You're Not Home Yet

by Rev. L. John Gable

You’re Not Home Yet by Rev. L. John Gable
May 21, 2017

Did you hear the one about the man who died and went to heaven?  You probably have, and you could likely fill in that introduction with any one of a dozen different jokes, most having something to do with golf, or the benefits of eating kale, or who is and who is not able to meet the entrance requirements.

It seems heaven has become a more popular topic for humor than it has for preaching in recent years.  For some reason preachers and teachers and theologians have shied away from talking too much about the hereafter.  Perhaps some are concerned that if they talk too much about the benefits of life after death people will become less concerned about issues of life before death.  You know the age-old criticism that some overly spiritual folks are “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.”

Perhaps others are reticent to talk about heavenly matters because in this scientific age there are few empirically provable facts available to us.  With rare exception, preachers are no longer comfortable talking in too much detail about the geography of heaven or the temperature of hell, since both are beyond our understanding and experience.  Still others wonder why we should set our hopes on “pie in the sky when we die” when we have every creature comfort we could ever imagine right here?  Add to that, many in this culture have written off the concept of either of those destinies altogether as being nothing more than religious myth promoting a now outdated and inappropriate system of eternal reward and punishment.

Yet, just because we can’t taste it, touch it or see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  I like the way C.S. Lewis speaks about heaven when he says, “It is the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.  We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience…We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it.”

So what is heaven like?  In as much that no one has ever successfully gone there and returned to describe it (although admittedly many have spoken and written convincingly of their life after death experiences) many continue to speculate.  Through the centuries people of faith have described heaven in many different ways: as a garden, a city, a kingdom, a temple, and less often as a nut, a womb, a navel.  It has featured buildings and streets made of precious metals and stones, doves, palm trees, singing stones, white clothing, milk and honey, harps, fountains and ladders.  All of which is to say, no one really knows what physical or metaphysical features heaven will offer; and they also remind us that those who try to articulate their vision of this eternal hope find themselves limited by the words given them to describe it.  Human language is simply incapable of expressing, and human imagination is incapable of perceiving, the reality of things eternal.  So, does that mean we should stop trying to describe the indescribable or imagine the unimaginable?  No, it simply means that the truth of the message is grander than the medium we have available to us to describe it.  Try as I may, I cannot adequately describe to you the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, or the emotion of falling in love.

In the book of Revelation John struggles with this same problem.  He is given a glimpse of eternity and is then charged with trying to describe it to the rest of us; a seemingly impossible task because what he saw is inexpressibly more than life as we know it now writ large.  So he uses language we can barely put our minds around, yet which speaks clearly to our souls.  Listen again to John’s words as he attempts to describe what he sees, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth has passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw a holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them; they will be His peoples, and God Himself will be with them…and the One seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new!’”

Whether he was able to accurately describe what he saw or not, his meaning is clear and the promise is bold.  The end is not an ending, but a new beginning, because in the end is God.  This promise of the Christian faith is the basis of our hope in the face of death and the promise of eternal life.  John’s vision give us the assurance that the end is not an event, or even the total cessation of events, rather it is a person who is there to greet us and to welcome us home.  The end is not nothingness, it is everything; it is God.  Shining through all the varied pictures of what heaven will be like is a portrait of what God is like.

As Christians we view human history as being linear in contrast to those of the Eastern religions who view it as being circular or cyclical.  They view life and eternity as being an endless, unbroken continuation: day into night in to day again, the cyclical progression of the seasons, life into death into life again, which is the basis of their belief in reincarnation.  As Christians, however, we believe that human history is linear. There was a beginning and there will be an end.  We read in the opening verse of Genesis, “In the beginning God”, and then at the close of the book of Revelation “in the end God.”  In his vision, John hears a voice saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end”; that is the voice of God.  This understanding of history gives life meaning and purpose because it has direction; it is moving toward completion.  It reminds us that we are accountable to God for the living of our lives because we have come from Him and one day we will return to Him.  In the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “it makes all the difference in the world whether the end of history is finish or fulfillment”.  We believe it is fulfillment.  So the first and most important truth we can draw from this passage is that human history won’t one day simply come to a meaningless end, but that God is the end, just as He was the beginning.

