Take just a moment and imagine heaven… I know it says in Scripture that the eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who Love him. But just for the sake of this little exercise, do what all of us have done at some point in the past: take just a moment and imagine what you think heaven will be like.
How wonderful will it be? How will it be better than where you are right now? What is it about Heaven that is so wonderful? Years ago I had a professor in a theological class–his name was Dr. Sinclair Ferguson–and he told a story about one time he was listening to the radio, and the topic was a Christian topic, because the topic of heaven came up. They asked people to call in and discuss what they believed heaven would be like. What did they expect? Or what did they look forward to?
And for a solid half hour people kept calling into this radio station, sometimes for two or three minutes at a time, painting these vivid pictures of how they imagined heaven would be. And about halfway through this radio program Dr. Ferguson noticed nobody had mentioned God! He listened all the way to the end of the program, and not one time did any caller mention God or Jesus. But everybody believed there was a heaven, and that they were going there, and all these things they were looking forward to.
They were looking forward to golden streets, they were looking forward to no disease, no sickness. And they were looking forward to all their family and friends being all around. And I think it is an important question: When we do think of heaven, what do we have in mind? Do we think that we are all going to float around on clouds, playing harps for all eternity? There are a lot of people that would not look at that as being heaven. Like me, for instance. Heaven had better not be like that. A little bit of harp playing, that is fine. A little bit of cloud-sitting, that is fine. But I want to do some feasting. I want to see Jesus. I want to talk to my friends. I want to meet the Saints.
But what do we visualize? What do we imagine it’s like? Often, I think, we visualize heaven as being better in the externals. We think, “Well, we get sick here, but we won’t get sick there. That sounds good. Sometimes we eat rice and beans here, but up there it will be feasting everyday! That sounds good. Here we pray to Jesus, but there we will be able to walk right up and talk to him. That is better.” And there are external things that are better.
There are external things that are better. To the extent that this world has been damaged by sin so that we have sickness, and sorrow, and crying and death, absolutely those things will pass away and heaven will be better in those external ways. But I don’t think that is the most significant part of what makes heaven “heaven”. I don’t think it is just the externals—about whether we can get sick or not, about whether we get to feast or not, about whether we like the scenery or not.
Today in the Epistle reading, we got to look at 1 John, chapter three. “Behold what manner of Love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the Sons of God. Therefore the world knoweth us not because it knew him not. Beloved now are we the Sons of God. And it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him. For we shall see him as he is.”
This is talking about heaven. This is the second coming of Christ. This is when all things are made new. This is where we enter into what we would call “paradise.” And in this particular passage, not one word is said about the scenery, or the feasting, or the streets of gold, or the lack of sickness, and pain, sorrow and disease. Nothing external is mentioned whatsoever here. God is calling us to rejoice in this hope of heaven, in this hope of paradise, and nothing about the externals is even mentioned.
It is very interesting that the great promise that is made to us, is not “Here is how glorious your surroundings are going to be, here is how wonderful your environment is going to be.” The great promise is…YOU will be different. YOU will be changed! YOU will be like Him! You will be different. You will be like Christ, and THAT is what will make it Heaven!
Now you may have heard the saying, “You will never find the perfect church.” And if you do find “the perfect church,” don’t go there, or it won’t be “perfect” anymore. Has it ever occurred to you that heaven itself is the same? Do you realize as you are right now, this moment, today, it would be impossible for you to be in heaven? Because right now, if you–as you are right now–were in heaven, it wouldn’t be heaven anymore.
That should make us take a couple of steps back, and cringe just a little bit. That is a sobering thought! But is your heart totally pure yet? Are you perfectly conformed to the image of Christ yet? Are your goals, his goals? Are the things that make him happy, what make you happy? Are the things that you desire the same things that Christ desires? If not, then there is still sin, and if there is still sin, that can’t go into heaven. Because then it wouldn’t be heaven. You would ruin it for yourself and everybody else there. You have got to be conformed to the image of Christ; you’ve got to be purified. You have got to seek the holiness that belongs to Christ!
See, the moment I have arrived in heaven–right now just took me where I am, and plopped me right down into heaven–it would cease to be a perfect place. That is why we need to be made like Christ. That is why we need to be conformed into the image of Christ. For the most part heaven will be heaven, not because it’s better than earth. I am going to say this again . . . . For the most part, heaven will be heaven, NOT because it is better than earth. For the most part heaven will be heaven because you yourself will be better than you are now. And I will be better than I am now.
