NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–For years the public face of the Grand Ole Opry, country music legend Porter Wagoner recorded dozens of albums, helped launch Dolly Parton’s career and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
But in the year before his death from cancer Oct. 28, Wagoner had a dream of more eternal significance, one in which he visited heaven.
“Heaven was more beautiful than anything you could ever imagine,” Wagoner is said to have told family and friends. “What was so wonderful was there were so many people that I hadn’t see for many years –- old friends and family, Momma and Daddy.”
When someone asked if there were any surprises, Wagoner is said to have replied, “There was one. There were some people I expected to be there that I didn’t see.”
Jerry Sutton, senior pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, shared that dramatic story during his sermon at Wagoner’s funeral, held Nov. 1 at the Grand Ole Opry.
Sutton told about Wagoner’s testimony as he shared the Gospel with audience members.
“Let me tell you a secret,” Sutton told the crowd, estimated by some media members at 2,000. “This may not be politically correct, but it’s true. His name is Jesus and the Word of God says those who know Jesus will make it home to the Father. And those without Jesus are lost.”
The longtime Two Rivers pastor delivered the Gospel-focused sermon at the request of Wagoner’s son, Richard — a member and one-time deacon at the church — and daughters, Denise and Deborah.
“Normally when you have what I’d call celebrity types you don’t expect a Gospel message,” Sutton, who has received about a dozen positive calls and e-mails about his sermon, told Baptist Press. “You expect somebody to get up and brag on ’em for 30 minutes. That’s not what the family wanted.”
Preaching from John 14, Sutton told the audience there are three things people can do to make sure they are ready to die and go to heaven:
— Have faith in a Person named Jesus Christ.
Quoting John 14:1: “Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me,” Sutton said that Jesus was the solution to humanity’s sin and came to be the Savior of the world.
The Word of God says Jesus was God’s Son and that when He was nailed on that cross He took mankind’s punishment and then rose from the grave, Sutton said.
“Jesus Christ did not just come to preach the Gospel,” Sutton said. “He came so there would be a Gospel to preach. Porter knew that. He’s written thousands of gospel songs. He knew that Jesus Christ came to forgive sins, take our place and make a way for us to go home.”
— Believe in a place called heaven.
When Jesus walked on earth, Sutton said, He talked about heaven as if He had been there — because He had. Jesus has been in heaven throughout eternity, Sutton said, which is why He could tell His disciples, “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
Heaven won’t resemble earth, Sutton said, since there won’t be any sin, sorrow or broken hearts.
“I’m not even sure they can have country music in heaven, with no broken hearts up there,” Sutton joked.
— Put faith in Christ’s promise that He is preparing a place for His followers.
“He’s been preparing a place for us for a long time now,” Sutton said. “If you know Jesus, He’ll take you home. He said, ‘I’ll go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I’m going to come back and take you home.'”
If Wagoner could return and serve as the Opry’s “Wagonmaster” one more time, he would have a distinct message for the crowd, Sutton said. The singer would tell them not to overlook Jesus with all the loves, labors, longings and laughter in life.
“You see, Jesus is the one who makes heaven our home,” Sutton said. “A lot of folks think if my good works outweigh my bad works, I’ll make it home. That’s not true. The Word of God says if we’ll receive Jesus as our Savior … we will make it safely home. Not based on our good works but based on Jesus’ finished work on the cross.”
Then, reminding listeners that what matters most was the attitude of their heart, Sutton led them in a salvation prayer that opened, “Dear God, I’ve sinned against you and lived selfishly. Lord, I’m sorry and Lord, right now I turn away from my sin and my selfishness. Jesus, I turn to You and right now I invite You to come into my life. I ask You to forgive me and I ask You to make me brand new.”
Since there weren’t any counselors, Sutton said he didn’t issue an invitation to come forward. Still, he said he could hear many people repeating the prayer.
Sutton told BP he knows of at least one person appreciated his message. After the funeral a man approached him at a Nashville restaurant.
“You don’t know me,” the man said. “I’m from Nevada and I drove all the way to be at Porter’s funeral. I just wanted to thank you for sharing the Gospel.”
For the moment Sutton doesn’t know what impact his sermon made, but the pastor said it would become evident over time.
“Give it a year and you’ll be able to see the ripple effect,” Sutton said. “That’s normally the way this kind of thing works.”
Ken Walker is a freelance writer based in Huntington, W.Va.