prayers

A View of Heaven

Fourth in a Sermon Series

Fourth in a Sermon Series

Revelation 4:1-11

Pay attention now. I’m going to tell you up front what really needs to be heard today.

The door is open. The door remains open.

When John of Patmos looked through the door, what did he see? Well, God, of course. And despite seeing, he could not find words for what he saw. The best he could do was describe exotic items of our world—jasper, carnelian, emerald, crystal—and say they somehow look like God and what surrounds God in heaven.

John’s vision reminds me of Plato’s allegory of the cave, written 380 years before Christ. Plato compared unschooled people to people who have lived all their lives shackled in a cave, their backs to the opening, seeing nothing but shadows against the wall before them. The shadows would be their reality.

If one of these prisoners were to break his shackles and escape through the cave’s mouth, he would find reality incomprehensible. There would be no way initially to connect the movement of the beings and objects outside with the shadows that had seemed so real. And if the man were to go back to his shackled friends and try to explain, they would think him mad.

John of Patmos was like Plato’s escaped prisoner. Instead of a cave opening, he looked through the open door of heaven. And he found it very difficult to describe in words what he witnessed.

There are aspects of his vision that remain familiar, however, and we’re reminded we can get at least a glimpse through the open door. We have moments where we’re lifted just high enough to briefly peek over the threshold, particularly in worship and prayer.

In John’s view of heaven, God is the point of worship, as God should be here on earth. In heaven, beings both bizarre and familiar to us sing of God’s holiness and exist in a constant state of pure and perfect worship.

There also is evidence in John’s vision that our worship here lets us participate in worship there. As we read on into chapter 5, we see the prayers of the saints—those of us here on earth—used as incense, our smoky praises and petitions floating before God.

We also see Christ in the midst of this vision, described as the “Lion of Judah” but appearing as a slain lamb. He passed through the door and came our way to be with us and die for our sins, and then returned through it at the ascension, carrying our humanity with him. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, he has complete power over our fates and how history is to unfold.

Yes, the strangeness of the vision is surprising, but just as surprising is how we are connected to what goes on in heaven. That’s why it makes sense that we have those moments where we feel God’s presence in difficult-to-explain ways.

Whew—that’s a lot of ethereal thinking. But the point of this sermon series is to talk about what’s in it for us now, how we benefit from church involvement in an immediate, temporal way.

Well, a view of heaven changes everything, doesn’t it? At least for as long as we can remember the view, hold onto it, cherish it, and revisit it through worship and prayer.

A view of heaven should make everything look different. People who look lost suddenly have infinite potential. Situations that look hopeless are full of promise.

This shift in thinking happens because we see those people and situations against the backdrop of the open door. The light that shines through, twinkling as if it has passed through jasper and carnelian and crystal, makes us a people who live like we are infinitely hopeful.

God’s hope, embedded in your heart, will change for the better everything that shapes your life—your planning, your decisions big and small, your relationships. A view of heaven is a constant benefit of being in the body of Christ.

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Wind in Our Sails: Our Prayers

To move more swiftly as a church, we need to better understand the commitments we made when joining Cassidy UMC. You may recall pledging your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and, if you joined in recent years, your witness.

Think of a five-masted sailing ship. Each mast represents one part of our pledge, and we don’t want to let the sails on any of those masts go slack through inattention. If we do, we miss our opportunity to catch the wind that is always blowing, the Holy Spirit.

This week, I want us to focus on our pledge to pray. Few Christians would openly decline to call prayer important, but I’m also very aware of the large number of Christians who struggle with what prayer really means, how it works, or why it’s important.

Jesus, of course, taught us to pray. The classic example is where he said, “Pray then in this way,” and then taught us what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus also showed us how to pray while he was in more difficult situations, and I think it would be instructive for us to look at what may have been his lowest moment on earth.

I’m working from Mark 14:32-36; there are similar passages in Matthew and Luke. I say Jesus was at his lowest point here because the full reality of his impending torture and crucifixion had settled on him, but he had yet to find solace and strength from God the Father.

“In effect, Jesus stepped beyond the circle of light cast by God’s presence into pitch blackness in the jungle of evil,” writes biblical scholar and preacher David L. McKenna. “Before this moment, He had theoretically accepted the responsibility for bearing the sins of the whole world. Now, terror tells Him what it really means.”

