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Homeward Bound: The Promise Of The Pearl

Revelation 21:9-21

Thornton Wilder in his play, “Our Town”, has one of the characters say: “All the greatest people who have ever lived have been telling us for over 5000 years that there is something way down deep that is eternal in every human being.” There is in every human heart some indescribable longing, some flutter of hope that there is more to life than this life. Sociologists have never found a people anywhere on the face of the earth who did not have some idea of an afterlife and of a heaven. It seems to be of the warp and woof of our very existence. We came into this life, as the poet put it, “trailing clouds of glory”, and it is built into us that we can look forward to a future infinitely more glorious than our past. The hope of Heaven is planted deep in every human heart—and people in our society today are more and more readily acknowledging that hope. Therefore I speak today of Heaven—specifically of one detail of it. Attempting to describe Heaven, John writes in the book of Revelation: “The twelve gates are twelve pearls; each of the gates is a single pearl.” John’s use of the pearl is a symbol of an indescribably powerful truth. Let me show you what he means…

The pearl helps us, first of all, to take the measure of Heaven—it is glorious beyond our wildest imagination.

I read of an infant who was stricken blind, and who when she was about six years of age, through a series of very exotic operations, had her sight restored. When the bandages were removed, the little girl looked at the face of her mother, and then looked out the window and saw the beauties of the world outside, and then ran to the door to behold the wonder of other people passing by, and then she turned to her mother and said: “Mother, why didn’t you tell me it was all so wonderful?” Her mother replied: “I tried, but I just didn’t have the words.” That was John’s problem. He just didn’t have the words to describe the glories of Heaven.

Have you ever pondered the fact that in the Biblical narrative, those who have had a vision of Heaven and returned again say nothing about it? There is no description of Heaven on the lips of Elijah or Moses or Lazarus or the son of the widow of Nain. Paul had a vision of Heaven and with regard to that vision he said: “I heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” Even Jesus made little attempt to describe Heaven. He said once that it was a place of many mansions, but He said no more. He did tell one particularly powerful parable about it, and interestingly enough, He used the image of the pearl. The parable is only one sentence long. He said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who on finding one pearl of great value, sold all that he had and bought it”

Remember please, that the pearl was the most precious and valuable gem in the first century world. The diamond was unknown to people then. So Jesus was saying that this person who knew about a perfect pearl, of such beauty, of such opalescence, of such sheen, that he was willing to lay aside everything else in order to claim it as his own—that as this pearl was, so is the kingdom of Heaven. In other words, Heaven is a place of such glory that it is beyond description and it is worth any price.

We hear a lot these days about what are called “near-death experiences”—people who understand that they have died, crossed over into life that is to come, and then somehow have come back to this life again. In fact perched atop the New York Times bestseller list is a book called Embraced By The Light written by Betty J. Eadie. It is an account of her own “near-death experience.” In the book she describes her death, her entrance into Heaven, what happened there, what she learned there about her life here, and her descriptions of the people and the things she saw. Now, she is obviously a Christian, and her book is filled with great Christian truth, and I am grateful to have anything remotely related to the Christian faith at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. However, as I read the book, two thoughts struck me. One, the things she claimed to have learned in Heaven were things she didn’t need to go to Heaven to learn—they are taught on the pages of the Bible, every one of them. And secondly, her descriptions of Heaven are phrased in very human terms—and the Bible makes it clear that no human language can ever capture the glories of Heaven.

Do you remember what Paul said? “No eye has seen, no ear heard, and no human mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.” In my own life, I have been privileged to see some magnificent sights and to hear some incredible sounds. I have seen the sun rise over the inky blackness of the Grand Canyon gradually filling the cracks and crags of that colossal fissure with brilliant color. I have seen the pastel hues of the setting sun stain the slopes of Utah’s Wasatch range of mountains. I have sailed a boat to the Isle of Capri and gazed down into the beckoning blue of its fabulous grotto. I have seen the snowy peak of Mount Fujiyama turn pink by the twilight. I have heard the deafening wail of hurricane winds blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. I have heard the rumble of an avalanche rolling down the side of Switzerland’s Mont Blanc. I have heard the slivering hiss of the cobra and the guttural roar of a tiger near the coast of India’s Bay of Bengal. But none of the things that I have seen or heard—or seen and heard—none of them, not one of them, can match the glory of Heaven.

So John says, there are twelve gates, and each gate is a single pearl. By saying that, he was saying that the glory of Heaven is simply beyond our measure.

And the pearl helps us, also, to find the treasure of Heaven—it is the Christ who waits for us there.

Who or what is it that is worthy of pearl gates before it? Who or what is it that is worthy of such splendor at the point of entry? It is the Lord of course. He is the treasure of Heaven. And there is within all of us a profound urge to go to be with Him. Just as a homing pigeon does not understand fully what happens to it, how it is drawn inexorably to the place from which it came, so we feel within ourselves this drawing power of the divine, this magnetic call to the presence of the Lord.

