ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 1, 2015
Revelation 21: 1 – 6a; John 11: 32 – 44
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Well once again the world has survived another Doomsday Prophecy. Over the last 18 months we’ve had 4 Blood Moons (a Tetrad). A Blood Moon is a lunar eclipse of a full moon which causes the moon to appear to glow with a fiery red light. This latest Tetrad coincided with major Jewish festivals because Tetrads have coincided with historical events (the formation of Israel, 1948; 6 Day War, 1967) some religious people predicted the end of the world. But here we are. Has humanity learned nothing from the Mayans? Sure we did: we learned if you don’t finish something, it’s not the end of the world. The only sure thing Doomsday Prophecies tell us is that people seek signs predicting humanity’s future, God’s existence, God’s pleasure with us. We look for signs that heaven is real and our loved ones are safe. In looking for signs of God’s will we often lay down conditions. If x happens, I should do y. A positive thing about seeking signs is it shows God’s will matters to us.
A Baptist, an Anglican and a Presbyterian were wondering how much income to give the Lord. The Baptist threw some bills up the stairs: anything landing on a step was God’s to keep. The Anglican threw her money up the stairs: anything on the top 3 steps was God’s to keep. The Presbyterian threw his money up the stairs: anything God didn’t want, he could throw back down. A problem with signs is we can manipulate or interpret events to give us the answers we want.
Now and then we hear a story of someone getting a sign. When my parents were thinking of selling their house they prayed God would send the buyer to the door with an offer. Nothing. Later they went to a local Christian drop-in centre. While there another couple expressed keen interest in buying their house. They went home confused because that wasn’t the sign they’d asked for. Then they realized the drop in centre was called The Door. However, more often than not, we’re not given signs.
When sitting by his father’s death bed, a friend asked his Dad to promise, if possible, to give him a sign from the other side saying he was okay. His Dad said, “Okay, I’ll come back as a white spot on the living room ceiling.” Months later my friend said, “I’ve been looking but I haven’t seen the sign.” I said, “What colour is the ceiling?” He said, “White.” I said, “How can you see a white spot on a white ceiling?” We decided this was his father’s way of saying, “You don’t need a sign, just trust. I’m going to be fine.”
I was once called to the home of a woman who was dying of cancer. She’d been praying for a sign so she could face death without fear. She hadn’t gotten one so she decided to ask her minister what heaven was like. I was moved by the doubts and fears of this woman whose life was drawing to an end. She was desperate to know but having not been there, there was little I could tell her.
What is heaven like? Is it a place where angels with halos and harps worship God for all of eternity? Do we re-connect with our loved ones? Do we enter through a tunnel of light that draws us in or do people meet us on a road? Is there a staircase leading up to gates of gold? Does St. Peter stand at pearly gates with a check list? Because each of us wonders or worries about what lies on the other side of “the veil”, books by authors who claim to have died, gone to heaven and returned quickly become best sellers. In 2010 Todd Burpo wrote of his 3 year old son Colton’s experience in “Heaven is for Real”. Colton claimed he went to heaven where he met Jesus, a humanoid with green eyes, riding a rainbow horse. Colton’s story gains credibility because he relayed information he hadn’t known. He described his great-grandfather and an older sister who’d been still born. In 2010 another boy, Alex Malarky claimed to experience heaven where he saw Jesus and Satan who appeared through a hole in heaven. Later Malarkey confessed it was malarkey. He’d made it up to gain attention. According to psychologist Benjamin Radford “Christians embrace these stories because they reinforce what we already believe.” They reassure us and strengthen our shaky faith. But listen to Malarkey’s confession, I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. When I made those claims, I had never read the Bible. People should read the Bible, which is enough.” So what does scripture tell us about the next life?
In many ways, The Bible tells us very little about heaven. Usually when Jesus spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven”, he was talking about this world and God’s will for humanity. He told us God structures life differently than we do and God wants us to participate in making his vision a reality. Jesus spoke of “God’s world, God’s way.” In the gospel accounts of Jesus resurrecting people from death not one of them gives a firsthand description of heaven. One would think if anyone could tell us about heaven it would be Lazarus. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was on the verge of dying when his sisters sent for Jesus to heal him. The writer, John, focused on many parts of this story – Jesus’ delay in responding to the sisters’ request; Lazarus’ 4 days in the grave; Martha’s anger and Jesus’ grief. Most of John‘s focus was on Jesus’ energy and power as he liberated Lazarus from death. If Lazarus were resurrected today Jesus would have gotten a brief byline and Lazarus would have written the best-selling novel “4 days in Heaven” in which he’d describe the wonders of Paradise and devote a chapter to how “browned off at Jesus” Lazarus was when he discovered he was alive again. Yet at the time, no one interviewed Lazarus. The point of the account was not to tell us about heaven.
When the people of his day asked Jesus for a sign, Jesus in his cryptic manner told them, “no sign will be given to you except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12: 39)) Jesus had performed many healings and miracles and yet the crowds asked for more. The signs they’d witnessed didn’t convict their hearts. They were quickly forgotten. Perhaps the reason God doesn’t give us the signs we seek is that we just go on looking for the next one. They don’t really reassure us. Yet God, in his mercy, does give us “the sign of the prophet Jonah”. What does that mean? Jesus went on, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (vs. 40) Jesus was referring to his coming death and his coming resurrection. Just as Jonah was delivered from the whale, Jesus death would not be the end – he would rise again. Jesus’ death and resurrection are God’s sign to us. They are the only signs we need to assure us that heaven – life in Christ – is real, that God loves us and that those who die in Christ are safe. In Revelation, Jesus declares himself to be “The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (vs. 6), in other words the one in whom everything exists, including heaven. Jesus is God’s sign for all eternity. He is the only sign we need. The only sign we should seek. The only one in which we can find assurance. Through him we are blessed with God’s love and have our truest glimpse of heaven. Listen to the conclusion of Malarkey’s confession, “It’s only through belief in Jesus as the Son of God, who died for your sins that you can learn of Heaven outside of what’s written in the Bible”. It’s ironic that of all the people who claim to have returned from heaven, it’s the one who says he hasn’t whose faith is strongest.
When we have faith in Jesus who has died and who is risen, we can rest assured that when earth does come to an end, whatever is in store for us will be wonderful. In Revelation John refers to a new cosmos, a new reality which he calls “a new heaven and a new earth” (vs. 2). He doesn’t mention Jesus’ eyes, rainbow ponies or grandpa. Instead he describes the quality of life in Christ that awaits us.Through Christ, everything damaged by human sin will be replaced by a new creation aligned with God’s original dream. In this new reality, God will be with us – consistently present, just as we are with one another right now. God will comfort us – “he will wipe away the tears from our eyes (vs. 4)” with the love and consolation of a mother. All the things that cause fear and strife for us will not exist – no death, no crying, no pain. Since death will cease to be, there will be no loss or grief, instead there will be rebirth and joy. Our spirits will be nurtured and kept fresh with water from the spring of life (vs. 6) – with Christ’s Spirit. We will be fully and completely children of God. Everything our Father has will be ours and we’ll share in God’s abundance as fully as his only begotten son Jesus. As Paul put it “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17) Scripture assures us life in Christ will be everything we hope for, dream of and need. Until then, just trust. Have faith. You may not see the white dot on the white ceiling, but it’s there. In Christ, all will be well.