1454) Castles in the Sand

From Randy Alcorn’s devotional 60 Days of Happiness  (www.epm.org)

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“Wherever you go, there you are.”

      We bring ourselves to every situation, every encounter, and every relationship.  The unhappy person who leaves North Dakota in search of happiness in California will find more sunshine and less snow, but not more happiness.  The happy Californian who relocates will find that his happiness accompanies him. 

     Positive people experience adversity, just as negative people do.  Their expectations don’t control circumstances, but they do give perspective.  Optimists see more goodness and find redemptive elements even in the bad times.  Scripture says, “The hopes of the godly result in happiness, but the expectations of the wicked come to nothing” (Proverbs 10:28, NLT).  Likewise, Proverbs 11:23 states, “The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.”

     Disneyland claims to be the happiest place on Earth, but according to 60 Minutes (CBS, June 15, 2008), studies show the happiest nation on Earth is Denmark.  The United States, despite its greater wealth, ranks twenty-third, and the United Kingdom, forty-first.  What is Denmark’s remarkable secret to topping the happiness chart?  Low expectations.  The interviews on 60 Minutes demonstrate that Danes have more modest dreams than Americans and they’re less distressed when their hopes don’t materialize.

     The general view of life in Denmark is somewhat compatible with the Christian doctrine of the Fall: instead of being surprised when life doesn’t go their way, Danes are grateful that things aren’t worse, and they’re happily surprised by health and success.  If they have food, clothing, shelter, friends, and family, life seems good.

     There’s a biblical basis for both realistic and positive expectations.  We certainly live in a world with suffering and death.  But as believers, we understand that God is with us and won’t forsake us, and that one day in eternity we will be far happier than Denmark or Disneyland on even their best days!

      Worry is the product of high stakes and low control.  There’s no greater enemy of happiness.  There’s a subtle aspect to worry: if we care, we think we should worry, as if that will help somehow.  In fact, worry has absolutely no redemptive value.  When good things are happening, we’re worried that bad things will come.  When bad things happen, we worry that worse things will come.  Jesus asked, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25).  Nothing is more impotent than worry, and nothing so robs of happiness in Christ.

     Just after instructing us to rejoice in the Lord, Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything.”  Worry is a killjoy.  It specializes in worst-case scenarios.  In contrast, God tells his children there is much that should make us rejoice:

  • He has already rescued us from the worst, which is eternal Hell.
  • Even if something terrible happens, he’ll use it for our eternal good.
  • Often bad things don’t happen, and our worry proves groundless.
  • Whether or not bad things happen, our worry generates no positive change.
  • The cause for all our worries—sin and the Curse—is temporary, and will soon be behind us. Forever.

     The command to rejoice is not mere pretense or unrealistic expectations or positive thinking.  Rather, it’s embracing our present life, which includes suffering.  But even before God wipes it all away, he gives us compelling reasons to rejoice.

     Jesus emphatically commands us not to worry (Matthew 6:25, 34).  But how can we avoid it?  A big part of it is adjusting our expectations based on his promises not only that all will be well one day in Heaven, but that he is at work here and now, lovingly accomplishing his purposes in our lives.

     Max Lucado (in And the Angels Were Silent) tells the story of a boy on the beach who eagerly scoops up and packs sand.  Using a plastic shovel and a bright red bucket, he creates a magnificent sand castle.  He works all afternoon, creating a tower, walls, and even a moat.  Not far away, a man in his office shuffles papers into stacks and delegates assignments.  He punches buttons on a phone and keys on a keyboard, makes profits, and builds his own castle.

     In both cases, time passes, the tide rises, and the castles are destroyed.  But there’s a big difference.  The boy expects what’s coming and celebrates it.  He’s eager for the waves to hit his castle.  He smiles as his castle erodes and turns into no more than formless lumps in the sand.  The businessman’s life also ebbs and flows, and the works of his hands are swept away.  If his castle isn’t taken from him, he’ll be taken from his castle.  But he chooses not to think about this.  Unlike the boy, this man is unprepared for what will happen.  While the boy has no sorrow and regret, the man does all he can to hold on to his castle and is inconsolable when his life or house or business slips away.

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     No matter what comes today or tomorrow, may these words from the Lord to his people Israel become our expectation of the life God ultimately intends for all his children: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, CEB).

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Father of all happiness, we expect things to go our way, and are quickly disappointed when they don’t.  We look so many other places than to you for our contentment.  Help us to lower our expectations of a stress-free life while raising our expectations of who you are and the happiness you have for us not only forever, but now.  Deliver us from joy-killing worry, and empower us to ground our optimism on the breathtaking eternal realities you’ve promised us in Christ.  

–Randy Alcorn

1451) Heaven is For Real People

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By Randy Alcorn, author of Heaven, Tyndale, 2004.

     We have come to think of heaven as utterly immaterial and non-physical, a home suited for body-less angels, not real people.  Floating in clouds while strumming harps isn’t anybody’s idea of a great time.  But the heaven God promises is for human beings, who aren’t just spiritual but physical too.  This is why the biblical teaching of the physical resurrection and eternal life together is so critical.  Nobody wants to be a ghost.  We don’t get excited about a place we can’t imagine.   

