Longing for Heaven
by Jack Wald | June 30th, 2013

Various texts

You are all going to die.

Why does it come as such a shock that I would say this? Is it because it is not true? Is it inappropriate to point this out?

Saint Benedict, who founded the Catholic order of Benedictines, had 73 rules for his monks and rule 47 was: “To keep death before one’s eyes daily.”

This was not difficult to do in the 6th century when life expectancy in Europe was 30-40 years old. Because of infections and complications giving birth, there was high infant morality and an estimated one out of one hundred births caused the death of the mother. This did not change significantly until the 19th century.

Life expectancy today is more than double what it was two hundred years ago. The rate of women who die giving birth has been reduced in the west to about .01 births per hundred and this is still considered far too high. The advance of medical technology and understanding is truly amazing and will only be more amazing in the future.

What this means is that we enter a hospital expecting to be made well. In Paris in the mid 1800s, in what was considered to be the best medical facility in the Western world, 2/3 of the patients who were operated on died from infections because doctors did not know about germs. People went into a hospital with an expectation that they might die. Women who were pregnant approached birth with fear and apprehension because of the 1 in 100 chance they might die. It is only recently that the Church of England prayer book removed the service for the ‘churching of women who had recently given birth’ which starts by giving thanks to God for: ‘The safe deliverance and preservation from the great dangers of childbirth.’

This advancement in medical skill is wonderful news, but there is a downside to it. Because medicine is so skilled at preserving life, we have an expectation that death can be avoided. We deny the reality of death that causes us to reflect on what will happen to us after we die.

I talked last week about loving this world. We live in a wonderfully beautiful world and this is a gift of God for which we need to be thankful.

I was fully expecting someone to come up to me last week and ask why I was talking about loving the world when the Bible tells us we are not to love the world. To cover myself I had put 1 John 2:15 as the verse just under the date in the bulletin.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

What John means is that our love of the Father needs to be our first priority, far more important than our appreciation of the world. When we long for the things of this world, we put them on the altar and worship them, making them at least as important to us as God. But remember the first of the ten commandments? (Exodus 20:2–3)
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

God does not tolerate false worship.

What I mean is expressed in my Facebook account when I say that I’m doing my best to keep the balance between enjoying the pleasures of this life and longing for eternity.

We are to love this world but long for heaven. We are to appreciate this world and give thanks to God for this great gift, but we need to know that this world and all that is in it will pass away. For this reason we need to put our hope and our longing in the eternal existence that is in front of us. Why should we hope for or long for what will not last?

This is reflected in the famous Jim Elliot quote: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

It is also creatively expressed in a John Ortberg book titled, When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box. You can play Monopoly and end up with all the properties, all the houses, all the hotels, all the money, but then the game is over and everything goes back in the box. You can be immensely successful in life with large bank accounts and many properties, lots of prestige and acclaim. You can have your walls lined with pictures of yourself standing next to famous people, but then what? You have a heart attack in Italy at the age of 51, they take you back to the US and bury you in a box in the ground. What is next?

Death is the reality we need to live with. It is easier to be aware of this when you are 60 or 70 or 80. It is much more difficult to be aware of this if you are a teenager or in your twenties or thirties. It is for this reason that Benedict made rule 47. The teenage monks as well as the old age monks were reminded each day that they would die.

In my fourteen years as pastor of RIC, there have been only six people in our church who have died. Oti Kingsley and Richard Owusu were young students, Nancy Slaoui’s brother Tom was in his 30s, Ken Odduyo was in his 30s. Eckart Diehl was in his 50s, Noreen Maxwell was 94. Death is no respecter of age.

So young or old, it is spiritually beneficial for us to remind ourselves that we will die because this then prompts us to ask the next question: What will happen to me then?

My mother died confident that there would be nothing after death. She would simply cease to exist. But that is not what Jesus taught. Jesus was very clear about the reality of eternal life after this life and he was very clear that there are two possible destinations for each one of us, heaven or hell.

In fact Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else in the New Testament. In the parables he told, the conclusion of the parable of the tares is typical. (Matthew 13:40–43)
40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In his teaching in Mark 9:43–48 Jesus could not be more clear about the eternal effect of decisions we make.
43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where
“ ‘their worm does not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’

And in Revelation 20:11–15 John speaks about the vision Jesus gave him of what lies in our future:
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Hell was a reality for Jesus, not an abstract theological concept, and the same is true for heaven.  Immediately following John’s vision of hell comes this familiar description of heaven: (Revelation 21:1–4)
Then 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. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And 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. 4 He 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.”

