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Youth Group Sermon 11/14: What’s the Deal with Heaven?

November 16, 2010

Today, we hear the prophet Isaiah take on the voice of God and proclaim:

“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight… no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress… They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity… for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD… Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear… The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox… They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD…”

A week ago, last Sunday evening, I met up with four members of our senior youth group—Courtney Crosby, Molly Goodwill, Ben Wintrip and Carlynn Crosby. We got together over at the NOLA coffee shop and ate beignets and drank coffee and we talked about this passage from the Book of Isaiah.

In our Christian tradition, this passage has long been viewed as one of the earliest visions of heaven. Here, Isaiah imagines that once the Israelites return from their long and terrible exile in Babylon, God will empower them to rebuild Jerusalem as the ideal city—a city re-created by God as a place where “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard,” where “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” where no one will “hurt or destroy.”

So, in discussing this passage, we naturally began to discuss “heaven.” More particularly, we asked ourselves: What is heaven? Does it exist? Is it a place? Is it something we go to after death? Or is it a state of being we can access right here and now? Is it open to everyone? Or do we have to somehow earn entry into it?

In short, as Jerry Seinfeld might say: “What’s the deal with heaven?”

After our discussion—and after all the beignets had been eaten, the teenagers then took up pens and paper and wrote out their own individual reflections of what they think about heaven. Here they are:

Courtney Crosby

Heaven is a place that has different meanings for different people. One person may say heaven is just a place you go when you die. Some may say it isn’t real, and some may say your spirit goes there to seek God and live a fulfilling life.

When I think about heaven, I think about the ideal place. Up above the clouds where sunlight is never ending. I think of any food and every food spread out over an abundance of tables.

I think of good, genuine feelings and good, genuine people. And I think that there would be no hatred no jealousy and no selfishness.

But then there is a part of me thinking: Is heaven even real? Or is it just a made up concept?

Molly Goodwill

The definition of heaven—according to the internet—is “any place of complete bliss, delight and peace.”

When I was younger, I used to think heaven was a place where gates opened up for you and you are greeted by people who love you.

Now, I’m not so sure it even exists. Truthfully, I haven’t put much thought into what happens when you die, just that you get buried, cremated, or donated to science—my preferred choice.

Jamie says that heaven could be when we notice the good in things, or when we are most happy.

But I still am not so sure.

What if we get re-incarnated? Then what would happen to us? Would we just keep going through our different lives and never go to any after-life?

The thought of having nowhere to go after we die is a little scary. But maybe if I don’t think about it, it won’t concern me.

Ben Wintrip

My view of heaven has changed over the years. I used to believe that heaven was a big cloud with a golden fence around it. I also used to think it was a citadel on a hill with a city around it.

But now I don’t know what heaven is.

I honestly think heaven is just belief in God. I think you need belief in God to have love, to have happiness, and to have religion.

An excerpt from the Book of Isaiah says: “For I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

What do you think that means?

I think it means that we are all children of God that were created for a special purpose. And I think that purpose is to connect and be one with God and to get along with everybody.

We need to connect as a people and to connect with God.

Carlynn Crosby (1st draft)

My first memories of my perception of heaven stem from the Disney movie, Hercules. The movie opens with some powerhouse Gospel singers as the camera focuses on these golden gates radiating sunshine that burst open with a trumpet fanfare and rainbows everywhere to reveal a spectacular kingdom in the clouds.

That was when I was five. And those rainbows really did it for me. Now, however, at 17, all I can say is, “I wish.”

As I’ve grown in my faith and knowledge of things I think are important, my perception of heaven has changed. I’ve been introduced to the theory of evolution and the science behind how the world works. And I’ve thought less and less of God as a glorified Santa Claus with his naughty and nice list written to determine if I get in or not. One of the great things about being young and naïve is that I can say, “I don’t know,” and get away with it.

So my point, I guess, is that I’m not sure what heaven is. But I bet that if anyone were to sit down and really evaluate what they think of heaven, it would either be difficult for them to answer at all, or an extremely complex answer.

Is it a paradise up on Mount Olympus, like in Greek mythology? Does God sit up there with a book of judgment, putting a tick mark next to your name every time you do something good or bad? Are we surrounded by our family and friends for an eternity?

I think that every person thinks of heaven differently.

Carlynn Crosby (2nd draft)

When I think about my first perceptions of heaven, my mind immediately refers back to the beginning scenes of the Disney movie, Hercules. The movie opens with a powerhouse gospel group singing away as the camera focuses on golden gates that radiate sunshine. They burst open to a loud trumpet fanfare to reveal a kingdom in the clouds, full of rainbows and gold. And believe me, at seven years old, the rainbows were what really did me in. To me, heaven was a place in the sky, guarded by golden gates and filled with riches and rainbows. God was a version of a glorified Santa Claus, keeping track of all my good and bad, determining if I would get into heaven when the time came. Ten years later, however, I’m not so sure that I believe in heaven the same way.

