16. Opening Day in Paradise

“The serious business of heaven is joy.”
-CS Lewis

Graphical user interface, application

Description automatically generated

My dear friend Phil Nicholson used to invite my son and I to join him and his son at the opening day game for the San Francisco 49ers at the now-defunct Candlestick Park. Keep in mind that all other games of the season were second fiddle to opening day. This game was like no other.

The 49ers (and fans) went well beyond the standard football fare on opening day, signifying renewed hope for making it to yet another Super Bowl. Everyone was hyped to cheer the 49ers to victory. It was like going back out on the golf course after a long period of not playing. The memories of those bad shots had been neatly sliced from your brain. A 49er loss on opening day was unthinkable. We looked forward to this game with a special appreciation for the experience we knew to come.

The pre-game tailgate barbecues at Candlestick commenced just after daybreak and were more elaborate than ever, with everyone dressed head to toe in scarlet and gold. The 49er logo was visible everywhere; on cars, tables, banners, flags, chairs, ice chests, napkins, mugs, wine glasses, tattoos, clothes, and more! The air was electric with optimism and excitement as we fired up our Coleman barbecue and pulled the root beer off the ice for the boys. Wandering around the tailgate fixings was like peeking in on an open-air Thanksgiving extravaganza. Roars from the crowd inside the stadium started to mix with the barbecue smoke to create a surreal feeling of something magical about to happen. The 49er energy was palpable.

We caught our first view of the field after crowding through the cement tunnel feeling like sardines in a can. As the darkness turned to light, we surveyed the players warming up on the field in their bleached clean uniforms with brilliant 49er helmets. It was a thing of beauty. We paused to soak it in before moving on to our seats amongst the horde of 49er faithful.

The pre-game ceremony signaled that this was not just another football game. Dignitaries were announced. The U.S. military was honored. Retired 49er players were paraded onto the field. History was celebrated. Opening day was unique; it was a new beginning.

It all climaxed in an unfurling of a ginormous American flag covering the entire field as we roared our national anthem with hats placed over our hearts. Four Blue Angel jets swept in for a fly-by at the climax of “the home of the free and the land of the brave”. I was overwhelmed with patriotic fervor that dampened my eyes as the crowd of sixty thousand cheered in praise of the symbolism of our freedom. The 49er players then exploded from the black tunnel to storm onto the field amongst a storm of more fireworks and patriotic screaming. I was already hoarse, and the game had not even started!

Bring on more root beer—it’s game time!

What if God gives us earthly pleasures like this to provide a sampling of the experiences that awaits us in heaven? To stand in Candlestick Park and feel the intense emotion of that crowd as the Blue Angels flew by could be a prelude to exactly that. The Bible describes hearing the voices of hundreds of thousands of angels worshipping God in heaven (1). It is hard to imagine it being any better than that 49er crowd, but the Bible tells us that what God has in store for us is beyond our wildest dreams. This life with God will satiate every desire we have. Our joy will be exponentially amplified. It is what we were created for. We will finally be home. I envision having my dream day in the lineup at San Onofre with best friends and family joining in. Maybe Roy Lambertson’s description of me “hanging ten and giving a “hang loose” hand signal in the tube” is not so far off after all.

I have read more books about heaven than I want to admit to in attempting to understand what awaits us there. The Bible presents that “its brilliance was like a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal” (2). Yet the real emphasis of heaven is not about heaven’s beauty, but on joy. This joy will overwhelm us to the point that we forget our troubles here on earth. In heaven, everything will be new (3). Earthly pleasures like the opening day festivities of the 49ers game are simply a foretaste of the heavenly joys that await us there. As amazing as that day was, our “opening day” in heaven will make it seem like a day at the DMV.

Seriously.

Opening Day in Heaven

In the Bible, Jesus Christ is the sole authority on the topic of heaven. He is the only person in the history of humanity who came from heaven to live on earth and tell us about what awaited us there. Jesus had a lot to say about heaven. In the book of Matthew alone, He spoke of heaven more than any other person in the Bible. His message was straightforward: Fix your eyes not on the earthly treasures around you, but on the riches that await you in heaven (4). In His short three-year ministry on earth, Jesus was like an army recruit who had memorized the soldier’s creed. He never wavered on that message.

