• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Heaven for Ever(yone)

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

Good Heavens, a four week Advent sermon series on the waiting for heaven among us

Week 4 of 4, preached December 19, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship


Context

Christians usually imagine heaven somewhere else, not here, and after, not now. But when Scriptures or Jesus talk about heaven, the Kingdom of Heaven, it's not as much about a place somewhere some time else as it is a way of being that already is, is here around us, and is coming in all its fullness.


This Advent, Caitlan and I are preaching a series we are calling Good Heavens, images of scripture, and stories of Jesus that imagine heaven, the Kingdom of Heaven in ways that sound different than what we’ve been taught or heard but are very good.


Three weeks ago, we heard about Heaven on Earth, the great garden of creation in Genesis at the beginning, and an invitation to eat from the tree of life at the end in Revelation. Heaven on earth is where we came from, where we are, and where we are going.


Two weeks ago, Caitlan showed us heaven in the flesh, and not the flesh of a perfect child, or even a perfect little girl to bear that child. In OUR listening for God and saying yes to God as Mary did, we too can birth a bit of heaven in the flesh right here and now for ourselves and others.


Last week, Colossians 2 invited us to dismiss any ritual, any philosophy or old way of thinking, any human habit or tradition, critique or preference, and instead focus on the heaven here among us.


Today, we listen for Heaven Forever, the heavenly community that was, is, and always will be, even beyond death.


I don’t like the way the church, in general, speaks about death. Most of it has always bothered me. Because I am a kid, a small child who had to see death too close and too soon in my own family, I've always listened carefully for how others, especially church folk and pastors, talk about death about God through and beyond death. I could tell, even then, something was wrong with how most church folk talk about God, death, and heaven. Either they had the story wrong, or they didn’t really believe the story they were telling. Kids are good at that, figuring out when we have fooled ourselves, or are trying to fool them.


My whole life, I’ve listened intently to folk talk about death, and what lies beyond. It's not something I enjoy or necessarily choose to do. But I feel the ears of my head and heart turn whenever someone is trying to speak about death, and whatever life lies beyond death.


I wanted to bring us back to Revelation today, and discovered I need to show you four chapters that build on one another. We are going to read sections Revelation 19 to 22. I will read a section, then unpack each one with you, section by section, in hopes I can show you what John’s revelatory vision of life beyond death is, from Scripture itself, not what we’ve been told about it.


Let’s pray and listen to the word of the Lord from…


Prayer


Scripture Revelation

19:1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,


“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God,

2 for (God’s) judgments are true and just;

(God) has judged the great whore

who corrupted the earth…

The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”


11 Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness, he judges and makes war… and his name is called The Word of God… 15 From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule[i] them with a rod of iron…


19 Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against the rider on the horse and against his army. 20 And the beast was captured and with it the false prophet…


20:1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him…


Sermon

For John to get to the point where he talks about life beyond death, he describes a great conflict and war and struggle and suffering, both in heaven and on the earth and below the earth. John sees the great whore, who we know means Rome, “judged” for her mistreatment of her own children and for her bad deals with other nations. John imagines the great beast she rides on, the Roman political empire itself, and the kings of all the other nations who supported her, who were “in bed” with her, they are conquered by a rider on a white horse, the Word of God. Last, the dragon, evil itself, is chained in a bottomless pit and sealed there for a thousand years.


The way John sees it, the whole premise of empire, the systems and structures of corrupt unfair unjust government, and all the leaders and all the nations of those who support the corruption must be dethroned first. Then evil can be captured. Only after the corrupt are removed, and evil itself is restrained and chained, can we talk about those who died. The manifestations of evil leave a massive wake of death behind and around them. John’s vision of God’s heaven uproots corrupt leaders and government, and roots out the evil of this world. That needs to be finished first. Then we can talk about death, dying, and the already dead.


Scripture Revelation

20:11 Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, but there was no place for them to go. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also, another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in their books.


