“On Things Above” (Heaven series, part 1)

jacobs_ladderThis is the first of a four-part sermon and Bible study series at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers, during the month of January.

Texts:  Colossians 3:1-2; Philippians 3:12-21.

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

I.

What is your earliest memory of heaven?

I’m sure that one of the first things we learn about when we are church-going children is heaven.  We decorate our nurseries with things pertaining to heaven, like angels and clouds.  We tell our children stories about heaven as the place where God lives.  It appears in so many child-friendly Bible stories, such as the story of Jacob’s ladder.

One of my earliest memories of church is when I was in the preschool-aged Sunday School during a lesson on heaven and hell.  I’m not sure what the teacher was thinking at the time, teaching little preschool children about hell and scaring them half to death.

I don’t remember too much about what she said regarding heaven, but I do remember having a terrible fear that if I went to hell instead, I would be separated from my parents forever.  I’m not sure if I ended up crying, although I wanted to.

When you’re that age, you take everything literally.  For me, like so many other children, heaven was “up there” in the sky.  When I got older and studied astronomy, I realized that heaven wasn’t anywhere “up there.”  Jupiter and Sirius maybe, but not heaven.  And hell sure wasn’t down there, unless you consider China (or France) to be hell.

larsonAll of us grow up learning about heaven, and most of us eventually realize that heaven is much bigger–and a lot more abstract–than we first imagined.  It’s at that point–when we grow old enough to understand our cosmos–that we put heaven aside.  Sure, we believe in it–a majority of Americans do–but we don’t really talk about it or think about it.  Instead, we leave heaven to the likes of pop culture: cult leaders, cartoonists, and song writers, really.  My favorite heaven and hell cartoons come from Gary Larson, the late artist who did The Farside comics.

But, when you stop and think about it, many questions remain:

  • Does it exist?
  • What is it like and where is it, if not “up there”?
  • How do we get there, when do we get there, and who gets in?
  • Why does it matter?

Although these are important questions, we will not answer all of them over the next four weeks.  We’ll discuss a few, and definitely go deeper in Wednesday Bible Study.  But it’s important to note that we will address most of these questions in one form or another because it’s important to revisit this whole idea of heaven.  In fact, the Bible commands us unequivocally to “set our minds on things above.”  That is not an option; it’s a requirement.  So here goes…

II.

Since this is an introductory sermon on a larger series that will expand into Wednesday discipleship and the next four Sundays, I want to spend this morning getting the ground work out of the way so that we all have a good foundation.  (I hate to sound professorial as if I’m lecturing, so please pardon me if I do!)

The first place we have to start, then, is to debunk ever so briefly the myths surrounding our popular notions of heaven.  We may not have time to explore and wrestle with everything the Bible says about heaven this month, but we can definitely rule out some of the things the Bible doesn’t say about heaven:

  • Myth 1: When we get to heaven, we will sing and play the harp (or some instrument)…endlessly.  Yes, there may be some singing, but we won’t spend the whole time in passive worship.  Gary Larson portrayed this in one cartoon in which a man is sitting on a cloud with wings and all.  A thought bubble above his head reads, “Wish I’d brought a magazine.”  No, heaven is not a place to be passive.  And I can imagine that spending eternity playing something–an accordion, for instance–can actually be more like hell than heaven for some.
  • Myth 2: Heaven is what we make it.  We’d like to think that, but consider how “small” and anticlimactic heaven would be if this myth were true.  None of us has the creativity and imagination to make heaven that awesome.  We are too limited and narrow-minded to make heaven the ultimate place in which God’s glory becomes our own.
  • Myth 3: Heaven is out of reach and unimaginable.  This myth assumes that the Bible says little about heaven and the after-life.  That is not the case; the Bible is full of references on heaven, even implying what things we humans will do once we get there.
  • Myth 4: Thinking about heaven downplays the Christian’s role in social justice here on earth.  This is the myth of cult leaders who lead their flocks to places like Nebraska or Mexico.  The fact is that heaven should compel us to advocate on behalf of a better world here and now; this is clearly outlined throughout the Bible, even in Revelation.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “On earth as it is in heaven,” we are saying that a heavenly call includes justice, mercy, and humility here on earth.

