Friday, June 30, 2017

Seeking God’s Will (Ro.12:1-2; Phil.2:12-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Are you in charge of your life?  We like to think so, but you wonder, with all of the  twists and turns of our lives.  And we look at this world, with its joy and sadness, good and evil, justice and injustice, health and illness, the thrill of success and the agony of failure, and we wonder.

And where does God’s will fit in?  Have you ever prayed: “Lord, your will be done,” or “Lord show me your will.” or “Lord, I want to follow your will?”  I have.  Scripture is clear: God desires for you and me to seek, to know and to follow His Will.   God wants us to open our hearts and minds to His voice and guidance in all times and in all places and in all our years.

What is God’s will?    I doubt that this sermon will answer all of your questions, especially since I still have questions, but it will give you some biblical insights.  Discerning God’s will is not simple.   Any minister who says he or she understands and can explain God’s will to you is, let us say, not lacking in self-confidence.   Are you hearing God speak to you or is it something or someone else?

A man goes ice fishing for the very first time. All of a sudden, he hears a voice. "There are no fish under the ice!" He ignores it and moves to another area, cuts a hole, and tosses his line in. Again, he hears the booming voice: "There are no fish under the ice!" He nervously looks up and asks, "Lord? Is that you?"  "No, this is the ice rink manager!"

First, Scripture teaches that we live out our lives in a context of conflicting wills.  Our own free will, your will, my will, other people's free wills, Satan's will and God's will.  Toss accidents into the mix and you have a real conundrum.  Second, scripture says that God's sovereign will is not only at work in individual lives, but in the universe, history, in time, in the destiny of nations.  Jesus prays in the Lord's Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The terms God’s kingdom, God’s Will, God’s rule, God’s Plans or Purposes are synonyms/interchangeable.  They mean the same thing in scripture.  These terms mean God is alive and active in this world and in our lives.  God’s Will has existed in the past, is a reality today, and it is coming in the future.

In the letter of Romans, we read: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  We cannot discern God’s will by thinking like the world thinks, but only when we allow the Spirit to transform and renew our minds.  And in the letter of Philippians we read: “For it is God who is at work in you enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  God’s Spirit is speaking to your spirit helping you to grasp God’s will.  We must always pray to discern God's will vis-a-vis the world's will.

These are amazing biblical passages.  They bring comfort, encouragement, assurance and hope.  They affirm the truth that God’s will is not silent or make-believe or a fantasy.  God's sovereign and powerful will is a tremendous force in our lives and our world.     You and I are not merely pawns in life; victims of capricious and impersonal forces like fatalism over which we have no control.   God's will is present and active and God has given us a free will to seek and follow His will.  God calls us to align our will with His, to get in tune-with His will through faith.   Conversely, we also have the freedom to disobey God.

Nothing that happens in life is God’s will!  Is that true?  Can we make that claim?  No. We would be saying God is dead or apathetic or complacent or on permanent vacation in the Bahamas.  We claim through faith that God’s will comes in many forms: blessings, answers to prayer, miracles, small and great, coincidences, surprises of grace which we never saw coming, good coming out of bad, new opportunities emerging out of dead ends.   Well then can we state this:  Everything that happens in life is God’s will?   No we can’t say that either.  We are then speaking about pre-determinism or even fatalism and we are immediately ruling out human free will.

Was 9-11 God’s will?  Are terrorist attacks God’s will? If a child dies of an illness or in a car accident is that God’s will?  If a person is diagnosed with cancer is it God’s will?  If you or I do something foolish, which we later regret, it is God’s will?  As a Christian and pastor I believe the answer is no.  You have no control over a drunk driver who T-bones you or the cancer that your physician diagnoses.  The God of the Bible just doesn’t operate that way.  Why not?  We again live in a context of conflicting wills and individual responsibility.  Jesus acknowledges the existence of Satan, of free will, of sinful of human beings, of a fallen creation and of accidents which occur in life.