     In this life we marvel at and talk about the wondrous beauty of mountains, beaches, sunsets, lakes, and deserts.  We’re amazed by the experience of snorkeling with turtles, dolphins, and manta rays over ocean reefs.  We talk about the majestic power of Niagara Falls and the overwhelming magnificence of the Grand Canyon, a thunderous herd of wild horses, the migration of humpback whales, and the breathtaking rings of Saturn.  These move us to awe and worship— and because we use a vocabulary of wonder that pulls us in, holds our attention, and captures our imagination, we get inspired and dream about going beautiful places.  We tell our children all about how great the place is we’re taking them for vacation. 

     Similarly, Scripture tells us “we are looking forward to a new heavens and new earth [a redeemed universe] in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).  The problem is, many believers are not looking forward to this.  They imagine this present life is the real life, their only opportunity to experience everything on their bucket list, when in fact, the place Jesus is preparing for us will be way better than the best of this life— all the present beauty and far more, with none of the sin and suffering. 

     Jesus repeatedly spoke of eating and drinking together at great feasts in God’s eternal kingdom, and everyone knew that feasts were full of fun and laughter and dancing.  So God tells us to set our minds not primarily on this life, but on the person we were made for, Jesus, and the place we were made for:  Heaven (Colossians 3:1-4).  That way we get a foretaste of Heaven’s glory and wonder and beauty as we live our lives today.  People will see that we’re different, because Jesus and His kingdom are our center of gravity.

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“We know not what we shall be”; but we may be sure we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth.  Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper.  If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape; not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters, and let in the blaze of the risen sun…

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.

–C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory

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Colossians 3:1-4  —  Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

II Peter 3:13-14  —  In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.  So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

I John 3:2  —   Dear friends, now we are children of God,and what we will be has not yet been made known.  But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

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 Take from us, O God, the care of worldly vanities, and make us content with necessaries.  Put away our hearts from delighting only in the honors, treasures, and pleasures of this life; and engender in us a desire to be with Thee in Thine eternal kingdom.  Give us, O Lord, such a taste and feeling for Thine unspeakable joys in heaven, that we may always long for them, looking forward to that day when you come to take us to Thee.  Amen.

–Archbishop of Canterbury Edmund Grindal  (1519-1583)

1443) Prayers at the Twilight of Life

Arthur O. Roberts

From Prayers at Twilight, by Arthur O. Roberts, (1923-2016), 2003, Barclay Press.  Roberts wrote a book Exploring Heaven to describe what the Bible and great Christian thinkers have said about heaven.  As he was writing that, he was also writing prayers about the end of this life and the anticipation of the life to come in heaven.  Here are some of the poems/prayers from the collection of them published in Prayers at Twilight.

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A REASONABLE REQUIREMENT

My friend says one should be content

with this life, make the most of it,

and not whine for second chances.

I pondered this, and then I thought

about this guy wrongly imprisoned, 

locked up twenty years, on death row

part of the time.  I think of children

blown to bits by terrorists, people 

starved in gulags, gassed by Nazis,

people gunned down by drug dealers,

innocent and helpless civilians sacrificed

as ‘collateral damage’ in political wars,

and it struck me that hope for heaven

is a reasonable requirement for justice,

as well as a gift of your love, Lord.

***

THROUGH THIS TUNNEL

Lord, I’ve got Alzheimer’s

I don’t know my own family

sometimes, and can’t tell the nurse

who our president is.  But I know you!

Lead me through this tunnel, Lord,

and in heaven make me whole again.

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WHO’S RIGHT, LORD

Lord, yesterday my neighbor and I discussed death.

A heart attack put him in a serious mood.

He’s a retired professor and legislator.

His affluent children support art museums,

his grandkids trek the globe for green causes.

Mac says he’s ready to bow out gracefully, 

content to let his influence live on.

Claims it’s the noble thing to do.

I don’t buy this.

From what I learned in Sunday school

I figured on a more personal afterlife.

Besides, I don’t have kids, bright or otherwise.

Who’s right, Lord?

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OOPS, GOD!

In my alumni magazine letters writers

argue about religion.  Recently one alumna

claimed human thought has evolved

in every area but religion.  We must not,

said she, let the Bible, or even Jesus,

hinder evolutionary progress

that brings better religious ideas.

Lord, I’m weary of these attacks

on Christian beliefs and believers.

Who does this gal think she is, telling me

in effect, sorry old timer, but we now know

these Bible stories aren’t true.  Well, when

twenty/thirty years later she faces death

as I do now, will she believe the same thing?

Or will she say, oops, God, I guess

my ideas weren’t so good after all.

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I’D LIKE THAT!

Lord, I don’t travel much anymore.

Went to the Columbia ice fields last year.

But most of the scenes I view now

are inside my head.  Some are vivid,

like seeing that dirty trench near St. Lo,

the red blood spurting from my leg.

and that German boy’s face–

before I blew it away.  I never talk

to anyone about this, except you, Lord.

Maybe I’ll meet that boy in heaven.

That would be okay.  We’ll recognize 

and forgive each other, and maybe you

will give us constructive work to do 

together, somewhere in the cosmos.

Yeah, I’d like that…

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I WISH THEY WOULD LEARN

When I was young we kids were afraid of hell.

Now, it seems, young folks are afraid of heaven.

