FALL SERIES: Welcoming Doubt…Building Faith
“Considering the Beyond…Heaven, Hell and Life after Death”
Scripture Texts: Revelation 21:1-8 & Matthew 6: 7-13 Rev. G.
Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ October 22, 2017
Well we are certainly an honest, if not bold community at Northwood, aren’t we? We are not afraid to ask the challenging faith questions. When asked to share our faith doubts and ponderings, a challenging list was generated. Following a Sunday focusing on how we ‘do theology’ in a progressive liberal context, we have explored the nature of God’s forgiveness; we have explored where God is amidst our suffering and pain; and this morning we turn to a very challenging topic: “Considering the Beyond…Heaven, Hell and Life after Death”. We begin with a story…A family were preparing for their new minister to visit. Aside from preparing some refreshments, they also spent time preparing their five year old son. “Now Johnny, when our new minister visits, she will want to meet you. So, when she asks ‘what's your name’, what will you tell her? "Johnny Jones”. Very good. And when she asks your age, what will you say? "Five years old." Excellent. And when she asks where do bad boys go, what will you say? "They go to hell." Very good Johnny, and by all means remember, don't talk too much." The day arrives and one last prep session is offered. OK, Johnny, the reverend will be over any moment. You remember what to say right? What’s your name? "Johnny Jones" How old are you?" "Five years old." Where do bad boys go? "They go to hell." Very good, and by all means remember, don't talk too much. The pastor arrived as scheduled, she entered the home and seeing Johnny she commented: "Mrs. Jones, what a nice boy you have!" She kneeled down to shake his hand and asked, "What's your name?" Nervously, Johnny quickly said: "umm…My name is Johnny Jones, I'm five years old, go to hell, and don't talk too much." And as we move ahead in our conversation this morning, if we are honest, we are all a little like Johnny Jones. We are nervous, we may be a little confused, we may even be terrified when we consider this topic of the beyond.
I chose two scriptures as our conversation partners this morning because we live in a world very different than the biblical one which we unpack. The Revelation passage lifts up an understanding of the beyond as being located precisely where its name assigns it: in the beyond. It was written in a time when there was an understanding of a three storied universe: The heavens-above, the present reality- here in which we live; and the depths of hell-below. As this passage comes at the end of the Bible, we must keep in mind the pairing it has with the book at the very beginning ~ Genesis. The first book sets the tone with God’s Creation and very quickly a separation of all creation from God. The book of Revelation offers the vision of this glorious reunion in the end times. I feel fortunate to have studied with New Testament scholar, Dr. Harry Maier who has done extensive research on this book. What is interesting is that this book has often been the exclusive property of conservative evangelicals and has been regularly avoided by our liberal progressive churches. It seems that we are only lately rediscovering it. Our text offers a vision of a ‘New Jerusalem’ where the old has passed away and a future restoration is offered. A vision of a descending city where God is fully present among them. A vision where God is not only the creator, but also the end point. God being the “alpha and the omega”: the beginning and not merely bringing the end, but being ‘the end’.
In the beyond that is offered in Revelation, there is not so much of what will be contained in it, rather than what will NOT be in it. There will be “no sea”. The sea was something which had geographically separated John of Patmos from the other beloved Christian communities. Communities would no longer be separated but would find a true unity. The sea, of course, has always represented the chaotic power of evil. It was the sea which God stilled at the beginning of creation; it was the sea where the leviathan sea monster lived. The sea was the polar opposite to what God represented in the unfolding of Creation. What might that be like for you to have this absent in your existence? No sea…no chaos…no fear? More than just “no sea”, there would be other things absent in the New Jerusalem. There would be “No tears, death, sorrow, crying and pain”. Everything which robs life from being fulfilled, joyful, vibrant will be absent in this transcendent reality. What might it be like to have these absent from your existence? A life of deep joy and fulfillment. Our section concludes with the absence of the “cowardly, faithless, polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and liars”. One can only imagine the kind of pressure the early Christian community lived with under Roman rule. In this future time, there is true freedom. It’s important to note that it does not say that those who were guilty of these failings would be excluded. Only that these practices would be absent in the holy city. What would it be like for you to live your life in pure freedom? You would be free to express yourself in your purest form…There is another thing which is absent in this New Jerusalem. If we read through until the 22nd verse, we find that there will be “no temple”. In previous views, such as Ezekiel 40, the understanding of a future time was when the temple that lay in ruins would be rebuilt and become the central place for the people. In this vision, there is an understanding of no temple because God’s presence was no longer in a designated place, like the Ark of the Covenant. Rather God would now be found in all times and all places. What would it mean for you to feel God in every time and place? God fully present for all…
We have gone with two texts this morning for our reflection because I wanted to hold the Matthean text in dialogue with the Revelation passage. While the Revelation text refers to a future time and reality of a New Jerusalem, the Matthean passage refers to more a present time. This text is Matthew’s version of Jesus instructing people’s private prayers, which we have later adapted into the Lord’s Prayer. In the prayer, there is an instruction to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. We offer this prayer, as most churches do, every week. Have you ever pondered the meaning of “your kingdom come”? In a former church, I was leading worship and I stumbled with my words when I was leading the Lord’s Prayer ~ I completely mixed up a section. I might as well have said a curse word, there was this awkward moment. As I thought about it later, it was a reminder of how easily it is to take for granted something which we say over and over. It turned into being a good thing. It provided an opportunity for doing a series on the Lord’s Prayer as we re-discovered something which needed to be kept at the centre of our faith. What does it mean for you to pray “your kingdom come? To pray: your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?”