Think about Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the World.  In Jesus we see God’s will being played out.   If sickness was God’s will, why did Jesus heal people in his ministry?      Jesus does not tell a man with leprosy that his disease is God’s will; Jesus cures him.  If hunger was God’s will, why did Jesus feed people?   Jesus does not say to the hungry crowds go away, hunger is God’s will; Jesus feeds them.  Jesus does not tell people racked with guilt that guilt is God’s will, Jesus forgives them.  If ignorance was God’s will, why did Jesus teach his disciples and teach the crowd’s through stories and parables?

In his classic book, The Will of God by Leslie Weatherhead, we find some key insights into this question.  The author divides the concept of the Will of God into three aspects – the Intentional will of God, the Circumstantial will of God and the Ultimate will of God.

First, God’s Intentional Will means God’s original plan for creation, God’s original purpose in creating the world and human beings before the Fall.  Genesis says: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  Neither the earth nor the heavens existed.  God created the universe and human beings with a purpose in mind.  God created people with the free will to love Him and obey Him, to love their neighbor, to worship God alone, rather than self or idols, to be whole - spiritually, intellectually, relationally, physically, and emotionally rather than broken, to treat one another with fairness, respect and dignity, to  live together in unity, to lead spiritual and moral lives, to care for the earth rather than exploit it, to gain knowledge rather than live in ignorance, to live a meaningful and joyful and fulfilling life in fellowship with God.   This was God’s Intentional Will.

Second, God’s Circumstantial Will.   Now we enter a gray area.  Our eyesight becomes a little blurry.  Why, because scripture says we walk by faith, not by sight.  Because of human disobedience, the Fall destroyed man’s relationship with God.  Humanity as represented by Adam and Eve, turned away from God, fell from God’s grace; Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden.

God’s Circumstantial Will refers to the truth that despite the problems, sin and evil that resulted from the Fall, God is present in this world working through us and with us in our circumstances.  God promises to help us by His grace and power to not let us be defeated by our circumstances, but rather to get through, to endure, and finally triumph over them.

God sent His Son Jesus to seal this promise.   Jesus is the seal of God’s promise to be with us, to not forsake us.   The letter of Philippians says: “I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me.”  Scripture says: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

God promises to instill hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless times.   God promises to impart courage to us when we are overcome with fear and anxiety.  God promises to provide strength for us, when we feel weak, exhausted and helpless.  God’s promise means don’t give up.

And so we look at today’s world war, with radical extremist Muslim terrorist groups like Isis, dedicated to establishing Sharia Law world-wide, infidels against other moderate Muslim nations and democratic nations in Europe and the USA.  Some say they can’t be defeated, they are too strong.   Others say we need the will and a plan.  What do you say?   God’s will is that though we don’t know how, God’s plans and purposes are at work today to defeat this barbarous and evil threat to civilization.  This is the promise of Easter; Jesus’ resurrection was a victory over evil.

I Corinthians says: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out, so that you may be able to endure it.”  God brings good things out of bad circumstances.  God uses challenges for our good.  God redirects our lives when we are lost or misguided.  This doesn’t mean that everything will always turn out perfect or the way we want it to be.

Like the story about a police officer in a helicopter who spotted a car speeding down the freeway.  He radioed his partner on the ground and a few miles later the patrolman in the car stopped the speeder and began writing a ticket.  “How did you know I was speeding,” the man asked.   The patrolman kept writing and pointed skyward. The man looked up and moaned, “Oh, no, you’re not against me too.”

Listen to this story of a couple whose son was born with a congenital heart defect.  When he was four, he went to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles for open-heart surgery.  Despite their prayers, and the skills of the doctors, sadly, the child died.  His mother said: “God helped us through our grief in such a loving way, that we continually marveled at what was happening.  The people who brought us the most comfort were those who had also lost a child.  They knew what we were experiencing and when they softly said, ‘We understand what you are going through; there was a bond between us that really lightened our load.  The Bible verse that popped into my head was: “In everything God works for good with those who love him.”’  We hung onto it for dear life and watched it come true.  In the weeks and months to come, we were led to accept Philip’s death without bitterness and other people’s faith was strengthened as they watched what was happening to us.”

