The 1 Question: Can a child or someone who hasn’t heard the Word go to Heaven?

 
SERMON 1/22/2017
 
 
Today I’m continuing a sermon series called the 1 Question.  At Christmas Eve I asked everyone present to ask a question about which they would like to hear a sermon.  Twenty-four questions were submitted.  I chose four.  So far we’ve looked at two questions—last week we looked at “what does it mean to be full of the Holy Spirit; two weeks ago we looked at can we be forgiven for all that we’ve done even if we’ve broken the 10 commandments.  This series has been so popular that I might add an additional question on February 5.  That is a Super Day, so why not have a super question.  

I shared that I was going to write a blog about all the questions that weren’t chosen for this sermon.  And I confess that my blog writing has been slow.  But I haven’t given up on it.  I am hopeful to write at least a blog a day this week.  

SLIDE

Today’s question is excellent.  “Can a child or someone who hasn’t heard the Word go to heaven?”  This questions connects all sorts of beliefs about God—salvation, heaven, eternal life.  I could share months of sermons just on this question.    

To help out I wrote a Bible Study on salvation.  I encourage you to get it out.  It’s in this brochure in the bulletin.  Salvation happens all throughout the Bible—Old and New Testament.  Put this devotion in your Bible and use it this week.  In the middle is a place to take notes.  I’m going to give you some teaching materials that you might want to write in this space.  On the back is the place for our congregation’s prayer requests.

SLIDE

Next week the question is Does God really have a plan?  Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?

SLIDE I attended seminary in New York City.  While there I worked as the Youth Director at the First Presbyterian Church in Babylon.  My duties often went beyond working with the youth.  One day I received a phone call from a woman who wanted to see me soon.  She was new to the church, and I had no idea what she wanted to talk about, but I’m always willing to talk.  Sure I’ll talk.

She came to the offices.  A friend of hers had recently passed away.  Her friend was Jewish.  The woman wanted to know from me—would her friend go to heaven.  This was a very important question to her and one over which she had been brooding since the funeral.  Would her friend go to heaven?  What do you think, Paul?

As I listened to her question the thought that I remember going through my mind was, “couldn’t you ask the senior pastor this question?  I’m just the Youth Director.  This question is way above my pay grade.”  Actually it’s above everyone’s pay grade.  

I’m guessing this question has passed through our mind before.  Someone passes away, and we wonder.  What was the person’s eternal destination?

There’s a lot at stake in how we respond to this question.  Our response reveals our identity.  It lets others know who we are as followers of Jesus Christ.  It lets the world know what type of disciples we intend to be.  There’s a lot at stake in the way we answer it, and I’m so glad this question was asked at Christmas Eve.

I’m going to provide an answer to this question, but what is just as important is the way we get to our answer.  

This question is the linchpin to many other questions.    

What is salvation?  

What is heaven?

Where is heaven?

How do I get to heaven?

Who decides if I’ll go?

Will I recognize people in heaven?

SLIDE

What is eternal life?

When does it start?

Is there really a Hell?

SLIDE

And how about someone who has done awful things—Adolph Hitler, Osama bin Laden—are they going to heaven.

And how about my Jewish friend or Muslim friend down the street—would they go to heaven?

What happens to a child who has never heard the Word?

SLIDE These questions tie together our beliefs about salvation, heaven, and eternal life.  When I hear these types of questions the same thought goes through my mind as it did when I was the Youth Director at the Presbyterian Church in Babylon, New York.

These questions are above my pay grade.  And I get paid a lot more now than I did as a Youth Director.  Even though these questions are hard, we need to have a response because these are the questions people ask.

SLIDE What is salvation and who gives it.  You’ll read more about this in the devotion I wrote for you.  The English word salvation comes from the Greek word, “Sozo.”  The word Sozo can be translated as saved or healed or made well.  

Salvation is a gift and God is the gift-giver.  To use an example from language, God is the noun, giving is the verb and salvation is what is given.  You and I as humans are the recipients of the gift.    We humans don’t save ourselves; salvation comes from God.  

John 3:16 is one of the best Bible verses of salvation.  Many of us might have it memorized.

SLIDE

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.  God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him

One way to think of salvation is deliverance.  We are delivered from a situation because of what God has done.  This deliverance happens not only when we die, but it happens here on earth.  

A story.  Part of the story is in this week’s devotion.  It’s a story about a man named Moses.  We have a group who is reading through the Bible.  This week we will be reading about Moses in a book of the Bible called Exodus.  The story I’m sharing is later in Exodus.  

