REVELATION #45. THE TREE OF LIFE

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Virtually all human beings have a deep desire to live in a world that is perfect. All of us have to reckon with that desire, one way or another.

But here is the problem: If there was a perfect world, we ourselves could not live there without destroying the perfection of that world. If we entered a perfect world, we would bring our selfishness, our pettiness, our impure desires and thoughts, and so on, and before long, the perfect world would be just as bad as this one.

We don’t live in a perfect world precisely because we live in it.

The problem is us. So, what is the solution? What hope can we possibly have, if by our very existing, we destroy the thing we desire so deeply?

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Revelation #45. Revelation 22:1-5

1 Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 Night will be no more; people will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will give them light, and they will reign forever and ever. (CSB Revelation 22:1-5)

By the way, today I will focus almost exclusively on the tree of life and the water of life. Last time we talked a little bit about the part where it says there will be no night, and no need for the sun. This is not a literal description of the New Creation, but rather it is meant to tell us that God himself will satisfy every need we have, directly.

So, moving on, let me set the stage.

I’m picturing a scene from a simply amazing moment in my life. After years of wishing, then about six months of hoping, then three months of planning, through the blessing and generosity of many people, my family and I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical in Europe, Switzerland in particular. On our first full day there, we went for a hike through some woods, up a steep slope. We came out on a green meadow that was maybe five hundred feet higher than the surrounding countryside. It was sunny, and about sixty-five degrees. To our right, a lone, snow-capped mountain peak towered above us. In front, and to the left, stretched a chain of little towns at the edge of a mountain lake. Beyond the lake lay more snow-capped mountains. It was like a postcard, someone’s idyllic dream of what Switzerland is supposed to be. We all exclaimed in wonder, and took pictures, and, without even talking about it, we sat down, and decided to stay up on that meadow for a while. (One out of about two dozen pictures, above).

I found something interesting about that moment, however. I loved it. I was full of joy and wonder. And yet, even in the middle of that moment, I found myself still desiring something. I wanted to keep it somehow, to be in it. While in the moment, I wanted the moment. I longed for it. Now, this is puzzling. It does not entirely make sense. When I tried to analyze it, I realized I didn’t really want to move to Switzerland – that was not what I was desiring. I didn’t just want to stay there on the hillside forever. It’s hard to express. C.S. Lewis said something about this:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe and it, to become part of it.

That is close to how I felt. And it was not a new feeling. I have felt it before when I see beautiful scenery. I have felt something very much like it after reading a moving book, or watching a poignant movie. On a few occasions, I have felt it with close friends and family. In fact, when we say that something deeply moves us, this is often what we are talking about – a deep, inexpressible feeling, and sometimes, part of that feeling is longing, or desire.

This is all very relevant when we talk about the New Heavens and the New Earth. I read our text today, and say, “OK, a river that flows through the city. That sounds…OK. Just like Luzern, Switzerland. Or Florence, Italy. Or, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or, the Twin Cities Minnesota.” What I’m saying is that often, we aren’t terribly excited when we read the Bible’s descriptions of the New Creation. We’ll be worshipping God forever. We’ll be in a giant, cube-shaped city that sticks halfway out of the atmosphere. The city will have a river. Sometimes, that all can sound less than exciting.

I want to remind us, however, that we are not meant to take all of this literally. I think one thing we are meant to understand is that these longings we have in moments like the one I described are actually longings for the New Creation. What I was really wanting on that hillside in Switzerland was deeper communion with God, life in the New Creation. I was wanting the river of life, and the tree of life.

I think I am correct in connecting these things to our deep longings and desires. Proverbs 13:12 says this:

12 Hope delayed makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (CSB, Proverbs 13:12)

I believe this is more than just a saying about how nice it is to have our desires fulfilled. It is saying that our ultimate desires are fulfilled only when we can eat from the Tree of Life. Let’s go back to the garden of Eden. Young, unencumbered by the physical problems that come with sinful flesh, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The result was that sin entered the world, and has been passed down to each generation ever since. The garden of Eden was lost to humanity. Even now, deep in our hearts, we know we are missing something wonderful and beautiful. We know the world is not the way it ought to be, which is a very strange thing to think, unless something very like the Biblical story is true.

There was another tree in that garden. Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from it, but they did not. After they sinned, this is what happened:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!” 23 So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden, and he sent Adam out to cultivate the ground from which he had been made. 24 After sending them out, the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NLT) Genesis 3:22-24

God knew that if sinful humans were given eternal life, they would become like demons – living forever, but unable to be saved. If sinful flesh was immortal, by definition, sinful flesh could never die, and therefore never be redeemed. We would be stuck in sinful flesh forever. So, God sent human beings out of the garden, and protected them by blocking access to the tree of life.

