In our second part of the series on heaven, we look at one of life’s unavoidable realities: death. After all, you can’t go to heaven unless you die first! How do we prepare for death, if we want to go to heaven? We look at 2 Corinthians 4.1-18 to find out. You can watch the whole worship gathering below, or just the message below that.
At St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, I’m preaching a series on heaven right now. In a few weeks, I’ll be talking about the concept of heaven as “rest”, but that theme is on my mind right now, so I thought I’d share a little bit about that as a ‘teaser’ for our people, and as encouragement for everyone else!
The Bible talks about heaven in a number of ways, and one of those is “rest”. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way:
Moses was certainly faithful in God’s house as a servant. His work was an illustration of the truths God would reveal later.But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.
That is why the Holy Spirit says,
“Today when you hear his voice,
don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
when they tested me in the wilderness.
There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
They refuse to do what I tell them.’
So in my anger I took an oath:
‘They will never enter my place of rest.’”
Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. You must warn each other every day, while it is still “today,” so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God. For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. Remember what it says:
“Today when you hear his voice,
don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled.”
And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. (Hebrews 3.5-19, NLT)
I gave you that long passage to afford you some context. The author cites Psalm 95 in his discussion on heaven, and uses that reference to “rest” to talk about eternity.
Summer is often a time for rest, when we step back from our daily labours to be rejuvenated, doing things we most enjoy with the people we most love. I hope you are taking some time in these warm months to do just that.
Vacation time is like an extended Sabbath. And so too, says the writer to the Hebrews, is heaven. This has been reiterated in church music over the years. Peter Abelard, a twelfth-century French theologian, wrote an anthem (translated into English much later by John Mason Neale) in which one verse states:
O what their joy and their glory must be,
Those endless Sabbaths the blessèd ones see;
Crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest:
God shall be All, and in all ever blest.
(You can listen to Healey Willan’s setting of this piece here.)
In one sense, then, vacation time is truly a taste of heaven! Make sure you get some rest. If you are a follower of Jesus, it’s part of your eternal future!
Last Sunday, Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Airways and many other enterprises, fulfilled a lifelong dream: he went to space…on his own craft.
Granted, he didn’t get very far, galactically speaking: he soared to 50 miles above the surface of the earth, which doesn’t quite reach the definition of “outer space”, but he proved that some form of space travel does not have to be the purview of only astronauts. Branson proved that anyone can go – provided, of course, they have the cash to make it happen.
This got me thinking: the curiosity of the human mind is amazing. Inventions come to pass because people believe there might be a better way to do something, and they do the work required to bring it to fruition. There was Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone, Schaffer with the washing machine, Ford with the assembly line, etc., etc. These people had the ingenuity to invent, but they first had the curiosity to explore the possibilities. It is a gift from God.
Your curiosity is a gift from God. What are you doing to glorify him with it? You don’t have to go to the outer reaches of the atmosphere. Maybe your curiosity will do something to help your small group. Maybe it will build the church. Maybe it will help missionaries do their work. Whatever it is, let your God-given curiosity bring him praise.
“It is God’s privilege to conceal things and the king’s privilege to discover them” (Proverbs 25.2, NLT).
Today, I encourage you to spend a few moments meditating on God’s Word. The word “meditate” has been hijacked in contemporary society, and sometimes, Christians are afraid to use the word for fear that they are practising some sort of eastern religious act. Not so! Meditation has been part of church life since the earliest days of the Christian faith. One of the ways we practise meditation on the Word of God is through holy reading, what the ancients called lectio divina. In this practice, we read a passage of Scripture to get familiar with it; we pause, and then we read it again to discern a word or phrase from the passage that the Lord may be highlighting for us; again we pause, and read it a third time, taking time to hold that word or phrase before the Lord to know why he has highlighted it for us; and finally, we read it a fourth time and rest in God’s care and provision, thinking prayerfully about how we might respond to what the Lord has said to us through his Word.
Try it with this passage:
But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you.
O Israel, the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you go through deep waters,
I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I gave Egypt as a ransom for your freedom;
I gave Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
4 Others were given in exchange for you.
I traded their lives for yours
because you are precious to me.
You are honored, and I love you. (Isaiah 43.1-4, NLT)
How did the Lord speak to you through this passage? How can you respond?
I had an interesting experience this week…I went to jail.
Don’t worry, though: I wasn’t remanded in custody for a crime.
I was in Facebook Jail.
It seems that the digital robotic algorithm which constantly monitors posts for things it has unilaterally decided are hateful, offensive, or against its ‘community standards’ picked off a meme I reposted from someone else and decided that it violated ‘community standards’.
