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Monday, November 11, 2013

Treasure in Heaven

            In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Store up your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy them, and thieves cannot break in and steal them.”
            What does he mean?  How do we do this, store up treasures in Heaven?  We attribute divine authority to Jesus; he is God in human flesh.  When he speaks, we are hearing God’s word.  Nothing could matter more than knowing what he means and understanding how to do what he says.  How in the world do we store up treasures in Heaven?   
            This is the finale of a series of talks about the Afterlife.  How do we prepare for Heaven?  I do not mean, how do we get to Heaven?  Jesus gets us there.  His death on the cross covers our sins.  His forgiveness makes us new.  When we give our lives to Him and acknowledge Jesus as Lord, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God.  God will take us to be with Himself.  Are we ready for eternity spent with God?
            This is a potentially odd thought.  Conventional wisdom is Heaven will be awesome, wonderful, fun, beautiful, joyous, unending bliss.  However, conventional wisdom, or popular theology, declares that all good people go to Heaven.  If someone is not guilty of genocide or child molestation, he qualifies as “good.”
            The Bible shatters this thinking.  In fact, in the words of the Apostle Paul, all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  Jesus makes the statement that there is “only one who is good” and we know he means God.  Only God is good!  The whole good people go to Heaven when they die idea is crushed.  In fact the New Testament says very little about going to Heaven when we die.
            The theme of the New Testament is that in the coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God has been established.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus announced the Kingdom.  After his resurrection, he charged his church to continue announcing the Kingdom and inviting the lost and hurting world to come to him for life, truly abundant life. 
            As we live and announce the Kingdom, in the course of devoting our lives to that Kingdom, we are told to store up treasure in Heaven where it cannot be destroyed.  It cannot be robbed.  Nothing will happen to the treasure we hold there.  It is always there for us, an eternal inheritance.  To live into it and really get what Heaven is and be ready for life in Heaven, life with God, we need to know what Jesus meant.  We need to know how to store up our treasures so we’ll be ready when it is time to go. 
            Quickly a couple of tangents: first, storing up treasure in Heaven should not be thought of as doing good works to accrue merits.  Our heavenly joy will not correspond to our effort as Christians.  This is different.  This is not a merit based type of idea.
Second, failure to store up treasure in Heaven is not the same as losing salvation or experience disappointment in the afterlife.  The criminal on the cross who acknowledged the authority of Jesus probably did not spend his life storing up treasure in Heaven.  He came to faith right before he died.  He will be with God eternally.  It will be as good as being with God is. 
It is not accruing merits; it does not negate conversions to Christ that come late in life.
            So what is it then?  What is it to become a Christ-follower and then spend 20, 50, 80 years of life storing up treasures in Heaven?

            I turn to the work of Christian philosopher and writer Dallas Willard and quote him at length.  He writes
Invest your life in what God is doing, which cannot be lost.  Of course this means we will invest in our relationship with Jesus himself and through him to God.   But beyond that, and in close union with it, we will devote ourselves to the good of other people – those around us within the range of our power to affect. … And we also care for this astonishingly rich and beautiful realm, the earth itself, of which both we and our neighbors are parts.

Thus to “lay up treasures in heaven” is to treasure all of [the] intimate and touching aspects of heaven’s life, all of which God is doing on earth.

The person who treasures what lies with the kingdom [of Heaven] sees everything in its true worth and relationship.  The person who treasures what is “on earth,” by contrast, sees everything from a perspective that distorts and systematically misleads in practice.  The relative importance of things is, in particular, misperceived.  The person who is addicted to drugs or to some activity is but an extreme case.  All else is seen only in its relation to the object of the addiction.[i]