In the New Creation, our sinful flesh will be destroyed, and we will be living in new, resurrected bodies that have no sin. Then, at last, we can eat from the tree of life – and the text says we will do so repeatedly.

Let me put this all plainly. I believe that virtually all human beings have a deep desire to live in a world that is perfect. Many people recognize that is unrealistic, and bury that desire, but it is there, nonetheless. All of us have to reckon with that desire, one way or another.

But if we would be realistic, here is the problem. If there was a perfect world, we ourselves could not live there without destroying the perfection of that world. If we entered a perfect world, we ourselves would bring our selfishness, our pettiness, our impure desires and thoughts, and so on, and before long, the perfect world would be just as bad as this one.

We don’t live in a perfect world precisely because we live in it. The problem is us. If we are honest with ourselves, this should be quite obvious. So, what is the solution? What hope can we possibly have, if by our very existing, we destroy the thing we desire so deeply?

That, my dear friends, is a question that only Christianity answers satisfactorily. Jesus came to take the burden of our imperfections on himself. When we trust him, he has done it. What remains still in this life is a body that has imperfection written into its very DNA. The Bible calls that body “flesh.” So, our flesh must finally be destroyed, through death, and then we can enter perfection, because Jesus has made us perfect, and death has destroyed our flesh. Our new, resurrected, perfect lives will be unable to be stained by sin and the suffering that it brings.

Then, when all that has been accomplished, we drink from the river of life, and eat from the tree of life. Our deepest, most unfulfillable desires will, in fact, be fulfilled, not by the temporary happiness that comes and goes, but by eternal, lasting joy. Our text confirms this, saying “There will no longer be any curse (v3).”

All of recorded human history is one tiny parentheses in God’s eternal plan. He created us for perfection. We blew it. He saved us, and promises us a restoration of that perfection that we ourselves destroyed. In Genesis chapter 3, human beings had to leave the garden of Eden. In Revelation 22, we enter the brand-new, Re-created Garden once more. All that was good that was lost will be restored, and made even better. This is not the end, but rather, the New Beginning.

This is not a boring, everlasting church-service. This is the fulfillment of your truest, deepest desires in ways that we can’t even imagine right now. Now, as it happens, that fulfillment will indeed involve profound worship. But my point is, even now, your desires are pointing you toward what that will feel like when we eat from the tree of life.

So, a few questions for us, by way of application. What are some things that spark that deep desire in your life? Can you remember some moments when you were filled with both joy and a profound, unnamable desire at the same time? Is there something you can do to have more of those moments?

Second, I think that even before we reach the New Creation, we can get a taste of the tree of life, and the water of life. Jesus had a famous conversation with a woman from Samaria. He started a conversation with her about water from a well. This is how it went from there. He said:

“If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
11 “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”
13 Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (NLT John 4:10-14)

Jesus has living water for us right now. It will be even better in the New Creation, but even now, we can recognize that our deepest thirst is actually for a true, right relationship with God. We can begin, even now, to have that thirst satisfied.

How can we use our thirst for God, and hunger for His tree of life to encourage and strengthen us right now? We can ignore the thirst. We can try and satisfy the hunger with the things we can get on earth. But how can we do the opposite? How do we seek the eternal food and drink? How can we use our desires to keep us focused on the joy that is ahead of us?

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you now, as you wrestle with these questions.

DESIRE, HOPE & THE RESURRECTION

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What if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself

 

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RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2019

John 11:1-53

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth on which all Christian theology depends. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then he was a madman or megalomaniac, or maybe a demon. But if he was truly raised, then what he said was true; and he said he was God the Son, come into the world for our salvation.

I have talked before about the theological implications of the resurrection. I probably will do so again in the future. I have shared with you substantial evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I’ll do that again in the future also. But this year, I want to talk about the resurrection in a personal way. To do that, I want to consider a different resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in John chapter 11:1-53. Don’t get me wrong, this is also about the resurrection of Jesus. However, I think by considering what happened in this incident, we can learn some things about Jesus’ resurrection, and the eternal life he offers us.

Jesus was at least two days of traveling away from his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so the sisters sent word to Jesus. What John says next is pretty strange:

Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

John connects two things that don’t seem like they should be connected. He says Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was. What kind of sense does that make? I can see John writing, “Jesus loved Lazarus, but when he heard he was sick, he stayed where he was anyway.” Or it would make sense to say, “Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard he was sick, he hurried to his side.” But John very deliberately connects the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus to the fact that he didn’t go to him, and allowed him to die.

