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"The Problem of Heaven"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 4, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:The Problem of Heaven)
Copyright 2019 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Rev. 7:9-18

August 27, 2015, my wife Amy and I, with our friends, Mike and Angela, had tickets to go see Billy Joel live in concert at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Three things that I remember about that concert experience. Number one, it inspired sacrifice. Number two, it induced in me a joyful forgetfulness of self. And three, it was centered on a larger-than-Life personality.

So first, it inspired sacrifice. Not only were the tickets expensive, but many people had this on their bucket list for a long time, so they drove great distances to get there, waited in seemingly endless lines, arranged for babysitters for the kids back home. It inspired sacrifice.

Number two, it induced a joyful forgetfulness of self. Once we started singing along with Billy, (singing), I forgot about the chronic pain that I feel in my foot, and the fact that I had not renewed my license plate, and I was probably going to get a ticket driving home and pay a fee for being late. I forgot about myself. I didn't care that I was singing off key or that I didn't know the words to the songs. I forgot about myself, and for a moment, so did everybody else there because we were all being drawn out of ourselves, centered on this larger-than-life personality, this "piano man" and his band and his voice. His talent lifted us out of ourselves. Musical performances can do this. They can inspire sacrifice. They can induce a joyful self forgetfulness, as they center us on a talent, on a larger-than-life personality. It's almost like we were made for this--we were made for this experience.

One of the readings that the church has appointed for All Saints' Day comes from the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, and it's a scene of this great vision written by one of the disciples of Jesus, John, and this scene in Revelation 7, John is caught up. He says he was in the spirit on the Lord's Day, and he was caught up into heaven, and he sees Jesus, and he calls Jesus the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the firstborn from the dead, the faithful witness, the One who loves us. He also calls Him the Lamb, the Lamb of God who was slain. By His blood, we are set free from our sins, and John sees Jesus. So when you hear him say the Lamb, that's who he's talking about. So listen to this scene from Revelation 7.

"After this, I looked, and there a great crowd. A multitude that no one could number, from every nation and all peoples and tribes and languages standing before the throne and before the Lamb, and they were clothed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands, and they were crying out with a loud voice saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.' And all the angels gathered around the throne, and the elders, and the four living creatures, they all fell down on their faces before the throne and they worshiped God, saying, 'Amen, the blessing and the glory and the wisdom and the gratitude and the honor and the power be to our God into the age of the ages. Amen.'

"Then one of the elders addressed me saying, 'Who are these clothed in white, and from where have they come?' And I said to him, 'Sir, you know,' and he said to me, 'These are the ones who have come out of the great affliction, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, and so they are before the throne of God and they serve God in His temple day and night. And the One who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence, and He will dwell among them, and they will hunger no more, neither shall they thirst anymore. The sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat, because the Lamb at the middle of the center of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to streams of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes" (Revelation 7:9-17).

This is the Word of the Lord. The Book of Revelation claims to know what we were made for, claims to know who we were made for, and it's this Jesus concert. We were made for a sacrifice-inspiring, joyful, self-forgetfulness-inducing praise of God, our creator, Centered on this larger-than-life personality, Jesus of Nazareth. Let that claim sink in for a moment. It's huge, outlandish, offensive.

Of all the people who've walked on earth, billions of people, why Jesus of Nazareth? Of all the thousands of larger-than-life personalities who have captivated the masses through the ages--why Jesus of Nazareth? Sometimes Christians get criticized for our exclusiveness when it comes to heaven: "How can you Christians say that you'll be the only ones in heaven?" And before you try to answer that question, though, we should be clear about what the Christian vision of heaven is, according to the Bible. It's like a Jesus concert that never ends. So the more important question, the more personal question, that we should ask is not who gets into heaven, but if I get into heaven, will I like it? Does a Jesus concert that never ends sound like a good time to you, an eternal church service? Is that your idea of a good time?

