(A Sermon based on Matthew 24 and 25)
What is heaven to you? Is it a place where your favorite things or activities take place, up there in the stratosphere after you die? Is it a golden stretch of beach with constant sunshine and the lapping of ocean waves? Perhaps to you it is a place of singing praises to God for eternity. I love hymns, but I have a friend who doesn’t like church hymns at all. He said if heaven is a place where we sing hymns for eternity, no thank you. For some of us, heaven is defined by chocolate: I have a fridge magnet that says, “If there is no chocolate in heaven, I’m not going!” But heaven is not a place that is defined by our likes or dislikes. The Bishop spoke last week about moving into ‚larger life‘ when we die, and that’s not a bad image actually.
The theologian Jürgen Moltmann recently tweeted that “The Kingdom of Heaven is about life before death.” I agree with that statement: that the stepping into Heaven starts during our lifetime. The Kingdom of Heaven parables in Matthew – one of which is our Gospel reading for today – are all about the fact that Jesus said, “Heaven starts here, and this is what it looks like.” Jesus saw it as central to his purpose to usher in the Kingdom – but it won’t be the same Kingdom the Jews of his day were expecting nor one that any of us would imagine. The Kingdom of Heaven doesn’t run by Earthly rules and isn’t defined by material wealth or military power. In the Kingdom of Heaven, might does NOT mean right! It also isn’t far, far away. It is as if Jesus lassoed that distant, far away Kingdom and nailed it to the ground and said, ‘It starts right here. You can step into it.’ It is a spiritual kingdom; a way of living.
In Jewish thought the ushering in of the Kingdom of Heaven would also bring about the end of the world as we know it starting with a cataclysmic war before peace finally reigns in Jerusalem. Chapter 24 of the book of Matthew is an example of how the Gospel writer attempted to highlight the distinction that Jesus was drawing by the way he interweaves some of Jesus’ words about two separate events. Verses 15 – 29 are almost certainly referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. I will read a few of those verses to remind you of them: “So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.”
We may not have a CNN or BBC Reporter to show us videos of that war like we have with modern-day Syria, but we do have a written account from the Roman historian, Josephus. Josephus tells about how the city of Jerusalem was surrounded and slowly starved to death over the winter. It was chock full of people from the surrounding villages – much like the smaller kingdoms in Lord of the Rings who evacuated to Helms Deep for protection – the Jews from the local villages around Jerusalem fled for protection within her walls and towers. [Instead of fleeing the city like Jesus told them to – although a Church Father in the 4th Century did speak of an oral tradition that said the Christians actually did evacuate. ] While the Roman soldiers set up camp around the city, the inhabitants turned on each other and burned each other’s food barns. When the Romans finally entered the city, they (and I quote) “went in numbers into the lanes of the city, with their swords drawn, they slew those whom they overtook, without mercy, and set fire to the houses wither the Jews were fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest; and when they were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses, that is of such as died by the famine; they then stood in horror at this sight, and went out without touching anything. But although they had this commiseration for such as were destroyed in that manner, yet had they not the same for those that were still alive, but they ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many houses was quenched with these men’s blood.” (The Wars Of The Jews, 6:8:5). End quote
The book of Matthew was written within the first 15 to 20 years after that siege, most likely for the Christians in the city of Antioch. The ancient city of Antioch is located in modern-day Turkey about 12 miles north of the Syrian border. Hence verse 34: ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.’ In Chapter 24, Matthew is reminding the readers of Jesus’ words of warning concerning the destruction of the temple and the suffering of Jerusalem that was to come.
“Yesterday was ‚Remembrance Sunday‘ for all the Commonwealth Nations. It is a day set aside to remember those fallen in the Great War, WWI. That war took place 100 years ago, and we still remember. The wounds of the fall of Jerusalem would have been very, very fresh for the early Christians – many of whom were directly or indirectly affected by the war. They knew what Hell looked like. Hell is a war zone, a city under attack. Nearly 1 million were killed in the siege of Jerusalem alone, which was only one event in a much longer war. The Gospels were written against that devastating backdrop for a grieving and persecuted people. I can’t emphasize that enough. I encourage you to read the Gospel of Matthew again with this fact in mind. Pay close attention to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven is like…’ statements.”
Back to Matthew Chapter 24: what do these verses say about the connection between the siege of Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man (or the second coming of Christ, as the Christians interpreted that to mean)? In the original Greek text verse 36 starts with a transitional word best translated as ‘But’: ’But about that day and hour no one knows…’ The phrase ‘that day’ is also significant. It’s as though he is drawing a line of demarcation between the destruction of Jerusalem and the return of the Son of Man. And the point he is making is this: What matters is not whether or not this is the ‘end times’, but whether or not you are ready.
Cue the parable of the ten virgins. No one knows when the Bridegroom will arrive, so have extra oil – be prepared. Live like a member of the Kingdom of Heaven – every day, every hour. Heaven starts now.
Earlier in Matthew, Jesus is asked the question: Who can enter the Kingdom of Heaven? He answers by taking aside a child, and saying, “Whoever is like a child.” He didn’t mean ‘whoever is immature’. He meant ‘whoever is genuine’. This week our son helped to conduct a new opera. It was performed first to thousands of schoolchildren, who were bussed in for the performance. He said their reaction was amazing: It was ‘uncontained enthusiasm’. They went wild. The kids in the front row where high-fiving and fist-bumping him. He said it was unlike anything he had previously experienced. He said it was not at all like the adults who say, very reserved, “Well, wasn’t that lovely?” I wrote back to him that I have always thought the praise of a child is special, because they haven’t yet learned to ‘be polite’. They haven’t built a mask. And if you put Jesus’ words about being childlike next to his ‘woe to you scribes and pharisees’ comments – especially calling them whitewashed tombs, his meaning is obvious. If you want to be a member of the Kingdom of Heaven, be genuine. Do not say one thing and do another. Live honestly with yourself, with others, and with God.
So the main question I have for you today is one we should be asking ourselves every morning when we look in the mirror: Are you living as a member of the Kingdom that is already here? Are you real? Are you practiced at loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength? Do you really love your neighbour as yourself? Do you cry for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream? If you do, then you will be ready for the second coming, or for the end of this earthly life, and the transition from this body to a heavenly one will be as natural to you as walking out the door of this church and into the street – into larger life – because you have created Heaven on Earth. AMEN