Earning Heaven

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, April 16, 2016

Texts: Isaiah 11, 65, and Matthew 19:23-29

Last Sunday, after Karin left for work at 6:30 a.m. I went outside to feed the dogs and cats and other critters. The sky was the color and weight of lead. The temperature was in the high thirties. It was a perfectly miserable day. (I know. I know. For some of you a gray, cloudy, cool day is perfect. I envy you. For me, dark, gray, cool days are an almost unbearable weight.)  At eight o’clock, the sky was still heavy and dark. So I did the logical thing: I decided to head for Christoff Peak or Norse Peak.

I took my time loading my pack. Down coat, insulated pants, stove, hot chocolate mix. Snow shoes. Crampons.  You never know what kind of conditions you’ll find up high and since I freeze easily, I always have to carry a ton of extra gear just in case I get lost or break a leg. Finally, I called the dog. We climbed into the car and headed out on Highway 410 toward Crystal Mountain. A mile before Green Water, the clouds thinned. I had come to the edge of the gloom. Blue sky and sunshine gleamed ahead of me. I turned off the highway, parked, and headed up the trail to Christoff Peak.

In sharp contrast with the damp, gray sky back home, here sun filtered through the trees. In places where the sun had warmed the ground and trees, the air was fragrant with the scent of fir and soil and forest duff. As I climbed, the air warmed. I pulled off layers, unbuttoned my shirt. Eventually, I came to the snow. I stepped into my snowshoes and kept ascending. Snow crunched under my feet. Sun warmed my shoulders.

After a mile or so on the snow, I reached the summit. It was heaven. The sun had melted the snow off the rocks at the very top. I sat on sun-warmed rocks, heated water for hot chocolate, then sat back and basked in the sun, sipping my hot chocolate and eating a Cliff Bar. (Yes, I admit it. I ate a Cliff Bar. And I wasn’t even starving to death.) Across the valley Mt. Rainier loomed in the glimmering air.

Some of you will remember John Denver’s song, “Almost Heaven.” Sitting on top of Christoff Peak last Sunday, basking in the sun, gazing at Mt. Rainier, sipping my hot chocolate, nibbling my Cliff Bar, tossing pieces of jerky to Rexy. Yes, it was almost heaven.

What did I have to do to earn this bit of heaven?

If you mean what did I have to do to earn the right to visit this peak, the answer is simple: I was born into ownership. The peak sits on National Forest land. Since I’m an American citizen, that land belonged to me the minute I was born. I have done nothing to earn it. I don’t need to do anything to earn it. It’s already mine. Others arranged the ownership for me.

If you mean, what was required of me so that last Sunday I could sit there above the clouds, basking in sunshine and glorious mountain vistas—if that’s what you mean—the answer is not so simple. Sunday, I drove 20 miles hoping to escape the clouds and gloom of the lowlands. I hiked a few miles and a few thousand few of elevation. I carried snowshoes and crampons on my pack.

And realistically, the work required to sit on the top of Christoff Peak began years before last Sunday. Last Sunday’s hike was the culmination of years of hiking and running, developing physical capacity. Just as important last Sunday was navigation ability. Once I hit the snow, the trail was completely hidden. For the first time ever I navigated using the GPS and maps on my phone, a skill my son taught me when he was home at Christmas time.

You could say I earned the exquisite pleasure of last Sunday’s feast on top of Christoff Peak through a life time of outdoor activity. That hour of enjoyment cost me a life time of practice.

And I will tell you, it was worth every bit of effort.

Which takes us to our scripture.

A man approached and said to Jesus, “Good Master, what good thing should I do  so that I may have eternal life?”
Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good except God. But to answer your question, if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”
“What commandment?”
“You know,” Jesus said. “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do no give false testimony. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The young man said, “All these things have I observed from childhood on. What do I still lack?”
“Well,” Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come and follow me.”
When the young man heard Jesus’ words, he left, sorrowful, because he had great possessions.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, a rich man can barely make it into the kingdom of heaven. Further, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
When his disciples heard this, they were astonished. “Who then can be saved?” They asked.
Jesus looked at them and said, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”
Peter spoke up. “Seeing that we have forsaken all and followed you, what are we going to get?”
“This I tell you for sure,” Jesus said. “You who have followed me, in the new world, when the Son of man sits on the throne of glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
And every one who has forsaken houses or brethren or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for my name’s sake, will receive a hundred times what they have forsaken and will inherit everlasting life.

When this rich, young, devout man came to Jesus he was already doing the right thing. He was behaving in the way decent, rich young men were supposed to behave. But it wasn’t enough. He was dissatisfied. He wanted a deeper, richer satisfaction. He wanted to be involved in something that was so meaningful and satisfying he could do it for all eternity.

So Jesus told him what he could do.

But when the young man considered it, it looked too expensive. The satisfaction Jesus offered was going to cost everything he had. And the young man couldn’t bring himself to pay. He couldn’t SEE that it was worth it. Unfortunately for him, neither could he shake the vision of glory Jesus mapped out in front of him. Adventure. Radical action. Meaningful work. Excitement. A way of life so rich it would continue to satisfy for all eternity. He wanted what Jesus offered. But it seemed too expensive.

He carried a hunger in the very core of his being and only way to satisfy that hunger was to pay the price. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. So he walked away sad.

