Sermon Transcript - Menlo Park Presbyterian Church

Menlo Park Presbyterian Church
950 Santa Cruz Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025 650-323-8600
Series: FAQ
April 19, 2015
“What Happens When You Die?”
John Ortberg
Well, I want to say hi to everybody in this room, everybody at the Café, everybody at Mountain View and
San Mateo and San Jose, everybody joining us online. We're starting a series today called Frequently
Asked Questions, and the reason we're doing this is because everybody has questions and doubts, and we
want to be the kind of church that leans into this.
Now the disciples were not people who had all the answers. They were people who had a lot of questions.
They asked enough questions to drive Jesus crazy, and the church ought to be the first place where people
come to bring questions. So next week, we're actually going to have folks here from different faiths and
ask, "What do you think followers of Jesus ought to know about your religion?" It's a little risky, but part
of loving people is coming to know them, and we want to do that. So we're going to do that all together
next weekend.
Then the week after that, we're going to look at the question, "Hasn't science proved that faith is not
consistent with reason and critical thinking?" Then on Mother's Day weekend, we're going to look at the
question, "Isn't Christianity unfair to women? Doesn't the Bible say that men are supposed to be in charge
and women should do what men say?" Anybody? Well, if you're a woman or if you're a man, you will not
want to miss that one.
One of our secret missions is we want to get us and our friends and our neighbors and as many people in
the Bay Area as we can to think again about the person and teaching of Jesus. We believe we live in an
area of highly educated spiritual ignorance. I was talking to a guy this week, a really bright man, and he
said to me, "It's like that verse in the Bible, 'Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to
fish and you feed him forever.'" That's not actually in the Bible. Often people dismiss Jesus without
knowing what Jesus really said. So we want to be a place where everybody's welcome to ask their biggest
question.
To launch the series this weekend is a big one. "What happens to you when you die?" What happens to a
human being when they die? My very first boss at a church was named John F. Anderson. He had a very
interesting sense of humor. He told me this actually happened. One time he was traveling with a funeral
director some distance to perform a funeral, and on the way back John wanted to take a nap, so he
stretched out in the back of the hearse. Sounds kind of creepy, but he was tired, and he did.
Then the director stopped to get gas. The director went inside to get coffee while the attendant was filling
up the hearse. When John woke up he saw what was going on, tapped on the window, and waved at the
attendant from the back of the hearse. He said he never saw anyone run so fast his whole life long. But
everybody is going to die, and the question is…What happens next? Do you wake up again?
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This question isn't just incredibly important; it's incredibly tender. I know of a dad whose child died who
said, "I'm part of a club I never wanted to join. Every year when their birthday comes, or it's the
anniversary of the day they died, or it's a holiday, I think about how old they would be now. There's just
pain."
I think of a mom in our church, more than one, with little children who have lost their daddy just over the
last year and they have so many questions…so many questions. That's part of why a church exists, for
folks struggling with death who don't have many other places to go. Everybody here has had somebody
you love die, or if you haven't, you will. Every one of us will face death ourselves. So I'm so glad you're
here for this.
Two thousand years ago an event happened that not only launched the Christian faith but also produced
the most radical change of view about the afterlife in that little community of Jesus followers of any
community in history.
Now I know death touches the heart and emotions, our feelings and fears, as deeply as anything in the
world, but actually for the rest of this message, I want to try to cover as much information together as we
can because I believe that when it comes to life and death we need something more than to feel comforted.
Above all we need truth. I believe if you aim at trying to feel hope you may end up with wishful thinking,
but if you aim at truth you get hope thrown in.
So for the rest of this message, I want to try to trace the history of what happened way back then. I want to
try to pinpoint exactly what changed 2,000 years ago so we can understand what they said, what they
believed, so you can decide if there is hope when you die. Now to begin with, in the early days of Israel's
faith in God, ideas about the afterlife were actually quite vague, quite shadowy. The Hebrew word for the
underworld or the realm of the dead in the Old Testament was the word sheol.
You need to know in the Old Testament there were almost no descriptions of what life in sheol would
have been like or looked like. It was pretty close to nonexistent. This is from Psalm 6. The psalmist says,
"Turn, O LORD, and deliver me… No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from
[sheol]?" Often sheol is simply translated "the grave," because that's about what it means.
Probably the book in the Bible that has the most unblinking discussion of death is a book called
Ecclesiastes. If you ever wonder, "Can I love God and still have doubts about stuff?" this is your book.
