June 28, 1998
One of the most disturbing experiences of my life occurred the night I walked into the Houston city morgue with a good friend of mine, Homicide Sergeant Jim Ramsey. As I surveyed those lifeless bodies on the cold metal tables, one in particular caught my eye. It was a young man about my age. I walked up to his body, read the toe tag and looked into his eyes, eyes that just a few hours before were filled with life and vitality. Now life was no longer in this man’s body. I said to myself that he was now on the other side of the grave, experiencing his forever.
If you haven’t noticed recently, the data on death is pretty overwhelming. All of us are going to die. That’s right. You are going to die one day. And I am going to die one day. We all have an appointment in forever. So in this session, I want to talk to you about a life or death situation. I want to talk about a topic that I touch on almost every time I stand behind this Plexiglas lectern. This topic, though, is something that many of you don’t comprehend, many of you don’t get. So I have an urgency in communicating this message to you because I know the stakes are ski high. For many of you, your eternities are hanging in the balance. Do you know where you will spend your forever?
The Bible says in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He (being God) has set eternity in the hearts of men.” Intuitively we know that we are going to spend more time on that side of the grave than on this side of the grave and the choices that we make on this side of the grave determine where we will spend eternity; either in heaven or in hell. The key to spending eternity in heaven is found in the word forever. Look at the first part of the word forever, because I want to share with you four facts that we need to know in order to have our eternity secure, in order for us to know where we will spend our forever.
The four facts are God’s love, our problem, His solution, our choice. Let’s talk about God’s love. God is a God of love. The Bible says in Jeremiah 31:3 that “God has loved us with an everlasting love.” Love has to have an object and we are the object of God’s affection and his love. We matter to God. Throughout the pages of scripture, God tells us that we are loved. He shows His hand. He puts the cards out on the table. He puts it in writing. “I love you,” God says. You are loved and so am I. And God loves us to such a degree that He offers us a fantastic formula for our lives that is both fulfilling and forever. Did you get that? God offers you and me a great agenda for our lives that is both fulfilling and forever. And the benefits are mind-boggling. The benefits of following Christ are a clear conscience, power in the midst of weakness, and deep, community-driven relationships. Even if there was no such thing as heaven, I think it would be worth it to become a Christian just to have those benefits, don’t you? But as we take a quick panoramic view of our culture, we see most people aren’t experiencing these benefits. Most people are not involved and connected with Christ.
They are kind of like the young woman that Lisa and I talked to this past Wednesday afternoon. We had an intense conversation with a lady named Courtney. Courtney, when she found out that I was a pastor, said, “You know it is kind of weird. I have been running into a lot of Christians lately. Maybe God is trying to tell me something.” I said, “Courtney, I think that He might be.” Then she explained to us that she was not a Christ follower and that she had a hard time reconciling the fact that God is a God of love, yet He allows certain people to do certain things.
We talked a little about those things. Then she looked at Lisa and she asked her something that I will never forget. “Tell me, Lisa, what are the benefits of following Christ? What is the big deal about being a Christian? What do you have that I don’t have?” Lisa paused for a moment and said, “A clear conscience, power in the midst of weakness and deep, community-driven relationships.” And she started to articulate the difference it made to follow Christ. The girl began to get choked up, “I don’t know what is wrong with me. I don’t know why I get teary.” Then we gave her the names of some books we thought she should read. I said, “Make sure you continue to seek because if you are a true seeker, if you really want to know God, He promises that He will reveal Himself to you. Courtney, you are a much loved person. You are loved more than you can even comprehend. God’s love is an everlasting love.”
The reason that most of us aren’t experiencing this love is the second thing that I want to talk about. Yes, God is a God of love. But also, we have a problem. Let’s talk about a problem that you have and that I have. God loves us enough to tell us the truth. He doesn’t sugar coat it. He tells us that we have a difficulty. We have a shortfall. We have created a chasm. There is a gap, a distance, between mankind and God caused by our sinfulness. We all sin. We mess up. We fumble and stumble and fall miserably shy of God’s standard of goodness. God, as described in the Bible, is holy. That means that God is unable to err. He can’t even wink or glance at sin.
Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short….” It is staggering to me the lengths that people will go in order to explain away their sin nature. We blame our socioeconomic level, our families of origin, even El Nino for our sinfulness. But the bottom line is we have a shortfall that we can’t make up on our own. Yet a lot of us will try to make it up on our own. We will try to bridge the gap, try to make up the shortfall by being philosophical, benevolent, or even religious. Being philosophical, benevolent, or even religious are great things, but they don’t have the juice to get you to where you want to go. They don’t have what it takes to bridge the gap, to bring you to God. So we have got a problem. And to make matters worse, to complicate the issue to a greater degree, Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death.” That is an eternal, forever, hell kind of death. The wages of sin, the compensation of sin, the paycheck of sin is death.
