From Darkness to Light (Part II)

Isaiah 60:1-6

What do you be think heaven will be like? White clouds? Angels with harps? St. Peter holding a set of keys? An old man sitting on the throne of judgment with a long white beard? Or do you think of it as something completely different? As a pastor I’ve heard many people articulate their beliefs about heaven. And the range of understandings is staggering. Heaven can be viewed very literally as the city of gold and precious stones as espoused by the Book of Revelation. Others have said, “heaven is what you make of it” whatever that means. I don’t know, I think there must be some middle ground here. There must be some balance between the rigid dogmatic view and the wishy-washy, it’s what you want it to be version of heaven. There must be something more.

Our passage of Scripture for today, Isaiah 60, I think holds one of many keys as we think about the nature of heaven. The third author in the Book of Isaiah, after his nation had returned from exile enjoyed a brief period of happiness. They were home. But as we all know, happiness is fleeting. And they began to experience some difficult times. And it’s within this context that Isaiah wrote these words of encouragement and inspiration:

Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the LORD’s glory has shone upon you.
Though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the LORD will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.

Now, sometimes people identify a passage like this with a pop culture concept of heaven. We’ve all seen the billboards, right? “You cannot enter the Kingdom of God until you’re born again” or we read the words “Where will you spend eternity? The choice is yours” set on a background of flames and smoke. And there are passages in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament that support this simplistic, hellfire and brimstone, billboard type of theology if they are taken very literally and out of context.

But here’s the thing. Heaven is finally beyond our understanding. No one knows what it will look like. So, developing a theology or belief system around the notion of heaven, or an afterlife, is a complex task. So, I can understand the desire to create a simple, straightforward path to heaven. Do A, B, & C, and you’ll get in. The problem that arises, however, is one of exclusionism and pride. An unsophisticated understanding of heaven excludes a diversity of thought or belief. It says, “if you don’t toe the line, if you don’t believe the “right” things, worship the “right” way; if you don’t hold the same set of beliefs that my church affirms are true, then sorry, you’re out.” And even worse, being certain about the nature of heaven leads to the sin of pride. Pride says, “I know what heaven looks like and all other notions, all other religions, and all other Christian views are wrong.” No, I think heaven and “salvation,” the path we take to get to heaven, are far more complex.

One theologian who had a wonderful grasp on the nature of heaven was John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Wesley believed that heaven was more than the place where God is enthroned, Jesus abides, or where children of God spend eternity. Heaven in his mind was also for the here and now. In his own words, “It is called the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ because it is heaven opened in the soul.” For Wesley, heaven had more to do with finding love in this life, expressing that love, sharing that love, than hoping to someday float around in the clouds with wings and a harp. Wesley believed that the result of finding, expressing, and sharing love will, in the end, “find heaven for us.”

“Love will find heaven for us.” I like that. I like it because I can see two important themes emerging from Wesley’s line of thought here. And these two themes are consistent and coherent with the core of Christ’s message.

First, that love it key. When I think about the centrality of love and how it can be “lived out” in the life of the church, I can’t help but think of Jim. Jim was a member of my home church in Dubuque Iowa. Summit Congregational UCC. But I wasn’t always a member of that church. You see, Becky and I were engaged at the time and since I had made the decision to leave my denomination and thus the congregation I was serving, we suddenly lost our venue only months before our wedding. We were, for all intents and purposes, “homeless” when it came to church.

Now, I had gone to work in a local hardware store in Dubuque and was sharing our wedding venue dilemma with a co-worker. He said that his little UCC church would be happy to let us use their building. So, the following Sunday, I said to my kids, “let’s go to Summit today so I can show you where Becky and I are going to get married.” And this is where Jim comes into the story. You see, without really realizing it, I was more than just “church homeless,” I was “religiously homeless.” I still had a strong faith in God, but I had become disillusioned with the institution of the church. Both the bickering and backstabbing of the local church and bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the wider church.

So, on a sunny spring morning, with a little fear in my heart and carrying a fair amount of negative baggage toward the institution of church, we walked through the doors of Summit United Church of Christ. Jim was the greeter that day. Now, at this point I should give you an image of Jim. He was a big man, 6-3/6-4, maybe 250, he reminded me of a big old bear. But it was Jim’s smile that defined him best. It was a huge smile, genuine, often intertwined with a hearty laugh. And it was that smile that greeted us as we crossed the threshold of that church for the first time. And I remember feeling like I had come home. You see, Jim had recognized that we were visitors, ushered us into the sanctuary, and introduced us to his wife, Joyce. And then he said, “Sit with us, we have communion today and everyone is welcome to the table here. After worship make sure you come to fellowship because I want to get to know you.” Now, Jim had no way of knowing that I was in the middle of a spiritual desert, but his attitude, his sense of inclusion and welcome, his genuine interest in us, “loved me” back into a congregation that I would come to call home. A congregation, by the way, that I became pastor of exactly one year later.

So, love is the first key and second is this: Salvation, or the path to heaven as it were, is primarily a this-worldly phenomenon. It happens here. Now, the root of the English word might be helpful. The word salvation comes to us from the Latin word that means “wholeness” or “healing.” This is the same root, by the way, from which we get the word “salve” which is a healing agent. So, in it’s broadest sense, heaven has to do with becoming whole and being healed. And the language of wholeness suggests movement beyond fragmentation, and the language of healing, suggests being healed of the wounds inflicted simply by being alive in this world; our “wounds of existence” if you will.

Jesus was all about healing and restoring people to wholeness. Time and again in the gospel accounts, Jesus healed people who were suffering, on the margins of society; people who needed forgiveness and restoration. When asked by his followers how to pray, he said, “kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And when asked, “what’s the most important parts of the law?” He didn’t answer with, “try your best to get to heaven.” He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

And again, no one, in this life anyway, finally knows what heaven will look like. But we can surmise from the teachings of Jesus himself, that salvation is an on-going process; a process that begins with love. A love that seeks us and finds us in this life. Heaven on earth begins with healing and restoration but it doesn’t stop here. The path of salvation leads us across space and time, into an eternal existence within the Divine Presence of God.

My friends, in this coming season of Epiphany, my prayer is that the Light of Christ will arise before you and that heaven on earth will become a part of your reality. And finally, that Love of God will clear for you a path of salvation; a mysterious, wonderful, path to God!

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Wesley Study Bible. (CEB) (Joel B. Green and William H Wilimon gen. eds. / et.al. 2012)  pg. 934

[1] Ibid.

[1] Marcus Borg. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (Harper San Francisco, 2003) pg. 175

2 thoughts on “From Darkness to Light (Part II)

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