13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades (emptied) were thrown into the lake of fire…


Sermon

The people of thousands of years ago thought of our existence on three planes. There was the above plane, sometimes called the heavens or skies, or maybe singular, just Heaven. There was this plane of existence, the world, the earth, the creation. And there was a lower plane of existence.


That’s pretty similar to how many religious professionals still talk about existence. In my years of listening, I’ve often heard words about a heaven, a holy place, a perfect place, where all is well and pure. Then I hear about a lower place, a hell, a place of fire, where evil goes. And we are here, supposedly, in the middle of them, until our death.


I have never liked when church folk talk about death like that because I don’t find the Bible, Jesus, or John talking about it that way. For John, the lower plane wasn’t an evil place. Remember, evil did battle in the heavens, and lost and fell to the earth. Evil has been battling here on earth, in John’s vision, causing all kinds of havoc, and has finally, just now in his vision been dethroned. Evil doesn’t have a plane. Evil has been on the higher and the current plane.


The lower plane, John uses three names for that… the sea, Death, and Hades. They are different but similar. It's hard for us to do because we’ve been told what Hades means. But listen instead for how John uses the term, not how we’ve heard it used. Hades is just one of the places the dead are. Some are in the sea, the darkness and chaos of the sea. Their ships sank and they died down into the sea. Others are in the earth, they died and were buried down into the earth, Hades. Still others died, not in the waters, and were not buried into the earth, maybe by an animal or a fire. For them, they are down in what John simply calls death.

Once evil is defeated, all three places are emptied. All the dead are brought out of the sea and hades and death, and their life is compared to the great book of life. Then, the sea, and hades, and death, and permanently destroyed.


Did you catch that? The way John sees it, the whole plane of existence for those who have died already or ever will die, the three places so to speak of death, the sea, Hades, and “Death” are destroyed. I don’t normally hear preachers talk like this. But John sees that lower plane being eradicated, removed… all of its inhabitants being emptied out and brought before the great God and the book of Life.


Scripture Revelation

21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home[a] of God is among mortals.

(God) will dwell[b] with them;

they will be (God’s) peoples,[c]

and (God’s own self) will be with them;[d]

4 (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new…”

10 And in the spirit[f] he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.

…12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates, twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites… 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.


Sermon

Then look what else John imagines… I see a new heaven and a new earth. Did you catch that? The lower plane of existence has been emptied out and destroyed, permanently. The remaining two planes, heaven and earth are both made new.


If heaven was perfect, why does it need to be made new? If Hades is hell, why is it destroyed? And if here, this plane is just a waiting room, then why is there a new city, the city of God, that comes here. Rome WAS the city of the empire, of the dragon, of the beast. It was destroyed. Look, a new city comes down from the throne of God to the earth… the new earth, and that city is where the people dwell with God.


The way John sees it, the people don’t go UP to heaven. Heaven is made new, earth is made new, and a city of God comes down from the heaven to earth, and all people dwell here on earth with God.


Now for everybody’s favorite part… the pearly gates, the streets of gold.


Scripture

…21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.


22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.


Sermon

This great wonderful city is here on earth, and it does have walls just like the old city did. There are 12 foundations of these walls. What came as 12? Yes, the disciples of Jesus, who we know scattered far and wide to every supposed corner of the old Roman empire, which was to them the whole earth. These walls are not stone, they are people, and they aren’t fixed, they move with the disciples and reach further and further to the ends of the earth.

What about these gates, these pearly gates? How do you see those in your mind? What do you see? The image I had ingrained into my brain was gates, like entrance gates, some horizontal pieces, some vertical pieces, overlapping, attached to one another, a pair, one that swings left, one that swings right, and they swing open to let whomever in.


