The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

HEAVEN

Delivered 4/12/09
Text: Mark 16:1-8 (1 Corinthians 15:1-11)
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You Bible scholars among us will know that these first eight verses of the sixteenth chapter of Mark are known as the "short ending." The earliest of reliable ancient manuscripts ended right here: the encounter of the women with the young man in the tomb where Jesus had been laid...their amazement and terror. There are no post-resurrection appearances here, just a story that cries out TO BE CONTINUED. And, as you know, some pious scribe did exactly that: added the material we have in verses 9 through 20 to bring the story to a more "literarilly-satisfying" conclusion. Whatever.

Some have defended that effort saying that there is no way any gospel account of the most important event in human history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, could just leave us hanging. There HAD to have been more. Perhaps the end of the original manuscript just wore out and was lost from heavy use. I do not think so. The end of the manuscript did not fall off, or get worn out. The better explanation, in my view, is that end of the manuscript is yet to be written, and you and I will have a part in that!

Yes, we believe in the resurrection. All the religious polls say so. Even in our religiously pluralistic society, an astonishing 84% say we believe that Jesus rose from the dead. (1) Now, juxtapose that with the material we regularly see in the secular press asking questions about heaven (particularly around Easter time) and we find intense interest in life beyond THIS life.

Dr. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of a book entitled Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven...but Never Dreamed of Asking. (2) Kreeft says, "Heaven is the reason that God banged out the Big Bang 18 billion years ago. Next to the idea of God, the idea of heaven is the greatest idea that has ever entered into the heart of man, woman or child."

OK. So what is heaven like? The tabloids regularly try to tell us. Perhaps you remember the headline some years ago, "Major News Break - Heaven Reported Discovered!" The story reported that two Russian Cosmonauts, while orbiting the earth in their spaceship, found that the controls of their space ship were taken over and the ship flew into a black hole. The cosmonauts reported that while they were trapped in the black hole, their spaceship flew to the Gates of Heaven where they met God, heard heavenly choirs, saw angels, and saw their dead relatives. (3) A London newspaper said a spaceship had taken photographs of heaven which showed "translucent buildings, crystal streets, and people with glowing faces who walk around slowly in old fashioned clothes. The paper said the pictures had not been released "to avoid world-wide panic." Another British paper reported that a London psychic, now deceased, sent word back that heaven is lovely - parks, schools, theatres, concert halls, grass and flowers. (4) Wow! If it is in the newspaper at the grocery check-out, I'm convinced. How about you? Oh, and by the way, those cosmonauts say they used to be atheists, but now they are true believers. No doubt.

If that does not tell you enough, some preachers will occasionally add some details. When Billy Graham was first getting started as an evangelist, he was marvelously specific about the world to come. Heaven, he said, was a place "as real as Los Angeles, London, Algiers or Boston." It was "1,600 miles long, 1,600 miles wide and 1,600 miles high." Once there, "we are going to sit around the fireplace and have parties, and the angels will wait on us, and we'll drive down the golden streets in a yellow Cadillac convertible." Billy Graham went on to a magnificent career, but he has stopped talking about that Cadillac... (5) He is much more circumspect in his descriptions now.

I would love to be able to point you to this or that passage of scripture to answer our questions about heaven, but no such passages exist. In fact, except for the rich language of the book of Revelation, the Bible says precious little about the life to come. What we "know" (and I use that term reluctantly) is what we pull together from bits and pieces scattered through the holy pages.

So, what can we expect when we get there? (And most of us DO believe we will get there.) Harps? Haloes? Gates of pearl? Streets of gold?

I love the old story of the rich man who, on his death bed, negotiated with God to allow him to bring his earthly treasures with him when he came to heaven. God's reaction was that this was a most unusual request, but since this man had been exceptionally faithful, permission was granted to bring along just one suitcase. The time arrived, the man presented himself at the pearly gates, suitcase in hand - BOTH hands, actually, since he had stuffed it with as many bars of gold bullion as would fit. St. Peter said, "Sorry, you know the rules - you can't take it with you." But the man protested that God said he could...one suitcase. St. Peter checked, found out that this one would be an exception, prepared to let the man enter, then said, "OK, but I will have to examine the contents before you pass." He took the suitcase, opened it, saw the gold bars and asked quizzically, "You brought PAVEMENT?"

The picture of heaven we have in Revelation is poetic, not photographic. The gates of pearl of which we read consist of one huge pearl, not lots of little ones glued together. Wow. What an oyster! The golden streets are so pure that the gold is see-through - like glass. What kind of gold is that? No one has ever seen such a thing. The writer's point in these descriptions is that what we will encounter will be nothing like we have on earth.

In fact, the same is true of our heavenly experiences. We read of no more sorrow, no more pain, no more tears, no more death. Heaven is described as the opposite of the things we do not like on earth.

How about living arrangements? We recall those wonderful words of Jesus in the King James Bible: "In my Father's house are many mansions..." (6) More recent translations have rendered "mansions" as "dwelling places" or "rooms." Those scholars who know about these things tells us that the accommodations referred to should be thought of as "rooms on a journey" - motel rooms. That suggests to me that our earthly pilgrimage will somehow continue once we get to the other side. Yes, in one sense we will have "arrived," but I am convinced that mere "arrival" is not the end of the story. We will continue to grow and mature. God will not be done with us simply because we are in heaven. And I, for one, am glad. A life without any capacity for growth is not appealing at all.