They can’t imagine anything more exciting

than their affluent lifestyle.  Skiing every Sunday.

Shopping at the mall.  TV celebrity shows.

Making scads of money, getting stock options.

They don’t fear you, Lord, they ignore you.

Maybe a depression would do them good.

Or a service stint in Somalia.  I know, Lord,

when you’re young  heaven talk is taboo, 

too gloomy, too threatening.  Was for me once.

But I wish they would learn soon that fear

of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

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WHILE MY LIFE LINGERS

Lord, the last enemy is death, 

that’s for sure.  Well, it’s combat time

for me.  Fight with me.  Oh, crucified Jesus

help me bear the penetrating pain

and this slow, sad phase of parting

from dear ones whom I love.

Share with me, Lord, your triumph

over sin and death while my life lingers,

then walk me through the heavenly door.

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MOSTLY ABOUT JESUS

Lord, scenarios about heaven make no sense to me.

How can predators live harmoniously with prey?

How can dead bodies, or their ashes, reassemble?

How can there be cycles of life without death?

How can there be both time and eternity?

But then I gaze at the Milky Way on a warm night.

I hear waves crashing rhythmically against the shore,

I ponder the incredible spread of intelligent life

across planet earth, even if not always used wisely.

But mostly I think about Jesus, heaven’s great sign,

about his redeeming death, and his resurrection.

I hear him say: “I go to prepare a place for you.”

Mind then yields to spirit, and my spirit yields to you.

“Yes, Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”

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John 14:1-6  —  (Jesus said), “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

Mark 9:24b  —  “I believe; help my unbelief!”

1424) Going Home

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   “I received good news from my hospice nurse today,” said the elderly lady I was visiting.  Helen was had been battling cancer for a year, but was now about to lose that battle. 

     “What did she tell you,” I asked, wondering if perhaps there had been a change in her diagnosis.

     Helen replied, “She said I have, at the most, only a week to live.”  

     Helen died six days later, ready for God’s call, and happy to go home.

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William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) was the great-grandson of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the “patriarch of the Lutheran church in America.”  William, like his famous great-grandfather, was also a pastor.  Near the end of his life he was hospitalized, and was visited by the hospital chaplain who began praying for his recovery.  Old Pastor Muhlenberg interrupted the prayer.  “Let us have an understanding about this,” said the dying man.  “You are asking God to restore me and I am asking God to take me home.  There must not be a contradiction in our prayers, for it is evident that God cannot answer them both.”   —The Story of Christian Hymnody, by E. E. Ryden, 1959, page 485.

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From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III;  in a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, June 7, 1959:

 …I am sorry to hear that so many troubles crowd upon you but glad to hear that, by God’s grace, you are so untroubled.  So often, whether for good or ill, one’s inner state seems to have so little connection with the circumstances.  I can now hardly bear to look back on the summer before last when Joy was apparently dying and I was often screaming with the pain of osteoporosis: yet at the time we were in reality far from unhappy.  May the peace of God continue to enfold you…

     What a state we have got into when we can’t say  “I’ll be happy when God calls me home” without being afraid one will be thought ‘morbid’.  After all, St. Paul said just the same in Philippians 1:21.  If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home’, why should we not look forward to the arrival?  There are only three things we can do about death:  to desire it, to fear it, or to ignore it.  The third alternative, which is the one the modern world calls ‘healthy,’ is surely the most uneasy and precarious of all.  

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     I am reminded of a little cartoon I saw one time in a magazine.  The cartoon shows two men, in the clouds of heaven, with their angel wings attached.  They are sitting in lounge chairs, obviously taking it easy and enjoying themselves immensely.  And one says to the other, “Just think, Ralph, if it wasn’t for all that darn health food, we could have been up here years ago.”

     We fear the change that will come when we die, but we must keep in mind Romans 8:18 where Paul, who suffered a great deal for the Gospel, says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  It will be an incredible and wonderful change.

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Philippians 1:21-24  —  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Hebrews 11:13-16  —  All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised;they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Psalm 23:6  —  Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Revelation 22:20  —  He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

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O my most blessed and glorious Creator, who has fed me all my life, and redeemed me from all evil; seeing it is your merciful pleasure to take me out of this frail body, and to wipe away all tears from my eyes, and all sorrows from my heart, I do with all humility and willingness consent and submit myself to your sacred will.  Into your saving and everlasting arms I commend my spirit.  I am ready, my dear Lord, and earnestly expect and long for your good pleasure.  Come quickly, and receive the soul of your servant who trusts in you.  Amen.  

–Dying prayer of Henry Vaughan

1304) Six Questions About Heaven

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By Randy Alcorn, October 30, 2016 blog at http://www.epm.org

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Why do you think many Christians don’t look forward to Heaven anymore?

     Christians faced with death often feel they’re leaving the party before it’s over, having to go home early.  They are disappointed, thinking of all the people and things they’ll miss when they leave.

     But for God’s children the real party awaits.  Think of the Father making merry and celebrating with a feast for the prodigal son who’s come home (Luke 15).  The celebration is already underway at our true home, where we’ve not yet lived; and that’s precisely where death will take us. As others will welcome us to Heaven’s party, so we’ll one day welcome those who arrive later.