Jesus told parable after parable about the kingdom of God and our eternal destination: the parables of the sower, the hidden treasure, the great pearl, the growing seed, the mustard seed, leaven. He told the parable of the ten virgins, the faithful servant, the great banquet, the rich fool, the tares in the field, the net, the sheep and the goats.

Jesus knew his time on earth was limited. He knew that each one of us will die and face judgment. Jesus knew where his true home was and he wanted each person he met to escape the misery of eternal hell and come into his kingdom.

We may not think very often about heaven and hell, but Jesus did. We would do well to follow his example.

My purpose this morning is not to talk about what heaven and hell will be like. If you are interested you can go to our church website where you can read sermons on heaven and hell I preached in August 2009. (Rescued from Eternal Misery  Made for a Person and a Place) What is very clear from the teaching of the Bible is that it is in your best interest to avoid hell and seek to spend eternity in heaven.

This morning I want to focus on the difference it makes to our lives when we are conscious that we will die and that following our physical death, there will be a judgment to eternal heaven or eternal hell.  Let me share two ways it makes a difference.

Difference #1 is that as followers of Jesus, we know the suffering and difficulty of this life will not last forever.

Last week I showed a video of scenes of beauty from the plains of Africa. One of my favorite scenes is the giraffes running. There is a poetry in their motion that is so beautiful. We saw elephants and rhinos, flamingos and ostriches. But we also saw, toward the end, the beauty and grace of a cheetah chasing a gazelle and killing it. This was a bit jarring to watch. It was beautiful but sad. Should I have stopped the video before that scene? I thought about it but decided not to cut that scene out. Let me tell you why I included it.

Last week I referred to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: (Matthew 6:25–34)
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

How deeply did Jesus think about this analogy? If I sit in a field and watch the birds, I can see them soaring, seemingly playing in the wind, taking twigs to a nest, feeding their young. But I can also see a hawk come soaring down and grabbing a bird in its talons. It happens so fast all that can be seen is a splash of feathers as the hawk makes its kill. Snakes and rodents eat the eggs in a nest. If a cat gets lucky it is able to catch a bird on the ground.

We live in a world of beauty but it is also a world of suffering. Hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and floods, earthquakes and forest fires all cause suffering and death. Accidents and illness cause millions to die each year. Evil lurks in the world as the powerful prey on the weak. Rulers hold on to power at the expense of the people they rule. Robbers seek victims. Sexual predators are on the lookout for opportunities.

My life is really quite wonderful and I have nothing to really complain about. But all around me I see people I care about who are struggling in one way or another. When I watch or read the news, I get depressed. The world is not becoming more enlightened with time. WWI and WWII did not end war. North Korea, Central Africa Republic, Congo Kinshasa, Syria – just the mention of these countries creates sadness for the people suffering in these nations. Fascism did not die out in WWII. Sin recreates itself in each generation and with more powerful tools than earlier generations, more damage can be done.

I tell people I am optimistic about the kingdom of God and pessimistic about the kingdom on earth. I am convinced that the day Jesus returns to call an end to this world, there will be robberies, murders, and perhaps someone will be starting a war.

Annie and I learned a bit about Irish history when we were in Ireland last month and when we returned we watched a movie, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, that deals with the Irish Revolution and Civil War, 1919-1923. It is not a pleasant movie and ends with one brother ordering a firing squad to kill his younger brother.

I went to bed afterwards and the tragedy of the movie kept running through my head. The younger brother who was killed at the end was heading off to England to study medicine when the revolution broke out. He got swept up in the events of that revolution and lost his career, his wife, the potential of a family. It was so tragic and what kept running through my mind as I considered his life was this teaching of Jesus:
Consider the lilies of the field. Consider the birds, Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

There seemed to me to be so much power in those words. The birds feed and are fed upon. The lilies come up, get cut down, die in a drought, come up again in the spring. This is the course of life. But Jesus says, “Don’t worry. Consider the lilies of the field. Consider the birds. I am here with you.”

Jesus does not promise us an easy life, a life without trouble, without difficulty. Illness, conflict in relationships, injustice in the world, death, all this we will have to deal with. But Jesus promises to be present with us and to take us into his eternal home after we die our physical death.