I thought it was funny, and so did several other people. In fact, I can’t imagine who would have found it anything but funny. But the algorithm doesn’t share my sense of humour, apparently. So I couldn’t post for 24 hours (probably not a bad idea anyway), and I can’t go ‘live’ or place an ad on Facebook for 30 days. I guess this is the equivalent for getting 2 minutes for roughing and a game misconduct…from a blind referee.
Thankfully, I don’t rely on Facebook for anything except mild entertainment and the opportunity to post spiritual encouragement, so the repercussions are not life-altering for me.
It’s almost impossible to hit a moving target – which I deem Facebook’s algorithm to be – so I will have no idea whether what I post in the future will be targeted. So I will have to be much more judicious in what I post. It will mostly be ministry-related. (Hopefully, they won’t start targeting Christians for spiritual things!)
I couldn’t find a means for appeal, but if I could, I would encourage Facebook to alter its algorithm so that it has at least a mild sense of humour. After all, if we can’t laugh, especially at ourselves, life is not as rich.
Make sure you get in a good laugh today, even if it’s not at something I post on social media, because, as the Bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength” (Proverbs 17.22, NLT).
There’s a very important word in the Old Testament that not many people think about, but to the Hebrew people of old, like the Jewish people of today, it’s a word that’s deeply grounded in their culture.
It’s the word remember.
One of the earliest examples is during the exodus, and the reminder of the Passover meal: “This is a day to remember. Each year, from generation to generation, you must celebrate it as a special festival to the Lord” (Exodus 12.14, NLT).
Another early example is right in the Ten Commandments: “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20.8, NLT).
When the Israelites did not remember their past, they disobeyed the Lord. “After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel” (Judges 2.10, NLT). This story repeated itself over the course of history.
Of course, the most common remembrance today for Jewish people (for us outsiders) comes in the remembrance of the Holocaust. If you’ve ever visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, or any of the other similar museums around the world, you were moved by the exhibits that will preserve the memory of the death of six million Jewish people for all time. The same could be said of the prison camps in Europe: they exist as reminders of the past.
The Jewish people want to remember the past, both for the sake of their relationship with God and for avoiding the repetition of evil.
Thus am I troubled when I see news reports of people wanting to rename streets, take down monuments, and find other ways to attempt to erase history, because it is through that history that we learn. “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” said Spanish philosopher George Santayana, famously. While we may not want to glorify people for atrocities committed, we must keep those things which enable us to remember those atrocities, lest they be repeated.
Context is important, too. If we remove all memory, for example, of John A. Macdonald or Egerton Ryerson (here in Canada), how will we remember the many good things they did for our country? Rather than erase history, let’s put it in context, so we may be inspired by the good, and discouraged from the ill.
As followers of Jesus and people of the new covenant, we are called to remembrance as well. Among the greatest of these remembrances comes whenever we gather around the Lord’s table, mindful that Jesus celebrated the last supper and called us to celebrate “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22.19, NLT).
As long as the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, we will have a visual reminder that cancel culture has no place among God’s people.
As more and more people receive vaccinations against COVID-19, people are starting to sense that the end of the pandemic is in sight. I hope that’s true! And it prompts me to ask a question: What have we learned from all this?
I’m sure the answer to that question would be a list as long as my arm, but I want to focus on the spiritual end of it. Perhaps I might frame the question this way:
How has my walk with God been affected by the pandemic, and what have I learned as a result?
The answer to that, too, can and perhaps is long and complicated. But let me focus on one particular area: rest.
For the last number of years, “busy” is a badge that people have worn with honour. And there has been a cost involved.
Early in the pandemic, when everything was shut down and (let’s face it) many people lived in fear, there was a sense of equilibrium returning to nature: the air got cleaner, the dolphins returned to the canals of Venice, the traffic was manageable.
People were slowing down.
But as the first wave ebbed, and a limited reopening took place, we seemed to forget the serenity and peace that came with that first shutdown. The pace picked up. While people worked from home, the boundaries were blurred.
Where I live in Ontario, the economy begins reopening today. Stores will be open with a limited capacity. Outdoor patios will be open, within limits. And our church will be open to 15% capacity! It’s a start!
But before we try to “get back to normal” – whatever that’s going to look like – let me encourage you to take a step back and look at what you’ve learned about your spiritual rhythms from the experience of the pandemic. Spend some time in conversation with the Lord over that in the coming days.
Then – and this is the difficult part – apply what you’ve learned to the “new normal.”
“So God’s rest is there for people to enter, but those who first heard this good news failed to enter because they disobeyed God. So God set another time for entering his rest, and that time is today. God announced this through David much later in the words already quoted:
‘Today when you hear his voice,
don’t harden your hearts’” (Hebrews 4.6-7, NLT).
Today, we have a guest post from my wife, Diana, who had an experience last week worth sharing.
