Saturday, July 11, 2015

To Be Determined: A Sermon on Heaven

To Be Determined                                                                 7/12/15

Revelation 21-22:6, John 14:1-14

Ask the congregation:   Where have you seen heaven on earth?

Today’s sermon is about heaven.  It is a one week break from our Summer Sermon Series Praise the Lord with Symbols.  I had a nice conversation with one of you and this topic was on your mind.  Heaven is our future because of the grace of the Lord.  So, in the leisurely pace of summer, and also in an ever increasing hopeless world, let us place our minds square before the reason for our hope.  The Bible says, “everyone who has in them the hope of Christ’s coming, purifies themselves, just as they are pure  (I John 3:3)

Today’s sermon is about what the Bible says about heaven.  You need to throw away the medieval images of individuals on their own clouds playing their own harp.  This is not our destiny according to Scripture.

There are four main things we will explore today:

1.     an overview of Heaven from Genesis 1—Revelation 19.

2.     The consummation of human history:  the judgment (Revelation 20)

3.     The New Heavens and New Earth, as described in Revelation 21-22

4.     The call before us from heaven

 An Overview of Heaven

Our overview of heaven will take us through the Creation Story, Jewish understanding of the afterlife, the first advent of Christ, and the call upon our lives to follow Jesus.

The Creation Story

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  One of the basic principles of heaven is that it is a part of God’s creation.  God is.  God is eternal.  That which is made is not eternal.  Yet humankind has a special place in the creation.  God said “let us make man in our image, in our likeness”.  Male and female are created, and humankind was made in the image of God.  God blessed them and said to them, ‘be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.  Christian theologians find fascination that God said “let us”, and see the idea of community deeply embedded in the creation and human story.  God’s plan, from the beginning, is for humans to reflect the image of God, to be in community, and to be caretakers of the earth. 

Jewish Understanding of the Afterlife

Over the generations, Jewish hope looks to the coming of the promised Messiah.  The Messiah will be sent from God to overcome all the wrong in the world, and rule with justice.  This Messiah will make Jerusalem his capital.  By Roman times, this Messiah has strong political overtones, helping conquer the most powerful earthly expression of kingdom.

Heaven is referenced over a hundred times in the Hebrew Scripture.  It is the place where God dwells (with the Temple being the space that the nation can experience the presence of the Lord).

Hebrew Scriptures also affirm the idea of resurrection.  Resurrection was a common idea throughout religion and history: an old, core foundation of the story of life.

The First Advent of Christ

Jesus comes from God to be and do the will of God the Father.  Jesus lives perfectly, full of grace and truth.  He is the way, the truth and the life.  He rejects the will of the crowds to become a political leader, shocking some who had become convinced that the Messiah would have to overthrow the power of Rome.  Jesus dies on the cross as our Savior.  He rises from the dead by the power of God.  His resurrection becomes our prototype.  Humans are not made immortal.  But through the power of resurrection, they will one day put on immortality.  Our future is secured because of the work of Jesus Christ.  We can live forever, not because of something within us, but because of the work of Jesus Christ.  Humans have perpetuated sin, and we need reconciliation with God. We cannot enter the presence of a holy God without the righteousness and holiness of our Savior.  This is accomplished through Jesus Christ.

The Call to Follow Jesus

As Christ’s followers, our lives take on his story.  We are called to become like him, which includes dying to ourselves, and having God’s Spirit live within us.  We are to let Christ’s power be displayed in our words and actions.  We are to do God’s will, not our own.  As his followers, we find fellowship (togetherness) with other believers.  We find community for the journey of life.  Our bodies will also one day rise from the dead, and enter everlasting life.

You might be saying:  I know these things.  I’ve heard this before, but what does it have to do with Heaven?  The truth is:  if heaven is for real, and what Scripture says about it is true:  it will be forever.  Our earthly lives are but a blink, a snap of the fingers, here and gone.  Yet, whatever the span is, is enough time to shape our lives for what will really last.  God’s plan is for us to live forever.  Will we accept that plan?   I hope that decision for you is not To Be Determined.

The second main thing I want to say today is about the Consummation of Human History:  the Judgment. 

The Scripture gives evidence that those who die before Christ’s second return experience two images:  Paradise and rest.  But both images are temporal.  After all, Revelation speaks about a New heaven.  It seems to replace the current version.  History and creation will be transformed by the power of God, not by our own power or goodness, and certainly not by our own evolution.

Immediately before our morning reading about heaven is Revelation 20, which speaks of the final judgment.  At that final judgment, the dead will be raised, and join the living to stand before the presence of God.  They will give account of their lives.  You and I will give account of our lives.  Scripture speaks of three main entities that will be judged:  every moral creature, cosmic forces, and the creation itself.

