Monday, May 3, 2010

Sermon for April 18, 2010

Trading My Sorrows

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. -- Revelation 21:1-6

Three women die together in an accident and go to heaven. When they get there, St. Peter says, “We only have one rule here in heaven: don’t step on the ducks!” So they enter heaven, and sure enough, there are ducks all over the place. It is almost impossible not to step on a duck, and although they try their best to avoid them, the first woman accidentally steps on one.

Along comes St. Peter with the ugliest man she ever saw. St. Peter chains them together and says, “Your punishment for stepping on a duck is to spend eternity chained to this ugly man!” The next day, the second woman steps accidentally on a duck and along comes St. Peter, who doesn’t miss a thing. With him is another extremely ugly man. He chains them together with the same admonishment as for the first woman.

The third woman has observed all this and, not wanting to be chained for all eternity to an ugly man, is very, VERY careful where she steps. She manages to go months without stepping on any ducks, but one day St. Peter comes up to her with the most handsome man she has ever laid eyes on ... very tall, long eyelashes, muscular, and thin. St. Peter chains them together without saying a word.

The happy woman says, “I wonder what I did to deserve being chained to you for all of eternity?”

The guy says, “I don’t know about you, but I stepped on a duck!”

According to a NEWSWEEK Poll, 76 percent of Americans believe in heaven, and, of those, 71 percent think it’s an “actual place,” but after that, agreement breaks down. Nineteen percent think heaven looks like a garden, 13 percent say it looks like a city, and 17 percent don’t know. In the peaceful, prosperous West, visions of heaven are increasingly individualistic. Consider the best-selling novel, The Lovely Bones, narrated by a 14-year-old girl who has gone to heaven. Her paradise contains puppies, big fields and Victorian cupolas. For more than 2,000 years, theologians and children have been asking the same, unanswerable questions: Do we keep our bodies in heaven? Are we reunited with loved ones? Can we eat, drink? Can you go to my heaven? Can I go to yours? How do you get there?

The New Testament’s fullest descriptions of heaven were also battle cries. After the Romans crushed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Middle Eastern cities teemed with festivals honoring the Roman emperors. The earliest Christians had a dilemma. “To what extent do we join the mainstream culture?” they wondered. “Do we attend without participating, participate without believing, or believe without embracing?” The Book of Revelation drew the battle lines. Revelation’s descriptions of thunder and lightning and burning torches, as well as its promises of pearl gates and jeweled walls, were warnings to the earliest Christians: Do not worship the Roman emperors. Stay faithful to your God and Jerusalem will be restored and you will live in a magnificent city forever.

What is your vision of Heaven? Some people find it difficult to think realistically about Heaven. And it’s little wonder we feel so indifferent about it all. The image most people dream up about Heaven is anything but appealing -- some bright place tucked behind a galaxy where birds chirp and organs play with heavy tremolo and angels bounce from cloud to cloud. By the way, this image is used by advertisers to sell items as unremarkable as cream cheese – a beautiful women wearing a size-two angel outfit and a tilted halo enjoying a bagel and cream cheese atop a fluffy cloud. Now for some this may be a remarkable vision of things to come. For me, though, it’s remarkably boring.

Why even worry about Heaven right now? There are people dying, starving and killing each other in our world. We face depression, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis. We are too busy to think about some future promise like Heaven. But, if the idea of Heaven doesn’t have some day-to-day impact on the suffering we go through here and now, it is useless.

What if Heaven could touch us today? What if Heaven isn’t just some future eternal bliss, but a reality to our Christian lives here and now?

If I had to define Heaven I would say something like this: Heaven is the destination of ultimate joy. This is how I understand the vision of John the Seer: Heaven is a place where there is no more pain, no more sorrow, no more tears, no more crying or pain. All the evils of the world are wiped away. And the Lord makes everything new.

Heaven, I suppose, is the greatest blessing – the greatest gift. Heaven is the destination of ultimate joy. By the way, when I say joy, I don’t mean the leaping-up-and-down enthusiasm of a game show contestant who has just won an all-expenses-paid-two-week vacation to Europe. I’m talking but the deep, sometimes tearful appreciation of the “ordinary” pleasures of life. Wouldn’t even a taste of that in our lives today be wonderful? Just a little joy in the bleak moments...a second of spiritual comfort in the midst of turmoil...peace in the thick of our hectic lives? How do we get to experience even a little bit of that ultimate joy here and now?

We get a glimpse of joy when we find time to celebrate and remember what God is doing in our lives. But let me say this as well: Blessing doesn’t assume joy. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? You would assume that if someone’s received a blessing she’d be elated. I know plenty of blessed people who spend their lives complaining about how rotten life is. I see people who are healthy, people with strong families, people who live in comfort who see something wrong with in everything and everyone. Have you ever someone say grace over a meal and then promptly gripe about it? Someone cooked that meal. Someone prepared the ingredients. His hunger is about to be satisfied. His body is about to be nourished. And all he can do is complain. The meal is not really a blessing. It brings no joy.