Desiring to follow the health directives of my doctor, I attended a medical lab for a couple of tests. This was not prompted by any concern, but was part of my “tune up”, as my physician referred to his requisitions.
As a part of the pre-test screening, the technician asked me a number of questions, including when my first COVID-19 vaccine had been administered. When I told her, we both commented on the shortened waiting period between shots, and what that would mean for travel plans.
As she continued the preparations for the imaging, I told her that we have talked about taking a road trip to Arizona when time allows, and the border is re-opened. She wistfully told me that she longs to go to Sedona, wanting to experience the spiritual healing people report there. I said that I didn’t know about those things, but that one of my favourite sights is the first glimpse of the mountains as one heads out of Calgary toward the Rockies along the Trans-Canada highway.
My explanation of what that view does for me is “a complete centering of my being.” Her reply to this (remember, all of this is happening while I was in, well, not the most comfortable of positions) was that she feels exactly that way when she goes into a church. She was quiet for a moment, and then said, “I was raised Hindu, but that is similar to how I feel when I am in a church.” I said that when I am able to soak in such a glorious part of God’s creation, it is a reminder of just how great He is, but just how important I am to Him.
And then, after another moment of quiet, she said, “I’m sorry, you are the only the second person I’ve ever told that to. The other was my husband.”
That trusting statement, after such a brief encounter, was a sacred one for me. I responded to her with a smile and said, “Thank you for sharing, but let me tell you that my husband is a pastor, and I am a long-time friend of Jesus. I think what you experience is Him wanting to spend time with you.”
She sighed and smiled, and said, “Imagine!” It was at that point we were finished, and I headed to the next part of my time at the lab. Telling Jeff, the sacredness of that moment fully hit me. There I was, in a fairly vulnerable setting, apparently being safe enough for this lab technician to admit something that in some parts of the world would see her severely punished! To top it off, God opened the door for me to sow the seed of Jesus wanting a personal relationship with her. The conversation was as natural as one about the weather, but I think maybe, just maybe, God spoke to her – He certainly reminded me of his presence and desire to be in relationship with all of us.
Pray that God will position you for a conversation like that, and watch what happens!
“The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship” (Psalm 19.1, NLT).
This weekend, the church celebrates Pentecost, the occasion recorded in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit fell upon the gathered followers of Jesus, made manifest in tongues of fire and languages heretofore unknown.
The Holy Spirit was given to equip disciples to minister in the power and authority of Jesus after he ascended into heaven. Those first disciples had come to rely on Jesus during his ministry for the ability and the blessing to minister in his name. When he ascended into heaven, he promised them the Holy Spirit, so that they would not be left alone.
To this day, all who follow Jesus are given the Holy Spirit to enable us to undertake God’s mission in the world. And the first task of all disciples of Jesus is to make more disciples. The Great Commission, given at a resurrection appearance before Jesus ascended, promised that in his authority, Jesus’ followers would be given power to make disciples of all nations.
Pentecost reminds us that this is our primary aim as the church: making disciples.
If we are pouring our primary efforts into other things, no matter how noble they be, those efforts are misdirected.
Yes, the Holy Spirit came and still comes and sometimes manifests himself in signs and wonders, as well as in less flashy ways. But the principal purpose of the Holy Spirit’s coming is to empower for making disciples.
And that starts with us, with our own formation in Christ, our own spiritual maturity.
If you want to celebrate Pentecost well, spend personal time with the Lord, and tell a friend about what Jesus has done for you. Be a disciple, and make a disciple.
“I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28.18-20, NLT).
Encouragement From the Word returns on June 4.
Yesterday was an important day in the Christian calendar, but because it always falls on a Thursday, many believers in western society ignore it, and that’s unfortunate.
It was Ascension Day.
It commemorates the ascension of Jesus, 40 days after he rose from the dead. And 40 days after Easter Sunday always falls on a Thursday. While we in North America don’t celebrate it widely (though many Anglicans, especially those whose parish churches are named “The Church of the Ascension”, will have special services for it), in much of western Europe, it’s still a public holiday.
Why does it matter? Why should we mark the ascension of Jesus?
It fulfills the promise he made to the disciples, even before he went to the cross. In John 14.28, Jesus told them, “I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am” (NLT).
Of course, the disciples didn’t understand this at the time, though everything became clear as time went on.
Jesus, in ascending to heaven, went to be with the Father, and began his promised role as our Intercessor. From that day forward, Jesus’ primary responsibility as the Second Person of the Trinity would be to pray for us.
Isn’t that amazing? Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father’s throne in heaven, interceding on our behalf. And it all began on that first Ascension Day.
When we pray in Jesus’ name, he lays our case before the throne of grace. Think of that every year, 40 days after Easter. And think of it every day as you pray in the powerful name of Jesus.