Revelation 21: 1 - 4, 15 - 27
Two weeks ago we began a series of messages on hope. In the first we talked about the power of memory. Our hope for the future depends upon our memory of the past. When we recall God's faithfulness through the ages we can face the future with hope. Last week, we talked about the power of music. Hope usually expresses itself best in song. Hope remembers, hope sings. This morning we're going to take the long view; hope waits. Specifically, hope waits for heaven.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Heaven. A little boy and his mother were walking along the beach one day when they happened upon a dead seagull. “What happened to the bird mommy?” the little boy asked. The mom wanting to soften the harsh reality of death said “well Honey, that little bird got real sick so God allowed it to die and go to heaven.” The boy thought about that for a moment and said, “So why did God throw him back down?”
The very word "heaven" is a powerful and persuasive word. It always has been for those who believe in such a place. In the late first century, Christians hid from their persecutors in the catacombs beneath the streets of Rome. Images of heaven are depicted on the walls -- banquet tables and playgrounds for children.
Early Christian descriptions of heaven were vivid and poetic and usually quite wrong. But they are interesting. For example, the third century Passion of Perpetua, records the visions of a young mother taken from her family and condemned to die because of her faith in Christ. " I saw a garden of immense extent, in the midst of which was sitting a white-haired man dressed as a shepherd; he was tall, and he was milking sheep. And he raised his head and looked at me and said, 'Welcome, child.' And he called me and gave me a mouthful of cheese from the sheep he was milking; and I took it in my hands and ate of it, and all those who were standing about said, 'Amen. '"
Now I'll admit that I'm not sure I'm ready to take up my cross daily for the hope of eating cheese while a bunch of people stand around ,and say "Amen." You know, if heaven ain't a lot like Dixie, Well you know the rest. Other, more thoughtful reflections of heaven are available, though.
The most satisfying, and I would argue, the most biblical descriptions from early Christianity come from Augustine. He envisioned not so much a place, but a condition in which each saved person retains his or her own unique personality, distinct from God and from each other. And yet in that state of being we enjoy God and we enjoy our fellow lovers of Christ forever. At the end of his classic work, The City of God, he writes that in heaven, "we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise."
I'd take up my cross daily for rest and sight and love. Augustine's speculations about heaven are rooted in Revelation 21. As we hear it today I would like for you not so much to focus on the imagery but on the relational conditions that characterize heaven. And I want you to remember that the physical imagery is just that; imagery. Heaven so defies description that John had to stretch his vocabulary to the breaking point.
Read Revelation 21:1-4, 15-27
John isn't telling us that heaven is built out of jewels or that the street is actually made of gold. This is his way of saying it's the most amazing place you can imagine. Now I understand that there are a lot of questions the Bible doesn't answer about the Hereafter. But I think one reason is it would be like a boy sitting down to a bowl of spinach when there's a chocolate cake at the end of the table. You know he's going to have a rough time eating that spinach when his eyes are on the cake. And if the Lord had explained everything to us about what's ours to come, I think we'd have a rough time with our spinach down here.
But the Bible does give us some clues, does a little to wet our appetites. So look with me at what we do know about what we will do in heaven?
First we are told that we will worship God. Most people think of it as a place of clouds, and harps and one long, eternal Sunday service. Can you imagine singing infinite verses of Just As I Am. To me that sounds a little BORING.
Now I know what it's like to be bored in church, I also remember when I was a little boy getting in trouble because I scooted down the pew from my parents and laid down and then crawled, twisted, squirmed, and banged my shoes against the pews. Instead of “behaving” and paying attention in church, I made a general distraction of myself. I have never done that again, on the outside, but on the inside, I have done it many times.
I have sat through over thirty-five years of church services, including services at a Christian college where I went to church twice on Sunday, once in the middle of the week, and to daily chapel services. I have been bored so many times in church that I would be a wealthy man if I had been paid an hourly wage for every hour I have been bored in church.
So I realize that it will not make heaven sound too appealing to some of us to say that the first thing we will do there is worship God, sitting on clouds picking listlessly at harp strings, bored to tears after a million years, trying to think of a new tune.
But, have you ever been in a terrific worship service, where everything was special and meaningful, for you and others? There were times at college, or a youth rally like Winterfest when hundreds of voices would gather to sing songs of praise with strong conviction and deep emotion. I have been to Youth and Family Minister Conferences where a thousand ministers and their wives have sung hymns, and it is deeply moving. I was not bored. The more people present, the more deeply they believe what they are singing, the more moving it is.
Now, transfer your thoughts to heaven. There are millions upon millions of voices. Each one is more beautiful than any voice on earth has ever been. The triune God is there. You are surrounded with beauty that makes Yosemite Valley look like a wall mural. All the people sing with deeper conviction and meaning than you have ever heard on earth.
We glimpse this in Revelation 5:12-13 where we see God on His throne and lightning and thunder flash and boom in the background. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing! Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever! You will not be bored.
In addition to worshiping, we will also have fellowship with God.
The apostle John wrote in 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” Imagine. We will see God face to face.
Who is the one person in the world you would most like to meet? A famous musician, a statesman, a king, a queen? The girl or boy next door? If you could meet that person, after longing for it so earnestly, your life would be complete for that moment. You would be satisfied for that one hour or day that you got to talk to Elvis or Darrell Royal or Queen Elizabeth or the apostle Paul or George Washington or Winston Churchill or your next door neighbor.
If you met that person, you would not be looking out the window or glancing at your watch. You would be, for that moment, complete, satisfied, totally occupied with that person. So it will be when we meet Jesus. We will be complete and satisfied in His presence, and it will not be temporary but forever.
