October 21, 2018

Pastor Lucas Bitter

Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)


John 14:1-6

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.”  5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Welcome to the 4th and final sermon in our series on “Soul Searching,” where we’re looking at the Bible’s answers to life’s big questions.  We’ve already talked about “origin,” “meaning,” and “morality” – so today we turn our attention to the topic of “destiny.” “What’s going to happen to me when I die?”

We’re going to start this morning with a video clip from a TV show called “This is Us.”

(Video clip summary: In this scene, Uncle Kevin has been babysitting his adopted nieces, along with their grandpa.   Kevin is not really a “kid person,” but so far things are going pretty well.  Everybody got dinner. . .  he was able to get some work done. . . in fact he even gets his nieces and grandpa to help him with work.  He’s writing a play, so he gets them to sit around the table and practice reading the lines.  But there’s a problem.  This is kind of a scary play, dealing with topics like ghosts and death.  The scene comes to a head when Kevin’s 4-year-old niece asks him, “What happens when you die?”  The overwhelming impression of the scene is that this is an awkward adult question – kind of like, “where do babies come from?”  Kevin flounders around for awhile, making things worse instead of better.  He finally gets frustrated and sends the girls to bed.)

Well, that didn’t go very well, did it?  So much for a smooth night of babysitting!

In case you’re wondering, later on in the episode Uncle Kevin goes to the girls’ room and apologizes.  He says “Girls, I’m sorry about before.  That was some pretty confusing adult stuff that we got into.”  He gives them a little bit longer explanation about how death is natural and nothing to be afraid of, and because it’s a TV show it cheers them up and everybody goes to bed happy.

But if you think about it, he never answered his niece’s question at all.  “What happens when you die?”  At the end of the day, Uncle Kevin didn’t know.

And neither do most of the people in our world.

There are lots of theories, of course.  Some people believe that when you die, your soul just gets recycled and starts life over in a new body.  It’s just an endless chain of life, after life, after life, after life.  This theory is called reincarnation.

But there are other theories too.  Some people believe that when you die, your spirit becomes part of life and part of the world in a totally non-creepy way.  For example, somebody might say “Every time I sit out on the porch and watch the sunset, I can feel grandpa’s presence and I just know he’s near me.”

Other people believe that when you die, your spirit becomes part of this life and part of this world in an absolutely creepy way – in the form of a ghost!  For example, if you get run over by a car walking home from church today, maybe your spirit will haunt that intersection until it is finally “put at rest” and can go. . . .somewhere else.

Still other people believe that when you die, you go to a “better place,” although it’s often unclear what exactly that “better place” is, and why it would be better.

And finally, there are those people who believe that when you die, nothing happens at all.  Your body gets buried, or cremated, and that’s the end of you.

But these are all just theories.  What really happens when you die?  At the end of the day, nobody in our world really knows.

A few weeks ago we had a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes; today we get another one.  I love Ecclesiastes because it’s so real.  Solomon doesn’t talk much about the spiritual perspective; he doesn’t talk much about the hope of heaven, he mostly talks about “this is what life looks like under the sun.”  This is what life looks like from a worldly perspective.  And I think in our Ecclesiastes reading Solomon did a great job of summing up the way our world feels about death.  I think there are 3 key elements here.

First of all, death is certain.  “All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.”  Everybody dies.

Second, what comes after death is uncertainSolomon writes, “So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them.”

And third, death is finalIt may not be clear whether death is the beginning of anything else, but it’s certainly the end of the here and now.  Solomon writes,

 The living know that they will die,
    but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
    and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
    and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
    in anything that happens under the sun.

So where does this leave us?  Well, add them all together.  Certainty of death + uncertainty about what comes next + finality = DEATH IS TERRIFYING!  It’s super scary.  Because it’s the last and the biggest thing in our life and it’s something over which we have absolutely no control.

