Friday, September 9, 2005

heaven (a sermon)

Look deep into your heart and ask yourself: “What do I really want? If I could have anything, what would it be? What are my heart’s desires?”

If you were to answer those questions seriously, you would discover that many of your desires have multiple layers. For instance, you could begin an exploration of desire by stating “I really want a house on the beach.” Then, I could ask you: “But what is it about ‘a house on the beach’ that is so appealing to you? What forms the basis of that desire?” In answering that question, we would penetrate further to the heart of the matter. With further questioning and exploration, we would discover some very fascinating things about desire itself.

Have you ever wondered where desire comes from?

In the Bible’s record of humanity’s beginning it is stated that we were made in God’s image. There are many implications to that simple truth. One is that we bear the imprint of His desire. We long for more than what is because God longs for it, too. We desire because God desires and he wants us to desire.

In this light, I find it ironic that Friedrich Nietzsche could declare “God is dead” while grounding his philosophy in the concept of beauty. If I had met him, I would have been interested to hear how he would explain where the beauty of desire comes from. Sigmund Freud said the desire for heaven and God comes from mere wishful thinking. There is nothing outside this world for which we need to desire. So, the sooner we come to grips with the fact that we are here on this planet alone and that there is nothing awaiting us beyond the grave, the better.

Christians, on the other hand, say the reason we desire something more than this life is because God implanted that desire in our hearts. In fact, C.S. Lewis argues that the very presence of desire is a strong indicator that God exists and that there is such a thing as eternity. He writes: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food…If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” There’s a reason we desire. That reason is God.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 puts it this way: “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” This too is a simple statement with big implications. Think about it: this is why, throughout the entire course of history, humans everywhere have had longings for something that is yet to come. Intuitively, the human race knows there is something more than this life has to offer; there is something beyond the grave. God has set eternity in our hearts. That’s why we long for something lasting. Something only God can give to us.

So, listen to this carefully: heaven is the only place where our deepest God-given desires can be satisfied. Only in heaven can you put to rest the longest aches of your heart.

Now, you may have wondered when you saw the title Heaven, “Why on earth would someone even bother looking at the topic of heaven? Doesn’t that seem a bit academic, akin to discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” This is to say: it's worth talking about eternity because eternity is the point of life. This life is not the end. There is more to come. For those who follow the God who invented desire, there is the fulfillment of desire in heaven. So, this is a message of hope for the hopeless. That’s why it's worth talking about this.

You know, eternity is more than simply the end of time. It is, in fact, the “end” of time. What I mean is this: When we watch a movie, we say we have come to its end when the movie is completed. But we could also ask, “To what end was that movie written?” In other words: “For what purpose was it filmed?” For example, after watching the movie Schindler’s List we could say it was filmed for the purpose of lauding heroism. In the same way, before we reach the end of our cosmic drama, we could inquire as to its “end”. If we were to ask that, we would be asking “For what purpose did we live? Why are we here?”

Jesus answered that with these words: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This tells us two very important things: the end of life is eternity, and the end of eternity is Jesus. We were meant to enjoy a love relationship with the Maker of the universe for eternity. That’s why God made us and that’s why God planted in our hearts a desire that could only be filled by him.

This is why Augustine writes: “You have made us for yourself, O God; and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Some things can only be filled by God. Some cares can only be laid to rest in heaven. We were made for another world. We were made for another person.

That’s why heaven matters. Now let’s look at what heaven is. Based on what the Bible tells us about the “end” of our existence, we learn some life-changing truths about heaven. The philosopher Peter Kreeft sums up these truths in a strange, but memorable concept: Heaven is God’s present that is presently present. I’ll unpack this sentence backwards, if you don’t mind.

First of all, heaven is present. In other words, it is here. It is near. You know, we tend to think of heaven as another place. But, biblically speaking, living in heaven is defined primarily as living in God’s presence. This is why, in the book of Revelation, when the final heavenly scene is described by John, he begins his description with these words: “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.” Biblically speaking, to be in God’s presence is to be in heaven.

With that truth in mind, it makes sense that when Jesus came He was able to say without hesitation: “The kingdom of heaven has come.” Why? Because, in the person of Jesus Christ, God became present to humanity like never before. If God is present and heaven is God’s presence, then heaven is present.

This idea that heaven is present is borne out in another way. It is related to the Judeo-Christian concept that God is omnipresent. This is a word we don’t use in our everyday language, but it is crucial to understanding the essence of the Christian faith, so I’d like to explore it a little bit. Let’s describe it through some simple comparisons. Sometimes you can better understand something through describing what that thing is not. In this case, we could try to understand God’s omnipresence by comparing it to the Hindu concept of God: pantheism.