Lastly, we come to God’s Ultimate Will.  This means that God’s purposes in the world will ultimately be achieved, will ultimately be realized, will ultimately be established forever.   They will be fulfilled forever.   God's plans and purposes cannot be defeated or destroyed by any power or nation or evil charismatic person or group.  God will make sin and evil serve His final purposes.

I close with a beautiful picture of the future, a future which one day will be realized.  We find it in the book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease.”   “Lord, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Fathers of the Bible (Genesis 21:1-5, 35:27-29; I Chronicles 23:14-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A teenage boy had just gotten his driving permit.  He asked his father if they could discuss his use of the family car.  His father said, "I'll make a deal with you. You bring your grades up, study the Bible more, get your hair cut, and then we'll talk about it."   After about a month, the boy came back and again asked his father if they could discuss his use of the car. The father said, "Son, I've been very proud of you. You have brought your grades up, you've studied the Bible, but you didn't get your hair cut."  The young man replied, "You know, Dad, I've been thinking about that. I read in the Bible that Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Jesus had long hair."  "True son," his father said, "and everywhere they went, they walked."

Welcome on this Father’s Day.  A study from Penn State researchers published in the journal Child Development tracked nearly 200 families over a seven-year period.  The study found that time with mom and dad starts to drop when teenagers hit about the age of 15.  The study noted that, generally speaking, the more time teens spend with their dads, the higher their self-esteem, social competence, and sense of well-being.  Teens with involved fathers "may develop higher general self-worth because their fathers go beyond social expectations to devote undivided attention to them."   Yes, fatherhood is a critical role.

Are some fathers born great?  Leonard Ravenhill tells about a group of tourists visiting a picturesque village in Europe who walked by an old man sitting beside a fence.  In a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked, "Were any great men born in this village?"  The old man replied, "Nope, only babies.”

Today, we remember, honor and pray not so much for the ideal of fatherhood, but for real flesh and blood fathers.  Fathers who take fatherhood seriously and strive to be the best fathers they can be.  For fathers who treat their wives with love and respect as an example to their children.  We remember single fathers, married fathers, young and old fathers, foster fathers, step fathers and adoptive fathers.  We honor fathers who make promises and keep them, who stand by and support their families emotionally, spiritually and financially.

Today we pray for fathers who are separated from their children because of military service or because of problems in the family.  We pray for fathers who are grieving the death of a child, and for fathers who have a passionate desire to pass on spiritual and moral values to their children, and who give, not just material things - but their time, their love, their energy, their knowledge, themselves.

We also pray for fathers who do not support their children – emotionally or financially.  We pray for a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of attitude, that they will turn to God in repentance, that they will see the light and by God’s power and grace, mend their ways, and become the father’s God wants them to be and the father’s they are capable of becoming.

Who are some well-known fathers in the Bible?   Abraham left his home to follow the call of God.   Abraham was the father of the people of Israel, a leader and visionary.  He was constantly challenged by God and he met those challenges head-on.  When he and his wife Sarai were unable to conceive, God blessed the couple with their son Isaac.

God challenged Abraham by ordering Isaac be sacrificed. Though Abraham's heart was broken, he knew to trust in the Lord and at the last moment Abraham’s hand was stilled by God and Isaac's life was spared.  Abraham's difficult life is a reflection of difficult lives today.  Many modern fathers meet such challenges and learn, through experience, how to trust God.  Once that trust is developed, fathers pass that unyielding faith and trust to their children, who grow to love God as well.

