The Kingdom of Judgment

Matthew 13.47-50

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

We’ve come to the end.

Both the end of our series on the parables of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ proclamation, parabolically, about the end of all things.

The Kingdom is like a net that catches everything so that the angels can sort out the evil from the righteous.

This is a story about judgment.

And we don’t like judgement.

You know, judge not lest ye be judged and all that…

But I think it’s more that we like to talk about not being judgmental while actually being addicted to the judgments we make against ourselves and others.

Consider this: How many conversations have you had recently about people and their willingness or unwillingness to wear masks?

It’s notable that, having talked at length about the Kingdom, yeast and seeds and weeds, Jesus ends the entire sequence of these parables with a story about fishing. 

It is an ending about the end.

Jesus has been laying it on thick for the crowds and for the disciples. But then we encounter, “So it will be at the end of the age” – the Eschaton, a final period on the whole kit and caboodle.

This is the moment in which all of the stories about the Kingdom are summed up by the Lord of lords.

Listen – The Kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea that catches everything. And, only when the net is full, is it brought ashore and the good are put into baskets while the bad are left on the sand. So it will be at the end of the age. My angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Sounds like a party, right?

The Kingdom is like a net. Strangely enough the net, SAGENE in Greek, is what we call a hapax legomenon, a word that only appears once in the entirety of the New Testament. 

It’s very very rare.

Nevertheless, the net here is one dragged through the water indiscriminately taking up everything in its path.

It is not the tiny net I carry on my fly fishing bag to help collect the one solitary fish I’ve been trying to reel in for fifteen minutes.

It’s more like a trawler that picks up everything.

And everything means everything. Not only fish but also seaweed, trash, and other oceanic items. 

This, of course, runs counter to how we often imagine the fishing stories from Jesus and the way we portray them in Children’s Bibles. 

Jesus says, “If I be lifted up I will draw all to myself!”

Which is all to say, just as the net fetches out everything it meets in the sea, so too the Kingdom fetches out everything in the world. When Jesus proclaims that a new heaven and a new earth are coming, they are not replacements for the old ones, we don’t get zapped from one to the other – they are transfigurations of them.

Jesus doesn’t abandon planet earth to go stake out a claim somewhere else, he raises creation and glorifies it.

The totality of the net might sound like an overstatement, but the word for fish doesn’t actually appear in the Greek – even though plenty of translators have opted to stick it in.

Its just says the the net was tossed into the sea and caught everything.

This means, parabolically speaking, that everything and everyone gets swept up into it, the good and the bad, the tall and the small, the poor and the powerful.

There is a sorting to come, we cannot ignore that, but not before the net draws everything in. While the net is being dragged behind the boat, doing its work, judgment is nowhere to be found. Which is a reminder for those of us called the church that the kingdom, while still in this world, does nobody any good while remaining in the judgment business.

But judgement, of course, is what we do best!

It’s been one of the favorite pastimes of the church since the very beginning. The practice of tossing out the bad apples while the net is still int he ate drawing everything in has been everybody’s preferred method of “furthering the Kingdom.”

Everybody’s, that is, except Jesus.

Sometimes it takes weeks and weeks of sitting in the parables to realize how much of a miracle it is that the church has made it this far all the while confusing the words of the divine Word incarnate.

We have heaping examples how how judgmental the church has been, all while Jesus has been doing his best to drag the net of the kingdom across the ocean floor of our existence.

Consider how adulterers, murders, and philanderers have been paraded out of both pulpit and sanctuary. But its not even just the really bad sins we hold over the heads of others: we dismiss the liars and the cheats, the questionable and the bizarre. 

Throughout the centuries we have picked our particular flavors of allowable and unallowable all under the auspices of keeping the good in and the bad out.

And what do we have to show for it?

Now, if we talk about sin in church at all, we do so in a way that denies our sinfulness while highlighting the sins of others. We’ve taken down the mirror of the Gospel, the law that accuses us dead in our sins, and instead we wag our fingers at those who don’t align with what we think is good and right and true.

And, I must confess, I’m guilty of this just as much as anyone else. I mean: Do you know how much fun it is to belittle and bemoan televangelists for the wildly inappropriate theology they drop on their dozing congregations? Do you know why it’s so fun? Because it makes me feel better about myself!

