Times & Directions       Prayer       Give Online       
Opening Heaven
(0 votes)
Add to favourites

ISAIAH 64:1-12; MATTHEW 3:13-17; 11:1-6

“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” The words of the prophet Isaiah (which we read in our Call to Worship this morning) are a cry that many people can relate to. After all, wouldn’t it be great if God would simply push back the clouds and give us a glimpse of heaven, to come and bring his justice, or to tell us directly what to do?

Unfortunately, most of us have never seen something like that. Some people claim to have had near death experiences where they have seen a glimpse of heaven and God, but it’s an elusive vision for most of us. And since it’s a rare occurrence, people tend to fill in the blanks. In fact, many people in our world think of God and heaven something like this:

 

 

 

Interestingly, when the Monty Python troupe chose to portray God in their movie about the Holy Grail, they chose an image of an old bearded man, who was actually the famous English cricketer and physician ironically named W.G. Grace. Grace was one of England’s most celebrated figures in the late 19th and early 20th century—kind of the Michael Jordan of cricket. But that wasn’t his full-time gig. He was actually a physician, and unlike the cranky visage of God he represented, was really a good doctor who gave free medical care to the poor.

 

wg grace

W.G. Grace

 

I love the irony in that. The Pythons’ comical image of God as a cranky and somewhat vindictive deity was actually a man whose name was Grace who cared for the poor. Quite a different vision!

 

In the days when John the Baptist was doing his prophetic work by the Jordan River, people were hoping for a glimpse of God and his kingdom—that God would tear open the heavens and come down and change their situation; a God who, as Isaiah envisioned, would “make the mountains tremble” and “come down” to make his name known to his enemies and cause the nations to quake before him. It was the God of wrath they were looking for to expel their Roman oppressors and restore their nation. John had warned the people to get ready, for God was coming to do just that in the form of his Messiah—the anointed one who would be God’s representative and exact God’s righteous judgment.

 

As we said in the first sermon in this series, most Jews in the first century believed that God had stopped speaking through the prophets and through heavenly voices. If that were to begin again, it would be a sign that the great “day of the Lord” was at hand. We’ve already seen that John does his ministry in the mold of Elijah, whose return was perceived as a herald of the last days. And now, in this week’s text (Matthew’s version of the story), we actually hear a voice from heaven as Jesus is baptized. For Matthew, as for the other Gospel writers, it’s clear that the coming of Christ was the long-awaited event—that God was coming down to do what he had promised through the prophets.

 

John recognized that Jesus was the one whom he had prophesied about—the one who would come and separate the wheat from the chaff, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire; the one who would execute God’s righteous judgment. And so John tried to deter Jesus, saying that the holy one of God didn’t really need to be baptized. “I need to be baptized by you,” he says to Jesus, “and do you come to me?”

 

But Jesus corrects him and his words carry a lot of meaning. “Let it be so now,” he says, “it proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” “Righteousness” means “doing the will of God” and to “fulfill” means to perform, but notice that Jesus uses the pronoun “us” referring to both himself and the prophet. The implication is that, in this baptism, John and Jesus are partners in carrying out God’s will and God’s plan.

 

It’s at that point the heavens open (finally!) and the voice of God speaks. It’s a scene ripe with Trinitarian symbolism: the Son of God is baptized, the Father speaks, and the Holy Spirit descends upon the Son like a dove. It’s a reminder of the stories of Genesis, where the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of creation and the dove hovers over the waters after the flood as a herald of peace. This is the Trinity’s confirmation of Jesus’ mission and the voice speaks words from the Psalms and the prophet Isaiah: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

 

We don’t know if John heard the voice or not. Matthew seems to indicate that only Jesus heard the voice. At any rate, John seems to know that his mission is done at this point—he has been prepared for the one to come and now, together, they have fulfilled the will and purposes of God. Now all John had to do was to wait and see what happened—that the judgment of God, the fire and the flood, was about to break and set things right. The heavens had opened a crack and now it was time to see what God would do through his anointed servant.

 

John would continue his prophetic work and speak the truth to power. He called out Herod Antipas for having an affair with his brother’s wife and taking her as his own and, as a result, Herod had him thrown in prison. Jason will talk more about that part of John’s story next week. Meanwhile, Jesus had begun his public ministry and, as word got back to John through John’s own disciples, it didn’t seem like Jesus was actually doing what John envisioned. John had preached about the kingdom of God coming, that the righteous judge was at hand, that the powerful and the corrupt—the “brood of vipers” was going to get what they deserved. John believed, as many people today believe, that when heaven opens it should result in an immediate and cataclysmic change.