     God commands us in his Word to set our minds in Heaven where Christ is (Colossians 3:1).  We focus on an actual place where the resurrected Christ lives, and the resurrected cosmos, our future and eternal home.

     Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).  If we don’t understand this future glory of Heaven that awaits us, we won’t see that our present sufferings shrink in comparison to its greatness.

     What God made us to desire is exactly what he promises to those who follow Jesus Christ: a resurrected life in a resurrected body with the resurrected Christ.  Our desires correspond precisely to God’s plans.  It’s not that we want something, so we engage in wishful thinking.  It’s the opposite.  We want eternal life because God has wired us that way, and has always planned for it (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

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Will Heaven ever be boring?

     The belief that Heaven will be boring betrays a heresy— that God himself is boring.  There’s no greater nonsense.  Our desire for pleasure and the experience of joy come directly from God’s hand.  He made our taste buds, adrenaline, and the nerve endings that convey pleasure to our brains.  Likewise, our imaginations and capacity for joy were made by the God whom some imagine is boring.  Are we so arrogant as to imagine that human beings came up with the idea of having fun?

     “Won’t it be boring to be good all the time?”  This assumes sin is exciting and righteousness is boring, which is one of the Devil’s most strategic lies.  Sin doesn’t bring fulfillment, it robs us of it.  When there’s beauty, when we see God as he truly is— an endless reservoir of fascination— boredom becomes impossible.

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Will we eat and drink in Heaven?

      Words describing eating, meals, and food appear more than a thousand times in Scripture, with the English translation “feast” occurring 187 times.  Feasting involves celebration and fun, and it’s profoundly relational.  Great conversation, storytelling, relationship-building, and laughter happen during mealtimes.  Feasts, including Passover, were spiritual gatherings that drew attention to God, his greatness, and his redemption. 

     People who love each other love eating together.  In a parable when Jesus wanted to describe heaven, he used the image of a feast given by a king (Matthew 22:2).  In another place Jesus said to his disciples, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom” (Luke 22:29-30).  Jesus promised, “Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 8:11).  The finest foods and drinks, according to Isaiah 25:6, will be prepared for us by God himself.

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What will relationships in Heaven be like?

     Scripture tells us we will all be living with the same person (Jesus), in the same place (Heaven), with God’s people.  Paul says in I Thessalonians 4:18 that we are to “comfort one another with these words,” in reference to our being together with the Lord forever.  So clearly we will be spending eternity with our loved ones in Jesus.

     Christ said that there won’t be human marriage in Heaven (Matthew 22:30).  Yet there will be marriage in Heaven, one marriage, between Christ and his bride— and his people will all be part of it (Ephesians 5:31-32).  My wife and I won’t be married to each other, but will be part of the same marriage to Jesus (Ephesians 5:31-32).

     I have every reason to believe that in Heaven, I will be closer to my wife and kids and grandkids than ever.  It won’t be the end of our relationships, but they’ll be taken to a new level.  Our source of comfort isn’t only that we’ll be with the Lord in Heaven, but also that we’ll be with each other.

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Will we be capable of sinning in Heaven?

     Christ promises that, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelations 21:4).  Since “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), the promise of no more death is a promise of no more sin.  Those who will never die can never sin, since sinners always die.  Sin causes mourning, crying, and pain.  If those will never occur again, then sin can’t.

     We will have true freedom in Heaven, a righteous freedom that never sins.  Since Adam and Eve sinned, despite living in a perfect place, as did Satan, many people wonder if we’ll sin someday in Heaven.  The Bible says that God cannot sin.  It would be against his nature.  Once we’re with him, it will be against our nature too.  We won’t want to sin any more than Jesus does.

     Sin will have absolutely no appeal to us.  The memory of evil and suffering in this life will serve as an eternal reminder of sin’s horrors and emptiness.  Sin?  Been there, done that; seen how ugly and disastrous it was!

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How might you use the doctrine of Heaven when sharing the gospel with someone?

     Heaven is a terrific evangelistic subject when we portray it as the Bible does.  Satan has vested interests in our misconceptions regarding Heaven.  When he depicts it as a dull, drab, tedious, boring place where nobody would want to go, all motivation for evangelism is removed.

     Why would we want our friends to spend eternity in a dull place?  And why would they want to go there?  And nobody wants to be a ghost when he dies.  On the other hand, when Christians understand Heaven is an exciting physical place on a redeemed world with redeemed people in redeemed relationships without sin and death, where there is music, art, science, sports, literature, and culture, it’s a great source of encouragement and motivation.  

     “They all lived happily ever after” is not merely a fairy tale.  It’s the blood-bought promise of God for all who trust in the gospel.  The happiness we long for is found in Jesus alone.  This is what makes the gospel “good news of great joy.”

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Colossians 3:1  —  Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Matthew 22:1-2  —  Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son…”

Ecclesiastes 3:11b  —  He (God) has set eternity in the human heart.

John 14:2  (Jesus said), “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”

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O Lord, you have prepared for us a wonderful place.  Prepare us also for that place.  Amen.

1129) My Great-Great-Great-Grandfather (b)

This meditation (part two) is from a sermon I gave July 10, 2005 at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Henderson, Minnesota.  It is the congregation my ancestors attended when they immigrated to Minnesota from Germany in 1875.  The congregation was already 20 years old in 1875, and in 2005 they celebrated their 150th anniversary.  I was serving as Redeemer’s pastor at that time.

