A few nights ago, I woke up with a clear phrase in my head. It was, “no eye hath seen nor ear hath heard.” I knew this was part of a verse from the Bible, but I had to look it up to remember where it’s located. It’s from 1st Corinthians 2:9, where the apostle Paul is writing to the early believers at Corinth about the wisdom of God.
As it is written, Paul says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him…” Paul is actually referencing a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah: “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:4) Paul goes on to say that the unimaginable things God has prepared for those who believe in him are “revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depth of God.” (2:10).
While Paul wasn’t specifically talking about Heaven in this passage, I’ve heard these verses from 1st Corinthians used to refer to the promise of our future heavenly home as believers in God in Jesus Christ.
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart
conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.
Do you ever wonder about Heaven? Apparently, a lot of people do. Several months ago, I put out a query on my Facebook page: “What do you wish you knew more about, from the Bible?” Of the dozen or so responses, half were about Heaven or “eternity.” Any of us who believes there is Heaven, hopes to get there; and any who believe there is life beyond this earthly one we see, wonders what that life will be like. For some, the idea of Heaven and eternal life is completely joyful and comforting. For others, it is somewhat unsettling and worrisome. It’s hard to imagine what we can’t imagine! It’s hard to picture what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived. Even if we know that being in the presence of God will bring us eternal joy, we wonder what we’ll do in Heaven, and how we’ll exist, there.
I’m not sure why God placed those particular words in my mind that night. I had gone to bed with a prayer about my sermon that coming Sunday, and with thoughts about what it means to be responsible for preaching the Word. The other phrase that followed in my mind when I woke that night was, “to do no harm to the Gospel.” It’s interesting that in the verses preceding 1st Corinthians 2:9, Paul talks about what it means for him to be a faithful preacher of the Gospel; to avoid lofty words and to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I am pondering two preaching series in the coming months; one on Revelation and the other on Heaven. I ask for your prayers, as we continue on this journey together of exploring anew “what God has prepared for those who love him.”
There’s a saying that: “The biggest enemy of the great, is the good.” It’s an idea attributed to the 18th century philosopher, Voltaire, but it’s surely much older. Anyone throughout history with an eye toward human behavior would have observed that we often get distracted from the best we can be, by the fact that we’ve achieved a level of success that feels “good.” We look with pride on what we are, or on what we’ve accomplished, we declare it good, and then we get stuck there. Our potential for further development gets arrested by our satisfaction with what we’ve already achieved. While there’s something to be said for being grateful for what we have been able to do in our lives, our gratitude shouldn’t hold us in place. Our gratitude to God should be an encouragement to us to explore what else God has in store for us.
One of the most interesting stories to me from the New Testament is found in the 16th chapter of Acts. The apostle Paul and other early missionaries had experienced some amazing successes through the power of God’s Spirit. Even at this early stage in Paul’s ministry, he has done a lot of good for God’s Kingdom. There’s no doubt that Paul and those who traveled with him expected to be able to do a lot more good in performing miracles and sharing the Gospel. We’re told that as they went from town to town, churches were strengthened in faith and increased in numbers daily.
Then we’re told a curious thing. Verse 6 says, They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. Further, verse 7 says, When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. Why would the Spirit prevent Paul’s missionary team from entering these towns? Was there danger there? They had certainly experienced danger, already; and that had not been a reason to refrain from sharing the Gospel. What Luke, the writer of Acts, reveals to us is that God had a better plan at that moment. God was preparing the hearts of people in a different place.
Luke tells us that after the Holy Spirit had put the stops on their other plans, Paul had a vision of a man pleading, Come over to Macedonia and help us. Macedonia at that time was a Roman province north of Greece. God had been preparing the heart of a woman named Lydia to receive the message of the missionaries. Luke tells us that, The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul, and that she and her entire household were baptized. It wasn’t an easy time for Paul and his team there in the lead city of Philippi in Macedonia; it was while they were staying with Lydia that Paul and Silas were flogged and imprisoned for healing a slave girl of an annoying spirit. But God used even that event to bring about the salvation of a jailor and his household.