At some point in my Sunday school experience as a child, I was overcome by the fear of heaven, eternity in heaven. What if I don't like it? In his epic poem, John Milton has his Satan character say the following line: "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a hell out of heaven." My Sunday school teachers told me to look forward to the joys of heaven, but in my mind, it was scary as hell. This is what I'd like to call the problem of heaven. The problem of heaven is not so much about who gets in and who doesn't, but is if we get in, will we like it? There are solutions, different kinds of solutions, to the problem of heaven.

The first one that I'd like to talk about is what I call the holodeck solution to the problem of heaven. You remember the holodeck from Star Trek: The Next Generation? Okay, I'll explain it to you. The holodeck was the place in the Starship Enterprise where John-Luc Picard and the rest of the crew could go during a long space voyage to recreate and train. Now, the holodeck uses hard light holograms to create a reality for the user, so they could go horseback riding or walk on the beach, and the holodeck obeys the voice commands of the user so that it creates the reality that fits, that ... whatever they want to take advantage of in that moment. So the holodeck solution to the problem of heaven is at work anytime you hear someone say, "Honey, heaven will be whatever makes you happy."

I remember going to a funeral of a young man who died in a skiing accident, and somebody got up there and said that, "I know he's up there right now in the big ski resort in the skies." Being thoroughgoing individualists, we, North Americans, are especially fond of the holodeck solution to the problem of heaven. We're there with our ear buds in, walking on streets of gold, passing each other while going to the Big Rock Candy Mountain and Ski Resort. That's the holodeck solution.

Now, the holodeck solution though is at odds with the hope held out in the Bible. The hope held out in the Bible is, at the end of the book, Revelation 21, John has this vision of Jesus, and He's sitting on the throne, and He says, "Look, I am making all things new." Notice he doesn't say, "I'm making all new things." "I'm making all things new. I'm taking what was good that I made, and I'm remaking it, making it new." So the hope is not for us to go up into heaven into some reality that we create to make us happy, but that God's heaven would come down here and make things right. So on All Saints' Day, you hear things like, "Grandma's in heaven" which means grandma's soul is at rest in Jesus with other departed saints, and her body is asleep in the earth or in the urn with other bodies.

That's true, that might be comforting, but it's not the goal. The goal is that Jesus would come back and put grandma's body and soul back together again, and that the dead would rise and step into the new creation. Christians say this in the Nicene Creed. "I look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world--" or the life of the age "to come." We pray in the Lord's Prayer. "Father in heaven, let Your kingdom come, let Your will be done." Where? "On earth as it is in heaven." So let's call this the new creation solution to the problem of heaven. Now, the new creation solution is more faithful to the Bible than the holodeck solution because at least it says that whatever it is, God creates it. Not you, not me. So whatever we call it--heaven, new creation, it's God's work, not mine, not yours.

But now we're back to where we started. What if I don't like it? See, I need to know. I need to know what the goal is. I need to know what the reward is. How am I supposed to sacrifice my plans to God's purpose if I can't see the goal? How am I supposed to look forward to a reward? You say that eternal life is the reward, but how can being in the same place forever be a reward if my mind is a place in itself, and in itself can make a hell, even out of heaven? This is the crux of the problem of heaven. On the one hand, it seems like we were made for this experience of sacrifice-inspiring, joyful self-forgetfulness centered on a Person, but on the other hand, no person is good enough to unite the tribes and the languages and the peoples. And even if they might be good enough for a little while, they're going to get old. They're going to get worn out. Billy's voice sounded good, but man, he looked old, and one day his voice is going to fail.

So I'm telling you this because I want you to consider Jesus. I want you to consider Jesus as the One who can do it. He's been through death. He has conquered death. Death has no power over Him. But it's not just His sheer power over death that has drawn me and drawn others to him. It is his larger-than-life personality.

