Open Up the Heavens (7): Our True Citizenship

“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God...And he told them, ‘Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!’”

- Acts 7:55-56 (NLT)

The Conviction of Things Not Seen

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1, ESV, emphasis mine).

All that we have been talking about - the present spiritual realities of Christ’s priesthood and kingship, the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and filling, and the place of heaven – require a strong degree of faith because these realities remain unseen. It dawned on me one day how logical the flow of Hebrews is for its original audience. After the author of Hebrews describes Jesus as our High Priest and the heavenly realities we have come to when we gather and worship, he then offers a definition of faith and spends an entire chapter citing tangible examples of those who believed in the unseen. In his commentary on this section of Hebrews William writes:

Faith is shown to be a quality of response to God which celebrates the reality of promised blessings and the objective certainty of events announced but as yet unseen. This understanding is substantiated by a catalogue of persons and events which the preacher views from the perspective of faith in action. The demonstration of the effective power of faith under the old covenant verifies the character and possibilities of faith for the Christian community.1 (emphasis mine)

I believe that in our current day we are simply consumed and infected by materialism. If we can’t see it, we don’t believe it. When we rediscover the doctrine of the ascension, we are challenged to wrestle with the matter of unseen spiritual realities.

The faith that the author of Hebrews is describing is not blind faith, however. It is a faith founded on solid biblical truths. Thus, faith calls us to saturate our lives with God’s word, to delve deeply into its meaning and the realities it describes. Furthermore, we can’t simply manufacture this faith. It is a gift of God that comes through a conscious immersion in his word and from the power of the Holy Spirit. As we discussed earlier, the Holy Spirit is the one who guides us into all truth (John 14:17, 26).

Most of my adult life has been a journey of rediscovery, cycling over and over again through the pattern of being faced with uncertainty, exercising faith, and then seeing God’s resolution. Though it requires us to take risks, it makes for an exhilarating and rewarding life. When I was 25, by faith, I left behind a career path in molecular biology to pursue a calling to full-time worship ministry. At 36, by faith, I moved my family across the United States, following a steady, decade-long pull to northern California.

Faith calls us not to a lifestyle of safety and comfort, but to one of risk and movement. We are, in fact, pilgrims here on earth. This present earth is not our true home. We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth. Having this perspective on life is what helps fuel our faith. We can hold loosely to the things of this world as we anticipate a glorious future and seek to experience that future right now. When we hold loosely to our things, when we live light and streamlined, we can more readily say yes to the call of God. These thoughts are affirmed by the author Hebrews at the end of his catalogue of faithful men and women:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us (Hebrews 12:1, NLT).

At this point I would simply like to encourage you to take stock of your life and lifestyle. After reflecting on all of the Scriptures and all of the implications about the ascension, I would like to ask the following questions:

· Are you able to live as one who has a real confidence and conviction in things unseen?
· Are you able to picture and know Jesus not just as someone who lived long ago and who will come back some day, but as someone who lives now and who is actually doing things, for you and for the church?
· Do you live in the power of the Holy Spirit, or do you rely on your own strengths and talents?
· Do you think about the biblical images and realities of heaven, and are you developing a longing for these realities as Paul encourages us?
· Are you holding loosely enough to the things of this world that you could readily say yes to what God’s call, whatever that may be?

It has been my experience that faith happens incrementally. God moves us from one degree of faith to another. The more we exercise our faith muscles, the stronger we become.

In 2001, I competed in my first sprint-distance triathlon. It was a 600-yard open-ocean swim, an 18-mile bike, and a 3.1-mile run. After that initial race, I entered another sprint competition and cut 15 minutes off my first time. In 2008, I set my sights on an olympic-distance triathlon (0.9-mile swim, 26-mile bike, 6.2-mile run). I kept a training log and after four months I swam 15,400 yards in the pool, biked 529 miles on the road, and ran 297 miles on trails! When the competition arrived I was ready. I finished in 2 hours and 23 minutes, faster than the goal I had set for myself. After the race I found myself saying, “I think I could do a Half Ironman!” About a month later, that’s exactly what I did!

A Half Ironman is a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run. I entered the lake for the swim at 7:30am and crossed the finish line at 2:00pm! If I had tried to do a Half Ironman in 2001, I would have killed myself! But with each increasing level of competition, my body was able to rise to the occasion with sufficient training. The same is true of the life of faith. The exhilaration from taking small steps of faith leads us to greater and greater levels of risk and confidence in God.

