FEBRUARY 24, 2013



How many of you have a card in your wallet or purse that looks like this?  It's an American Automobile Association card.  How many of you have used your card for towing or starting your car or maps or tour books?  How many of you are familiar with AAA tour books?  Prior to the internet we would use them all the time.  Well, if they had a AAA tour book on heaven, I imagine it might read something like this ...


            A large set of pearly gates will welcome you to heaven, but be careful of slippery roads that are paved with gold.  A sea of glass tops the list of scenic points, however, local conditions preclude sunsets, sunrises, or full moons.  Do not miss the spectacular New Jerusalem, a striking city of the future employing award-winning architectural design.  Marvel at its twelve foundations.  Stand amazed before its twelve gates, each made of a gigantic, single pearl.  For sheer spectacle, the National Contractors Association agrees that the New Jerusalem eclipses even the Emerald City of Oz.[1]


            This morning we bring our "What's New?" sermon series to a close with a look at the new heaven God promises us.  As we do I want to investigate three oddities about heaven, not in the sense of being weird, but odd in the sense that these three things should have been obvious to us, yet we have overlooked them or we have not appreciated them, sort of like Reno, Nevada.  Did you realize that Reno, Nevada is one-hundred miles further west than Los Angeles?  We should have known that, especially me having grown up in Los Angeles, but for years I missed that fact.  Or how about this one: if you live in Detroit, Michigan and want to travel to the nearest part of Canada, you need to go south.  These are odd facts.  They have always been there for us to see, but we have missed them.  We have overlooked them.

            In a similar fashion we have overlooked some important facts about heaven, and let's turn to those facts now.  Oddity number one: heaven comes down to us.  Please note verses one and two and then verses nine and then.


            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, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.


            Here the bride of Christ is a city, the new Jerusalem.  Elsewhere in the Bible the bride is the church.  Then skipping to verses nine and ten. 


            Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb."  And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 


            Odd.  A part of heaven, in the form of a holy city, descends to us, rather us ascending to heaven.  Of course, the entire book of Revelation is odd, but nonetheless, this strikes us as particularly odd.  We have always talked about going up to heaven.  It's sort of like driving south from Detroit to get to Canada.  We have never quite pictured it that way.  So that's one of the oddities about the new heaven we find in our text.  Now let's turn to a second oddity, and then after looking at these first two oddities, I want to draw an implication from them to our lives.

            Oddity number two: our hope of heaven is centered in a city of all things.  Of course, we have heard this before when the prophet Isaiah said something very similar,[2] but it still strikes us as odd.  By that I mean, when we desire renewal and the restoration of our mind and spirit where do we usually go?  We go out of the city to get away from it all.  We go to the beach or the mountains or the country.   There we can commune with nature, slow down, retool ourselves.  Cities, on the other hand, wear us out.  They are noisy, crowded, frantic.  After all, the first city mentioned in the bible, the city of Enoch, was built by that murderer Cain, and the second city mentioned in the bible, Babel, was built by an arrogant hoard of humankind who wanted to storm heaven.  Isn't heaven going to entail a return to the Garden of Eden where we can stroll in the cool of the evening and pet unicorns?  Well, not according to Isaiah and the Revelation.  Our hope of heaven involves a city, albeit a holy city, the new Jerusalem descending from heaven.

            And here comes the implication of these first two oddities taken together.  The first two oddities imply that heaven will be more of a continuation or a completion or a perfection of what he experience here on earth more than a disruption of it.  A piece of heaven descends to that which is familiar to us and the earth is transformed and perfected by heaven's infiltration, hence a new heaven and a new earth.

            A number of years ago I did a funeral for a guy named Alan Longacre.  He was the chair of the building committee of the Third Presbyterian Church of Omaha in the early 1950's, and the committee chose to relocate the church way out west to 82nd and Hascall Streets, and they renamed the church, West Hills.  Anyway, at Alan's funeral I read a poem that I found stuck in his bible.  It was written by Rudyard Kipling, and Kipling, among other things was an artist, and in the poem Kipling envisions what heaven will be like for a painter like himself.  Kipling's poem goes like this ...