That image was given to me by someone, but not by scripture! The image in scripture is specific about three things about these gates. 1, how many are there? Yes, 12, and why? To match the 12 tribes of Israel… in other words, every corner and type of God’s people. The tribes had split from one another hundreds of years ago, had civil wars with one another, and had not been together as one people ever since. But here, somehow, there are 12 gates, one for every tribe. 2. Second thing about these gates, they are not pearly, they are pearls. Each gate is a single pearl. It's not that they are adorned with pearls, or glow and shimmer as a pearl does. The way John sees them, each gate is a single pearl. The mechanical engineer in me began to imagine the hinges and swing mechanism that would be required to turn a massive pearl into a door, but let’s not chase that rabbit. And 3. My favorite, the third specific thing John sees and tells us about these 12 gates… they are never closed. Did you hear that? The gates will never be shut as long as it is day, and it is always day there. There is never night or darkness there because the glory of the Lord always shines there. Nothing unclean, profane, or unholy passes through those gates. But those gates are wide open, and the people come from all 12 tribes, and from every nation and they enter this city and bring glory and honor to God.


I begin to imagine the people who are not coming to this city, I begin to imagine the walls of this city walking out to them, and even if they find themselves not moving, one day they find the walls have just walked right past them, and here they are, in the city. They don’t really remember it happening. They don’t remember walking up to some closed gate and having to be checked. But here they are. The walls went right around them, the gate was always wide open and slid right past them, and somehow, now, that wall going by them and that gate going over and around them washed them of anything left that was unclean, unholy, the last remnants of the stains of evil were washed away.


They know they are in the city because there are not streets here, just one, street. John says it is pure gold and at the same time transparent like glass. Is that what you imagined. Go ahead, try to imagine that. Erase the old pearly gates with 12 pearls that are gates, that are always open. Now erase streets of gold, with street of transparent gold. We are getting closer.


Scripture

22 Then the angel[a] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life[b] with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there anymore…


Sermon

Now, look up the street and see the River, the river of life. And look for the tree, that reaches across the river, that flows right from the throne of God right down the middle of town. That river and that tree say way more than the gates and the street.


That river is the water of life. It is abundant here. No one is thirsty. Everyone has enough to drink and to bathe. There are no water bills, or filtration systems need. This isn’t a Chester River that’s too contaminated to drink or swim in. This river flows from the throne of God and gives everyone more than enough to drink, and bathe and enjoy.


And the tree, the tree grows up from the nourishment of the river. It has 12 fruits, in other words, there is no dry season or harvest season. There is always something to eat. There is fresh food for everyone here, an abundance of it, good, tasty, healthy. And the leaves of this tree are special too. They are for healing. The nations come together as one here. Nothing evil, impure, greedy, or lying entered here. But sometimes wounds and worries are not evil. They just are. They come from compassion, or empathy, or experience, or even love. They did enter the city with us. And the leaves of this tree in the middle will heal them. In this new earth and this new city from heaven to earth, there is healing. The city of God is not in heaven but here, on earth. And it has good water, plenty of food, and access to healing of body, mind, heart, and spirit for all.


Once upon a time, a river flowed through a wonderful garden, and in the middle was an amazing tree. Here at the end, we find ourselves in a wonderful new city, with a river and a tree. These are our inspiration as a church.


It's why the mission statement of this church echo symbols of a tree… planted deep, growing strong, reaching wide. Until this heavenly way of being community comes down from heaven upon us, we are called to be like it. Plant ourselves deep in God and God’s word. Grow strong in our faith and courage to follow. And read wide to all the corners of the world and include every person we know or meet… with gates wide open, doors wide open, arms wide open, hearts and minds wide open to welcome any person from any tribe or any nation to be at home with us… and here with us, to find something refreshing, something sustaining, and something healing.


We wait and trust for the forever Heaven, the great city that is coming. Just like we wait in advent for Jesus, we wait every day for God’s heaven to be born among us. Until it comes in fullness and wholeness, let’s be a beginning corner of God’s heavenly city on earth. Let’s shine something hopeful and healing for others to see. Let’s share anything we have that gives life. Let’s share food with the hungry in body, and joy, laughter, and love with the hungry in spirit. Let’s heal the wounds and worries of those who come among us. May everything we say or do give all glory and honor to God and God alone.


Benediction

And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.

Let’s pray…

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