Sermon 24 

Long for Heaven

Luke 6:23

February 11, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Heaven has fallen on evil days – the belief that we live forever in bliss after we die. This has been perpetrated by those outside the church as well as by those within the church.

On the one hand this is shocking – hearing that those inside of the church are undercutting belief in heaven. Those who we would think should be trumpeting heaven and promoting it are actually doing the opposite. But on the other hand this is not surprising at all since cynics have been in the church from the beginning. These cynics are Christians who have gone astray – and they have been with the church from the earliest times. False Christian teachers, we are told, have been around from the beginning of Christianity (2 Peter 2:1; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20). So when we read that there’s “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), that goes for cynicism in the church as well. Debunking heaven then is not just a modern degeneration – much to the ongoing alarm of the faithful.


Attenuated Christians

Remember, after all, that 1 Corinthians 15:19 says that “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” This verse needs to be read slowly. It’s surprisingly about those who believe, those who “have hoped in Christ.” These Christians, however, are the attenuated, truncated, puny ones who claim Jesus’ name but do not care about his work and words. They say they believe but they’re far from the truth. This makes them most pitiable. They are those who have only a “pernicious faith,” as Luther argued, which provides them just enough Christianity to remain removed and inoculated from it! (Luther’s Works 26:269).

They are the lackadaisical ones who don’t have their hearts in it (Luke 8:15). They are the ones who have the “form of religion” but deny the power of it. They are the “lovers of self” who refuse to become “lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-5). And they make for bad days in the church in Corinth .


Cynics Inside

These attentuated Christians are still with us – and so they make for bad days in our churches too. Today they’re saying it’s selfish for us to want to go to heaven. They say hoping to live eternally in heaven is blasphemous because only God is eternal and lives forever and ever. Wanting our lives to extend out in time to eternity is a veiled effort to take over God’s place. So wanting to go to heaven is actually wanting to storm the heavens and become God. These cynics don’t deny eternity and heaven. No, not at all. They admit it’s real. They just say it’s reserved for God alone. Heaven simply isn’t for us. That’s what the prestigious Lutheran scholar Krister Stendahl says (“Man’s Arrogant Concern for His Immortality,” Minneapolis Tribune, February 13, 1972), as well as the popular Seattle preacher, Anthony B. Robinson (“Fundamentally, the Fundamentalist Minister Misinterpreted the Gospel,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 11, 1999, and “Preaching on Easter is Every Minister’s Nightmare,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 7, 2007). And there are many others who believe the same.

Some even say there’s a sophisticated metaphysical mistake in the desire to go to heaven [Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection (1962) pp. 245-246]. It’s based on a correlation of the categories of space and time. They say that if you want to go to heaven and infinitely extend your lives out into the distant future, then you’ll also have to imagine the same for yourself spatially – infinitely extending your body out in all directions at once – eventually even to encompass the whole world. But this, they say, is bizarre and absurd. For only God is omnipresent – or spatially infinite. Since this absurdity is intrinsically attached to the longing for heaven – since time and space are inextricably linked – we have yet another reason to say that longing for heaven is wrong.


Skeptics Outside

And the skeptics outside of the church share in this conclusion. They deny heavenly life – or post-mortem personal existence – because they say there’s no evidence for it (see Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality, eds. Gary R. Habermas & J. P. Moreland, 1998, 2004). Just open-up the graves, and you will see that the deceased remain in their tombs. This makes for an open-and-shut case. For if there were a heaven, the graves of the dead would be empty. And since they’re not, but rather filled with dust and bones, heaven is a fraud.

     The skeptics say that if this tough-minded approach is not taken, we become helplessly gullible. Then people are abused and snookered in all areas of life. This makes longing for heaven anything but innocent. It breeds a deadly vulnerability which plays into the hands of criminals and thugs. So, abandon heaven!


Laying Out the Rationale

Because St. Paul argued with Christianity’s first critics (Acts 17:2, 17; 18:4, 19; 22:1), there’s good reason to tangle with these too.

     A good way to begin this is simply to clarify why we want to go to heaven in the first place. On this score, just listening to what the Bible says helps. This is because hearing these words reveals the rationale or “account” [λογον] honored in 1 Peter 3:15.

In the Bible we’re told that the longing for heaven is moral. So thinking that the heavenly minded are of no earthly good is simply wrong. For the belief in heaven can actually improve life now.

     In Luke 6:23, for instance, it says that when people hate Christians “on account of Jesus,” we are to rejoice because our reward is “great in heaven.” Here we see that our heavenly reward strengthens us. It enables us to endure hatred and unpopularity in this life. It enables us to stay the course. It prevents us from being “tossed to and fro… with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:14).

This is a huge asset. It builds integrity. Longing for heaven makes us stable and trustworthy. It keeps us from being swayed by the winds of fortune, fads and trends. Having our eyes fixed on “the glory that is to be revealed,” prevents us from being disrupted by sufferings, traumas and loss (Romans 8:18). And this firmness helps life flourish in this world.