With so many myths surrounding heaven, we start to see the great need to make this topic into a discipleship series.  Scripture teaches us that we are to “seek the things above” and “set our minds on things above,” so this sermon is about a fundamental commandment: What does it mean to “seek things above?”

III.

For this part of the sermon, I invite you to turn with me to Philippians 3:12-21.  We are turning there because, for one, Paul has some things to say about what it means to strive for heaven and reflect on our destiny in Christ.

Second, Paul was at a place in his life when thoughts of heaven and the afterlife took center stage.  He was in prison; and, if you’ve ever talked to prisoners, they tell you that the hardest thing about incarceration is being left with one’s own thoughts on mortality.

Paul was awaiting trail when he wrote this from Rome, which means that his own mortality was definitely on his mind.  Rather than running from that destiny, however, we find in Paul a confident Christian who encouraged others–even those who were free, like us–to set their minds on heaven because their destiny in Christ had the power to shape the present too.  Like Christ, who ministered from the perspective of the “heavenly call” his Father gave him, we too are to form our faith from a worldview in which heaven plays a major role.

IV.

Let’s start with Phil. 3:12.  Paul talks about “pressing on” to reach the goal of what lies in his future: ultimately, the glory that awaits all of us who believe in Jesus.  Jesus, as the first-fruit of God’s resurrection, has shown us what’s in store for our future: a resurrection in which we receive new bodies and abide in a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21).

Until then, however, we, like Paul, are to “press on” towards that goal.  This language is not for the faint of heart; nor is it passive.  It is an active faith, a worthwhile commitment, and a daily agenda-setting aspect of our faith formation.

Consider what scholars Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock say of Paul’s language in this passage:  “Paul’s language is vivid, tense, repetitious: pressing, stretching, pushing, straining.  In those words the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache, and the heart pumps” (The People’s Commentary on the New Testament).

This is similar to the “seeking” and “setting” that Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Colossians.  This sermon series, if only for a few weeks, intends to help you get started with that “straining” if you haven’t started already.

Let’s move on to Phil. 3:13:  Paul says that he forgets “what lies behind” and strains forward.  When I was thinking about this text earlier this week, I figured that heaven is large enough to welcome everyone whom God creates, but I don’t think its large enough to hold everyone’s regrets.  Those of us who hold on to regrets are consumed and focused on “earthly things” that provoke feelings of shame (3:19).

Dwelling on the past is not the forward-looking posture that Paul advocated.  As a child of God, he cast off those regrets and moved on.  His destiny–and his hope for what was to come–was not shaped by his past, but by the future of living eternally with God.

What regrets shape your life to the point that your past holds you back from living vibrantly into a heaven-shaped present?

This question relates to verses 14 and 15, in which Paul uses the language of calling and unity to talk about the alternative to looking back.  God gives us a heavenly call, and we must focus our mind on that call.

I think this is one of the most important verses this morning because our mind is the primary battlefield in which spiritual warfare is waged.  While God calls us to look heavenward and catch the updraft of the Holy Spirit, we instead fall into the undercurrents and undertow of those things that distract us from focusing our minds on the things of God.

Society is vying for our mind’s attention and for our families’ attention too.  Consider the amount of entertainment and information we consume–in the mind!–in any given week.  If we don’t have the time to “set our mind on things above” much less “be in the same mind” as our fellow Christians and Christ, then we are doomed for sure.

In a later verse, verse 20, Paul stated that our mind is formed by the nature of our citizenship.  Those unbelievers who still belong to the world set their minds on earthly things (v. 19).  We Christians, however, are citizens of heaven, ruled by the Kingdom–or reign–of God.  (In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus used “Kingdom of Heaven” synonymously with Kingdom of God.)

