heaven

I Did It

Genesis 3:8-15 (ESV)

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
   cursed are you above all livestock
   and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
   and dust you shall eat
   all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
   and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
   and you shall bruise his heel.”


When we explore the larger story of “the fall,” that first act of disobedience to God, we often focus on the attractiveness of sin. It’s not hard to construct reasonable-sounding arguments for why we should disobey God; sinful acts themselves can be quite alluring, at least initially.

Today’s verses call us to examine the after-effects of sin. The false beauty projected by sin fades rapidly once we recognize sin as rejection of the source of all beauty, God.

The loss in this story is incalculable; our text today opens with God arriving to walk with the man and woman, eventually known to us as Adam and Eve. That simple fact is poignant to the point of being distressing, for we see the couple had what most of us crave, a simple, close relationship with God.

Oh, to be able to walk among the trees of Paradise with our maker, asking him anything that comes to mind and receiving a clear answer! Before sinning, Adam and Eve thought such walks were perfectly normal, the way things would always be. Shortly after sinning, they were hiding among those trees, fearing the One they had previously trusted as a perfect Father.

What they feared and what we fear is that moment of confrontation after sin. Even in our fallen state, we have enough of a sense of God’s righteousness to hate that impending moment. We can spend our lives hiding from it, even running from it.

There is nowhere to run, however. If we don’t have that moment of confrontation in this life, we certainly will have it in the next life.

We wriggle to find ways to justify ourselves, too, as if we can sort out the blame and defer the punishment on our own. As we see in today’s story, the first sin is also the first example of passing the buck.

Adam, who was first to hear God’s commandment about the tree, blames Eve. Eve, who clearly knew the simple “don’t eat” commandment, blames the serpent.

The serpent—well, he was the agitator, the twister of words who started the problem. The author of Revelation later would associate “that old serpent” with Satan, the ultimate bringer of confusion. To me, the talkative serpent is interesting in that he accepts his curse in silence, knowing he is facing his Creator, just like everyone else.

What the man and woman needed, and what we need, is a better way to move through that moment of confrontation.

Instead of buck passing, we need repentance. Whatever the sin, don’t try to rationalize it, don’t try to justify it. Don’t try to argue it’s really not that serious compared to what others have done. Just say:

I did it.

You can do terrible things and still never get around to saying, “I did it.” King David committed adultery and murder to have Bathsheba as his wife, but until the Prophet Nathan used a parable about a rich man who stole a poor man’s lamb, David wasn’t able to say, “I did it.”

Psalm 51 artfully records David’s “I did it”: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.”

Saying “I did it” doesn’t fix everything. We’re still a long way from the fix, but at least we’re on the right road, the road that passes through repentance to salvation.

When Adam and Eve were cast from the Garden of Eden as part of their punishment, they found themselves on that road. God worked through them to begin a change that would make possible our restoration to Paradise.

I’m talking, of course, about events revealed in the great narrative of the Bible, the grand story running from Genesis to Revelation. Yes, we are trapped in sin from the moment we are born, and we are put in a position that makes us want to hide from God.

For thousands of years, a small group of people we call the Israelites tried to get back into relationship with God by following his law. We cannot get back to God on our own, however. As those Israelites fell in and out of the relationship, humanity remained lost.

A new solution was needed. As he did in the garden so long ago, God walked among us for a time as one of those Israelites, raised in a rural place called Galilee.

He actually took on flesh for his three-decade walk on Earth, and we call that God-Man Jesus. I hope you know the story and let that story shape your lives. Jesus went so far as to suffer and die for our sins, in the process explaining more deeply the importance of intertwined love and obedience.

We repent by saying “I did it, and I regret it. I want to put it behind me.” We believe in what Jesus has done, and we are saved from sin.

It is that simple. And in time, we are invited back into the Garden of Eden, the Paradise where we exist in the presence of God.

We have different ways of talking about the life to come. “Going to heaven” is one way to describe the experience. We also have elaborate imagery from the Book of Revelation, symbolic scenes of creation restored to holiness and heaven and earth re-joined.

What I look forward to is a walk in the garden in the cool of the day with my Savior, asking him whatever comes to mind.


The featured image on this blog page is “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” Thomas Cole, 1828.

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Your Tribulation

Revelation 7:9-17

For the first couple of weeks of our series, we’ve focused on scenes of glory and worship. This week’s text shows us some now-familiar heavenly imagery, but in the process we are reminded of what we experience in our time and place.