A second truth expressed in John’s vision of this promised hope is a renewed and restored measure of intimacy between God and His people, an intimacy we once enjoyed, in the beginning, but forfeited by our sinful behavior.  John’s description of heaven has less to do with climate and location than it does with the beauty of a restored relationship.  Imagine this, God living, dwelling, the actual word is “tabernacling” in the midst of His people, like it was originally, in the garden.  And there, in the presence of God, anything that robs us from full and abundant living will be removed.  “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  There will be no temple in this eternal city because there will be no need for one.  We won’t need to go to the Temple, or to the church, to be with God because God will be with us.  “It’s temple is the Lord God the almighty and the Lamb.”  Every time and place will be God-filled and holy. There will be no sun or moon, no more night, because “the glory of the Lord is it’s light and its lamp is the Lamb.”  Do you get a glimpse of what John is trying to describe here?  He is describing life as it should be, as God originally intended it to be, as it one day will be when God finally has His way with us, when God and His people are rightfully restored once again.  With this kind of hope and promise we can let go of the things of earth and face death with a sense of calm assurance, even hopeful expectation.  We cling to the things of earth with such desperation, but we can release our grip once we see what awaits us, what God has promised us, like the man who gladly sold all he had to purchase the treasure he found in the field or the merchant who found the pearl of great price.  Friends, you and I can live and die with that same sense of joy and the confident hope of being restored once again into a perfect relationship with God in His eternal Kingdom we call heaven.  This is what Christ has done for us.

A third, and final, truth I’d like to lift from this passage is that heaven, not the earth, is our true home.  We are not children of earth, but children of heaven, so all we are doing in this life is making our way back home.  We spend so much of our time and energy and worry surrounding ourselves with stuff, but to what end?  We can’t take any of it with us; it all stays here.  The only thing we will take out of this world is what we brought in with us; nothing.  I love the story of the American tourist in Israel who was invited to the home of a rabbi.  He found there a few books, table and a sleeping mat.  The confused guest asked, “Rabbi, is this all you have?  If this is your home, where is your furniture?  Where are all of your possessions?” The rabbi replied, “Where is yours?” The man stammered, “I’m just a tourist.  I’m only passing through.”  The rabbi smiled and answered, “So am I.”

And friends, so are we.  Life is a journey of soul-making.  Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (3:20-21)  As Christians we must think of death not so much as us “leaving” home as of us “going” home; and of our earthly experience as the training ground for the life we will one day enjoy in God’s eternal Kingdom.  That is why Jesus instructs us to begin living this life in a manner which readies us for that life in the Kingdom of light and love and joy and peace and justice and righteousness.  Heaven is not so much a place we are going to as it is a way of living and being in right relationship with God and one another, so get started by practicing and preparing yourselves for that way of living now.

Jesus said, “the Kingdom of God is within you” meaning we can begin to experience now, in part, the joy we will one day know in fullness.  Heaven is intended for those who desire to live fully in the presence of God, for those who desire to live by God’s standards of righteousness.  I used to think, but wouldn’t everyone want that?  What is there not to want?  But now I am not so sure.  There are many who willingly, defiantly reject God’s way of living now, so what makes them think they would want it for eternity?  John Leith suggests that the only valid argument for hell is that if someone wishes to go there there ought to be a hell to which they can go.  Such is our decision, since it is the clear teaching of Scripture that it is God’s desire for all people to enjoy eternity with Him.  It is our decision as to whether we accept or reject His will and purposes.  Heaven is designed for those who desire it, for those who are willing to sell all they have in order to purchase the treasure found in the field or the pearl of great price, and to do so gladly, joyfully.  Heaven is intended for those who desire to live for eternity under the reign and rule of a just and righteous God, and we are given a lifetime to decide our destiny and prepare for it.

At the turn of the century a missionary was returning to the United States after serving 40 years in Africa.  He had given his life to the mission field and had even buried his wife and one child there.  On the same ship was President Teddy Roosevelt returning from a three week hunting expedition.  When the ship docked, cheering throngs gathered to greet the returning President, but not a single person was there to welcome the returning missionary.  As the President was hurriedly escorted away, this man of God was detained through long lines of immigration and customs, such that he missed his train and had to stay that night in a cheap and dirty hotel.  Years later he told his story, “Later that night, after I’d eaten my supper, I was sitting in that dismal hotel room feeling sorry for myself.  Here the President had been in Africa only a few weeks and he was greeted by a welcoming party.  I had given 40 years to Africa; I had given my wife and my child; yet not a single person was there to welcome me home.  Then I suddenly felt a Presence in the room.  It was as if Someone were standing right beside me, as if an arm were on my shoulder, and a voice spoke to me, saying, “My Child, you’re not home yet.”

So it is.  Whatever heaven may look or be like, this much is assured.  At the end of our journey, God is, and God will be there to welcome us home, and what a celebration that will be.  There we will live in the joy of His presence, in His glory and righteousness, for eternity.  Friends, we are not home yet, so let nothing on this side of eternity distract us from that home-going.