From a biblical perspective, every human has one life, which is followed by our standing before God.  We are responsible for all of the life given to us, and in a post-resurrection world, we are responsible for how we have responded to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Have we joined in making Jesus known as Lord and Savior?  We will be rewarded according to our works.  The Bible clearly says that it is faith in Christ, not our works, that allows us to live forever.  The Judgment is about giving account of what we’ve done for the glory of God, and our works validating our belief.  We will be rewarded according to our deeds.  This is good news for all of us:  every word, every deed, can give God glory.  This is good news for all of us:  we can make our whole life about giving glory to God.  By putting God first now, we judge ourselves through our attempts to live a holy and pleasing life before God, so that God’s pronouncement, which will be clear and decisive, speaks to what we’ve already built for him.

In researching the final judgment, I want to offer a few thoughts from Stanley Grenz in his thorough and insightful book Theology for the Community of God. 

1.     The creation needs to be judged because decay exists, and this was not God’s intent for the creation.  The creation longs to be liberated, according to Paul in Romans 8, and God’s judgment will liberate the creation (pg. 816)

2.     Humans need judgment.  We were created for community, and we have divided ourselves from God, neighbor and earth.  Judgment will ultimately rescue us from ourselves, and bring us back to God’s true will for us. 

3.     All humankind will be judged by their conformity to the will of God.  (820)  The judgment “will indicate the extent to which our individual histories reflect and incorporate the meaning of God’s history”.

4.     Hell is not the place where all the rebels get to hang out and party.  What a cosmic deception straight from the devil.  Hell is isolation.  It is the absence of community.  Originally reserved for the devil and his minions, people who choose hell choose everything that they weren’t created for:  death, not life, isolation, not community, distance, not closeness.

5.     “Judgment is the Spirit’s radical perfecting of the community we now share” (845).  There is a sense in which we experience heaven on earth.  There is strong biblical evidence that we will know each other, and enjoy each other in the life to come, in a never-ending existence.  But to get there from here, we have to go through judgment.  Judgment is God’s decisive act against all sin and wrongdoing, so that goodness and life return to their place as the norm.

What I’ve shared so far is necessary to help us think of heaven.  Heaven is the presence of God in its fullest expression.  After human history, with its breakthrough by Jesus Christ, and after the consummation of history in the final judgment, we then see the new reality:  the true and full expression of everlasting life.  In an interesting use of words, we see the New Heaven and the New earth “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away”.

You heard Revelation read.  This particular chapter is the culmination of John’s vision, but also is the ending of Holy Scripture, with only a brief epilogue following these delightful words.

Our third goal today is to offer a few observations from the new heavens and the new earth.

·       Heaven is “seen” by John.  It isn’t just spiritual.  It isn’t just mental.  It exists.

·       The absence of the sea in the new heavens seems to imply that all which separates will not be part of that great day.

·       Heaven comes to earth.  God dwells on earth with his people.   Most people miss this.

·       The future is brilliant—literally.  We won’t need natural light.

·       Heaven is built upon human history:  The 12 tribes and Apostles are given special place on that day.

·       The most valued elements of earth are but things used for walls and streets and entry ways.  We walk on the gold, histories most sought after element.

·       Nations still exist in this vision, only, existing for their true intent of blessing others and God.

·       Heaven has the river, trees, fruits, leaves.  Creation isn’t something to be forgotten.  It is good and will endure because God made it.

·       There is the perfect balance of city and creation in the vision

·       There will be no more curse.  A quick side note:  I’ve heard from several people over the years about how, or why, would we want to live forever.  What will we do?  No more curse.  Think of all that you love, or will come to love, without any of the effects of sin. 

·       God’s presence will rule.

·       God’s servants will reign forever.  There is work to be done on that great day, freed from the power of sin, we will then do what God wants done.

The final part of today’s sermon is The call before us from heaven.

Revelation invites us to thirst for God, now.  We are called to overcome evil, now.  We are to move away from all that leads to the second death, the death of the spirit, now.  In doing so, we see little glimpses and have brief moments of heaven on earth.  We come to taste and feel and see the real future.  Paul writes:  Now we see dimly, then we shall see face to face.

In closing, a quote from G.C. Berkouwer, from his book The Return of Christ

“The new earth is never a strange and futuristic fantasy, but a mystery that penetrates into this existence and will make itself manifest there, where steadfast love and faithfulness meet, where peace and righteousness kiss each other, and where the lines that seem blurred to us now will come clearly into focus.”

In other words, To be determined, but with early results in, the future looks, and is, good!

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