February 8, 2015

Heaven on My Mind

Okay, survey question this morning: how many of you like surprises?  Alright, how many folks are on the opposite end of that scale?  You genuinely don’t like surprises.  What about this: how many folks can handle a surprise if they know it’s coming?  You don’t know what it’s going to be—which is what makes it a surprise—and while you don’t love that you are able to endure the waiting since you at least know something is coming.  Okay, let me change things up just a bit: how many of you are good waiters (and I’m not talking about tables)?  You handle waiting for something you know is coming really well.  You’re certainly excited about it, you just channel that excitement into other things until the day arrives.  Alright then, let’s give the impatient folks a chance to raise their hands since they don’t like waiting: how many of you are terrible waiters when you know something is coming?  You fixate on whatever it is and it’s almost like you can’t do anything else until it arrives.  You’re constantly looking at the calendar, crossing off the days, or checking your watch, counting down the hours.

Our boys would fall pretty squarely in this latter category.  Last Saturday Ricky and Stacy were gracious to babysit for us so we could have a date night.  We made the mistake of telling the big boys this was happening about 9:00 that morning.  All day all we heard was, “When are Ricky and Stacy going to be here?”  Noah in particular is a planner.  For him, most of the fun of playing is in planning elaborate “set ups.”  Well, he started planning activities for their 5:30 arrival from about 10:00 in the morning onward.  The theme he chose for the evening was “centers” like the various learning centers he has at school.  Our plans for the day had been to clean up and clean out ahead of the cheering section we have here this morning.  We had to keep getting after Noah for creating book centers and game centers and Lego centers and puzzle centers and whatnot that were serving to clutter up the house more.  Finally about mid-afternoon he volunteered to clean up all of their toys.  After checking his temperature to make sure he didn’t have some weird virus we let him loose.  He was good to his word.  He picked up every one of their toys…and then proceeded to turn the playroom into “centers” central.  Josiah handled things a bit differently.  Knowing they were going to have to take naps, he came to me about 11:30 in the morning and insisted that he was ready to take his nap…until I reminded him that taking a nap would not hasten their arrival.  He then proceeded to ask us about every ten minutes when they were going to be there for the rest of the day.  In short, they were terrible waiters.

Many of you know exactly what I’m talking about if not in detail then at least in spirit.  In fact, many of you are the exact same way.  When you know something is coming you are just nearly beside yourself until it arrives.  Here’s the trick: life itself is a gigantic game of waiting.  What more, we know what it is we are waiting for: the end.  And, what we believe about that end determines everything about how we handle the waiting.  To put that another way: if we believe the right things about the end the waiting—which most people just call “life”—will go a lot better for us.  In order to believe the right things about the end, though, we have to know the story.

This morning we are in the fourth and final part of our series, The Big Story.  For the last four weeks we have been looking at the big story of Scripture; Scripture from 30,000 feet.  The reason for this is that if you are at all like me—and my condolences if that’s the case—most of the time you spend reading Scripture is taken up by the details.  You read a single verse or maybe a whole chapter and then puzzle over exactly what it means.  Now, as we’ve been saying this whole series, that’s not necessarily a bad thing to do.  But, if that’s how we spend all our time, we run the risk of missing the Biblical forest for the trees.  You see, all those details have a context.  They are part of the grand narrative of God spanning from Genesis to Revelation and continuing on to this day and beyond.  If you don’t have a good sense of the whole story you won’t be able to make positive sense of the details.  The way to avoid falling into this trap that has caught so many and led to some pretty far out there misinterpretations of the text is to take some time to look at the big picture.  This is exactly what we have spent the past few weeks doing.

The big story of Scripture breaks down fairly neatly into four parts: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  Our look at creation a few weeks ago revealed that we are part of a good story being written by God.  From just this first part of the story we were able to gain a wealth of knowledge about the God who is doing the writing.  We learned things like that He is good, all-knowing, all-powerful, creative, and orderly.  Unfortunately, as the second part of the story unfolds, the good and beautiful world God had created and given to us is shattered when the first man and woman are led by the serpent to reject the authority of God in favor of personal autonomy.  The sin they allowed in the door quickly took over the whole neighborhood and we soon found ourselves entirely bound to serve its will, our natures forever thereafter corrupted.  And yet, the love that motivated God to create in the first place meant He wasn’t willing to give up on us.  Even in a mess, God loves us.  As a result, He began laying plans to create a path by which we could return to Him and enjoy the presence we were designed to desire.  These plans slowly unfolded over the course of several millennia until the moment was right for God to turn the page on His story to the third part: the revelation of His Son.  He sent His one and only Son to earth to pay the necessary price to transfer our ownership from sin back to Him.  This transfer is called redemption and this effort to bring us back was always God’s plan.  We thought He was coming after us to pay us back for our rebellion and so we ran the other way.  But, as we talked about, this was never the case.  God’s not trying to pay you back; He’s trying to bring you back.