Pantheism says “God is everything.” God is not, in this sense, a person outside of ourselves whom we come to know. This way of looking at God emphasizes his immanence. That is to say: God is close. In fact, God is so close that God is you and you are God. God is everything and everything is God. The Hindu concept of heaven, therefore, flows from this. Heaven, to the Hindu, is a place where we become rid of the faulty idea that God is something other than us. The Hindu heaven is a place where we become absorbed into God. It is a place where self no longer exists. But, the Christian view of heaven tells us: “Far from losing yourself in heaven, you will find yourself. In heaven you will be more you than you have ever been.” This is because the Christian concept of God distinguishes between God and the world, between Creator and Creation. It is only as we are able to stand in relation to (and distinguish ourselves from) our Maker that we discover who we truly are. So, there is an otherness to God. In other words, God is transcendent.

Now, the Muslim faith presents us with a good example of God as a transcendent being. In Islam, Allah is in heaven and humans are on earth. While Allah may send prophets to earth, he would certainly never come to earth himself. This transcendent view of God spurs many Muslims to diligence in their faith, since God is so far above us he is surely worthy of pursuit. Yet, even while some Muslims become more devout because of this, others simply resign themselves to profound spiritual uncertainty, futility and existential loneliness. Ask a Muslim if they are sure they would go to heaven when they die and they can only tell you, “I don’t know.” This is because God is so far above us we can never be sure of obtaining the unobtainable. The Christian, however, says: “None of us can reach God; that’s why God reached for us in Jesus Christ. Yes, God is transcendent. But he is also imminent. He is near. He actually wants us to know Him and He has moved heaven and earth in the person of Jesus Christ to make intimate knowledge of him possible.”

Yet, there is another side to God’s transcendent immanence. Even before Jesus Christ lived, God was transcendently imminent. This is because God is present everywhere. God is not everything, as Hinduism suggests, but God is everywhere. The Psalmist declares this when he says, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

How is this possible? While the concept of God’s omnipresence can never be fully understood, we can understand it slightly better through the use of an analogy.

Suppose my wife Heather was pregnant right now. (No, this is not an announcement!). Now, imagine you are inside Heather. Imagine you are the fetus. Where are you? In the womb, obviously, but where else are you? Aren’t you also in the world? Yes. In a very real sense, unborn children live in two places at once. To a fetus, the womb is the space with which it is most familiar. The womb is its world. In fact, the fetus is not even aware that there is another world that is “out there somewhere” (and it certainly isn’t aware that that world is literally surrounding it and defining its very existence!).

Now let me ask you: if you were a fetus inside Heather’s womb right now, would it be wise to declare that you are Heather? No. Heather is who she is and you are who you are. Another question: is Heather unreachable? No. She is all around you. So, at this point in your existence is there anywhere you can go where you can hide from Heather? No. In fact, were you to do so, you might make Heather sick from jostling about. But you would never be able to get away from her. She is not you, but she defines you, in a very real sense.

This is to say: “Earth is heaven’s womb” (that quote is taken from Kreeft in his book Heaven). Christianity declares that God is the creator of everything. Therefore, nothing exists outside of God. God set in space the boundaries of our universe, so God is bigger than everything. Notice, everything is not God, but everything is in God. God is both transcendent and imminent. He is not us and we are not him but he is all around us, like the baby in its mother’s womb.

Now, lest you think this image is too far-fetched you should know that the Bible employs this analogy in Romans 8 when it says: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed…” (that day when we will be born to a different life, therefore…) “…We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” Peter Kreeft puts it this way, “History is cosmic pregnancy.”

Like a fetus, we are not presently living in the world we were made for, yet we are. To be sure, there is a painful birth ahead of us, yet through that pain there is life. We are waiting to be born, to know God (our maker) in ways we have never experienced before. We are waiting to become ourselves.

Heaven is present. It is here. But this also means that heaven is present. It is now. That’s part 2 of our description of heaven. Christians often make the error of assuming heaven is something that merely awaits us in the future. When we think of eternal life, we think of it as something that comes to us after we die and not while we are still living. But this way of thinking about heaven ignores the very nature of eternity. As humans, we tend to think of eternity as if it is simply time’s largest collection of years. In this light, eternity is time’s collection. But, actually, time is part of eternity’s collection.

