Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Meaning of Heaven

Preached on Sunday, May 1, 2011

Scripture Readings: Revelation 21:1-7, 9-14 & 21:22-22:5; Luke 23:32-43

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 RSV) Jesus said this to the criminal who was dying on the cross on his right:
“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 NIV)

That criminal had to be surprised by what Jesus said, and even confused by it. He would have been surprised, and confused, and somehow set at rest by the love that came through Jesus’ words so clearly.

But, he would have been surprised and completely confused by the words “today” and “paradise” going side by side. He would have recognized that paradise meant heaven; the home of God and the angels. There was God’s paradise.

But the Jews of that day commonly believed that paradise for humans meant the thing that God would, someday, in the future, create on the earth, when the judgment and the kingdom of God came to earth. That would not happen until the resurrection of the dead.

The Jews commonly believed that, in the period between one’s death and the resurrection, the soul lived a kind of shadowy, drowsy life: perhaps the kind of life that goes on in a library or a doctor’s waiting room. (1 Samuel 28:13; Psalm 6:5; Psalm 88:4-5, 10-12)

But they did not all think this way. They had conflicting ideas about this. They truly wondered what it might mean to say, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.” (Psalm 23:6; and also see Psalm 73:23-24; Psalm 49:15; Psalm 139:8)

The dead had some kind of life, but they were not sure what that was. They would still belong to God, but they were not sure how they would experience that.

What shocked and confused the sorry criminal was that Jesus seemed to say that they were not going to be resurrected into paradise someday, but that they were going to die their way into paradise that very day.

The sorry criminal who asked Jesus to remember him was surprised and confused when Jesus put the words “today” and “paradise” together, because Jesus was giving him more and better than he had asked for; more than he ever dared to hope for, more than he believed possible.

I believe that this is how God works. I trust that, in Christ, God gives us more and better than we dare, more than we hope, more than we believe. This is typical of the God revealed in the Bible.

The word paradise is not a common Bible word, but it is a common Bible thing. It belongs to a group of words that mean “garden”. But a paradise was a noble garden. A paradise was a garden for royalty, and nobility, and other important people.

There is a royal garden at the beginning of the Bible, called Eden. There is a royal garden at the end of the Bible called “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ.”

A paradise was a garden like a park. It was a garden for great people. But it wasn’t just a fancy ornamental garden. It was a fruitful garden. It was a garden for smelling, and tasting, and eating, and drinking. It not only had flowers, but also fruit trees, and herbs, and water, and fish, and birds.

It was a place for fellowship. It was a place to be refreshed. And it was a place to be at home.

Eden was designed to be the home place of the human race, where we would share a home together with God. The New Jerusalem was designed to be the heavenly home of the new human race, of which Christ makes us a part. And we will share that home place with God.

So, paradise is another word for home.

Paul talks about our being at home in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, in the fifth chapter. It starts out: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in the heavens, not built by human hands.” (5:1) And then he says, beginning in verse six: “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. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.” (5:6-9)

Some people think that the first thing we will do, after we die, is sleep. Now it is true that home is the place where we sleep best, but even more than that home is the place where we live. It is the place where we are truly and fully ourselves.

Paul uses the idea of being at home in the body to describe being physically alive in this world. When our bodies are healthy and well, we are at home in them. We work. We play. We relate. We live. We are truly and fully ourselves.

And then Paul says that we can be away from our bodies and at home with the Lord. If we play fair with Paul’s words (the way he has used them up to this point), this would mean that, when we are not alive physically in this world, we are living with God. We are at home, and truly and fully ourselves. This is the paradise that Jesus promised to the dying thief. He also promises this to us. This is heaven.

To be at home in the body is a fruitful and beautiful place to be. To be at home away from the body, with the Lord, is also a fruitful and beautiful place to be. It is paradise. Paradise is heaven.

And then the Book of Revelation shows the paradise that is heaven coming down from heaven to earth, at a future time, when the judgment of God has come, and the living and the dead are brought together in the resurrection, and heaven and earth are made new.

Paradise is described as a city, and I don’t like that. Then John’s vision flips the city on its head and it turns into a garden. It is described as a garden with trees and a river. And it is described as the Bride of Christ, the Bride of the Lamb.

In the Old Testament, God’s people, in the form of Israel, were described as the Lord’s bride. (Isaiah54:5-7 and Hosea 2:19) In the New Testament, God’s people, in the form of the church, are described as the Lord’s bride. (Matthew 22:2-14 and Ephesians 5:32)

So in some ways paradise is not a place, but it is a relationship. It is a way of joining people into intimacy with God, forever, together: a network of people who are enjoying the presence of God together, and enjoying each other.