The point is that God often redirects our “good” plans for the sake of something better, even something “great.” It can be frustrating when we have a plan in place that seems logical and good to us, and we keep running into obstacles. It may be that God is trying to redirect us from a plan of our own that is merely “good,” toward a plan of God’s that is “great.” It doesn’t mean that if we follow God’s better plan, things will necessarily be easy. But it does mean that we will be living into God’s will, rather than our own. Paul and his team must have wondered why they were being prevented by the Spirit from going to places where they knew people needed to hear the Gospel. But if they’d doggedly persisted with their own plans, rather than being open to God’s redirection, they’d have failed to meet Lydia and her household according to God’s timing. Is God redirecting you in some way? If so, I hope you’ll listen to God’s voice.
With prayers for your journey,
Years ago, New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce wrote a book called, "Hard Sayings of Jesus." It’s been a long time since I read the book, and so I don’t remember all the “hard sayings” Bruce discusses; but one that’s on my own list is some words of Jesus found in the 6th chapter of Matthew. They come in the context of Jesus’ teaching about prayer. Matthew tells us that Jesus taught against praying just to be “seen” by others, and against heaping up empty phrases in our prayers. Matthew then gives us his rendering of what would come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer:
"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily
bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one."
Matthew 6:9b-13, NRSV
And then, Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke these words: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." If ever there was a “hard saying” of Jesus, this is certainly one of them. How many of us harbor ill feelings against another person? How many of us live with resentment toward someone we feel has wronged us, or who has wronged a person we love? Often, the unforgiveness we carry around inside of us is toward an individual we don’t even know, or perhaps even toward a group of people. Sometimes, the grudge we bear may even be against God, over things we feel God could have done, but didn’t.
Forgiveness is a delicate thing. It can’t be forced. It’s not honest to say that we’ve forgiven someone, if we actually haven’t. Saying we’ve forgiven someone when we haven’t done so seems to fall in that same category of praying to be seen, and heaping up empty phrases, that Jesus speaks against in regard to prayer. So, what are we to do with the grudges and resentments that are like weights that we carry?
I see forgiveness as an ongoing process in our lives. I believe that it’s truly only God’s empowerment through the Holy Spirit that enables us to forgive. The more we are able to understand ourselves as beloved by God, the more we are able to see others in the same way, even those who have hurt us. I’ve come to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14 as a layered process, maybe even as a dance of sorts, in which we continually seek to forgive others as we continually seek forgiveness from God.
The truth is, I have an “aspirational forgiveness list.” It’s not terribly long, but it is persistent. I have to keep putting these people before God, asking God to help me love them, and pray for them, and yes, to forgive them. I trust that by acknowledging to God my need to forgive – by getting up out of my chair to dance, if you will – I will experience God’s forgiveness of my own trespasses and be empowered to forgive others.
With prayers for your journey,
“God hold you in this turning, Christ warm you through this night,
Spirit breathe its ancient rhythm, Peace give your sorrows flight.”
Richard Morgan uses this snippet of poetry by Jan Richardson to open the first chapter of his book, Remembering Your Story: Creating Your Own Spiritual Autobiography. Morgan’s book has helped many over the years who’ve wanted to connect-the-dots of the events of their lives in order to see patterns of God’s artistry in their spiritual journeys. Morgan believes the need to collect and remember our stories is more urgent than ever:
“American life and culture are changing so fast that older people realize that their grandchildren have no idea of the events that shaped their lives. And more and more mid-lifers are realizing that with the increased mobility of modern life, family stories that once were passed down orally will be lost if not preserved.”
Morgan helps the reader think of his or her life as a river, recognizing the “tributaries” that have fed us, and noting times when the river of our life has helped to nourish others. When has your “river” been fast and turbulent? When has it been slow and meandering? When has it been quiet and deep? And in every part of the “river” of your life, where have you recognized God’s grace? Morgan helps us to claim our “stories” and to see how they interconnec to form the larger story of our human life.
It’s been said that “the greatest story ever told” is that of Jesus Christ, as related to us in the four Gospels of our New Testament. The story of Jesus is truly “great” because of what God accomplished through it; coming into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, teaching us and showing us love, and dying a death for our sinfulness that grants us the hope of forgiveness and eternal life.
During the remainder of the Lenten season leading up to Easter, we’ll be telling that story again at Hebron Church. Beginning on Palm Sunday and continuing through Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, we’ll remember again the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and we’ll celebrate once again God’s glorious resurrection of Jesus when his friends and family and followers thought his story had ended. The good news for the story of your life is that no matter how deep or dark certain stretches of your “river” have been, you’ve never been truly alone; and when we place ourselves in the hands of the great Navigator, we find that our Lord is trustworthy not only to bring us safely through, but to give meaning to our hardest times.
With prayers for your journey,