Now, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus does go back – after Lazarus has died and been in the ground for four days. He speaks to Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is actually a statement, but implied here is a question: “Why did you let him die? Why didn’t you come when we called?”

Jesus, typically, doesn’t answer her unspoken question. Instead, while their brother is still rotting in the tomb, he asks them to put their faith in him. You see, Jesus had bigger plans for Lazarus than merely healing him from a deadly disease. He had plans for resurrection.

We want to restore things as they were. Jesus wants to let things “as they were” die, so that he can resurrect something better in its place. In order for resurrection to occur, death must occur first. In other words, Jesus cannot resurrect something unless it dies first. To go back to the point I made earlier: Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he let him die. This isn’t necessarily a pleasant thought. Usually, we want to skip the dying part, and go right to the resurrection; but death is a part of the equation. Jesus said:

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12:24, ESV)

This is an obvious truth when it comes to seeds. When you plant a seed, you destroy it, as a seed. But the destruction of a seed results in something new and wonderful, something that is actually much greater than the seed was. In the same way, resurrection requires death. This truth is all over the bible:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  (Matt 16:24-26, ESV)

When Jesus says “take up his cross” he means quite simply, “be willing to die.”

2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  (Col 3:2-3, ESV)

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Gal 2:20, ESV)

Ultimately, this means our physical death. It means that death is not something to fear. It leads to resurrection. But even now, before physical death, there are things that Jesus would like us to let go. There are ambitions, hopes, values, material things, perhaps even relationships, that we need to allow to die. [By the way, when I say “relationships” I don’t mean marriages. As always, we need to consider the whole scripture, and the Lord has made it clear that he considers marriages to be permanent in this life. Please do not interpret this message in any way that contradicts some part of the bible].  We might feel like letting go of our rights, or our dreams or material things is a terrible thing. And it might indeed be very difficult and traumatic. But there is a resurrection waiting, and sometimes the only thing holding up the glorious new life is the death that must come first.

You can’t fault Martha and Mary and the disciples for failing to see this, when it came to their brother. It is so much bigger than anything they have thought of hoping for. They are thinking of this life. They are thinking of what seems possible, given their level of interaction with Jesus. But they are not thinking like Jesus.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:23-27, ESV)

I identify with Martha and the others. I usually hope for what seems somewhat realistic. Considering how they had themselves seen Jesus heal people, it was reasonable for them to hope for healing. But resurrection was outside their experience. It was outside their paradigm. So often, we are like that. We want healing and continuation of this life. Jesus wants to give us resurrection. We want what seems possible, even if unlikely. Jesus wants to give us what we haven’t even thought of yet.

Before we are too old, we learn that life is full of disappointments. We find out we can’t fly. Animals don’t talk. Mom and Dad are really going to stay divorced. Work is hard, as is managing money. The odds against winning the lottery really are one-hundred million to one against it (or even worse). My marriage isn’t perfect. I can’t make a living doing what I love to do. You know exactly what I’m talking about. So, we adjust our expectations. We adjust them radically downwards. Chocolate cake is doable. I can dream of having chocolate cake, and I think I can make that dream happen. I can’t be fulfilled in my work, but I think I can manage to be pleasurably distracted by TV, or computer games.

But what if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? The great philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote:

What can this incessant craving, and this impotence of attainment mean, unless there was once a happiness belonging to man, of which only the faintest traces remain, in that void which he attempts to fill with everything within his reach? (Pascal, Pensées)

When we get honest with ourselves, we know that the world doesn’t seem right. We have a deep restlessness. As I said, we cover it up with things we think we can realistically get for ourselves, like work, entertainment, shopping, sex, food, adventure, relationships – the list is endless. But if we would just stop, and be still, we would realize that there is a deep emptiness in us. That’s probably why we so seldom stop and be still. We often blame the emptiness on ourselves; and it’s true we certainly don’t do ourselves any favors. But the problem is not only just with us. It is that we are out of place. We were made for paradise, and instead we are living on the outskirts of hell. C.S. Lewis writes:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself. As we follow Jesus, he sometimes asks us to let some things die, so that he can replace them with that which is far better.