Lastly, look at verse 21:  We are to set our mind on things above because our destiny is wrapped up in the promises of God, one promise of becoming people of “glory” when the New Heaven and the New Earth become as one. Note that Paul also used this language in Colossians 3:4.

If glory is our future, then why do we still act like this life is all that God gives us?  We walk around like desperate, lost souls that have no eternal home, and our witness of God’s power suffers because of it.

Glory compels us not to abandon this world, but to go forth into this world with the resolute urgency that others can share in this glory as well.  Glory is the greatest catalyst for being Great Commission Christians: people who see the lost not as souls destined for hell, but souls capable of turning to the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

V.

In this way, I believe that any study on heaven can be a real source for revival.  It can help us re-align our own lives, awakening us to the destiny that God has for us–and it can inspire us to tell others of what is in store for all creation.

The heavenly call, then, is more than a one-time event that God does to us.  It is a lifestyle in which heaven’s agenda–God’s agenda, “on earth as it is in heaven”–usurps our own, limited agendas and gives us the freedom to re-imagine the world from heaven’s perspective.

Consider this, church family:  What if we measured the health of our church by a different standard–not by attendance or the budget–by the forward movement–the energy!–we spend in “straining towards the goal” of that heavenly prize?

Then, perhaps, we will see real church growth.  We will grow as individuals, as a community, and as a people on mission with a heavenly call to share the Good News of salvation with everyone we meet.   Let us be consumed by thoughts on heaven and the “paradise” that God promises each of us.  Set your mind on things above. AMEN.

The death of revivalism in Baptist life? (part 3)

Revivalism is spreading in Africa, Asia, and South America according to Philip Jenkins, author of "The Next Christendom."

Penn State sociologist, Philip Jenkins, claims that Christian revivalism is spreading like wild-fire in South America, Africa, and Asia.  In these places, collectively known as the “Global South,” churches are growing exponentially.  Contrast this with North America and Europe, where revivalism is, according to one noted Baptist historian, on “life support.”

Over the past several weeks, I have been wrestling with the idea that only certain aspects of revivalism are waning in North America. I argued that the spirit of revivalism is alive and well.  (This is, by the way, my final article on the subject.)  In fact, many facets of revivalism can be transformative in a world longing for redemption and reconciliation.

Perhaps churches throughout the Global South, with all of its passion for revivalism and the Gospel, has something to teach us.  There seems to be certain ingredients in these places that make revivalism a perfect catalyst for soul transformation.   We might lack some of these ingredients, but they are not entirely lost.  Reclaiming them will do us good.

One ingredient is storytelling.  South America, Africa, and Asia are steeped in oracular cultures, which simply means that folks can tell really good stories.

Bestselling Asian memoirist, Da Chen, notes how storytelling inspired him to be an author.  When he was a child, traveling storytellers would come to his village to tell ancient myths of old.  It provided meaning in an uncertain and magical world; it gave the village a place among a vast cosmos that spanned the heavens.

We are a people of the Book; so, the act of storytelling is a natural way to spread the Gospel to our children, neighbors, and community.

One of the most powerful stories to tell is how you met Christ and how God changed your life.   Preachers do not have a monopoly on storytelling, and Jesus called all his followers to “tell the old, old story” of God’s love and forgiveness.

Another ingredient is mystery.  The Global South is rooted in tribal and mythical worldviews that lend themselves to the message of the Gospel.   People are accustomed to believing in what they can’t see–the mystery of the unknown–because they grew up steeped in the conviction that spiritual forces exist among mortals.

Although many people in our culture have become cynical about all things spiritual because of science and technology, there is still room for the mystery of the Gospel to compel people to respond to God’s call of salvation in Christ.

We see people being compelled by mysterious, spiritual acts all the time:  Yoga, the New Age/self-help movement, and horoscopes are spiritual practices that woo millions of Americans every day.  What these eastern-born rituals represent is a mystery that speaks to the deepest recesses of a person’s soul.  They provide meaning beyond a shallow, consumer-driven culture.