I suppose the key word for the day is “tribulation,” what is called “the great ordeal” in the NRSV. People hear that word in very different ways. A lot of American preachers talk about it as a time to come, a time of disaster to fall upon the earth after Christ’s followers have been removed in what is sometimes called the “rapture.”

Problem 1: That view is very hard to reconcile with Revelation and other biblical end-time imagery. The first audience for Revelation would have found the removal of the church from this ongoing suffering a strange notion, indeed. They were being persecuted, saw themselves in the midst of a great ordeal, and in this letter from John were receiving words of comfort that they would be rewarded for their resilient faith one day.

This whole idea of a raptured church was unheard of among Christians until the 19th century, when an Anglo-Irish theologian named John Nelson Darby proposed the idea. We still hear about his theory in the United States today because of preachers and writers who latched onto the idea. There also is the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible, which heavily promotes the notion in its footnotes.

The more standard, historical understanding of the “end times” is simple. We are in them. We have been since Christ ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit fell upon the church. Christ could return any moment, bringing this time to an end.

Certainly, suffering is depicted in powerful ways in some of the passages preceding what we explore today. Perhaps the most famous image is the four horsemen of the apocalypse, each rider on a mount with a color symbolizing what happens when earthly institutions deviate from God’s will. The white horse is power run amok; the red horse is war; the black horse is death. The pale horse symbolizes the lingering horrors that go along with death—famine, disease and decay. All of these political, military and economic abuses have been a constant somewhere in the world, and will be until Christ returns.

Problem 2: The view is very ethnocentric, popular in a privileged culture where suffering, particularly suffering for one’s faith, is quite limited. We have to remember that simultaneous to our relatively benign Christian experience, there are other Christians suffering terribly for what they believe. I wish they could somehow be raptured out of their persecution. One monitoring group, Voice of the Martyrs, has estimated there are more martyrs being made for Christ now than at any point in history. Pope Francis recently made a similar statement.

But enough about what our text doesn’t say. Again, that’s the problem with preaching Revelation. I have to spend too much time on what it doesn’t say.

Here’s what it does say:

Suffering may be widespread, but so is the impact of salvation. After having tried in an earlier passage to give us a count for millions of worshiping angels (however symbolic the number), John simply tells us that those who come through their trials and tribulations and hold onto their faith will be uncountable. It doesn’t matter your station in the world; it doesn’t matter your color, or your language. Salvation is available.

Our text makes clear it is glorious to receive that white robe and stand in the presence of God.  I’ve related the story before about the boy in confirmation class who told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to heaven. The language about constant, eternal worship frightened him, making him think it would be “like being stuck in church forever.”

But it’s clear from our scene in this text that the experience is something we never will want to leave. Heavenly worship is rich and complete, fulfilling every relationship we could ever want to have in this life. We are sustained in every way we could ever imagine. In this worship there is family, fun and deep, deep intimacy.

I wish I could somehow give you that experience every Sunday. We do the best we can, with the words and the music and the prayers. The best I can do is repeat what I’ve said before: Whatever good and wonderful things you can imagine about God’s promises, you are right, and yet you have not even come close to what we will experience when fully aware of God’s presence.

Here’s the best thing we can do with our text today. Let’s do what the early, persecuted church did. Let’s cling to the images. Let’s carry the hope into every situation we may face.

While we are, on average, a privileged people, I know many of you face your own suffering, your own personal tribulations. We all ultimately face dark days, and they frighten us. But we have this story and all the other loving promises of God, made possible through Christ.

We believe, and we persevere.


The featured image is “Four Horsemen,” Peter Von Cornelius, 1845.

Worshiping What We See

When I introduced this series on Revelation last week, I told you there would be symbolism. Lots of it.

This week, we’ve skipped past the letters to the churches—they in and of themselves are worthy of a sermon series—and returned to scenes of heavenly worship. Revelation 5:11-14 concludes some of the most powerful worship imagery you will find anywhere in the Bible.

In chapter 4, John begins to paint this astonishing, brightly colored portrait of worship with a view of God, who is the audience for all worship. Well, John attempts to give us a view of God, anyway. He is like a man who has stared into the sun and then, fully dazzled, tried to describe what he saw. His symbols reflect the nature of God, holy and burning inside against sin, but surrounded by an emerald rainbow. This last touch brings what New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger once described as a soothing sense of mercy to the overall impression.

Remember this one important fact about biblical symbolism: Whatever you “see” barely begins to describe the reality of what is most true and real. When God burns against sin, it is a fire we can never come close to imaging; when God offers mercy, it abounds in ways beyond our comprehension.