     (…continued)  There have been many changes over the years, and there are many differences between us in 2005, and those very earliest settlers in 1855.  Yet, all the people of every generation for all those years have had one thing in common.  They first, and now us, have gathered here every Sunday to hear God’s Word; every Sunday for the last 7,800 weeks.  And what do we hear from God’s Word?  We first of all hear that there is a God in heaven.  “Our Father who art in heaven,” we pray here every week.  When we pray that, we are saying we believe that there is someone bigger than we are, bigger than this whole world; and, that there is another place, heaven, a place beyond everything we see and experience here on this little planet in this little universe.  We then say that there is a time beyond all time here– “forever and ever,” we pray, as we conclude that Lord’s prayer.

     We come to church each week to get our eyes opened up a little wider, so that we can be reminded of eternity– and what a powerful thought that is!  Everything else we do all week is connected only to the ‘here and now’– a ‘here and now’ that is swiftly getting away on us.  We work so we can eat so we can keep these temporary bodies alive.  We work with, visit with, fight with, and interact with people, other temporary beings, who come and go in and out of our lives, and, in and out of this world.  We’ve all seen a lot of folks come and go already, haven’t we?  Everything we do and everything we see all week, is temporary.  Even this world, says the Bible and the scientists, even this whole world, is a temporary home, and will one day freeze over when our temporary sun burns out.  Nothing will last– except, this Word and promise of God.  Isaiah said a long time ago, ‘”The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God lasts forever.”  James said, “What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  He is right.  Where are all those people who started this congregation 150 years ago?  They are gone, vanished, without even a stone to mark where their dust lies. That’s what happens to us.  We vanish like a mist.  We perish.

     But those old deacons, now perished, in 1855 would read to the people the same words from John 3:16 that we read now:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so what whosever believeth in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”  NOT PERISH, but have ETERNAL LIFE!  You don’t get that kind of promise anywhere else.  But according to John 3:16, you do get that from Jesus, whose name has been proclaimed on this spot for a century and a half.  Jesus lived a life like us in the here and now of this temporary world, but came to show us the way to that eternal home.  By believing in him, we receive that eternal life.

     And that brings me back to where I started, thinking about all those people that worshiped before us over the last 150 years.  Because of that promise, they are not just dead and gone, but we are all, they and us, still a part of the same LIVING community.  In Jesus, we still have this living connection.  

     In the Lutheran liturgy for Holy Communion the pastor says, “And so, with the church on earth (that’s us), and the whole company of heaven (that’s them, dead and buried out there on the hillside) we praise your name and join their unending hymn.”  That image of all of us, living and dead, praising God together comes from Hebrews chapters 11 and 12 where, after listing several great heroes of the faith, all long dead, it says, “All these people were still living by faith when they died… yet none of them had yet received what was promised.  God had planned something better for us, so that all together we would be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witness, let us throw off everything that hinders us, …and keep our eyes on Jesus.”

     Therefore, on this anniversary celebration reunion, we need not look only back, we can also look forward to the time when there will be that far greater reunion.  Those first pioneers that we never knew, and those who have just recently died that we knew very well and loved dearly, all will be a part of that great get-together.  That is why I picked “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the hymn to follow the sermon.  ‘I want to be in that number,’ we will sing, meaning I want to be there when our Lord Jesus brings us all home.  I do want to be there and I want you to be there, too.  So do what the Good Book says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”  And you will be there.

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Hebrews 11:39-40  —  These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Hebrews 12:1-2a  —  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

I Chronicles 29:15  —  We are only foreigners living here on earth for a while, just as our ancestors were.  And we will soon be gone, like a shadow that suddenly disappears.

James 4:14b  —  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Acts 16:31a  —  “..Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

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Lord, I ask you not to separate me when I am dead from those who were dear to me while I lived.  Lord, I beg you that where I am, they too may be with me.  As I have not been able to see much of them here, let me enjoy their company in heaven forever.  I beseech you, God most high, to grant a speedy resurrection to these children whom I love so much.  Amen.

–Saint Ambrose  (337-397), Bishop of Milan

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O God, Our Help in Ages Past  (verses 4-6)

Hymn by Isaac Watts, 1719

A thousand ages, in thy sight,
are like an evening gone;
short as the watch that ends the night,
before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all who breathe away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.

O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come;
be thou our guide while life shall last,
and our eternal home.

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An old photo of another congregation.  Everyone pictured here has perished.

Church old congregation photo

1113) Your Name is Written Down

     Jesus once told his disciples to “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  If you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, this promise is for you also; and, these are the most important words you will ever hear anywhere, from anyone.  Almost all of the words we hear and say have to do with this brief little life on this temporary little planet.  Only the words of Jesus speak of another place and another time and another life.  So, “Rejoice,” Jesus says, “that your names are written in heaven.”

     We will soon be in the tornado season in the Midwest.  Every year, tornadoes hit someone, somewhere.  Many people will hear the warnings and head for the safety of the basement.  For most, the storms will pass and everyone will breath a sigh of relief.  But every year there are those who, while they are huddled together downstairs, have their home destroyed above them.  Losing your home is a life-changer.  It takes a long time for those who suffer that kind of loss to put the pieces of their lives back together again.  But this is a short term problem.  They will eventually rebuild and life will go on.