We love to point out the sins in others all the while ignoring our own.

But Jesus? Jesus didn’t shy away from sinners. So why should we?

Of course, we might think that the church welcomes sinners. But we don’t. At least, not really. We’re only inclined to welcome the sinful so long as their sins aren’t of much consequence and their willing to repent and never fall back into their sinfulness.

Should we let people get away with their sins? Is that what Jesus wants? A church full of worthless sinners failing in their inability to be good?

Yeah, kind of. 

It’s not so much about letting people get away with it, but recognizing the real condition of our condition such that we see salvation isn’t possible on our own. We don’t have the capacity, on our own, to turn it all around. It’s only ever possible because of the Spirit working in us and through us.

Consider Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians: If there had been a law, a rule, that could have saved us then it should have already happened. 

We can change, we can get better. But it’s God who does that work and, like the Kingdom, it’s rather mysterious. There’s no good answer to why one person is better at dropping a bad habit than someone else. There’s no good answer to why someone gets through grief faster than someone else. 

God works and we know not how. It is, to make the point even finer, a mystery.

The church, at her best, is merely a sacrament of God’s Kingdom, an outward sign of the mystery in the world. It is like a version of the net, doing its best to sweep through the dark waters of life, collecting anything and everything.

What happens next is entirely up to God.

And thats when the real judgement begins…

The plunder is brought to shore to sort out, in Jesus’ words, the good from the bad. What makes the good good and the bad bad? Jesus doesn’t give us much to work with here, but its entirely in the eyes of the one who tossed out the net in the first place. That is: Jesus is the one who decides what goes in the basket and what get left on the sand.

Notice, again, that the separation only occurs after the net has already done its job, only after the mystery of the Kingdom has come to fruition, only after the power of Jesus’ reconciling work. 

Everyone who comes before the divine sorting, if we want to call it that, has already been judged by the Judge who came to be judged in our place.

The whole world, the all the Jesus draws into himself, is accepted in the Beloved.

The forgiveness of wrongs, the rectification of sins, pronounced from the cross and the empty tomb is for all. 

What we choose to do with that forgiveness is tricky business.

Think about the older bother from the parable of the prodigal. His Father, rather recklessly, forgives the younger son from his squandering ways, throws him a party and then insists that the older son comes into the cut up the rug. But we never find out whether or not the older brother joins the party.

Does he enter the room, grab a drink, and head for the dance floor?

Or does he stay in the outer darkness while weeping and gnashing his teeth?

In the end, God is throwing a party, the Supper of the Lamb, and we’re all invited, no matter what.

The question isn’t what constitutes a life worthy of the Kingdom, but instead, what are we going to do with out invitation?

Notice: nobody goes to hell because they made too many bad choices in this life anymore than someone goes to heaven because they made enough right choices. Everyone meets Jesus in the mystery of his death and resurrection, they are swept up in the great net whether we think they deserve it or not. 

Counter to many of our church ramblings throughout the centuries, and even today, we are not judged by the Lord in the light of our previous proclivities. If we were, none of us would go anywhere but hell.

Instead we are judged by what Jesus does for us on the cross. He announces a forever and all encompassing forgiveness that transfigures us into his kingdom in ways that are hidden and right here among us.

Let me put it this way: Everybody, even the worst of the worst, is someone for whom Christ died. Whenever the church goes around kicking people out for missed and poor choices, we fail to live into the netted-ness of Christ’s salvific work.

Sinners are the church’s business for God’s sake, literally.

We worship a Lord who came not to condemn the world but to save it. Until the end of the age, the only thing we can do is rest is the Good News that Jesus delights in catching us and everybody else. 

But back to the judgment reserved for the Lord.

So it will be at the end of the age, Jesus says, my angels will come and separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous.

How did the righteous ones get to be righteous? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus makes us righteous and we can’t do it on our own.

To whom is the gift of Jesus’ righteousness offered? Well, scripture tells us that Jesus came for the whole world, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.

But then how can some of them be judged as evil?

And that, dear friends, is the question of all questions.

Is it because not one of us is righteous, no not one (to steal an expression from Paul)?

Is it because, even though Jesus told us not to judge, it’s still our favorite thing to do?