The mystery of the Gospel not only trumps these practices with eternal ramifications, but also offers hope rooted in God’s creative truth.

It’s hard to reclaim this mystery, however, when so many of us have simplified the Gospel into cliches, trite formulas, and marketing gimmicks.  No wonder why so many people see Christianity as a joke; why so many people read books like “The God Delusion,” by Richard Dawkins.

God will be not be domesticated by our subtle attempts to control that which is ultimately fascinating and mysterious–in the words of Rudolf Otto, the “mysterium fascinans.”

Our worship in church and our missions in the community can revive and embody both of these ingredients–storytelling and mystery–by continuing to reinforce the spirit of revivalism rather than the rituals of religiosity.

When we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit rather than some formula for evangelism of yesteryear, we soon discover that our faith is re-grounded in a relationship with a mysterious, yet intimate Storytelling God, who provides us with meaning and a place amongst the cosmos.

The death of Revivalism in Baptist Life? (part 2)

“We need a revival in the land!  It’s the only way to get this country back on track.”

That’s the sentiment I hear often when I speak to Baptists about evangelism.  Revivals are, after all, one of the primary ways Baptists have brought God to the masses.  Hope in revival is a hope in converting thousands.

In early America, around the year 1700, Baptists boasted 24 churches.  After revival swept the land, Baptists became the largest denomination on the continent.

Now, nearly a century later, some Baptist historians are spelling the end of revivalism.  Revivalism is waning because a large part of our society is no longer Christian.   In fact, nearly 80% of people ages 18 to 35 have never stepped foot in a church.   What’s there to revive when people have never even heard the Gospel in the first place?

The real question is how to bring about the Gospel message–Good News–to a world in need of redemption and to a culture that’s growing more ambivalent to Christianity as a whole.

There are biblical ways to bring the Gospel to a largely secular society.  It’s just a matter of discovering the spirit that undergirds revivalism–the spirit of tenacity and of sharing Christ despite the odds (and hours of prayer!).

If we consider that many people have never been to church or read a Bible, then the first step in bringing the Gospel to our community is to develop a new way of talking about the Gospel.  We need a new grammar, so to speak (no pun intended), that helps people hear the Gospel in a new way.  Christianeze just does not work anymore.

This is very biblical.  Consider Jesus’ conversation with the pharisee, Nicodemus.  In trying to explain salvation to Nicodemus, Jesus used a new metaphor–“born again”–to describe one’s conversion experience.   At first, Nicodemus did not know what Jesus meant, so when he asked, Jesus had the opportunity to explain all that God had in store for those whom God loved.

The book of Revelation is another demonstration of how the early church used language to better communicate the Gospel.  People have marveled at the insights and poetry ever since John penned this book, but the words that so easily confuse us today would have been very familiar to John’s original audience.

A new grammar can include words that help others see salvation as a relationship with Christ.  In a world devoid of long-term, meaningful relationships, our testimony of this relationship is a powerful reminder that God still longs for each person to know Him.

People today may not know what “born again” means, but they know what it means to “befriend” or “affirm” or “grow in intimacy” with Christ.

We can also incorporate a new grammar in our worship, allowing the Good News to shape how people think about God’s interaction with their individual lives.  Many churches utilize technology to do this, but even the various ways we communicate God’s worth and value in our life can be used in any average Sunday service.

This is not unheard of–Jesus used parables and common life-lessons to teach the deeper truths of God.  When his disciples asked Jesus about prayer, Jesus re-envisioned an old, common Jewish prayer: He called God, Father, invoked God’s will, requested daily bread, and declared forgiveness all in one breath.

And above all: In declaring the Gospel in a secular society, we must avoid dumbing down the faith or simplifying the faith to cheap cliches when we consider how to effectively communicate God’s love.

As we continue to explore new ways of evangelism in a world in which certain aspects of revivalism are becoming ineffective, I invite you back next week for our next discussion on the topic.