Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Heaven Can Wait...or can it?

There is an old, old story about a Sunday School teacher who was talking about God with her class of preschool children.  She was talking about what it means to know God and how God will take people to heaven someday.  She asked the class how many of the children wanted to go to heaven.  All the boys and girls raised their hands except for one small boy.  The teacher looked at him with a puzzled expression and said, "Johnny, you don't want to go to heaven when you die?"  Johnny smiled and answered, "Sure, I want to go to heaven when I die.  I thought you were getting a group up to go now." 

That is similar to the sentiment shared in the old country song, "Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die."  Going to heaven sounds like a good idea (especially in contrast with what some teach is the opposite of going to heaven).  Living in Paradise for eternity (and that's a long, long time) would be great, and especially if the version of heaven was what is contained in the book of Revelation.  A new heaven and a new earth, a river of life with trees that grow a different fruit for each month of the year, no nighttime ever because God shines eternal light everywhere, no sadness or tears because God has erased all of that, and no pain, sickness, or death.  Heaven is what the word implies...eternal bliss!

Everyone has a different idea of what they think heaven is like.  A recent program on television featured interviews with persons who had end of life experiences.  They had died for a short time and then returned to life.  All those who were interviewed had some similarities in their stories....seeing their bodies below them as they drifted off in space somewhere, a feeling of peace and contentment and no fear, being greeted by persons they had known in life who had died before they did.  The stories were not exactly the same though because some people saw others who had gone before them and they saw them as they were when they last saw them....old, missing fingers, still wrinkled, which seems to go against the grain of perfection and newness of life that many of us assumed would be involved in being in heaven.  In some instances, the persons they saw informed them that they could not stay in heaven but had to return to earth.  One woman who claimed to be an athiest and does not believe in heaven saw her uncle talking to her even though she did not think he was in heaven.  He just told her to turn around and go back because she had work to complete in life. 

Some people experienced the stereotypical heavenly experience...gates of gold, angels singing, clouds...while others saw it as an everyday street scene or pastoral country scene with no heavenly adornments.  The interviewer talked with scientists who are doing experiments with people who have had these experiences to try to determine if there is a chemical in the brain that channels what we dream or experience that makes such experiences so particular to each person.  They were even doing research comparing the athiest brain with the highly religious brain and the research seemed to indicate that there is a great difference in certain parts of the brain depending on one's religious views or experiences. 

We have been studying the book of Revelation for the past six weeks at our church and this Sunday will be the seventh and last sermon taken from that book.  Seven is God's perfect number in Revelation so it is quite appropriate that we are concluding the series this week.  God forbid that we should have stopped after six sermons, that would have been a little risky (with the problem with the number 6 that keeps cropping up in Revelation).  This week the sermon is entitled, "Victory and New Creation" because it centers on the final three chapters and the vision of the new heaven and new earth and what awaits those persecuted saints from the time of John in the First Century.  They had suffered greatly at the hands of their Roman oppressors so they deserved a grand view of the heavenly place that they would inhabit.  After they had been tortured and many had given their lives for refusing to worship the Emperor, they would find themselves in a paradise with no worries that would last forever. 

That heavenly vision is part of our culture and faith tradition also.  Most Christians have a very literal understanding of what heaven is about taken from John's Revelation.  Songs of every genre have described it as lush and extravagant and everlasting...paradise indeed.  Perhaps we need that comfort as much as the first century Christians did because our suffering may not be on the same order as theirs but our suffering is for us as serious as theirs was to them.  When one has seen someone suffer many months due to cancer or heart disease or Alzheimers Disease or any other modern plague, they have witnessed suffering firsthand and felt helpless in its face.  Just as the early Christians witnessed their friends and neighbors being executed by the Roman government and could do nothing to prevent it, we also witness life and death played out around us and we are helpless to do anything.  Maybe it is that helplessness and lack of control that makes us wish for something much better as a reward for our suffering.  Life is wonderful most of the time but the segments that are miserable cry out for relief.

Heaven represents for us what nothing else can....peace, contentment, a lack of anxiety and fear, no striving to make life to be what we want it to be....relief from all that causes us pain.  Heaven is somewhere in our future but some also believe it can be in our present as we attempt to live in such a way that we strive to empty ourselves of what plagues us and allow peace from a source greater than ourselves to fill us. 

"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things...and the God of peace will be with you."  (Philippians 4: 8, 9b)

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