This is part of what the writer of Ecclesiastes writes. "The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of
people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward
they join the dead."
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are
going…" In case you missed that. "…there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor
wisdom." It's kind of a downer paragraph. People are surprised that book made it into the Bible, but the
rabbis decided there was an honesty and a grittiness and a "God, where-are-you?" quality to this writing
that God wanted in his book. I'm so glad, because I feel like that sometimes. I have doubts, I have
questions, and there is so much mystery to this subject.
Now I want to point out one really important, often-overlooked truth. Very often in our day, skeptics, or
people who don't believe in God, will say the reason people cling to faith in God is people are afraid of
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the reality of death and they just want a ticket to the afterlife, so that's why they believe. It's thought to be
more rational or more courageous just to face the fact that death is the end.
There's a famous poem by Dylan Thomas that goes, "Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage
against the dying of the light." But rage, rage is a hard philosophy of life to live rationally by. "What are
you going to do today, honey?"
"Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
"Well, in between raging, can you drop the kids off at school?"
I was talking to somebody this week who said, "I wanted to believe there was hope beyond death, but I
was afraid my desire made that belief a crutch. I figured it must be more rational to believe there's no hope
beyond death because I don't want to believe that."
But a lot of times I want to believe something is true, and it turns out to be true. I want it to be true that the
sun will rise in the morning, and guess what? It does rise in the morning. I want it to be true that my wife
loves me, and guess what? My wife is crazy about me. Truth is independent of whether I want it to be true
or I don't want it to be true.
What's striking is that faith in a living God did not emerge in Israel because it was thought to be the ticket
to an afterlife. The key issue for Israel was not is there an afterlife; the key issue was is there meaning and
accountability and justice to this life? Does the universe have a Maker? Is there anybody to rage, rage
against?
For all the pessimism of the writer of this book, Ecclesiastes, this is his takeaway in the last chapter.
"Remember your Creator in the days of your youth…" Not rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Remember God. Love God. Serve God. That's why there was another observation in Ecclesiastes that
would haunt Israel, that haunts the human race still, that haunts you and me. The writer puts it like this,
"[God] has also set eternity in the human heart…" Everybody dies. Every creature ceases to exist, but
God has set eternity in the human heart.
I think about it like this sometimes. One of the most amazing aspects of nature to me is how God has
placed in animals, or however you think it got there, a kind of built-in homing instinct of incredible
accuracy. Some of you know way more about this than I do. Homing pigeons, I understand, can find their
way home from places they have never been on the planet so accurately they were actually used by the
ancient Romans and by Genghis Khan. Dung beetles actually navigate home by the Milky Way.
Salmon leave the ocean and travel to the exact spot on the exact river where they were born. They
navigate by magnetic waves. A gray whale will travel all the way to the little lagoon off Cabo San Lucas
to give birth and care for her little family. What are the odds she would migrate 12,000 miles to live in her
exact home in Alaska? But she does. A mommy emperor penguin will let the dad care for her little
penguin for four months while she goes off to feed her face. What are the odds she will find her way back
to live in that exact spot with that exact penguin? But she does.
I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. I came to California a long time ago to have children, care for a little
family. Now my kids are all grown up. What are the odds I will return to live out my final days in
Rockford, Illinois? Absolutely zero. Like, bet on the Cubs first. I asked Nancy one time, "What would you
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do if God called us back to the Midwest?" She said, "Oh, that's easy. I would sin, stay here, claim grace,
and live in California till I die."
So anyway, the writer of Ecclesiastes says, "God has put a little homing device in your spirit." God has set
eternity in your heart, and it whispers to you that death is not the end, that there is something more, that
this life is not all there is, that you are not home yet, but there is a home. God has set eternity in the human
heart.
Is that true? Now over time, a teaching came from some in Israel that it is. A prophet named Isaiah said to
Israel these remarkable words, "But your dead will live…their bodies will rise—let those who dwell in
the dust…" Dust was an image for the Hebrews for mortality. That's why it talks about God creating from
the dust. God remembers we're dust. We're the stuff that dies. "…wake up and shout for joy—your dew
is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead."
A prophet named Ezekiel had this vision that would become famous where he sees this valley of bones.
Not just bones. Does anybody remember what kind of bones? Dry bones, because there's no life in them.