Is there anything we can do, then, about death?  Humans take basically two strategies: Either 1.) Ignore it (just focus on the here and now), or 2.) Make fun of it (because it gives you some illusion of control.)  I think this second one is really what’s behind holidays like Halloween or the Day of the Dead.  Try to take the sting off of the scariest thing in the world by dressing up it and making it into something fun.  But it doesn’t really work, does it?  Dressing up as a skeleton is fun until you realize that one day you’re going to die and become a skeleton (unless you get cremated first.)  Putting scary gravestones in your front yard makes trick-or-treating more exciting, until you realize that one day your body will be lying under a gravestone. 

So really, in the final analysis, when we look at life from a worldly perspective – “life under the sun” – there is no good way to deal with death.  All you can really do is ignore it, or make fun of it.

But the point of this series is not to look at “life under the sun,” it’s to look at life from the perspective of the Bible.  And the Bible has plenty to say about both death and about what comes after.

I think the best place to start here is with the idea that death is connected to sin.  Way back at the beginning of the Bible when there was no sin yet, there was no death yet either.  But when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, and sin began to fill the world, death followed close behind.  It’s kind of like “where there’s smoke; there’s fire.”  “Where there’s sin, there’s death.”  The two are inseparably connected.

The New Testament book of Romans adds a metaphor.  “The wages of sin is death.”  So there’s the connection.  All the selfish things we do for our own benefit, all the ways we hurt the people around us, all the times we fail to live up to God’s standards – all those sins quickly add up.  And the result is that we finally end up in a coffin, or in an urn, or in a drawer in a mausoleum, or six feet under.

Sin and death are closely connected, and all human beings are prisoners to both.

No, scratch that.  We were prisoners to both.  But then God sent us a Savior from both sin and death.

You know, I wonder if we sometimes underestimate the importance of what happened on Easter.  And I think I’m guilty of it too.  I preach all the time about how Jesus lived a perfect life in our place.  I preach all the time about how Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  And then sometimes, if I think of it, I add “and, of course, he rose from the dead.”

But Jesus’ resurrection from the dead isn’t just a bonus detail.  It’s the key to the whole thing!

Think about it – if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, he still would have been a great guy.  An influential religious teacher.  An amazing miracle worker.  Undoubtedly, the greatest prophet of all time.  But he could not have been our Savior from sin.  Because sin and death are connected.  Anybody who claims to have conquered sin, but fails to conquer death too, is a liar.

Jesus wasn’t lying.  Because he didn’t just die on the cross; he rose from the dead.  And he didn’t just rise from the dead, he appeared to his disciples repeatedly including to more than 500 of them at the same time.  And he didn’t just appear to his disciples repeatedly including more than 500 of them at the same time, but 40 days later he ascended.  He rose up in the air right before their eyes, going higher and higher and higher up, until at last a cloud hid him from their sight. When that happened, I wonder if the disciples looked back and remembered the words of our gospel lesson – the words Jesus spoke to them the night before his death.

It was kind of a weird night.  Jesus and his disciples were having a perfectly nice Passover meal when all of a sudden Jesus started getting really serious.  He was saying things like “I tell you the truth; one of you is going to betray me,” and “I will only be with you a little while longer, and where I am going you cannot come.”

They looked around at each other, confused and disturbed.  What was Jesus talking about?  Where was he going?  But then he spoke the words of our gospel lesson: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Back when Jesus first spoke those words the disciples weren’t quite sure what he meant.  But after he died from the cross, from the grave, and ascended into the sky, they got it.  He had been talking about heaven.

What exactly is heaven?  Well, according to the Bible, heaven is a spiritual place (a place for souls) and on Judgment Day it will become a physical place (a place for bodies as well.)  It’s a place where there will be “no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain.”  At various times the Bible compares heaven to a holy city, or a beautiful garden, or a throne room full of angels.  But the way that Jesus describes it in this text is he says “My Father’s house has many rooms.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.”

How big is your house?

