Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019
Heaven Is for Real
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text is from the Epistle reading, the Revelation to St. John. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Here ends our text.
Is heaven for real? Or is heaven just something that man made up to give himself comfort when he faced death? How do you know for certain that heaven is real? Have you been there yourself? This is an important question. Your whole eternity and even the way you live your life today depends on the answer to whether or not heaven is for real. That’s probably why so many people look for proof that heaven is real. Since we can’t see heaven from our vantage point on earth, though, the only way we can know for sure that heaven is real is to hear from someone else who’s been there and seen it himself.
Perhaps that’s why books about someone who’s died and supposedly gone to heaven but then returned by being resuscitated are so popular. The latest one of these books, entitled Heaven Is for Real, made the New York Times best seller list and sold over 2 million copies. This book tells the events of a four year old boy who recounts to his father years later about his supposed life after death experience on the operating table. Over many years the father extracts tidbits from the boy about his account of heaven. Apparently, the boy began describing people that seemed impossible for him to have known on earth.
He met his miscarried sister and his deceased grandfather whom he later identified from a lineup of old photographs. The boy says he sat on Jesus’ lap while the angels sang him songs. He saw people flying around with wings. Jesus even had a rainbow colored pony. Of course, people cling to these books and accounts as proof of heaven. They hold them up to their unbelieving friends and co-workers in an attempt to either convert them or at least justify their own beliefs.
But should we really be looking to these kind of accounts as proof of heaven? Do you really want to hang your hat on the testimony of a boy remembering back to when he was four years old when he was never even declared clinically dead? Though I’m sure many people are quite sincere, there are also accounts that were later discovered to be frauds or embellished in order to sell books and make money. And doesn’t it seem odd that these accounts are skewed towards one’s personal beliefs? In these life after death accounts, Moslems see virgins, Mormons are greeted by Joseph Smith, Roman Catholics encounter Mary, and even atheists see a bright light. Of course no one, not even pagans, seem to come back with a life after death experience of hell and torment. Maybe our own experience or other people’s experiences aren’t what we should be trusting in this matter. But what should we trust?
Jesus tells the account of the rich man who went to hell and the beggar Lazarus who went to heaven. From hell the rich man looks up to heaven and pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers on earth lest they come to this place of torment. But each time Abraham says, “They won’t believe even when someone rises from the dead. They have Moses and the prophets.” In a sense, people aren’t going to believe because of someone returning to tell them their life after death experience. But they do have Moses and the prophets. They have the Bible. Let them believe on the Word of God.
Even when Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, the Pharisees and Sadducees still didn’t believe. They returned to Jerusalem to make plots against him. And the Bible says nothing of Lazarus running around selling scrolls about his life after death experience in order to gain followers for Jesus. The miracle of his resurrection was all that was needed to point people to Jesus as the Christ.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul recounts that God allowed him to see heaven. Whether it was in his body or an out of body experience, he doesn’t know. In his vision of heaven, Paul saw things and heard things which he says cannot be told, which man may not utter. But even the apostle Paul doesn’t boast about his vision of heaven or try to convert people by offering his experience as proof. He simply continues to preach Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins. He speaks of eternal life in Christ, but he really doesn’t describe it for us.
So how can we know that heaven is for real? We still need to hear from one who has been there and seen it himself. We need to hear from one, however, who is an expert and has authority to speak on the matter. How about Jesus himself. For before he was even born, crucified, and died, Jesus the Son of God was in heaven with God his Father. After he descended from heaven, Jesus promised his disciples, “I am going away to prepare a place for you. In my Father’s house are many rooms.” And now Jesus is ascended into heaven to do just that. Jesus came from heaven and is now in heaven. I think his testimony will do.
But in the Gospels, Jesus didn’t really describe heaven for us either. He does give us an account, though, through someone whom he’s authorized to tell us. Not from a four year old boy, but from one of his designated apostles, one who had seen Jesus suffer, die, rise again, and ascend into heaven, the apostle John. In the Epistle of Revelation, Jesus appeared to John in a vision and told him to write down everything he saw and send it in a letter to the churches. In his vision John saw many things from the past, present, and future. But in our reading today, he writes to us about the consummation of all things. He writes about heaven.
John writes, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Now even if these life after death experiences of some people are true, they couldn’t have seen much. They’d have been in some intermediary state in only their spirit before the resurrection of the body. Heaven wouldn’t be fully completed yet. But John sees a vision of the future, after the Resurrection of the dead, when heaven is first presented in all its glory.
The earth we know today and the surrounding heavenly bodies had all passed away. The apostle Peter tells us that it is destroyed by fire. Though we are attached to this world, its destruction is really a good thing because all this creation is fallen and broken. It feels the effects of sin and it groans to be remade into what it once was, something perfect. Hence the new heaven and new earth. It’s not a spirit realm where we float around. Heaven is physical and touchable and real. We’ll have a place to live in our resurrected bodies. John calls it the new Jerusalem, a magnificent city with streets and gates and wall of gold and jewels. It is Jerusalem the golden.
What John sees is too glorious to put into words. He somewhat describes heaven by what is not there. There’ll be no more pain or crying, tears or mourning because there’ll be no more sin, death, and funerals. There’ll be no more night but only light. Light won’t come from the sun or moon though. The glory of God will give it light. And they’ll be no temple or churches there.
There’ll be no more need for God to come and dwell with sinners in some veiled way like a pillar of cloud in the Old Testament or the bread and wine of Communion in the New Testament. He’ll no longer speak through his prophets and apostles. Hell speak to us directly. God will be there in his full glory for us to see and hear.
Now some people worry about some of the details. They want to know, “Will my dog be in heaven? I couldn’t be happy without my pet.” Or “What will we do in heaven? Learn to play the harp? I never liked music lessons here on earth.” Or “What will the food taste like?” But they’re missing the point. The most important thing is not what our bodies will be like, what we will eat, or wear, or do. It’s not the created things of heaven that will be so special, though indeed they will be. The most important thing is that we’ll be in the presence of our Creator and Redeemer and Sanctifier. John writes, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” In this world God is hidden. You pray to God. You talk to him. But he answers back through his written Word or preached Word. You don’t hear his voice directly. You also don’t see God. You only see his creation. God comes to you veiled in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. But in heaven you’ll stand directly in the presence of God. You won’t cower in fear that God will annihilate you because of your sin. Jesus has taken away you sin. You’re his bride who he brings to the Father for his blessing. You’ll be able to talk with God and ask your specific questions. With his voice he’ll answer you back. It’ll be like the Garden of Eden in paradise where Adam and Eve walked with God. To be with God without any barriers between us – that’s heaven.
Of course, how do we know this for sure? How do we know heaven is for real? The one who was seated on the throne in heaven said to John, “Behold, I am making all things new. Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” God authorized John to write down his vision of heaven for us to read about. We don’t need the testimonies of other people’s life after death experiences. Nor is our hope in only being a spirit wandering among the clouds. Our hope is being in our resurrected body in a physical, touchable, and real heaven where God dwells with us. And we know this for sure from a book that is on the best seller list every year with not just millions but billions of copies read. We have Moses and the Prophets. We have the testimony of Jesus Christ who descended from heaven and ascended back into heaven. We have the witness of his apostle John who wrote this all down. We have the Bible. We believe on the Word of God. His Word is our assurance and proof that heaven is for real. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.