Maybe you have heard the following poem: “To live above with saints we love, oh, that will be glory. To live below with saints we know, well, that's another story.” And so it is, fellowship down here is imperfect and often broken. But up there, it will be perfect and whole.
The apostle Paul urged us here on earth to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. In heaven, we will have unimpeded unity and fellowship with all the other members of the body of Christ.
Have you ever been in a quiet, intimate conversation and felt you were experiencing something special? Do you have special friends with whom intimate conversation is natural? Have you ever been among people rooting for an athletic team, or filling sandbags during a flood, or helping a family whose home had burned down? That sense of bonding with the people will be with us in heaven, and much, much more.
So where do hope and heaven connect? Colossians 1:3 - 5 answers that question. "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints -- the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven. "
If it is anything at all, heaven is God's warehouse of hope. So how does heaven help us hope? The most obvious answer to that question comes from the lips of people in intensive care waiting rooms and funeral home parlors. Heaven gives us hope that death is not the period at the end of our lives. At the most it's a semicolon. And maybe, only a comma.
It doesn't matter what you face, if you have the hope of heaven, you don't have to give in to fear. This is a good place to ask you about your own death. Will you survive it? Are you ready? Is your hope stored up in heaven and waiting for you? Or are you hoping somebody will find a cure for death? Somebody already did. His name is Jesus.
If you have a e-mail account I am sure you have heard the story of the lady who called her preacher to her home to discuss her funeral. As the story goes the woman told the minister, "When they bury me, I want my old Bible in one hand and a fork in the other". The minister was a bit shocked and asked her "Why do you want to be buried with a fork?"
"I have been thinking about all of the church dinners I attended through the years," she explained, "I couldn't begin to count them all. But one thing sticks in my mind, At those really nice get-togethers, when the meal was almost finished, a server would come by to collect the dirty dishes, lean over my shoulder and whisper, 'You can keep your fork.' And do you know what that meant? Dessert was coming! "It didn't mean a cup of Jell-O or pudding or even a dish of ice cream. You don't need a fork for that. It meant the good stuff, like chocolate cake or cherry pie! When they told me I could keep my fork, I knew the best was yet to come!
"That's exactly what I want people to talk about at my funeral. Oh, they can talk about all the good times we had together. That would be nice. But when they walk by my casket and look at my pretty blue dress, I want them to turn to one another and say, 'Why the fork'? That's what I want you to say, I want you to tell them, that I kept my fork because the best is yet to come!" Truly, for a child of God, the best is yet to come.
There's another way heaven helps us to hope. It provides the motivation necessary to live lives that honor God.
It makes the hard work of obedience bearable. The reward of heaven gives us the hope to do what God calls us to do and be what God calls us to be. Faced with the demands and sacrifices of obedience to God, we sometimes conclude it isn't worth it. Heaven begs us to reconsider. Still, we struggle with the temptations and distractions of life here.
A minister decided to pull a vacation surprise on his four children. "We're going to Junction City, Kansas," he told them. "It's where my dad was a preacher when I was a kid and we can have lots of fun there." His plan was actually to spend only one day in Junction City, then drive on to Disney where the real fun would begin.
Being young, his children bought the Junction City ruse and even bragged to their friends that they were going to vacation in Kansas. All during the drive, the preacher kept up morale by describing the wonders awaiting them; playgrounds, a swimming pool, an ice cream stand and maybe even a bowling alley.
After touring their grandfather's old church, the kids were ready to check into a motel and go swimming. That's when their dad dropped the bomb; "You know something," he said, "Kansas is boring. Why don't we just drive on to Disney!"
He expected the kids to jump up and down with joy. Instead, they complained. "But you promised a swimming pool! We want to go bowling." The big surprise had backfired. For the next several hours as they traveled, the father smoldered behind the wheel while the children expanded on all the advantages of Junction City over Disney.
C. S. Lewis wrote, "We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea."
The greater, more frequently imagined your vision of heaven, the more hopeful you become that obedience here means reward there. And the less distracted you are by the sham promises and empty offers of this world.
For his first sermon in an elementary preaching class at IBC, Lawrence, an African student chose to talk about heaven. "I've been in the United States for several months now," he said. "I've seen the great wealth that is here, the fine homes and cars and clothes. I've listened to many sermons in churches here, too. But I've yet to hear one sermon about heaven. Because everyone has so much in this country, no one preaches about heaven. People here don't seem to need it. In my country most people have very little. So we preach about heaven all the time. We know how much we need it.
If we rarely talk of heaven, we impoverish our faith. And we diminish our hope. Heaven and hope are synonymous. The hope of heaven helps us face the specter of death with confidence. It helps us confront and reject the temptations and distractions of earth.
Questions To Consider
How has heaven made its way into our culture? Think of songs, movies, products, etc.
What are some ways that heaven is viewed today by the people around you?
How do these views of heaven impact the way people live?
What do you think of when you think of heaven? What images come to your mind? What do you believe about what is to come?
Have you ever experienced “joy unspeakable”, where you heart was completely full, and you could not have imagined being any more happy/content? What made you feel this way?
From the description in Revelation 21, what is most attractive about heaven? What is least attractive about heaven? Why do you think this?
Why is dwelling with God such a significant part of heaven?
How did people in the Bible react when they were in the presence of God? Why was this?
How do you think you would react if God visited you tonight?
How can Christians look forward to heaven?
How can knowing what heaven’s really like help us talk to others about Jesus?