     A teenage boy is in a car accident.  His back is broken, his spine is severed, and he will never walk again.  This is an even bigger life-changing event.  That boy will have to make all kinds of adjustments in everything– from his future career plans to the way he goes to the bathroom.  Everything will be more difficult and more complicated.  But this too is a short term problem.  His paralysis will last only as long as he lives.

     A doctor comes back with the report that the discomfort that a young wife and mother has been feeling is cancer, it is terminal, and she has only weeks to live.  This news will not only change her life, it will end it.  But even this is only a short term problem.

     It is not insensitive to call such huge tragedies short term problems.  It is simply a fact that life itself has only short term prospects.  No matter what we are blessed with, or, what is taken from us, it is all, only for the time being.  Most of what we talk about, most of what we deal with, most of what we look forward to or dread, will all one day soon come to an end.  It might seem odd to talk about an entire lifetime in a wheelchair as a short term problem.  But ask any 90-year old and she will tell you.  Life itself speeds by in a very short time.

     These words of Jesus, however, speak of something else.  “Rejoice,” he said, “because your names are written in heaven.”  Heaven– another time and place, a time and place without end.

     “Your names are written down,” said Jesus.  If you travel away from home, you better plan on your name being written down in a few places along the way.  In fact, you better make some arrangements ahead of time to make sure your name is written down.  First of all, you will go to the airport ticket counter to get your boarding pass.  You hope they can find your name written down somewhere in their computer, or you aren’t going anywhere.

     When you get to your destination and the cab takes you and your luggage to the hotel, you hope that your name is written down there, especially if you have already charged it to your credit card and all the other hotels in the city are full.  If for some reason your name isn’t written down, you have a problem.

     Then if you’ve made any reservations for tours or shows or whatever it is you are planning to do, you again have to hope that nobody made a mistake, and your name is written down where it is supposed to be written down.

     You may or may not be a traveler, but the time comes when everyone takes a journey– the same journey— from this life and this world, on to whatever it is that comes next.  There are those who believe there is no next place, and the journey is only to a hole in the ground (No thanks).  There are those that believe the journey that begins in death is a round-trip ticket, and when you die your spirit goes out of you, only to come back into some other being.  (Again, no thanks; I’m not interested– besides, this belief in reincarnation never made any sense to me, because I have never seen even a shred of evidence of it in myself.  What part of ‘me’ has come back if I don’t even have a single memory of any of my many previous lives?)  And there are those who say that when we die we go on to join the mysterious life force from which we came, and we will live on in the breezes and the gleam of the sunset and the sparkle on the new-fallen snow.  (But what good is that?  I don’t want to be a ‘gleam’ or a ‘sparkle,’ I want to be a person again.)

      What Jesus offers is far better.  He offers us the opportunity to prepare for this journey by making sure our names are written down.   The Bible was written, says I John, “so that you may know you have eternal life.”  And Jesus said, “Rejoice, that your names are written in heaven.”  That sounds good to me, and far better than any of the other options that have been proposed and believed.

      This cannot, of course, be only a matter of personal preference.  This belief must be based on reality and truth, or it is not worth bothering with.  And as Christians we believe that Jesus not only talked about the possibility of life after death, but proved it in his own resurrection from the dead.  It was meeting the living Jesus, back from the dead, that drove the disciples out into the world with the seemingly impossible task of proclaiming that even though we die, we can live again.

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John 11:25  —  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

I Corinthians 15:19-20  —  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Luke 10:20b  —  (Jesus said), “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

I John 5:13  —  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

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Support us, Lord, all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done; then Lord, in your mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last. Amen.

–1928 Book of Common Prayer

1027) Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

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WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN? by Ada Habershon, 1907; music by Charles Gabriel

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

Chorus:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by?
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood
Oft they told of a wondrous love
Pointed to the dying Savior;
Now they dwell with Him above.  Chorus

So remember those songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice.
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?  Chorus

You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.  Chorus

One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?  Chorus 

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The words were often rewritten; as in this 1989 recording by Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Chet Atkins, The Carter Family, and many more– Tremendous video!:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bRJLkNqNXI

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     Will the family circle be unbroken?  Well, NO, it will not be unbroken.  It is most certainly being broken all the time by death.  That’s why the song is so sad:  “One by one, their seats are empty, one by one, they went away; now the family is parted; will it be complete one day?”  All of us have memories of that family circle of years gone by.  That line brings to my mind many empty seats at our family gatherings, and thinking about all those wonderful people that used to be here brings tears to my eyes.  

     But the song is singing about more than this little earth, as the refrain makes clear:  “Will the circle, be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by?  There’s a better home awaiting, In the sky, Lord, in the sky.”  So the song isn’t just sad, but it’s also hopeful.  It anticipates a wonderful future, even after death.

     So now, back to the question in the song’s title:  “Will the circle be unbroken?”; that is, there in that home in the sky.  But that raises another question; and the question is, why is this a question?  Don’t we all just automatically go to that better home in the sky?  Why the question?  