We sit in the midst of difficulty and wonder how we can go on. But Jesus is present with us, grieving with us over the difficulties we face. He sits with us as we struggle and tells us we are much loved, we are safe, and after we suffer for a little while, he will take us safely into his kingdom.

The success of my life is not defined by how long or how well I live in this world but by holding on to Jesus through all the events of life and never letting go.

This was what helped Paul persevere through all the suffering in his life. (Philippians 3:13-14)
Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus: (Hebrews 12:2–3)
for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame,

Because Jesus knew where he was going, he was able to walk toward Jerusalem and his arrest, torture, crucifixion, and death.

We know this world and hope for heaven. Jesus knows this world and the reality of the delights of heaven. Jesus wants us to hang on because:
Heaven is a wonderful place,
filled with God’s glory and grace.
I’m gonna see my Savior’s face
cause heaven is a wonderful place.

Living with an awareness of the future reality of heaven and hell makes a difference because as followers of Jesus, we know the suffering and difficulty of this life will not last forever.
A second difference is that knowing who we are and where we are going strengthens us against the attacks of the world.

I have a good friend, Uchenna Anyanwu, who was unjustly deported from this country in June 2010 and is now thriving, along with his wife and two sons, in the US where he is studying at the seminary I attended and where I am working on my doctorate. A few years ago Uchenna experienced the racism many Africans face from Moroccans. He got on the bus and sat down next to a Moroccan man. The man looked at him with disgust, got up and sat down in another seat.

How do you handle such an insulting situation. This Moroccan did not like his skin color, his smell, his facial features. This is a highly personal, offensive, degrading insult and yet as Uchenna told me about his experience, this is what he said. “I smiled because I realized that if this man knew what I had to offer him, he would have gotten on his knees and begged me to share words of life with him.”

Because Uchenna knew who he was, he was protected from the emotional pain of the insult.

The world insistently tells us we are not good enough. We are not beautiful enough, we are not strong enough, we are not tall enough, we are not thin enough, we are not fast enough, we are not smart enough – and how are we to protect ourselves from these attacks?

In a loving family, young children are princesses and princes in their homes and they carry a bright confidence from being loved and cared for. But then comes the day when they head out to school and discover the pain of the world. Cliques are formed and young children are very aware of who is in and who is out. Your little princess wonders why she is not included in a group of girls. Your little prince is pushed away from the swing by a stronger child and stands there, puzzled at this cruel behavior. It is very difficult as a parent to allow your child to head out and face the world without you there to protect him or her.

It is a parent’s responsibility to fight for their children against the world that is trying to beat them down. Parents have to stand up against the world and remind their children about who they are, how special they are.

This past week I sent out a piece written by Walter Wangerin. Let me read a bit of it:
Let the children laugh and be glad.
O my dear, they haven’t long before the world assaults them. Allow them genuine laughter now. Laugh with them, till tears run down your faces – till a memory of pure delight and precious relationship is established within them, indestructible, personal, and forever.
Soon enough they’ll meet faces unreasonably enraged. Soon enough they’ll be accused of things they did not do. Soon enough they will suffer guilt at the hands of powerful people who can’t accept their own guilt and who must dump it, therefore, on the weak. In that day the children must be strengthened by self-confidence so they can resist the criticism of fools. But self-confidence begins in the experience of childhood.

And it is we who must give to the children – by lovely laughter, by laughter utterly free, and by the sheer joy from which such laughter springs – the lasting memory: You are, you are, your are, my child a marvelous work of God!

This is our protection. I am beautiful in God’s eyes. He loves me. He thinks I am wonderful. He values me so much he was willing to die for me. He so much wants me to be included in his eternal kingdom that he pursued me and continues to pursue me so that I will say, “Yes,” to his invitation.

If you don’t get the job you want or the promotion you deserve, you are still a daughter of God and have no reason to be ashamed. If you are rejected in some relationship, you will never suffer rejection from the one who loves you more than any other person in the world. If you fail an exam, your life is not over. If you have difficulty finding work, you are still a son of God.

So, much loved daughters and sons of God, cling to Jesus. Learn how much he loves you. Allow him to be the most important person in your life so your self-image will be defined by his love. When you accept the hand of Jesus who saves you, you begin your eternal life. Your physical death will be no more than a bump in the road. You are already on your way and as long as you hold on to Jesus, the world will be unable to harm you.