Think of it this way: We could take two points and make a line. That would be one dimension. Then, we could add a third point and form a plane and that would be two dimensions. Now, let me ask you: is the line part of the plane? Yes. Okay, let’s take it a step further. I could take two or more planes and form two walls or even, a house. Now we have three dimensions. Okay, let’s add a fourth dimension: time. Is the house part of time? Yes.

This is to say: think of time as a fourth dimension in a world with five dimensions. That fifth dimension is eternity. And God, the eternal one, lives beyond time. In that sense, he encompasses all of time in the same way that a house encompasses a plane or a plane encompasses a line. Every part of time is part of God at all times.

This is why God can say to those who believe in Him now that they are perfect even though we are not perfect now. Think of it this way: Suppose I could live simultaneously in the year 2022 and 2005. Now suppose I saw that my son Nicolas would win an Olympic medal when he was 22. Would it not be true for me to declare now, when Nic is just 5, that he is a world-class athlete, even though he can’t pour himself a glass of milk without spilling it yet? God sees us as clean because, to Him, we are clean. God sees us as He wants us to be and as we will be, not simply as we are now. That means that God sees us this way not because love is blind, but rather because love sees more clearly. This means that eternal life is not something for which we need to wait. We can experience it in the here and now.

That, to me, is a gift. And that’s the third side of heaven. Heaven is here. It is present. Heaven is now. It is present, not merely future. And heaven is a gift. It is a present. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is comforting to me because it tells me a couple important truths:

1. Since eternity belongs to God, only God can give eternity to me. This is a relief since it reminds me that I don’t have to work hard to earn it. Remember: eternity is a gift, not a reward. Rewards are earned, gifts are given. That’s a comfort to me.

2. But, there’s another side to this: a gift must be received. God is a gentleman. When he offers a ring, he does not force us to accept his marriage proposal. If his proposal were compulsory it would cease to be a gift. Gifts are freely given, and they must be freely received.

Now, you can see that God is doing everything in His power to tempt us to heaven, to accept the gift of eternity. He has implanted a desire in our hearts that can only be filled by Him. He has created a world in which He can be known and in which He is imminently available to us. He was there when we were born, He is here with us now, and He will even be there in the future, since He lives in a dimension that is beyond time. With all of that effort on God’s part, there’s just one thing He asks us to do: receive His gift, the gift of Himself to us.

Sadly, some people refuse this gift. This is to say: “the only thing outside heaven is hell.” To be in heaven is to be in God’s presence. To be separated from God is to be in hell. Yes, there is such a place, but we don’t wind up there in the way you have been told. If you’re like me, you’ve been told that at the end of time all of humanity will stand before God’s throne and God, without so much as a sneeze, will choose some for eternal life and some for eternal fire.

Now, while the Bible does refer to God’s throne of judgment, and while Jesus does use the image of fire to describe hell, there is something that should be clarified about heaven and hell. God offers heaven to everyone. In fact, if it were up to God, he would choose heaven for everyone. But it is not only up to God, it is also up to us to accept His gift.

That gift is heaven. Now, heaven, by its very nature, is God’s country. In fact, God defines heaven. And since God is only good, heaven is only good. There is no such thing as a heaven with sin. To be in God’s presence is to be separate from sin; and to be in sin’s presence is to be separate from God. There are no other ways about it.

Now, God sent Jesus to forgive our sin so that sin’s grip would be loosed from us and our grip would be loosed from sin. God did this because God did not create us for sin. He created us for Himself. He created us for life. But, though God went to all those lengths to release us from sin by forgiving us, we need to accept that gift. Unfortunately, some of us don’t accept that gift. We leave this world, kicking and screaming and clutching at sin’s heels as if evil and darkness are what define us. When we hold on to sin, when we refuse liberation from sin through the forgiveness of Christ, we choose hell. Notice, God does not choose hell; we choose it.

So, in a very real sense, we work ourselves into hell. That’s why the first half of Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death…” The word "wages" connotes the idea of work, of labor.

And that’s why hell is referred to as a place where one may never rest. If work is our choice, work is what we’ll get. So, in a very real sense, we choose hell. C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God: ‘Thy will be done’, and those to whom God says in the end: ‘Thy will be done.’” Remember, though it pains God to do so, he will allow us to make our own choices. So, if work is our choice, work is what we’ll get.

But God wants us to enter into His eternal rest, which is unlike any rest you’ve ever experienced before. See, rest on earth quickly becomes boring. So, we punctuate the boredom with work. But work becomes frustrating, so we punctuate the frustration with rest. And around and around we go, working and resting, but never really working and resting. But in heaven we will neither simply rest, nor will we simply work: we will play. That’s because play is restful activity. And play is what we will do for eternity.

No comments: