April 21, 2013
Back when Newsweek was still with us, the magazine ran a poll asking what people thought about heaven. At that time, 76 percent of Americans said believe in heaven, and, of those, 71 percent thought it’s an “actual place.” People could not agree on the specifics, though Nineteen percent thought heaven looks like a garden, 13 percent said it looks like a city, and 17 percent had no idea. The New Testament’s fullest descriptions of heaven were also battle cries. After the Romans crushed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Middle Eastern cities teemed with festivals honoring the Roman emperors. The earliest Christians had a dilemma. “To what extent do we join the mainstream culture?” they wondered. “Do we attend without participating, participate without believing, or believe without embracing?” The Book of Revelation drew the battle lines. Revelation’s descriptions of thunder and lightning and lakes of fire, as well as its promises of pearl gates and jeweled walls, were warnings to the earliest Christians: Do not worship the Roman emperors. Stay faithful to your God and Jerusalem will be restored and you will live in a magnificent city forever. So, we get visions like this from John the Seer:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.” — Revelation 21:1-6
I have a problem. How dare we think about some far off new heaven when people are dying, starving and killing each other in our world? How dare we talk about a new heaven, when we see evidence of Hell on earth, like the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week? In my most cynical days, I see people acting out on unrestrained craving, and egoistic behavior, unleashed upon others with no hope of improvement or escape. Hell on earth makes us anxious. Scared. Afraid of a future where love is gone and God fails to act.
And what about this talk of a new earth? How dare we dream of a new earth when we can’t take care of the one we’ve been given to take care of? How dare we dream of a fresh new start after we make this one unlivable for our species? Some use the promise of a new earth as an excuse to hollow out our current planet for resources. The argument goes like this: the earth is headed for destruction, and there is going to be a new heaven and a new earth anyway, so why bother taking care of this earth. It was made to pass away. The sooner it does, the sooner we get the new one. As much as I hate to say it, a lot of the anti-environmentalism we see around us today comes from Christians. It’s all summed up well in the bumper sticker I saw on the back of a behemoth SUV sporting a Christian fish sign that read: “Friends don’t let friends become environmentalists.”
The new world described by John is the joining of the previous world and heaven to form a renewed realm of peace, prosperity and faithful love. In Revelation 21, John arrives at the climax of hope for his audience. They have listened to his description of several dismal images displaying the horrific force of evil and the mighty hand of God in judgment. Now he is able to soothe their ringing ears with a promise that God not only will address their present circumstances but also will finally correct every deviation from his original creation. John sees Heaven and earth join together as one. He is not saying that God will simply wipe everything away to begin again with nothing. God will not making all things anew. God is making all things as new. Our current earth is not a precursor to a replacement planet once our disregard for the environment causes an irreversible catastrophe (if it hasn’t already). The second earth, or new earth, is the renewal of creation. If we want to see a new earth, then we need to see our care of it as a mandate from Christ. Or to be blunt, disregard for creation is disregard for God.
I guess a little touch of some new heaven and earth would be a good think right now. Last week showed the worst of what the current earth and its citizens offer: terrorism in Boston, genocide in Syria, floods in the Midwest, community-leveling explosions in Texas. Not to mention the inability of our Senate to look the families of the Sandy Hook shootings in the eyes and pass a simple forearm background check law. Wouldn’t even a taste of that in our lives today be wonderful? Just a little joy in the bleak moments…a second of spiritual comfort in the midst of turmoil…peace in the thick of our hectic lives? How do we get to experience even a little bit of that new heaven and earth – just a sliver of that renewal here and now?
If I had to define what heaven is, I’d say Heaven is the destination of ultimate joy. Not some future home on a cloud. Not some vindication after a doomsday. Building a new heaven and new earth is a journey – a day-by-day set of choices we make, that over time lead us to joy. I think we one of the things we can to do build the renewed and renewing heaven and earth is to choose joy. So, how might we choose joy as a way to renew creation?
