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August 7, 2016, 3:31 PM

Heaven on Earth

Revelation 21:1-7, The Message, revised
I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making God’s home with men and women! They’re God’s people, God is their God. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” Then the Enthroned said, “It’s happened. I’m A to Z. I’m the Beginning, I’m the Conclusion. From Water-of-Life Well I give freely to the thirsty. Conquerors inherit all this. I’ll be God to them, they’ll be sons and daughters to me.
John 14:1-7, NRSV
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Heaven on Earth
The 1991 motion picture, Black Robe, is a compelling story of a French Jesuit priest’s journey across the frontiers of Canada in 1634. Father LaForgue travels to a remote mission among the Huron Indian nation together with his non-Jesuit assistant, Daniel, and a group of Algonquin Indians, who serve as the guides for the priest. In the course of their travels, Daniel falls in love with a young Algonquin woman and begins to learn more about her people and her beliefs.  There is a wonderful scene in the movie where Daniel seeks to help his Jesuit mentor understand the differences between French Christian beliefs and Algonquin and Huron beliefs. Daniel carefully broaches the subject, pointing out that their fellow travelers also have an understanding of an afterlife. The Father’s responses in this conversation are abrupt and dismissive. To Daniel’s comment he replies, “They have no concept.” Daniel gently explains the forest and hunting grounds his new love has shared with him. The Father responds, “Is that what she told you? It is childish, Daniel.” To which Daniel replies, “Is it harder to believe in than Paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?”
If we really stop to think about it, we have some really strange images of what heaven is like. When we hear ‘heaven’ we begin picturing pearly gates, big billowy white clouds, people in white robes, harp playing, and golden streets. One little boy asked his pastor what people do in heaven, to which the pastor replied that people spend all eternity in worship. The little boy looked horrified. Is it any wonder that the Native Americans, in the early years of European settlement, had no interest in clouds and harps and St. Peter as the bouncer for the pearly gates, when they could look forward to the beautiful hunting forests of their own beliefs? For the Algonquin, these hunting forests were actually right among the current forests they inhabited. They saw their departed family as hunting alongside them, out of sight, but still very present.
In our sermon series this summer, we are addressing these “Churchy words” and difficult topics to examine popular beliefs and to explore what scripture has to share on the topic. So today we look at scripture’s understanding of ‘heaven.’ Both of our readings today are read very, very frequently at funerals and memorial services—Revelation 21 and John 14. These are read specifically because they speak more directly than most scripture about life after our bodies have perished. When we hear these scripture passages, we think of heaven.
Revelation is responsible for much of the popular imagery of heaven in our culture today. The book of Revelation is a letter written by a man named John, not the disciple who has been dead for many years before this letter is written. John is exiled to the Greek island of Patmos because of his faith. John’s letter is written in a very specific style that is modeled after some of the passages in the Book of Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures. This style uses picturesque language to try to capture thoughts that are beyond words—like a series of paintings used to help the reader experience the emotion and grandeur of that which is beyond words. These images of John have given rise to popular images of heaven—throne of God, descriptions of a heavenly city, angels and saints in white robes forever singing in the presence of God. John’s picturesque language has colored our thoughts.
The passage from Revelation we heard today is the closest we will get to an image of ‘heaven.’ John’s series of ‘paintings’ have culminated in an ultimate metaphor of where God’s activity is moving us and all creation—a culmination of all things. John paints the picture of the perfect Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God in Hebrew belief, leaving the heavens to come to earth so that God can move into the neighborhood, quite literally. John proclaims that when all things are accomplished, and God’s will is indeed done on earth as it is in heaven, God’s realm will quite literally come to earth and we will dwell in the city (and garden if we read on into chapter 22) of God. The people of God do not escape into some otherworldly dwelling place. God’s perfection comes to earth, to be with us, right here. The earth is the location of God’s salvation.
