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!

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