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Waiting for Heaven

August 27, 2006

II Corinthians 5:1-10; Philippians 1:19-26

Two things I learned early in the ministry both relate to women. First, do not ask a woman what type of surgery she is having. If she wants you to know, she will tell you. Second, never ask a woman her age. I do not mind asking men. I asked a fellow a few weeks ago, “How old are you?” He answered, “Kirk, I am so old that I do not buy green bananas anymore. I am as old as dirt.”

We are privileged to have at Morningside a number of people who have reached senior citizen status. I am glad to say that I, too, can receive the senior citizen’s discount at most fast-food restaurants. Growing old is a real privilege. The older we get, the more we have heaven on our mind.

Clare has been reading a delightful book, Fannie Flagg’s newest novel entitled Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. Elner Shimfissle, the main character, is somewhere in her eighties. She is about as “old as dirt.” Early one morning, Elner gets out of bed, puts on her tattered brown robe, props a ladder against her fig tree, and climbs up the ladder to pick fruit. She does not know that hornets have built a very large nest in that fig tree. Hornets sting her multiple times, and she falls off the ladder, causing her to have what we might call a near-death experience. Elner goes to heaven and meets her older sister, Ida, who has preceded her in death. Elner discovers that Ida is holding a purse and a grudge. She is upset that Elner allowed her to be buried with a bad hairdo. Following Elner’s near-death experience, one that takes her to heaven, she returns to her life in Elmwood Springs, Missouri. Her “return from the dead” turns everyone in the town on their heads. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven is quite a fun novel, one many of you would enjoy reading.

Are we waiting to go to heaven? Do we want to go to heaven?

My grandmother was waiting to go. I do not believe she ever got over my grandfather’s death. In many ways, she grieved the rest of her life. My grandmother had numerous health problems, including arthritis and asthma. One day, she told one of her sons, “I made a decision. I took every pill I had and flushed them all down the toilet.” The son walked over to the mantelpiece where he saw a bottle with quite a few pills remaining. He picked it up and said, “Mama, you forgot this bottle.” She explained, “Oh, that’s my asthma medicine. I’m not going to suffocate to death.”

Between the two services this morning, several people told me the old joke about the fellow sitting on the back row of a sanctuary. When the pastor asked, “How many of you want to go to heaven?” everyone raised a hand except one old man. The pastor said to this man, “I don’t understand. Why didn’t you raise your hand?” The old fellow answered, “I thought you meant how many want to go to heaven right now? I don’t want to go right now.” We have a kind of ambivalence about going to heaven.

A woman in her nineties asked me to help plan her funeral. Somewhat a micromanager, she wanted things done just her way. During our planning, she chuckled, “When I get to heaven, I am going to surprise a lot of people, including all my friends and family members. It’s taking me so long to get there, they’ll think I went to the other place.”

The early church had a kind of ambivalence about this business of waiting for heaven. After Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Ascension for that amazing lift-off in the clouds, the angels appeared to the disciples and asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand, gazing into the heavens?” They answered that Jesus was going to return. They expected to see him within a week, maybe a month. Surely, it was not going to be a long wait. They expected the imminent arrival of Jesus and lived their lives as if he were returning soon.

As time passed and as the apostles started dying, their thinking changed. They realized that the quick return they had expected to happen so quickly was, in fact, going to be delayed. For that reason, the disciples began writing the gospel accounts. Young John Mark returned to Jerusalem after Simon Peter’s execution in the city of Rome. He decided he should write down his companion’s accounts. We call that record the Gospel of Mark. Matthew, just a few years later, decided to do the same. Then Luke, who had traveled with Paul, wrote his gospel. The last surviving apostle wrote the Gospel of John. The disciples recorded the life of Jesus in these gospels because they realized the return of Jesus had been delayed.

Remarkably, Jesus had told his disciples that nobody knew when he was going to return, not even himself. Only the Father in heaven knew. Attempts to determine Jesus’ return are a waste of time. People say to me, “We are living in the last days.” Christians have been making that statement for 2000 years. The truth is that we are supposed to live as if we were living in the last days.

Clare and I had our two oldest children when I decided to buy life insurance. The sales representative asked me to recommend someone else who might also be interested in purchasing a policy; so I mentioned my brother, who, like me, was a seminary student at the time. The representative made an appointment to visit him and his wife at their home. My sister-in-law fixed one of her world famous carrot cakes and served it with coffee.

After a time of refreshment, the insurance agent presented his entire spiel and then asked, “Do you have any questions?”

My brother replied, “What does this insurance policy do when Jesus comes?”

The insurance man called me the next day and told me of my brother’s response and refusal to purchase a policy. He said, “I have never been asked that question in all my years of selling life insurance. I didn’t know what to say.”

