Friday, June 2, 2017

Jesus’ Promise (Revelation 21:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Some friends were hanging out one day and the conversation turned to the subject of death.  One of the friends asked: "What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?"  One friend answered, "I would hope people would say, He was a great humanitarian, a generous philanthropist, who cared about his community.”  A second replied: "I would want people to say, 'He was a great husband and father, an example for many to follow.”  The third friend gave it some thought and answered: "I would hope someone says, 'Look, he's moving!’”  We often use humor when speaking about death.

We also use humor when talking about heaven, like the story about three women who die and go to heaven:

St. Peter tells them he’s tied up at the moment and asks them to wait outside the heavenly gates.    Later, St. Peter returns and calls the first woman into his office.  He apologizes for making her wait so long.  “Oh, I don’t mind at all she replies, I’m just so happy and humbled to be here.”  St. Peter is delighted by her attitude.  “Well, he says, if you will just answer one question, we can finish processing your papers.  “How do you spell God?”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.

St. Peter calls in the next woman and also apologizes for making her wait.  She says: “Oh that’s okay, I’m willing to wait a 1,000 years if necessary, just to see God face to face.”  St. Peter is pleased.   He asks her: “Tell me, how to you spell God.”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.  St. Peter calls in the third woman.  He starts to apologize, but the woman angrily interrupts him: “How rude of you to make me wait, do you know who I am?  I’m going to get you fired for being so incompetent!”  St. Peter replies, “I’m so sorry, if you’ll just answer this one question.  How do you spell Czechoslovakia?”

In this Easter season we are reminded of a universal truth – we humans are mortal, sooner or later, everyone dies.   I think being active in the church puts us closer to the reality of death than many people, because we witness the death of church friends and family members throughout the year.   How foolish to go through life unprepared for what we know is inevitable.

A Gallup Poll reports that more Americans believe in heaven today than in 1981, up from 71% to 78%.  This goes along with an increase in those who believe in hell, up from 53% to 60%.  I think that as 70 million baby boomers approach retirement, they are becoming more interested in the Hereafter.

The Bible depicts two conceptions of the afterlife - heaven and hell.  We see this pictured in literature in Dante’s 14th century classic story The Divine Comedy.  The plot of The Divine Comedy is that a man is miraculously taken on a tour of the afterlife, to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  He has two guides; the Roman poet, Virgil, leads him through the Inferno and Purgatory.   The young woman, Beatrice, to whom the story is dedicated, leads him on a tour of Paradise.

Do you believe in an after-life, in a life-hereafter, in heaven and hell?  It really is about what we believe, what we accept as true; not what is a fact or what we can prove.  It is a truth claim.  Some people don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in an after-life.  They don’t believe God exists and that one’s life is extinguished at death, like one would extinguish a candle.  They might be right or they might be wrong.  But fundamentally it is still about belief.

Some people don’t believe because they hold a materialistic view of life.   They believe that reality, that the universe, that all that exists, is physical.  There is no God or spiritual reality. Truth they believe is empirical, that what is truly known or can be known comes only through our 5 senses, taste, touch, see, smell, and hear.

I was speaking to a scientist from our congregation last week.  She said even science acknowledges that there are phenomena that are true or real, even if we can’t identify them through our senses.  Some examples are time, magnetic fields, thoughts, air, oxygen, gravity, sound and radio waves.  Until the invention of the electron microscope, atoms, molecules, and sub-atomic particles were nothing but a hypothesis or theory.

I do believe in an after-life.  I know it in the depths of my heart.  Remember this, knowing in your heart is still a type of knowing, a valid knowing, even if not a scientific knowing.  I am sure you can think of things you have known or know today, you know in your heart that cannot be proven.  I believe in heaven and I believe in hell.  Why?  I agree with the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I believe in hell because the Bible declares that God is holy, moral, righteous, just, fair.   For example, the 6th commandment “Thou Shall Not Murder” declares God’s will for all humanity.  There is a price to pay if you violate God’s commandment.  The Bible says there are consequences for our behavior, the wages of sin is death; the consequence of evil is punishment.  The prophet Amos says: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.”

I also believe in hell because Jesus, the Son of God, speaks of hell.  Jesus said to his disciple, “You are Peter, upon you I shall build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  The Bible uses different words for death and hell and each means something slightly different – sheol, gehenna and hades.  Hell is described as the abode of the dead, a place of judgment, punishment, loneliness, darkness, and separation from God, family and the faith community.

I also firmly believe in heaven.  Clearly, the Bible focuses not only on your and my life today, and living a Christ-like life, a loving life, an ethical life, a joyful life, a servant life, but also upon the life to come, everlasting life, glory.   In heaven we live a new life of joy and peace in God’s presence forever.  Imagine that for just a moment.   The stirring words in the book of Revelation paint this picture: “God will dwell with mortals, God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will cease, grieving and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”   Here is a beautiful picture of heaven.  One I think, given the stress and demands of life, that we should keep daily in our minds.

I believe in heaven because Jesus taught about it and because Jesus’ promises it in our future. Jesus said: “Because I live, you shall live also!”  “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”  Jesus said: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” Jesus taught: “Our Father who art in heaven,” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms; I am going there to prepare a place for you.  I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”    Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

I also believe in heaven because on Easter God raised Jesus from death to life.  Jesus’ resurrection defeated the power of death.  Jesus appeared to many of his followers after his resurrection.  The book of Acts says: “After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God.”

I further believe in heaven because of the countless numbers of people who have testified to the after-life due to near-death experiences.  I have spoken to some of them personally over the years.   It’s fascinating at how similar the stories are.  A nurse, Diane Corcoran, describes the accounts of hundreds of people she has worked with.    In one instance a man said:  He felt himself “going to another place.” With tears rolling down his cheeks, he described this place as “beautiful” and “wonderful.”  But, he was told, he would have to go back, at which point he woke up in his body.

She said people describe themselves as hovering and seeing their bodies below, traveling through a tunnel toward light, and meeting deceased loved ones.  Some people describe having a “life review” or seeing their life, from an outside perspective.   Many of those who have near-death experiences say they were surrounded by an embracing and powerful light unlike anything on earth.

What is heaven going to be like according to Scripture?   Clearly, we are speaking about a mystery, but we do catch glimpses from scripture.  I believe you can summarize it in three ideas.  You’re going to be rewarded for your faithfulness and obedience to God.   You will be with Christ forever.   You will recognize loved ones and enjoy eternity with them.  Believing that Christ is Lord over life and death, trusting in the promise of Jesus about our future, gives us hope, strength to carry on, and comfort amidst the trials, losses, and tragedies in life.

I close with the words of Rev. Rick Warren in his book, The Purpose Driven Life.  This life is not all there is.  Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production.  You will spend far more time on the other side of death in eternity than you will here.  Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity.  It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins.   It is the preparation for the main event where you’re going to spend all of eternity.   At most you will live a hundred years here on earth, but you will spend forever in eternity. You were made to last forever. The question is where will we spend eternity?  God offers us not just an opportunity of a lifetime; but an opportunity beyond our lifetime.  God’s plans for our lives endure forever.”  Amen!

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