Is it because we’re all dead in our sins and in desperate need of a Savior who can save us from ourselves?

The angels of the Lord will separate the evil out of the midst of the righteous. This is God’s good work, for there will be no evil in the end of the age – there will be no death, no mourning, and no crying, for God will make all things new.

Even us.

Do you see? Even at the end, God in Christ is hellbent on getting every single one of us into his Kingdom, even if it means separating the evil out of us so that we can feast at the Supper of the Lamb forever and ever.

There is to be joy in heaven! Not just over one found by the Lord but over the ninety nine as well.

There is to be joy over a whole New Jerusalem populated entire by forgiven sinners whose citizenship is based on nothing but their forgiveness. Not their good works of perfect report cards. Only by the forgiving and reconciling work of God. So be it. Amen. 

Less Is More

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1.3-9, John 20.19-31). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Eastertide, Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, the H-word, shorter sermons, tour bus preaching, other gods, bad church marquees, icky verses, the harrowing of Hell, DBH, and death breath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

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The Game Is Over

Luke 16.19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tips of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The man was running out of room in his garage for all of his stuff. His wife thought it was extravagant for them to have five cars to begin with, but now the jet skies and the boat were simply making things unmanageable. And though he was supposed to figure out whether or not they could grease the hands of the local government enough for another building permit to let him but yet another addition to the back of his house, his mind was consumed by a far more stressful matter.

Larry.

Larry stood outside his house everyday, walking back and forth over his grass – the grass he paid a small fortune to keep maintained. Larry had his little cardboard sign asking for money or for food and people would slow down and pass him a few dollars, or a spare muffin. And everyday Larry would return from sunup till sundown, and it was driving the rich man crazy. 

He had done everything he could think of – he called the police, but they explained the property upon which Larry walked actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about it – he proposed a new city ordinance banning the panhandlers like Larry from asking for money within the local municipality but all the local churches fought against it – he even tried playing extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive him off.

But nothing worked.

Day after day Larry showed up and the rich man couldn’t stand it.

And yet, one day, the man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry, the nearly permanent fixture out his window was gone. The man danced around in his kitchen sliding across the marble floors. He drank his imported coffee and was thrilled to discover that Larry’s obituary was in the newspaper. 

The rich man’s problems were over!

He was so excited that he ran through the kitchen to share the good news with his wife, but as he rounded the corner into his indoor movie theater he felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he fell to the ground dead.

Sometime later the rich man realized he was in hell with flames of fire lapping all around him constantly. He even had to admit to himself that this torment was worse than seeing Larry outside all day. But then he strained his eyes and he saw Larry just on the other side of the fire, and he was standing there with what looked like an angel.

“Hey!” He shouted, “Send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting hot in here.”

To which the angel replied, “You had good things your whole life, and Larry here, Larry had nothing. Here he is comforted and you are in agony. Also, notice – you can’t come over to us and neither can we come over to you.”

The rich man promptly fell to his knees, “Please! Send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me in agony.”

The angel said, “They have the scriptures, they need only trust what they read.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t understand. That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”

And the angel finally said, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

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Thanks for this one Jesus. 

The wealthy and powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor might suffer now but will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can people – give away your wealth and life like Larry/Lazarus such that your reward really will be a reward. 

It’s easy for this scripture to become a lambasting sermon about the poverty of wealth and the riches of near-destitution. Plenty of pastors have stood in their pulpits and held this one over the heads of their people in order to pad the offering plates, or guilt people into signing up for different ministries, or embarrass the well to do for their ignorance about their impending flames.

And there’s some truth to it. It’s a challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not read it as an indictment against the wealthy. But, as usual, there’s more to the parable than the parable itself. 

Living well and accumulating lots of possessions and deep bank accounts might be the world’s most overpowering ideal lifestyle, but in the kingdom of God they matter little. We, wrongly, use those categories to describe both the saved and the lost, the winners and the losers. 

Winning equates to wealth and losing equates to poverty.

And yet in Jesus’ eyes its living badly – being poor, hungry, and covered in sores – that turns out to be the mechanism by which people are apparently saved. 