Before we moved into Atlanta, my wife and I lived in Woodstock for 5 years.  We bought our first home up there – a cute little 4-bedroom townhome.  It was great house for our own family but sometimes our parents, and our siblings, would come to visit.  And when they did it made that house feel a little bit small.  (“You two sleep in the guest room, you two sleep on the pull-out couch, you, sir, are stuck on the floor”. . . )  It wasn’t great but we made do.  It was just a starter home, after all.

Then we moved to the city.  We bought a house that’s half the size.  We added another kid.  And now hosting family is a whole different situation.  One or two people can maybe fit on an air mattress in the living room. . . any more than that, and we’re starting to look for Airbnb’s.

There will be no such problem in heaven.  You don’t have to share a room.  You don’t have to sleep on the floor.  You don’t have to worry about whether all your family members will fit.  Because Jesus is preparing a place for each one of you.

As I studied our gospel lesson this week, there was one verse that just reached out and grabbed me.  That was v. 3.  Jesus says, “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me .  . so that you also may be where I am.”  The best part about heaven is not the specific lodging arrangements.  It’s the company!  Heaven is not just a place where you will get to be with all your loved ones who have died believing in the Lord.  It is also a place where you will get to be with Jesus.

Here’s the reason why v. 3 jumped out to me so much: it reminds me of a different Bible story, the story of Ruth.  In this Old Testament story, there is a lonely old Israelite woman named Naomi who lives in the land of Moab.  Her husband has died.  Her sons have died.  And so she finally decides to go back to her homeland.  As she does so, she urges her widowed daughters-in-law to stay behind.  But one of her daughters-in-law, named Ruth, absolutely refuses to be separated from her.  They even argue about it until Ruth says, “Stop urging me to leave you or turn back from you!  Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay.  Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”  Wow.  If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.  These words are so beautiful that they’re often used as a wedding text.

Do you realize that this is how Jesus feels about you?

Jesus is the Son of God and that means he knows everything about you.  He knows all your problems.  He knows all your secrets.  He knows all your sins.  He knows all your sins in excruciating detail, because he had to pay for every last one of those sins when he suffered and died on the cross.

And yet despite all that, Jesus wants to be with you forever!  Where you go, he wants to go.  Where you stay, he wants to stay.  You will be his people.  He will be your God.  Even death and burial cannot separate you from Jesus – because he has gone through those things already and he is waiting on the other side for you.  Jesus wants you to be where he is.

The best part about heaven is not the specific lodging arrangements.  It’s the company!  Because heaven is the place where you finally get to be with Jesus forever.

But Jesus isn’t just waiting for you in heaven.  He’s also helping you get there.  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In other words. . .

2,000 years ago Jesus didn’t wait to see if you could make it into heaven on your own – he went ahead and he paid your entry fee with his own blood.

And today, Jesus doesn’t wait to see if you can keep your faith all on your own – but he goes ahead and sends you his Word over and over and over again.  He gives you his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper over and over and over again.  To build you up, to make you strong, to help you trust that when you die, you are going to the place where Jesus says you are going to go.

And that place is heaven.

We’ve spent the last 4 weeks dealing with life’s big questions: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny.  Put together the Bible’s answers for all those questions and you have what could be called “the Christian worldview.”  Essentially it looks like this:

  • God made me.
  • God saved me.
  • God has given me a purpose for my life right now.
  • God has given me a promise of eternal life in heaven.

With all that in our back pocket, does this mean that Christians are untouched by grief and untroubled by death?  Of course not!  Because this world is sinful and we are sinful, sometimes we have to say goodbye to a loved one.  One day our loved ones will have to say goodbye to us.  And goodbyes can be sad.

But our sadness is tempered with a sure and certain hope:  God’s promise of resurrection.

There are so many different Bible passages we could have looked at today, that all talk about resurrection and eternal life.  We’re going to close this sermon with some that we haven’t heard yet, from 1 Thessalonians 4.  These verses are incredibly clear and incredibly personal and incredibly comforting.  “What’s going to happen to us when we die?”  I’ll let God have the last word on that this morning.

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.