Monday, April 26, 2010

Heaven: It Starts When We Meet Jesus

Preached on Sunday, April 25, 2010

Scripture Readings: Psalm 139:1-18; Second Corinthians 5:1-10; Luke 23:32-43

A boy was walking down the sidewalk on Main Street in Washtucna and he was about to pass a man coming the other way. The man stopped and asked the boy where the Post Office was, and the boy said, “Well, right now the Post Office here is closed for repairs. You’ve got to go to Hooper. You’ve got to go east on highway 26, and take a right at the first sign to Hooper. Then you keep going till you see the town exactly on your left. Turn left at the next left. Then turn left again. And then go to the white building straight ahead of you.” The man thanked the boy very kindly and said, “I’m the new pastor in town, I’d like for you to come to church on Sunday…I’ll tell you how to get to Heaven.” The boy laughed and said, “Aw, come on now; you don’t even know the way to the Post Office.”

Directions are a kind of map composed of words. Sometimes it’s a challenge to give clear, concise directions. My first summer here I worked in the harvest for the Nunamakers, and one time I got some difficult directions of where to drive my wheat truck. Over the radio Bob said something like, “Go just past where the old granary used to be and turn up that draw.” Bob’s directions were based on a picture of the place that he had in his head, but it was an old, old picture, and I didn’t have a copy of that picture.

Directions are a kind of map, and maps are a kind of picture. The Gospels are pictures of Jesus. They are moving pictures that show who Jesus is, and what he did, and what he promises to us. In a sense, the Gospels are maps and directions to Jesus; to what he teaches us, and to what he promises us.

There is a sense in which the picture, in Luke, of Jesus on the cross, talking with the thief who asks for help, is a map to heaven. It tells us how to get to heaven, and it tells us the timetable of heaven, and the core nature of heaven. The picture, in Luke, of Jesus on the cross is even a picture of heaven itself.

It is also a picture of hell. The picture of Jesus on the cross is a picture of two things. It is a picture of the earth at its worst and a picture of God at his best.

The cross is a small picture that sums up a big problem. The cross boils down all the very worst things that the world is capable of: violence, cruelty, ruthlessness, injustice, lies, the greed for gain and power; the tearing apart of families (Jesus from his mother, for example). Hypocritical religion is there in the picture; the determination (like that of Pontius Pilate) to play it safe at all costs and go along with the crowd; the mutilation, abuse, and suffering of the innocent; and much, much more. All this is visible in the picture of the cross and those who were involved in the raising of that cross and nailing Jesus there.

Earth was intended by God to be a place of peace; peace with God, peace with others, peace with one’s self, peace with the created world. It was intended by God to be a physical heaven, a natural paradise.

But the first humans wanted to be independent from God. They were willing to listen to the voice of the serpent (the voice of hell) in order to establish this new world for themselves where God would not be in charge. (Genesis 3:1-6)

And so it was. They opened a door, and hell came to earth, and entered human hearts, even our own hearts.

We live in a wonderful world that mirrors the glory of God, a world where people can get glimpses of God in the creation, and in the faithful loving relationships of family and friends. It is a world where people help to make each other’s lives better. But we also live in a world where hell can make its entrance.

Just like Adam and Eve, we can play our part in the entrance of hell into the picture of people’s lives. And other people do the same. Other people bring us great gifts of commitment, and encouragement, and patience, and the vision of what could be possible for us. And they can snip away at our souls with little spiritual knives and scissors. And we can do just the same to them. And we really do.

The picture of the cross points beyond our personal, individual lives, to show what we are as a human race. The cross of Jesus, as a human thing, is a blot on the whole of humanity. It shows in miniature what races, and nations, and classes of people do to each other and to the innocents of the world.

And this picture is the map to heaven, because our route to heaven must begin in hell. This is where the dying thief comes into the picture. He saw the hell around him and the hell within, but he saw something completely different in Jesus.

There was a sign nailed above Jesus’ head that labeled him as the King of the Jews, and the thief knew that the people who hung that sign there didn’t believe it. It was the accusation of treason and blasphemy against Jesus.

But the dying thief saw in Jesus that the sign told the truth. Jesus was the gracious king who forgave his enemies from the cross and offered them his salvation and his healing even when they didn’t seek it.

The dying thief saw the hell around him, and in his partner; and he saw it in himself. He knew that he had played his own part in the world that was now killing him and also killing Jesus. He saw that he had nothing to offer someone like Jesus.

He also saw that Jesus, in his forgiving those who played a part in his cross, had something to give him. Jesus could deal with the hell that lived and worked in him. Jesus could take up his case, and pardon him, and change him, and transfer him into the kingdom of God.

As much as I hate to say it, it is true that, for us, our heaven begins with our hell. We must understand the nature of the world we live in and the part we play in it. Even if we thought that we stood apart from the world that crucified Jesus, we must admit that we need grace and mercy because we become so absorbed in our own lives and have so little ability to change the world and the people around us.

Maybe we have already seen who Jesus is. We have seen that Jesus is the king who can forgive us. Jesus is the one who make the difference in us by the power of his Holy Spirit, and with Jesus we find a way to play a bigger part in the work of his kingdom in the world. But often we find that we work in the opposite direction.

Last week, on a very nice spring day, I was doing some personal errands in the Tri-Cities. I was driving south on highway 395 in Kennewick, near Fred Meyer, and I was driving with my windows rolled down. I stopped at the red light and a man in a van stopped in the lane next to me, and his window toward me was rolled down.

