May 22nd, 2011


“Someplace Special”

John 14:1-14


There is an old joke about a preacher who stands in the pulpit and asks a question, expecting a response.  He asks, “Do you want to go to heaven.”  Most of the congregation calls back, “Amen,” or “Yes Jesus.”  Sitting in his pew in the back Elmer sits silently while all this is going on.  The preacher notices and calls out again, specifically, saying: “Elmer!  Don’t you want to go to heaven one day?”  There was a pause, and wise old Elmer shouted back, “Oh, I thought you were talking about right now!”

According to the radio ‘bible teacher’ Harold Camping, it is a miracle that we are here this morning.  If you have been traveling outside the circle of his radio broadcast, or did not watch “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly” last Sunday afternoon, you may have missed the point Harold has been proclaiming:  The Rapture was to occur yesterday, May 21, 2011.  Camping has competition right now, and he knows it. The ancient Mayan long-count calendar ends in 2012, which has made next year a popular date for apocalyptically-minded New Agers. Hollywood has already made a doomsday movie about it.


The mere fact that I prepared this sermon, asked Karen Eddinger to prepare music, and worked with Karen Marks, putting together promotion Sunday at 10:30 reveals the depth of my concern regarding this prophecy.  I haven’t really worried about it.  As a dear friend of mine was quick to say, “So I find myself in the presence of Jesus, I fail to see the down side.”


Apparently Mr. Camping has made a similar prediction some years ago, suggesting that the rapture would occur in September 1994.  But as a friend suggested, “he got his math wrong.” 


When those of the ilk of Mr. Camping speak of the Rapture, they are speaking of a particular view of the Christian faith that was not in existence until the 19th century, beginning with John Nelson Darby.  Strictly speaking these people are called Dispensationalist.  These folk, like Camping, believe in a ‘pre-tribulation’ rapture based upon St. Paul’s prediction in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 where Jesus’ followers are described to meet their Lord “in the air.”


Some people may see this as a ridiculous kind of heresy at worst, or at best, an unreasonable focus on some minute in the bible.   Still, the church has always believed that it is God’s intention or plan to redeem all of God’s creation.  It is the specifics of such a redemption, often based upon a particular (and sometimes peculiar) reading of the bible that has lead to such theories.  We might wonder though, why all the attention?


I believe that we hold this idea tightly, over and against the gone wrongness of the world around us.  It is good to know that there is someplace special for us, especially when the world is hostile.  So the church has always agreed that we anticipate Christ’s return in glory.  On these two generalities we can agree:  That Christ will return, and that return is part and parcel to the restoration of God’s good creation.  I, myself, am not ready to discard these two tenets of faith;  At funerals I always use verse 14 from the citation above, “we would not have you ignorant brothers and sisters, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”[1]


I have committed to memory most of this chapter of John’s gospel to memory.  I’ve done this in part because I’ve used it over and over and over again.  The other reason is that I want to remember it.  I have not memorized it by accident, any more than I’ve memorized the 23rd Psalm or the Apostle’s Creed.  I’ve memorized it because I am not so different from those first disciples;  I, too, live in a great in-between time…this time between Jesus’ resurrection appearances and his return.  It is a time that illustrates quite nicely the need for such a talk by Jesus.  We need to hear these words because each one of us knows personally why this world in which we live so needs restoration.


It is an unfortunate development that as time has gone on we have come to isolate this place of ‘restoration’ and ‘peace’ in the heavenly realm.  So remember with me that Jesus does not say that the Kingdom of God is coming, he says that it has come.


Whether we’re talking about Jesus’ presence in the world, or his presence seated at the right hand of God – we’re talking about a places that are, first-and-foremost, God’s.


Although not as common as it once was, we refer to ‘church’ as ‘God’s House.’  I suppose that we began to do that based on the ancient idea of the holy of holies being the dwelling place of God.  I remember countless times my mother prefacing some instruction about proper behavior ‘in church’ with “This is God’s house…”  It is in God’s house and through God’s people that we expect, and hope, that this Kingdom love and grace and justice will be made known.  

The essence of this message is this:  I am invited in. You’re invited in. We’re invited in.

 This is, the Good News of the Gospel.  It is a word of encouragement.  But when we put it off until some distant place in the future, marked on the calendar by a red x, I think we miss it’s real power.

Many years ago, my father-in-law told me a story about ministry.    Back in the day when a pastor could leave the office in the afternoon and ‘go visiting’ and actually find people at home, he stopped by the house of a young family.  He walked up the sidewalk to the porch and rapped on the front door.  A young child was already in the foyer.  She looked at him, turned and shouted up the stairs: “Mom!  God’s here!”

I suppose that the reason for this association was the family’s insistence that the Church building was ‘God’s house.’  The child connected my father-in-law’s presence there with, whom else, God.  After all, if this is God’s house and if Pastor Paul is always there, surely he must be God.  

Adults, of course, do not make the same kinds of false assumptions.  Most of us don’t think that God lives here and not over there.  What we do assume, however, that if the church is ‘God’s house’ then we expect certain qualities for that place.  We might even import here some of that language from elsewhere in the gospel where Jesus describes what the “Kingdom of Heaven” is like.  It might even be helpful to draw in some of the imagery from last week of the shepherd and the sheep; so that we might remember the nature of this relationship between God and God’s people.  And, I must add, that each of us makes a choice to dwell in this Kingdom.  It is not about place.

We do know that even the church is not a perfect rendition of the Kingdom of God.  But at its best, it calls to our remembrance that very thing.  

These images that try to describe what it would be like to dwell in the presence of God are, of course, feeble attempts to describe what I believe is a what more than it is a where.  Remember with me that John’s gospel, more than any other, speaks of Jesus’ dwelling with us.  To speak of where, then, rather than what; if we were to get persnickety about the greek text, we would have to assert, even, that Jesus’ point is not so much that we are going to be with God, but rather God is coming to dwell with us. 

One author I know

Combs through the biblical evidence, observing that in the Gospels heaven is mainly “not about blue skies or life only after death.”  Rather, heaven is the life that is now coming toward us from God, the life “of the world to come,” a life that overcomes our present age.  The opposite of heaven is not hell, but instead the “world that is passing away.”[2] 


This kind of view insists that “Heaven is God’s unbounded love breaking in to every situation, stronger than any loss, even death.  This view asks us to focus on the what more than the where.  The where, you see, is not only there, but here.   

We are called to be on hand for that which is at hand but not in hand, and precedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine.[3] 


If we already lived here, we’d already be home.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 4:13 RSV

[2] Morse, Christopher The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News, T&T Clark, 2010

[3] Long, Thomas “Faith Matters: Heaven Comes To Us”  The Christian Century, May 5, 2011, p. 55