 

John’s preaching (in Matthew’s Gospel) began with a call to “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” But what Jesus was doing didn’t look like what John had envisioned, so he sends word through his disciples to ask Jesus an important question: “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?” (11:3). When heaven seems to be shut, doubts creep in. We wonder what God might be up to. Is there any word from the Lord? John might have wondered if his mission had been in vain, or at least wondered if he hadn’t baptized and commissioned the wrong man. Are you the one, or should we wait for someone else?

 

Jesus’ answer reveals a very different vision of heaven opened—one not characterized by a cranky and vindictive God, but one who is Grace and who gives good news to the poor. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 

Jesus was announcing that the kingdom of heaven, the opening of heaven, was more subversive that John (or many of us) might have imagined. In many ways, we can identify with John’s question because it is sometimes our own: “Are you the one, or should we wait for another?” As we look at a world in chaos we might wonder, “Is there really a God who knows and cares? Does this God have a plan?” Last week we talked about God’s judgment being a vital part of God’s love—that God’s judgment reveals that God cares so much for his people that he will not allow evil to win. But how God plans to fight that battle is something neither John nor we might expect—he will fight it and win not through arbitrary crankiness, another great flood, or with lightning bolts—he will fight it with grace; he will fight it with compassion; he will fight it without violence; he will fight it by caring for the poor and the marginalized; he will fight it with his own suffering love.

 

In other words, God really is a doctor named Grace who heals the world by giving away his life for the poor in body, mind, and spirit. This is the God who is embodied in Jesus Christ and, yes, John, this is the one you’ve been waiting for!

 

If we really want to see heaven opened, Jesus says, it’s not about staring at the clouds or waiting for a dream-like vision—it’s about looking around and seeing the kingdom of heaven breaking in among us. We get a glimpse of heaven every time we follow the way of Christ—giving compassion and help to those who need it, healing the sick; raising people out of sin, brokenness, addiction, and emotional pain; we see it when relationships are restored; when the poor are lifted up; when the good news is preached and lived out. We pray always for the kingdom to come “on earth as it is in heaven,” and we see that become a reality whenever we work for what we pray for.

 

Advent reminds us that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Biblically speaking, the real vision of heaven it’s not as much about a place that we go as much much as a reality that is breaking in among us and one day will be here in it’s fullness when Christ returns. The final vision of the Bible in Revelation is that heaven and earth are joined together. Jesus and John both proclaimed that reality has come near, and our mission—following in the way of Jesus—is to work to make this world look more and more like the kingdom of heaven so that when it comes it’s not such a culture shock!

 

It’s at this point in the biblical story that John steps off the stage in favor of Jesus, the one to whom John’s whole life had pointed. He was the ultimate second fiddle, the permanent best man to the favored groom. In John’s Gospel, the Baptist says of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” John knew what his mission was. We can’t blame him for questioning. No one expected God to show up in the way that Jesus did, embodying God’s grace and suffering love for the world. Advent reminds us, as Jesus reminded John, that we need to recalibrate our expectations. Heaven has opened, and the God who has come among us is doing even greater things than we imagined. The good news is, we get to join him in that work!

 

Jesus would go on to pay John the ultimate complement there in Matthew 11: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” John was “more than a prophet.” And yet, Jesus continues, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” John was the forerunner, and yet anyone—even the most humble disciple—who follows the way of Jesus; the way of grace and the way of compassion—is even greater than John.

 

You want to see heaven opened? Go and be people who offer grace, love, compassion, and healing to those you meet; especially those who cannot pay you back. You want to see the face of God? You will find it in the eyes of the people you serve—all of whom are made in God’s image. You want to know what life in heaven is like? Live it now by making the places you live, work, or go to school look more like the kingdom of heaven little by little. It’s in the small act, the compassionate gesture, the quiet prayer, the cup of coffee and conversation about Jesus, that the kingdom of heaven breaks in among us every day.

 

That kingdom will one day come in its fullness with the return of the King. When he comes, may he find us working for what we pray for—the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven—so that it won’t be such a culture shock!

 

It’s time, in other words, to stop groveling—and to get on with kingdom work! That is our Holy Grail. That is our purpose!



Church Website Login
This is the STAFF LOGIN area. If you have no website account, click the Pencil Icon link above to create one. Then, confirm your account through email. One of our admins will then confirm who you are and approve the account.