Let’s continue with the story:

28 Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” 29 So Mary immediately went to him.
30 Jesus had stayed outside the village, at the place where Martha met him. 31 When the people who were at the house consoling Mary saw her leave so hastily, they assumed she was going to Lazarus’s grave to weep. So they followed her there. 32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. (NLT) John 11:28-35

Jesus himself understood that this life is deeply troubling. Even though he knew what he was about to do next, he wept. It is entirely good and appropriate sometimes to grieve, to be deeply troubled – even when we have the hope that Jesus gives. This life can be terrible and tragic. Jesus did not pretend that a future resurrection meant that you should never cry here and now. We are indeed living in a place where we were not made to live. Continuing on:

36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him! ” 37 But some of them said, “Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying? ”

And there it is: If God is so powerful, why does he let bad things happen? If he is good, why would he allow evil to exist? I think the full answer is beyond our understanding, but one reason is this: if God were to destroy all evil, he would also have to destroy all of us, because none of us is without some evil. Only those who trust Jesus to do it for them can be made holy without being destroyed at the same time. God is patient, waiting for more people to enter through the only door. I know, however that that particular answer, though correct, is not complete. There is more going on with that question than we can understand. I know that Jesus calls us to trust, even when we can’t understand. That is certainly what he was saying to Martha and Mary. Let’s finish this story:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 “Remove the stone,” Jesus said.
Martha, the dead man’s sister, told him, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? ”
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so that they may believe you sent me.” 43 After he said this, he shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! ” 44 The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.” (CSB) John 11:36-44

Now, as amazing as this is, I want to point something out: today Lazarus is dead again. His resurrection was not THE resurrection. It was a miracle that Jesus did to show who he is, and what is coming. But it is important for us to realize that it was temporary, because far too often, what we think we want is for Jesus to fix this life, and what Jesus wants to do is give us an entirely new life that will never be broken again. We want Jesus to raise things that will just have to die again anyway. We get so focused on this life, and the things in it. But the resurrection that Jesus offers us is not just a restoration of what we have right now. That was Lazarus’ resurrection, but it is not the resurrection that Jesus promises, and ultimately that Jesus himself had.

The apostle Paul describes both the resurrection that Jesus had, which is also promised to us, when we trust Jesus:

When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. 39 Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
40 There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. 41 The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.
42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.
45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. 46 What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. 47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (NLT, 1 Corinthians 15:36-58)

Are you willing to let temporary things die so that you can receive something that will never die? Are you willing to believe that our deepest, most unfulfillable desires might be signs that we were made for Resurrection life? Especially, are you willing to trust Jesus to be the true Resurrection and Life, to be patient until he brings that Resurrection Life to us? When we are so willing, as Paul writes, nothing we do for the Lord is ever useless!

22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. 25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) (NLT) Romans 8:22-25

Let us look forward with hope, because the One who called us is faithful. He has risen!

He has risen indeed.

SECOND CHRISTMAS

2nd Christmas

Christmas has a way of awakening our desires. What we often don’t understand, however, is that our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time.

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2 Peter 3:1-18. ADVENT 2015 #3 (fourth week in Advent)

Remember when you were a kid, and it seemed like Christmas would never come? I sometimes enjoy the movie A Christmas Story. It really captures the combination of yearning, excitement and apprehension that some children feel about the holiday. In that movie, Ralph, a young boy, desperately wants a BB gun. He needs it. His heart will not be at peace until he possesses it. Throughout the whole movie he is aching for Christmas to come, but also a bit fearful that he’ll be disappointed.

As I have pointed out during the past few weeks, Jesus also promised us a “second Christmas.” He said he would return some day. In some ways, I think we look at the return of Jesus the same way Ralph in A Christmas Story looks at Christmas. We want the gifts we might get: eternal life, an end to sorrow and suffering, being reunited with those we loved and have lost. Revelation 21:1-5 puts it like this:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

That sounds exciting. That sounds like a present we could really look forward to. In fact, in my better moments, I yearn for this. I know my soul won’t be at rest until I receive it.

But at the same time, we have a certain amount of apprehension about second Christmas. What if, when it comes, we are disappointed? What if Jesus was just messing with us when he promised to take us to be with him (John 14:1-6)? I think our fears about his return fall into a few different categories. I fear that won’t enjoy the time leading up to it. The holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas can get hectic and stressful. In the same way, the Bible indicates that the time before Jesus returns will be stressful.

Another thing we tend to worry about it, is this: will heaven really be all it cracked up to be? I mean, I might get bored, singing in the choir, after a thousand years or so. Is our “second Christmas” present really as good as we think it is?

Finally, I think some us worry about this: will we really get the present we want? Or will we be left out? Jesus promised, but what could be taking him so long? Is the promise really for me? Is he even coming back at all?

