Something Better Than Heaven

A friend of mine asked me to preach for him last week while he was away on vacation. This is the rough draft of my sermon, which more or less follows what I actually wound up saying when I got there.

I’m going to depart from my normal preaching style this morning. That’s probably okay with you, because you don’t know what my normal preaching style is. Well, I’ll tell you. What I normally do is start with a reading from the Bible and spend the rest of the time in a sort of extended study and explanation of that passage, sticking closely to the text all the way through. One of the nice things about that kind of preaching is that no one ever asks “where is he going with this?” If they do ask, the answer is “I’m not going anywhere—we’re hanging out in this text all morning, just going deeper and deeper into it.”

That’s how I normally preach, but that isn’t how I’m preaching this morning. And I’ll tell you up front why I’m not. The first reason is that there are several passages I want to discuss, not just one. I want to give us a big picture of a Biblical teaching. My normal preaching is kind of like an architectural blueprint, with lots of notes that show how the planks and railings of a passage fit together. What I’m aiming for this morning is more like a water painting of a landscape. I’d like to leave you not with all the details worked out, but with a big picture that you can carry with you. The second reason I’m leaving my normal pattern is this: the passages that I really want to talk about are difficult for modern people to grasp right away. And that isn’t because the words are complex—they really aren’t. It’s because we have about an 1800 year history of reading them in a certain way that I’ve come to believe almost completely misses the point. Sometimes we read them the same way my daughter opens birthday presents. She’ll cut the ribbon and tear the paper off and then hold it up for everyone to see and say “Look! It’s a box!” You have to keep prodding her sometimes to get her to move past the box—which I admit is a wonderful and attractive thing—and get her to open up the present inside.

This morning, I want to try to get us to open up the box, but to get there we need to make some preparations. So let’s start someplace else. Let’s start with a Starbucks coffee cup.

Joel Stein is a writer for the Los Angeles times, and I think it’s fair to say that he had no idea when he first wrote those lines that they would eventually kick off such an enormous controversy.
World Net Daily conducted a survey asking its readers for responses to the coffee cup quote, and a near tie for first place among the 7600 responses:

27.64% said they will do their best to avoid buying anything at Starbucks in the future.
27.36% said it’s leftist garbage from a leftist company based in a leftist city.

Over at The Christian Courier, Wayne Jackson agreed, calling the cup “display of contemptible ignorance,” and asking his readers, “Why not put your money where your heart is, instead of into some humanistic-oriented corporation that has an agenda hostile to those who reverence the spiritual?”

You and are just barely getting to know each other. Right now, all you know about me is that I’m friends with Shane, and I don’t know whether you think that’s a good thing or not. So at this point I’m going to leap out in faith and make a confession.
Here’s my confession:

I think Mr. Stein has a point.

Try as I might, the popular images of heaven just don’t grab my imagination. Robes and harps, angel wings, lazy days among the fluffy clouds. That might be nice for an afternoon or even a few weeks. I’ll really stretch and say I could learn to like that for a year or two. But for all of eternity?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who’s ever had that thought, and I know what the approved response is: if you were just spiritual enough, you’d love the idea of heaven. Your problem is that you haven’t really cultivated the taste for worship and prayer. If you liked church better, you’d be excited about an eternity of praising God.

To quote Wayne Jackson:

The foregoing erroneous images of heaven are the result of….the lack of disciplinary training in things spiritual, in contrast to aggressive pursuits of the material. Many Christians truly do not fathom how they will be able to be happy in an environment where there is no golf, Monday Night Football, or shopping malls.
Quite frankly they find worship on earth dull—as obviously reflected in their patterns of church attendance. The thought of serving God continuously is a frightful nightmare to the “spiritually challenged.”

Now, that might be the right diagnosis for some people. I don’t know. But I’ve got to tell you, I don’t find worship dull—well, most of the time I don’t. And I’m a pretty faithful church goer. I read my Bible regularly, I sing and pray every night with my children, and I spend a fair amount of time meditating on the things of God. Sunday morning is my favorite time of the week. I love a good gospel meeting. I’m sure I have a ways to go, and it’s dangerous to deny your own weaknesses, but I don’t think my lack of excitement about heaven has to do with not being churchy enough. I’m pretty churchy.