Isaac is another well-known father.  Isaac married Rebekah, who was barren, like Sarah had been.  As a good husband, Isaac prayed for his wife, and God opened Rebekah's womb. She gave birth to twins:  Esau and Jacob.  No, Isaac wasn’t perfect, he favored Esau over Jacob. Isaac reminds fathers today that we are not perfect.   We need to grow and mature and learn, and be humble and grateful.  God calls ordinary men to be fathers, capable of doing extraordinary things.

Isaac obeyed God and followed his commands.  He became a leader and patriarch of the Jewish nation.  Isaac was faithful to God.  He never forgot how God saved him from death and provided a ram to be sacrificed in his place.   Isaac watched and learned from his father Abraham.  In an era when polygamy was accepted, Isaac took only one wife, Rebekah. He was a loyal husband and loved her deeply all his life.

Moses was another father.  He was the father of two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.  He also served as a father figure to the entire Hebrew people.  Moses trusted in God and led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land.  He loved them and helped discipline and provide for them on their 40-year journey to the promised land.  Moses seemed to be a larger-than-life character, but he was only a man. He shows today's fathers that overwhelming tasks can be achieved when we stay close to God.

Our last father is Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.  Though Jesus takes center stage, it is important to remember Joseph.  Joseph was responsible for raising the Christ child together with Mary.

It was a father’s job to prepare children for a trade.  Joseph passed on a skill to Jesus and trained Jesus to become a carpenter.  Joseph loved Jesus, protected him, provided for him, and raised Jesus up in the Jewish faith and tradition.  Joseph was a righteous man and was chosen to help care for Jesus in his childhood.  Joseph is an exemplary father figure for Jesus and the several children he later fathered.  Today, fathers can learn to be compassionate, loving and righteous after the model of Joseph.

In this light, I remind you of some basic biblical principles of Fatherhood.  God is our eternal Father.  Since human beings were created in the image of God, fathers are to reflect the image of God’s fatherhood.  Yes, that’s a tall order, a seemingly impossible one.  It is a role fathers strive to fulfill with humility and patience, trust and faith, and constantly seeking God’s grace, forgiveness and power.

Fathers are to love their children.  Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son to demonstrate both God’s love for sinners and a father’s love for his children.

Fathers are to teach and train their children.  A good father is an example and teacher for his children.  Ephesians 6:4 says: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Fathers, control your temper, practice self-control, do not provoke your children to anger.”  This includes teaching about God and faith.

A good father protects his children from harm.  This is one of the basic duties of a father.  Jesus used the analogy of a shepherd protecting his sheep, those in his charge, and likewise, fathers are to protect their children whom God has entrusted to them.

A good father provides for the family.  The father who loves his family strives to and works hard to provide for them.    This is understood broadly as providing material necessities, but also providing emotionally and spiritually in terms of prayer and being a Christian example.

Writer Mark Twain said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant; I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Our culture has dramatically changed.  Whom do we hear about?  We hear about superstar and super-paid athletes, successful entrepreneurs, celebrities and entertainers.  Yesterday I scanned the internet. I found hundreds of articles on almost every subject, but not one about Fathers or Father’s Day.   So how about elevating an important person and role in our society; a father, a committed father, a loving father, a man of faith, a good family man.  It is a role established by none other than God.   Amen!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Spirit of the Living God (Acts 2:1-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The Holy Spirit is always something of a mystery for believers.  A father tells the story of their family gathering for breakfast, he asked his four-year-old daughter to say the blessing.  She folded her hands, bowed her head and prayed, "Thank you, Father, Son, and Holy toast."

Yes, it's Pentecost Sunday.  The color red you see around you is a symbol for fire. In the Old and new Testaments fire and flames denoted a theophany, an appearance of God, the purifying presence of God.   Today we celebrate the coming and blessing of God's Holy Spirit.  Pentecost means 50th day, for it was 50 days after Easter that God sent His Spirit to the disciples.  Pentecost is the story about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' disciples who were gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit bonded them together as one and the Christian church was born.

