Worship Service, May 16, 2021 “Don’t Just Look Toward Heaven”
Join Holy Trinity church members and Pastor Erik for worship on May 16, 2021 via YouTube
The message “Don’t Just Look Toward Heaven” by Pastor Erik can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service.
“Don’t Just Look Towards Heaven” ACTS 1:11
From the Book of Acts: In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
As our kids were growing up, my wife and I would sometimes try to work in conversations about faith around the dinner table. One question we would ask to get the kids reflecting on how God’s presence might be a real thing in their everyday lives was, “Where have you seen God today?” Over time they came to realize this question was about becoming aware of signs of God’s grace around us. It might be an act of kindness they received. An encouraging word they had heard. A special time spent with a family member or friend. Something beautiful that had seen outside in God’s creation. A news story of something good that happened in the world. By modeling how God’s Spirit can be present in our lives we hoped that their faith would feel real to them, and that they would see that God was not just far off, but walking with them.
One night we had one of the kid’s friends over. He was a neighbor who had gone to our church a couple times, but had not really grown up in the church. We were talking about the day and we asked the kids the question, “Where did you see God?” We described a little about what we meant by the question and we all went first so the friend could have some examples of what we were talking about. Still, the question was a bit challenging for the friend. He thought about it for awhile then slowly and quietly he looked up towards the ceiling and with a questioning look he pointed to the sky. We smiled and tried to be affirming with comments like, “Oh, yeah, God might be in the sky, or like up in heaven.”
Looking back, our family sometimes laughs remembering that time when our poor friend maybe didn’t quite get the question and perhaps felt a little pressure to respond somehow. But I don’t think he was alone in his response to the question. I don’t think he would be alone in his perception of where God might be found. A lot of people, including a lot of Christians might respond in the same way. I think it is probably somewhat a common perception that if asked, “Where do you see God?” or, “Where might you find God?” a lot of people might point up and say, “Heaven?”
Even the disciples who walked with Jesus seemed to have this perception. We hear in the first Bible reading today that they stand gazing up at Jesus as he is taken up into the clouds. This story takes place after Jesus has risen from the dead and has appeared to the disciples several times. The book of Acts tells us he has been with them off and on for forty days. He has talked to them about a Holy Spirit that will come to them and empower them to be witnesses to the good news in Jerusalem and even to the ends of the earth. Then, Jesus is lifted up and taken into the sky before their very eyes.
Naturally, the disciples are looking up trying to figure out what is going on. This scene has been depicted by many artists over the years. Often those pictures will include angels in the sky with Jesus. But in one painting in the icon style there is another angel kneeling off to the side looking down at the disciples with a finger pointing as if the angel is scolding the disciples. It seems like an odd image to include, but I think the artist puts it in the painting because it fits with the story. We hear in Acts that there were two men in white robes standing near the disciples as they are looking at Jesus in the clouds. The two men say to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way.”
These angel-like figures seem to be chastising the disciples for just standing there looking up at the clouds. They remind them that Jesus will come back again. It is like they are saying, “Don’t just look up to heaven wondering where Jesus went. Get busy doing the work he wants you to do now.” The disciples seem to be looking for Jesus among the clouds, but God’s messengers are reminding them that they will find his Spirit back in Jerusalem and they are to be witnesses so that his presence might fill the earth.
As people of faith, can we ever become so focused on heaven that we might forget about the mission Christ set before us on earth? Can we ever be tempted to think things on this earth do not matter because the real reward will be in the afterlife? Can we ever use heaven as an excuse not to try and make changes in the present time so the world can be a better place? Can our focus on heaven sometimes divide us and cause conflict as we try and decide who is in and who is out?
I once heard a sermon at a church where the preacher went off on a rant about the Beatles, particularly John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” The part in the song the pastor was especially taking issue with was a line about “imagine there’s no religion” and also the opening line that says, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky.” He was going on about how the song was an attack on faith and how it was trying to do away with heaven, which is so important to Christians. I could see where the line in the song might offend certain believers if taken at face value, but I thought it a little odd that he would make a criticism of this song the central part of his sermon since it is really a call to peace and to create a better world. Lennon wasn’t necessarily trying to convince people that there wasn’t heaven or all religion is bad, but he was commenting on how some people’s concept of religion and who they think is going to heaven or not has led to much war and conflict throughout history.
