Heaven on Earth

Heaven on Earth

1 Kings 6:1-18

by Daniel Harrell

I’ve enjoyed continuing to hear stories from my wife Dawn’s recent trip to Zambia and Burundi. Along with Brian Jones, Kristin Geer, and Bob Thomas, she spent two weeks there—visiting current mission partner Mercy Ministries in Zambia, an independent Christian school we’ve funded for many years—and in Burundi scouting out new a international mission opportunity for our congregation through World Relief, an organization committed to helping churches help churches be the church in needy parts of the world. Wracked by ethnic-driven civil war, Burundi’s health indicators are among the worst in the world with a life expectancy of only 50 years. As the third poorest country on earth, according to the UN, half its children suffer from chronic malnutrition with one out of every ten kids dead before age five from preventable diseases. Brian shared a couple weeks back of some promise held out for a church-driven micro-finance initiative that addresses the poverty and hunger though small business initiatives. Neighbors help neighbors generate income and build an economy so whole communities can flourish. We’re hoping to be a part of that.

Of all the money Colonial Church spends on ministry—for our children and youth, for music and worship, for education and pastoral care—our top outlay is mission. Mission spending currently comprises 17% of our budget, and this without including Innové, our $250K social entrepreneurial initiative that we’re praying and planning we might run for a second round. As you know, though Innové, we’ve ramped up five Christian non-profits that address sex-trafficking worldwide, hunger and financial distress in Minneapolis schools and neighborhoods, and education for college-aged students with disabilities. Our mission budget annually funds 18 ministry partners both locally and internationally, as well as providing special infusions of capital to take on critical needs worldwide. Last month we gave $15K to Shelter for Life in Iraq where current and former Colonial church members are assisting Syrian refugees.

As much as the money, our church commits hundreds and hundreds of hours volunteering and praying for these mission efforts. This comes on top of the countless hours you each contribute to other worthwhile causes, all of it alongside centuries of loving work done by churches since Pentecost first inspired Christians to witness to saving power of Christ.

As God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save it, so Jesus sent his church to embody God’s grace, the ultimate end being a world where “every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus Christ as Lord.” To confess Christ as Lord taps into the only eternal power whereby life is be made new and true love and justice and beauty and genuine peace abound. This is gospel good news, evangel in New Testament parlance. A leader of congregational churches in Minnesota,  90% of which enjoy a weekly worship attendance of less than 50 people, told me last week churches have to get back to evangelism. What good is good news if nobody’s sharing it?

Christianity presently ranks number one among world religions with 2.2 billion people following Jesus, nearly a third of the planet. 78% of Americans confess being Christians, even if they don’t make it to church on Sundays. Only 12% of all Christians live in North America, with the rest evenly dispersed in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific and in sub-Saharan Africa (where Burundi and Zambia are located). Ironically, only 1 percent of Christians reside in the Middle East and North Africa where Christianity began. Still, a third of the earth is a lot of Christians, and though the remaining two thirds have yet to follow Christ, the church has at least succeeded in making sure most of the world has at least heard the gospel.

Has it made any difference? Yes, in many ways. The church grows in many parts of the world, and through its mission work, poverty diminishes, health care occurs, education rises, families strengthen, justice proliferates. Yet at the same time, the violence that tore Burundi apart was committed almost completely by Christians against one another. Current violence ravaging the Congo comes at the hands of Christians. HIV/AIDS remains a big problem among young African Christians. Corruption grows as fast as Christianity in Latin America, as Europe incessantly slides into secularism. Constant scandals and crimes committed by pastors and priests across North America fuel constant skepticism and scorn here. “Born-again Christians” embezzle in Baltimore and do coke in New York; they practice bigotry in Biloxi and enjoy shameless materialism in Orange County. The same happens among Christians in Kenya, Korea, the Philippines and Peru. Christians kill and covet, cheat and lie, hoard and hate no less than people of other religions or with no faith at all. A South African missionary friend once remarked how he doesn’t use the word “Christian” when talking to people about faith anymore since it was under a “Christian” regime that apartheid proliferated.

Despite all the virtuous service faith in Jesus generates, that same faith hasn’t prevented believers from breaking every commandment in the book. Needless to say, the good news comes with mixed reviews No wonder we’re so sheepish about sharing. Do we really want to spread this around?

I play squash (the racquet sport and not the vegetable) with a bunch of old guys in town, a weekly match with one guy that’s been going on since I moved here. After a year or so of playing every week, as well as grabbing a post-match shake now and then and chatting about a range of topics, I ran into this guy at a lecture given by a Christian author. “Wow, I had no idea you were a Christian,” he said, which I tried not to take as an insult. Imagine his astonishment when he found out I was a minister. Here were two believers rubbing shoulders weekly without either ever getting a clue about the faith of the other. Not exactly what Jesus meant by salt of the earth. He did say, “If salt loses its saltiness, it’s not good for anything other than being thrown out and trampled under foot.”

And what does this have to do Solomon building the Temple in 1 Kings 6?

I’ve spent this frosty season meandering through the life and times of King Solomon. Last week we looked at his famous wisdom, famously displayed by an outrageous threat to slice a baby in half with a sword. Solomon wrote more than 3000 proverbs and sayings and songs spanning three books of the Bible. Renown for his wisdom stretched to the ends of the known world. And yet for all his wisdom, Solomon’s most spectacular feat was a construction project. Solomon built a house for Almighty God. As Temples went, Solomon’s was a massive, awe-inspiring structure, astounding in any era, made with the finest materials and furnished with the most extravagant of treasures; everything you’d expect given who was slated to move in.