Did you hear the song by the Newsboys? “When we don’t get what we deserve (hell), it’s a real good thing.” Then it goes on, “When we get what we don’t deserve (heaven), it’s a real good thing.” Hell is a real place. Hell was something that Christ talked about over and over again. In Matthew 13:42, He described hell as an area of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Now what does it mean to gnash you teeth? It is like when you have a two-foot putt and if you sink this putt, you will win with your little foursome. You kind of choke on the putt and pull it to the right. You gnash your teeth. It is set point and you are serving and you double fault. “Uggggh.” Gnashing of teeth.
You get the exam back and you know you have aced it and then you see that you got the multiple choice mixed up. “Ugggh.” Gnashing of teeth. You have the deal of the century already at the title company. In two hours the deal will close and make you a lot of money, and right before it closes, the thing falls apart. “Ugggh.” Gnashing of teeth. Hell is that forever feeling of knowing you had an opportunity, a choice to come to Christ, yet you missed it. “Ugggh, I had a chance and I blew it.”
I have heard people say that they are going to hell and they will party in hell because all of their friends will be in hell. Well, yes, your hell-bound friends could spend eternity in hell with you, but if they are there, you will never know it. Hell is a place you can do anything and everything you always wanted to do, alone. Alone. Some of you are thinking right now, “How can a good God send people that matter to Him to hell?” Hey, if you are thinking that, you are barking up the wrong tree. You are not barking up the Biblical tree. We have a choice. We have a decision. The Bible says that God is patient, not wanting anyone to perish.
One day when you die, in fact, the first five seconds after you die, you are going to face the Lord. If you continue to elbow God out of your life, if you continue to keep Him at a distance God will look at many of you and say, “You know, from the day you were born, I extended My love to you. I helped you. I guided you. I communicated My love to you through people, through events. And you rejected Me. You did it your own way. And because you rejected Me in your life, because you did it your own way, in eternity you will have it your own way, in an eternal separation known as hell.” God hates to do it, but He has to. We determine our own destiny. Hell is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place of utter isolation away from God Himself.
God’s love and our problem. Now at this point, God could have said, “Whoa, look at the shortfall. Look at mankind, their sinfulness, their rebellion. I am going to do other things. I am going to bolt. I am going to cruise. This is too much work, to make up the distance, to make up the shortfall.” God could have said that. But God didn’t. We are loved so much by God that He wants you and me to discover an exciting formula that He has for our lives that is both fulfilling and forever. Even though He saw our problem, He gave His solution. God commissioned Christ, His Son, to live on this earth, to walk and talk and be tempted yet remain without sin. And Jesus spilled His blood on the cross for your sins and mine.
Remember, I said it earlier. Sin has to have a payment. If we got what we deserved, it would be hell. The wages of sin is death. God can’t wink or gloss over sin, so He sent His only Son, The Perfect One, to take all of the sins of mankind on His shoulders, to pay the price on Calvary for everything we have ever done wrong, thought wrong, or will do wrong. Christ did it for you and He did it for me, so we could discover this formula which is fulfilling and forever. Jesus made up the distance for you and for me. Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Hell is a real place. Real people go there. You will know your destiny five seconds after your heart stops beating. But, also, heaven is a real place. The Bible says that heaven is such an awesome place that words can’t do it justice. There will be no tears in heaven, no problems in heaven, no difficulties in heaven. God’s plan, His agenda, His formula will continue and it will be fulfilling and it will be forever. We will know and be known. It will be a place that will just totally blow us away.
Two decades ago, my grandfather faced a serious surgical procedure. He died on the operating table. Miraculously, the doctors were able to revive him. When he recovered from surgery, he shared with my grandmother a life-after-death experience. He said, “I was in heaven. I was in heaven as a little child.” Interestingly enough, my grandfather had become a Christian right before this surgery. “You know, the place was so cool, so unreal, that I didn’t want to go back to earth.” He said, “Jesus began to talk to me and He told me to go back, that He still had things for me to do back on earth.” And from that day forward, my grandfather was never the same. He faced his forever. He saw what it was like, just a little glimpse of eternity. What a great place.
If your heart was to stop beating right now, do you know where you would spend your forever? Do you know for sure? Is there no doubt about it? Or are you saying, “Ed, you know I am a little bit sketchy, a little bit fuzzy.”