I asked the salesman, “Did my brother explain what he meant?”

He answered, “Yes. He said that Christians are supposed to live as if Jesus is going to return very soon. He said that if he bought life insurance, it would mean that he did not believe Jesus is coming right away.”

I immediately called my father and told him the story. My dad bought a policy on my brother. He and I were thinking alike on that one.

When we come to the teaching of the Apostle Paul, it is very clear that he had the same kind of ambivalence. Early in his letters, Paul believes that Jesus is going to return immediately. We see the Christians living during that time waiting for heaven, thinking Jesus was going to return soon. Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians that a time will come when the trumpet will sound and Christ will appear in the clouds; the dead in Christ will be raised. Then he says that those still alive will follow the dead and be caught up with them in the air. Clearly, Paul includes himself in those alive at the time Jesus returns. As time passed, the Apostle Paul began to see that going to heaven might take a different form for him. The reality was that Jesus might not return before he died. Paul, having been arrested and placed in prison, facing a death sentence. He later died from beheading.

The concept of the return of Christ is called the Rapture. You recognize, of course, the works of fiction written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the novels known as the Left Behind Series.

I want to read two passages of scripture from Eugene Peterson’s translation called The Message, passages that reflect the Apostle Paul’s viewpoint. Listen carefully to this scripture written in a contemporary style. Listen to Paul’s ambivalence as he waits for heaven. Clearly, he feels that this waiting has a purpose.

II Corinthians: 5:1-10:

For instance, we know these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven – God-made, not handmade – and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move – and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living in conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little bit of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.

That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going. Do you suppose that a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile or homecoming.

But neither exile nor homecoming is the main thing. Cheerfully pleasing God is the main thing, and that’s what we aim to do, regardless of our conditions. Sooner or later we’ll all have to face God, regardless of our conditions.

Philippians 1:19-26:

And I’m going to keep on celebration going because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response to the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life verses even more life! I can’t lose.

As long as I am alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I would choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other.

Meanwhile, we must live in such a way that we are a credit to the Message of Christ.

One kind of waiting is passive. Have you ever spent much time in a doctor’s office, waiting for your appointment? Did you feel as if you were wasting your time? A play called Waiting for Godot depicts passive waiting, waiting that is idle, waiting that amounts to nothing but a waste of time. Passive waiting is like twiddling our thumbs, waiting for something to happen. Paul had to deal with people in his ministry who were passively waiting. In the Thessalonian letter, he deals with people that have decided that Jesus was coming very soon. They would sit on a hillside and wait for Jesus to return, refusing to work. Paul had to level with them and say, “If you do not work, you will not eat.” We are all waiting, but this waiting must be active. Take a book with you to the doctor’s office. Take something to do that does not waste the time but uses the time.

Dr. Hudson Taylor, a missionary to the China Inland Mission, was traveling by boat to China. As the boat rounded the tip of South America, it entered that part of the ocean where often the winds just stopped, the doldrums. This large boat, which depended on favorable winds, just drifted at sea. The captain, who knew Dr. Taylor was a man of prayer, asked, “Would you please pray for favorable winds?” When Taylor answered, “Hoist the sails,” the captain responded, “I can’t do that! There is no wind. If I hoist the sails, my sailors will think I am crazy.” Hudson Taylor repeated, “Hoist the sails, or I will not pray for wind.” The captain hoisted the sails, the missionary prayed, and favorable winds drove the boat to Asia.

Active waiting is prepared. It takes action. We must be active in living the Christian life as we wait. The Apostle Paul emphasized that while we are waiting for heaven, we have a lot of work to do for Christ. He beautifully states that what is important is not whether we live or die; it is whether we honor Christ throughout our lives.

If you like football, a good movie is Heaven Can Wait. It is entertaining to watch, but I do not recommend it for good theology. The movie is the story of Joe Pendleton, the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. Joe received life-threatening injuries while playing in a football game, and an over-anxious angel mistakenly snatched his spirit and took it to heaven, thinking he had died. Now remember this work is fiction and not good theology. When Joe reached heaven, he was quite adamant about returning to earth. He wanted desperately to play in the Super Bowl as quarterback. Heaven, realizing that Joe arrived in heaven before his time, gave this quarterback the opportunity to return to earth. Because Joe’s body had already been cremated, Joe would have to assume the body of another person, a millionaire whose wife and accountant had conspired to murder him in order to bilk him out of money. Of course, the supporting characters – Joe’s wife, the accountant, the team coach, and Joe’s girlfriend – were all thoroughly confused, especially when the millionaire (Joe) decided to purchase the Los Angeles Rams and play quarterback for the team. The name of the movie? Heaven Can Wait.