God asked the prophet, "Son of man, can these bones live?" The prophet says, "Sovereign Lord, you alone
know. I don't know. People don't know." God says, "Prophesy to those bones and say to them, 'Dry bones,
hear the word of the Lord. I will make breath enter you and you will come to life and then you will know I
am the Lord.'"
There's this very dramatic vision where bone comes to bone, and they get covered with flesh, and then
God breathes his life into them, and there is life where there was death. The word for this picture, the
word for this belief, is resurrection. This is a really important word. This belief resurrection was unique to
Israel in the ancient world. Not every belief in the afterlife is a Christian belief. This belief in resurrection
was not shared essentially at all in the ancient world outside of Israel.
Some in the ancient world and some today believe in an afterlife by reincarnation, that you might come
back as another person or a creature of some sort. That's not resurrection. Resurrection says you are
coming back as you. So hopefully you like you. Some people in the ancient world and today believe you
live on by being absorbed into nature or the spirit of the universe, kind of like a glass of water getting
poured into the ocean, that you live on somehow in the earth or in the breeze or in people's memories or in
some general way.
Now I went fishing with good friends last week. I go fishing almost never, but I went last week, and I
caught a 27-inch salmon. Just so you believe it, that's my fish right there. That salmon died. We ate it that
night. Some of the cells of that salmon live on in my body. One of my friends put the remainders of that
salmon, guts and scaly body, in a paper bag in the trunk of my car. Do you know what dead fish juice
baked into the trunk of a car smells like? I do. In a way, the presence of that salmon lingers on in my
memory, in my belly, and now every time I get into my car. That is not resurrection.
Resurrection means God is going to bring you back to life as you in a body that has been transformed so it
will never die again. Not just that, in a world that has been transformed to defeat suffering and sin and
death. Now if people don't understand clearly about resurrection…this is part of why it's so
important…then they find this strong ambivalence about phrases that are much more often used in our day
you don't find in the Bible much, like "going to heaven when you die."
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So I'll put this as a few questions. Just a show of hands at every site if you don't mind…How many of you
would like to go to heaven when you die? Okay, in this room, pretty much everybody. Second
question…How many of you would like to go right now, today, as soon as we're done with this service?
Way fewer. What's up with that if you believe heaven is such a great deal?
See, here's part of the problem. Most of us actually have an idea of heaven that has been informed a lot
more by images and literature in the Middle Ages and then cartoons in our day than anything else. I could
do this whole message as The Far Side cartoons. I actually have one right here. "Welcome to heaven;
here's your harp. Welcome to hell; here's your accordion." That's a picture a lot of people have. We
actually have a staff member who plays the accordion. It's kind of a scary thought. There he is right there,
a guy named Frank VanderZwan.
I just heard this last week. Do any of you know what the definition of a gentleman is? I'd never heard this
before. A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion but doesn't. Anyway, let me put this question
a little bit differently, okay? Let me get all the way through it. I'll ask for a show of hands on this
one…How many of you would like to wake up and have the world set right? No more hungry children. No
more terrorist attacks in the newspaper. No more broken families. No more drought. No more violence in
the Middle East. No more racism. No more poverty. No more death.
Not just that, not just the world, but you would be set right. You'd speak the truth all the time with
courage and love without ever thinking about it. You would be a great friend. You would do excellent
work. Your body would be filled with energy, and every morning you would be filled with more joy than
the morning before. How many people would like that? If you want that, you want resurrection. That's
resurrection.
Some people think we're supposed to want for God to destroy this earth we love and take us to the clouds
somewhere and play the harp or something. That's not resurrection. The apostle Paul wrote… Notice this.
This is in his letter to the church at Rome, chapter 8. "For the creation waits in eager expectation…in
hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom
and glory of the children of God."
Resurrection does not mean that God is going to destroy his creation. He loves it. He made it. He's going
to redeem his creation. He's going to burn off, purify, everything that's not right. He's going to make it
right. The greatest reality show in history is going to be "Extreme Makeover: Universe Edition." Now
nobody in the ancient world, outside of little Israel, believed in resurrection, and not everybody in Israel
believed in this notion of resurrection, that God was going to give bodily life back to the righteous and set
his creation right.
A group called the Sadducees did not believe in this. This is from the gospel of Mark. "Then the
Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] with a question." Some people think a
funny way to remember their name that they did not believe in the resurrection, so they're "sad, you see." I
don't think it's funny, but there are some people who do. Some, like a Jewish writer named Philo, agreed
with pagans that there would be a kind of afterlife with spirits or ghosts or something but did not believe
in bodily resurrection.