I heard a man shout. It was the man in the van and he shouted at me to ask me what road this was, and I told him he was on highway 395. Then he asked me if he could get to Ellensburg that way.

Well, we were going southwest, and Ellensburg was northwest. I quickly thought, in milliseconds before the light changed, that he could possibly get to Ellensburg if he went the really long way round: a very long round-about way indeed.

The man must have read my mind, and he asked if he was going the wrong direction, which of course he was. At that very moment the light turned green, and all I had time to do was yell: “You need to look at your map!”

When we are traveling though a beautiful world that is sadly infected with hell, Jesus is not only a person. Jesus is a spiritual direction. At first the turn offs may not be clearly marked, but there are roads that will take us in the direction of Jesus.

The roads that hell builds all go in one direction. The roads to Jesus go the opposite way. We need to see where we are, and turn completely around, and look for the signs to Jesus. And, when we see Jesus for who he is, we have to turn there, or anywhere else we go will take us the wrong way again.

The dying thief didn’t confess his sins directly to Jesus, but he did confess them in his heart. And he spoke his confession past the face of Jesus, to his partner in crime on the other side of Jesus’ cross.

And the dying thief was hanging on a cross at the time. He was wearing his confession for all to see. What he truly was, was thoroughly exposed. That is also part of the way to heaven. The cross was the obvious “hitting bottom” for that man, although it never hit his partner (who was in the same predicament and went right on standing up for himself and blaming Jesus for not getting them all off the cross).

The repentant thief didn’t bargain or argue with Jesus. He knew he had nothing to bargain with, and no grounds to argue. He just offered himself to Jesus’ care. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
He was asking Jesus, as his king, to judge his case. He knew that Jesus knew that he was guilty. The repentant thief was tired of hell, and trusted that Jesus would give him something better than what he had; something better than justice; something better than what he deserved.

Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

The word “today” is linked to “paradise” (heaven) and not to the day on which Jesus was speaking to the man. There is no place in any of the gospels where Jesus uses a phrase like, “Today I tell you.”

Jesus, on the cross, would have been struggling for every single breath. For Jesus, on the verge of death, to be fancy and say “Today I tell you,” would be to waste words and waste precious breath. But “today in paradise” is not a waste of words or breath. It tells us clearly when heaven begins. Heaven begins whenever today is.

Heaven begins for us at the same time it began for the dying thief. It began for him that very day Jesus spoke to him, and he closed his eyes, and his lungs sank in, and he sagged on the cross for the last time. The world where hell had swirled around him, and inside him, went dark and the light he had seen in Jesus on the cross came on, and there was Jesus with him still, and there was heaven with Jesus.

It is like the words of the Psalm, “If I go up to the heavens you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol (the realm of death) you are there.” (Psalm 139:8)
Where the Lord is, there is heaven.

“With me,” is the other key phrase. “With me,” tells us what heaven is. Heaven is being with the Lord. The death of our body is no obstacle to our being with the Lord. Paul says it: “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)

This is very straight forward. There are passages in the Bible that compare death to sleep. All that this sleep means is that the body stops and is still. But this sleep doesn’t prevent our spirit, the core of the person we are, from being with the Lord in heaven.

This is true every night when we go to rest in our beds; when we lie down to sleep and dream. I pray in my sleep. I am your pastor in my sleep; in my dreams. I preach in my sleep; in my dreams. Sometimes, in my dreams, I get up to preach and suddenly I find that I’m not wearing any pants. Have you ever had a dream like that?

We are alive even when we sleep; whether it is a sleep we will wake up from or not. We are alive when we sleep for the same reason that we are alive when we are awake, because God holds all his creatures in life. God is with us. We belong to God. Paul says, “Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose.” (2 Corinthians 5:5)

For the dying thief, the repentant thief, life changed in the presence of Jesus. Hell somehow dropped out of sight. We are in heaven when we meet the Lord because, in Jesus Christ, we meet God on the cross; giving his self for us, and to us.

The cross made all the critics of Jesus glad because they thought it would destroy him. There could be no kingdom of God, and no heaven, through something like a cross.

But they were wrong. The cross was the doorway that Jesus built into his Father’s house, even though it is hard for people to understand how a cross could be a door for people to come home by.

For a short time before I was ordained, I served a church in southern Idaho; in Hazelton. In Hazelton and the farms around it, you never used the front door.

Here, sometimes you have to guess. If I go to someone’s house that I haven’t visited before I look carefully, as I approach the house. Is there a walk way to the front door or isn’t there? Does it look used or not?

In Hazelton you didn’t have to guess. You always went to the kitchen door on the side, or in the back. Once inside you probably found that the people there had furniture blocking the front door, or even false draperies covering it. It was as if there was a general plot to make all front doors unusable.

In Hazelton, the front door was for the great people who never came. And so the front door was blocked. The real door was for neighbors and for people who didn’t come with an agenda; for people who didn’t come for something they wanted from you. The real door was to the kitchen where you would have coffee and cookies, or supper.

If heaven has a grand door for the great people, no one will ever use it. Or else we will all use it in the day when all God’s children wear crowns, and when all of us are great and famous. Otherwise the only door to heaven is the cross; the side door, the neighbors’ door, the humble door, the common door, the door for the hungry and the weary, the door for those who come in to be made at home, who come just to be with…

The key to heaven is that we are always with. We are always with the Lord. Heaven really begins the moment we meet him, and it only gets closer and closer. Our heaven has already begun, and death cannot end it.

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