The apostle Peter, in his second general letter to Christians, addressed some of these issues in 2 Peter 3:1-18. When Jesus first promised to come back, the apostles and the early church expected him within their lifetimes. No one ever dreamed he would wait for 2,000 years or more. So many Christians had begun to doubt, or at least wonder, about this promise. They were excited, but also worried. Here are several points from what Peter writes, that might help us as we look forward to the second Christmas.

1. Second Christmas (the return of Jesus) is going to come. Scoffers are mocking the promise of Jesus, saying he is never really going to come back. But Peter reminds us that God is not bound by the same rules of time that bind us. A thousand years might be like a day to the Lord, or vice versa. If that is the case, the church of Jesus Christ has only been waiting two days for him to return. It seems like forever – just like Christmas seemed forever away when you were a kid – but it is not forever. God doesn’t count time the same way we do, just like adults see time differently than kids. But he has not forgotten or changed his promise. He will come back. The time-delay is because of God’s mercy and grace (2 Peter 3:9 & 15). He doesn’t want anyone to miss out on a chance to receive the incredible gifts he is bringing. So he is giving the world a chance to repent of sins and self-centeredness, and receive him. We may be apprehensive, but we are dealing with a loving and gracious God.

2. It really will be good. In fact, it will be better than we can fully understand. This world is full of things that disappoint us. Remember that Christmas present you yearned for as a kid? How much joy does it bring you on a day-to-day basis today? By the time we are adults, if we are wise, we have learned that lasting joy does not come from temporary things. However, heaven is the opposite of temporary. We are promised eternal life, eternal joy. C.S. Lewis, among several other great Christian writers, suggests that our deepest desires are signals to us of what will be fulfilled in heaven:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.

Heaven is not a place where we wear robes and sing in a choir all day. It is the place where our entire purpose for existence is consummated. Our deepest desires are mere echoes of the great Reality that awaits us on the other side of time. Let me give you a specific and surprising example: A lot of people wonder if there will be sex in heaven. The biblical picture we have is unclear. But what is quite clear to me is that the joy and pleasure and intimacy with another person that we want to experience through sex is a pale, weak shadow compared to the stunning fulfillment we will find in heaven. The kinds of questions we raise about heaven are like a little child who is on his way to visit his grandparents, and wants to know if he will still be able to talk to them on the phone when he gets there. We are promised that it is better than we can ask or imagine. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

3. This Gift has been promised to us, and we can rely on the promise. Peter says the earth and sky will be consumed in fire, but: “In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. (2 Peter 3:13)” Again this is the same promise reiterated in Revelation 21, quoted above. It is unimaginably good; better than we could ask or conceive of.

4. The expectation of second Christmas should affect how we live today (2 Peter 3:14).

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

Let’s understand something clearly. Too many people get the cart before the horse. We don’t make efforts to be blameless and at peace with God in order to get to heaven and receive these promises. No. It goes like this: because we have these promises, and because we believe Jesus has given them to us out of his grace, our response to get ready for the life he offers. We don’t try to act right in order to receive God’s grace – we receive God’s grace first, and as a result, we make every effort to be blameless and at peace with him. The promise of Christmas can have a wonderful effect on young children. Sometimes, it is because they think they must be good in order to get good presents. But more often, it is the knowledge that at this time of the year, there is plenty of goodness and to go around. They are going to get goodness, and their response is often to be good in return. Ours should be the same, whether we are adults or children. The Lord has promised good to us (Jeremiah 29:11) – let that goodness flow back to him in a response of gratitude.

The fact is this: if we really are looking forward to the return of Jesus as the ultimate Christmas present, it should affect our lives. Worries that might otherwise be a big deal, don’t have to be so dominant. Things that others to do hurt me, don’t have to be unforgivable. God is being generous with me at Second Christmas, so I can spare some of the goodwill, and be generous with love and forgiveness toward others. There are a lot of things we get all tied in knots about, that simply won’t matter very much once Second Christmas comes.

5. We can be secure in grace. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

17 Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. 18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

Peter writes that we should be on our guard. We are not invincible. We might be carried away by the opinions of others, or our own love of sin. However, though we are not invulnerable, we can be secure – Peter himself calls our position secure. He tells us to grow in grace. What does that mean? I think it means that we grow in our understanding of how powerful and incredible God’s grace and love are. Because of what Jesus has done, there is no sin you commit than cannot be forgiven if you repent. There is nothing that can keep God’s love from you. Second Christmas is coming, and it is good, and the promise is yours simply by trusting that it is for you. These verses are about the end of the world. But they are not meant to scare us – they are written to encourage us, and comfort us.