This is heaven. The garden of paradise tells us that there is peace and serenity in heaven. The city of paradise tells us that there is no real distance from others in heaven. Heaven must include other people.

We are talking about things that are beyond our understanding; but, if God is beyond our understanding, and if he loves us, and if he wants to share himself with us, then God will have to take us to a place, or to an experience, beyond our understanding.

I mean who can understand “streets of gold as clear as crystal”? And how could we ever really want such a thing? We certainly don’t need gold as clear as crystal.

Our understanding of the joys of heaven is like the understanding that a four-year-old would have of a honeymoon. A four-year-old went to a cousin’s wedding and, at the reception, he heard all the talk and jokes about the honeymoon, and he was confused by it, and he wondered what it was all about. So he asked his Dad.

His Dad carefully did his best. He said, “Son, when you grow up, if you get married, your honeymoon will be one of the happiest times of your life.” “Will I be able to take my toy dinosaurs along?” “Uh…no…you probably won’t take your dinosaurs on your honeymoon. But you’ll still have a great time.” “Then can my friend Zeke come with me on my honeymoon?” “No, Zeke won’t come.” “Then I don’t know if I want to go on a honeymoon, Daddy. It doesn’t sound like much fun to me.”

To say that paradise, at first in heaven, and then (later on) in the resurrection, is the best home of all homes is comforting, because it enables us to imagine heaven being full of comfortable things; but gold, and jewels, and blazing light, and thrones, and crowns are not comfortable things at all. Just the opposite!

The truth is that these strange things don’t stand for themselves. They are symbols. They are picture language that means that Paradise is full of glory.

The problem with glory is that most of us are not looking for glory, either. We are embarrassed at the thought of glory, or we would be embarrassed if we thought other people knew that (deep in our hearts) we were out for glory. And we sure don’t like it when other people are trying to hog all the glory.

Remember that paradise is us and God. Paradise is a fellowship, a team of people and their God. It is the gathering of all God’s people who have ever lived, and ever will live. John tells us that the glory of God will shine on everything in that city. Glory is something in the nature of God that God will share with us.

Imagine glory being the clothing of God. Think of what it would be like for a little girl to dress in her mother’s dress, or for a boy to wear his dad’s boots and hat: dressing in their parent’s glory. They picture something in themselves that fills them with wonder when they think about their parents.

Or think of a small child singing in a Christmas program, or riding a two-wheeler for the first time, with their mom and dad watching. They are in their glory, but there is nothing egotistical or proud about that glory of theirs. They are full of glory because their parents are full of pleasure in them.

A toddler walks because someone who loves them is holding out arms of love and strength to them, and beaming with pride and joy. Glory, for us, will be a life where we will be able to see God’s pleasure in us reaching out to us. In paradise God and the great host of the family of God will reach out to us in pleasure, and we will reach out to them in the same way.

There are walls around the paradise at the end of the Bible. I really don’t like walls except as places to put bookshelves.

Sometimes I have thought that the walls around paradise, in the Book of Revelation, were about shelter and safety, but the gates of the city are never closed, so safety and shelter are not the issue. No one will think about such things any more, in that life.

I like to the that the whole purpose of the walls around paradise in the Book of Revelation is nothing more than an excuse for having those pearly gates; all twelve of them. A gate is a door, and a door is for access. Doors are for going in and out.

For us, a lot of life is about going out, letting go, leaving behind. But paradise is about coming in. It’s about people and pleasures coming together, instead of pulling apart. Paradise is about hellos, and not goodbyes. Paradise is that good kind of home.

The sorry criminal on the right side of Jesus looked his own life straight in the face, from the point of view of his own cross, and he firmly believed that he deserved to die there. He was getting what he deserved. That is what he said. It was right and fitting.

Then he said to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He doesn’t mean just, “Think of me.” “Remember,” in the Bible means act upon me, deal with me, take up my case.

The criminal knew that his own cross was his proper fate. His life had been the kind of life that deserved that kind of death. He saw himself as he was. He had nothing in his life that would connect him with God. And there was nothing he could do about it.

Then he looked at Jesus, and Jesus seemed like a king, even while he was dying all battered and bloody, beside him, on the cross. Somehow he hoped that Jesus would take another good look at him, and see if something else was right for him; something beyond hope.

Jesus did just that. Jesus looked at him and saw that paradise, today, was exactly the right place for that sorry human being.

Here, beside Jesus, was a person who would thrive on grace. Here was someone one who would thrive on forgiveness and never take it for granted. Here was someone who would thrive on being known forever as someone who had been truly forgiven with a costly love. Here was someone who would love to come in, and come home, at last, for ever, and hear God say the amazing, impossible words, “Well done!”

That is the meaning of heaven.

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