That brings us to the fourth and final part of the story: restoration.  In spite of the importance of part three, I would argue that this is the most important part of God’s big story.  This is the part that gives hope and substance to the rest.  Redemption is grand, but without restoration on the horizon it is an incomplete project.  The reason for this is that while we may be redeemed from the clutches of sin by the action of Christ on our behalf, life would still end with death and that’s not a lot better.  Besides, I don’t know about you, but in spite of enjoying the redemption of God in Christ, the world still seems like a pretty broken place.  I mean, just look around you.  Think about the last time you watched the news or read the paper or scrolled through the headlines on your computer.  What did you see?  War, famine, violence, disease, terrorism, abuse, exploitation, natural disasters, political strife, family breakdowns, religious persecution, and the list goes on and on.

You know, thinking about, being general like that really isn’t going to cut it.  We live in the time of redemption, the time when God’s plans to bring us back to Him have been fully revealed in Jesus, and yet we also live in a day when Islamic radicals in Syria and Iraq are murdering and raping anyone who disagrees with their disastrous ideology.  They are training boys as young as 10 in the finer points of cutting off a human head.  A similar group in Nigeria, Boko Haram, is murdering as many Christians as they can find and no one appears to be able to do anything about it.  In fact, since the year 2,000 about 100,000 Christians have been killed for their faith each year.  The deadly Ebola virus ravaged several nations in West Africa and even made appearances in other nations of the world including this one.  We could widen our lens to talk about the nearly quarter of a million people killed in the Boxing Day Tsunami in Southeast Asia or the millions left dead in Africa from the AIDs epidemic and the countless numbers of orphans in the wake of the disease.  Or, we could focus just on social tragedies at home.  More marriages end in divorce than succeed today.  A growing number of couples are opting for cohabitation instead of marriage which all the data suggests does more harm than good.  More children are born today without involved fathers than have one.  Not unexpectedly in light of that fact, the prison population is rising rapidly.  About 15% of the country lives below the poverty line.  One in four teenagers contracts an STD every year.  In the 42 years since Roe v Wade almost an entire generation of lives—55 million—have been ended before they began.  We could just keep rolling like this but I think you get the point.  Sin is like the kudzu you sometimes see along the highway that has grown up and covered everything, slowly choking the life out of it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything anyone can do about it.  If we are supposed to be living in the time when God has made us a way back to Him, when He has broken the power of sin through the work of His Son on the cross, why does the world look the way it does?

Now, there are obviously not any easy-to-swallow answers to that question, but the simplest answer I can give you this morning is that while sin’s power has been broken, the time for sin to be removed from the world entirely has not yet come; the page has not yet turned on restoration, the fourth part of God’s story.  The tension we feel here is thick.  Surely there is ample evidence of the advance of the kingdom of God in this world.  And yet this sits side-by-side with the overwhelming evidence that sin has not yet been dealt its final blow.  We may be redeemed, but if this is what the redemption life looks like, this maddening dichotomy of life and death, how is it any better than remaining a slave to sin?  Well, if all we knew of the big story was parts 1-3, the hopelessness we are tempted to feel in the face of all this tragedy would make sense.  But our good God not only has a fourth part planned for His story, He told us about it in advance.  And, when we understand the big story, the small stories we live out on a daily basis are given an entirely new and different outlook.

God revealed most the fourth part of His story to us through the apostle John.  When John was exiled on the island Patmos near the end of his life he had a series of visions from God in which he saw the events that would culminate in the end of the world.  More than that, though, he got a glimpse of the glory of what came next.  What he saw ultimately proved to be more than mere words could handle resulting in a vividly figurative, but often confusing record.  But some things are clear.  And one that is is his description of the final outcome of all the judgment and destruction of sin God will one day bring to this world.  He writes of this glorious picture in Revelation 21.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and turn there with me.