Enjoy Christmas this year. But keep your eyes on the real promise – the Second Christmas, the return of the One who came the first time as a little baby. To focus our thoughts right now, let me close with two more quotes from C.S. Lewis and the weight of glory:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of the morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it will not always be so someday, God willing, we shall get in.

Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her. When all the suns and nublae have passed away, each one of you will still be alive. Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites us to use. We are summoned to pass in through nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects.

TREASURING WHAT IS MOST VALUABLE

treasure

When we store treasure for ourselves in this life, we are setting ourselves up for major disappointment. The relationships we cherish so much won’t ever be all that we want them to be. We are very unlikely to achieve the success and accolades we desire. Financial security escapes all but a few. Death takes every single person. We can’t count on our dreams here. Even those dreams which are fulfilled are still missing some indefinable thing that leaves us with lingering doubt and emptiness.

I think sometimes one reason we get so angry and disappointed with God is that we want to have it all in this life. But the Lord never promises we will have it all (or, necessarily any of “it”) here in this life.

The answer is not in this life. Our mistake is to seek it here. But the call for Christians is to keep our focus on real treasure.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 20.5

Matthew #20.5 Matthew 6:19-21

In our church last week, someone suggested that it would be a good idea to dwell a little bit more on what our treasure in Heaven will be. It’s hard to focus on something, to aim your life at something, when you only have a vague idea of what it is. So, I’m going to go back from where we are in the text, and re-visit Matthew 6:19-21. Jesus said:

“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt 6:19-21, HCSB)

Prior to this, Jesus was talking about how our Heavenly Father will reward us, and we should seek that reward, rather than the praise of other people. So, what is heavenly treasure? What is heavenly reward?

So often, we don’t really believe that our real treasure is in Heaven. We are still looking for it on earth. So our eternal future does not figure very much in our day to day plans and decisions.

For Most Christians, heaven is a backup plan. Our primary work is finding a life we can at least get a little pleasure from here. Heaven is an investment we’ve made, like Treasury bonds, or a retirement account, which we we’re hoping will take care of us in the future sometime, but which we do not give much thought to at present. (John Eldredge, Desire, chapter 6).

Part of the difficulty about heaven is that we’ve never been there. Even those Christians who have had death-experiences and returned, have not really been to heaven, but only to the entrance of the afterlife, so to speak, and we cannot give their experiences the same kind of authority that we give to the Bible; and yet the Bible doesn’t seem to have very many specifics. However, the Bible does give us some big-picture ideas about eternity for those who are in Jesus.

First, when the bible talks about “eternal life” the Greek word for life is a special one: zoe. Jesus said that whoever trusts in Him will have zoe (John 3:15). It means much more than just “live forever.” Zoe means not only life that is indestructible, that lasts forever, but also a certain higher quality of life, better life. John says we have zoe when we trust Jesus:

The one who has the Son has zoe. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have zoe. I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal zoe. (1John 5:12-13, HCSB I have substituted the Greek word for the English, where it occurs)

This is important. If by eternal life we meant just a long life exactly as we have known it, that sounds a little daunting. This life leaves a lot to be desired, and extending it forever would not fix most of the problems we have. If eternal life was just more of this life, we would continue to struggle with broken relationships. We would still face unfulfilled desires (only now, for eternity). We would go on being disappointed by others, and ourselves, and not finding as much joy as we think we should from getting what we think we want. We might go on struggling with finances, and with worry, and with feeling insecure, and unattractive. Continuing to live this life forever sounds more like a punishment than a blessing.

Thankfully, the Bible promises not more of the same, but rather, something different; eternal zoe. Our eternal life will be of a different, better quality. In the first place, we will have new bodies. Many Christians don’t realize this. The promise of eternal life is not some ghost-existence where we float around like disembodied spirits. 1 Corinthians 15 tells us that we will have bodies, but that they will be different in important ways from our present bodies.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come? ” Foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow — you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed, perhaps of wheat or another grain. But God gives it a body as He wants, and to each of the seeds its own body. (1Cor 15:35-38, HCSB)

We are like seeds, sitting in a seed packet, wondering what happens after we are planted, but having no point of reference. Back when I thought I could grow a garden, I planted some zucchini squash. The seeds are smooth and flat, roughly the size of a fingernail, but oval shaped. There is kind of beveled border all around the edge of the seed. The seed is cream colored. Now, that seed is pure zucchini. There is nothing in the seed that is anything other than zucchini. It contains every part of the DNA of a full zucchini plant. And yet, the seed is nothing at all like the whole plant – in fact it isn’t even very much like the zucchini squash. The plant is green. It grows to over two feet tall, and more than four feet around of spreading green stalks and leaves. The flowers are long and yellow or orange. The zucchini “fruit” is a foot long or more, with white flesh and dark green skin.

