Sunday’s sermon: Catching a Glimpse

heaven

Texts used: Isaiah 65:17-25 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50

  • JOKE: An 85 year old couple, who had been in good health for the last ten years mainly due to the wife’s interest in health food and exercise, died one day.When they reached the pearly gates, St. Peter took them to their mansion which was decked out with a beautiful kitchen, master bath suite, and Jacuzzi. As they “oohed and aahed,” the old man asked Peter how much all this was going to cost. “It’s free,” Peter replied. “This is Heaven.” Next they went to survey the championship golf course. St. Peter explained that they would have golfing privileges every day and that each week the course changed to a new one representing the greatest golf courses on earth. The old man asked, “What are the green fees?” Peter said again, “It’s free. This is Heaven.” Next they went to the club house and saw the lavish buffet lunch with the cuisines of the world laid out. Again, the old man inquired about the price. “Don’t you understand yet? This is heaven, it is free!” Peter responded with some exasperation. The old man looked around furtively.“Okay,” he asked resignedly, “where are the low fat and low cholesterol tables?” Peter replied, “That’s the best part … you can eat as much as you like of whatever you like, and you never get fat, and you never get sick. This is Heaven!” With that the old man went into a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping on it, and shrieking wildly. Taken aback, Peter and his wife both tried to calm the old man down, asking him what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault. If it weren’t for your blasted bran muffins, I could have been here ten years ago!”
    • Okay, I have to admit that narrowing down the list of “heaven” jokes for this morning was difficult. There are a lot of jokes about heaven out there! And it’s not just jokes, either.
      • Amazon search “heaven” = literally hundreds of thousands of hits – books, movies, music … even apparel and home décor! → “Heaven,” as it turns out, is quite a popular topic! And I think part of the reason behind this popularity is our curiosity.
        • Can’t see/feel/touch/hear heaven, so we wonder about it – captures our imagination in every way possible, through …
          • Art
          • Music
          • Literature
    • “Heaven” in our lives of faith – lots of different names for the same concept (heaven, New Jerusalem, Kingdom of God) → There are a number of references to heaven scattered throughout both the Old and New Testament.
      • Visions presented in Revelation: He took me away in the Spirit to an enormous, high mountain and showed me Holy Jerusalem descending out of Heaven from God, resplendent in the bright glory of God. She had a wall majestic and high with twelve gates. At each gate stood an Angel, and on the gates were inscribed the names of the Twelve Tribes of the sons of Israel: three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, three gates on the west. The wall was set on twelve foundations, the names of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb inscribed on them.[1]
      • Jesus’ words in Jn: There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you?[2]
    • But what about the passages that we read today? Isaiah speaks of a new heaven and a new earth – of God’s new creation. And in Matthew, Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God using a number of short similes – “the Kingdom of God is like …” So our challenge for today is to dig into these passages and uncover what they might reveal to us about heaven.
  • Isaiah paints a beautiful picture for us, not so much in terms of what heaven will look like, but of what heaven will be
    • No more …
      • Weeping
      • Cries of distress
      • Premature death – text: No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime[3]
      • Homelessness
      • Hunger
      • Pain
      • Conflict
      • Being taken advantage of – text: They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; … they shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity[4]
      • Separation from God – text: Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.[5]
    • This is what we strive for in our world, isn’t it? Peace. And end to terminal diseases that take people from us too soon. An end to crises of humanity like homelessness and world hunger and war – social justice issues that we as a country and as the human race have been struggling with since the beginning of time.
      • Scholar called heaven: … a transformed environment: peoples, habitations, and nature all woven into a complex relationship of wholeness. This indeed is a new creation, where the heavens and the earth are no longer alienated from one another. … This is what God intends for all things and all relationships to be. According to this prophet’s vision, the very stuff of life as we know it needs to be changed for good.[6]
    • Through the prophet Isaiah, God is saying, “You see this beautiful realm – a realm of equality and peace and rejoicing? Do you see this realm in your mind’s eye? Do you feel it resonate deep within your heart and soul? This is what I’m creating. This is what I’m doing. This is my desire for you. ‘I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. … They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.’[7] This, my children, my beloveds, this is my desire for you.”
  • A truly beautiful picture that’s echoed in Jesus’ words in Matthew
    • Compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed – teeny tiny seed that grows and flourishes into something big enough to be a home for many
    • Compares the Kingdom of God to yeast – element that brings about incredible activity and change to simple flour à bread
    • Compares the Kingdom of God to treasure so greatly sought after that the those seeking are willing to devote everything they have in order to possess it
      • Treasure in a field