     In addition, Luke 14:14 says not to seek repayment in this life for good deeds we have done. We instead should expect to be “repaid at the resurrection of the just.” This inspires us to invite people over who can’t reciprocate since they’re too poor to be able to entertain us in their homes. Longing for heaven, then, breaks the back of greed and deceit. This helps us be more generous without trying, at the same time, to feather our own nests. Heavenly longings therefore have a pay-off for the disadvantaged in this life.

But in our defense and rhapsody over the goodness of heavenly longings, the Bible also wants to keep us from losing sight of our duties on earth. We are told that the laborers are few (Luke 10:2) and so we need to get going in the vineyard of this world and make God’s ways known far and wide. We are even expected to be “ambassadors” for Christ Jesus in this life (2 Corinthians 5:20).

     Now St. Paul candidly admits in Philippians 2:23 that it would be “far better” for him to die and go to heaven than stay here and suffer, in what Luther called, this “vale of tears” (LW 28:122). But, he then hastens to add, that it is “necessary” for him to stay here on earth in order to help as many as he can believe in and follow Christ (1 Corinthians 9:22).


God is Primarily Exalted in Heaven

With that said, bringing this world to an end and ushering the saints off into heaven, is still a great good. For in this massive transformation God himself will be glorified.

     How so? Well, when through death we are freed from this life we are also freed from sin (Romans 6:7). That is to say, we will sin no more. While on earth we sin over and over again (Romans 7:21-23), even though we believe in Jesus and have our sins repeatedly forgiven (1 John 1:9-2:2). Death is good because it brings this ungodly cycle to an end.

How does death do this? Well, in death there is judgment and judgment gives us a final disposition or reading on ourselves (Hebrews 9:27). To those who love Christ, it will mean everlasting blessedness. But to those who don’t, it will mean everlasting “wrath and fury” (Romans 2:7-8). Either way matters are settled. We know how we’ll be fixed for eternity. Judgment does this. There will be no slipping and sliding around in eternity. This odd eternal life has been called living with “the cessation of contingency” [Eulalio R. Baltazar, God Within Process (Newman, 1970) p. 123]. And St. Augustine called it being in the state of non posse peccare, or without the ability to sin [On Rebuke and Grace (427) §33]. Either way, matters are settled on Judgment Day – for good or ill – they’re settled.

     This eternal life, whether in heaven or in hell, glorifies God, for no new sins can plague him there. Evil will be stopped in its tracks. All violence against the innocent will be ended. Peace and justice will be firmly established at last (Isaiah 65:17-25). The wicked will be jailed in hell forever – along with the devil and his demons. They no longer will be able to hurt the righteous.

     In addition to this blessing, judgment will make every knee bow “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Philippians 2:10). Currently God’s name is taken in vain all over the place – in direct violation of his command (Exodus 20:7). But in the end all blasphemy will be stopped and every knee will bow and God will be glorified. Those in heaven will honor God’s name with high delight. Those in hell – those living “under the earth” – will be forced to bow. But in either case, God will be glorified – thereby making heaven, first and foremost, a blessing to God.


Getting into Heaven

So if heaven’s so wonderful, how do we get there? Not that we want to jump the gun and force God’s hand, but when the time’s right, how do we find a place there?

     Do we get to heaven by trying harder to make good on our good intentions that previously only lead us straight to hell? Is that the way? Is the way to heaven by trusting in ourselves to do a better job? Jeremiah 17:8 says no. It goes in the opposite direction. It turns us away from ourselves. It says that “those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord,” they are the ones who will be blessed and end up in heaven.

     But notice carefully what this verse says. It doesn’t just say that trusting in God gets you there. No, not at all. For if that were the case, then we could twist our trusting into trusting in our own efforts at trusting in God. This ploy is snide, but common nonetheless. And as a result our needed reversal is lost – plunging us deeper into ourselves. So Jeremiah goes on to say that the Lord is our trust. That is to say that God trusts in himself for us! Now how about that? Isn’t that weird? How can God do for us, what we’re supposed to do for him? How can he be our trust in him?


Jesus Perfects Our Faith

The answer to this is in Christ Jesus himself. Hebrews 12:2 tells us to “look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who… endured the cross” Here we see that Christ is the perfecter [πελειωτην], fulfiller or completer of our faith. So we are not left to push and squeeze our faith extra hard to make it just right. No. The Lord fulfills our faith for us. Christ makes our faith what it should be. He is our savior, after all. This is what he does.

     But how does he do this? Hebrews 9:26 says “Jesus, once for all… put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Sin is what holds us back. Hebrews 3:13 says it hardens us through deceitfulness. This diminishes our faith. So Christ’s sacrifice of himself does for us what we cannot do for ourselves (Romans 7:18-19, 8:3, 11:24). He takes our flimsy trust in God and makes it victorious. He does this by his immense strength – which enables him to be obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). While dying on the cross he’s taunted. His enemies pursue him. They try to coax him down from the cross (Matthew 27:39-44). And he could have done that easily (John 10:18; 19:11).