If you look up about how he wrote the song, you’ll read that the main part of the song was actually inspired by a Christian prayer book Lennon had been given where he read about the idea of positive prayer. The book had a line that said, “If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion, without this ‘my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing’, then it can be true.”
Unfortunately, religion continues to be used to divide today. We saw it in the news again this week as tensions between Israel and the Palestinians once again flares up. In the past the tensions have been about who really owns the land as well as who should control holy sites in Jerusalem like the Temple Mount. This time, the fighting between Israel and Hamas was triggered by days of escalating clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at a holy hilltop compound in East Jerusalem. The site is revered by Muslims, who call it the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), it is believed to be the place where Muhammad began his ascension into heaven. It’s also considered sacred by Jews, for whom it is known as the Temple Mount. Hamas demanded Israel remove police from there and the nearby predominantly Arab district of Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families face eviction by Jewish settlers. Hamas launched rockets when its ultimatum went unheeded. Palestinian anger had already been stoked by weeks of rising tension in East Jerusalem, inflamed by a series of confrontations since the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in mid-April.
There are, of course, many sites in Jerusalem and Israel that Christians consider holy as well. There are Christians still living in the Holy Land too, who are caught up in the conflict. Some Christians are actually Palestinian Lutherans who operate churches and schools in and around Jerusalem. The current Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land is Sani-Ibrahim Azar. In a recent statement Bishop Azar said, “As a religious leader in the Holy City of Jerusalem, I urge all parties involved…to act responsibly and calmly, and to preserve human life at all costs. We continue to pray and advocate for reconciliation and a just peace for Jerusalem and all its residents—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, Palestinian and Israeli.”
Unfortunately, there are other Christians in the US who would actually endorse militarism in Israel and conflict in the Middle East. They endorse it because they see it as a sign of the end times. This strain of Christianity believes that Armageddon will take place in Israel so when there is conflict there they see it as the possibility of the apocalypse coming and the rapture where Christians will be carried up into heaven. We see a similar endorsement of conflict in parts of Islam as well. There are Muslim extremists who see violence as ushering in a personal paradise for themselves. They believe that through acts of violence against non-believers they can get more quickly to heaven.
In both instances the religious concept of heaven actually has a negative consequence. A belief which can bring comfort for so many and the hope of the afterlife, can also result in destructive or harmful actions by these groups when it is used as an incentive for violence or to condemn others who don’t have the same faith as they do.
Perhaps these groups would do well to hear the question the angels ask in today’s reading from Acts as the disciples stare up into the sky. “Why are you standing there looking up towards heaven?” Or in other words, Why are you focusing so much on what is ultimately mysterious? Why are you trying to figure out something you can’t understand? Why are you trying to be gatekeepers for who gets in and who stays out when it is not your decision to make? Why are you looking for Jesus in the clouds when he said he would come back and be present with you—when he said he would send the Holy Spirit to be with you and to empower you now, in the present, so others might hear the good news of God’s forgiveness?
Maybe more people would be interested in heaven if we actually first showed them how faith can make a difference on earth—if we could show them the way to how God’s love might impact them here in the present time. The Reverend Billy Graham told of a time early in his ministry when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy had told him, Dr. Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven.” The boy thought for a moment and said, “I don’t think I’ll be there. You don’t even know your way to the post office.”
Instead of arguing about the correct way to get to heaven which can have destructive results, maybe we should begin by showing people the way to God’s grace. Maybe we should help them realize where they might see God today, not up in the clouds somewhere, but in the kindness of a stranger, in the encouragement from a friend or neighbor or in the beauty of God’s creation. Besides, as Christians we believe heaven is a gift from God because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus has got heaven covered for us. That’s why he ascended. We are free now from worrying about the afterlife so we can get busy being witnesses of Christ in this life. We can get busying sharing the good news of repentance and forgiveness, of loving our neighbor as ourselves, and proclaiming that even in the midst of great difficulty, new life can come again. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner