The Kingdom of Heaven is Near!

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 14, 2003

 Readings

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 My word is very near to you

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.

Matthew 3:1-3 The kingdom of heaven is near

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"

Matthew 4:12-17 The kingdom of heaven is near

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali--to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

Matthew 10:1, 5-8 The kingdom of heaven is near

He called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. . . . These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give."

Heaven and Hell #302 Our close connection with heaven

I have talked with angels about the union of heaven with the human race, and have told them that people in the church do say that everything good is from the Lord and that there are angels with us, but that very few people really believe that angels are so close to us, much less that they are in our thoughts and feelings. . . .

Yet in fact the union is so vital that we could not think the least thought apart from the spirits who are with us. Our spiritual life depends on this. . . . And if this connection were severed, we would instantly drop down dead.

If we believed the way things really are, that everything good comes from God and everything evil from hell, then we would not take credit for the good within us, nor take blame for the evil. Whenever we thought or did anything good, we would focus on the Lord; and any evil that flowed in we would throw back into the hell it came from. But since we do not believe in any inflow from heaven or from hell and therefore believe that everything we think and intend is in us and from us, we make the evil our own, and defile the good with a feeling that we deserve it.

Sermon

From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." (Matthew 4:17)

Most of the people living on this earth probably do not spend a lot of their time thinking about heaven. In fact, I would venture to say that even for the people attending church today, heaven is not a primary subject of everyday thought. Most of the time, we are too busy focusing on getting along in this world to have much time left over for contemplating the other world.

Of course, there are certain occasions when we spend more time thinking about the afterlife--such as when we have lost someone close to us. And if it is someone in our own household and our own immediate family that we have lost, our thoughts may linger in heaven much more. After all, when a piece of our heart is in heaven, our mind will naturally follow our feelings of love and closeness to the one who is no longer with us.

Yet for most of us, heaven is something far off, over the horizon. In our younger years death is usually far from our minds. That's something that happens to much older people. As far as we're concerned, our own death is so far away that it's not even worth thinking about. Even in the middle years of our lives, we are usually so busy with work, family, and community responsibilities that our minds are very firmly anchored in this world.

Our elder years, as we move closer to death, would naturally be a time to think about what comes next. But especially in this culture, many people avoid thinking about death as long possible. For many of us, I'm afraid, it is only when death is staring us right in the face that we start thinking seriously about what might come next.

The fact is, none of us knows what the day of our death will be. We probably have in our mind some estimate of how long we're going to live, and as we go about our daily lives, we presume that we'll have about that much time left to accomplish what we want to accomplish here. As long as we are young, it seems very likely that we will be able to do a lot of great things with our lives, and we may go out into the world with great idealism.

It is often only when we have left the halfway mark of our lives behind that we realize there simply won't be enough time to follow all our dreams--and that we're no longer quite as healthy and adventurous as we used to be, anyway. And then we may make some wild attempts to grasp something of heaven for ourselves right here. A new sports car. A new face. A new career. A new husband or wife. Time is running out, we realize, and if we are going to experience any of our dreams, we'd better get going on it before it's too late!

Sooner or later, though, as another decade or two goes by, we reluctantly realize that most of our life is behind us. We may still be able to do some wonderful things here on earth. Even if we are not physically as strong as we once were, our retirement years can give us some of that precious time to ourselves that we never had enough of before. In that time, we can choose to follow some of the interests and dreams that before would have been impossible. We can also have the pleasure of watching the younger generations coming along, without so much pressure of responsibility keeping us from savoring each moment with those whose bodies are as young as their minds, and who are still full of wonder at the miracles happening all around us.

For many in the older generation, all of this is enough to keep the mind, most of the time, off of the inevitable approach of death and our entrance into whatever comes next. Yet for all of us, the time will come when, quite literally, "the kingdom of heaven is near." However long or short our life here on earth may turn out to be, from the moment of our birth there is one fact that cannot be avoided: each one of us will die.