We can hardly blame ourselves for missing this divine reversal – we have it so repeated into our brains from our infancy even until this very moment that who we are is based on what we have earned. One need not flip through the channels on the television, or see the billboards covered in potential lottery earnings to have this proved over and over again. 

We elevate the powerful and the wealthy both purposefully and subconsciously. We like to elect politicians who have done well for themselves, we read the books from the self-made millionaires, and we look up to our wealthiest family members.

And here’s the kicker – for all of our fascination and worship of those with money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: if the world could’ve been fixed by what we might call good living and good earning – then we would’ve fixed everything by now. 

But we haven’t.

Instead, it’s the winners of this world who, more often than not, achieve their earnings off the backs of the least, last, lost, little, and dead. 

They are the ones thrown to the curb while new homes, with new families, and new cars fill the neighborhoods. 

But because we admire the wealthy and want to be like them, we blind ourselves from seeing how the ones with all the stuff use Jesus’ favorite people as the mechanisms through which they achieve and maintain all that they have. It has been their ignorance of the poor, their locking up of the marginalized, their segregating by skin tone, that has brought about a very particular end in which it sounds like good news to those on the top, to those who actually have something to lose.

And still, even with all their earning, and trying, and striving, and politicking, and maneuvering, the world is still a mess! The rich just keep getting rich and the poor keep getting poorer.

Here is where the parable stings the most – the rich man, with all that he has, his being first, most, found, big, and alive, he is not able to delay or avoid his death any more than Larry is with his lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness. 

The bell tolls for us all.

Do you see it now? When it comes to the Good News, success defined by the world merits us not one thing.

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The rich man might start out and seem like a real winner. But he can’t even see the truth in his death – he refuses to accept that he has died! He bargains with father Abraham to make the most of his situation and he loses.

It is because he was so convinced that good living, having all the right things, was the instrument of salvation that his death is simply unacceptable. And, to make matters worse, Father Abraham frightens all of us to death, pun intended, with his final declaration – not even seeing a dead person rise from the grave can change our minds.

We are quite stuck in this worldly worldview of ours.

However, lest we hear this story today and leave with the impression that we are being called to go out and live like Larry – hanging out by the gates of the rich until we develop sores all over our body – that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. 

This is not a story of imitation. It’s not a “go and do likewise.”

It is just a story of the truth.

And the truth is this: The game is over.

No one, certainly not God, is keeping score and tallying up all of our good works against our bad. There is not a divine ledger with little tallies every time we misstep or we bring about something good in the world. And there is definitely not a test by which the accumulation of our wealth will determine whether or not salvation is in fact ours.

The truth is a much harder pill to swallow precisely because everything else in the world tells us the contrary. 

Do all you can, earn all you can, achieve all you can, save all you can, invest all you can, those are all slogans of the world.

But the truth is that the game is over. We have nothing left to earn, really, because the cross comes to all of us and all of us die. 

And if we can accept that we are already dead, right here and right now, because of our baptisms, well then we can actually start living because we already have all we need.

Jesus came to raise the dead – nothing more, less, or else. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or to improve the improvable, or even convert the convertible. He came to raise the dead.

Heaven, whatever it may be, is not the home of the good, or the wealthy, or the powerful. It is simply the home of forgiven forgivers.

Hell, whatever it may be, contains only unpardoned unpardoners. 

Everyone in heaven has decided to die to the question of who’s wrong, whereas nobody in hell can even shut up about who’s right.

And that’s precisely the rich man’s problem – he has been so conditioned and convinced that his earning should have earned him something that he can’t stop thinking about how he did everything right.

But who gets to define what, in fact, is right?

Notice, Jesus does not begin his story with a disclaimer that this is precisely what will happen to the rich and to the poor when they die, nor does he command the listeners to go and be like Lazarus in their living until the day they die. 

He simply tells a story – and a frightening one at that.

But in the end the parable tells us one thing – The game is over. 

Whatever we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already been done. All of our sins, those of the past, present, and future, are nailed to Jesus’ cross. 

The question isn’t “What do we need to do to get saved?”

The question is, “How are we going to start living knowing that we are already saved?” Amen. 

Billboards In The Kingdom

1 Thessalonians 5.1-11

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and the sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

I have a love-hate relationship with church signs and billboards.

