Monday, April 19, 2010

Heaven: The Promise and Power of God

Preached on April 18, 2010

Scripture readings: Psalm 16; Romans 8:28-39; Luke 20:27-40

The preacher began his sermon with this question: “Who’s ready to go to heaven?” The congregation was startled by this, and so just a few raised their hands. “Who’s ready to go to heaven?” He thundered the question. Everyone shot their hand straight up in the air, except for one little boy. The pastor looked the boy in the eye and said, “Tommy, aren’t you ready to go to heaven?” And Tommy said, “Sure, Pastor, only I thought you were getting set to take us there right now.”

I like jokes about heaven. They tell us a lot about our lives right now: how we think, and what things matter most to us. The jokes about heaven don’t tell us much about heaven though. And I am sort of glad they don’t.

I suspect there will be something like laughter in heaven. There will be an everlasting amazement that produces something like laughter. There will be an amazement that comes from wonder at the power of God, and the faithfulness of God to us.

We will feel something like laughter toward ourselves in everlasting amazement at ourselves. How on earth could we have gotten away with so much foolishness, and worry, and stubbornness in the face of God’s love? How on earth could we have gotten away with all those problems we manufactured in our heads about the future, and about what God wanted from us; our puzzling about how God would do what he promised and take care of us according to our needs?

The story of the woman and the seven brothers was a Sadducee joke about the resurrection. But it was about heaven too. The Sadducees joked about it all because they didn’t believe in either. The Pharisees believed in both; and both heaven and the resurrection went together in their faith, beginning with heaven after death, and leading to the resurrection of the body when God’s plans for the creation were ready to be made complete.

The story of the woman and the seven brothers was a joke about heaven and the resurrection; and the Sadducees told it to frustrate and annoy the Pharisees. They liked to push the Pharisees’ buttons, and it was so easy to do. They thought the story would push Jesus’ buttons too. The Sadducees saw Jesus as having much more in common with the Pharisees than with them.

Their joke seemed to present an unsolvable problem. But it was only unsolvable because it was inspired by those problems we create in our heads about what God really wants and what God really gives; and how God will arrange his plan to take care of us and share his strange glory with us.

What allowed the Sadducees to get away with telling their joke was that they only accepted the first five books of the Bible as the most important truth. These five books they called the Book of Moses. These were possibly the oldest of the Jewish scriptures. There is no mention in them of an afterlife in heaven.

Jesus told them that if they really wanted to learn about God, and the power of God, and the real message of those scriptures, then they would realize that, even though there seemed to be no account of an afterlife in heaven in those books, there was a reliable account of a God who could be counted on to provide his people with a life in heaven after they died.

When the Sadducees told their joke, Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus’ first answer to them was almost rude. “Is this not why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” (Cf. Mark 12:24; Matthew 22:29) But their question was rude. They were toying with him.

Then Jesus quoted from the words that God spoke to Moses from the burning bush in the Book of Moses, the Book of Exodus. It was a statement that even the Sadducees would have to respect. (3:6) “I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”

Those are the first three generations of the people of Israel. The Lord had spoken to Abraham to take his wife and servants and the orphaned nephew who lived with him, and go somewhere, through the wilderness, through the desert, to a land that the Lord would show him. It is that journey of faith, led step by step with God, led through times of hardship, and danger, and doubt, and back to faith again, that is the beginning of the story of the people of Israel and of our own story. Abraham’s journey of faith, and the journey of his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob, is our journey of faith, and hardship, and danger, and doubt, and back to faith again.

The journey of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was a long, long walk. It was an intense and personal journey. There were strong, intense conversations that went on between these ancestors and their God. The Lord often showed the most intense interest in what they were thinking and feeling, and in how to have the most impact on their lives.

It was all about love. One of the Biblical words for this love is covenant. Sometimes the concept of covenant has been compared to that of a contract. But modern contracts are legal instruments that are designed to be upheld and enforced by a court of law.

A covenant is a relationship. It is life altering. Marriage is a covenant. A covenant begins with a promise that is given in order to bind and pledge life to life. Covenants are not made to be broken. They are made for life. A covenant comes from a heart that is prepared to trust, and love, and commit. There is such a promise, such a covenant, deep in the heart of God for his people.

In the very meanness of the Sadducees’ joke, it was very nearly a dirty joke, because it joked about marriage, and sex, and death, and love. And it belittled them all.

In the Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), if a married man died without having a son, the brother of his who had the most seniority was supposed to take the man’s wife as his own and the first son born between him and that woman was to be named after the man who had died, providing him with a namesake; making sure that the name of the dead man would live on. We can understand the importance of this in a small town, at least when we have a sense of tradition and notice how families either disappear, or remain among us under the disguise of changing names. In Washtucna those who have long memories, or think about the heritage of their own families, realize there are missing names: like Bassett, and Gildersleeve, and Sutton, and Helmes, and Gillis, and others.