We need to be clear that this is a call to prayer here. One of the most noted theologians of the last century, Karl Barth, notes that it is bad theology for us to believe that we can build the Kingdom of God. Only God, he reminds us, can bring God’s Kingdom to this earth. Our task, as Jesus teaches in this passage, is to pray and wait for this arrival. Yet, it is not a passive waiting. The Didache, a first Century Christian catechism, instructs us to offer this prayer for the coming of God’s Kingdom three times per day. Such a practice shapes us and guides us so that we can be open to the unfolding of God’s Kingdom. It helps us to be receptive to the changes that will accompany it, to be partners in its unfolding ~ rather than those who detract or oppose its arrival. As I spend a significant amount of my time during the week preparing to preach, I try and spend some of my study time improving in this area. I recall being at a preaching festival and listening to an esteemed preaching scholar being interviewed. He confessed that he didn’t have a formula or specific structure for crafting his inspiring sermons. He confessed that his method is one of finding the right framework. Each week, he puzzled over the biblical readings and he prayed, and he prayed, and he prayed. Eventually the framework for what he was to be preached arose. I would suggest, that the Lord’s Prayer is our framework for living the Christian life; the Lord’s Prayer is that structure for preparing ourselves to welcome and be partners in celebrating the arrival of God’s Kingdom.
In his book “Being Christian: A Journey from the Boat to the Shore”, Chris Kugler reflects on how Christians are being called to act if they believe that they are part of the new creation to come. He boldly writes: “I think the message is that God loves this place. God wants to restore this place. It’s not so much that we were made for heaven as that heaven was made for earth”. Thy Kingdom come is about preparing this place so that it is fit for a King or Queen to arrive. It is about living out God’s commandments right now. It is about loving neighbour; feeding the hungry; clothing the naked; it is about preparing room at the inn for this new Kingdom to be born. We don’t bring in the Kingdom; we prepare the world for God to bring it into the here and now.
But this is still a profound challenge isn’t it. It’s the work of faith; the work of patience; the work of prayer. Clinical Psychologist and ordained Interfaith Minister, John Robinson published a book entitled “Finding Heaven Here”. In his book, he presents some of the most common barriers to finding Heaven. Firstly, there is a challenge of “disbelief”. Disbelief of this possibility prevents us from stepping into a heaven that God yearns to bless the world with. It disables us from preparing the world to be ready for God to usher in the Kingdom. Related to disbelief is the notion of “fear and worry”. When we worry and fret about our problems, distressing thoughts prevent us from stopping to really see what’s around. We live in a fear-driven world and become disabled from being partners in God’s creative plan of bringing in the Kingdom. Lastly, Robinson notes “compulsivity” as being a modern day plague in which our multi-tasking, overly busy society tends to rush on to the next problem. When we are driven by compulsivity, we rarely stop and smell the roses which is where the threshold of the Kingdom lies. Robinson’s prescription? Living in the present and experiencing God. Find a peaceful and pleasant place to stop from time to time. Disconnect from people, phones, and tasks. Be quiet for a few minutes. Breathe deeply, quiet your mind, and down shift from the world's hectic pace. Make a conscious effort to create a sacred space. Meditate, pray, read things that touch you spiritually. Look at whatever is around you and see it as if for the very first time. Notice the colors, patterns, textures, and arrangements of things. Open your senses, be utterly fascinated, and you will soon discover that the world is not what you think.
The Beyond…Heaven, Hell and Life after Death. I’m not sure if I have given any answers here or if I have simply raised more questions. And perhaps that is our job: to ask the questions and let God give the answers. I lost my father eight years ago ~ he died suddenly while snorkeling in Cuba. I recall a friend asking if my Dad had ‘visited’ me. I looked at her like she had two heads. Had my Dad visited me? What was she talking about? I later learned what it was that she was speaking about. There were times that he WAS there…times that I can’t describe to you in word…but times that I felt, fully, his presence…times that he visited me after his death. Can we explain it…no. But can I begin to comprehend the mystery of the beyond when things like that happen? Precisely. I think that is why I have come to love Revelation 21 so much. Rather than outlining what this new reality will be like, John describes what will not be present and allows us to fill in the blanks on this new reality; a reality too deep for words; a reality too wide to comprehend ~ a new reality that God is birthing. And so, whenever we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it will on heaven”; whenever we pray it with hearts and minds and bodies open to welcome its arrival we celebrate the beyond and live in the hope of God’s Kingdom come.