Every once in a while I’ll pass by a church with a sign that just knocks me back with laugher. I’ll never forget the time I was driving, soon after receiving my driver’s license, and I passed a local Presbyterian church with a sign that said, “The Church isn’t full of hypocrites… there’s always room for more!”

And then there are the witty signs that are biblically accurate and memorable. For instance: I was lost driving through the middle of nowhere Virginia and I saw a handwritten sign in the front yard of a very small chapel that said, “Quick, look busy, Jesus is coming!”

Or there are those that just hit a little too close to home: “Having trouble sleeping? We have sermons. Come hear one!” or the equally pastoral: “Do you know what hell is? Come hear our pastor.”

And then there’s those signs where you can’t help but wonder what led someone to put that up for everyone in the world to see. Like: “Don’t let worries kill you, let the church help” and “God answers our kneemail” and “Can’t take the heat outside? This church is prayer conditioned.”

But there is one church sign that takes the cake, one sign that was so poignant that it has stuck with me over the years. In big blocky letters it said, “To whomever stole our AC unit. Keep it. You’ll need it where you’re going…”

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And for every funny, and witty, and strange church sign, there are an equal number of terrible, shameful, and problematic church signs.

I can remember driving with my family years and years ago when I saw a church with a sign that said, “No gay marriage: it was Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.”

There was quite a controversy a few years ago in a small southern community where a few teenagers died in a car accident and a local church put up a sign the next day that said: “Honk if you love Jesus! Text while driving if you want to meet him!”

And last weekend, while I was driving down to Durham, NC, we passed a huge billboard in Richmond that said, “The End is near! Accept Jesus or go to Hell.”

These billboards and church signs shout at passing cars and pedestrians about the brokenness of the world and the desperate need to change here and now. They play into our fears and frustrations, they tap into our emotions, and they make it all about us.

Notice, the signs I described, they’re almost all about our experience, and our need to change, and our sin. Very few church signs are actually about God.

How strange.

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And, because we take our lessons from the world around us rather than from God’s Word, we’ve let this slip off the billboards and into the church. So much of what we do on Sunday mornings has become primarily focused on our experience.

We ask questions like, “What did you get out of church today?” when it’s actually about what God gets out of us.

We preach and hear sermons that end with “let us now go and do likewise” instead of reflecting on how God is the one moving in and through us.

We make church all about us, instead of about God.

Our text from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica is apocalyptic. Apocalyptism is one of the frightening words we tend to avoid at all costs. When we hear the word our minds immediately flock to frightening movie scenes, and fire raining from the sky, death and destruction all around. We think about the people wearing signs on street corners or the not-so-subtle church billboards near the highway.

But apocalyptic writing is nothing more than the revelation of God. It is an experience of the presence of the divine that breaks down every barrier for humans in the universe.

These kind of writings and reflections rise to the surface whenever Christians feel pressured by the world; when oppressive regimes like Rome, or slavery, or the system itself rises to power, they put all of life’s choices into the binary of God or the devil. And hope for God’s in breaking, God’s revelation, may be all that keeps us going when everything feels like it’s falling apart.

It should come as no surprise that considering what has taken place across the American landscape over the last year, many people, Christians in particular, believe we are in the end times.

Evangelicals feel attacked and belittled by the federal government for just about everything under the sun.

Pastors lament from the pulpit about the so-called war on Christianity or the war on Advent and they strive to frighten their people into recognizing the apocalypse at hand.

Even Roy Moore, the current Alabaman Republican candidate for a Senate seat, in light of all the accusations coming in for sexual harassment and misconduct, he has denied them vehemently and labeled them an attack on his Christian identity and virtue.

Fear is a very powerful tool. Manipulation always takes place when individual fears are tapped into.

That’s why political races are won by showing what’s wrong with the other candidate rather than addressing what a particular candidate wants to see happen.

It’s also why children are experiencing the highest levels of anxiety in modern history because they feel pressured to perform well, rather than being celebrated for what they’ve accomplished.

And it’s why churches put up big billboards with slogans like “Accept Jesus or Suffer The Consequences” rather than “Jesus loves you.”

Today, there is so much going on that there is plenty of pressure for us to forget that we are citizens of the age yet to come.

Fear is powerful.