It is interesting how often, just in passing, people make certain value judgments about certain objects or certain people, but if you are very careful to look at it, the value judgment is misplaced. God creates this beautiful, magnificent, nutritious thing called broccoli. If somebody tasted it and said, “Aww, ughh, that tastes terrible,” what did they just make a value judgment on? They said the nastiness, the bad taste, is a description of broccoli. No, it is not! An accurate thing to say would be, “Man there is something wrong with me; I don’t like that.” The broccoli is just fine. God made it healthful, he made it nutritious, and lots of people love it. But if I chomp down into broccoli and I don’t like it, that is not something wrong with the broccoli, that is something wrong with me and my taste buds. Maybe I need to get a little healthier. Maybe I need to change my mindset.
Imagine if a new genetic disorder arose from the human race, and made certain people allergic to grapes and grape products. That is conceivable, right? It could happen. People get allergic to bananas, melons, and all sorts of things right? Now let’s assume that over time, this kind of spreads over the population, so that two to three hundred years from now it is pretty pervasive. Sixty to seventy percent of the population is allergic to grapes and grape products.
At that point would it be accurate for us to say grapes are evil, and are bad for humanity, and that it is a horrible thing for the church to have grape wine for its Eucharist? Now should those people’s needs be taken into consideration? Absolutely! But we need to be careful. Is the bad thing the grape? Well, they haven’t changed; there is nothing different about the grapes. Or is the bad thing that genetic defect? Where did that genetic defect come from? SIN! Not necessarily my sin or your sin, but when Adam sinned–our great, great, great, great grandfather sinned–and when the whole world fell under the dominion of the god of this world, Satan, brokenness and sickness came into the universe.
And so if everybody in the whole world became allergic to grapes, that would not be something wrong with the grapes. That would be something wrong with us because of sin. You see the difference? Now we need to be careful, because in individual cases if some people here are allergic to melons, does that mean that you yourself committed some sin and that is why you are allergic to melons? Absolutely not! This is not an individual judgment that this particular person has sinned and is under the judgment of God. Whenever sin enters the world it affects everyone, even the innocent. Even those who have done nothing wrong. Think of an unborn child, what has that unborn child done that is sin? Nothing! We have this icon over here on the wall, “The Lament of Rachel,” the thousands of children that were slaughtered by Herod when he was trying to get rid of baby Jesus. The Orthodox Church calls that “the slaughter of the holy innocents.” They suffered because of sin in the world. But it was not their own individual sin.
So we need to be careful about this if we say your allergy to melons, your allergy to wheat, your allergy to grapes, your allergies to milk is because of sin. We are not saying, “you sinned, you’re the one who did it. God’s judgment came down on you because you did.” NO. But we are saying that these sicknesses are in the world because of sin. If not your sin, then somebody else’s.
When Adam bit into that apple and disobeyed God, literally all Hell broke loose. And we are still paying for it today. So we are not pinning sin on you individually, or you individually. But we are still saying that there are these value judgments that we make sometimes which really shouldn’t be placed on the thing itself. You know, “this broccoli tastes terrible, these grapes make me allergic, these melons make me allergic.” Well, the things God created are not bad. But we suffer because of sin, sin that has broken down our DNA, sin that has broken down our intestines. There is sin that has broken down our minds and our thoughts and our attitudes. We need to be changed from the inside out.
Now I believe that when we are in heaven–the Scripture is true–we will be just like Christ. We will be made to be like him. Anything sinful that has affected our DNA or our immune system—that is going to be fixed. Anything sinful that has affected our attitude, our mind, our thoughts—that is going to be healed. That is going to be purified. That is going to be eradicated. And whatever it is about us that brings hell to earth will be eradicated so that we can be like Christ and bring heaven instead.
And you know what? That doesn’t start when you go to heaven. That starts today. It starts now. And it helps to answer the question, “Well, if I can’t get totally perfect on this side of heaven and He is going to fix me up the rest of the way when I go there, then why even bother now?” Because the more we are made like Christ now, the more we bring heaven to earth! Both to yourself and to those whom you love.
There are people in this world today who are hungry, poor, alone, wracked with pain, whose souls are at peace. And whose hearts are filled with the joy of Christ! There are also people in this world today who are well-fed, rich, surrounded by friends and in great health whose souls never rest. And whose hearts are continuously filled with anger, fear, and complaints. In either case a person’s joy is not dependent on the environment. Whatever your DNA is, whatever your financial situation is, whatever your pain level is, whatever your sickness is, however mean other people are, your joy and your peace in Christ are not dependent on your environment.
It is said that a man once had a vision of hell. Many of you have probably heard this story. He was granted this vision of hell, where there was this great, enormous, round table upon which was placed this sumptuous feast. And these miserable denizens of hell were seated all around the table and each one had tied to his hand a very long-handled spoon. And with that spoon they could easily reach the food in the middle of the table, and scoop up the delicious stuff. But the handle was so long they couldn’t get it into their mouths. No matter what they did, there was no way that they could feed themselves. They just wailed, they cried, and were tormented. They were gaunt and they looked liked skeletons, because they were suffering the pains of starvation.