The Sacrifices that Please God

In this final section I want us to think a little bit further about the implications of our status as pilgrims, temporary residents here on earth. Towards the end of his letter, the author of Hebrews writes:

For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come. Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God (Hebrews 13:14-16, ESV, emphasis mine).

Since we are looking forward to a home yet to come (a new heaven and a new earth), we can live extravagantly here on earth. I don’t mean “materially” extravagant, but lovingly extravagant lives! Like exercising faith, holding loosely to this world frees us to offer sacrifices of praise as well as sacrifices of love and mercy. William Lane writes:

The praise of God…must be complemented by a life-style characterized by generosity and brotherly love. These related aspects of the pilgrim disposition are linked together by the category of sacrifice. Through Jesus, the sufficient sacrifice for sin, Christians offer to God the sacrifice of praise and the well-pleasing sacrifices of love and the nurture of others. Without the praise of God, acts of kindness and of sharing would be little more than joyless humanitarianism. Without the acts of kindness and of sharing, the praise of God would be empty formalism. Both praise and love are indispensable to the life of the Christian pilgrimage.2

For a long time I have found it so interesting that God often corrects poor worship with a call to deeds of love and mercy. For example, in the book of Amos God tells the people of Israel:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24, NIV)

What does this passage say to us today? What are the various “offerings,” the religious things that we do that the Lord simply cannot stand? I think that a spiritually indulgent lifestyle that seeks only to fill oneself and satisfy oneself is part of what God is describing here. To put it in more tangible terms, when worship is just about our own edification without an outward conviction to love and serve our world, we are missing something.

True worshipers bring a sacrifice of praise to God and they have a concern for and take action in looking after the poor. This is simply reflecting the Father’s heart for those in need. Like the journey of faith, our family has been on a journey in first seeing and then responding to poverty.

Last Christmas we visited my sister and her family in Colorado Springs. As a part of that trip we took a tour of the Compassion International Headquarters. The moment I walked in and looked around at the various sculptures of Jesus with a child on his lap, or with arms outstretched welcoming the children running to him, and the verse from the Gospels that says “When you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me,” I had to take a big gulp to hold back the tears. The presence of God in that place was palpable. I brought home a bunch of brochures and books, but more importantly, a heart that was primed to actually do something with regard to the poor, the orphan, the widow, the least of these.

Around the spring of this year I was at a conference at a local church. In the lobby of the church there were a number of ministry booths, one of which was a booth for Compassion International. I had wanted our family to sponsor a child ever since our visit to Colorado Springs so I chose a little girl from the Philippines who is the same age as our oldest daughter and whose birthday happens to fall in the same month as both of our girls. We have been writing to and sending financial support to this littler girl for a number of months now.

Interestingly, Allison and I co-wrote a song this summer called “Beauty From Ashes.” I brought a chorus to Allison one day and said, “What do you think?” She said, “Well, that’s interesting because I’ve been working on a song on that same theme.” She began to sing what is now the verse for the song, “Close to the heart of my Jesus; close to the heart of my God; close to the Spirit who leads us close to the ones that he loves.” We quickly combined my chorus, “You bring beauty from ashes, turn mourning to gladness, you are the God that we praise…” with her verse and before we knew it we had a song going! Allison wrote lines for pre-chorus sections, and we sang the song in our church within a week or so.

The congregation has really embraced this song and really sings it out every time we include it in our worship. I think a large factor in the fervent expression of this song is that it captures the Father’s heart for the poor, the outcast. It’s simply hard to go wrong when you write on this theme!

We are going to cast vision during the Advent season for this local community in the Philippines where the little girl that we sponsor lives. We are going to challenge our congregation to support the other 31 un-sponsored children in that village. Our vision is to bring the mercy and justice of God’s kingdom to one specific area of the world by:

· Offering financial and relational support to children in poverty.
· Partnering with the local church in that village that is connected to the ministry of Compassion International.
· Planning a mission trip to that village in the future and meeting the children and the people face-to-face.

These are the kind of kingdom dreams, the kind of sacrifices that please God. We simply can’t go wrong as individuals or as a congregation when we begin to reach out and do what we can for the least of these.

I will close with these words from Paul’s letter to the church at Colosse. They have become such formative words in my own life. I hope they change and encourage you as well:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth…Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father (Colossians 3:1-2, 16-17).

1 Lane, Hebrews, 147.
2 Ibid., 174-175.


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