But by virtue of his conviction, he stays on the cross and dies. And by dying on the cross he frees us from our sin and the guilt that burdens us because of it. Taking away this sin, Hebrews 12:12 says, strengthens our drooping hands and weak knees. How so? John 12:32 says Jesus’ death on the cross draws us to himself. That drawing (John 6:44) enhances our faith to the point where we can say with Jeremiah that our trust now “is the Lord.” In this way his obedience becomes ours. This makes faith a gift (Ephesians 2:8). So by trusting in Jesus, our burden becomes his burden and then our burden is eased because it’s shared (Matthew 11:28-30).


Heaven is Our Home

With such faith we can say with confidence that “heaven is our commonwealth and from it we await our savior, Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). But what does this mean, to say that heaven is our home? How can it be our home if we are still earthlings, slogging “along as if in a bog,” in this troubled life (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, eds. Howard & Edna Hong, 6:6503, 6842)? In what way is heaven our commonwealth or proper home?

     First, it’s the place of our fulfillment. In this life our humanity is blunted and warped. We are so twisted that we never really get a chance to live fully. We’re oppressed, unemployed or under-employed, depressed, sick and stricken (Revelation 3:17). This is because we are born sinful (Psalm 51:5). This makes us slaves to sin (John 8:34). We live in darkness – even so much so, that we love it (John 8:12; 3:19). So this earthly “life is not life. No, it is a mortification and vexation of life” (LW 8:114). Our bodies even yearn for redemption in the life to come (Romans 8:22-23).

The abundant living we’re supposed to have escapes us in this life (John 10:10). Even if we’re rich in material things they don’t bless us (Luke 12:16-21). So we’re trapped in this life (Galatians 5:1). We’re imprisoned – even if we are free to come and go as we wish! Our hope for freedom, then, can only be fulfilled in heaven. That chance is what makes heaven our home – it is our place of fulfillment. There all tears, pain, loss and sadness will be gone (Revelation 21:3-4). This makes heaven truly our home. There we will “always be strong and vigorous, healthy and happy, also brighter and more beautiful than sun and moon, so that all the… gold bedecking a king… will be sheer dirt in comparison with us when we are illumined by but a divine glance” (LW 28:142).

     And secondly, in heaven our life with God is brought to fruition. Isaiah 43:21 says that God created us for himself that we might praise him. But in this life we give into the temptation to praise ourselves instead (John 5:44, 12:25; 2 Timothy 3:2-5; Philippians 3:19). So we are not enthroning God on our praises as we ought to (Psalm 22:3). Instead, “men kiss calves,” Hosea 13:2 reports with tears. How disgusting, indeed.

But in heaven this is overcome. There we stand around the throne of the Lamb, praising God with great jubilation (Revelation 5:6-14). And this is why we should want to go to heaven, says Psalm 30:9. For we don’t go there to pursue our earthly hobbies ad infinitum! Saying I won’t go to heaven unless I can fish there, is not only funny but stupid and faithless. In heaven our transformation into the likeness of Christ will be completed – and so our desires will also be changed (2 Corinthians 3:18). “Otherwise, what would God really have accomplished,… if man would always have to bear his… sack of stench with him and eternally stuff himself and eliminate, discharge mucus,… be lazy and be ill?” (LW 28:172). Pursuing earthly things in heaven, then, would be vile. That’s in part why marriage has no place in heaven (Matthew 22:30). This also is the case, of course, because the absence of death makes procreation unnecessary.


Just to Behold His Face

Glorifying God forever is the chief reason for wanting to go to heaven. The Black spiritual, “Just to Behold His Face” [Songs of Zion, ed. Mada P. Jonhston (1981) hymn 187], says this well:


Not just to kneel with angels,

Nor see loved ones who’ve gone,

Not just to drink at the fountain

Under the great white throne,

Not for the crown that He giveth,

That I’m trying to run the race;

All I want up in heaven

Is just to behold His face.


Luther would agree, for he knew that self-denial (Luke 9:23) extends even into heaven. So he wrote that it was a bad, “covetous love” that longed for heaven, “not for the sake of God Himself,” but for ones own sake. Such self-centeredness clouds over the truth that we are to glorify God “in all things,” and not just our pet interests – either here or “in eternity” (LW 25:380-381). So in heaven we’re primarily blessed by “viewing and looking at God” (LW 28:143). Pursuing our favorite earthly pastimes in heaven then would be a clear waste of time.


Meditate on Heaven

Psalm 1:2 says we should “meditate on the law of the Lord… day and night.” Let that be our good work these days. In our meditation on God’s word, let us focus on the goodness of longing for heaven. Let our meditation and thinking be like a cow in the pasture chewing his cud – “ruminating” on the word of the Lord, as Luther said (LW 30:219). As Christian cows, let us think about it over and over again. Don’t grow tired of it (LW 26:64). Pray to God for help with this and he will bless you with this “thorough kneading of reflection” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, 14:111). Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)