What is your conception of heaven? Is it a place to which you escape when you die? Something only for the future and not for the present? In the fourth week of our Non-Perishable sermon series, our friend David Morrow explores the idea of heaven as the coming Kingdom in which we participate here and now, and the eternal Emmanuel – God with us.
What do we do with this time, this time before death? What is heaven all about? Does God have a plan for earth? Is God’s plan renewal or rejection? A frequent question that is asked is: “Will you go to heaven when you die?” This week David spins that question with this: “Will you be ready for heaven when it arrives? Revelation 21 expresses the promises of “a new heaven and a new earth, the first heaven and the first earth passed away and there was no longer any sea.” The idea of the sea is a symbol in the ancient world for turmoil, death and separation. In the new heaven and new hearth, there is no more separation! Furthermore, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” What’s interesting here is the way Revelation talks about the heavens, a city, coming down, not us going up. In verse 3 it goes on to say, “Look, God’s dwelling place (the Greek word for dwelling place is “Sakeynay”) is now among the people and he will dwell with them they will be his people and God himself will be with them and he will be there God. He will wipe every tear form their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
There will come a day when the old order will pass away and the new will come! Amen! Jesus will make everything new. Revelation 21 appears to clearly articulates that the new heaven will come here – on earth. However, according to a survey on heaven from Time magazine, the majority of Christians believe heaven is a place your spirit goes after you die. BUT, Revelation 21 talks about “life after life after death”.
Some think heaven is a place you “go”, some think heaven is coming, some think heaven is only for spiritual restoration. There seems to be a lack of specificity around heaven. For example, the Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye told a grand narrative of the rapture. The rapture is an idea that there will come a time when God will evacuate all of us from this earth. Thus, the goal of heaven is an escape – an evacuation plan. BUT… is this the only idea? Is rapture theology the only vision of heaven we have? Is God’s plan about evacuation and scrapping the world and all he made? If God is scrapping all of this, then the question “Are you going to heaven when you die?” becomes terrifyingly important. All this begs yet another question, “Where did rapture theology come from?”
Well, according to Plato’s allegory of the cave, a group of people are “handcuffed” together and they can only look forward, not behind. The only things in front of those who are handcuffed are shadows, cast by other people behind them. This idea of the shadows lead to dualism. This dualism suggested, “The lowest level of reality is matter” – IF the lowest level of reality is matter, then the obvious goal is to escape the material world. Plato quoted his allegory of the cave in this way, “We ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can. And to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible, and to become like him is to become holy, just and wise.”
Does this sound like rapture theology? Early Christian theologians were steeped in Plato. Heaven ended up becoming a non-earthly, spiritual place for spiritual beings engaging in spiritual activities. Heaven ends up being a never-ending church service. Is that reality? Is heaven really a non-earthly place? But there has never been a human without a body – so why would God suddenly change all this material stuff? What is God’s plan, really? According to Revelation 21 God’s plan is more about restoration than evacuation. God is going to restore his creation, including you! God is going to redeem all things and all of us. We see this thread throughout the entire biblical narrative. The question that more truly aligns with the biblical narrative, then, is “Will I be ready for heaven when it comes?” rather than, “Will I go to heaven when I die?” Restoration ultimately begins with God’s presence. It’s all about the presence of God.
Going back to Revelation 21:3, Sakeynay means, “tabernacle”, the “dwelling place of God”. The ultimate goal of heaven is about presence rather than place, the presence of God!
IN Genesis Adam and Eve walked through the garden, and God was with them. God was with Abraham. God was with the Israelites in the desert. God was in the tabernacle; in the “holy of holies” with the people. And as they built the tabernacle, the glory of God dwelt among them. The Hebrew word for Glory is “Kabod”, literally meaning, “heavy, weighty”. What happened in the tabernacle “the weighty presence of God” filled the place – the glory of God shows up in the tabernacle! Then in the book of Isaiah, we read of a glimpse of Jesus who is called Emmanuel, God with us. God with us. Moving on to the book of Ezekiel, the people of God are in exile, without the temple. But in chapter 37 it says, “My dwelling place will be with them, I’ll be their God and they will be my people.” Even without the temple, God’s presence was with them! As a precursor to Revelation 21, the end of Ezekiel says, “And the name of the city from that time on is, the Lord is there.”
The promise of God from Genesis to Revelation is God is with us! In John we read, “The word became flesh and made his sakeynay among us.” In Revelation 21 and 22 there is no temple, but it does tell us the dimensions of the city. The city is the shape of a cube. What is the city? It’s the kabod. The dwelling, the glory of God – the whole city is the holy of holies! What a promise! This is our future hope, the full kabod of the glory of God.
What are some of the ramifications of the new heaven now? God wants to use his image bearers here and now. In 1 Corinthians Paul says, “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord because you know your labor for the Lord is not in vain.” The work we do now somehow helps bring the Kingdom. What we do now will not be wasted. God wants to renew us so we can partner with him to renew creation. Through us the created order can be renewed. Yet, we cannot bring the kingdom in and of ourselves. GOD brings the kingdom, but God does want us to partner with him.
There is a mystery in this partnership to help bring his kingdom. The work that we do for the Lord is like a rock that gets thrown into the water and the ripples moves out, creating significant change. God is going to use the work that we bring to him to somehow speed up the coming Kingdom. We can all cast a stone across the water to create many ripples. What is the stone for you? What’s the stone God is asking you to throw in the water to participate in the Kingdom? Maybe your stone is forgiveness; maybe it’s creation care, extravagant love, generosity, patience. What is your stone? We must choose to believe our labor is not in vain.
Each stone creates many ripples, but what would happen if there were ten stones? 100 stones? What if we all throw in our stones? Eventually this will create a tidal wave of the love of God throughout all of creation! Someday racism, sexism, tribalism, body shame will all be washed over by the kabod of God. God’s plan for the kingdom is not an evacuation plan but a restoration plan.
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