[This entry is an adaptation of my sermon last Sunday, October 17, 2010. My text was John 13:36-14:11. Revelation 21 was read within the service as a parallel text. I also drew upon Isaiah 65-66.]
John 13:36 - 14:11 36 Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, where are You going?" Jesus answered, "Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later." 37 Peter said to Him, "Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You." 38 Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times. 1"Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 "In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. 3 "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. 4 "And you know the way where I am going." 5 Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. 7 "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him." 8 Philip said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father '? 10 "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. 11 "Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.
Whatever became of heaven? There was a time not that long ago when we sang about it in almost every service, and talked about it and preached about it often. Today, it is a vanishing concept, no longer considered important to the Christian life. Perhaps we have backed away from this sacred promise because we have allowed the skeptics to intimidate us. They have bullied many into believing heaven is just a crutch for the underprivileged, a dream to counter their miserable lives. In the long shadows of the age of reason we need not hope in the unseen celestial city with healing leaves from the tree of life; we are comfortable and supplied with modern medicine. Others may find it more comforting to imagine a disembodied liminal state as our final destination; heaven is a state of mind or spiritual condition void of the burdens of the material world.
However, heaven is a central component in the Biblical account of the incarnation. Before He ascended back to Heaven, fully God, fully man, to be seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus gave the promise that if He went away He would prepare a place for us that we might be there with Him. In His Father’s house there are many apartments or dwelling places and our destiny is to live in them.
In order to fully appreciate Heaven we must consider some other good news. God is at work judging His creation. In time, all of creation will be judged. The earth will be scourged with fire; Satan and all who rebel against God will be cast into the Lake of Fire never to escape everlasting judgment. Death will come to all. And this is good news. God’s judgment announces His grace; His judgment is always toward the redemption of His creation. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God and the wages of sin is death. Believers do not escape death. They die in Christ, who died for their sins that they might live in Him. God’s judgment builds toward that great and final day, but make no mistake, it has already reached its pinnacle at Calvary where Christ embraced the cross and purchased the redemption of all.
Every act of God’s judgment is toward the redemption of His creation. God has not given up on the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve; neither has He given up on Eden. Jesus came into this world to reclaim all that was lost to sin. In the fullness of time all of creation will be gathered up in Him to be placed at the feet of the Father. Everything in the heavens and on earth belongs to Him and shall be restored to Him. This is good news because in His judgment God will reclaim His creation as His habitation. He will dwell on earth with humans.
Both in Isaiah 66 and in Revelation 21 to 22 the promise of the New Jerusalem is tied to the promise of everlasting punishment for the wicked, punishment in flames that do not quench. As hard as that may be for some of us to accept, it is this final judgment that makes evident and secure the reign of God on earth. The New Heaven and the New Earth are not simply free from the presence of sin as if sin never existed. Death, sin, and Hell remain forever conquered, a testament to the power of the love of God and a witness to the extent of His mercy.
Perhaps we have lost sight of our glorious destiny because we have become weary with the wait. Heaven is more than a place up above where our disembodied spirits go when we die to enjoy the glory of God forever. Heaven is not an escape from human history, no; it is rushing toward us from eternity to enter into our world as the epicenter of God’s presence with us. That day may be far off but it is breaking in even now.
Let us remember the story and the promise worth waiting for. Christ, crucified, buried and resurrected, has ascended to the throne room of God where He intercedes for us. When they die, those who are in Him go to be with Him; to be absent from the body is to be present with Christ. With the Apostle Paul we all proclaim, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” But there is more; Christ is returning. When He does He will bring the sainted dead; they will be resurrected and those who are alive in Christ will meet them in the air. After a great battle, Satan will be bound and Christ will reign on earth a thousand years. Afterwards, Satan will be loosed and lead a rebellion after which there will be a final judgment. Satan and all the enemies of Christ will be cast into the everlasting lake of fire. Finally, there will be a new Heaven and a New Earth and a New Jerusalem will descend from the heavens and the throne of God will be on earth and He will dwell among us. Heaven will be on earth. That is our destiny.
Heaven is not a myth; it is not the mere product of human imagination. Heaven is our home, beckoning us forward into the reign of God over all of His creation. I conclude with three aspects of Heaven for which I rejoice and give thanks.
First, Heaven is home for the children of God. My idea of heaven on earth has been dominated by majestic mountains and flowing streams and to be honest the absence of people. I went to New York City when I was nineteen and promised myself I would never return. I felt threatened on every street corner. Just stopping to purchase fuel made me feel like I was being mugged. Cities are overcrowded with sinners. They are unsafe and inhospitable. Not so with Heaven.
There will be no sinners in Heaven, no one and nothing to fear. All will be safe as lion lies down with lamb, the child plays at the hole of the asp, and there is no war, hatred, bigotry, envy, strife, or bitterness. More importantly, Heaven will be home. All of eternity will be one grand family reunion absent the embarrassing behavior of a distant relative. Beginning with those we knew and loved in this life and extending undiluted outward to all the redeemed, we will know as we are known. No longer will we see through a glass darkly. Love, pure and undefiled, will bind us together so that we fulfill all that it means to be the body of Christ, the family of God, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
Second, Heaven is drawing us by its majestic beauty. Yes, I believe there will be streets of gold and gates of pearl. The foundation will be lined with the most precious of jewels. The river of life will flow and the tree of life will bear its fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. I will not be discouraged if when I get there I discover these to be figurative literary devices. I already know the description pales in comparison to the true grandeur of that celestial city.
Third, Heaven is the fulfillment of our created destiny. Fully human, forgiven, purged, cleansed, healed, transformed, and full of the Spirit, we shall see God face to face and dwell with Him forever more. We shall be and we shall proclaim His glory. The Father and the Son will be enthroned, and we will worship the Holy Trinity without inhibition and without end. With them we shall dance the dance of their embrace, choreographed before time began. We shall sing the song of the redeemed and all of creation will be our orchestra. And we shall cast our crowns before them crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
I am thankful for the hope of Heaven. It is not a delusion into which I escape. It is a siren calling from the throne of God for me to embrace my humanity and God’s creation, to lift my head and proclaim our redemption draweth nigh. Soon, and very soon, God will make His home among us.
October 19, 2010