When heaven's last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,

When the oldest colors have faded, and the youngest critic has died.

We shall rest, and faith we shall need it - lie down an aeon or two,

Till the Master of all good workers, shall put us to work anew.

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;

And no one will work for money, and no one shall work for fame.

But each for the joy of working, and each in his separate star,

Shall draw the thing he sees for the God of things as they are!

            For Kipling heaven was a continuation, a completion, a perfection of what he already knew.  He would continue his work as a painter, but that work would be transformed, improved, perfected.  That is the implication of a descending holy city.  That which we have begun to experience corresponds to what we will completely experience in heaven.  Let me put it this way: what do you really like doing?  Now imagine doing that with no frustration.  Think about doing what you love to do as often and as long as you like.

            Now to the third oddity: the shape of the New Jerusalem.   Look with me at verses fifteen and sixteen ...


            The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls.  The city lied foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.


            The heavenly city will be a fifteen hundred mile cube.  Why a cube?  Because a cube in the ancient world symbolized perfection, but the sheer size of the cube implies something more.  Simply put, the size of the cube tells us that there will be room for everyone.  No need to be left out.  Back when the bible was written, fifteen hundred miles was pretty much the size of the known world, and so the idea here is God is more interested in getting people into heaven than keeping them out.  Theres room for everyone if we want to go. 

            Listen to an incredible verse from the bible.  As you know, some verses in the bible get a lot of press.  I Corinthians 13, the love chapter, gets a lot of press at weddings.  Psalm 23 gets a lot of press at funerals.  II Timothy 3:16, "For all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching and training in righteousness," is gets a lot of press at this year's Lenten gatherings.  But far and away, the bible verse that gets the most press is John 3:16.  Maybe you have even seen John 3:16 banners draped over stadium walls.  It's a great verse: "For God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life."  It's a great verse, but let me introduce you to the verse's next door neighbor.  This verse doesn't get much press at all, which is incredible, because it's a stunner.  In fact, turn with me to John's Gospel, to John chapter three, verse seventeen.  Got it in front of you?  Good.  Listen to it.  It's quite a statement about God.


            Indeed, God did not sent the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


            In other words, the primary purpose of Christ coming into the world was for God to bring as many people into heaven as possible.  Therefore, a fifteen hundred mile cube. 

            As we end this sermon series, and particularly as we end this message, I want to close with a question.  Here it is.  "How would you describe your chances of going to heaven?"  Excellent?  Good?  Fair?  Poor?

            This question was recently asked of members of Protestant churches in the United States.  It was part of a Gallup Poll survey.  Let me tell you the results.  26% of all Baptists, 20% of all Lutherans, 19% of all Presbyterians and 16% of all Methodists answered "excellent." Taken altogether, only 24% of all Protestants in the United States felt that they were assured of a place in heaven.  And that's rather shocking because one of the things that sets Protestants apart from Catholics is the doctrine of justification by faith.  That was the bumper sticker on Martin Luther's Volkswagen.  We get to heaven, not by our works, but by our faith in Jesus Christ.  If we accept what Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross, it's a done deal.  We have a place in heaven.

            Now, I'm not going to take a poll here of how many of you circled "excellent" or "good" or "fair" or "poor," but every follower of Jesus Christ, everyone here who has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, should have answered "excellent."  Maybe you circled "good" because you didn't want to be conceited our boastful, but in this case we are not boasting about ourselves.  When we say our chances of going to heaven are "excellent" we are boasting in what Jesus Christ has done for us. 

            Think about that.

[1] Adapted from Joni Eareckson Tada's description of heaven "What's So Great About the Pearly Gates?" Discipleship Journal, November 1993, p. 20. 

[2] Isaiah 65:17-25