Friday, February 5, 2016

Some of us have almost as much fear of going to heaven as hell

Heaven in the morning

If you ask a young child what is the point of the church, he will tell you that God uses church to prepare us for heaven.  If you ask an aged person what is the point of Christian faith and hope, he will probably talk about eternal life.  For the young and the aged, heaven is the goal, the oasis of rest for which they thirst in life's desert.  When you're in between, the answers are less certain.    Working people are too involved in vanities.  They talk about church as if it were a club - the music, the building, the activities, so unless violent times come, unless we are forced to choose between faithfulness and life itself, we will probably not have heaven very high on our list of priorities.  Why is that?   Why do we have to wait until they're putting the wood into the fiery furnace before we want to be delivered?  Why do we settle for glowing embers when God promises us we can shine like the stars?  Whether it is centuries away or right around the corner, the Resurrection will be good.  Being with Christ, reunited with loved ones, meeting famous people from the past, what's not to like about those?  Why don't we all look forward to that?

For one thing, we have an ample supply of the world's benefits.  Jesus wasn't kidding when He said it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  He assures us there will be goats as well as sheep at the Last Judgment.  As Daniel, the prophet, foretold, it will be a double resurrection.  Some will rise to life, others to contempt and destruction, so are you glad you aren't rich?  Ah, but doesn't Jesus also say that the larger number of mankind are on the wrong road?  It's self-evident that the majority of people in this world are not rich.  You don't have to be rich to be entangled in vanities.  You do not have to be famous, or beautiful, or successful, or powerful, or envied by many to be headed the wrong way.  Even those who are extremely poor can be entangled in vanities, and when the vanities seem so important, heaven seems far less so.

Now nobody wants to go to hell, but for far too many people, heaven isn't much better.  For many people, especially those who work every day and are involved with this world, the only good thing about heaven is that it isn't hell.  We'll settle for heaven because we prefer it to the only other alternative.   That means that we put eternal fellowship with God into the category of the lesser evil.  Don't do that!  If you were God, what would you think of people who thought you owed them something because they preferred you to hell?   Instead, think about this:  right now you are becoming something hellish or something heavenly.  Only by God's grace can you become heavenly, but that grace is available.  You came here because we offer it here.  You have a chance to be liberated from the vanities.

Do you think of heaven as a kind of retirement village?  It is true that the Bible calls it a rest. That is because there will be no more sin, and none of the consequences of sin, but God does not say there will be no work in the next life.  When He put our first parents in the earthly Paradise, there was plenty for them to do.  In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus taught that those who accomplish a lot for Him here will be given proportional responsibilities hereafter, so the future Paradise will be challenging for those who reach it.  Remember, God made every individual for a purpose.  The Resurrection is His gift.  He would be in His rights to leave us in the grave, but He resurrects us for His purposes.   We will be at His disposal. Any other reason for wanting to go to heaven is sin.

Pastor, that's all theory.   Do you really know anybody who wants to go to heaven because He loves God?   First, be sure that Jesus did just that.  Second, get past that whole style of thinking.  No matter how sinful your reasons for wanting to be in heaven, Jesus forgives you. He went about the Father's business for you, because He knew you couldn't do it yourself. Indeed, He became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.  He paid the price of sin.  He conquered sin and death.   He assures us that it is all in His hands. Nothing depends on us.  He drew us to himself when He was lifted up on the cross.  He purchased our forgiveness so He could make it His gift to us.  Then He gave us the Holy Spirit as He was lifted up to heaven.   Today He draws our thoughts and desires away from the vanities, under His firm but gentle control.

Yet, He does not draw us straight up.  He draws us indirectly, through a dark place.  We all have that anxiety about dying.  Faith seems like such a flimsy flashlight!  Concentrate, my friend.  Jesus went to heaven that way.  It is reasonable that we follow Him the same way.  Only the last generation of men will be an exception.  They will be alive when Jesus returns, and will meet him in the air, but for that generation there will be a different dark place - the Great Tribulation, unspeakable terrors for the faithful under the rule of the devil through human society.  Do not listen to the false prophets who speak of the Christians being raptured away before that.  Jesus taught no such thing.  The last generation will have plenty to be anxious about, but the days will be shortened so that the elect will not be lost.  Then the physical universe will fall apart so that God can make a new heaven and earth.  During the Tribulation there will be both terror and deceit.  Many will fall.  Faith is only as good as its object, so learn the promises of Jesus, that He forgives us, that He is with us, that He opens heaven to us.

A faith built on that Foundation, on Christ the Rock, will be vindicated.  We will be sinners until the day we die, but we will not die the death of sinners.  We died in our Baptism, and were united with the mystical Body of Christ.  Those sitting around you now are members of it too, as well as the Apostles, Prophets, and martyrs of old. Jesus is the Head. When things seem worst, that's when He is the closest.

When we say the Our Father we ask God to deliver us from evil. Jesus promises that He will deliver us, even from the horrible evil of the Tribulation. He tells us that Michael and the angel army will not let the devil use force. They have defeated him in heaven. Here on earth, our weapon is the cross. There Jesus won by losing, gave life by dying, triumphed in surrender.  He entered the darkness to kindle in us and for us eternal light.  The lamp of faith will shine brightly in the time of testing.   Death has become your servant to lead you to your Savior.  He is the Match that sets us on fire so that we shine like the stars.  Don't be afraid when death approaches you.  He isn't pointing to your sins because Jesus forgives them all.  Reason cannot tell us much about the Resurrection, but no matter.  Jesus will do it.  We can count on His coming through for us.  When He was dead He raised Himself.   Now that He's alive, raising us should be easy.   AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd Gross

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