Heaven is real

The recent warm, sunny days have lifted our spirits after the cold days of early Spring. The cloudless blue skies, awakening nature, and the quiet, warmth of longer evenings have brought joy to our hearts. The beauty of the natural world around us, with the magnolia and cherry blossoms, the daffodils and primroses, and the green of the new leaves now beginning to adorn the trees, reveals the unique splendour of planet Earth, on which we are privileged to live. At such times we might wish to be able to stop and stay in the pleasure and happiness of the moment, but it isn’t possible. The daffodils fade, the blossoms fall and the most glorious of sunsets leads only to the darkness of the night.

The deep longing to find lasting peace, joy and fulfilment is something we all experience. The joys and pleasures of this world are real, but all transient. Because we have been created by God with an eternal soul we, inevitably, long for more, for that which endures. King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom, wrote, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” A prayer, based on words of Augustine, expresses the desires of many, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you; so lead us by your Spirit that in this life we may live to your glory and in the life to come enjoy you for ever.”

Today we seldom talk about heaven and the life to come, but it is fundamental to our very being. We can only make sense of the sadnesses and mysteries of this life in the light of eternity. God is passionately concerned about justice and has set a day when he will righteously judge all people. Heaven is real and is the realm where God dwells in glory, love and unending blessing. Jesus said he was the Way to heaven.

The book of Revelation beautifully describes heaven, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. 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. The one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new! To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. I will be their God, and they will be my children.”

Martin Luther King’s Dream

On 4 April 1968 Dr Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. He was just 39 years old. He was a great civil rights leader who spoke for black people in America. At the age of 35 he received the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1963 was named Man of the Year by Time magazine. He travelled extensively and spoke passionately highlighting the injustices black people in America were suffering. He was a Baptist minister who found inspiration for his powerful speeches in the great themes of the Bible, and especially the teaching of Jesus Christ. Because of this Dr King still speaks to the injustices of our divided world.

His best-known speech, “I Have a Dream”, was delivered on 28 August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. In his speech Dr King said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ When this happens we will speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

Dr King knew there were serious threats to kill him. The same hope in God he inspired in others was also the foundation for his own personal hope. On the night before he died he gave a speech in Memphis, Tennessee, in which he said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything! I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Treasure on earth or treasure in heaven?

As many of the world’s wealthiest people gathered at Davos recently for the World Economic Forum, Oxfam International published a report calling for action to address the growing gap between rich and poor. The report reveals that the 42 richest people in the world own as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people who live in the poorer half of the world. 8 billionaires possess the same wealth as 50% of the world’s population.

Between 2006 and 2015 the wealth of billionaires rose by an average of 13% per year, a total of £550bn, enough to end extreme poverty in the world seven times over. The founder of Amazon is now the richest man in the world because an increase in the Wall Street stock market in the first 10 days of 2017 saw his personal wealth increase by £4.3bn. So, is being rich the key to happiness in this life and in eternity?

A rich young ruler once came to Jesus and, falling on his knees, asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honour your father and mother.'” The man declared, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Many of those who live in poverty, surviving on a dollar a day, are richer than the richest people on earth because they have put their faith and hope in God. Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Love lifted me

It is interesting to read the obituaries of people who have recently died. Many, who are not well-known, have lived very interesting lives. The obituaries usually do not give details of the cause of death and often make no reference to the person’s faith in God. However, the Daily Telegraph recently published an obituary of Joan Winmill Brown, who died at the end of June at the age of 89. I had never heard of the lady, but her story was unusual.

Joan was a successful actress. In the years following World War II, when she was a rising star of the British stage and screen, she was introduced to Bobby Kennedy. He was attracted to the beautiful young actress and she became his secret girlfriend. When Bobby’s father, Joe Kennedy, found out about their relationship he ordered his son to end it. Their break-up, in early 1950, hit Joan hard; she sank into a depression during which she drank too much. She even considered suicide. She said, “At that time my world fell apart, but in hindsight I don’t believe I truly loved him. I think I was infatuated with his aura of wealth as much as the man himself.”

In 1954, a friend persuaded Joan to go to a Billy Graham Crusade in Harringay Arena. She recalled, “As I walked in the crowds were singing Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. I didn’t get it at all.” That night she was introduced to Ruth Bell, Billy Graham’s wife, and a lifelong friendship began that helped turn Joan’s life around. Later Joan received Jesus as her personal saviour and said, “God in Jesus showed me the way to happiness.” In 1952, she met Billy Brown whom she married. They both worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and, after they retired, lived in Hawaii. Billy died just a few months before Joan.

A hymn often sung at Billy Graham Crusades well expresses Joan’s testimony; “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I. All my heart to him I give, ever to him I’ll cling, in his blessed presence live, ever his praises sing. Love so mighty and so true, merits my soul’s best songs. Faithful, loving service, too, to him belongs. Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me!

The secret of being content

We are living in unsettled times. Reports in the media portray a spirit of unease and unhappiness in the hearts of some. It seems that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in this fallen world, we must find someone to blame and to complain about. We see it as their responsibility to make us happy and ensure we have everything we want. Yet we live in country that, compared to most countries in the world, is wealthy and remarkably secure and stable. We enjoy a considerable degree of freedom to live our daily lives without interference from the authorities. In fact, millions of people from other countries would love to live in Britain and some make great efforts, at risk to their lives, to get here.

Some years ago, I met some friends from West Africa at Heathrow. As we were driving along the M4 they asked, “Where are the soldiers and the roadblocks?” I explained that things that were part of daily life in their country didn’t happen in Britain and that the overwhelming majority of our police were unarmed. They were amazed and, also, could not get over the fact that there were no potholes in our main roads! So, if our lives are so blessed and privileged compared to billions of people in the world, why are we unhappy?