Furthermore, I have no interest at all in either golf or shopping malls, and—while I realize this is a true heresy in these parts—I’m really not all that much of a football fan. I can give those things up with no hesitation at all.

And, of course, there are some things about the traditional picture of heaven that I just love. Really, really, love. No more death! Hallelujah! No more sickness! Amen. No more pain or sorrow! No more farewells! The hope of dwelling in the true presence of God the Father and the Lord Jesus—to be surrounded by the saints of all the years before. To walk with loved ones who have passed on before me. That’s a joy and a wonder.

Those things are so wonderful that it makes me a little embarrassed to admit that I find the harps and clouds and wings part pretty boring to contemplate. But I do. Not only do I understand where Joel Stein is coming from, I kind of resonate with this coffee cup, too:

And even though in the church we know we are supposed to long for heaven, it’s a challenge for some of us to work up much excitement. I think the problem is that there isn’t much that the Bible tells us about heaven; the little bit we do read is pretty vague and the incomplete picture that results just isn’t always enough to stir a person’s imagination.

What’s missing in that picture for me are things like surprise. Challenges. A sense of accomplishment. Worthy goals. And, to be honest, things like feeling wet beach sand pushing up between my toes. Pushing myself to hike up a mountain, feeling the blood pump and the muscles groan and respond. I’m going to miss things like learning and exploring. The feel of a handshake or a pat on the back. Can wispy souls shake hands in the clouds?
I’m going to miss building things.

There’s a lot about life on earth that I love.

And you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that the things I’m talking about are bad or frivolous things. Don’t the scriptures testify that those things sprang from the creative mind of God? As he made the things that fill our planet, didn’t he say over and over again “This is good! This is good! This is very good!” I agree with God! I like the Earth! I think he did a great job! It brought him pleasure to create and it brings me pleasure to receive it, and to join with him in the work of building and restoring. I like it—and I think I’m supposed to like it.
I guess what it boils down to is this: if the traditional picture of heaven that you and I grew up with is right—if the physical is stripped away and there is nothing left of me but a soul, there’s just a lot that I’m going to miss.

You know what I think I would really love? If I could have the good things about physical embodiment without the down sides. If I could have hugs but be done with heart attacks. If I could have exploration but be done with illness. If I could have challenges but no more losses. If God’s actual plan wasn’t to do away with the Earth, but to renew it and restore it—I would love that. No more spilled oil, no more litter, no more rubble. Just clear blue skies, soft green grass, pristine oceans. If his actual plan wasn’t to leave us as bodiless souls but to resurrect us into perfect, eternal bodies, real solid bodies that could never age or die, forever—wouldn’t take be marvel? What if we could have all the things we love most about the traditional picture of heaven, but at the same time hold on to all that we love best about life on Earth. Hugs and handshakes and swing sets and forest trails, with Jesus himself and all the people we love.

And what if I were to say to you that as near as I can tell, that’s exactly what the Bible promises, over and over?

1) The expectation of the disciples was that if Jesus came back, he was going to come back in a bodily form.

So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

2) Jesus is only the first of many who will be raised in a new body.

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27For he “has put everything under his feet.”[c] Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.
–1 Corinthians 15

This is much more than a promise that “my soul will live forever in heaven after I die.” The Biblical promise is that I will be back—changed, immortal, renewed, and restored, certainly, but me.

But it doesn’t end there.

3) God will restore and renew all of creation.

10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
11Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
–2 Peter 3

18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that[i] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved.
–Romans 8

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
— Revelation 21

Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. 21He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
Acts 3:17-21

Why we almost completely stopped talking about restoration, renewal and resurrection and shifted to hoping that our souls would wind up in heaven is a long and complex story, but I think the short version is that a cultural tendency to discount the importance of physical things led our spiritual forebears to assume that God couldn’t really be interested in renewing earth and reviving our bodies—that his actual goal must be rest for our souls. And so, in spite of an abundance of verses about resurrection, and shortage of verses about the hope of heaven, we began to preach and sing as though getting in to heaven is what Christianity is all about. But that was never meant to be where we placed our hope.

Our hope is that just as Christ was raised, we too shall be raised, to new life, on the new Earth, forever.

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