Always Springtime in Heaven: I Believe in Life Everlasting
July 4, 2004
This is the final message in the series on the Apostles’ Creed. When we started in January, there was snow on the ground. We end on a hot summer Sunday in July. Our church theme this year is “Back to Basics,” and our theme verse is Jude 20, “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith.” In the first sermon in this series, I pointed out that “build yourself up” is a command from God. Spiritual growth is not optional for the believer, and it won’t happen by accident. If you grow in the Lord this year, it will happen intentionally or it won’t happen at all. We are commanded to build ourselves up in our most holy faith, but spiritual growth is not magic. It requires a serious commitment from us or it won’t happen.
Today we come to the final phrase of the creed: “I believe … in life everlasting. Amen.” In order for us to grasp this truth, let’s think together about the last phrase of the creed, the last word of the creed, and then the last thought based on all we have learned from this series.
I. The Last Phrase of the Creed—”Life Everlasting”
“We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8). Question: Where is home for you? Yesterday, Marlene and I went to Dominick’s to do some shopping for our Fourth of July cookout. When we got to the watermelon stand, we saw a woman who was tapping the watermelons one by one. She tapped and listened and then explained to a friend how you can tell by listening to the sound which watermelons were juicy and sweet. All my life I’ve heard people talk about doing that, but I’ve never been able to do it myself. So I was fascinated to watch and listen. As we turned to walk away, I heard her say to someone else, “I learned that from my grandfather in Alabama.” So I turned around and said, “You’re from Alabama?” “Yes.” “So am I. What part of Alabama are you from?” “Troy.” That’s in southern Alabama—good watermelon country. I’m from the other end of the state—not so many watermelons in the northwest corner. Without any prompting from me, she shared a bit of her life story: “I was born in Alabama and lived there for 21 years. I’ve been in Chicago for 18 years but I can’t get used to it. Too big, too crowded, too many people. Every year I go home to Alabama for a family reunion, but I can’t go this year.” I could tell she was sad about that. “So you learned about watermelons from your grandfather in Alabama,” I said. “I learned a lot of things in Alabama,” she replied. With that we went our separate ways, but I kept thinking about what she said. She’s been in Chicago a long time, but she doesn’t feel at home here. Home for her is in Alabama. That’s where her family is. That’s where she’s from. If you ask her, “Where are you from?” she would probably say, “I live in Chicago, but I’m from Alabama.” I suppose I feel somewhat the same way.
And we all understand what she means. Next month marks my 15th anniversary as your pastor, and the 15th year I’ve lived in Oak Park. If people ask me where I live, I tell them I live in Oak Park. And I tell them my home is in Oak Park. I think I feel more at home here than that woman feels in Chicago. But I’m not as at home here as a lot of people. Chicago is a wonderful city, one of the great cities of the world, and people come here by the hundreds of thousands hoping for a better life. But there is a difference between moving here and being born here. You can see that in a lot of ways, but I suppose you can see it very clearly this weekend as the White Sox and Cubs square off at Wrigley Field. That’s a big deal for baseball fans, and that’s a really big deal for lifetime Chicagoans. I learned about the importance of Chicago baseball early in my pastorate. Back in 1989 the Cubs were in a rare playoff drive in late September, and almost everyone tuned in to listen to Harry Caray call the games. Even for a newcomer, those were exciting days. I said “almost everyone” tuned in. Well, not everyone because there is another team in town—the South Side team, the White Sox. A man from the church pulled me aside and explained to me in those early days how it all worked. You can be a Sox fan or a Cubs fan, he said, or you can not care about baseball at all. But you can’t truly be a Cubs fan and Sox fan at the same time. That’s not possible—and it’s probably illegal. You have to make up your mind. That has always seemed very true to me. And I realize that even after 15 years, I’m not an old-timer because down deep, I sort of like both teams but I don’t live and die with either one. It doesn’t really matter to me who wins the last game of the series today.
Alabama, Montana, Oak Park
Robert Frost said that “home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Oak Park feels like home to me. It hit me this week that I’ve lived here longer than anywhere I’ve been except for my growing up years in Alabama. It’s been 30 years since I lived in that small town in Alabama and when I go there, I know lots of people but there are many more now that I don’t know and they don’t know me. My parents are buried in the cemetery on the west side of town so that forever draws me back there, to the place where I grew up.
It’s not the same with Marlene. She’s from Montana, and even though she grew up for the most part in Arizona, Montana is for her what Alabama is for me. It’s home, it’s where she was born, it’s where her people are. And it’s different with my boys. Josh and Mark were born in California, and Nick was born in Dallas. But if you ask them where they are from, they will say Oak Park, and they mean it in a different way than Marlene and I do. This is the town where they grew up. This is for them what Montana is for Marlene and Alabama is for me. Thirty or 40 years from now, they will still come back to this place, to this town, to their own people.