      • Pearl of great value
    • Compares the Kingdom of God to a net full of fish
    • Now, in hearing all of these comparisons that Jesus made, you may be wondering where Isaiah’s beautiful vision of wholeness and equality might be hiding in all of those parables. We have a bush … some yeast … some precious commodities … and a whole lot of fish. Sure, maybe that sounds like somebody’s heaven (“one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and all that), but where is the inclusion, the safety, the peace and the protection that Isaiah spoke of? → 2 answers to this question
  • First = hidden in context in a couple of different ways
    • Mustard seed = first e.g. of this → We probably don’t see anything wrong with planting a mustard seed and growing the bush that Jesus speaks of in the parable. We grow gardens full of tomatoes and cucumbers, rosemary and sage. Why is growing mustard such a big deal?
      • HISTORICAL CONTEXT: mustard was a weed – the kind of seed that you didn’t want mixed in with the rest of your intended crop because once it started growing, it sort of took over → In terms of ancient agricultural plant life, the mustard plant was Undesirable #1. And yet it is to this disparaged nuisance of a plant that Jesus compares the Kingdom of God.
    • Yeast = another unlikely e.g. → I’d be willing to bet that a number of us have simple yeast in our pantries at home. And I’d also be willing to bet that if I asked people 50 years ago … 100 years ago … even thousands of years ago if they had yeast at home, the overwhelming majority would say, “Yes.” Yeast is simple. It’s common. It isn’t special or flashy or spectacular in any way.
      • Found across borders, cultures, ethnicities, religions
      • And yet Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to this every day item.
        • Parable of fish in the net is similar – HISTORICAL CONTEXT: We know just how common fishing was as an occupation during Jesus’ time because at least seven of his twleve disciples were fishermen themselves before they started following Jesus! So comparing the Kingdom of God to fish in a net wasn’t exactly a stretch for the disciples to imagine either. → that’s the point!
          • Scholar: [The majority of these parables] envision God in every nook and cranny of daily life, from kneading dough to plowing fields. Jesus transforms human life not by scaring the hell out of people, but by helping them see the heaven close at hand.[8]
  • This leads us to the second way we answer the question of where we find Isaiah’s utopic vision of wholeness and inclusion and peace in Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of God: We find it in ourselves and in each other. That is what Jesus was getting at by relating something as expansive and majestic as the Kingdom of God to things that are so commonplace and familiar to us. Jesus was trying to make this concept understandable, to make it accessible because if we can understand it, then we can enact it. Friends, this is where the rubber meets the road! Jesus wasn’t just tossing these words and ideas out there because he was feeling philosophical that day. This was and continues to be a call to action!
    • Scholar: We may not know how God means to transform the universe, but we can confess that we know it is in God’s power to do this. What remains possible for the single believer, the single congregation, is to do the work involved in such transformation by following the patterns of mercy that Christ has laid out for us.[9]
    • In Isaiah, God makes it clear that this new heaven – the Kingdom of God – is a place where all are cared for and all are comforted, a place where all are free and all are fulfilled, a place where struggles like homelessness and hunger and poverty and pain no longer exist. And when Jesus speaks about this self-same Kingdom of God, he makes it clear that it’s not some pie-in-the-sky netherworld that we can dream about and reach for but never touch.
      • Kingdom of God breaks into the world around us little by little every time we act on our faith – every time we …
        • Extend a hand to help someone
        • Extend a hand to work for peace or justice
        • Extend a hand to share the good news of the Gospel
        • Bring light of God’s love into a dark place – place of anger, fear, loneliness, pain, desperation
        • Jesus puts words to it a little later in Mt: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.[10]
      • Friends, each and every day, we encounter all sorts of chances to be that glimpse of God’s everlasting love and grace in the world.
        • More than just words to hear on Sun. morning and forget about by Sun. afternoon
        • More than just feel-good, kumbaya message about how God loves you à God does love you, and because of that love, God is calling you and me and every one of us to action.
          • Mahatma Gandhi: Be the change you wish to see in the world.
          • Pope Francis (picture going around social media lately): You pray for the hunger. Then you feed them. This is how prayer works.
          • So this morning I ask you: How can we enable God’s vision and be that glimpse of God’s new heaven – that glimpse of wholeness and compassion – in our lives and in our world? Amen.

[1] Rev 21:10-14.

[2] Jn 14:2.

[3] Is 65:20a.

[4] Is 65:22, 23.

[5] Is 65:24.

[6] Nelson Rivera. “Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 inclusive) – Isaiah 65:17-25, Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 290.

[7] Is 65:19, 21.

[8] Talitha J. Arnold. “Proper 12 (Sunday between July 24 and July 30 inclusive) – Matthew 13:31-33, 44-50, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 286.

[9] Mary Eleanor Johns. “Proper 28 (Sunday between November 13 and November 19 inclusive) – Isaiah 65:17-25, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 4. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 292.

[10] Mt 25:35-36, 40.

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