There are other ways to have that ecstatic, joyful experience, similar to but different than the concert experience. I'll give you two examples. My friend Sarah tells a story about how she and her family went to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and she was overcome with ecstatic joy at the site of a moon rock. How can a moon rock do that to somebody? Well, Sarah had felt an almost lifelong connection to Jim Irwin, the astronaut who had brought the rock back to Earth. After he retired from NASA, Jim Irwin moved to Colorado Springs, where Sarah, my friend, was raised, and he lived close by. You could almost see his house over the hill, and Sarah told me, "Oh, we totally celebrity stalked his house and drove by." And whenever they would drive by, she would say, "That's Jim Irwin's house. He's the guy who put the ship on the moon."

The connection with Jim Irwin was even stronger because he had made a presentation at her church, at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs. After he retired from NASA, Jim Irwin became sort of an ambassador of goodwill for Jesus, the Prince of Peace, and he would say things like, "When I went in space, I felt the presence and the power of God like never before" and "Jesus walking on the earth is more important than that man is walking on the moon." So Sarah had this lifelong felt connection with Jim Irwin. So 30 years later, the sight of a rock that the man carried back to Earth was enough to tip her into this ecstatic joy.

Second example, I have friend Eric. For many years, Eric had read books and listened to podcasts by this man, Danny Silk, an author. I'd never heard of Danny Silk. I'm sure he's a wonderful author. I'm sure in his circles of influence, he's well respected, but he's no celebrity. He's no Billy Joel. But for Eric, Eric had read all his books, and his teaching on emotional health and relationships had helped transform Eric's life, and it happened through a connection with a friend of a friend that Eric was able to connect with Danny, and they were able to sit down for lunch. Now, you got to get a picture of Eric in your head. He's six foot seven. He's one of the most brilliant, outspoken, confident people that I have the privilege of knowing. But he said when he sat down at the table with Danny Silk, he was speechless. He practically forgot his own name, because here he was, he was in the presence of the man who had helped transform his life, and he was overcome with ecstatic joy.

It seems like we were made for this, and you could share an experience with me, I'm sure. Somebody does it for you, but it doesn't last. It happens a little here, a little there, this person or that person, but it doesn't last. So again, I invite you to consider Jesus. He's the One. He said things like "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to Me will never be hungry. Whoever trusts in Me will never be thirsty." He said things like "Whoever trusts in Me, as the Scriptures have said, 'Out of his heart will flow streams of living water.'" You say things like that and you turn people's heads. You say things like that with gravity, and you get people's attention, and people paid attention, and they were threatened. Jesus put Himself forward as the One, and so it threatened the people in power. It threatened their little holodeck heavens that they were creating, and they crucified Him. They killed Him, and if we would have been there, I think we would've done the same, or at least we wouldn't have stood up to stop it, but God wouldn't let us have our way.

See, God knows that every heaven that we try to create for ourselves will end in hell. Every heaven we try to create for ourselves will inevitably end in hell, so He raised Jesus from the dead. Now, I'm just a small person, and I stand in this innumerable multitude of witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus and the truth of His claims. I can't convince you with an argument, but I can tell you that I know people who have been transformed by the work of Jesus. I can tell you that I've walked with people who have been nurtured by a lifelong connection with Jesus. I myself have been brought into ecstatic joy at the site of a rock because it belongs to Him.

Here is your solution to the problem of heaven. He is your solution, and you don't even have to wait till you kick the bucket. If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me.

Lord Jesus Christ, Lamb of God, who was slain and takes away the sins of the world, we give You praise. Be our Shepherd. Lead us to streams of living water, shelter us with Your presence. Dwell among us that we might serve God, our Father, day and night, night and day, in Your kingdom that will have no end because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

Reflections for November 04, 2018

Title: The Problem of Heaven

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. I'm Mark Eischer. Dr. Tony Cook joins us now along with Dr. Michael Zeigler. Thank you for introducing our listeners today to the idea of the holodeck. I don't think many of us had heard about that before.