One could argue that God’s purpose in sending Jesus to earth was to tell the world about heaven. Whether or not you believe Jesus is who He said He was (the Son of God), it is fascinating to look closely at what He said about heaven. If we narrow down to His final three days on earth, Jesus was clear as an ear-piercing bell on two things about heaven.

First was that He is preparing a specific place for us in heaven (5). When we finally do get there, Jesus will have our home all built and ready to move in. Some translations use the word “mansion.” I like that picture. As soon as it is ready, Jesus told the disciples He would come to take them there. Maybe my mansion will have an outdoor shower to rinse the sand off from surfing!

Image credit by Gordon Johnson of Pixaby
The Last Supper
(image by Gordon Johnson – Pixaby)

When Jesus said this, He was meeting with His disciples for their final meal together (known as The Last Supper). He was giving the twelve disciples their final marching orders. In three days, He would be crucified on the cross.

To place some context around this, picture the 49er players assembled in the locker room preparing for the final game of their season. Imagine that you are the head coach, and you have announced that you are retiring after this final game. This is your last chance to address the players. What would you say to them? Surely a strategy discussion about how to win the game is in order. A few comments about key plays they need to make. Probably remind them that this is your last game. That would motivate them.

The words Jesus spoke were nothing short of astounding considering the circumstances. The disciples would be carrying the torch forward to spread Christianity to all of planet earth. Not one of the millions of Christian churches worldwide had been built yet. This was ground zero for Christianity. Once Jesus died, the future of Christianity rested on these twelve men.

Yet Jesus did not use the time to review the blueprint on how to advance Christianity after He was gone. He did not explain how they should position His departure. Instead, He left the football field entirely and simply told them He was preparing a place for them in heaven. He gave the disciples a vision of hope for their future.

In hindsight, it seems to have been a compelling play call (6).

The second noteworthy thing that Jesus said during His final hours was to declare that heaven would be paradise:

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43, NIV).

In almost the very last words Jesus spoke before His death on the cross, He declared that heaven would be a perfect place. Jesus spoke these words to a dying thief who was hanging on a cross next to him.  As the thief accepted that Jesus was who He said He was, the thief was assured by Jesus that he would be joining him there. In paradise. Imagine how the thief felt to hear that from Jesus!

Jesus is crystal clear that what awaits us in heaven is a real, physical place that will be a Shangri-La compared to what we know here on earth. A paradise for me has a connotation around surfing, with warm water, perfect waves, a white sandy beach, and of course, palm trees full of coconuts to keep me nourished. Why not? My heavenly vision may seem outlandish, but only because we consider it from our earthly perspective. What awaits us there is beyond what we can imagine. It will be a utopia!

Jesus had the foresight to see that giving the disciples a clear view of their future home in heaven would provide them the strength to endure the difficult times ahead. The promise of paradise was the perfect motivator to get them to persevere. Amid all the muck we see around us in the world today, it is exactly what we need as well.

The final score of the 49ers game will not matter when we get to heaven. An opening day win is an earthly treasure. In heaven, we will be perfect in every way; physically, morally, and in our knowledge. We will have new bodies free from the pain, death, and decay of this present world (7). And yet, amazingly, we will be the person we are today. Our memories of who we are, what we have done, and who we knew in our life on earth will not fade. The Bible assures us that Jesus will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious one (8). It will all be paradise in the end.

I can’t wait to paddle out.


Footnotes:

  1. Revelation 5:11-12 (NIV):
    “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand.”
  2. Revelation 21:10-11 (NIV):
    “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.”
  3. Revelation 21:5 (NIV):
    “He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
  4. Matthew 6:19-21 (NIV):
    “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
  5. John 14:1-3 (TLB):
    “Let not your heart be troubled. You are trusting God, now trust in me. There are many homes up there where my Father lives, and I am going to prepare them for your coming. When everything is ready, then I will come and get you, so that you can always be with me where I am. If this weren’t so, I would tell you plainly.”
  6. Christianity is the largest religious group in the world, and in 2020 there were about 2.6 billion adherents globally. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups)
  7. I have lived long enough to realize that suffering in this life is inevitable. The Bible does not claim our avoiding it once we become a Christian. And yet, despite our troubles, the Bible teaches that all of it will be forgotten in heaven. Having this great certainty gives me the courage to face the valleys ahead.

    “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. All of that has gone forever.” (Revelation 21:4 TLB).
  8. Philippians 3:20-21 (NIV)
    “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”