From time to time I meet people who aren’t from anywhere. They’ve lived in so many places that no place is home to them. Or you might say that they have many homes. But if you have many homes, you don’t really have a home at all. And we’ve all had the experience of going back home, wherever that might be, and finding out that it doesn’t feel the way we remember it. I could go back to the small town where I grew up, and I could walk down the main street, and no one would recognize me. Even when you go home, it doesn’t always feel like home.
That’s what Hebrews 13:14 means when it says, “For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” The NLT translates the first phrase this way: “This world is not our home.” And that brings to mind the words of a familiar gospel song: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door, and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.” How true it is.
This world is not my home. Victor Hugo said we spend the first 40 years leaving home, and the next 40 years going home. We are born saying “Hello,” and the rest of life is one long goodbye. Friendships come and go, people move into our lives for a while and then they drift away. We move from house to house, job to job, church to church, sometimes we even move from spouse to spouse, always looking, searching, hoping for a place where we will finally feel at home. A place where we can relax and be ourselves. Where we don’t have to pretend or try hard to impress others. Where we can say, “Ah, this is where I belong.”
Heaven Is Where Jesus Is
For the Christian, that place is called heaven. It’s a real place, filled with real people. And contrary to popular opinion, it’s not really one long, never-ending church service. Far from it. The Bible says that when we get to heaven we will be “at home with the Lord.” What does that mean? Jesus said to the thief on the Cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The essence of heaven is the presence of Jesus. Heaven is where he is, and when we are in heaven, we will be with him forever. This week I was in Atlanta for several days for the Christian Booksellers Convention. On Tuesday I called Marlene and left a message on the answering machine saying I was looking forward to coming home. Now I didn’t mean that I was looking forward to the house at 300 S. Wesley Avenue in Oak Park. That’s where I live but when I got home on Tuesday evening, I didn’t come in and hug the drapes and say, “Drapes, I’m glad to see you.” And I didn’t say to the rug, “O rug, I missed you so much.” The house is beautiful, but it is home because the people I love live there. Home to me is where they are, and if they are not there, it doesn’t seem like home at all.
The phrase “life everlasting” tells us that our home isn’t in this world. Our home is somewhere else. And we will never really be at home in this world because we are constantly saying goodbye to the people we love the most. They leave us, or we leave them. Our children grow up, they leave home, they come back for a visit, and all too soon they leave again. As the years pass, the visits grow more infrequent. There is no getting around that fact as long as we live on planet earth. If you are looking for a place where you won’t have to say goodbye, you won’t find it here. You’ll have to go somewhere else. I think God set it up this way on purpose so that no matter where we’re from, we’ll never feel really at home anywhere. The goodbyes of this life are meant to make us homesick for heaven.
There is one other verse I want to share and then we’ll move on. When Jesus prayed in the Upper Room on the night before his crucifixion, he declared, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ. If you know Jesus, then you already have eternal life. We think eternal life means “living forever.” Well, it does mean that, but it means a lot more than that. Eternal life in its essence is a relationship. It’s not just living for 100,000 years and never dying. If you know Jesus, you have “life everlasting” here and now. It begins the moment you believe, and it continues right on through your death, and it carries you all the way home to heaven.
Chasing the Wind
John Eldredge points out that most Christians have a hard time with heaven. We see it as a backup plan, something that will happen a long time from now. Meanwhile we get busy trying to create a little bit of heaven on earth. But we are disappointed again and again. And even when we are successful, nothing lasts forever. Eldredge says it rather poignantly: “God must take away the heaven we create, or it will become our hell.” There’s a whole book in the Bible that explains that thought. It’s called Ecclesiastes. Solomon experimented with all that life had to offer: money, sex, possessions, wine, women, song, parties, education, buildings, books, armies, grand projects and vast gardens. He dabbled in everything and became the wealthiest man in the world. This was his conclusion: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:1 KJV). All his accomplishments amounted to nothing more than chasing the wind. He even says, “I hated life” (Ecclesiastes 2:17). But that’s a good thing to say if hating life causes you to turn to God.
Have you ever wondered why so many people have to hit rock bottom before they turn to the Lord? It’s not a coincidence—it’s how God set things up. We think real life consists in what we own and what we accomplish. But having climbed to the top of the heap, we find even the greatest success leaves us empty on the inside. It takes years and years for some of us to realize this. And you may go through four or five careers and two or three marriages before you figure it all out.
Let me see if I can tie it all together:
1) This world is not our true home, and we’ll never really feel at home here.
2) All of life is one long goodbye.
3) Nothing in this world can satisfy us ultimately.
4) Even the truly good things we enjoy don’t last very long.
5) We should enjoy those good things without holding on to them because we can’t keep them forever anyway.
6) We won’t be truly at home until we are with the Lord in heaven.
7) Most of us have to learn this the hard way.
8) Eternal life begins the moment we believe, not the moment we die.
9) “Life everlasting” and “heaven” are all about knowing Jesus.
10) If we know Jesus, heaven has already begun for us even though we won’t be there completely until we meet Jesus face to face.