     Verse one says, “There are loved ones in the glory (that better home), whose dear forms you often miss, and when you close your earthly story, will you (there’s the question again) will you join them in their bliss?  How do we do that?  Well, says the second verse, remember what those old ones told you.  Verse two, “In the joyous days of childhood, oft they told of a wondrous love, they pointed to the dying Savior, now they dwell with Him above.”  That’s how you get there, and that’s how you keep the circle unbroken; by looking to the same Savior they looked to.  You get there by not turning your back on the one who offers you that better home above.  And so, says verse three, remember those old songs of heaven; so then, as the circle is broken here, it can again, one day be unbroken.  The song presents the good news of the Gospel in a wonderful way that speaks into our hearts and calls us to faith.

     A song is just a song:  it can stir our emotions, and make us smile or cry; songs can make us tap our foot and sing along.  But a song can’t do much more about that broken circle than just sing mournful words and make us sad.  That is, unless the song is based on something greater than itself– and this one is!  That better home awaiting isn’t just something to sing about.  Rather, it is something that is offered to us in God’s own Word, and prepared for us by God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.  

     In John 14:1-3 Jesus says he has gone on ahead to prepare a place for us.  And just like the old song says, we get there by looking to that Son of God, that Savior who says in verse six, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”  That home Jesus is talking about here is the Better home awaiting in the sky, as the song says.  Will you be there?  Will the circle again one day be complete?  The words of the song plead for an answer.

      Author James Dobson suffered a life-threatening heart attack when he was in his mid-fifties.  He survived, but as he lay there, thinking it could be time his last day, he thought about joining that family circle in heaven– his father and mother, his grandparents, aunts and uncles, many friends, and all the rest– and he was beginning to feel a bit of eager anticipation.  He also felt a bit of anxiety as he prayed for his own children, that they may keep the faith.  He hoped they too may be in that future home, keeping the circle unbroken.  Dobson spoke of his son, rushing to the hospital to see his dad for what could have been the last time.  Dobson told his son Ryan what he had been thinking about.  As he went into surgery, he left his son with just two words:  “Be there,” he said.  In other words, “Keep the faith son, so that you too will be there, in that better home awaiting; so that the circle in the next generation may also be unbroken.”

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John 16:22  —  (Jesus said), “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said), “Do not be worried and upset,” Jesus told them. “Believe in God and believe also in me.  There are many rooms in my Father’s house, and I am going to prepare a place for you.  I would not tell you this if it were not so.  And after I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.

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Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Henry F. Lyte  (1793-1847)

925) “There’s No Place Like Home”

 

     Many people enjoy traveling, but everyone knows that travel has its frustrations.  Everything is unfamiliar, and you can spend a lot of your vacation time figuring things out and finding your way around.  It starts at the airport with, “How do we find the shuttle that gets us to the hotel, and why is it taking so long,;”  and then from there, “Where do we catch the bus?…  Oh, the subway is better,” someone says, “So where do we find that?…”  We finally get there, and ask, ” What time does that place open?…  Oh, it’s closed today,” so get back on the bus and go somewhere else; then, “Oops, now its too late for that, we should have gone there first….  Let’s walk six blocks and eat there, the guide book says that’s a good place…  What, a two hour wait?  Okay, let’s go across the street…  Oh boy, that food was terrible, we won’t be going back there.  Wow, those shows are expensive; here’s one, but that’s sold out; ah, forget the shows.  Okay, rent a car, try to get out of town, take a wrong turn, get in a traffic jam…  Finally, back on the right road now; but shucks, its under construction, one lane, long wait…”  Well, you get the idea.  Been there, done that, perhaps.  No matter how well you plan, you will get those unexpected irritations.

      Traveling is a lot like life itself, just one darn thing after another.  But it is also like life in that along with the unexpected irritations, there are also all kind of pleasant surprises along the way.  One time my wife and I were driving out in the country through the rugged beauty of the desert, and then, just a half hour later, we were in a mountain canyon with two feet of snow on the ground, and then found a quaint little mountain village.  Getting into conversations with the locals can also be interesting, like the friendly old janitor at the hotel who told us stories of how it was so much better in the old days when that part of town was controlled by the Mafia.  Or the time we ran into some old school friends that we’ve seen only a couple times in the last 25 years, and there, a thousand miles from home, we talked about school days and got caught up on how all the kids were doing.  Those kinds of things can’t be planned, but can turn out to be the highlights of a vacation.

     Traveling is filled with surprises, good and bad.  But I can take only so much of that, and then I begin to long for more familiar surroundings.  I agree with the old saying, ‘it’s good to go and good to get back,’ no matter how much fun I have.

     When you travel to a new place, everything is strange to you, and everyone is a stranger, and you are a stranger to everyone there.  It is nice to see different places, but after a while, we do begin to long for the familiar and the comfortable.  Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had it right when she wanted to go back to Kansas, and said over and over again the magic words of the spell, “There’s no place like home; there’s no place like home.”  Home, where you know what roads to take, where to eat if you want good food, and, you can sleep in your own bed at night.  Home, where you are NOT a stranger to everyone and everything.