Listen to what John writes about this day that is coming more surely than even your next breath: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with [people].  He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’  And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things news.’  Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’  And he said to me, ‘It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.  The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.  But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”

You see, as terrible as the effects of sin in this world are—and they are terrible as we have seen—they are not the final statement.  There is a new day coming; a day when all sin and its fruits will be gone entirely.  Think about this with me.  Let your imaginations run wild with this idea: there is a day coming when death will be no more.  No one will die.  Ever.  The fruits of death will be gone.  No more mourning.  Remember the last time you mourned.  Perhaps you are still in a season of mourning.  It’s awful.  The world dims a bit during that season.  People mean well, but they never really help.  You try and pour yourself into other things to avoid the pain, the loss, the sense of emptiness, the feelings of regret over the things you never said and did, but that does little more than trying to hold your thumb over the end of a hose to block the flow of water.  The pressure eventually builds up and everything you were holding back comes out in a rush with a raging fury.  Furthermore, there’s no time stamp on it.  It lasts until it goes.  That may be a relatively short time, or it may be months.  Maybe even years.  In this final part of God’s story there will be no mourning.  It will be gone.  So will crying.  Do you remember the last thing that made you cry (and I don’t mean tears of joy)?  Yeah, that won’t happen again when the time for restoration comes.  And pain, it will be gone too.  What was the last thing that really hurt you—and I don’t just mean physically?  No more of that when God turns the page.  In God’s new day all of sin and its fruits will have passed away.  Doesn’t that sound sweet?

No matter how terrible things get here—and John’s earlier descriptions of the events leading up to the end suggest that they will get much, much worse before they get any better—they are only temporary.  If I were to subject you to pain without giving you any sign I planned on letting up that would be a pretty awful experience.  But, if I were to tell you, “I’m going to put you through some pain, but I will eventually stop and when I do I’m going to give you a million dollars,” that wouldn’t make it hurt any less, but you could strengthen your resolve to endure knowing that a reward was coming that would make it worthwhile.  This is the situation we face while we wait for the end to come.  We have been promised that there will be an end to all the evil that surrounds us.  It will not last forever.  And when it does end, we get to enjoy the unmitigated presence of God in the glorious splendor of His heavenly city.  John even got a vision of the splendor of this place and he did his best to describe it—you can read it for yourself in the second half of chapter 21—but what he really communicates is that it will be beautiful beyond description.

The world we live in is hopeless on its own.  Hopelessness comes when we become convinced that some terrible situation is going to continue without end.  Because of God’s promise of this fourth part of the story—the coming to earth of Heaven—hopelessness need not ever be an attitude we bear.  When we live with Heaven in mind, life with all its hardships and challenges suddenly becomes worth something.  It becomes possible to see a purpose to the things we face.  The God who is writing this story has a vested interest in seeing that we get to take part in this glorious future—after all, He made us and no one wishes for the success of a creature more than its creator.  Well, given that John made clear that not everyone gets to take part in this fourth part of God’s story, perhaps the things we face now are geared toward shaping us into the kind of people who can live with God for all eternity.  Since only those who accept the third part of the story—redemption—get to take part in the fourth, perhaps the challenges of this life are geared toward encouraging us to take up and live in the redemption available in Christ.  This idea allows us to shift our perspective from viewing our experiences with the effects of sin as meaningless pain to seeing them as opportunities to become more like Christ.  They are spirit-training exercises little different from the strength-training exercises you might do at the gym (not that I’ve ever done strength-training exercises at a gym…).  Now, does that make them easier to face?  No, it doesn’t.  If I’m doing pushups it doesn’t matter whether I’m being forced to do them for no reason or I’m doing them to increase my arm strength, they’re still going to be hard for me to do.  But, understanding their purpose will make the process more bearable.  It will make it better.  When we live with HeaevHeavHeaven on our minds, life is better.  Life is better when we live with Heaven in mind.

In spite of that, though, this life is still riddled with the tension of waiting.  And let’s just be honest: when it comes to waiting for Heaven, most of us aren’t very good waiters.  Some folks get so fixated on what’s coming that they become just about worthless to have around here.  Others stop thinking about it altogether and live their lives just like the rest of the world does: enduring the hardships to the best of their ability, constructing what little meaning they can justify, and trying to suck what little enjoyment out of life they can while waiting for their own end to come.  That’s no way to live.  Life may be better when we live with Heaven in mind, but it’s quite a challenge to balance anticipating the kingdom of God with being any practical good in this life.  Most of us fall to one extreme or another.  So how do we do it?  How do we manage the waiting?