Speaking of not appealing, the picture with which many of us grew up of everyone gathered around God's throne singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" forever and ever and ever is surely not. The idea of the next life being one long, unending church service for most folks would be hell, not heaven. It has always amazed me that pious folk who find it difficult to handle that sort of thing for even an hour a week say they long to be there. Go figure. Just as so many of our pictures of heaven, this one got its start in the poetry of Revelation - it was John's word of assurance to a persecuted little band of believers who could NOT worship freely or without fear of arrest or even death at the hand of the Roman authorities. John's word was that a day would come when that would no longer be a problem. Worship would be open and free and could go on without worry or fear. Hallelujah!

One more picture of heaven that many would find UNappealing: no sex. The tabloids say there IS - I distinctly remember reading that one reported that Natalie Wood and Elvis had gotten married, and the author of the article reminded us that the promise he had made to his wife was "till death do us part" - after that, it's a whole new ball game! (7) Okee Dokee.

The no sex idea got its start in an encounter Jesus had with some Sadducees who wanted to challenge him on this idea of any life beyond this life. (8) As you may know, Sadducees did not believe in life after death; and as one wag has said, that's why they were "SAD, You See." Anyway, they came to Jesus with this incredible tale of a woman who was married to seven brothers, one after another. Their question was, "In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?" Jesus' response was that this was a stupid question because in heaven there would not be marriage as we know it because everyone would be "like angels," which, by implication, we have taken to mean sex-less.

Is that what it means? I have my doubts. There is an interesting passage in the late Bishop James Pike's book, The Other Side, in which there are several reports of conversations the bishop claims to have had with his dead son, Jim. On one of these occasions, the bishop and Jim were discussing Jim's being in heaven and what it was like. Pike asked if Jim recognized persons there as individuals. Jim replied that he did, and added that he wanted to know more people and know them better. "Do you think of people as male and female?" asked the father. "Is there something like -- like intimate expression?" The bishop writes:
The terms of the answer seemed almost to express amusement at my delicacy of expression: It was very much like Jim. Without a pause: "Sex? Yes, there is sex. But it is not like it is here. It is not physical, of course, but actually there is less limitation. It is more obviously like what sex really means. Here you actually can enter the whole person. It is like you are in fact merging - becoming one. (9)
Do you understand that? I don't. To be honest, I doubt that any of us will ever understand much at all about heaven until we get there. Some have suggested the reason God did not tell us more about the resurrection life is that, if we knew more, we would be so unsatisfied here, that we would be ready to do whatever it takes to hasten the process of "movin' on up." Or that we would have our eyes so firmly fixed on heaven that we are no earthly good. Perhaps. But I am more inclined to think that, even if we knew more, it would mean nothing to us.

The analogy I use is that of trying to explain the joys of married love to a little child. When my kids were younger, I could have sat them on my knee and gone into great detail about the loving relationship between daddy and mommy. But they would have had no idea what I was talking about - they were too young to understand. Now that they are older, I could explain again and they would be able to grasp it. I suspect it is the same if God tried to explain heaven to us - the words would be there, but not the understanding.

It is like the little boy who asked his mom where he had come from. Mom went into a detailed explanation of human reproduction to explain the answer as clinically as possible only to hear her boy respond, "O really? Billy came from Chicago." There are some things that we cannot hope to understand until we have reached a certain level of maturity, whether in this life or in the life to come.

Heaven. Mark's gospel cries out TO BE CONTINUED, and I would love to be able to answer all your questions about HOW. But I cannot. I can only offer a glimpse. One of our generations really GOOD preachers, John Killinger, describes our situation as being "like that of the goldfish swimming around in its bowl on the television set, looking out into the room where we live and trying to understand what it is to be a human being who resides in a house larger than its fish bowl. Our imaginations are simply too limited to conceive of the transformation that will occur when we die. (10)

A little boy was offered the opportunity to select a dog for his birthday present. At the pet store, he was shown a number of puppies. From them he picked one whose tail was wagging furiously. When he was asked why he selected that particular dog, the little boy said, "I wanted the one with the happy ending." (11)

Heaven is OUR happy ending. What will it be like? I am not worried. I will leave that in the hands of my precious Lord who lived and died and rose again that I might live. By the grace of my risen Savior, I will rely on the promise of his word: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into [any] heart...the things which God has prepared for them that love him." (12) But today we get just a glimpse. That is why we say "Happy Easter."

Amen!

1. ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, 3/28/97

2. San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1982

3. Religious News, Arlington, VA , via Internet, http://www.delve.com/heaven.html, 3/96

4. Daniel McDonald, "God's Favorite Number," The Christian Century, 12/12/90, p. 1158

5. David Van Biema, "Does Heaven Exist?" TIME, 3/24/97, pp. 71-78

6. John 14:2

7. Daniel McDonald, ibid.

8. Luke 20:27-38

9. Quoted by John Killinger, "What Is Heaven Like?" Pastor's Education & Book Service, Fall, 1992, p.11

10. John Killinger, ibid.

11. Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)

12. I Corinthians 2:9

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