relationship to this one. “Listen! I tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye….For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality….then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory….thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15: 51-58).

I can’t think of a more important reason to dedicate our resources and our lives to God’s work today, to be steadfast and immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord; than the knowledge that we are equipping people not just for life in this world (and we are), but for service in God’s eternal kingdom. Because there is, through Christ our Risen Lord, a life beyond this life...our labor is not in vain; our lives are not lived in vain; our dreams are not dreamt in vain, our hope is not built in vain, our victories are not won in vain, our losses are not suffered in vain, our hearts have not been broken in vain….no test was ever faced in vain, no pain, ever suffered in vain, no kindness, ever done in vain, no love, ever shared in vain, and no, we were not born in vain. Because Christ is risen…every sin has been forgiven, the power of death has been defeated, and Heaven’s doors are now wide open… If somebody ever says to you, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” Don’t you believe it.  It does!  On the final page of The Last Battle, Lewis describes all our life here on earth as just the title page of the Great Story, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before."  There's a "good place" waiting for you and me.  Believe it, live it, and give thanks to God for it, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!