Two weeks ago the NPR news website reported on an announcement that was made by Christian publisher Tyndale House. “Nearly five years after it hit best-seller lists, a book that purported to be a 6-year-old boy's story of visiting angels and heaven after being injured in a bad car crash is being pulled from shelves. The young man at the center of The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, Alex Malarkey, said [the week of January 15] that the story was all made up.” The book had been promoted as “a supernatural encounter that would be sure to give new insights on Heaven, angels, and hearing the voice of God.” The Washington Post considered it one more addition to an emerging genre of books in the “heavenly tourism” category.
The book and all related products are being pulled out of print after Alex Malarkey wrote an open letter to Christian bookstore, LifeWay, and other retailers who sell Christian books admitting,
I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth. Anything written by man cannot be infallible. Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.
A lot of Christians have a lot of curiosity about heaven. What does it look like? Who will be there? How I can be sure I make it? We have a lot of ideas about when and how we will get there, but as theologian N. T. Wright says in his book Simply Good News, “The Bible says remarkably little about what happens to people, even to God’s people, after they die—at least, immediately after they die.” In fact, it seems like the Bible says so little about what happens immediately that people feel compelled to write and publish “spiritual memoirs” that fill in the blanks.
And while the Bible says precious little about what happens in the moments after death, the Bible is not silent on heaven. There’s a difference between the two, you see, especially in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” thirty-two times in his gospel. Including those he talks about heavens or heaven a total of eighty-two times. We heard one of these two weeks ago in Jesus’ own first proclamation in ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (4:17). Heaven comes up three times in the Beatitudes and twice in the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer.
Heaven is a central idea in this telling of the good news of Jesus, but it’s one of those words that may not mean what we think it means. When Matthew talks about heaven he isn’t talking about pearly gates, streets of gold, and choirs of angels singing at the throne of God. Remember Jesus himself says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He didn’t say this because precious metals replaced the dirt of the roadways in Galilee. He said this because he came near. He said this because in his birth, in his life, in his ministry, in his good news, and eventually even in his death and resurrection he ushered in the presence of God, the purpose of God. He brought heaven to earth.
Heaven, when Jesus talks about it in Matthew’s gospel, isn’t so much a location as it is a way of living. Heaven isn’t so much a place in the clouds far away where those who have gone before us reside. It’s the summation of what all of creation is and will be when things are going according to God’s will. We’ll hear a lot about this when we move into the parables during the season of Lent later this month and next, but it has also come up today when we hear that we are taught to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, when we are taught to store up treasures in heaven.
What do these things possibly mean if heaven isn’t a place up there, but a reality down here, right now?
A friend of mine, Matthew Miller, a pastor in Albuquerque, New Mexico said this:
I often tell people, "I'm not an afterlife Christian." Meaning, I don't believe this stuff to get in on cosmic dessert for eating a lifetime of vegetables. Jesus was pretty clear, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Often people spend a lot of faith time and energy trying to figure out exactly what needs to be done, what needs to be believed, in order to get to heaven. I’m with my friend, Matthew, the pastor, not the gospel writer, although I think he’d agree, too, and think that this mindset is missing the boat. A lot. The life of faith as Jesus describes it and hands it down to his disciples is never about trying to craft a cosmic escape from life on earth for some cushy heavenly palace. Likewise the life of the faithful on earth can never be about chasing and amassing earthly riches and pleasures. The life of faith as Jesus describes it is about making heaven on earth now. The life of faith as Jesus describes it is about learning God’s intentions for all of creation and being a part of making those intentions a reality.
Remember the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the peacemakers - - God’s will is for peace
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness - - God’s will is for justice-bringers
Blessed are the meek - - God’s will is for humility
Blessed are the merciful - - God’s will is for mercy
The life of faith is full of these kinds of treasures and working for them, for peace, for righteousness, for mercy, is storing up treasures in heaven.
Often this passage about treasures in heaven is used for a good old fashioned stewardship sermon. The idea goes that we can spend our money on things of earth – toys and cars and houses and clothes and rich food or other luxuries – or we can spend our money on things of heaven, namely the church. Right? That’s how we’ve all heard at least once or twice.
I think that’s too limited. This is about more than just to whom we write the check. This is about investing our whole selves in things that are of God. Think about how easy it is to waste away a day stuck in front of a TV too disinterested to do anything else. I do it! I may have done it yesterday! When it happens I have no idea how much time has passed. And when it happens, sometimes it ends up just feeling rotten, like being eaten at by moths or rusting away.
But I can also lose sense of time when I am in the middle of a pastoral visit or working in our church garden or planning worship or in conversation with the Faith Quest confirmation students or talking to my friends from the kids’ school about this strange thing our family is a part of called “church.” I imagine the same happens for many of you when you are involved in serving a meal to the guests who are homeless at Grace Place, or teaching Sunday school, or leading in worship, or sewing for infants born in poverty, or shopping for food for families in need. But when this happens, when we lose ourselves in these activities, it doesn't have that same feeling of being chewed away at. In a sense it makes our lives feel larger, stronger, fuller. There’s a difference a palpable difference when the treasures of time and even mental energy are stored up in things that are of God than when they are stored up in things that are not of God - - when they are stored in heaven and not on earth.
What does it mean to store our treasures in heaven when we've just prayed 'thy kingdom come' and Jesus recently said "the kingdom of heaven has come near." The kingdom of heaven is indeed at hand, and storing up treasures in heaven isn't about banking stuff away for the great escape from this world. It is about investing in what God's doing here to make the kingdom come now.
We get no better reminder of this when we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord's Supper as we do this morning. At the Lord's Table we have the mixing of heaven and earth. We have bread and juice made from the gifts of the earth. We use our senses of taste, touch, and smell in the very earthly experience of eating and drinking. But at the same time what we do is an experience of heaven on earth. It is a preview, an appetizer of the great banquet that is described, that is promised to the world when God's reign is fully realized.
When we share this meal we are sharing an experience of heaven of God's holy intentions for all of creation - where all are fed, the bread and the cup are plentiful, where no one goes hungry, where all are welcome. When we share this meal we are practicing what is done on heaven while we are here on earth - we are practicing acceptance, we are practicing hospitality, we are practicing peace and justice. When we share this meal we experience the blessings of God, we are given the gift of Jesus and his example of humility, of mercy, of grace.
It is a piece of heaven on earth and it sends us out from this place to be heaven on earth, to do the things that are of God, to store our time, our energy, our resources, all of our treasures in the purpose and mission of God. For where are treasure is stored, our hearts will follow.