We Christians affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; we believe that God is one God in three persons.  God is a tri-unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.    We are not talking about the human spirit, nor the spirit of the age, nor about team spirit.   We are speaking of the Spirit of God, the third person of the trinity or the God head.   The Holy Spirit is the Giver and Renewer of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.  God the creator is over us or beyond us, God the Son, our savior is for us and God the Holy Spirit and sanctifier is with us and in us.

In the Gospel of John we discover the Greek word “Paraclete,” a word I want you to add to your Christian vocabulary, when referring to the Holy Spirit.  It is variously translated into English as Advocate, Comforter, Companion, Counselor, Helper, Spirit because the Holy Spirit performs all of these functions.

After Jesus' resurrection and public appearances, knowing that soon he would no longer be physically with the disciples, Jesus makes a promise to his followers: “I will not leave you orphaned.   I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever.  The world cannot receive the Spirit, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him,” Jesus says, “because he abides with you and he will be in you forever.”  Not temporarily, not occasionally, but forever.

In times of trouble, in fearful times the Paraclete is our comforter.  When we face confusing decisions the Paraclete is our counselor.   In lonely times, God's Spirit is our companion.   When we are weak, the Paraclete or Holy Spirit is our Helper.

A pastor writes:

When I decided to start a new church in Los Angeles, I found that I was overwhelmed with pressure and stress.  I was working more than seventy hours a week.  My wife would ask me to take a day off and I would say, "I can't." I wasn't sleeping at night and I began to take sleeping pills. When the church was about a year old, I woke up in the night and had this strange sense that God was laughing at me.   It was the weirdest feeling.  I lay in bed wondering why God is laughing at me?

I finally got an answer. Here's how it happened.  When we moved into our house, I saved the heaviest piece of furniture for last—the desk from my office.   As I was pushing and pulling the desk with all my might, my four-year-old son came over and asked if he could help.  So together we started sliding it slowly across the floor.  He was pushing and grunting as we inched our way along.  After a few minutes, my son stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Dad, you have to push too.”  I realized that he thought he was actually doing all the work, instead of me.  I couldn't help but laugh.  But then a moment of realization struck me.  I knew why God was laughing at me.  I thought I was pushing this new church all alone.  Instead of recognizing God's power and strength, I was thinking it all depended on me.

Do you ever think it all depends upon you, that the weight of it is on your shoulders alone, and fail to see and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit working in partnership with you?  I experience that at times.  God's Spirit brings comfort when we battle feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.   When your heart is discouraged, the Holy Spirit brings a priceless gift, the gift of inner peace. Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, I do not give as the world gives, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Have you ever felt anxious about something and then suddenly you experience an inner calm?  The Holy Spirit helps us to persevere when we are weak, to find courage when we are afraid, and to find hope when we despair.  The Spirit consoles us in times of grief.   Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  The work of the Holy Spirit is about inspiring, transforming and changing.  Can you identify some part of your mind, heart or soul that is changing?  Trust in Jesus’ promise.  The Holy Spirit is working in your life.

In his book, Against the Flow, Oxford professor John Lennox notes that when God calls us to do something difficult, he gives us the strength when we need it, not before we need it. Lennox illustrates this biblical principle with a story about an encounter he had with a Russian follower of Jesus who spent years in a Siberian labor camp for the crime of teaching his own children about the Bible.

Lennox writes: “This man described to me that he had seen things in labor camps that no man should ever have to see. I listened, thinking how little I really knew about life, and wondering how I would have fared in such inhumane conditions.  As if he had read my thoughts, he suddenly said: ‘You couldn't cope with that, could you?’ Embarrassed, I stumbled out something like: ‘No, I am sure you are right.’ He then grinned and said: ‘Nor could I! I was a man who fainted at the sight of his own blood, let alone that of others. But what I discovered in the camp was this: God does not help us to face theoretical situations but real ones. Like you I couldn't imagine how one could cope in the Gulag. But once there I found that God met me, exactly as Jesus had promised his disciples when he was preparing them for persecution.  The Holy Spirit comes upon us when we need him and not before.’”