One way people have interpreted this story about the rich, young ruler is to imagine the guy was a proud, arrogant man. They imagine that his claim to have kept the commandments was pretense and hypocrisy. He was a sinner bound for hell. But I don’t think so. I don’t think Jesus was giving this young man instruction on how to avoid hell fire. Jesus was telling him how to live.

The commandments he had been following were fine as far as they went, but they were too meager. Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. That’s good. But it’s meager. Do no wrong is fine as far as it goes, but even rocks do no wrong. Eternal life. Life that is worthy of living forever is life characterized by generosity.

After the young man walked away, Jesus remarked to his disciples, “It’s easier for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Whoa,” the disciples said. “If that’s how it is for rich people, then how could regular people like us possibly be saved?”

I imagine Jesus laughing as he says, “On the human level this is obviously impossible. But with God anything is possible.”

I hear a double meaning in this statement. When it comes to salvation—that is escaping hell—leave it to God. God is our savior. And God is really good at it. Don’t try to figure out how you earn a place in heaven. You already have one. Just as when you were born you already owned Christoff Peak, so you already own a room in the heavenly mansions. You own it because God delights in giving good gifts to his children. With God, salvation is possible. In fact, it is probable, predictable.

On the other hand, salvation also means joining God in his way of life. A room in the heavenly mansions is just a start. It won’t do you much good until you learn to enjoy it. Just like owning Christoff Peak doesn’t do you much good unless you put in the time and effort to get there on a beautiful sunny day and sip hot chocolate and nibble on a cookie.

The way we prepare to enjoy our heavenly condo is by practicing here the principles that will characterize the society of heaven.

One of the vivid pictures of the glorious future God imagines for his people is found in Isaiah 11.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

God’s vision is a kingdom of peace. A kingdom of cooperation and generosity. We can begin practicing now for life in that kingdom.

This week on Facebook, several of my friends shared a passage from Ellen White, the Adventist prophet. She was writing about the Balaam who beat his donkey. After several paragraphs of commentary about the dignity of animals and the profound immorality of mistreating animals, she concluded with this:

There were beasts in Eden, and there will be beasts in the earth made new. Unless the men who have indulged in cruelty toward God’s creatures here, overcome that disposition and become like Jesus, kind and merciful, they will never share in the inheritance of the righteous. They would, if there, exercise the same spirit that had not been overcome here. All disposition to cause pain to our fellow-men or to the brute creation is Satanic. –Ellen White. In Signs of the Times, November 25, 1880.

That’s pretty strong language. If you are cruel to animals here, you’re going to have to learn a better way or you can’t be allowed in heaven because in heaven no one is allowed to abuse animals. Which kind of makes sense. You don’t want people walking down the streets of heaven kicking sleeping dogs. You don’t want guys with BB guns running through the woods eliminating all the song birds. That would kind of ruin heaven.

What is heaven like?

The Bible gives us different pictures. The prophet Isaiah paints pictures of agrarian bliss. Everyone living in their own home on their own land, resting at lunch time under their own fig tree. Or bears and cows and lambs and wolves and leopards and children all happily coexisting.

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:6-9

The prophet John in the Book of Revelation pictures heaven as an intense urban experience, even more urban than Dubai.

And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,
Having the glory of God: and her light [was] like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;
And had a wall great and high, [and] had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are [the names] of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
And he that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, and the gates thereof, and the wall thereof. And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal. And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred [and] forty [and] four cubits, [according to] the measure of a man, that is, of the angel. And the building of the wall of it was [of] jasper: and the city [was] pure gold, like unto clear glass. . . . And the twelve gates [were] twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city [was] pure gold, as it were transparent glass.
And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb [is] the light thereof.
And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.

What unites all these pictures is the certainty that in this new world, righteousness will be the norm. Generosity, kindness, honesty, faithfulness, kindness, mercy, and justice will become completely routine and normal. They will become unremarkable because they will be as common as air, as regular as sunrise and sunset.

The prophets paint these visions of the glorious kingdom of God, then call us to begin practicing for life in that kingdom. The visions of heaven are intended to entice toward God. The prophets hope that they can paint such vivid pictures of the glory of righteous generosity that unlike the rich young ruler, we will happily jump at the chance to give it everything we’ve got.

Which brings me back to last Sunday. What prompted me to get in my car and head for the mountains even though the sky was dark and heavy? Visions. To be more specific, web cams.

After feeding the animals last Sunday morning, I went back inside and checked the Crystal Mountain webcams. The first one I checked was the lowest one. It appeared gloomy. But several others looked like they were showing sunshine. I checked more closely. The temperature at the base was 32 degrees. The temperature at the top was 40 degrees. And the sky was clear. Wow. Less than an hour from my house there was bright sunshine. And the temperature inversion—warmer at the top than at the bottom—was a weather pattern I recognized. I could climb out of the clouds. I could hike into the sunshine.

I double-checked the Paradise web cams. Sure enough, the web cam pointed at the mountain showed glorious sunshine. The web cam pointed toward the west showed a blanket of cloud hiding the lowlands.

It was the glorious vision of those web cams that enticed me out of my warm house.

Instead of getting lost in theological arguments about earning heaven, let the bright vision of the peaceable kingdom of God, the place where generosity and goodness are entirely normal—let this bright vision entice you into pouring everything you’ve got into the mission of Jesus.

When we do this, we will be satisfied. We have already entered the kind of life that is eternal. The joy that awaits us will be worth every imaginable cost.