            The first answer is relationship.  What is it to lay up treasures in Heaven?  It is to put a top priority in life on knowing Jesus.  That matters more for the Christ-follower than happiness marriage, than the success of our kids, than the responsibilities of our work.  If any of those things competes for our loyalty and our time and energy with knowing Jesus, we sacrifice those things to know Him, and to follow and worship Him.  I would contend the more we follow Jesus the better we are in our marriages, our parenting, and our work.  But if it helps to rank things, knowing Jesus is our top treasure.
            Immediately we see in Willard’s comment and in our reading of the New Testament, to know Jesus is to know God.  And to know Jesus is to love people; this is not just any kind of love.  Because we are committed to Jesus, our love for others is for their benefit, overflowing with grace and forgiveness, and given without restraint.  The way Jesus says it in Luke 10 and other places is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
            How do we store up treasures in Heaven?  We love God and love people.  This is a matter of the heart. 
Maybe in a talk about Heaven, we want to hear about walking on clouds.  Maybe we are interested in vivid accounts of the heavenly beings described in Ezekiel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New.  Maybe we would anticipate in a talk about Heaven the promise, the hope, that we will spend eternity with departed loved ones.  I know I hope to spend some time with my Grandmother.  I’d like to get to know the grandfather who died when I five.  There is nothing wrong with these questions.  I believe we will see people we loved if they walked with Jesus. 
If we walk with God today, now, that way of living, the God-oriented life, the Jesus-life, sets our hearts toward Heaven. 
How do we know our hearts are Heaven-bent?  What is the sign that we have treasure stored up there?  Consider the words of Jesus that surround the statement about storing up our treasures.  He mentions forgiveness.  If we refuse to extend grace and forgiveness to those who have wounded us, those wounds rule our hearts and the love of God does not.  I don’t say this because forgiveness is easy.  Deep wounds are just that – deep.  They cut to the core.  We need in the core of ourselves, where the deepest cuts leave scars to discover the forgiving love of Jesus.  Once discovered we extend that forgiving love.
Jesus speaks of the spiritual discipline of fasting – self-denial.  Some in his day made a show of fasting.  They wanted everyone to see how holy they were in going without eating.  Their extraordinary sacrifice was done to gain the admiration of the crowd.  The only time we should fast is if it draws us closer to God.  We practice this discipline for the sake of seeing God more clearly.
Fasting and forgiving are quite different, but in both cases we deal with something uncomfortable.  In one case it is our dependence upon nourishment but also our temptation toward gluttony.  In the other case it is our wounding and our self-identity as a victim, one wounded.  In fasting we declare that as dependent as we are upon food, we depend more upon God.  In forgiving we claim a new identity – not as a wounded victim but as a born-again child of God.  Both are about orienting our lives toward our Heavenly Father.  Both lead us to establish our sense of self in Him.
Jesus tells worry is a sign we are not seeing ourselves as God’s children.  God feeds the birds and drapes the flowers of the fields with beauty human invention will never match.  God loves us more than flowers or birds.  God is aware of our needs and responsive to us.  Trust in God’s care is another way we store up treasure in Heaven, but this trust means letting go of wealth as a source of security and a provider of happiness.  Believing that wealth will make us happy and safe, we end up setting money as the prime master of life.  No, says, Jesus, we cannot truly live that way.  It is either God or money – only one can be master.  It is either worry or trust in God. 
The laying up of treasure defines our lives.  We live as people of faith and people who are faithful.  We live as people who love.  We live with a sense that we are loved.  Clearly such living marks us off, separated from those around us caught in the rat race, the scramble for wealth and power.  It is not that we go anywhere.  We are here, announcing the kingdom.  It is simply that we are living a different story – God’s story.  We are announcing that all around us are invited to step out of a life that leads nowhere and into a life that leads to God.  We are in but not of the world. 
We are also preparing for the life beyond death.  Dallas Willard, alluding to Jesus’s parable of the talents, writes
The universe will continue to exist … and we will actively participate in the future governance of [it.]  … God’s plan is for us to develop, as apprentices to Jesus, to the point where we can take our place in the ongoing creativity of the universe. 

We will not sit around [in eternal heaven] looking at one another but we will join the eternal Logos, “reign with him,” in the endlessly ongoing creative work of God.

… The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do.

… We should expect that in due time we will be moved into our eternal destiny of creative activity with Jesus.[ii]

            Of course Dallas Willard cannot be more specific than this although he does hazard a few guesses.  We must acknowledge that this is speculative as is any of vision of Heaven. 
            I share Willard’s view because in my estimation, he communicates well the vision of Jesus when Jesus talks about and demonstrates the Kingdom of God. More than going to some Heaven in the sky, far, far away, the eternal Kingdom is God’s Heaven and God’s Earth joining together in perfect harmony, all pain removed, and all barriers to relationship with God destroyed. 
            The more we live in love here and now, the more familiar our entrance into Heaven will fell.  Jesus discussed spiritual discipline, forgiveness, and trust as specific ways orient our hearts.  We could comb through the Gospels for more Jesus’ words, and we could add worship, but only when worship is connected to mission.  We could add evangelism, but only when evangelism is done for the sake of love of people, as an act of compassion.  All these specific works or categories are extremely important and are indicators of our hearts.   When our hearts are set on Heaven, we enter Heaven prepared, with open eyes.  We see clearly.  All that we do here, things done and lives lived in Jesus’ name continue there.
            I close this morning and this series with the word of N.T. Wright.
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of His creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and … ; and of course  every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrection power of God, into the new creation God will one day make.  This is the logic of the mission of God.  God’s re-creation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted.  It will last all the way into God’s new world.  In fact, it will be enhanced there. [iii]

            Treasure Christ.  Live in love.  Set your heart in Heaven. 


[i] Willard (1997).  The Divine Conspiracy, p.207-8.
[ii] Ibid, p.378-379, 398-399.
[iii] Wright (2008).  Surprised by Hope, p.208-209.

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