Sunday, June 2, 2013

Heaven is Near


As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  (Matthew 10:7-8)
We are on a mission.  Just like Barnabas, the patron saint of this congregation.  Jesus himself sends his followers into the world to continue what he started.
Charles Wilbert White's "The Gospel Singers"

Jesus commissions us with the words, “Proclaim the good news.”  Today this sounds so churchy as to be not merely meaningless but off-putting.  
If you’re like me, you’ve had one too many condescending people ask you if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.  If you never see another tacky pamphlet threatening you with hell, it will still be too soon.
As well-intentioned as some of this activity might be, it’s not what Jesus had in mind.  It misses the mark on both counts.  It misconstrues the Good News and then misfires in its way of proclaiming it.
The Jesus-following community has had some missteps on the way of God’s mission, but that does not mean that we should abandon the mission.  What we need is some clarity about what we’re supposed to be accomplishing in this world.
So that we can get our heads around our common mission, let’s think together about three questions.
  1. What is the Good News we are supposed to proclaim?
  2. How are we supposed to proclaim the Good News?
  3. What happens when we proclaim the Good News?
God-Saturated Living
Jesus tells us to proclaim the good news.  But what exactly is that good news? Jesus himself says that it’s this: the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.  
Well, that’s going to take a little explanation.  So, let’s start explaining by saying what the good news doesn’t mean.
Most misconceptions about the Good News have two things in common.  
For starters, many of us assume that the Good News tells us how to live this life so that we will get into heaven.  If we think right about God or follow his rules scrupulously enough, the pearly gates will swing wide for us.  In other words, correct theology or rigorously moral conduct provide us the pass to enter heaven.
And speaking of heaven, the Good News certainly tells us about the kingdom of heaven.  But what many of us think about heaven bears at best only a vague resemblance to what Jesus has in mind. 
Many of us seem to think of heaven as a place--a kind of paradise--to which we go when we die in God’s good graces.  Heaven is the land of endless golf or fishing or tennis, sunbathing or duck hunting.  It’s party central with no last call and no hangover.  Heaven is where we have pleasure forever undisturbed by pain or sorrow or irritating people.
Glennray Tutor's "Going to Heaven"

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he is not talking about a celestial resort.  Instead, he’s talking about a God-saturated way of living.  That’s what Jesus means when, in John’s Gospel, he talks about eternal life.
Through our relationship to the risen Christ the very essence of our life begins to change even now.  We will experience the fullness of eternal life after we have passed through this life.  Instead of going to some different place, we will be fully realizing the relationship with God in Christ--and with all of God’s children through Christ--that the risen Christ has already initiated right here in 21st century Louisiana.
And now we can see more clearly the substance of the Good News that Jesus wants us to proclaim.  The kingdom of heaven has drawn near.  In and through the risen Christ God is drawing near to everybody in every corner of this planet.
He’s drawing near to do-gooders and ne’er-do-wells, holy rollers and hell raisers, tee-totalers and addicts.  Jesus embraces agnostics and atheists, cynics and hedonists with the same relentless passion he lavishes on the most sincerely devoted worshipper, tireless worker for justice, and selfless servant of the poor.
God is near.  So close we cannot see him clearly.  And God isn’t just standing around, making a list, and checking it twice.  He’s making things happen.  He restoring all that’s shabby, renewing all that has decayed.  He is lifting up the fallen and vindicating the oppressed.  He’s making all things new.
Well, really, it just doesn’t look that way to some folks.  Tornados destroy whole towns.  Children go hungry, suffer abuse, live is squalid conditions, and even find themselves forced into soldiering for savage warlords.  Families live under bridges.  Millions go without basic medical care and suffer needlessly as a result.
So, how do we proclaim this Good News in a way that makes sense to 21st century ears?
Being the Good News
Proclamation is about getting a message across.  There are lots of ways to get a message across.  Some are more effective than others.  The substance of the message in part determines the most effective means for communicating it.
In traffic, a red light tells drivers to stop.  Airports use international symbols for restrooms, baggage claim, and ground transportation to facilitate travel in unfamiliar surroundings.  Animal trainers use tone of voice to reward or to give commands.  Southern mothers add their children’s middle names to announce wrath and impending doom.
Jesus wants us to convey the good news.  He’s after more than an indifferent information transfer.  He wants us to take part in the active presence of the holy at work in this world.  He wants us to do it in a way such that others can actually sense God’s transforming work in their own lives.  And so it should come as no surprise that Jesus instructs us to do so with our hands and feet.
Listen carefully to what Jesus teaches his followers.  Proclaim the good news.  You know, the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Now, this is how you do it:
“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  (Matthew 10:8)  Be the good news in somebody else’s life.
Eugene de Blaas' "Good News"

When Jesus instructs us to cure the sick, he certainly means for us to pray for healing, but he also means much more than this.  He means to tend to the physical well-being others.  When the Jesus-following community provides basic medical services and proper nutrition we communicate God’s healing, providential care for his children.
The working poor and the homeless suffer from hypertension and diabetes.  Untreated, these are deadly conditions.
There are children who dread Christmas break and summer precisely because they will no longer receive the only meals they can regularly count on.  School is where food is.  Home has empty cupboards.
Sociologists have alerted us to the phenomenon of food deserts.  These are mostly impoverished areas that lack large grocery stores.  Without grocery stores, the poor have little or no access to affordable, fresh, nutritious food.  Their only recourse is convenience stores and fast food restaurants, so their diets promote obesity and the health problems associated with it.
These very needs--and many others like them--cry out for our proclamation of the good news, a proclamation that we offer in the form of medical missions, food banks, and nutrition programs.
God-Affected Lives
It’s reasonable to ask about the results of proclaiming the good news.  Church people often associate proclamation with evangelism, and evangelism has degenerated into a kind of church membership recruitment program.  In other words, we have misconstrued proclamation as a means to get more people into the church.
As it turns out, Jesus says exactly the opposite.  He’s not interested in getting more people into the church.  Instead, he is urging the church to engage more and more people in the world.
Proclaiming the good news may or may not result in larger average Sunday attendance in our congregations.  But here’s what I do know.  The wholehearted pursuit of our common mission will change lives.
Raphael Kirchner's "All Healing"

When Jesus-following communities relentlessly proclaim the good news, we leave God-affected lives in our wake.  Addicts get sober, poor kids go to college, dropouts finish their GED, people suffering from high blood pressure avoid strokes and heart attacks, diabetics keep their legs and their eyesight.  
And these people know in their gut that God has touched their lives.  The kingdom of heaven has come near.  Its boundaries are expanding.  This is God’s own mission.  And our great joy is to be on that mission with him.
This sermon was preached at St. Barnabas, Lafayette.  Propers for the feast of St. Barnabas were used to mark the 50th anniversary of that congregation.

2 comments:

  1. I never thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete