I’ve been in pastoral ministry for over 22 years and this past Sunday I preached my first sermon on heaven. I’ve mentioned heaven countless times in sermons through the years (how could any pastor not?), but I’ve never preached a sermon that focused on the topic heaven. I suppose the closest I’ve come has been at funerals, especially if I was using John 14 as a primary text. You remember John 14?
1 “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.”
Yeah, that makes a pretty good text for funerals, which is about the only time we give any serious consideration to the idea of heaven. I suppose that’s why I’ve never preached an entire sermon on heaven. Heaven’s close association with death doesn’t make for much good Sunday morning sermon fodder.
A couple of years ago, several authors came out with books about heaven. Randy Alcorn had one entitled Heaven. Don Piper did one a little older entitled 90 Minutes in Heaven, and still another that became a New York Times bestseller was Heaven is for Real: A Little Boys Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo. And, of course, Max Lucado has now weighed in with Beyond Heaven’s Doors, which is an adaptation of an earlier book of his re-marketed for renewed sales effect (nothing like a little consumer Christianity, huh?).
I didn’t get too much into the description of heaven, even though the Apostle John gives us a pretty good one in Revelation 21:
10 So he took me in the Spirit[b] to a great, high mountain, and he showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God. 11 It shone with the glory of God and sparkled like a precious stone—like jasper as clear as crystal. 12 The city wall was broad and high, with twelve gates guarded by twelve angels. And the names of the twelve tribes of Israel were written on the gates. 13 There were three gates on each side—east, north, south, and west. 14 The wall of the city had twelve foundation stones, and on them were written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15 The angel who talked to me held in his hand a gold measuring stick to measure the city, its gates, and its wall. 16 When he measured it, he found it was a square, as wide as it was long. In fact, its length and width and height were each 1,400 miles.[c] 17 Then he measured the walls and found them to be 216 feet thick[d] (according to the human standard used by the angel).
18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city was pure gold, as clear as glass. 19 The wall of the city was built on foundation stones inlaid with twelve precious stones:[e] the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst.
21 The twelve gates were made of pearls—each gate from a single pearl! And the main street was pure gold, as clear as glass.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. 24 The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. 25 Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there. 26 And all the nations will bring their glory and honor into the city.
John gives us an image in our mind, but still our minds can’t comprehend it. We can only imagine…like the song says, but imagining it makes it no less real, and imagining it brings us hope. Really, though, me trying to explain what heaven looks like is like me trying to explain how beautiful Ireland is. As much as I long to go there, I’ve never been there. I’ve seen postcards. I’ve watched documentaries, and I’ve even been to Enoch’s Irish Pub (it’s the 2-for-1 burgers!), but I’ve yet to set foot on the pristine green shores of the Emerald Isle. I think I know how beautiful Ireland is, but as I begin to tell others, I can only tell them how beautiful I believe it is. I hope to go there one day, but until I do, I just can’t know.
Of course, then there’s the whole understanding Revelation thing, and what did John mean when he wrote it. What does all the symbolism mean, and if beasts and candlesticks and dragons was symbolic language, is the language of Revelation 21 symbolic, too? It can become very confusing, indeed! It doesn’t make us wonder any less, but it can be all quite confusing.
So what if John can be confusing. That fact doesn’t change my mind that I believe heaven is real. I believe heaven is real for two reasons. Number one, I long for heaven. A few years ago, Billy Joel wrote a song entitled River of Dreams.
In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the jungle of doubt
To a river so deep
I know I’m searching for something
Something so undefined
That it can only be seen
By the eyes of the blind
In the middle of the night
I’m not sure about a life after this
God knows I’ve never been a spiritual man
Baptized by the fire, I wade into the river
That runs to the promised land
Billy Joel can say he’s not a spiritual man, but he really is. His words give him away. He longs to know what’s on the other side of death. He longs for it because he was created to long for it. We all are. We’re all searching for that life everlasting, for heaven. It’s written into our hearts, our minds, and our very souls by God himself. That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes said in 3:11—God has placed eternity into our hearts. Eternity is written within us. It is a broken and fallen world that causes us to doubt. The longing is just one way I know heaven is real.
Another way I know heaven is real is because I believe in God, and ultimately that’s what heaven is…it is the place where God resides. It is the place where God’s presence gives light and life to everything. More than being the place God resides, everlasting life (can’t talk about everlasting life without talking about heaven) is God’s life, and it is both quantity and quality. I heard the story of the old couple who died and went to heaven. St. Peter was there to greet them. First, he showed them their mansion. The man, overwhelmed by the sheer luxury of it all, asked, “How much does this place cost per night?” St. Peter replied, “Sir, this is Heaven, it doesn’t cost anything.” Then St. Peter took them to the dining room where table upon table was piled high with the most delicious foods you could imagine. Again, overwhelmed by the glory of it all the man asked, “How much for the meals?” St. Peter said, “You forget, this is Heaven, it’s free.” He then took them out back where they saw a fantastically beautiful golf course. As the man stood there open-mouthed St. Peter said, “Now before you ask, there are no greens fees, this is Heaven, everything is free.” The man looked at his wife and said, “You and your confounded bran muffins, I could have been here 10 years ago!”
There is a sense in which we should hasten the day, but we don’t have to do so. We have access to God’s life now through our relationship with Jesus Christ. We get a taste of heaven now. Every time we baptize an infant or an adult, we’re catching a glimpse of heaven. Every time we kneel at an altar and receive the bread and cup, we are literally breaking off a piece of heaven in the here and now. When we do, we find strength to keep moving. We find grace to hold on. We find forgiveness, and mercy, and peace. We find hope, and that’s heaven on earth for sure.
History is moving toward something. Heaven is the place and the time when God’s salvation is ultimately completed. Heaven is about God’s work of salvation in God’s creation. It is the culmination of God’s salvation. All that God has been doing in his creation since the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden is restored, renewed and reconciled in the new heaven and the new earth. The bible begins with Genesis, and God, the Father, Maker of heaven and earth, and it ends with the restoration and renewal of all that has been broken. We end with heaven.
Just a few thoughts from Sunday. Just a few thoughts from my first ever sermon on heaven.
Until next time, keep looking up…