And then this same man was granted a vision of heaven. He was transported to this place that had an identical round table, an identical sumptuous feast in the middle. And guess what? The same long handled spoon tied to the hands of everybody there. Nobody was crying. Nobody was screaming. Nobody was sad. Everybody looked healthy and well-fed. Everybody was happy. And everybody was feasting, because everybody was feeding each other.
See, the environment was identical. There was no difference in the vision of heaven and the vision of hell, except for the people in it.
Heaven is not going to be a place where you will be picked up with all of your faults, and all of your sins, and all of your selfishness, and put down in a place where God bends the entire universe in service to your every want. Even if He were to do that, it would still be a hell for you and anybody around you. Heaven is a place where your heart has finally been purified. Your focus has been taken off of self and put on Christ above all others. Your word, your joy, your passion and your selflessness create heaven in whatever environment you are in. So even before you get there, heaven begins right here, right now, today, wherever you are.
C.S. Lewis said that from the vantage point of eternity, earth will not seem to be a very distinctive place. For those who have followed Christ and have loved one another, they will look back from the joys of heaven and will see earth as the first dawning of that joy, the first rays of light shining that bloom into the full noonday sun of heaven. And for those who are tormented in hell, they will look back on their selfishness, their self-centeredness, the pain and the sorrows, and the torments that happened on earth as the first blackness of the night that descended upon them. The people, not the environment, are the key ingredients that make hell, “hell”. And that make heaven, “heaven”. Compassion can turn any place into a heaven. And selfishness turns any place into a hell.
So which will it be? Will we open our hearts and be in obedience and service to God, in that we open our hearts, in selflessness, and service to our brother, and to our sister? Or will we close up our hearts on ourselves so that we are blinded to the needs of our spouse, our children, our parents, our neighbors, and we are blinded to the very love of God? You see, this vision of heaven and hell being very similar is not so far-fetched. There are many in the history of the Orthodox Church that have taught that heaven and hell are not even different places. Did you know that? There are many in the Orthodox Church who have taught that heaven and hell are the same place. For all will experience the full glory of God.
There is that old song that goes, “The same sun that melts the wax, hardens clay. The same rain that drowns the rats, grows the hay.” If you have held onto your sin, you are going to be clay, and that fiery heat in the presence of God is just going to make you harder, and hotter, and will burn you to a crisp. For our God is a consuming fire. If you have let go of yourself, if you have let go of selfishness, and you have opened your heart to your brother and to your sister and to God, then your heart is wax, and the full Glory of God will melt that heart. Your heart is gold and the full glory of God will cause your heart to shine like the stars in the heavens. You see, this is what the Orthodox Church calls theosis. We are purified to the point that you can bear the presence of the Glory of God.
A lot of people have this idea that only those of us who are Christians, who are in Christ will get to experience the presence of God. But where in the universe can you go that God is not? It says in the Psalms that even if I go to the depths of hell, You are there. In a very difficult passage of scripture, Revelation chapter 14, it says that even those that are tormented in hell – and it says that the smoke of their torment rises up forever, in the presence of Jesus Christ and the angels. The smoke of their torment rises forever in the presence of Jesus and the holy angels. There is nowhere that you can go and not be in the presence of God.
He reveals Himself to us now insofar as we are able to bear it, but the day is coming when the curtains will be lifted, the veil will be taken away, and we will stand before the brightness of an all-holy God. And C.S. Lewis said in one of his books, our primary business in life today is to prepare for that day, because no one will escape that day. You will either be the gold, you will be the silver that has been purified seven times in a furnace, and you will radiate the heat of God back as it radiates upon you, or you will be like the chaff that cannot bear the flame, and it is charred and is burned as it is subjected to that furnace.
Are you ready to bear the glory of God? If you have this hope in yourself that you will be made like Christ, and will bear the glory of God as paradise, and as heaven and not as a hell, then what do you do today? It says here in today’s passage, “and every man that hath this hope in himself purifieth himself, even as He is pure.” If you have this hope in yourself that someday you will be totally purified, totally like Christ, you will be totally in the presence of God in glory, then enjoy. It says in Scripture that every man who has this hope purifies himself. That means today, that means right now, you are already purifying yourself, you are already laying down your sins. And you are already laying down your selfishness, you are already showing compassion and love to your brothers and to your sisters. You are already bringing heaven to the present. And if that is the way you live your life, you are constantly purifying yourself, getting closer to God, farther and farther away from Satan and farther away from sin. That is the type of person that will be ready to meet Him on that day.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is One.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, February 17, 2013, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.