Then 2,000 years ago, a community sprang into existence overnight. They were called Christians.
Initially, they followed a man named Jesus, a teacher, a rabbi, because of what he taught and how he
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lived. Then he died, and that little movement was done. Then three days later, it wasn't done. Quite
literally, overnight came the most dramatic change in beliefs about the afterlife in history.
A guy named Tom Wright writes about this is in a wonderful little book called Surprised by Hope. He
talks about how normally people's beliefs about the afterlife are very slow to change, but all of a sudden
overnight we see a radical shift in beliefs in this little community. I'll just walk through them real quickly.
First, there was a new consensus. Instead of the variety of beliefs about the afterlife that had been true for
Israel, like the Sadducees and people like Philo and so, every one of these followers of Jesus in the first
couple of centuries believed in literal, bodily resurrection. There was a new consensus.
Secondly, there was a new centrality. Think about this. The resurrection became so central to their faith,
take away stories of Jesus' birth and all you lose are two chapters in the gospel of Matthew and two
chapters in the gospel of Luke; take away the resurrection, you lose the entire New Testament.
Thirdly, they had a new view of time. Those Israelites before Jesus who believed in resurrection believed
it would happen all at once for all of the righteous at the end of time. Now, out of nowhere, with no
precedent for this, a group of people believe that the resurrection has begun with a single person, Jesus,
and that it will one day in the future come for all who trust Jesus.
That's why the apostle Paul, for example, writes, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the
firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." That idea of the firstfruits is they're the beginning indication
that one day the harvest is coning. Jesus is the firstfruit. One day the resurrection is coming.
Fourthly, there's a new view of humanity. The resurrection, which only Israel had believed in, was now
viewed as God's intent to redeem not just the nation of Israel but now every single member of the human
race who would humble themselves and repent. That could be you. That could be you.
Fifthly, they had a new view of God. No one expected a crucified Messiah, and therefore, no one expected
a resurrected Messiah. Jesus revealed a God who would die for you so you could live with him. A
crucified God will stand with you in your suffering so one day a resurrected you can stand with God in
God's glory.
Lastly, that means there's a new hope. The apostle Paul writes these unbelievable words, and if you're
suffering, if you're afraid, if you're in pain, just let these words wash over you. One day, "When the
perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying
that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your
victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But
thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
The honing instinct deep in your soul is correct. One day death is going to die! I'd kind of like to see that.
I'd kind of like to be around for that. God has placed eternity in the hearts of human beings because God
wants to place human beings in the heart of eternity, starting right now. That's our hope, see.
Now I want to hit a few questions because there are so many around this big question, "What happens
when you die?" A lot of people wonder, "What happens to me between when I die and when I get a
resurrected body at the final resurrection?" Because, again, that resurrection is going to come when God
sets everything right and we all get our resurrection bodies and the earth is renewed.
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So what happens between when I die and when I'm resurrected? Nobody knows for sure. Paul, who taught
about that final resurrection, also said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We
know when Jesus was on the cross, he said to the repentant thief who was next to him, "This day you will
be with me in paradise," even though that final resurrection of all things is still in the future.
There's a brilliant English thinker, John Polkinghorne. He's a physicist and a clergyman, and he has a
metaphor for that in-between time. He says maybe when we die it will be like God will download our
software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again. So
nobody knows for sure, but to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and one day
resurrection is coming, we're told.
Another question. "What will death be like? When I die, what will that moment be like?" Of course,
there's huge mystery because all of us are on this side, but I'll tell you maybe the most amazing statement
Jesus ever made (and he made a lot of them). One day, Jesus said, "Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys
my word will never see death." What's up with that? "Will never taste death" it says in the next verse. In
other words, you won't experience it.
When a guy who's kind of our church's friend, Dallas Willard, had pancreatic cancer and we walked with
him in the process of dying, he said a lot of amazing things, and one of them I had never, ever heard
before and I will never forget. He said one day, "You know, when I die, I think it may be some time
before I know it." I'd never thought of that one before.
See, if you follow Jesus, you're already standing in another world, the kingdom of God. He said the
kingdom of God is now here. The eternal realm of God's presence is here, and you're standing in that, and
you, your conscious experience, will just go right on. Death will not interrupt your experience of life with
God at all.
