Sunday Sermon: "What It Takes to Enter Heaven"

 |  Sunday Sermon

Text: Psalm 24:1-5
2021 Day of Remembrance 

It’s an old story but a telling one. Once upon a time at a revival meeting, a preacher was waxing eloquently on the splendor of heaven. He was painting word pictures as to the gates of pearl and the streets of gold and the crystal sea, and all of those images that are so much a part of our upbringing as people of faith with respect to heaven. At the end of it all, the preacher pressed home his point by asking the congregation the question, “Who here tonight wants to go to heaven?” At which point hands were raised all over the Sanctuary, with the exception of one man, a fact that disturbed the preacher more than a little. Calling attention to the man whose hands were still at his side, the preacher asked, “Sir, don’t you want to go to heaven?” To which the man replied, “Of course I do, but I thought you were trying to get up a trip right now!”

As corny as the joke sounds, it does make an important point, which is that while most people think that their decision on heaven is one they can put off to the end of life, the truth of the matter is that we prepare for that ultimate decision by the manner in which we live out our faith each and every day. 

This morning we have remembered those saints who have gone on to glory before us. And because so many of these persons were near and dear to us on many levels, it’s a good time for us to reflect on the importance of making sure that we have done all that is necessary to secure our place in glory with them.

It's a question the Psalmist certainly was reflecting on in this 24th Psalm. I don’t know about you, but I find it providential that Psalms 23 and 24 occur next to one another. Psalm 23 is of course the more familiar one, as it speaks to us of a God who draws near to guide and direct us, to provide for us and to protect us, to carry us through the valley of the shadow of death so that we might dwell in the house of the LORD forever. But the 24th Psalm is one that really ought to be read in tandem with the 23rd Psalm. The 24th Psalm invites us to do what is necessary to prepare ourselves for that time when we will be called upon to stand in the presence of the LORD.

And so, the Psalmist asks what is hands down the essential question to which all of us must find answer: “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? (And) who may stand in His holy place?”

Ask most people for an answer to that question today and not everyone can answer it convincingly. Some will either rely on their entrance into heaven as something that will come to them automatically, as if eternal life is a benefit that simply comes to individuals once they are born. Others will fall back on what the Bible teaches about God’s nature and being, that God is a merciful God, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” which is certainly true. But instead of casting their hope on that consistently merciful God, they instead wishfully think that God will simply excuse them and accept them without them changing anything in their life that dishonors or displeases God. Worst of all are those persons who think they actually are doing enough good in their lives that God will be obligated to receive them into His glory. Because they hold to an economy of merit, where people always get what they deserve, they trust that while not entirely perfect, they have done enough good to get under the heavenly wire. But as this text reminds us, presumption and merit are no grounds for being assured that when this life is over there is eternal life still to come.

So, how then does one secure his eternity? According to the Psalmist, by having “clean hands and a pure heart, by not trusting in idols or swearing by a false god, and by being open to receiving the blessing and vindication that comes to us from a God who is indeed rich in mercy and grace.” In other words, to stand in God’s presence always requires us to pay attention to both the external and the internal, “clean hands and pure hearts.” They are two sides of the same coin of salvation, both of which are necessary in order for us to know God’s peace both now and forevermore. 

One of my favorite stories in the Gospels that speak to this point is that story in the eighth chapter of John, where Jesus encounters a woman caught in the act of adultery. Actually, Jesus didn’t initiate the encounter. The woman was dragged before him by the scribes and the Pharisees. You remember the story. “Teacher,” they say to Jesus, “we caught this woman in the very act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to sone such a woman. So, what do you say?” You can surely see it was a trap. They weren’t concerned about the Law. They were certainly not concerned about the woman. They were concerned about the threat Jesus posed to their system of presumption and merit, and they were looking for a way to get him to incriminate himself.

And what did Jesus do? At first it seems as if he didn’t do much at all. He bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  Some say he was stalling for time. Others say he was writing out the sins of the woman’s accusers. Who knows? That’s all speculation.  What matters most in the story are two things, things that point to Jesus’ emphasis on the need to have clean hands and a pure heart. The first is the response that Jesus does give to the religious authorities. “Whoever among you that is without sin, let him cast the first stone,” which none of them was willing to do because none of them was clean enough or pure enough to do. And when all of the woman’s accusers dropped their stones and began to crawl away, Jesus was then left alone with the woman. And turning to that unquestionably guilty soul, he asked her what must have struck her to be a terrifying question, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” Her response was in all likelihood a mix of relief and trepidation. Her accusers had disappeared and yet she still stood before a man who had the cleanest hands and the purest heart anyone could ever find. Therefore, the jury was still out…until the verdict came down from the Judge of all Mankind. “Then, neither do I condemn you. But go your way and sin no more.” This adulterous woman had received from Jesus blessing and vindication, but also a mandate to move on from that moment an eternally changed soul. “Go, and sin no more.”

The thing about heaven is that none of us knows when the moment will come when we will be called to stand before Jesus to give account for our sins. If we did, then we could plan for that time like we plan for everything else – a birthday, an anniversary, a party, a glad reunion. But because we can’t, every moment becomes an opportunity to trust our way to God today so that in Jesus God might ever be changing us more and more each day into a person more fit for His glory. 

How was it that Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights icon from the last century phrased it? “I may not be the man I want to be; I may not be the man I ought to be; I may not be the man I could be; I may not be the man I truly can be; but praise God, I’m not the man I once was.” Only Jesus can make such a change possible. So, grow in his grace and knowledge today so that in the coming days your hands will be cleaner, your heart will be purer, and your faith will be more genuine. Then, when the time does come for God to get up a trip to heaven, you won’t be left out. On that day you will be ready to receive your blessing from the LORD and your vindication from the God who is your Savior.