The ultimate test of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, according to the scripture, is when your life and mine manifest the fruits of God’s Spirit as we read in the letter of Galatians.  Do you recognize those times when you are radiating the fruits of the Holy Spirit:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

I have always liked the song “Spirit of the Living God” which we just sang.  It is a song, it is a prayer, it is a plea.  Listen to the words: “Spirit of the Living God, Fall fresh on me, Spirit of the Living God Fall fresh on me, Melt me, mold me, Fill me, use me, Spirit of the Living God Fall fresh on me.”

On this day of Pentecost, may our prayer be: “Oh Spirit of God, fall afresh on me, breathe on me, oh breath of God.”  Amen!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Jesus’ Promise (Revelation 21:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Some friends were hanging out one day and the conversation turned to the subject of death.  One of the friends asked: "What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?"  One friend answered, "I would hope people would say, He was a great humanitarian, a generous philanthropist, who cared about his community.”  A second replied: "I would want people to say, 'He was a great husband and father, an example for many to follow.”  The third friend gave it some thought and answered: "I would hope someone says, 'Look, he's moving!’”  We often use humor when speaking about death.

We also use humor when talking about heaven, like the story about three women who die and go to heaven:

St. Peter tells them he’s tied up at the moment and asks them to wait outside the heavenly gates.    Later, St. Peter returns and calls the first woman into his office.  He apologizes for making her wait so long.  “Oh, I don’t mind at all she replies, I’m just so happy and humbled to be here.”  St. Peter is delighted by her attitude.  “Well, he says, if you will just answer one question, we can finish processing your papers.  “How do you spell God?”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.

St. Peter calls in the next woman and also apologizes for making her wait.  She says: “Oh that’s okay, I’m willing to wait a 1,000 years if necessary, just to see God face to face.”  St. Peter is pleased.   He asks her: “Tell me, how to you spell God.”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.  St. Peter calls in the third woman.  He starts to apologize, but the woman angrily interrupts him: “How rude of you to make me wait, do you know who I am?  I’m going to get you fired for being so incompetent!”  St. Peter replies, “I’m so sorry, if you’ll just answer this one question.  How do you spell Czechoslovakia?”

In this Easter season we are reminded of a universal truth – we humans are mortal, sooner or later, everyone dies.   I think being active in the church puts us closer to the reality of death than many people, because we witness the death of church friends and family members throughout the year.   How foolish to go through life unprepared for what we know is inevitable.

A Gallup Poll reports that more Americans believe in heaven today than in 1981, up from 71% to 78%.  This goes along with an increase in those who believe in hell, up from 53% to 60%.  I think that as 70 million baby boomers approach retirement, they are becoming more interested in the Hereafter.

The Bible depicts two conceptions of the afterlife - heaven and hell.  We see this pictured in literature in Dante’s 14th century classic story The Divine Comedy.  The plot of The Divine Comedy is that a man is miraculously taken on a tour of the afterlife, to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  He has two guides; the Roman poet, Virgil, leads him through the Inferno and Purgatory.   The young woman, Beatrice, to whom the story is dedicated, leads him on a tour of Paradise.

Do you believe in an after-life, in a life-hereafter, in heaven and hell?  It really is about what we believe, what we accept as true; not what is a fact or what we can prove.  It is a truth claim.  Some people don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in an after-life.  They don’t believe God exists and that one’s life is extinguished at death, like one would extinguish a candle.  They might be right or they might be wrong.  But fundamentally it is still about belief.

Some people don’t believe because they hold a materialistic view of life.   They believe that reality, that the universe, that all that exists, is physical.  There is no God or spiritual reality. Truth they believe is empirical, that what is truly known or can be known comes only through our 5 senses, taste, touch, see, smell, and hear.