Tony Cook: I had.

Mark Eischer: Thanks for explaining what it was and how it illustrates some of the many misconceptions we might have concerning heaven.

Mike Zeigler: Right. Yeah. My dad, we grew up watching the original Star Trek and then also The Next Generation so that was one that jumped out to me. I felt like it keyed in on how we deal with this problem. What I said about being afraid of heaven in Sunday school is the absolute truth. I was terrified at the thought of existing forever and losing interest was scary, and sometimes people talk about different beliefs they think when we die, we're just annihilated, and we stop existing. In some ways, that's even more comforting than the thought of existing forever but never being satisfied.

Tony Cook: I completely identified with what you're saying. When I was younger, I struggled with the same thing you're talking about. I'm a pastor, and I preached all these years, and went to seminary. Will I actually like it? Is heaven a goal that I want? I know that might sound weird to a lot of people, but as you're growing in your Christian faith and you read the Bible, it's really hard for us to have an understanding of what that's really going to look like and how we fit into it.

Mike Zeigler: We talked about this last week. My dad was in the military, and we moved a lot, and so I moved 11 times before I graduated high school, so I didn't have much sense of a home, but I did have a sense of a family, and the family made the home. You hear people say stuff like that. I think that's the move I'm trying to make in the messages. It's not so much about where. It's about who is there. In an analogous way, your family makes home, home. Well, it's who's there? Who's at the center makes heaven what it is, and that goes into the different conceptions of heaven that we have. So the Christian conception of heaven is not that we believe that the soul goes on after death or that there's a happy afterlife. All sorts of people believe that. There's nothing new about Christianity in that belief, but what's different is Jesus being at the center. Wherever it is, whatever we call it, He's at the center. He's what makes it what it is.

Mark Eischer: Also, you brought up the idea that it is something having to do with our purpose. We were made for heaven.

Speaker 2: Exactly. I was drawing on some things I had read from C.S. Lewis, a very popular Christian author, and he has this essay called "The Weight of Glory." He keys in on how human beings tend to praise things. We see something. We go to a concert. We see a beautiful sunset, and the most natural thing for us to do is to praise. It's not like we're advertising. We're not trying to get somebody to buy something. It just comes out naturally. We praise. Lewis makes the argument in that essay that this is what we were made for. We were made for praise. When we do this freely and self forgetfully, it is our purpose.

Tony Cook: One of the things that really threw me off or took me by surprise in this sermon was when you came to the end of it, you used this language of "I've told you now this understanding that the Bible paints for us about heaven and the new earth, and I would just like you to consider Jesus." At first, you might think, well, who are you to ask me to consider Jesus? I'm a Christian. I know who Jesus is. The funny thing about it is I don't always consider Jesus in every part of my life and in my thinking, and it's almost maybe compartmentalized a little bit. That's a way of looking at it that I could have heard when I was a pastor, as a Christian, as an existentialist, as just a person who never heard Jesus before. That invitation to say, "Hey, would you consider what Jesus has to say?"

Mike Zeigler: I think we mentioned this last week that my hope with these messages is that they will always speak to someone who's a skeptic or someone who's on the fringe. That's part of why I wanted to offer Jesus, but like you said, as a Christian, we don't always consider Jesus in all life. Martin Luther, remember, first thesis of the 95 Theses is when the Lord Jesus Christ called us to repent. He meant that the Christian life would be one of continual repentance, and that's just simply turning back, turning back to Jesus. His invitation is constant. It's a whole lifelong "Follow Me, follow Me."

Even as believers, we wrestle with doubts. I think of the man who came to Jesus. His son was possessed by the demon in Mark 9. "Lord help, I believe, help me in my unbelief." This is a continual thing that we wrestle with. The invitation from Jesus--"Follow Me, come with Me" is alive our whole lifelong.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"O God of Mercy, God of Might" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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