The law was designed by God to nurture a surprising instinct: that it was wrong for a name to be lost. The loss of a name meant the loss of a family, but also the loss of the person. The laws of God nurtured the instinct that families, and relationships, and individual persons should never end. They should never go away in the sense of ceasing to exist. They needed to be somewhere kept.

Somehow, in God’s scheme of things, it was possible for his law to lead to a leap of the imagination that was the same as a leap of faith. The leap would carry you from the importance of the immortality of a name to the immortality of the person. The leap would carry you to the place where you would understand that immortality and everlasting life were the right things to hope for. They are somehow the very things we are made for.

And so Jesus says it and makes it clear. He said this: “But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Luke 20:37-38)

We need to see how it is true that Jesus is not only talking about the resurrection, which is what the Sadducees were joking about, but also about a life after death, in heaven, for those who live in covenant with God. Jesus says that Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob were and are among the living.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob died almost two thousand years before Jesus walked the earth. Jesus knew this perfectly well. And Jesus said, “To God all are alive.”
Some people will object and say that this is just a metaphor, just a way of talking, just a beautiful idea, that even when a person dies and passes into nothingness, the complete memory of them is preserved in the mind of a loving God. And that treasured memory will live on in the mind of God forever, and perhaps even be recreated at some future date which is called the resurrection. These people would say that, between death and the recreation of life in the resurrection, we do not really live any longer; at least not in any active or conscious way.

The problem with this is; how are you and I alive right now? How can we possibly be alive right now unless we are (like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) alive to God? If there were no version of us functioning in the mind of God at present, we would not be alive ourselves. But if we, and those who have passed away, are all alive to God, what difference would death make to the essential reason for our existence? “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

If God so cares for the preservation of a name, if God designs his law for Israel in such a way to make sure that a person’s name does not disappear, will God not design his own sons and daughters in such a way that they, also, do not disappear; even when they seem to go to another place where we cannot see them or touch them?

You and I are alive because to God all are alive. My grandparents, and my father, and his brother, are alive because “to God all are alive”. “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

There will be a resurrection for us, some interval after our death. But we will not become alive as a result of our resurrection. We will be resurrected because we will already be alive to God. We will not live because we are resurrected, we will be resurrected because we live. And we will live because Jesus lives.

Resurrection is the gift of the living God to people who are really alive. Heaven is a place of life.

This is all about love. God values love. “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) The Sadducees did not know this because, as Jesus said, they did not know the scriptures or the power of God. They told their jokes about things they did not understand.

The Bible gives us few specifics about heaven. What we know comes to us under the cover of parables, and poetry, and symbols used by Jesus and the apostles. Heaven is like a wedding, like a city, like a garden, like the harvest, like a coronation feast, like singing, like something made from gold and jewels, like light, like open gates, like happy triumphant people at the end of a game or a fight: like seeing Jesus, and being with him, and becoming like him, and knowing it.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the first members of a big family that has lasted thousands of years. But they are like all families. Families are people who have a personal history that means something and makes them belong to each other.

There are parents, and spouses, and children. There are success stories and stories of failure. There are times of tragedy, and shame, and punishment, and reward. There are times of faith, and times of idolatry (the worship of this world instead of the worship of God).

Think of that wretched family in the Sadducees’ joke: the family of the seven boys who died, and the poor woman who tried to be a wife to each one. That is a sad story.

Jesus changes that story: that mean, cruel, nasty story that the Sadducees laughed at and used to taunt and torment people of faith. Jesus changes that story to say, with heaven, that God can take the confusion, griefs, sorrows, tragedies, hopes, loves, and relationships of our lives and transform them. God can take everything in our lives and make them worth lasting forever.

God uses the new life in heaven and in the resurrection to bring healing, and victory, and reconciliation, and justice, and grace. This is what Paul says, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

I would say one more thing about trusting Jesus’ good intentions when he said that there is no marriage in heaven, or in the resurrection. He did say that, in place of being simply human, we will remain human and yet become something more. He said we will be like the angels. I would just say that we don’t know what that will be like.

Imagine real childhood sweethearts. Imagine a little girl and a little boy playing in the sandbox together. Imagine them playing house together. Imagine the boy being teased about this girl being his girlfriend, and so he avoids her and breaks both their hearts for a while.

Then imagine them, one day years later, falling in love again, and getting married. Would the two children of years ago be able to imagine the love and the relationship of marriage that would be theirs in the years to come? Would the newly weds ever yearn for the good old days when they played house together?

The future life will be as different from this life as happy marriage is from happy playing house. It will be more than we know, and not less. This is true both of married and single people. And there will be ways of being one, in our future life, which surpass our ways of being one in our present life.

God is the lover of life and the lover of love, and the Lord of both. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

The proof of this is that Jesus joined us in life, and in death. Jesus took the criminal who hung on the cross beside his, and Jesus promised him to take him that day to be with him in paradise.

And Jesus conquered the power of our death in his resurrection. His life now is unimaginable. Our life to come is unimaginable, but it is promised to us by the scriptures and by the power of God in Christ.

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