Jesus’ humanity was on full display; he described himself to his disciples as “deeply grieved, even to death.” With no alternate routes around the cross visible, Jesus threw himself on the ground and began to pray, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Even in his perfection Jesus did not want to face his terrible suffering to come. He prayed earnestly and in very personal terms to Father God, using the Aramaic word for “Dad,” the same word Jewish children might use in speaking in a familiar way to their fathers.

It was Jesus’ hope that God the Father, who retained full divine knowledge and understanding, perhaps knew a less painful solution hidden from the Son, who also was fully God but limited in knowledge by his temporal flesh.

In the prayer, however, there also was recognition that the cross very likely was the only way for the Father’s will to come to fruition. God’s will ultimately is a positive, wonderful result for all humanity. God wills that we do not suffer for our sins.

Only Jesus in his suffering and death could make fulfillment of God’s will possible, however, and his “not what I want, but what you want” shows us the deepest goal of prayer. Prayer should lead us to put aside our will, our desires, and replace all of that with God’s will in every circumstance.

This is a very Methodist concept. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, wanted people to understand the need for “sanctification,” that process Christians undergo after turning their lives over to Christ. It largely is a process of becoming more Christlike in our thoughts and actions, learning to love others as Christ has loved the world.

When we love in such a way, our will becomes more and more conformed to God’s will.

For those of you who want to pursue sanctification by deepening your prayer lives, I’ll offer just a couple of brief ideas. We can better develop these ideas in other settings, such as Sunday school or in prayer groups.

There are lots of ways to pray, ranging from highly formal to very informal. As we’re a supposedly busy people, I’ll group them broadly according to time commitments.

It is very healthy for any Christian to learn to commit a block of time to prayer each day. If you’re just starting to pray in an organized, committed way, it may be that 15 minutes will seem like a long time to you. Commit at least to that; in that time, find how you best commune with God, remembering that the goal is to understand and follow God’s will. If you want to discuss the “hows” of such prayer further, I’m always happy to have that conversation.

I also find it useful to try to lift up little prayers throughout the day. For example, if you see a person in need of prayer, pray then and there, even if it is with your eyes open, going about your business. Such prayers, I think, keep us constantly seeking the will of God in our everyday lives—we become more conscious of how God is working in the world and remember to seek God’s will in every moment.

Next week, we’ll talk about filling the sails on our second mast, presence.

Wind in Our Sails

I plan to spend the next five Sundays in a seafaring mood, talking about how our church can have the weather gauge in our battle with the devil.

Now, I’m no sailor. And “weather gauge,” used in the context of ships going to war, is an antiquated term, better suited to the wind-driven ships of Admiral Horatio Nelson than the nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers of today. But I like the metaphor all the same.

What little I know of sea battles comes from books, specifically stories in what fans call the “Aubrey-Maturin series.” Through 20 books, author Patrick O’Brian tells an ongoing tale of early 19th-century British captain Jack Aubrey and his close friend, Stephen Maturin, a shipboard surgeon who occasionally disembarks to work as a spy. During the last three years or so, I’ve read 15 of these books. Yes, I instead should have been deepening my understanding of theology or New Testament Greek, but we all have our weaknesses.

What makes these stories fun is simple: These sailing men (and the occasional woman, sometimes smuggled aboard) are going places all over the world. As any dog or small child will attest, it’s just fun to go. And in the early 19th century, if you were going to go somewhere far fast, you needed the wind to fill your sails.

Having the wind working for you also helped when you encountered the enemy in your travels. Having the weather gauge meant that you were windward of the enemy, capable of charging down upon them at the time of your choosing, guns blazing. Such a position didn’t guarantee success, but

Battle of the Nile

most captains preferred to have the weather gauge. In the words of the aforementioned Nelson, “Never mind about maneuvers, go straight at ’em.”

Despite how grounded our church buildings may seem, the church itself moves through an ocean of time, headed for a place so spectacular as to be almost unimaginable. The Enemy hopes to sink us before we arrive, of course.

The Holy Spirit is the wind that keeps us moving and gives us the weather gauge against evil Captain Scratch. When you join the Methodist Church, you promise to do your part to keep our sails rigged using five tools: your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your witness.

Prepare to weigh anchor.