When we do die, if all the prophets, mystics, and other travelers into the spiritual realm are right, our lives will continue uninterrupted in a world that is both above and within this earthly world. And whatever our outward accomplishments may have been in this world, in that world only our inner character will count. If we have devoted our lives here on earth to gaining possessions, pleasure, and power, without developing the inner qualities of understanding, kindness, and love for our fellow human beings, that inner emptiness will follow us into the other world. We will find out too late that we have "gained the whole world, and lost our own soul" (Matthew 16:26). The course we have set for ourselves here on earth continues into the other life--and once we have left our material bodies and the physical world behind, our direction becomes set, and we can no longer change course. To quote "The Teacher," King Solomon: "Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there will it lie" (Ecclesiastes 11:3).

Now we begin to see the force of the words spoken by John the Baptist, by the Lord himself, and by his disciples when they went out to preach the good news: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." The word "repent" may be a little old-fashioned, but it simply means to change our attitudes, change our direction, change our ways. It means to turn away from the direction we have been going so far, and start out in a different direction. It means to aim our lives toward the things of God and spirit, instead of toward the things of this world.

When we realize that our entrance into the kingdom of heaven (or the other place) is getting closer and closer, these words gain more and more weight for us. As we grow older and, we hope, wiser, we begin to realize that the things of this world can never satisfy us. We begin to think that perhaps we should turn away from temporary, material things and toward the eternal, spiritual things of love, wisdom, understanding, and compassion for the people who share our world with us. We begin to realize that the kingdom of heaven is near, and it is time to turn our lives toward preparing ourselves not just for life in this world, but for eternal life in the spiritual world. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!

Yet there is another sense in which the kingdom of heaven is far closer to us than the day of our death. The Lord tells us in our reading from Deuteronomy:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.

In terms of time, we tend to think of heaven as something for a future time, and not as a present reality. In terms of space, we tend to think of heaven as something far above us, and not as something right here within us. And yet, the Lord tells us that his word, which comes down through heaven, is not at some great distance in heaven where it is inaccessible to us. No, it is very close to us. It is in our hearts, in our minds, right in our own mouths, where we can feel it and know it and express it to one another. And like the Lord's words, the kingdom of heaven is not some distant, abstract dream. In Luke 17:20, 21 we read:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."

We think of heaven as a place where we go after we die. But do we think of it as something that is with us right now? Swedenborg tells us that even while we are living here on earth, we are inwardly inhabiting the spiritual world. He says that we have both good spirits and evil spirits with us all the time, influencing our feelings and desires, and through them our thoughts. In fact, if we did not have this connection to the spiritual world, our minds would go completely blank, and we would not be able to feel a thing in our hearts. Further, if we lost our connection to the spiritual world, we could not even continue to live; we would instantly drop down dead. This is what Jesus was referring to when he said to Pilate, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above" (John 19:11).

Whether we want to believe it or not, all of our power, all of our thoughts, all of our desires, come from the spiritual world every instant. Our very life, our very bodies, are continually held in existence from the spiritual world. So it is not only when we approach our death that the kingdom of heaven is near. The kingdom of heaven is always near, in our heart and in our mouth, calling to us, bending our will--but never breaking it or forcing us--toward God and heaven. We are continually in the hands of both good spirits and bad, continually in a balance between heaven and hell, so that we can freely choose which path we will take, and what direction we wish the tree of our life to fall when we do, in the course of time, cross the threshold of death and enter fully into the spiritual world.

We are not merely creatures of this world. Right now we are living in the spiritual world as well. And if we can keep this in mind as we go about our daily lives, it will help us to stay focused on the things that really matter. It will help us to focus each day and each moment, not only on the things of this world, but on the higher, more beautiful, enlightening, and loving things that lead to eternal life. Repent!--turn your mind around; turn your heart around--for the kingdom of heaven is near!

 

 




 Music: When Skies are Gray
ęBruce DeBoer - Used with Permission