     This is the image Peter uses (I Peter 1:17) when he says: “Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, LIVE YOUR LIVES AS STRANGERS HERE.”  Live as strangers, Peter says, live always as a stranger to this whole world and everything in it.  He uses this image in two more places in this brief letter.  In chapter one verse one, he greets his readers as “God’s elect, strangers in the world;” and again in the second chapter (v. 11), there urging his readers to “live as strangers and aliens in this world.”  What does Peter mean here?  Why shouldn’t we feel at home, not even in our own home?

     Many years earlier Peter had left his home to travel with Jesus, following him all around Israel.  Later, Peter left home again to travel even farther, preaching to far away nations about Jesus.  He was able to do that because he had heard Jesus’ promise of another home.  Jesus said in John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in me, for I am going on ahead to my father’s home, and there I will prepare a place for you.”  Peter spent three years of his life with Jesus, and knew that he would never feel ‘at home’ again unless he was with Jesus.  He knew from experience what we can know by faith in the Bible–  that we were created for God and will never feel completely ‘at home’ until we are at home with God.  

     This life, said St. Teresa of Avila, is like spending a night in a cheap hotel in a strange town, where your only comfort is that you know you will soon be leaving.  If you seek your comfort here on this earth, you will always be disappointed, and it will be difficult to leave when the time comes.  So Peter tells us to live as strangers, because it won’t be long and it will be time to go.  There is a comfort in not getting too comfortable here.

“There’s no place like home…”

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Hebrews 11:13-16  —  All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country— a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

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Support us, Lord, all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done; then Lord, in your mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last. Amen.

–1928 Book of Common Prayer

821) Keeping an Eternal Perspective

By Randy Alcorn, July 10, 2015 blog (adapted) at: http://www.epm.org

     Having an eternal perspective is in many ways the key to living a true Christ-following life.  Scripture says in 2 Corinthians 4:18, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  If we let this reality sink in, it will forever change the way we think and live.

     Christians are encouraged to look at life differently—like Elisha’s servant whose eyes were opened so he could see the angels surrounding and  protecting them (2 Kings 6).  It wasn’t that suddenly those angels were there.  They were there all along.  He finally had the eyes to actually see the invisible realities.

     I’m not saying that we’re going to be seeing angels if we have an eternal perspective.  What I am saying is we need to ask God to open our eyes to what’s at stake—to the unseen world and the reality of Heaven, our eternal destination.

     Most of us see no further than the horizons of this world.  To correct our shortsightedness, God prescribes a vision correction that allows us to look through the lens of eternity.  Suddenly we realize this present life is but a brief window of opportunity to invest in what will last for eternity.

     Knowing that this present world will end and that we will be resurrected should profoundly affect our daily behavior.  “…You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God… In keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.  So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him” (2 Peter 3:11-14).

     If we understand what “a new heaven and a new earth” means, we’ll look forward to it.  (And if we’re not looking forward to it, we must not yet understand it.)  Anticipating our homecoming will motivate us to live spotless lives here and now.

     Joni Eareckson Tada writes in Heaven: Your Real Home:

When a Christian realizes his citizenship is in heaven, he begins acting as a responsible citizen of earth.  He invests wisely in relationships because he knows they’re eternal.  His conversations, goals and motives become pure and honest because he realizes these will have a bearing on everlasting reward.  He gives generously of time, money, and talent because he’s laying up treasure for eternity.  He spreads the good news of Christ because he longs to fill heaven’s ranks with his friends and neighbors.  All this serves the pilgrim well not only in heaven, but on earth; for it serves everyone around him.

     When we view today in light of the long tomorrow, the little choices become tremendously important.  Choices about whether I read my Bible today, pray, go to church, trust Christ through suffering, share my faith, and give my money are of eternal consequence, not only for other souls, but for mine.

     After all, what will last forever?  God.  God’s Word.  People.

     Spending time in God’s Word and investing in people will pay off in eternity, and, bring me the happiness now that can come from a true perspective.  This life need not be wasted.  In small and often unnoticed acts of service to Christ, we can invest this life in eternity, where today’s faithfulness will forever pay rich dividends.

     Not only will an eternal perspective change our actions, it will also change our attitudes.  Living with eternity in mind will infuse us with a joy and purpose that can sustain us in daily life, even as we face hard things.  Remembering our future life can help empower us to stick with a difficult marriage, to persevere in the hard task of caring for an ailing parent or child, or to stay with a demanding job.  Moses stayed faithful to God because “he was looking ahead to his reward” (Hebrews 11:26).

     Christ-centered righteous living today is directly affected by knowing where we’re going and what rewards we’ll receive there for serving Christ.  After all, if we really believe we’re going to live forever in a realm where Christ is the center who brings us great joy, and that righteous living will mean happiness for all, why wouldn’t we choose to get a head start on Heaven through Christ-centered righteous living now?  Do we really want to miss out on the true happiness that Jesus offers us here and for all of eternity?

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II Kings 6:17a  —  Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”

Hebrews 11:26  —  He (Moses) regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.

II Corinthians 4:16-18  —  Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

II Corinthians 5:10  —  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

Mark 9:41  —  (Jesus said),  “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

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Father, you tell us not to fix our eyes on popular culture, and not on fleeting accomplishments and wealth; but upon what is eternal, and what will still matter a billion years from now.  Give us the eyes of faith, and remind us to focus on you, our Savior, and on the eternity with you that awaits us.  

–Randy Alcorn

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