I was trying to think of an illustration of this. I had my wisdom teeth taken out many, many years ago, and
they gave me a shot of anesthesia. They said, "Count backwards from 10." I was real concerned because I
knew this was going to hurt and I didn't think this anesthesia would be strong enough, so I started
counting backwards, and when I hit one I said, "I told you it's not going to work," and they said, "We're all
done." I had actually gone to sleep and woken up again and had no idea. "Very truly I tell you, whoever
obeys my word will never see death."
Another question. "What will resurrected living be like?" Again, a huge problem here is most people have
never given adult thought to the afterlife. We just think in cartoon terms. Another cartoon from The Far
Side. "Wish I'd brought a magazine," says the man sitting on the cloud. People think they will bored by
heaven. See, Jesus' friend John says we will reign with God.
In one story, Jesus says the master will say to us, "Well done, my good servant! […] Because you have
been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities." What would you do if God put you in
charge of 10 cities? Are you ready for that? What if he just gave you one city? What if God put you in
charge of San Jose or San Mateo or even Gilroy, with all that garlic? What would you do?
See, eternity is not going to be an endless church service on clouds with harps and palms. How boring
would that be? So how should you think of your destiny? Your destiny is to be absorbed in a
tremendously creative team effort under unimaginably splendid leadership on an inconceivably vast scale
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with endless cycles of productivity and enjoyment, and that is what lies before us in the prophetic vision
that eye has not seen and ear has not heard. Would you like that one one more time? I didn't make that one
up.
Take a look. It's from Dallas Willard. "Your destiny is to be absorbed in a tremendously creative team
effort under unimaginably splendid leadership on an inconceivably vast scale with ever-increasing cycles
of productivity and enjoyment, and that is what eye has not seen and ear has not heard that lies before us
in the prophetic vision."
People wonder, "What will my resurrected body be like?" I know one woman who said, "I've never liked
my nose. Will I get a different nose?" You may be thinking, "Could I get George Clooney's body?" or,
"Could my husband get George Clooney's body? That'd be like heaven for me." It's interesting. In Jesus'
resurrected body his wounds are still visible, but instead of being signs of defeat or ugliness, they become
signs of glorious love. They become beautiful.
The most important question…So what? If God has placed eternity in your heart because he wants to
place you in the heart of eternity, if there's going to be resurrection, what's the takeaway? It's so
interesting. This comes at end of the longest treatment of the resurrection in the Bible, Paul's first letter to
the church at Corinth, chapter 15. Paul writes, "Therefore…" Because of the truth of the resurrection,
because it's coming. "…my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give
yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
Nothing you do is in vain because resurrection is coming. Therefore stand firm. Not rage, rage against the
dying of the light. Not fill out your bucket list with little experiences for your own human heart. Give
yourself to God fully. Trust God. Love God. Serve God. Do your work with God and for God. Live with
God because God is still in the business of saving people from sin and death. So don't give up when you
have trouble, when you're sick, when you're broke, when you're scared, if you're alone, if you're afraid, if
you're divorced, if you've failed.
This is from N.T. Wright. "…what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a
machine that's about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that's shortly going to be
thrown on the fire. […] You are—strange though it may seem…accomplishing something that will
become in due course part of God's new world.
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God…every
minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk…every deed that spreads the
gospel, [every prayer ever prayed, every gift ever given, every holy thought, every gracious word]…all of
this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day
make."
You can become, through Jesus, not just a consumer of hope, but a beacon of hope, a signpost of hope, a
vessel of hope, and one day we who today sit here will be together again with those we have loved and
lost who also serve and follow this God in his redeemed and resurrected world. The great story which
never ends, in which every chapter is better than the one that went before. That, if you believe, trust, and
follow Jesus is what happens to you when you die. Yeah, that's good news. That'd be okay to celebrate.
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Next week, we're going to look at "What do a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, and a secularist want
you to know about their faith?" I think it's going to be riveting, so don't miss it, and bring friends. But
now, let's pray.
I want to invite you right now… If you have lost somebody you love, or maybe somebody you know and
care about is very sick, or maybe you're facing a condition or a health situation, or just the thought of
death terrifies you, there's a hope for you. There's a resurrection coming for you. God wants to pour out
his love and his presence and his comfort on you right now. Right now. If you give your life to God, if
you ask for his forgiveness and his grace, you can know that nothing, not even death, can ever separate
you from him.
God, thank you for this great mystery that you have set eternity in our hearts. We offer you our hearts. In
Jesus' name, amen.
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