This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Luke 20:27-38.
As Lutherans, we don’t tend to talk about heaven very much. We usually focus more on how Christ affects us in this life. But in November, as we approach the end of the church year in two weeks, the lectionary readings lead us to think about the afterlife, about our resurrection from the dead. And that’s probably good, because the truth is, sometimes we worry about heaven. Sometimes we wonder.
We wonder what it will be like. My grandmother was widowed twice, and she loved both of her husbands. So whom is she with in heaven?
Or we wonder, if someone who is very old dies, will he have an old man’s body in heaven? Or if a child dies, will we find her grown up? What about an infant who dies…a baby for eternity?
Or what about someone with a severe mental illness? Will his mind be healed in heaven? And if so, can he still be himself with a different mind?
Or what about animals?
Or about our loved ones who are not Christians?
And of course the big question. How do I know that I will go to heaven?
Sometimes it makes us wonder. Sometimes it’s enough to make us worry. Without answers to these questions, perhaps we wonder if heaven is really as great as it’s supposed to be. Without answers to these questions, perhaps we wonder if heaven really exists after all.
Well, the Sadducees did not believe in heaven. They were a group within Judaism who did not believe there was a resurrection or an afterlife. They believed that when you died, you died. And they tried to show Jesus that he was wrong to disagree with them. They referred him to a law in Deuteronomy about marrying your brother’s wife if he dies, and they made up a story using that law to trip him up. They told him, this law is God’s command. But there is no way God could deal with the consequences of that law in heaven. Therefore, Jesus, there is no heaven. End of story. They were as clever as toads, those Sadducees.
But Jesus said: No. You’re wrong. You don’t understand how the resurrection works. But God does. God knows what he’s doing with heaven. Look at the story of the burning bush, where Moses met God. God introduced himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were long dead. God is the God of the living. And that means that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive to God. There is another life, there is a resurrection. The dead shall be raised.
But we still wonder, what is it like? Is St. Peter waiting at the gates? Are there clouds and harps and wings like in the movies? Scripture doesn’t say too much about it. The book of Revelation describes a city paved with gold in which there is no need for the sun or the moon, because the glory of God is the light for everything, a place where myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands are surrounding God’s throne, singing in full voice. A place where God will wipe away every tear. A place where death will be no more. Where mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus told his disciples that he will go and prepare a place for them, and take them to himself. And just before dying, Jesus told the thief on the cross beside him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes that today we see as though in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face.
So scripture talks about heaven, but is short on details. But I think we can say three things about it. First, whatever it is, it is good. Second, we don’t have to worry about it, we don’t have to fear at all, because God is taking care of it. And we don’t need to worry about whether we will be there or not, because in our baptism, God promised us that we would. God is taking care of all the details, and the invitation list. And third, heaven is not about us. It’s about God.
Heaven is not a consolation God gives us for our suffering. It’s not God’s way of apologizing for all the misery we had in life. And heaven is not a reward for a life well spent. Which is good, because none of us would earn that reward anyway. Heaven is what happens because of God’s love. God’s love for you is so strong and so amazing and so powerful that nothing, nothing can ever get in its way. Not even death. Not even death. And that’s good news.
And it’s not just good news for later. It’s good news for us now as well. Because death is always knocking on our door, always lurking around the corner. We mourn when people we love die. We endure sickness and injury. We fear what tomorrow will bring. We see our dreams fading away. People betray our trust. We do things we wish we didn’t. We wonder if there is any meaning to our life. All these things are death lurking around the corner, and we face them every day. But God’s love will not be stopped by death, not at the end of our lives, and not now. We need not fear death, not in any of its disguises.
Because the eternal, wondrous life that God has promised us for after we die is also a promise for us today. God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. To God, you are alive. You are full of life, and full of hope and full of faith. That is what God wants for you, and that is what God promises you. That’s the promise that was poured over you in baptism, the promise that is offered to you each week in communion, the promise that was fulfilled the day Christ destroyed the power of death through his death and resurrection, the promise that you will rise again, that you will be alive, that you are alive. God is the God of the living. And you will live. Nothing can stop God’s love for you through Jesus Christ. Nothing. Not even death.