There are other mysteries, easier to gaze upon but nearly as perplexing. It is debatable who the 24 elders surrounding the throne represent. Perhaps they are 12 patriarchs from the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the New Testament, standing as witnesses to the covenants God has used to bring sinful humanity home. What is important is that even though they have crowns given to them by God, they cast them down in worship, remembering the source of all goodness and power.

And then there are those peculiar beings called the “living creatures,” six-winged and full of eyes. They are your eternal choir directors, leading worship in heaven. No need for preachers here; what preachers declare on earth will be fully evident in heaven. I guess I’ll have to learn to sing.

Perhaps strangest image is the one called “The Lion of Judah.” Surprisingly, he appears as a seven-horned, seven-eyed lamb with all the markings of having been slaughtered. This, of course, is another image of the Christ, very different from the image we had last week. His description initially makes him seem weak, but he is the only being in heaven able to open a scroll with seven seals.

All these “sevens” are marks of God’s holy completeness—remember, numbers in Revelation always have a symbolic meaning. The scroll itself is a symbol of God’s will fully expressed. Only Jesus could unroll it. That is, only Jesus could grasp the full intent of God’s will. Only Jesus could go to the cross and carry out a plan of sacrifice, a sacrifice good enough for all people, giving those who believe eternal life.

We also see something particularly glorious and meaningful to us now, right now, as we worship where we are. For we participate in this vision, too. We are told that in the heavenly worship, there are bowls of incense, which represent the prayers of believers worshiping on earth.

I find that image particularly comforting. Think about it: All your fears, all your worries, all your desires, all your pleadings, all your cries for justice, all your pleas for mercy and forgiveness—all of them make their way into worship in heaven. Heaven and earth come together in worship.

I don’t know how you each individually feel about worship. Some of you look forward to it, craving it each week. Some of you, I suspect, find elements of it or perhaps all of it boring. I’m sorry I cannot bring you the creatures and the millions of angels and the slain lamb in full each Sunday. But I do pray you can close your eyes now and then, open your hearts, and sense something greater than the world we plod through each day.

This portion of Revelation is a call to us to fully embrace what’s going on in any kind of worship. We participate in a greater glorification of God, and we prepare ourselves for the day when we are in a doubtless, overwhelming kind of worship, the kind of experience we will never want to leave.

I pray we walk away from this earthly worship with a sense of hope and of a great victory still to come.


The featured image is “Homage to the Lamb,” a folio from the Bamberg Apocalypse, c. 1000.

 

What Went Up

When we think of what Jesus accomplished for our benefit, the concept of his ascension into heaven often vanishes behind the darkness of his crucifixion or the brilliant life-giving light of his resurrection.

The ascension is a critically important part of our salvation, however. In many ways, it completes the work done by God in the crucifixion and resurrection.

The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what is carried up.

Luke, a companion of the Apostle Paul, gives us accounts of the ascension in the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. After appearing repeatedly to his followers in his resurrected form, Jesus led them about two miles outside Jerusalem to Bethany.

He then did several important things: He opened their minds to understand the Jewish Scriptures, in particular how they predicted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He told his followers they would spread throughout the world the good news that salvation is available. He promised them the Holy Spirit would come to empower and support them.

And then the ascension happened. It’s described a bit mysteriously; in Luke, Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Acts, we get a little more detail, where we learn “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

The point is that Jesus physically left this world and entered the realm of the holy, God’s abode, the place where only things unstained by sin can go.

Later in Acts, the first martyr, Stephen, cried out shortly before being stoned to death, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” From this we see that the earliest Christians understood that after the ascension, Jesus resumed his role as part of what theologians sometimes call the “Godhead,” God in all of his aspects.

 I know these ideas are theologically “heavy,” perhaps even painfully so. God expects Christians to think a little, though.

So, why does it matter that Jesus went “up”? Well, it matters because of what Jesus took with him—his resurrected human body. Human flesh now exists as part of the Godhead, a strange change in the nature of heaven. What was unacceptable anywhere near the throne is now on the throne.

And that is why salvation is now so easy for us, if we will only believe that Jesus died to free us from punishment for our sins. When we appeal to God, we are appealing to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.

I also should point out that the ascension left something of a void. For a brief time, humanity was again separated from the full presence of God. But then, just as Jesus had promised, something came down, another aspect of God, the Holy Spirit.

That’s an event we celebrate next Sunday, which is Pentecost.