I was speaking to a scientist from our congregation last week.  She said even science acknowledges that there are phenomena that are true or real, even if we can’t identify them through our senses.  Some examples are time, magnetic fields, thoughts, air, oxygen, gravity, sound and radio waves.  Until the invention of the electron microscope, atoms, molecules, and sub-atomic particles were nothing but a hypothesis or theory.

I do believe in an after-life.  I know it in the depths of my heart.  Remember this, knowing in your heart is still a type of knowing, a valid knowing, even if not a scientific knowing.  I am sure you can think of things you have known or know today, you know in your heart that cannot be proven.  I believe in heaven and I believe in hell.  Why?  I agree with the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I believe in hell because the Bible declares that God is holy, moral, righteous, just, fair.   For example, the 6th commandment “Thou Shall Not Murder” declares God’s will for all humanity.  There is a price to pay if you violate God’s commandment.  The Bible says there are consequences for our behavior, the wages of sin is death; the consequence of evil is punishment.  The prophet Amos says: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.”

I also believe in hell because Jesus, the Son of God, speaks of hell.  Jesus said to his disciple, “You are Peter, upon you I shall build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  The Bible uses different words for death and hell and each means something slightly different – sheol, gehenna and hades.  Hell is described as the abode of the dead, a place of judgment, punishment, loneliness, darkness, and separation from God, family and the faith community.

I also firmly believe in heaven.  Clearly, the Bible focuses not only on your and my life today, and living a Christ-like life, a loving life, an ethical life, a joyful life, a servant life, but also upon the life to come, everlasting life, glory.   In heaven we live a new life of joy and peace in God’s presence forever.  Imagine that for just a moment.   The stirring words in the book of Revelation paint this picture: “God will dwell with mortals, God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will cease, grieving and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”   Here is a beautiful picture of heaven.  One I think, given the stress and demands of life, that we should keep daily in our minds.

I believe in heaven because Jesus taught about it and because Jesus’ promises it in our future. Jesus said: “Because I live, you shall live also!”  “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”  Jesus said: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” Jesus taught: “Our Father who art in heaven,” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms; I am going there to prepare a place for you.  I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”    Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

I also believe in heaven because on Easter God raised Jesus from death to life.  Jesus’ resurrection defeated the power of death.  Jesus appeared to many of his followers after his resurrection.  The book of Acts says: “After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God.”

I further believe in heaven because of the countless numbers of people who have testified to the after-life due to near-death experiences.  I have spoken to some of them personally over the years.   It’s fascinating at how similar the stories are.  A nurse, Diane Corcoran, describes the accounts of hundreds of people she has worked with.    In one instance a man said:  He felt himself “going to another place.” With tears rolling down his cheeks, he described this place as “beautiful” and “wonderful.”  But, he was told, he would have to go back, at which point he woke up in his body.

She said people describe themselves as hovering and seeing their bodies below, traveling through a tunnel toward light, and meeting deceased loved ones.  Some people describe having a “life review” or seeing their life, from an outside perspective.   Many of those who have near-death experiences say they were surrounded by an embracing and powerful light unlike anything on earth.

What is heaven going to be like according to Scripture?   Clearly, we are speaking about a mystery, but we do catch glimpses from scripture.  I believe you can summarize it in three ideas.  You’re going to be rewarded for your faithfulness and obedience to God.   You will be with Christ forever.   You will recognize loved ones and enjoy eternity with them.  Believing that Christ is Lord over life and death, trusting in the promise of Jesus about our future, gives us hope, strength to carry on, and comfort amidst the trials, losses, and tragedies in life.

I close with the words of Rev. Rick Warren in his book, The Purpose Driven Life.  This life is not all there is.  Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production.  You will spend far more time on the other side of death in eternity than you will here.  Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity.  It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins.   It is the preparation for the main event where you’re going to spend all of eternity.   At most you will live a hundred years here on earth, but you will spend forever in eternity. You were made to last forever. The question is where will we spend eternity?  God offers us not just an opportunity of a lifetime; but an opportunity beyond our lifetime.  God’s plans for our lives endure forever.”  Amen!