We need to learn the secret of being content. When we are content we are happy, satisfied and fulfilled. It has very little to do with how much “stuff” we have. I was talking to a friend who works in a high-class resort to which many wealthy people come. He told me about a recent holiday in which he and his wife saw people who are much poorer than they are yet, he said, they were content. One man wrote, “Contentment doesn’t come from adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire; not in multiplying wealth, but in subtracting desires.” Socrates said, “The wealthiest person is the one who is contented with least.”

Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome. In a letter to the Christians in Philippi he wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

A radical alternative to materialism

Materialism has been adopted by many people in the developed world as the basis for their lives. They believe that nothing exists except physical matter and that the universe in which we live is evolving. We, too, are caught up in an impersonal evolutionary process. Materialism tells us that we are all essentially animals and that physical things are the only things that exist. As a result, some people have become materialistic, seeking to accumulate wealth and possessions in the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction.

One very serious consequence of a materialistic life is that the true value of people is lost. The Urban Dictionary defines being materialistic as, “The act of caring more about things than people; judging yourself and others on the cost of your stupid things.” From childhood we are encouraged to believe that the things we possess give us value and worth. Our “stuff” defines us. The sad and tragic lives of some rich and famous people teach us that money and possessions do not guarantee happiness, but may even destroy us.

The Bible warns us of the dangers of being materialistic. Jesus told a man who wanted to inherit a legacy, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” The apostle Paul said, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

The example of Jesus provides a radical alternative to materialism and points the way to true and lasting happiness for us all, as people who have been created by God as both body and soul. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus left the heavenly riches, that were his of right, in order to come to this world and become poor. On the Cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven and receive eternal life. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection teach us that every one of us is valuable in God’s sight and that heaven is real.

I am making everything new!

As the New Year has begun we have greeted each other with the words “Happy New Year!” As we look forward to the coming year what grounds are there for hope and happiness? The world is full of problems and the early campaigning for the General Election in May is not very reassuring. We may also be facing problems in our personal lives or in the lives of those we love. We all need to find a real hope for the future.

The last book in the Bible is called Revelation. It was written at the end of the first century by the apostle John. He was an old man, the last surviving disciple of Jesus, and was living in lonely exile on the rocky island of Patmos. He and his fellow Christians were experiencing terrible persecution because of their faith in Jesus. His fellow apostles had already been martyred. Then John was given a wonderful revelation of Jesus Christ that gave him hope personally and that has also encouraged and sustained Christians throughout history.

The book is a series of visions that vividly portray that throughout history there will be times of great wickedness and suffering. The visions also show that God’s gracious purposes in Jesus Christ will ultimately triumph and his people will be kept safe. John himself received comfort and hope through the words of Jesus to him, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

The book of Revelation closes with a wonderful vision of the new heaven and the new earth. John writes, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Then a loud voice from the throne said, “Look! God’s dwelling is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. I am making everything new!” Whatever we may be facing as this New Year begins, and whatever may happen during the year, we can find a sure hope in God’s promises and in his ultimate purpose for his world in Jesus.

Life feels better when you have a plan

The life insurance company Scottish Widows has created a new television advert, its first for 6 years. It pictures a young widow followed by a range of people at different stages in life. It begins with a question, “What is your definition of happiness?” It offers the answer, “A clear horizon, nothing to worry about.” The advert conveys a general sense of well being and security as people realise that if they plan for tomorrow they can live more today. The strap line is, “Life feels better when you have a plan.”

It is good to think about the future and not just to live in the present. It can be tempting to avoid thinking about the future. The decline of the Christian church in our multi-cultural society has led to confusion and uncertainty about the future. We live in a secular society in which our horizons are very much in this world, and the various crises we are facing give little reason for optimism. We need something more than a pension or life insurance policy.

The apostle Paul experienced a great change in his life. In his early life he was committed to doing everything possible to oppose Jesus Christ and those who believed in him as their Saviour and Lord. He energetically persecuted Christians. Many were put in prison and some were executed. Then one day, when he was travelling to Damascus to seek out and arrest Christians, he came face to face with the living Jesus and became a Christian. Near the end of his life he wrote, “For I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return.”

Paul committed his life and his future to Jesus Christ. It transformed him and gave his whole life meaning and significance. He was also confident about life in the world to come. Jesus Christ was the link between his present life in this world and his future life in heaven. His testimony was “For me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better.” Experiencing God’s love in Jesus gives us true happiness and security – “a clear horizon, nothing to worry about.” Then, like Paul, we can say, “I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So I live my life in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

A Vision of Heaven

Large crowds of people are demonstrating around the world. Tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets in protest about the policies of their governments. In Turkey the protest began because a large park in Istanbul is going to be turned into a shopping centre. In Egypt the protest is against the policies of the newly elected President. Sometimes the protesters have been dispersed with water cannon and tear gas.

In Brazil the people are protesting at the large sums of money being spent on hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. They want the government to address the needs of the millions of poor people, including those living in the favelas found in all the large cities of Brazil. These people live in shacks with no sewage systems or supplies of clean water. Brazil has one of the most successful economies in the world, but the people see the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer. The President of Brazil seems ready to respond to the protesters.

All of us long to find true happiness and fulfilment, and it can be found. True fulfilment is found in God, who created us. The Bible calls this eternal life, which begins here on earth and continues in heaven. In Revelation 7 there is a vision of a joyful crowd of people that no-one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They are standing before God’s throne and in front of Jesus, the Lamb of God. They are wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

These people are rejoicing because God has delivered them from all the sufferings and troubles of this life. They had not cried out to earthly rulers, but to Jesus, who is the King of kings. He heard their cry and brought them safely to heaven. “Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”