The seeds do not change their essential nature, and yet they are destroyed in order for the plant to grow. The DNA of the grown plant is the same as the DNA of the seed that dies to produce the plant. Yet the plant is so much more than the seed. And no matter how long you took, you would never be able to imagine the plant merely from examining the seed.

So it will be with our new bodies. They will be fully us, and yet very different from how we are at the moment. They will not experience disease or pain or death.

Our new bodies will have a new creation to inhabit. Paul writes that all of creation was “subjected to futility.” That creation will be redeemed when we ourselves are finally resurrected into eternal zoe with our new bodies:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:18-25, HCSB)

John writes about his vision of the end of the universe as we know it:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. (Rev 21:1, HCSB)

This world is a beautiful place still. As I type this, I can see three pictures on my wall, all of them taken by me while traveling. One is a sunset scene on the Gulf of Mexico.

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Another is from a mountainside in Northern California, overlooking meadows, forests and the ocean. The third is a majestic and stunning view of Mount Hood in Oregon, clad in winter white, draped with dark green fir forests. I love these MtnViewplaces, and many more equally beautiful, but different parts of the world. And yet, the beach on the Gulf was only recently threatened by a massive oil spill. Just a few miles from my Northern California scene, the city of San Francisco spreads asphalt over the beautiful land, and belches smog above the bay. The north side of Mount Hood has been artificially protected from fire, and the forests there are now filled with dead wood, and primed to go up in smoke across half the mountain. Even if they don’t, Hood is a volcano that could someday erupt, and turn the beautiful scenery into smoking slag rock.

And let’s be honest. In Gulf lurk bull sharks and stingrays that threaten our enjoyments, and at times even our lives. The mountainsides are gorgeous, but a fall, or an avalanche, or a falling tree, or a snake, or a cougar, or a bear, or just getting lost could kill us easily. Even if we don’t die, we can experience discomfort from insect-bites, illness from drinking untreated water and hunger if we can find no food. Our world is beautiful, but it is also still very imperfect and unsafe.

As beautiful as our world is, it is subject to futility. It is not eternal. It is not perfect. It is fragile, and even often unsafe for us. But the promise of the Bible is that we will get a new world, even more beautiful, one that is redeemed and perfected along with us. We can swim in beautiful waters with no fear of sharks. We can wander in the wilderness with no discomfort from mosquitoes, no fear of hunger or wildlife. This is indeed a treasure to look forward to.

John also says this about the new creation to come:

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life. (Rev 21:3-6, HCSB)

Our eternal zoe-life will be free from death, grief, and pain. Every time you experience grief, or emotional pain, or physical pain, or sorrow, use it to remind yourself of the treasure that awaits you in the New Creation.

In eternal life, we will be reunited with everyone else who has trusted in Jesus and died with faith in Him. A day will come when we see those who have gone before us. Death does not have to be forever. Pause for a minute, and think of those you have lost in this life who are waiting for you now in eternal life. These loved ones are a very great treasure for us. In Jesus, all goodbyes are temporary.

I think one of the clues to our treasure in heaven is the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve sinned. They lived in perfect health in a beautiful place, at harmony with nature. Most especially, Adam and Eve lived in complete vulnerability and intimacy with God and with each other. In their intimacy and vulnerability, there was no shame, no danger, no hurt or disappointment. In many ways, the Bible hints that the New Creation will be like the Garden of Eden – only better, and without the snake. Our relationships with God and with each other will be healed and whole and open and joyful and fun.

Sometimes we might think heaven will be boring. Isn’t it just one long worship service? I don’t think so. I think the worship takes place in many ways. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had work to do. It wasn’t toilsome – it was joyful. They found fulfillment in doing what they loved to do, and they found that it all came together as they lived according to their purpose. Here on earth, when you try to live for your purpose, it is usually a struggle. Others don’t care about your purpose. It’s hard to make a living doing what you were created to do. Many don’t appreciate the gifts and unique person that God made you to be. But in heaven, our yearning to be significant and our drive to do certain things we love will be fulfilled, not removed. Jesus, in the parable of the talents, describes the Master giving the faithful servants responsibilities and goals that are suited to them. You won’t be bored. You will finally get to do what you were created to do, with no hindrance or frustration.

John Eldredge writes about the eternal life to come for those who trust Jesus. He suggests that maybe one reason we don’t put our treasure in heaven is because we have incorrect expectations of it.