When Albert Einstein was working at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University, on one occasion a reporter asked Einstein’s wife: “Do you understand your husband’s theory of relativity?” She responded: “No, I do not understand Albert’s theory, but I do understand Albert!”

Well, in just this way, we cannot begin to understand all that Heaven is or means, but we do know Jesus, and we know Him in such a way and to such a degree that when we are told that in Heaven “we shall see Jesus and be like Him,” well that is enough to satisfy us.

It was my privilege a number of years ago to have as a member of my congregation in South Carolina, a man named Bill Roberts. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister. He went into banking and was very successful, but he told me that at one time he felt called into the ministry. I asked him why he had not pursued that call. His answer surprised me. He said that he had a deep fear of hospitals—he couldn’t bear to enter one of them—and he knew that as a pastor he would have to go to the hospitals regularly. So he turned away from the ministry and decided to become the best lay Christian he could be—and he was a good one! At a relatively early age, Bill Roberts was stricken with bone cancer. He had to go to the hospital, and he had to spend a long time there. As the disease progressed, his bones became so brittle that any movement might cause them to break. So Bill Roberts spent the last days of his life in the place he feared the most, with his body completely cradled in soft pillows to prevent any movement at all. But even in that dreadful circumstance, his faith continued to shine. One day his family was gathered about his bed. His eyes were closed. Suddenly he opened his eyes, raised his arms—yes, raised his arms!—and said: “My Jesus…” And with that he was gone.

Death is not always so beautiful or dramatic, but that we are welcomed by Jesus is always true. There is only one great enough to dwell behind the gates of pearl—it is Jesus, the treasure of Heaven, and He waits for us there.

Then the pearl helps us, finally, to experience the pleasure of Heaven—it is that Heaven will be home for us.

You know that pearls are produced by the oyster, and the oysters which produce the most beautiful pearls live at a depth of 150 feet in the water, requiring a long and dangerous dive to retrieve them. That says to me that there is no place or situation in life which is so deep and so dark and so dangerous that it is beyond the reach of Heaven.

The pearl is also the product of pain. A tiny grain of sand, a sharp edged bit of quartz, insinuates itself into the oyster’s body. The pain causes the oyster to secrete a milky, plastic-like substance with which it covers that grain of sand again and again and again, until a pearl is produced. A pearl, you see, is the tear of the oyster. A pearl is beauty wrapped around trouble. This says to me that no matter how intense the pain, no matter how heavy the burden, no matter how deep the agony of our human experience, our trouble will be wrapped in beauty when we get home to Heaven.

Of course, I think it is both beautiful and appropriate to refer to Heaven as home, as that place where we belong. The homing instinct is in us all. “I want to go home,” says the child when the darkness of night begins to fall. “Take me home,” says the older person when removed from dearly loved faces and places. Home, you see, is not only a good place—it is our place. It’s where our fullest identity is revealed. It’s our source of security. It’s where we are loved at all costs, loved when we are at our best, even loved when we are at our worst. It’s an emotional buffer against pain and trouble. Home is the place where we are made welcome, and home is the place where we can stay forever. Heaven is the place—home is the place -where we will be forever loved and with those we love forever.

Back during the Civil War when the Battle of Vicksburg was being fought, there came an evening when the federal forces were on one side of the Mississippi River and the rebel forces were encamped on the other side. In the coolness of that evening, the union band began to play “The Star Spangled Banner”. Afterward, the rebel band mustered up to play “Dixie”. The federal band played another tune. The rebel band replied with yet another tune. Back and forth, the bands played against each other. Then the union played “Home Sweet Home.” As they played, suddenly the confederate band joined in playing the same tune. They played together. When they finished, some young soldier boy cried out, “Three cheers for home!” And forgetting they were foes who on the morrow would hurl themselves at each other’s throats, these men joined together in cheering for home. As they returned to their tents, it is said that their cheers turned to tears. There is no instinct in the human heart greater than the yearning for home.

When H. B. Laird, the great Christian saint, lay dying, his son said to him: “Dad, how do you feel?” Laird replied: “My son, I feel like a little boy on Christmas Eve who is going home!”

Well…

I think old John had it right when he sought to describe the indescribable by saying: “The twelve gates are twelve pearls; each of the gates is a single pearl.” This speaks of the measure of Heaven—it is overwhelming and indescribable in its glory. This speaks of the treasure of Heaven—it is the Lord who loved us, even to a cross, who is waiting for us there. And this speaks of the pleasure of Heaven—it is that no matter what hurts or agonies we have known in our living or in our dying, when we get there, there will be no more weeping or pain or sorrow—all of these former things will have passed away, because we shall be

At home…

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