And even here in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonicans, he appeals to their fear:

You all of all people know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. The world might seem nice and good, but that’s exactly when the sudden destruction will arrive, like labor pains in a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

            But unlike the billboards that speckle our American landscape, unlike the 24-hour news cycle that is almost entirely devoted to political fears, Paul raises the issue of revelation not for fear mongering, but for encouragement.

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The world might be falling apart, but we are not in darkness. We are children of the light and children of the day. We cannot become blind to who we are and whose we are, we must remember our truest identities and what has been done for us. So, let us clothe ourselves with the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet we shall wear the hope of salvation. For God has destined us for greater things; not for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, do the good and right work of encouraging one another, and build up each other.

Paul, throughout the centuries, fills our ears with the very words we need to hear: Stay the course, remember we belong to the light, trust God and trust God’s promises, build the kingdom, love one another.

All of those things would be far better on a church billboard than most of the stuff we see on a regular basis.

On Sunday afternoon, shortly after most of us left the church, I received a phone call from our Secretary, Louise. Now, to be clear, Sunday afternoons are holy times for clergy people as they struggle to keep awake after struggling to keep people like you awake during church. So when I receive a phone call on a Sunday afternoon, right after being in this space with all of you, I know it’s important.

I answered my phone and Louise quickly filled me in one what had taken place right after I left… A drunk driver had crashed into our church sign.

When he came down the road he was traveling at such a high speed that when he smashed into the brick and mortar sign, it flipped the vehicle and it flew another 30 feet before it finally came to stop.

Police officers were on the scene and the driver had already been rushed in an ambulance to the hospital. He thankfully only suffered a few cuts and bruises, but when I got on the phone with the first officer he kept saying the same thing over and over again, “He’s lucky to be alive.”

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Thankfully, our sign that now stands broken and cracked on the corner of our property is not filled with any of the hateful rhetoric found on some other billboards. I say that with gratitude because the guy who crashed last Sunday easily could’ve died. He was going fast enough to end his life. And as I thought about what happened this week, as I read through Paul’s letter, I kept thinking about how terrible it would’ve been if those kinds of words were the last he ever saw.

Friends, life is far too short to be filled with negativity and fear and belittling attacks meant to manipulate. There is enough anxiety already in the world today. And when we think that all of this church stuff is up to us, and to us alone, we only increase the pessimism that so controls the world.

Paul writes to the church, and to us, and boldly declares that we have received a great gift in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have been awakened to God’s movements in the world, we have the privilege of living as God’s people in the light, and we get to experience the profound and wonderful mystery of resurrection here and now in and through one another.

We can, like others, spend our days worried about what will happen to us when we die. We can fall prey to the fearful signs that fill the horizons. But Christ died so that we may live.

Therefore, instead of breaking one another down, we build one another up. Instead of using fear to manipulate others, we give thanks for the love of God that has no end. And instead of cowering in the shadow of the cross, we rejoice in the light of the resurrection. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 27.4

Devotional:

Psalm 27.4

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

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Of all the questions I get asked, the one I hear the most is: “What’s heaven like?” I’ll be down in the preschool when one of the children will saunter over and randomly ask the question with their eyebrows askew. Or I’ll be sitting with a grieving family planning a funeral service when a new widow will ask the question as if she’s never really thought about it before. Or I’ll be working on a sermon in a coffee shop with my bible open on the table when a stranger will walk up to ask the question out of nowhere.

“What’s heaven like?”

If Hallmark, the Lifetime channel, and uncles who tell bad jokes have anything to say about it, then heaven is a mysterious place in the clouds with fat little cherubic babies floating around playing harps, golden arches keeping certain people out, and Saint Peter sitting with a ledger.

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If one of our preschool parents has something to say about it, then heaven (as she told her daughter) is a place filled to the brim with her favorite candy.

But if scripture has anything to say about it, then heaven is like a never-ending worship service. Which, to some people, sadly, sounds more like hell than heaven.

However, the bible is forever making connections between the worship of the Lord here and now, with the worship of the Lord in the New Kingdom. And not the announcements that always take to long to list at the beginning, and not the logistics of sitting down and then standing back up for hymns, but the beauty and wonder of encountering the beauty and wonder of the Lord.

