Many people say that they don’t hear too many sermons about hell anymore. I believe this is true in general, but I will say that I preach about it a good bit. However, I would like to point out that the same could be said about sermons on heaven. Try to remember the last time you heard a sermon that dealt with the topic, let alone inspired a longing for heaven.
Too many sermons focus on this world: how to live in it, how to deal with moral and ethical problems, and how to be happier in it. It is not wrong to preach about such things as long as it does not divert focus from our ultimate destination: heaven or hell. To be vague, uninspiring or silent about our goal and desired destination is spiritually disastrous.
To illustrate, consider a man who sets out in his car for New York City from Washington, D.C. His destination guides every turn he takes, every navigational decision he makes. If he sees a sign that says, “South to Richmond,” he knows not to take that exit. He doesn’t have to deliberate; the answer is clear because his destination is clear. Consider, though, what might happen if he were uncertain about where he was going or forgot: The road signs might cause stress and confusion. He might think, “Perhaps this is the way I should go … or maybe not. How do I know? Maybe there will be fun things to see and do along that route.” Soon enough he might be driving all over the map, lost in diversions, distractions, and — ultimately — dead ends. He might in fact see some pleasant sights along the way, but deep down he would begin to sense that none of this driving around was adding up to anything.
Without a destination we are lost, confused and worried. To live without a clear goal is stressful because we have little basis on which to make good decisions; every choice seems difficult. With little ability to determine what is truly good for us, we focus on temporary pleasure, becoming easy prey for the hucksters of this world. So, our credit cards are maxed out, our hearts are divided and we feel unmoored.
Where are we going? When was the last time we really thought about it? Too many of us are living unreflective, directionless lives. We don’t really know where we are going, but we’re sure in a big hurry to get there!
Have a goal: heaven! Focus on it. Dream about it. Long for it. Make it direct your “modus vivendi.” We should want to die loving God and our neighbor so that we can go home to heaven and be with God forever. Let every decision you make be in service of this one, clear goal. Carefully review your life and ask yourself, “Am I moving closer to my goal? How? What things have hindered me or diverted me from it?”
Consider this beautiful meditation from Pope St. Gregory the Great, which is in the Office of Readings this week: “If anyone enters the sheepfold through me, he shall be saved; he shall go freely in and out and shall find good pasture. He will enter into a life of faith; from faith he will go out to vision, from belief to contemplation, and will graze in the good pastures of everlasting life.
“So our Lord’s sheep will finally reach their grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity. These pastures are the spiritual joys of heaven. There the elect look upon the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for ever more.
“Beloved brothers, let us set out for these pastures where we shall keep joyful festival with so many of our fellow citizens. May the thought of their happiness urge us on! Let us stir up our hearts, rekindle our faith, and long eagerly for what heaven has in store for us.
“To love thus is to be already on our way. No matter what obstacles we encounter, we must not allow them to turn us aside from the joy of that heavenly feast.
“Anyone who is determined to reach his destination is not deterred by the roughness of the road that leads to it. Nor must we allow the charm of success to seduce us, or we shall be like a foolish traveler who is so distracted by the pleasant meadows through which he is passing that he forgets where he is going. (From a homily on the Gospels by Pope St. Gregory the Great, Hom. 14, 3-6: PL 76, 1129-1130).
In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul wrote, “This one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus. Whatever was an asset to me I count as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him … Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been perfected, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil 3: 7-9; 12-14).
Onward, upward, to the goal!
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter — St. Cyprian Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.
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