Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Aim for Heaven (Part 2)

All Saints Day (Nov 1) and Eternity Sunday (Nov 22) deal with the same themes. I preached this sermon at Grace Bible on Nov 1, and revised it for SMC on the 22nd -- so here is a brief revision with some added reflections at the end. The attacks in Paris challenge my basic idea, and make it clear that the path I suggest is a hard one.

Today is Eternity Sunday in our church. It feels to me like All Saints Day in the Anglican church calendar, but in fact it comes from the Lutheran Church in Germany, where it is called “The Sunday of the Dead” (Totensonntag). I don’t know why one church remembers the saints who have gone before at the end of October, and another church remembers them at the end of November, but I am assuming that Eternity Sunday is much the same as All Saints Day. …

Our Scriptures this morning direct our thoughts towards Heaven and invite us to live today in light of Heaven’s glory. We walk together through the texts, and then ask what they say today.

Isaiah 25:6-9. In this great passage from Isaiah 25 we see the Messianic Banquet, where all wrongs are made right and all evil is destroyed. Chapter 24 pictures the coming of the end. In the midst of people worshipping God (24:14-16) Isaiah sees the coming doom, judgment in which no one has any hope at all. …

So Isaiah gives us this picture of joy and victory, but only after reminding us of the reality of evil and despair in this world. I think I grasp what Isaiah wants us to hear: The reality of the Great Banquet gives meaning to the present. God gives us the ability to live in the present in the reality of God’s reign, in spite of the evil and terror around us.

Revelation 21:1-6a. As the book of Revelation comes to an end, we see the destruction of evil in chapter 20, bringing about the New Heaven and new Earth in chapter 21. Just as Isaiah 24 pictures judgment and Isaiah 25 shows the joy that follows, Revelation 20 pictures judgment, and Revelation 21 pictures the joy that follows. The New Jerusalem shows us all wrongs made right and all evil destroyed. As with the Messianic Banquet, we can live in the present in the reality of the consummation of good at the end of all things. … The sea is a constant source of danger and of the power of evil. Then we read verse 1: “There was no longer any sea.” This goes further than the previous chapter, in which Satan and Death and Hades are thrown into the Lake of Fire. Now we learn that the very source of evil and danger itself is done away with. Not only are sin and sorrow overcome, but their source is gone, and in its place we see the New Creation where God’s people live forever with God.

The Text in our Present Experience
… This pattern [of fighting back when we are attacked] is not reserved only for great international events, but is played out in almost every relationship we have in our daily lives. When someone attacks us, we find ourselves fighting back with attitudes and actions that do not fit the way that Jesus has taught us to live. …

Aim for Heaven
… Hear a quote from C.S. Lewis:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just 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. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither (p. 134).

Some people accuse Christians of being “so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good.” … Lewis responded to these charges by pointing out that our ultimate goal in life tells what we will live for now. If we aim at earth, trying to fix things using whatever means come to hand, we lose both Heaven and earth.

[Illustration: You can mow in a straight line only by fixing your eyes firmly on something at the end of the lawn you are mowing. Eyes fixed on the goal = straight line.] I preached on this same theme a few weeks ago in Winnipeg, and I have been thinking over this image of walking a straight line towards a distant goal. The events of the past week have made it clear to me that this is actually much harder than it sounds. Follow the image out a bit further. As I walk towards some tree in the distance pushing my mower, I have to be aware of what is in front of me as well. More than once I concentrated so hard on that tree that I didn’t notice a rock in front of me. I hit the rock, stalled the mower, and bent the blade. I assume the same thing is true with tractors in a field before GPS. If you drive straight towards a tree a mile away, but don’t avoid the tree stump in front of you, your straight line won’t be much good!

The obstacle in our way is the problem. Think again of ISIS, and of the attacks in Paris a week ago on Friday. If I am so focussed on Heaven that I don’t respond to the practical events on the ground, my actions will self-destruct. The challenge is to keep our eyes fixed on Heaven while we concentrate also on what is happening around us—like keeping the tree on the horizon in mind while observing the tree stumps around which we detour. It is a difficult balancing act, but it is absolutely essential.

If we respond to ISIS—or to any other event in our lives—on the basis of what is happening here and now, we become caught in the anger and bitterness and the cycle of revenge that are so common today. Instead we remember that the source of such anger and hatred itself will be destroyed and we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus himself, drawing us to the New Jerusalem. …

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