1. Choose joy through perseverance.
If the book of Revelation teaches nothing else, we can learn to keep on keeping on. It’s baseball season, so let me tell you the story about Clint Courtney. Clint never came close to making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wasn’t a legend in his own time — not even in his own mind. But a few die-hard fans were inspired by his tremendous perseverance. Clint played catcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s. During his career he earned the nickname of Scrap Iron. Clint was weathered and tough. Old Scrap Iron broke no records — only bones. He had little power or speed on the base paths. As for grace and style, he made the easiest play look rather difficult. But armed with mitt and mask, Scrap Iron never flinched from any challenge. Batters often missed the ball and caught his shin. Their foul tips nipped his elbow. Runners fiercely plowed into him, spikes first, as he defended home plate. Though often doubled over in agony, and flattened in a heap of dust, Clint Courtney never quit. Without fail, he’d slowly get up, shake off the dust, punch the pocket of his mitt once or twice, and nod to his pitcher to throw another one. The game would go on and Clint with it — scarred, bruised, clutching his arm in pain, but determined to continue. Some made fun of him, calling him a masochist. Insane. Others remember him as a true champion. What kept him going? I guess he really loved baseball.
Hang in there, even when life gets really gritty and rough. And make no mistake, life gets really tough. Curve balls come. We get knocked down. We have a reason to hang in there. We love this earth. We love each other. And we want to make life together work.
2. We can choose joy through obedience.
Joy is a sign that the Holy Spirit is alive and working in your life. Joy begins to bloom when obedience to Jesus works its way into the fabric of our daily lives. Imagine that you work for a company whose president found it necessary to travel out of the country and spend an extended period of time abroad. The President says to you and the other trusted employees, “Look, I’m going to leave. And while I’m gone, I want you to pay close attention to the business. You manage things while I’m away. I will E-mail you regularly and I will instruct you in what you should do from now until I return from this trip.” The boss leaves and stays gone for a couple of years. During that time the boss writes often, communicating her desires and concerns. Finally she returns. She walks up to the front door of the company and immediately discovers everything is a mess — weeds flourishing in the flower beds, windows broken across the front of the building, the secretary at the front desk dozing, loud music roaring from several offices, two or three people engaged in horseplay in the back room. Instead of making a profit, the business has suffered massive loss. Without hesitation she calls everyone together and barks, “What happened? Didn’t you get my messages?” You say, “Oh, yeah, sure. We got all your Email. We’ve even printed your messages and the bound them in a book. You know, those were really great letters.” I think the president would then ask, “But what did you do about my instructions?” No doubt the employees would respond, “Do? Well, we did nothing. But we read every one!”
Do you know anyone like that, a person who knows God’s expectations? That person might have even read the Bible from cover to cover, but doesn’t live it out. There’s no obedience, and therefore no joy. I am fairly clear on what God wants us to be doing: Take care of the earth’s resources. Feed the hungry. Visit the prisoner. Clothe the naked. Tend to those in need. Stand up for those who have no voice. Bring those on the margins to the center of the action. Live lives of peace and compassion. Doing these things can bring great joy.
3. Choose joy by trading sorrows
There is something to be said for disciplining ourselves to be positive in the midst of life’s difficulties. I read a story about Gary — the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!” He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Gary was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation. Seeing this managerial style, a curious observer approached Gary and said, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?” Gary replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘Gary, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it . . . Life is all about choices . . . You choose how you react to situations . . . The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”
Several years later, Gary did something you are never supposed to do: he left the back door of his business open one morning and was held up at gun point by three armed robbers. While trying to open the safe, his hand slipped off the combination. The criminals panicked and shot him. Luckily, Gary was found quickly and rushed to the local trauma center. After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, they released Gary from the hospital. About six months after the accident, when people asked him how he was, Gary replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?” Someone asked him what went through his mind as the robbery took place. Gary replied. “The first thing that went through my mind was that I should have locked the back door. Then, as I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or I could choose to die. I chose to live . . . When they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes I read, ‘He’s a dead man.’ I knew I needed to take action. There was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me. She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes,’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘I’m allergic to bullets!’ Over their laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.’ Gary lived thanks to the skill of his medical team, but also because of his amazing attitude.
Every day we have the choice to live against the odds, and this can bring great joy. This can bring some renewal.
We do not have to live in defeat. We can trade our sorrows for God’s joy. Live with purpose. Do what you love. Choose joy. When enough of us can do this together, maybe we will find some of the renewal we want to see.
I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from a letter by Fra Giovanni Giocondo . Giovanni was an architect, engineer, and classical scholar who was born in Verona around 1433 and died in 1516. This letter was written to a friend on Christmas Eve, 1513. It’s words are ancient but still meaningful.
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.
No Heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take joy.
God is making all things as new. We might not see it, but we may need to affirm it anyway. God is making all things new, and God can use us to help make it happen. In the face of the worst this world has to offer, may we all find a way to take some joy and know the unity of heaven on earth, here and now.