Many of us might have learned about Moses in Sunday School or by watching Charleton Heston in the movie, the 10 Commandments.   Some context.

Pharaoh was the king of Egypt.  He was one of the most powerful men in the world.  The Hebrews or Israelites had been slaves in Egypt.  God asked Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  After plenty of encouragement (including 10 plagues) Pharaoh decided to let the people go.  The Israelites left Egypt.    

Then Pharaoh changed his mind.  Pharaoh got in a chariot and he had 600 other chariots loaded with people.  They were going to find the Israelites and bring them back to Egypt.  Eventually the Israelites saw Pharaoh and his chariots.  They discovered that they were trapped.  Straight ahead was the Red Sea; behind them were Pharaoh and his chariots.  The Israelites had no where to go.    

The people were afraid.  And they were furious with Moses.  “You brought us out here to die, Moses,” they said.  

SLIDE It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.  Exodus 14:12

The people were at the end of their rope.  They had nowhere to go.  They had no options.  

Have you ever been there?  You are at the end of your rope, you have nowhere to go; you have no options.  If you’ve ever been there then this is you story.

Moses shared a powerful response to the people.  It’s a response worth knowing and perhaps even memorizing.  His response was this.

“Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again.  The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”  Exodus 14:13-14

This is one of my favorite verses of the Bible.  Read this with me.

Do you know what Moses was offering the Israelites at this moment in their life.  Deliverance.  Or another way to say it they were being offered salvation.  The Israelites were going to be delivered or saved by God from the Egyptians.  

SLIDE You remember what happened?  Moses raised his hands.  The Red Sea was parted.  The Israelites went through.  The Egyptians and all their chariots started going through.  The wheels of their chariots got bogged down.  Moses lowered his hands and the waters came upon the chariots and the Egyptians died.

The people were saved in a way they could not have imagined.  God saved them.  Believing God can deliver us or save us is called hope.  As followers of Jesus Christ we never give up on hope.  Even in a hopeless situation where we have no options we still have God.  

I know that many people in our country are very discouraged and are not hopeful because of the change of government in the United States.  It’s not for me to decide or judge whether you should feel that way or not.  Whatever your views about politics those are your views.  I respect that.

It’s amazing to me that millions of people took to the streets yesterday to march.  The two women who live with me were on the streets.  I would have been out there myself, but I was at a Presbytery meeting.

I know that at Chain of Lakes we have people who voted for Trump and people who were marching in the streets yesterday.  As a pastor I’m glad that we have different views about politics.  We have a Core Value called Healthy Disagreement.  It’s worth lifting up in the midst of our different views about politics.

SLIDE

When we disagree we will encourage discussion while valuing all opinions. We will speak truth in love, treat others respectfully with dignity, and seek to remain in community.  

No matter what our views about Trump we can agree that God always gives us hope.  God can deliver us—even our country—in ways that we can’t even imagine.  The deliverance is salvation.  Our belief in that deliverance is hope.  

Because of God you and I experience salvation when we die.  We recognize that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  

The Apostle Paul wrote about this: 

SLIDE

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord

It’s as if God looks at each one of us and says, “this is my gift to you.”  

I need to talk about our role in salvation.  This is very important.    

A story.  When I graduated from high school I was given a devotional book from the father of a close friend of mine.  He was the pastor of the Missouri Synod Church in town.  He was a great guy.  Beautiful gift

At the time I realized that I needed to start getting serious about my faith.  I had graduated from high school and was going to go to college.  It was time for me to get serious.    For some reason I started to wonder about going to heaven.  And I convinced myself that maybe if I read my devotional book every night that God would be pleased with this and maybe that would help me get into heaven.  

For some reason I came to believe that if I was good, then I would be rewarded.  

Have you ever thought that way?  I’m guessing you have.  It’s the thought or the belief that somehow when we are done with our life God will look over our life and say either, “yes,” you have been good.  Or he will say, “no” you haven’t been good.  The criteria for our salvation is our goodness. 

The idea makes sense on many levels.  Of course we want to be good.  

However tying our salvation to our own goodness puts us in a rabbit hole.    

We find ourselves in this rabbit hole because eventually we’re going to wonder, “how good do I have to be?”  How much goodness is enough?  