I think there are three keys to getting it right.  The apostle Peter mentions all three of these near the end of the second letter he wrote to the believers of Asia Minor.  Turn in your Bibles with me to 2 Peter 3 to see what he says.  First, let us rest assured that the end is coming.  At some point in the future God will irrevocably turn the page on his big story from redemption to restoration.  Look how Peter  puts this starting at the beginning of the chapter: “This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved.  In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.  They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’  For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.  But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”

Got that?  The end is coming.  Folks are going to scoff at this notion and tell you that it doesn’t matter how we live because there is no end coming.  But, they are wrong and their lives will eventually reflect that.  Rest assured, life is better when we live with Heaven in mind.  In the meantime, we need to keep in mind the fact that God’s timetable for all this happening is not the same as ours.  Remember what we learned in creation: He is all-knowing.  We learn through the rest of the telling of Scripture an additional important fact: He is all-wise.  Because of this, He has a reason for delaying the onset of the end and it is a good one.  Peter hints at one reason for the delay when he reminds his audience about all this.  Pick back up with me in v. 6: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”  God wants to give as many people a chance to experience the wonder of redemption as will receive it and He is willing to wait as long as He needs to for that to happen.  If He were to come suddenly and mash the big stop button on life there are many people you know and love who won’t get to experience the beauty of restoration.  God wants for them to have a chance to do that and so He waits, giving people as much time as possible.  Now, we who have embraced redemption may face more hardships because of this, but with Heaven in mind this situation is eminently more bearable.  It’s more bearable because we know that everything we face is preparing us for the real life we will live there.  And that real life is coming.  Life is better when we live with Heaven in mind.

This is the case because, as Peter urges his readers, when we live with Heaven in mind we are more likely to live in the kinds of ways that will make us fit for it.  From v. 11: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!  But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.  And count the patience of our Lord as salvation…”  What Peter does here is to give us some advice on how to handle the waiting.  I don’t want anybody telling him this, but the best way to handle it is actually to take a page out of Noah’s waiting handbook.  As frustrating as his nagging anticipation and ready-making was last Saturday, that’s actually the exact balance we need in waiting for the page to turn on redemption and restoration to come.  We should be eagerly looking forward to the day when all things are made new.  Every morning we should rise with the excited thought, “Today could be the day!”  We should share our excitement with the people around us.  It should be palpable and contagious.  Believe me, Lisa and I were just as ready for Ricky and Stacy to arrive by Saturday evening as the boys were.  But, instead of letting our excitement lead us to simply stand by the door and wait, we should be making plans and getting everything ready for when the Lord comes.  We should be pursuing righteousness and godliness every chance we get.  We should be making large deposits in our kingdom accounts such that we have a wealth of treasure stored up there and waiting for us.  Furthermore, we should stick to our efforts to get ready regardless of what detractors along the way have to say about it.  Because of the nature of the fruits of such a life the result of our efforts will be an improvement of not only our life, but of all the lives we touch in the process.  C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that “if you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”  The simple fact is: life is better when we live with Heaven in mind.

Once we accept the transfer of ownership from sin to God brought about by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, once we have embraced redemption, the third part of God’s story, our entire lives become one giant game of waiting.  We receive a generous down payment on life in the coming kingdom of God, but we have to remain in this sin-broken world until the day arrives that the kingdom comes in full.  We have two choices before us: wait in misery, or wait in hope.  Waiting in misery is obviously the worse of the two, but far more people choose it because it’s easier.  They choose it because they aren’t good waiters.  They let their view of the end get crowded out by all the things sitting between here and there, many of which aren’t particularly pleasant.  But when we wait in hope, with Heaven as an ever-present reality at the front of our minds, spending our days getting as ready for life in the kingdom as we can get in this world, life is better.  Life is better when we live with Heaven in mind.  This then is the story of God.  It’s the story we are all a part of whether we realize it or not.  It is a better story than any of the others out there because, if we will have it, it is aimed at our blessing both now and forever.  No other story offers such a promise.  When we live in God’s story, when we walk His path, the life we receive is better than any of the other options before us.  Life is better when we live with Heaven in mind.  Life is better when we live in God’s story.  You know the story now.  It’s time to start the living.