Well, there’s a new movie out starring Greg Kinnear and Kelly Reilly entitled, Heaven is for Real. It’s based on the book of the same name written by Todd Burpo. Many of you have read the book. Basically, Heaven is for Real is the story of 4 year old Colton Burpo who nearly dies from a burst appendix. While on the operating table, he visits heaven. He sees the great-grandfather and the miscarried sister he never met. And he sees Jesus and Christ’s angels.
Recovering from surgery and over a period of time, snippets of Colton’s heavenly visit come out at odd times and with some consistency. He tells of his experiences in heaven as only a little boy can do…a bit here and a bit there until his parents begin to realize Colton has been to heaven and miraculously, God returned him to them.
Whether we are skeptics or believers, we all wonder about what might happen to us after our lives on earth are over. Is there a heaven? Or a hell? What does it mean to enter the kingdom of God? It’s not surprising Jesus would be questioned about his knowledge of God’s kingdom. Nor is it surprising Jesus would use very common and recognizable images to explain what he believed God’s kingdom is all about. Mustard seeds, yeast, treasure, pearls, fish, and coins – all readily accessible to a human mind limited, as we are, by our inability to imagine something beyond our senses or our experiences. Limited also by our lack of descriptive words…knowing all this Jesus, in describing the Kingdom of God, used what his disciples could understand…common, every day and very real objects and actions. Jesus did such a good job at choosing his images, even we years later understand, at least at some level, what this Kingdom might be like.
But, there are some drawbacks. We get the sense of abundance, bounty and the beauty of awesome richness; yet we still lack an answer to our question, “Is Heaven for Real?” The heaven we imagine is a place where only the deserving go. The heaven we imagine is a place of impressive and expressive joy and peace. The heaven we imagine is a place of God-moments where what is beyond our ability to grasp in this life becomes absolutely clear in the next. There is a reason for our existence and now, in heaven, we come to know, without doubt, what that reason is. Is that heaven?
What struck me about the little boy Colton in the book “Heaven is for Real” is his language. He spoke of things he had seen but in the way a small boy of four might speak. Like the images Christ gave to his disciples, all very familiar and common, Colton only had the language of a human child of four. He had no words for a miscarried baby or a great grandfather. She was his sister and the man he saw was “Pop”. Simple and straightforward…this is how we imagine God reaches out to us…in language we can understand, in images we know, and in illustrations, which can have some meaning for us. Our lack of language can hamper us or it can free us from our self – imposed fears. Let me share the viewpoint of someone I admire…these words are from Joni Eareckson Tada, her description of what it means to live as citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom?”
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … ” Okay, I’ll buy
that. This old planet is in bad need of repair.
” … for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away ... ”
Wait a minute, you mean everything about this earth will
disappear and pass away? But there are lots of things I like. Chili
dogs with cheese. Opening day baseball. Bridal Veil falls at
Yosemite National Park.
ec ••• and there was no longer any sea.” What? No sea? But I
love the ocean. The waves. The wind. The smell of salt in the air.
To me, Heaven has to have oceans in it!
HI saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of
heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her
husband” (Revelation 21:1-2). No seas. No country landscapes.
That does it! I hate cities, even if they are holy. Who wants a city
smack-dab in the center of Heaven? Not me, brother.
Well, what about you?
Be honest. Be like any red-blooded, right-thinking Christian with
both feet planted firmly on Earth. Reading about Heaven in
Scripture can be like reading bad copy in an AAA tour book. “A
large set of pearl-studded gates will welcome you to Heaven, but be
careful of slippery roads that are paved with gold. Don’t bother
looking for interesting local cuisine as there’s no need to eat while
in Heaven, neither will you need to look for lodging since
comfortable beds, crisp sheets and downy pillows have no purpose.
“A sea of glass tops the list of scenic points. But, local
conditions preclude sunsets, sunrises or full moons. Do not miss
the spectacular New Jerusalem, a striking city of the future
employing award-winning architectural design. Marvel at its
twelve foundations. Stand amazed before its twelve gates, each
made of a gigantic, single pearl. For sheer spectacle, the National
Contractors Association agrees that the New Jerusalem eclipses
even the Crystal Cathedral and the Emerald City.”
I’m speaking facetiously. But I’m struck that Heaven is often
described in terms of “no this” and “no that.” That’s not all. I’m
also struck that the positive descriptions about what Heaven is
seem clumsy and ungraceful.
My heart goes out to the Apostle John who, on the isle of
Patmos, strained to find words to describe what he witnessed.
Even when he hunted through his dictionary for adequate nouns
and adjectives to draw a picture of Heaven, he had to fall back on
language that was old and familiar. Thus the awkward pictures
of rivers of glass, streets of gold, and gates of pearl-John’s best
effort to explain the unexplainable.
Rather than put us off, such descriptions have the power to
ignite our hearts. Aren’t you just a little relieved that Heaven
can’t be reduced to terms we can manage? Doesn’t it console you
to think Heaven is so marvelous that it fails any description?
Simply put, there are no words for Heaven.
So, have I answered the question: “Is Heaven for Real?” Maybe not for you…we each come to an answer in God’s time and through God’s action in our lives. For me, yes, heaven is for real. Why do I believe it? Well, let me tell you another story. This one I witnessed. In my first pastorate I came to know a woman named Barbara. Barbara was a faithful member of the church, a good daughter to her mother and a good sister to her brother. Barbara was also a very bright woman…she held a prestigious position in a Boston bank. Over time I came to know her quite well and when I was hospitalized briefly for a necessary surgery, Barbara and her mother made a point to visit me in my hospital room.
I thought of that visit many times after Barbara was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was now she who was hospitalized and me who visited. When it became apparent that Barbara’s condition was terminal and death inevitable, she requested release from the hospital so that she could spend her last days at home with her mother. I was called to the house to pray what would be a final prayer with Barbara, her mother and her brother when a woman, an aide from the hospital who had come to know Barbara quite well stopped by to see her. Up to that point, Barbara had been largely unresponsive. She was heavily sedated with some pretty strong pain killers but when her brother said to her, “Barbara, look who’s come to see you”, she lifted herself up into a semi sitting position. What happened next was nothing short of amazing. Barbara, who was bone thin, completely bald and who looked like a good imitation of ET, having lost all physical traits, which had defined her in life, having no voice and no awareness of the world around her now sat up and looking to a place none of us could see took on the visage of woman transformed. She bore a smile on her face, which was radiant and pointing a bony finger to this visage only she could she, she held her smile for a moment or two. Then, without a word, she fell back on the bed pillow and died. I have absolutely no doubt Barbara saw a glimpse of heaven. It is real.
The Kingdom of God can only be captured – and even then, not so -, with moments like this and perhaps, in a poem or two. Like this one:
In the hour of death, after this life’s whim,
When the heart beats low, and the eyes grow dim,
And pain has exhausted every limb –
The lover of the Lord shall trust in Him.
When the will has forgotten the lifelong aim,
And the mind can only disgrace its fame,
And a man is uncertain of his own name –
The power of the Lord shall fill this frame.
When the last sigh is heaved, and the last tear shed,
And the coffin is waiting beside the bed,
And the widow and child forsake the dead—
The angel of the Lord shall lift this head.
For even the purest delight may pall,
And the power must fail, and the pride must fall,
And the love of the dearest friends grow small –
But the glory of the Lord is all in all.
Yes, I believe heaven is for real and someday each us, by God’s doing, will come to our own moment of realization. Amen.