I found myself in this rabbit hole when I graduated from high school.  I’m guessing you might think that what I am going to say might seem a bit weird, but I think you might relate.  How many times do I need to read a devotional (being good) in order to be rewarded by God.  What if I miss a night and then die in a car accident.  Would I go—“down there?”

If I read a devotion once—that’s good.  But maybe I’ll truly be good if I read it five times.  But what if I read two devotions today can I skip tomorrow.  Maybe what I should do is really be good now—create like this bank of good will—so if I ever mess up in the future I can rely on this bank of goodness.  What happens when I want to go have some fun.  I’ll be good now so I can have fun later.

This way of thinking is very twisted.  We can twist ourselves up into knots if we come to believe that our salvation depends on our goodness.

SLIDE You’ve probably heard of a man by the name of Martin Luther.  Most people think of him as the father of Protestantism.  Protestantism is a branch of the church.  There are three branches to the Christian church.  Catholic branch; the Protestant branch; and the Orthodox branch.  We Presbyterians are part of the Protestant branch.

Martin Luther was going to be a lawyer, but the death of a classmate and a narrow escape from lighting led him to become a monk.  Luther did well as a monk.  He was eventually ordained to the Catholic priesthood.  But he had no peace.  His own sense of his sin overwhelmed him.  And no matter how often he confessed or fasted or prayed or give alms he did not have peace.  He didn’t have peace from his own goodness.

The church was saying just buy an indulgence and you’ll be forgiven; just say a few “Hail Mary’s” and everything will be okay.  That didn’t work for him.  Luther came to realize that he could not be good enough to put himself into a relationship with God.  No matter how good he tried to be he couldn’t be good enough.  Perfection was not possible.  He couldn’t earn his own salvation.  Luther came to believe that he couldn’t save himself.  He needed a savior.  

The good news is he had a savior.   What he needed to do was receive the gift.  And then respond to the gift in faith.  

The point is our goodness does not give us a ticket to heaven.

Two weeks ago—the bandit on the cross—he was a bad person—he was a lestai.

He didn’t read his devotionals at night—he probably skipped a few days.

When he asked for deliverance at the end of his life—what did Jesus say,

“Truly you will be with me in paradise.”

The point is basic and profound to our spiritual health.  WE can never be good enough.   This doesn’t mean we’re bad people.  What it does mean is we can’t save ourselves.  

This point says a lot about God and gives us a basis to answer today’s question.  God blesses us with salvation.  God blesses us even when we don’t deserve it.  

You know it’s quite a God that we serve.  God knows every part of us; God knows every molecule in our body.  God knows every thought before we think it.  God knows how good we are and God knows how much we fall short.  Even when we fall short, God looks at us and says, “I love you.”  God loves us so much that he decided to give us his Son.  Even though we killed him, he delivered him from death so that you and I can live.

This is the God we serve; this is the image of God we carry with us.  This is the God we can trust.  This is the God who offers us salvation.  

We can trust this God to make our eternal decisions.

That’s what I told a woman at the First Presbyterian Church in Babylon who came to me wondering if her Jewish friend was in heaven.  We can trust this God this decision.  That decision can give us peace.  I believe that everything is okay with your friend because I trust GodThat’s how I would answer today’s question.  I trust God to make decisions about salvation for a baby who hasn’t heard the Word.  I trust God to make decision about eternity for someone who grew up Jewish or a follower of Mohammed.  

Before anyone starts wondering if I am a Universalist, that is I believe if everyone goes to heaven.  I’m not.  I do not believe everyone goes to heaven.  I believe in Hell, but the topic doesn’t interest me that much.  What I’m most interested in sharing is how much God loves you; how much God cares for you.  And what that can do for your life.

And I get that many people in the wider community and the church will profoundly disagree with what I just said.  Maybe you do too.  Let’s talk about it.  

I think God goes way beyond what we can comprehend about salvation.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t have views or beliefs, but what it does mean is we trust God to make these decisions.  That trust gives us peace.

A final story.  At the church I previously served I got to know a woman by the name of Rachel.  She was quite a woman.  She lived on a farm for most of her entire life.  She didn’t have a lot of fear.  She had open heart surgery at the age of 93.  In the last year or so of her life she lived in a home health care setting in town.  I would visit her about once a month.  One day I asked her, “Rachel, do you think about heaven much?”  Yes.  What do you think about I asked her?  How can there be enough room for everyone.  I smiled.  God has it figured out.  There is enough room.  There’s a lot of mansions in that house.  I trust God to know who to let in.