God’s love. Our problem. His solution. Our choice. God could have created clones that, like robots, would obey His every move. “Ed, it is time to pray now.” “Okay, God. Dear Heavenly Father….” “Ed, it is time to memorize scripture now.” “Let’s take our Bibles and turn to Psalm 22…” He didn’t. I have got a choice and so do you. I cannot coerce or force you to make this choice. You can’t force or coerce me to make this choice. God respects our private decisions. Isn’t that great? He says it is your choice, your move. The ball is in your court. We have a choice to make. We either come to a point in our lives where we receive what God has already done for us through Christ or we don’t. We either accept it or we don’t. We either bow the knee or we don’t.
This past week as I was praying for this weekend, I asked God to give me a word picture to communicate the gospel to many who need to understand it, to accept it. I want to share with you a word picture that I believe God gave me. Let me begin by saying that this is a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that your father walked up to you, your wife and your two children and said, “Son, I love you so much that I am going to bless you and your family with an all-expenses paid trip to Fiji. Here are the first-class airline tickets for everyone. I will put you up in the best hotel. You can jet ski, fish, snorkel. I will pay for all of it. I just love you that much.” (I have never been to Fiji, but I hear it is like paradise.)
Well, what if when you received this trip you said, “Dad, I love you so much. Thank you. You are generous, Dad. I’ll take the lodging. I’ll take the meals. I’ll take the jet skis, the fishing trip and all that but, Dad, you go ahead and keep your round-trip airfare. We will swim to Fiji.” The day of the trip arrives and you and your family make your way to Los Angeles, California. You stand on the Pacific beach and look out across the cold, frigid waters. You know that Fiji is 5,518 miles away. Prior to this point, you hired Mark Spitz to coach and train your family to swim properly in the ocean. You have eaten an organic diet and pumped iron. You are in the top shape of your life. “Family, let’s go ahead and hit the surf,” and you dive in and begin to swim. Your children, 10 and 13, make it a mile before they have to call the Coast Guard. Pretty good, isn’t it? Your wife is in much better shape than you are. She makes it 3 miles before she has to call the Coast Guard. You make it about 2 miles and then you call for Baywatch, I mean, the Coast Guard.
Now, you know what I am saying to you with this hypothetical situation is a joke. It is ludicrous. It is a pipe dream. You say that no human being, not even an Olympic athlete, could swim from California to Fiji. There is no way that a person can swim 5,518 miles. It is not going to work. It is not going to happen. It is impossible. Yet, I come in contact with multitudes of men and women who are trying to make up an even greater distance between themselves and God, by swimming. That’s right. Their arms are flailing, their feet are kicking and they stick their heads out of the water and say, “God, look how good I am doing. God, I am Baptist. God, I grew up Catholic. God, I was baptized in the Lutheran church. God, I grew up Assembly of God. God, I am a nice guy. God, I am a nice girl. Look at how good I am doing. Look at my strokes, God.”
Some of us will even lift our heads out of the water and look back over our shoulder and say, “God, I am swimming much faster than he is. I am doing much better than him. I am swimming better than she is. Look at me, God.” And God is smiling and just shaking his head and saying, “You don’t get it. With your arms flailing and feet kicking, you are trying to swim and good-works your way to me.” It is not going to happen. It is a formula for frustration.
So our God comes up to worn out swimmers, those of us who are tired of dogpaddling and treading water and backstroking and says, “Here is a ticket. You see, my Son, Jesus Christ, has died on the cross for all of your sins. He has paid the price and here is the ticket to paradise, paradise beginning on this earth with a formula that is both fulfilling and forever but also continuing in eternity. Please, please accept this. Stop your swimming. That is how someone becomes a Christ follower. We are not saved by works. We are not saved by merit badges. We are saved by grace through faith. Grace is something that we don’t merit, we don’t deserve. Yet God does it because of His love.
What are you doing with your choice? What are you doing with this opportunity? God’s love. Our problem. His solution. Our choice.
I opened this message by talking about my experience at the Houston city morgue. I told you about reading the young man’s toe tag and looking into his hollow, lifeless eyes. I told you about thinking about his forever. As I continued to think about this man, I thought about heaven. I said to myself, maybe he is in heaven. And I thought if he is in heaven he is being reunited with his relatives, he is seeing the Lord face to face. He is still discovering this fulfilling and forever plan. I thought this guy would be having the party of a lifetime. I thought about heaven. And then I thought about hell. I thought that he could be in hell, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth and utter isolation. Then I wondered that if he was in hell, when was the last time he had the choice, the opportunity to come to Christ, to receive the ticket. I wondered what would have been the excuse that he threw up to God. And I knew that if he was in hell, the excuse was pretty weak.
I have given you the information the best that I know how. The question is, what are you going to do with it? What is your response? What is your choice in 4 ever?