Throughout scripture, from Genesis through to Revelation, heaven is not a term to refer to some alternate place that the dead travel to when they die, unless they have earned eternal punishment. The term heaven is used to refer to that which is above our head, the heavens, or to refer to being in God’s presence in some way. Heaven is a term used to substitute for God’s name, which is too holy to be uttered casually, or in vain. And heaven is used to refer to the realm where God’s will is done all the time, and God’s will alone. In the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah or Amos, and in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, this heavenly realm is something we are hoping for in what scripture calls ‘the age to come,’ and it is something that we are trying to live into right now in the present age. The ancient prophets, and the message and person of Jesus, seeks to call God’s people into a life that reflects the coming of the beloved community, the heavenly kingdom, in the current world in which they live. Heaven is when that new age arrives, that new creation, and God comes to dwell quite literally among us right here on earth—earth as God has always intended it to be.
In this ‘age to come,’ in this heaven on earth, we are active participants, partners with God, journeying together into deeper and deeper relationship. The prophet Isaiah speaks eloquently of this age to come using language of homes and villages, feasts and plenty, our world restored and perfect, in which we live and move and have our being. In some African Christian groups, this age to come is literally called the Village, much like Daniel from the Black Robe film referred to heaven as Paradise. The beloved community, heavenly kingdom, is life as God envisions and plans and moves us toward—real life lived in the full presence of God.
So what about ‘in the meantime?’ What happens in this between time, to those who die in this present age…where do they go? And what about our gospel passage from John that we hear read at funerals so often? What about the habitation with many rooms prepared for us?
This passage from John’s gospel is part of a longer piece, chapters 13 through 17, often called the Farewell Discourses. This reading is part of a long conversation Jesus is having with his closest followers around the table of the last supper, preparing them for all that is to come. These words are specifically geared toward faithful followers in the community of Christ—words of comfort, words of hope and promise, words that look beyond the crucifixion to the resurrection and the life of the disciples that will follow. In this beginning of chapter 14, Jesus is preparing them to face hardship and persecution, to stand firm in the face of fear, for they have experienced God in a very profound way in Jesus Christ. They have seen God’s way of living, for Jesus embodied that way, that truth, that life. They have literally seen God for they have seen God revealed in Jesus. When Jesus invokes the beloved and comforting words about a habitation prepared for them, he uses a very specific metaphor from first century Israel, the image of a journey.
Jesus refers to the place prepared using the Greek word, monai. A monai is a very special type of abode in ancient Israel. It is the way station prepared for caravans on their journey.  As a caravan set out on a long journey across vast areas, a prep crew was sent out ahead. This crew traveled before the caravan to prepare the stops along the way. They would arrive at the designated stops for the night and prepare the rooms (tents) for the travelers to stay in. They would make sure water was ready, meals were prepared, and all was laid in welcome for the weary travelers so they could resume their journey refreshed in the morning.
Jesus is our crew. Jesus is going ahead of us travelers on the journey of faith to prepare our place of welcome. That is as specific as Jesus gets. There is a place for us in the between time, a place in God’s presence where we will be welcomed and refreshed. There is a place for us to rest, to eat and drink, to be in the company of fellow travelers, before we are called to resume our journey into the age to come, the beloved community, the kingdom of God. If picturing clouds makes you happy, picture clouds. If you are really fond of harp music, then let that image fill you and surround you. If you find comfort in a mighty household, with rooms that hint of home, hold tight to that image. And if you just love to travel, imagine that wonderful oasis, ready and waiting. The point is, there is a place for us with God, with Jesus, in the meantime, where we are fully ourselves and where we anticipate the coming of heaven on earth.
C.S. Lewis, a wonderful theologian who also authored the Chronicles of Narnia, addressed this image of the heavenly kingdom and the faith journey with God in the final book of his Chronicles—The Last Battle. The Chronicles of Narnia are rich with deep theology and beautiful images of God, Jesus, and the community of Christ. This is what Lewis described as he speaks of arrival in the age to come:
“Of course, Daughter of Eve,” said the Faun. “The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.”
            Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.
            “I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia…”
            “Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”
            … “Why!” exclaimed Peter. “It’s England. And that’s the house itself—Professor Kirk’s old home in the country where all our adventures began!”
            “I thought that house had been destroyed,” said Edmund.
            “So it was,” said the Faun. “But you are  now looking at the England within England, the real England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed.”
            … “There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
            And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Thanks be to God! Amen!

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