The psalmist says the one thing worth seeking after is to live in the presence of the Lord each and every single day, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to wonder and inquire in the house of God. In weekly worship, when we experience God’s faithful presence through a choice phrase in a prayer, or a melodic move in a hymn, or even a powerful sermon, we are catching a glimpse of heaven on earth. For when we gather in the house of the Lord, when we are confronted with God’s majesty, what could be better?

As Christians, we do well to seek out the presence of the Lord here and now as foretaste of the kingdom of heaven. We do it on Sundays when we gather together to proclaim and respond to God’s Word. We do it when we are invited to the table for communion. We do it when we sit with a friend and earnestly pray together. We do it when we hear God speak to us in the still small voice. And when we do, we receive an answer to the question, “What’s heaven like?”

Let’s Talk About Heaven

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
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The couple had recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary when they tragically died in a car crash. They were in relatively good health at the time, mainly due to the wife’s dedication to their diet and forcing them to both get exercise, but when the crash occurred they were immediately brought before St. Peter and the pearly gates.

After a quick check-in, much like the first minutes at a tropical resort, St. Peter volunteered to give them a tore of their heavenly abode. The mansion they would be calling home for eternity was filled with more rooms than they could count with a beautiful kitchen, swimming pool, and movie theater in the basement. As the wife squealed in delight with every passing accommodation, the husband grew skeptical and finally leaned over to Peter and asked, “So how much is this going to cost?”

Peter, flabbergasted, replied, “It’s free, this is Heaven.”

Later, they toured the endless golf course that started in their backyard. With perfect rolling hills that they could only have imagined on earth, they took in the beauty that was available whenever they wanted. The old man, again, asked Peter, “So what are the green fees?

Peter replied, “This is Heaven and you play for free.”

Finally Peter brought the couple to the clubhouse that was filled with people from their lives that they had loved and lost. The joyful reunions went on for some time until Peter motioned for the couple to go through the lavish buffet that had been prepared. The old man, still skeptical, quietly asked Peter how much the food would cost.

Peter, now growing frustrated, said, “Don’t you understand yet? This is Heaven, it’s all free!

The old man stood still and then asked, “Well where are the fat free and low cholesterol tables?”

Peter then began to lecture, “That’s the best part. You can eat as much as you like of whatever you like, and you never get fat or sick. This is Heaven!

Immediately the old man went off with a fit of anger, throwing down his hat and stomping out of the clubhouse.

Peter and the wife both tried to calm down the old man and asked what was wrong. The old man looked at his wife and said, “This is all your fault! If it wasn’t for your diet and exercise, I could have been here ten years ago!

What’s heaven like? I get asked this question on a pretty regular basis. I might be in my office with a grieving family who just lost someone they loved and someone will ask what the person is now “doing” in heaven. Or I’ll be here in the sanctuary teaching a lesson to the preschoolers when the subject of heaven comes up and one of them will say something like: My mommy told me that heaven is full of your favorite candy, and you can have as much of it as you want!

What’s heaven like? There are a decent number of times when scripture is descriptive about the beyond, but it is a far stretch from the jokes and movies many of have experienced on the subject. John caught a glimpse of the heavenly glory of God’s presence in a vision and described it like the grandest worship service to have ever occurred. Countless beings that have made it through the great tribulation surround the throne of the Lord where the Lamb is in the center. They sing with full voices and praise the Lord unceasingly for his majesty is beyond comprehension.

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The problem with talking about heaven is that whatever we say, it is speculative at best. We can point to scripture where it is described, but the descriptions are made in such a way that heaven is beyond our comprehension. The whole point of heaven after all, is that it is totally other from earthly life. It is beyond life. It is glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might in a way that is impossible for us to understand during our earthly lives.

And even though we can only hint at what heaven might be like, it has become the pinnacle concern for many churches and Christians. What do I have to do to make it to heaven? Or what do we have to do in order to get other people to heaven? These questions dominate our thoughts and we grow anxious about whether or not we, and the people we love, will go on to our heavenly reward.

When talking about heaven, there is a strong temptation to make it so appealing with comparisons to earthly beauty that we neglect to think about the fact that we are called to exist here on earth until our deaths. But this text, this worshipful understanding of heaven, lets us know that God never promised we would not suffer. In fact the opposite is true. Suffering has always been part of our story, and even we here in the blessed region of Western civilization are not immune.