But look around. Take stock of life. We are blessed. And joy? Joy is a choice.
We don’t have to wait until we die to experience the kind of joy promised in Heaven. I think we can get a little foretaste of Heaven on earth right now. So, the question is, when we are tempted to sit back and itemize everything that is wrong with the world and in our own lives, where do we find that heavenly taste of joy?

Let me offer a few strategies for focusing on the joy of Heaven here and now:

1. Choose joy through obedience.
Joy is a sign that the Holy Spirit is alive and working in your life. Joy begins to bloom when obedience to Jesus works its way into the fabric of our daily lives.

Imagine that you work for a company whose president found it necessary to travel out of the country and spend an extended period of time abroad. The President says to you and the other trusted employees, “Look, I’m going to leave. And while I’m gone, I want you to pay close attention to the business. You manage things while I’m away. I will E-mail you regularly and I will instruct you in what you should do from now until I return from this trip.” The boss leaves and stays gone for a couple of years. During that time the boss writes often, communicating her desires and concerns. Finally she returns. She walks up to the front door of the company and immediately discovers everything is a mess -- weeds flourishing in the flower beds, windows broken across the front of the building, the secretary at the front desk dozing, loud music roaring from several offices, two or three people engaged in horseplay in the back room. Instead of making a profit, the business has suffered massive loss. Without hesitation she calls everyone together and barks, “What happened? Didn’t you get my messages?” You say, “Oh, yeah, sure. We got all your Email. We’ve even printed your messages and the bound them in a book. You know, those were really great letters.” I think the president would then ask, “But what did you do about my instructions?” No doubt the employees would respond, “Do? Well, nothing. But we read every one!”

Do you know anyone like that, a person who knows God’s expectations? That person might have even read the Bible from cover to cover, but doesn’t live it out. There’s no obedience, and therefore no joy. Living out God’s word can bring joy.

2. Choose joy by trading your sorrows
There is something to be said for disciplining yourself to be positive in the midst of life’s difficulties. I read a story about Jerry -- the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!” He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.

Seeing this managerial style, a curious observer approached Jerry and said, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?” Jerry replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘Jerry, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it . . . Life is all about choices . . . You choose how you react to situations . . . The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”

Several years later, Jerry did something you are never supposed to do: he left the back door of his business open one morning and was held up at gun point by three armed robbers. While trying to open the safe, his hand slipped off the combination. The robbers panicked and shot him. Luckily, Jerry was found quickly and rushed to the local trauma center. After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Jerry was released from the hospital.

About six months after the accident, when people asked him how he was, Jerry replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?” Someone asked him what went through his mind as the robbery took place. Jerry replied. “The first thing that went through my mind was that I should have locked the back door. Then, as I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or I could choose to die. I chose to live . . . When they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes I read, ‘He’s a dead man.’ I knew I needed to take action. There was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me. She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes,’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘I’m allergic to bullets!’ Over their laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.’ Jerry lived thanks to the skill of his medical team, but also because of his amazing attitude.

Every day we have the choice to live against the odds. Choose joy by trading your sorrows for the joy of the Lord.

3. Choose joy by choosing to persevere.
Let me tell you the story about Clint Courtney. Clint never came close to making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wasn’t a legend in his own time -- not even in his own mind. But a few die-hard fans were inspired by his tremendous perseverance. Clint played catcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s. During his career he earned the nickname of Scrap Iron. Clint was weathered and tough. Old Scrap Iron broke no records -- only bones. He had little power or speed on the base paths. As for grace and style, he made the easiest play look rather difficult. But armed with mitt and mask, Scrap Iron never flinched from any challenge. Batters often missed the ball and caught his shin. Their foul tips nipped his elbow. Runners fiercely plowed into him, spikes first, as he defended home plate. Though often doubled over in agony, and flattened in a heap of dust, Clint Courtney never quit. Without fail, he’d slowly get up, shake off the dust, punch the pocket of his mitt once or twice, and nod to his pitcher to throw another one. The game would go on and Clint with it -- scarred, bruised, clutching his arm in pain, but determined to continue. Some made fun of him, calling him a masochist. Insane. Others remember him as a true champion. What kept him going? I guess he really loved baseball.

The lesson? Persevere. Hang in there, even when life gets really tough. And make no mistake, life will get really tough. Curve balls come. We get knocked down. The wind gets knocked out of us. Live with purpose. In the midst of it all, do what you love. Follow your heart. In obedience, with a positive attitude and with perseverance, there is an opportunity to choose joy.

I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from a letter by Fra Giovanni Giocondo . Giovanni was an architect, engineer, and classical scholar who was born in Verona around 1433 and died in 1516. This letter was written to a friend on Christmas Eve, 1513. It’s words are ancient but still meaningful.
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No Heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take joy.
May we all find a way to take joy and know heaven on earth, here and now.

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