How can the church service that never ends be more desirable than the richest experiences of life here? It would be no small difference if you knew in your heart that the life you prize is just around the corner, that your deepest desires have been whispering to you all along about what’s coming. (John Eldredge, Desire, chapter 7 emphasis mine).

I think Eldredge is on to something. It is true, we can have sinful desires, and these will not find fulfillment in heaven. But our longing for closeness with God and with other people, our desire to be significant and to accomplish something worthwhile, our yearning for beauty and refreshment – all these are little signposts here on earth, pointing toward the eternal treasure that is waiting for us when God renews the heavens and the earth.

Let me give you one surprising example. Many people love the experience of sexual intimacy. At times, it feels almost necessary. That desire is really much more than physical. It is a desire to be close to another person, to be almost “immersed” in the one you love. Sexual desire is a pull to experience the beauty of another person fully, and to be known yourself fully. Of course, on earth, it gets distorted and twisted into all sorts of lesser things, sometimes very ugly and sinful things. But the desire itself is not wrong, and I believe that desire for intimacy and beauty and safe vulnerability will be fulfilled in heaven in a far greater way than it ever can be on earth. If you died without ever having sex in this life, you have not missed out – the real thing, the thing that sex is merely a shadow of – that is waiting for us in heaven, and it is better than what we call sex.

All of the things we love here on earth, and the things that desire most deeply are mere copies and shadows of the reality that is to come.

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah. (Col 2:16-17, HCSB)

These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. (Heb 8:5, HCSB)

Even our sinful desires are often just a distortion and deception of something that began as a righteous desire for the heavenly reality. The point is this: one of the great treasures of heaven is that the true deep desires of our soul will be fulfilled. God created us with yearning for heaven. Sin and the devil have distorted and confused the yearning, but they haven’t eliminated it. To put it another way, in heaven is what you truly want. Heaven contains what you’ve been trying to find, trying to achieve all these years, and even more. If that is not something to treasure, I don’t know what is.

When I was in High School, some of the kids acted as if High School was all there was. They immersed themselves in becoming sports stars and prom queens and part of the “in” clique. These folks didn’t want to be “losers,” but they were quite free in calling others by that name. Many of them achieved their High School dreams. But when they graduated, and High School was over, it was almost as if they were surprised. They were lost, and it took some of them a long time to realize that High School is only one very short part of life, and not the most important part, either. Some of these “popular” ended up as “losers” in real life.

Brothers and sisters, this is High School. This isn’t real life. What we have here, what we treasure, is just a shadow of the real thing. What everyone seems to chase after is shallow and it doesn’t last – it isn’t real treasure. You’ve heard the saying “there are no dress-rehearsals; this is real life.” I beg to differ. This is the dress rehearsal. Real life hasn’t even started yet.

So many of us don’t want to acknowledge this. We keep pursuing things that don’t last, things that don’t matter. We keep storing up treasure that we can’t take with us and focusing on what is meaningless. Isaiah wrote about such people:

You were wearied by all your ways, but you would not say ‘it is hopeless.’ You found renewal of your strength, so that you would not faint. (Isaiah 57:10).

He was talking to people who would not give up trying to get what they wanted in this life, people who wouldn’t trust that God had something better for them in eternity.

When we store treasure for ourselves in this life, we are setting ourselves up for major disappointment. The relationships we cherish so much won’t ever be all that we want them to be. We are very unlikely to achieve the success and accolades we desire. Financial security escapes all but a few. Death takes every single person. Some die too young, and others wish they could die sooner, but it comes to every single human being. We can’t count on our dreams here. Even those dreams which are fulfilled are still missing some indefinable thing that leaves us with lingering doubt and emptiness.

I think sometimes one reason we get so angry and disappointed with God is that we want to have it all in this life. But the Lord never promises we will have it all (or, necessarily any of “it”) here in this life. What Jesus said about this life was this:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV2011)

David writes it like this:

Our lives last seventy years or, if we are strong, eighty years. Even the best of them are struggle and sorrow; indeed, they pass quickly and we fly away. (Ps 90:10, HCSB)

The answer is not in this life. Our mistake is to seek it here. But the call for Christians is to keep our focus on real treasure, real zoe-life:

Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1Pet 1:13, HCSB)

So if you have been raised with the Messiah, seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (Col 3:1-4, HCSB)

Set your minds on what is above, not on what is on the earth. Put your treasure in heaven. Keep your life aimed toward real life, eternal life, not this temporary thing. Let your hope be not for this life, but for heaven. Don’t seek just for a comfortable eighty years passing the time on earth, but for an eternity of abundant better life. Store up your hope and treasure for heaven.

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