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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. So does it take a whole church to raise a child in the faith? I would say, yes. And from my experience, even church buildings can play a part. When I was a young boy growing up in southern Minnesota, there were two memorable hallways in my home church. The most exotic hallway was outside the Sunday School classrooms. It was where memorabilia of the congregation’s missionaries was kept. In long glass cases, butterflies from Brazil, silk from China, drums from Africa, and pictures of the missionary’s homes in distant lands, enchanted the eyes of impressionable children. For the Lutheran churches of my youth, missionaries were the contemporary saints and martyrs. They were the committed Christians who were sent out when they were young and returned years later when they were old.
There was another hallway as well just behind the altar of the church. It contained the photographs of the faithful Norwegian pastors who had founded the congregation and then tended to the flock. They were stern looking men with gray beards and ruffled collars. Oh, of course, there were jokes about these men. One pastor apparently proposed that the church should purchase a new chandelier. This caused a great stir at the annual meeting. The Church Council president thoroughly disagreed with the pastor. “Pastor, we don’t need no chandelier. First of all, nobody knows how to play it. Second, nobody knows how to spell it. And third, what we really need is light.” It’s odd that these two church hallways could have taken such a hold of my imagination as a child that they would define my professional career as pastor, but they did.
There was, however, more to the faith in that church than a rogue’s gallery of pastors, and the souvenirs of retired missionaries. There was a belief and commitment to Jesus’ promise of a heavenly home that had been prepared for us from the foundations of the earth. It was a new Jerusalem. And the congregation believed that heaven was not simply a reward for God’s faithful people; but rather they believed that heaven was the destination which kept them focused in their decisions and directions here on earth.
My friends, as Jesus’ followers, you and I have been destined for the gates of heaven. We have been created in God’s image to dwell with him forever in his eternal home. So if you are preparing yourself to enter the gates of heaven, shouldn’t you know the way?
The old Norwegians I knew as a child took the promise of heaven seriously, but they could also joke about it. I am reminded of Ole, who at the age of 70 decided to study ancient Hebrew. His friend Sven asked him, “Now why would you do a thing like?” And Ole answered, “Well, when I get to heaven I want to speak to God in his own language.” Then Sven replied slyly, “And, so what if you go to the other place?” And Ole answered, “Well, I already know Norwegian.”
Many people today, even devout church-goers seem to have lost sight of Jesus’s promise of Jerusalem, their happy home. They have relegated heaven to some sort of consolation prize for everyone, regardless of their faith. For them, heaven is final reward at best, and so they ponder the question; What will heaven be like? Or even whether heaven is worth waiting for or pursuing at all. These questions are not new. In fact they were the same arguments raised by skeptics to Jesus before his crucifixion, and raised again to the apostles in the early church after Christ’s resurrection.
What heaven looks like shouldn’t be a concern for those who know their savior and trust that he is preparing a place for them. It is enough to know that you will be with God. Over 30 years ago, when my Confirmation Pastor, Carl Borgwardt died at 54 years old on the handball court, the congregation was shocked and devastated. The familiar words he preached to the congregation came back to the parish as a word of comfort and strength. “Death is not a tragedy for those who live in the hope of Jesus Christ.” Why is this truth so important, you may ask? When you believe that there is a destination calling you homeward, then you can trust in the loving purposes of God. Yes, when you believe that there is a heaven at the end of life’s journey, you can press on with confidence- even when there are doubts. For you, the unbearable becomes bearable and in the midst of darkness, you can see a glimmer of light and hope leading you.
It was that confident assurance that allowed Jesus to turn to the crowds and say, “Blessed are you who are poor now, for yours is the kingdom of God. Bless are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you on account of the Son of Man, and what you believe and how you act. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”
Heaven, my friends, is the destination at the end the hallway. For some it is a long distance, and for others it is painfully short. And we all have a decision about whether we choose to move towards that destination or not. Your confidence in the final heavenly home makes all the difference in your strength and courage.
I remember distinctly the change in my brother’s countenance, when on his death bed as he was fighting leukemia he recognized that his fight was over. He turned his to wife and said weakly, “It’s time for plan B.” He knew that at his journey’s end, there was a promised place prepared for him. That is God’s promise to you as well. You may have experienced a painful and tragic Good Friday in your life- maybe even this year. But let assure you, a miracle is not far away. It may not be the miracle that you prepared for. And God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle that is waiting for you is this: God will give you the strength to rise again in the morning to see the beauty of the new day. And one day, you will be reunited with those you have loved in a place he has prepared for you in Jerusalem, your heavenly home.
Now, you may be wondering, so how do you make such a daring step and accept the promise of a God? It begins by listening to the encouraging witness of those disciples surrounding you this day with their stories of God’ love, and then, by remembering those men and women of faith who have gone before you and their witness. It is, indeed, the whole church that raises a child in faith, and sometimes it is the portraits of the missionaries and pastors in the hallways as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.