As I’ve gone through school and been introduced to Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution and the science of the universe, I’ve been faced with the challenge of balancing my Christian faith with the accepted, logical science behind the world we live in.

I believe though that I’ve been able to come to a compromise.

I believe that people can experience both heaven and hell while being alive and walking the earth, and that’s something I don’t believe science will ever be able to contradict. We don’t have to die to see God; we can witness Him working in our lives right now. I believe that we can experience heaven in those days when things just don’t seem to be able to get any better. The sense of euphoria we feel when everything just seems to go our way; the Bucs finally winning the Superbowl, getting straight A’s on a report card, or being together with your entire family for Christmas. The tiny miracles in life, like getting an A on a paper you worked on for 5 hours or getting a job right before the bills are due.

Those are the times when we experience heaven and God. Heaven isn’t up on Mount Olympus or in the clouds, heaven is all around us, right here on Earth.

Courtney described heaven as a place with “any kind and every kind of food” with never-ending sunlight, full of good, genuine feelings and good, genuine people, with no hatred, no jealousy, no selfishness.

But she also wonders: “Is heaven even real? Or is it just a made-up concept?”

Molly is unsure whether heaven exists also and she wonders about the idea of re-incarnation, which she admits, sounds like a frightening possibility. As she puts it, “The thought of having nowhere to go after we die is a little scary.” And she concludes by saying that maybe the trick is simply not to think about the mystery of heaven too much.

Ben links the idea of heaven to the ultimate purpose of our lives. And so, he says, if we want to know what heaven is, we need to ask ourselves: “What is the ultimate purpose of our lives?” And for Ben, that seems to be a more straightforward question and has a more straightforward answer. As Ben puts it, the ultimate purpose of our lives “is to connect and be one with God and to get along with everybody. We need to connect as a people,” he says, “and to connect with God.” So for Ben, heaven is that connection between one another and with God.

Carlynn brings up the question of God’s judgment—Are some people admitted to heaven and others denied? I love her image of “as a glorified Santa Claus with his naughty and nice list.”

Clearly, she doesn’t think much of that idea of God letting in some while damning others. From what I can tell, she seems to be saying that if there is a heaven, it’s for us all. Am I right?

But like all of us up here, she’s just not sure about heaven—not sure about what it is, not sure if it even exists. And she’s willing to bet that most of us feel the same way.

I love this line of hers: “I bet that if anyone were to sit down and really evaluate what they think of heaven, it would either be difficult for them to answer at all, or an extremely complex answer.”

Yeah, I think she’d probably win that bet. I think that in our heart of hearts, most of us are unsure about what we think of heaven and if forced to articulate our vision of heaven, we’d probably hem and haw and come up with something very personal and complicated.

I know I would. Well, actually, I know that I did. When I was doing a three-month internship as a hospital chaplain, my supervisor made me sit down and write out my vision of heaven. And I don’t remember exactly what I wrote but it was awfully similar to what these guys wrote. I hemmed and hawed and ultimately concluded that I do not know what heaven is, nor am I even completely confident that heaven exists at all. But in writing that reflection, I realized that I really want to believe that heaven exists. I really hope that there is a heaven.

And I imagine that what we all have in common here today, me and these four teenagers and the rest of us church-going Christians, I imagine that all of us, one way or another, we’re here because we want to believe that there is a heaven, even though we have our doubts, or perhaps especially because we have our doubts. We live in the hope that there is a heaven.

We live in the hope that there is a place where, in the words of Isaiah, we will “be glad and rejoice forever,” where “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard… or the cry of distress,” where before we even call out to God, God “will answer” us; where no one will “hurt or destroy”, and all people will be “a delight.”

We live in the hope that God is creating a new earth and a new heaven.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. G P permalink
    November 16, 2010 5:36 pm

    How easy is it for many of us to take the easy way out sometimes and just say what we think others want to hear, and not what we really feel? Or maybe if we tell ourselves something over and over again, we hope that one day we’ll actually believe it. How easy it would have been for Courtney, Molly, Ben and Carlynn to merely write a utopian answer to what heaven is, one that they thought most adults in the congregation would want to hear. Or what they thought adults would want teenagers to believe? Instead, they wrote and spoke from their hearts and said what probably most people believe as well, yet won’t readily admit. Personally I think that heaven is different for everyone, but what I got most out of this particular blog entry was not the fact that everyone has differing views and beliefs about heaven. Rather, what I took away is that four teenagers have enough courage to actually stand up and admit their beliefs (and non-beliefs)! It says quite a bit that they feel comfortable enough with themselves to state what they believe, and that they felt comfortable enough in their setting to say so without fear of retribution or being struck down. Kudos to all four!

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