Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. February 21, 2021 Lent 1 Psalm 51 (excerpts) Matthew 4: 1-11, 5: 1-3
When is the Kingdom of Heaven?
Worship for the first Sunday of Lent last year was the final time Rev. Rick, Monique and I were in the Sanctuary together before the pandemic sent us home to lead worship via Zoom. Hard to believe – if the dates don’t make sense to you, remember Lent began in March in 2020.
I can’t help but hear in Matthew’s accounting of Jesus in the wilderness tormented by the Tempter something of our own experience this past year. It feels as though we, too, have been in the wilderness – far longer than 40 days. Our temptations aren’t the same as those Jesus confronts, but the landscape of our lives has been a wilderness experience none-the-less. We have lost loved ones, lost work, lost physical contact with the people we love; lost the things we enjoy doing with others, lost confidence in our government and so much more.
As Rev. Rick, Monique and I prepared for Lent 2021 a few weeks back, we made a decision not to have a traditional penitential Lent – which all too often is Lent’s sole focus, but rather a Lent that would feed our souls with renewal, refreshment and restoration as we face the still difficult months ahead. And so, we decided to focus on the Beatitudes – the “declarations of blessings . . . [that assure] the addressees of the vindication and reward that attend the salvation of God” as the Harper-Collins Bible Dictionary describes the Beatitudes – and that salvation is personified in life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Following his time in the wilderness, Jesus begins teaching his disciples with the words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
It is important to remember that at the time the Gospels were written, followers of Jesus were waiting for his imminent return. There was an expectation of “when” the Kingdom of Heaven would come. Jesus would return and time as it was known would end.
But Jesus has not yet returned. Those who depend on God, the “poor in spirit,” – including us –are still waiting. The Church has been trying to figure out how to make sense of this for two millennia now. Over time, the question shifted from “when is the Kingdom of Heaven” to “where is the Kingdom of Heaven?”
Christians in the early centuries believed the Kingdom of Heaven would come when Jesus returned to judge “the living and the dead.” Those who died “in the Lord” would “sleep” until Jesus would cause them to rise from the dead and “ascend to heaven,” as the Creeds of the Church put it. And as time marched on, Christians began to believe in a three-tiered universe – the Kingdom of Heaven above, life on earth in the middle and Hell below. How one lived on earth would determine where one would wind up in the after-life. This belief system still lives in our theologies to both the hope and terror of many, even though science has shown us that we do not live in a three-tiered universe.
I have been leading a Confirmation class this winter. The subject of Heaven and Hell, and the journey to either, has been a large topic of discussion and constant concern. We have spent several weeks wondering what Jesus meant by “Kingdom of Heaven.”
We have been asking: Is Heaven a place? A destination? Is Heaven where people go after they die? Is Heaven eternally located in a place we have not yet experienced?
Heaven may well be all of these things, but that is not what Jesus emphasizes in his teaching. He rejects the Tempters gift of dominion over the Kingdoms of this world during his time in the wilderness; the Kingdom of Heaven seems not to be located in this world. Think about the parables Jesus uses to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. Over and over, he begins a parable with “the Kingdom of Heaven is like . . . a merchant seeking a pearl of great price, a woman who searches for a lost coin, a sower who goes out to plant, a woman using yeast to make bread . . .” Jesus is not describing a place far away; he is describing ordinary things familiar to his listeners that are tangible and part of their daily life experience. The Kingdom of Heaven seems to be less about where and more about when.
Our elementary Sunday Schoolers and I have been reading Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quartet. You are perhaps familiar with the first book in the series A Wrinkle in Time. The stories follow the adventures of two siblings, Meg and Charles Wallace who travel through time and space to wrestle with the powers of light and the powers of darkness. Each book is a story of their wilderness experience. In the third book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet which we are reading now, Charles Wallace journeys through the wilderness with a unicorn guide named Gaudior – wordplay on the Latin for “joy” – to avert a nuclear disaster. As the unicorn accompanies Charles Wallace through time to find the origin of the problem, Charles Wallace keeps asking where he is. Gaudior has to over and over again convince Charles Wallace that “where” is the wrong question, telling him “You are not in a different “where,” you are in a different “when.” And Charles Wallace finally begins to understand that he is experiencing the place where he lives during several different “whens” in time. And that got me thinking.
Perhaps those early Christians were right – What if the Kingdom of Heaven is not a “where”? – what if the Kingdom of Heaven is a “when?” Would our experience of this seemingly eternal Lent change if we were to focus on finding the Kingdom of Heaven in our present when?
What if we try this instead: The Kingdom of Heaven is when . . . a small congregation collects and distributes kid-friendly groceries to Food for Kids. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we gather via Zoom to pray or study together. The Kingdom of Heaven is when Monique and the soloists work so hard to get the right blending of sound in our worship. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we do anti-racism work. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we check in on an elderly neighbor. The Kingdom of Heaven is when a friend calls us. The Kingdom of Heaven is when we choose to look for it – in the trust of a familiar hand we hold, in the first crocus that heralds the coming of spring, the meal cooked for us or by us, in the needle of vaccine in our arms, and in the patience to wait our turn.
This Lenten season, I invite you to be on the lookout for when the Kingdom of Heaven appears in your life and in our life together as a community of faith. The Kingdom of Heaven is always right now if only we look for it in the when of the lives we are living – even in the midst of our pandemic wilderness. Let that truth restore and refresh your soul: “Blessed are we– the poor in spirit, for ours is the Kingdom of Heaven – today, tomorrow and always.” Amen.