Only in death can we receive the gift of resurrection. It was only through Christ’s crucifixion that he could one day be raised again. The same holds true for us. Only when the bell tolls for us will we share in Christ’s victory over death.

And yet we still talk about it all the time. It is good and right for us to celebrate Christ’s resurrection, but when daydreams about our everlasting reward later prevent us from serving the needs of others right now it becomes cheap grace.

In many churches, like the ones most concerned about whether others are going to heaven or hell after they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now. Here in scripture John is confronted with the suffering of the great multitude before they arrive at the throne. They are granted a peace they did not have on earth: they will not hunger, nor thirst, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat because the Lamb of God has shepherded them to the springs of life where God wipes away all tears. But before we can rejoice with the Lord in his divine kingdom, we will endure tribulations in our earthly lives.

Imagining that our lives will be free from suffering is what often leads people to leave the church when something goes wrong. I know too many people my age who were forbidden from attending funerals as children, and then when they finally attended a funeral for the first time when they were older they fell away from the church. I also know too many people who lived such perfect and sheltered lives that when they encountered true poverty for the first time they were overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world and have been unable to return to church.

The church is supposed to be the alternative to this overly rosy view of the world. We have the church to help us remember exactly what God has promised, and what God has not. The church is the place where we confront the hardships of life and rely on the people in the pews next to us to help us through the great tribulations we experience. We are not here to prance around pretending that we have perfect lives without suffering, but instead to proclaim that in trusting the Lord we will find the strength and courage to sustain us until that time when we will join Jesus in the victory over death.

The church is the means by which we combat the hells we experience on earth by attempting to give people hope and faith in something greater than earthly life can offer.

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In this church, at St. John’s, we strive to help guide and nurture one another through a variety of means. We have bible studies for the young and the old to help us wrestle with how scripture can speak into our everyday experiences. We collect food and clothing and money for others who are desperately in need. We send people on mission trips to build and plant new foundations and relationships for people who really feel like they are living in hell right now.

But we also have a woman here in the church who has made it her calling to help nurture people in the midst of suffering in the best way she knows how. I believe that Dianne Wright is keeping Hallmark in business through the countless cards she sends out to the community. If you’ve been coming to this church for any regular period of time, and have had so much as a cold, you’ve probably received a card from Dianne Wright. They are always thoughtful, they are always written with purposeful words, and they are always filled with love.

I have the added benefit of not just receiving cards when I need them, but I visit enough of you and our shut-ins to know how prized these letters have become. I was visiting someone at King’s Daughters recently when I saw the familiar script sticking out of the cards adorned in a row on the window sill. The woman I visited described them as the most precious gift she had received since she went in to rehab.

Time and time again I will find myself visiting someone and the subject of Dianne’s cards will come up. They might appear to be a simple and casual gesture, but they speak volumes in the realm of how we are sustained by God’s grace through our neighbor Dianne.

As Christians, we are called to combat the countless hells on earth that plague people through our love and presence. For Dianne Wright, this has meant a ceaseless commitment to communicating through cards the love, depth, and peace of God.

Each of us, in some way shape or form, has gifts that we use to share God’s love with others. Perhaps we have the freedom to visit with people who can no longer visit us. Maybe we, like Dianne, have a penchant for penning letters. Perhaps we have been blessed with lucrative careers that allow us to give charitably to help others. Maybe God has molded us with a spirit of prayer and we can lift up the world through our clasped hands. Perhaps we have become familiar with a particular need in the world and all we need is a little nudge to start serving God by serving others. Maybe we have toyed with the idea of a calling to the ministry and we just need to take a step in faith that God can use us to spread the gospel. Perhaps we have the gift of carpentry like Jesus only we’ve been too nervous to ask someone we know if they need any repairs. Whatever our gift might be, God is calling us to use them to draw people into moments of heaven on earth.

When our time comes God will do with us what God wants. In God’s infinite wisdom and glory we will surround the throne and join in one voice with the saints who came before us, and with the saints who will come after us. We will be washed with the blood of the lamb and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

We know not when we will gather with the great multitude, but each day God gives us is a gift. A gift we should celebrate by being a gift for others. Amen.