Sunday, May 18, 2014

What is Heaven Like?

John 14:1-4

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and 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. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

When I was a young teenager, I got my driver’s license.  I would get in the car and drive all over the countryside.  One day, I came across a place along US 25, somewhere in either Greenville or Greenwood County, SC.  There was a beautiful oak tree, perfectly shaped.  The power lines were on that side of the road, but when they came to that tree, the power lines crossed the road, continued for a few poles, and then the lines crossed again.  I told my Dad about it and he remembered when the power lines first went up on that road.  The owner of that property sat in a chair, shot gun in hand, and dared anyone to trim that tree – so the local utilities felt it was in everyone’s best interest, to spend a little extra money on a few extra poles and avoid damaging that beautiful tree.

It was going to be there forever. 

When the road was turned into a 4 lane road, there was a slight curve in that road.

That tree was going to be there forever.

Several days ago I posted on Facebook something about that tree and asked if there was anyone in that part of the country who remembered that tree.  A couple of my high school buddies who are now married drove by it on Friday and took a couple of pictures that they sent to me.

That wonderful, beautiful tree is now nothing more than an ugly stump.

A few years ago it was struck by lightning.

It’s dead – dead as can be!

Even trees die.

Everything dies.

For several weeks I was able to look through my telescope and see a galaxy, far, far away.  It is the galaxy M 82.  It is 11.5 million light years away.  One of the stars in that galaxy blew up. It became a supernova.  For several weeks, months even, there was one very, very bright star in that galaxy.  Now, it is fading away.  You can barely see it.

The star died!

Our own star will someday die.  It won’t blow up into a supernova, because it is not massive enough to generate that sort of instability.  After all, our sun is just a tiny little thing.  But someday it will use up all of its hydrogen and will burn helium for fuel, thus becoming a red giant star, and the Earth will be sucked into the sun.  We only have 5.4 billion years left!

But – everything dies!  Even Earth!

But don’t worry about that!  After all, in a mere 4 billion years, our galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy, and there is a 12% chance that our solar system will be torn apart by other gravitational influences.

But that is the way it is – everything dies.  Even stars and galaxies.  Oak trees don’t have a chance. 

Hmmm, mmm!  Don’t you love these uplifting sermons!

In the Old Testament, Isaiah 51:6, it says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.”

         Well, at least there is some good news.
One day, I will be dead and gone.  And so will you.

But my soul – and I trust yours as well - the essence of what and who we are – will be in heaven.

Now let’s be honest, it’s one thing to talk about the eventual death of our sun in a few billion years, but to talk about our death, which could come at any moment, makes us uncomfortable.

Comedian Woody Allen said it best when he said, “I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens to me.”

But beyond our moment of death – have you ever given any thought toward that?  What happens when we die and go to heaven?  What is heaven like?

First, Heaven is a place beyond our ability to comprehend.  What we would like is a travel brochure or a map or some photographs to show us exactly what heaven is like.  Jesus said in today’s reading, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions… I go to prepare a place for you.”  Great.  Can have a floor plan of that?  No – we don’t have that.  We cannot conceive of heaven. 

I can conceive of the distance of 2 or 3 miles, but I when I think of a million miles?  That’s beyond my ability to comprehend.

I can understand having a credit card debt of $100.  But a national debt of trillions of dollars?  Between a trillion and a billion I can’t conceive.

To imagine heaven?  That is impossible.  And the reason it is impossible to comprehend is because it is so much better than anything we have experienced.

I’ve had a good life – I can even imagine it getting a little bit better -- but Heaven is so far, far better than any of my experiences that I simply cannot conceive with my limited imagination what it is like.

         In recent years, with all of the progress we’ve witnessed in technological advances in medicine, people have been brought back from the brink of death.  It is not unusual for us to us to hear that someone on the operating table was dead for a short time, and then revived.  Occasionally such people recover with extra-ordinary memories about their experiences.  There is even a movie currently in the theaters about one young boy’s supposed experiences.  Perhaps some of you have had such experiences.  Those who have, often say that it is difficult to describe such events – we do not have the vocabulary with which to describe the incomprehensible. 

         Of course, others question such experiences and suggest that such experiences are due to nothing more than oxygen deprivation. 
         To which I would reply, so what?  We base our faith on one thing – the Word of God.

         Near Death Experiences may give us inspiration for our faith, but we do not base our faith on such stories alone – we base our faith on the Word of God.  And the Bible tells us what Heaven is like in I Corinthians 2:9, which says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

Second, having said that Heaven is beyond comprehension, we can say that it is a place of joy.  We might not be able to fully comprehend how much joy there is, but we can say that heaven is a place of joy. 

In heaven there will be no disappointment or pain. Death will be no more. Sorrow and sighing will flee away.  We are told this in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. (Isaiah 51:11).  

The Bible teaches us time and again about the joy of heaven, and no where is this more clearly stated than in Revelation, when it is said that God will “wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

But this is not to say that heaven will be a dull place.  Heaven will be interesting and exciting because we will never stop growing spiritually and intellectually. We will understand things in new ways, for Paul in I Corinthians says this:  “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

What is heaven like? Heaven is a place of fellowship. Many people have expressed concern to me about whether they will know their loved ones in heaven. Everything in Scripture points to the reality that we will know each other, and even know each other better than we do now.

         In the Old Testament book of Genesis, chapter 25, verse 8, it says, “Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people.”

Now, you might say that “gathered to his people” meant that his corpse was put in the family cemetery, but take a look later in the Old Testament.   King David is facing the illness of his son.  He prays for God to heal his son, but when the son dies, David gets up and goes about his business, accepting the child’s death with uncommon strength. (In 2 Samuel 12:23), the people worry about David.  Perhaps he is in denial.  But no.  David says confidently that the child will never return to David, but he goes onto say, “Someday I shall go to be with him.”  David expected to see the child again. 

I know that when I die I will see my sisters, my parents, my grandparents, my friends who died before me. 

The final point about Heaven is that we should not be anxious about it.  We should have faith and trust in God.  Death is a difficult process, filled with fear of pain and the unknown, but for the faithful, these fears should not be related to whether or not there is a heaven or about what heaven is like.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going. . . . I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:1-6).

Copyright 2014, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.