Thinking that heaven can wait because we must complete tasks or goals – things as trivial as winning the Super Bowl – is wrong. The truth is that we do not have a choice. It is not up to us to decide when we go to heaven. God is the Author and Finisher of life.

Contrast the story of Joe Pendleton in Heaven Can Wait with the story of Elner Shimfissle in Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven. Elner’s return after her near-death experience also causes great confusion in Elmwood Springs, Missouri. It throws everyone off balance. They are disconcerted. Elner’s high-strung niece Norma faints and takes to her bed, requiring cold compresses applied on her head. Elner’s neighbor, Verbena, rushes to her Bible to find text to describe what has happened to Elner. Luther Griggs runs his eighteen-wheeler into a ditch. Tot Wooten, owner of the beauty shop Tot’s Tell It Like It Is Beauty Shop, is concerned only about collecting her Social Security before the world ends. Her attitude is similar to that of Joe Pendleton.

Through a near-death experience, one that allows Elner to return to her life, the townspeople come to a realization. They question, “What is life really about?” They become more conscious of the fact that while we are waiting for heaven, we can help others, have a better relationship with the people we love, our family and friends, and make a difference in the lives of others.

Let me ask you several questions. Is being a Christian a kind of life insurance for you? Are you a Christian because you know it will protect you when you die? Is that what the Christian life means to you? Some people believe that the Christian life is simply accepting Jesus one time, usually a long time ago, and from then on just coasting and living life to the fullest. They feel that they have nailed down that insurance policy. That is not the Christian life. The Christian life begins when we accept Jesus. Think of it as a pilgrimage, a life-long journey. We want to get to heaven; but all along the way, we want to cultivate relationships that make a difference in the lives of others. We emphasize a life of discipleship, growing in Christ because we become agents of redemption on behalf of Christ.

The great American fairytale The Wizard of Oz, includes Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Lion, and the Tin Man. All four characters are trying to get to the same place, the Emerald City, because they think the wizard there can solve all their problems. They discover that the journey along the way solved their problem. The Tin Man gets his heart. The Scarecrow gets his brain. The Lion gets his courage. Dorothy goes back home and reconciles with her family. The community in which they travel together on this journey allows them to accomplish their dreams.

The Christian life is very much like that. We nurture each other. We become a blessing to each other.

Do you enjoy being a Christian? I hear people talking about the South Carolina Gamecocks, the Clemson Tigers, the Carolina Panthers, and the Atlanta Falcons. Everybody is excited about the football season. Yesterday, ESPN broadcast a Spartanburg County football game. Do you have that much excitement about being a Christian? Do you enjoy your relationship with other Christians? Do you enjoy your relationship with God, with Christ? The Christian life is not one of drudgery, though sometimes it is hard. The Christian life is supposed to be a journey that brings us joy and allows us to impart joy to other people. Are you deriving all the benefits of being a Christian?

I talked with a man several weeks ago who commented, “I have a membership at a country club, but I don’t know why. We never go there. We rarely eat there. I do not play golf or tennis. We do not even like to swim. We rarely go, yet I pay membership dues every year.”

The Christian life has many benefits, but some Christians do not enjoy those benefits. They have a membership card, but they never look into the Bible. They are not ready to learn. They do not encounter God in a life of prayer or in a time of worship. Among the benefits the Christian life offers is the strength we find when life is very hard. This Christian life is not just sitting idly and waiting for heaven. It should be active waiting. We must strive to live this Christian life as God intends, serving and honoring Him.

Ron Wells, a dear friend of mine, had cancer. Near the end of his life, his family cleared out the living room, brought in a hospital bed, and set up a keyboard. For several hours every day, Ron wrote a musical from his deathbed. When people visited him and asked to pray with Ron, he would say, “Please kneel by the bed.” I, too, knelt by his bed and had a prayer during one of my last visits. Afterwards, Ron reached over and put his hand on my shoulder, offering a prayer of blessing for me.

How are we to live this Christian life? We are to live it all the way to the end. We are supposed to live every moment to the glory of God, using whatever talents and abilities we have. We are to live as long as we can, serving God, and most of all, imparting blessings to others. The Apostle Paul knew that. Jesus taught us to do that. Great Christians through the ages have lived like that.

Could I encourage you to wait for heaven, living this Christian life all the way to the end? A blessing awaits you. The way you begin this journey to a better life beyond is by accepting Christ as your Savior. If you have never done that, we want to invite you to make that decision. Acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life. Then you can begin a journey that will lead many places. Some of you have come to Morningside, knowing that God wants you to anchor down and be a part of His family here. If that is the case, we invite you to make that decision. Whatever decision God has laid on your heart, we invite you to make it today as we stand and sing our hymn of invitation, “O Jesus, I Have Promised.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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