Outfitted for the Almighty, the Temple represented the culmination of God’s intent from creation to move into the neighborhood and abide among his people. It was designed to be heaven on earth. Up to this point in Israel’s history, God lived in a mobile home, a makeshift tabernacle that made its way with the Israelites on their trip to the Promised Land. But now the time came to set down roots and stay. Located atop the highest hill in Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the Temple of God  was the heart of Israel’s life together, politically and religiously, a constant reminder of their identity as God’s own possession. Chosen by grace and rescued from slavery, now blessed with bountiful land and peace from their enemies, you’d have expect Israel to show some love and gratitude. All God asked was that his people stay loyal to Him and do right by each other; just love the Lord and love your neighbor like you love yourself. There should have been nothing to it.

But human nature has a way of making the easiest things impossibly difficult. We are a notoriously selfish and fickle lot; and have been so from the get-go. God loved his people, but he knew better than to trust them. So he set up house rules, statutes and commandments for behavior so that you wouldn’t track in mud and ruin everything. “If you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments,” said the Lord, “then I will fulfill through you all my promises; I will live among you permanently and never forsake you.” The outlook is ominous. Obedience is always a dicey proposition.

But Solomon was a confident King. So he set about building an unbelievably fabulous house. At the end of seven years (seven being a very important number in the Bible), there stood a structure to rival creation itself, a breathtaking palace of stone and cedar and cypress, elaborate gold and magnificent carving, powerfully positioned atop an enormous foundation of gigantic stone craft that when you travel to Jerusalem you can’t help but gawk at in wonder all these millennia later. It was a stunning accomplishment—so stunning that the people soon confused this lavish sign of God’s relationship with his people for the relationship itself. If you’ve had a chance to see Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-worthy performance in Blue Jasmine, you’ve seen how easy it is to deceive yourself into assuming that having a huge house means everything’s perfect. Somehow the Israelites assumed that constructing and maintaining a a beautiful, high-end, architectural wonder (for the Lord, of course) obliged God to bless whatever they did, no matter what. I mean, look at this place! How could God ever want to be anywhere else?

(This probably isn’t a good time to mention how we spend twice as much on our own building as we do on mission and outreach).

God’s chosen people soon grew to view Solomon’s Temple as a symbol of their own worthiness—of their own achievement and entitlement. Having done so much for the Lord, they could live however they pleased. Such entitlement drove prophets like Jeremiah crazy. Day after day, Jeremiah positioned himself outside the Temple door, day after day, lambasting the congregation as it filed into worship. Imagine coming to church and having to squeeze by some raving lunatic out front going off like Jeremiah (no offense to Steve Richardson): “Just look at you walking into church as if everything’s fine! Do you really think you can cheat, hate, lie, hoard and dally with your idols, and then come in here and stand before God in His house and sing and pray and pretend only to go right back to doing your evil again? What do you think this place is? A den of thieves?”

Those crazy prophets. Their censure didn’t change anything. The people kept coming to worship anyway. Eventually the Lord had enough. He abandoned the Temple and left Solomon’s beautiful building to be razed to a heap of rubble. The people managed to rebuild, more modestly the second time, a second chance of sorts. But bad habits die hard—even when you have another Jeremiah-type ranting and raving about this second home becoming “a den of thieves” too. “Is it not written,” Jesus fumed with a whip in his hand, “that God’s house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?”

All along then plan was for God’s house to be an open house instead of a hideout; a symbol of grace for the world instead of a gated residence for the privileged. But bad habits die hard, so the Lord took matters back into his own hands. “Destroy this Temple,” Jesus said, “and I will raise it again in three days,” this time speaking of the temple that would be his body. God would bypass, this time, a building of sticks and stones and refashion his house from flesh and bone. He would reside in a live human being, a body who would obediently live and love and then sacrificially die, only to then rise from the dead and expand into a body not confined to Jesus’ own flesh, but comprised of all who received his spirit.

We are the body the Christ, the Temple in whom the spirit resides. As God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save it, so Jesus sends us as both the salt and the shaker of God’s grace for the world. We are the taste of things to come, our life together and for others a preview of heaven on earth.

At least that’s the idea.

Which brings me back to my squash partner. For most of us, you’d have to be some sort of Sherlock to ever figure out we follow Jesus. God knows we’d never say anything. I don’t think it’s because we’re ashamed of the gospel as much as we’re ashamed of ourselves. I’m a Christian; I’m just bad at it. How are you supposed to share your faith when your life’s a mess? Best to keep your mouth shut. As they say, “The biggest obstacle to Christianity is Christians.” “The church would be an excellent idea—if only it weren’t made up of people.” That we so miserably fail at doing right so often causes many to question why God would ever make people his Temple.

It definitely wouldn’t hurt Christians to act more Christian and to be more vocal about what we believe, but the good news of Jesus Christ has never been about putting on a flawless morality play. The good life is real life, not pretend life. God loves sinners saved and inspired to be virtuous and compassionate and honest and just, screw ups who fall down but constantly rise back up because of God’s constant mercy. We show over and over what repentance and resurrection look like, and with so much experience, we get to show forgiveness too. We show courage in suffering, we show confidence for the future, we show freedom from fear, we show faith and hope and love. People do notice this. Most people want this. Everybody needs this.

Roman Catholic liturgy calls communion a mass, which comes from the Latin for mission. The good news of good life is for the whole world. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us as proof of his presence, filling us with himself, his own body and blood. We regularly speak of coming to the communion table, but just as important is going from the communion table, back to our homes and neighborhoods and workplaces and classrooms and squash courts, shakers and salt to season the earth. Taste and see that the Lord is good.