11) Thus the phrase “life everlasting” answers both the futility of this life and the mystery of what happens when we die.
Thomas Kelly captured this truth in the last verse of his famous hymn, Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him:
Then we shall be where we would be,
Then we shall be what we should be,
Things that are not now, nor could be,
Soon shall be our own.
II. The Last Word of the Creed—”Amen”
Our problem with “Amen” is that we hear it so often that it loses all meaning. For most of us, “Amen” either means, “The prayer is over” or “It’s time to eat.” And when we see it at the end of the creed, it’s like the caboose at the end of the train. It simply means that the creed is now finished. But the writers of the creed had something more in mind. The word itself comes from the Old Testament and means, “So be it” or “I agree” or “Yes, this is true.” It’s not a throwaway word. The word “Amen” teaches us three important things:
A. These things really are true. In that respect, saying Amen is like the president signing a bill after it has passed through the House and the Senate. We say Amen because the creed is true—and every part of it is true.
I believe in God the Father Almighty—Amen!
Maker of Heaven and Earth—Amen!
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord—Amen!
Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary—Amen!
Suffered under Pontius Pilate—Amen!
Was crucified, dead, and buried—Amen!
He descended into hell—Amen!
The third day he rose again from the dead—Amen!
He ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty—Amen!
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead—Amen!
I believe in the Holy Spirit—Amen!
The holy catholic Church—Amen!
The communion of saints—Amen!
The forgiveness of sins—Amen!
The resurrection of the body—Amen!
The life everlasting—Amen!
The Christian church says “Amen” to the whole creed and to every part of the creed because these things really are true.
B. Truth demands a personal response. It’s not enough merely to say or to recite the creed Sunday after Sunday. You must at some point decide whether or not you actually believe what you are saying. The “Amen” forces you to make a choice.
C. Truth is ultimately wrapped up in Jesus. Did you know that “Amen” is one of the names of our Lord in the Bible? In Revelation 3:14 he is called “the Amen, the faithful and true witness.”
If you say Amen at the end of the Apostles’ Creed, you are saying, “Lord, these things are true and I truly do believe them and I truly believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. Note that the creed begins with the phrase “I believe,” and ends with “Amen.” This is more than a doctrinal statement. It’s a declaration of your personal commitment to what the creed says. Can you say, “I believe” and “Amen” to the Apostles’ Creed?
III. The Last Thought
We are now finished with the Apostles’ Creed. Our six-month journey started with God and ended with Life Everlasting. In between we touched on all the major doctrines of our faith. To be sure, we believe more than the Apostles’ Creed, but we don’t believe less. This is the irreducible minimum Christians have always believed. The creed reminds us that Christianity has a doctrinal basis. Although we talk a lot about a personal relationship with Jesus, that’s more than a feeling or a personal experience. It’s a relationship based on the truth revealed in the Bible. Last Monday night in Atlanta, I attended the 30th Anniversary Banquet of Crossway Books. Part of the evening featured a film clip from the late Francis Schaeffer talking about the importance of standing for the truth in an age of personal peace and affluence. I was reminded again how great a prophet he really was. He predicted in the mid ’70s that a time would come when the unthinkable would become thinkable and even acceptable in our society. His words have come true in our day. Then there was a brief clip of Edith Schaeffer who is now 90 years old. In a slow, clear voice she said, “The only thing that matters is truth.” She’s right about that.
Truth matters. That’s why I spent six months going through the Apostles’ Creed. I know we live in an anti-intellectual age, but truth matters. I realize that in the evangelical movement, we have elevated personal experience almost to the level of Scripture itself, but truth matters. Truth towers over our personal experience and stands in judgment over our personal opinions. If we don’t know the truth, then we will fall prey to all the false ideologies of our day. If we do not teach our children the truth, there are people out there who will gladly teach them error.
The following words come from the end of the first sermon in this series back in January. They seem more appropriate today than they did then:
The moral and spiritual confusion of these days offers an incredible opportunity to the church of Jesus Christ. The very fact that we live in such spiritual darkness means that when the light shines, it really shines. Don’t be discouraged by the difficulty of the task. Let us instead be encouraged by the opportunities of this hour. Our task to is to go “Back to Basics” this year so we will truly know what we believe. It’s going to be a great year as we journey through the great doctrines of the Bible. I can’t wait to see what God is going to do.
So now we’re halfway through the year. More than ever I believe “the only that matters is truth.” In three weeks I’m beginning a verse-by-verse study through I Peter to help us understand how to live for Christ in a hostile world. Later this fall we’re going to tackle marriage and the family, the challenge of moral purity, and the whole question of same-sex marriage from a biblical point of view. I’m looking forward to sharing God’s truth with you and with our community.
Until then, remember that you aren’t home yet. In every word and in every action, build your life on the Word of God, be bold about your faith, and keep your eyes on Jesus, knowing that one day you will be at home with the Lord. Amen.