Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Heaven on Earth
Good Heavens, a four week Advent sermon series on the waiting for heaven among us
Week 1 of 4, preached November 28, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
When I say heaven, what comes to mind?
Do you imagine pearly gates and streets of gold? Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a bit about heaven. He says, “Am I the only one that finds it odd that heaven has gates? Gates? What kind of neighborhood is heaven in? What, you die and go to a gated community? Are the gates necessary? Yeah we had a lot of kids sneaking in using the pool. Those gates weren’t easy. We had to go down to hell and get a contractor and everything!”
Okay, when I say heaven, maybe your first thought isn’t about the architecture. Maybe you imagine a feast with all your favorite foods and friends. Maybe you imagine a body that is fit and healthy, that doesn’t hurt and that will never age or die. Maybe you imagine finally meeting God face to face, a big hug and a bunch of big questions. Maybe you imagine being reunited with those we’ve loved and lost.
Typically, however Christians imagine heaven, we imagine it somewhere else. Whatever it is, it’s not here. It’s out there, somewhere. But when the Scriptures or Jesus talk about heaven, or the Kingdom of Heaven, it not as much about a place somewhere else as it is a way of being that is already here, kind of, already happening around us, kind of, and is coming in all its fullness.
This Advent, Caitlan and I are preaching a new sermon series we are calling Good Heavens, images of scripture and stories of Jesus that imagine heaven, the heavens, the Kingdom of Heaven in ways that may sound different than what we’ve been taught or heard, but that are very good.
Let’s pray and listen to the word of the Lord from…
Scripture Genesis 3:1-13, 22-24
3:1 Now the serpent was craftier than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. (The serpent) said to the woman,
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent,
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God did say, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you (could) die.’”
4 But the serpent said to the woman,
“You’ll not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 So when the woman saw that the tree WAS good for food, and that it WAS a delight to the eyes, and that the tree WAS to be desired to make one… wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her partner, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and (the woman) hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the (hu)mans, and said to (them),
“Where are you?”
10 (The man) said,
“I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; so I hid myself.”
11 (God) said,
“Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”
12 The man said,
“The woman whom you gave to be beside me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman,
“What is it that you have done?”
The woman said,
“The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
22 Then the Lord God said, “See, (hu)man(kind) has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, (they) might reach out (their) hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent (them) forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which (they were) taken. 24 God drove out the (hu)man(s); and at the east of the garden of Eden God placed the cherubim, and a flaming spinning sword to guard the way to the tree of life.”
This is the word of the Lord (Thanks be to God)
Sermon Heaven on Earth
In the Genesis 1 creation story, which we didn’t read today, everything begins with God creating the heavens and the earth. In the heavens, God creates lights, tiny ones that fill the dome of the sky above the earth, and two big ones, the greater one to rule during the day and the lesser one to rule at night. That’s all we learn about the heavens. The heavens are where the lights are. Everything else in that first creation story is about the earth, what is on it, or beneath it in the waters, or above it in the skies, all of it very good.
In the Genesis 2-3 story, which we did read the end of today, there’s an earth. It’s dry with no life. In a corner of the earth, God creates a garden. God makes waters flow from that garden to water all the earth. God creates humankind from the earth, and breathes life into humankind, and places humankind into that garden. There in the garden, God creates every kind of plant and every kind of animal the earth will need. At the center of that garden are two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge.
This garden is the center and source of God’s creation. This garden is a place of life, knowledge, and abundance. It is the source of life for all things. There is no shame or guilt in the garden. There is beloved community and infinite cooperation. All things work together in harmony with one another in the garden, and from the garden goodness and abundance can grow into the rest of creation. Heaven on earth.
In the Genesis 2-3 story, heaven wasn’t somewhere else. Eden, the garden is heaven on earth. Humankind was created and began our journey in heaven on earth, God’s garden of life and abundance, a place of balance and symbiosis between God, humankind, and all creation. This garden, Eden, heaven on earth, was a place with no sin, no shame, no hunger, no thirst.
This heaven on earth of Genesis 2-3 had two trees in the middle of it. One is the tree of life. The tree of life is mentioned in other places in Scripture, like Proverbs and Revelation.
Proverbs 3:13 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding… 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life …
Proverbs 11:30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but violence takes life away.
Proverbs 15:4 A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in the tongue breaks the spirit.
Revelation 2:7 Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who (is able to do so), I … give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise, the garden of God.
Revelation 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the peoples. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.
This tree of life, scripture continues to tell us about it. Gentle words bring life. Non-violence grows life. Even knowledge itself, wisdom, understanding, is a fruit of the tree of life. Those who live life in these ways bear fruit for themselves and for others and the life, the tree, the garden grows.
This other tree, though, the tree of knowledge isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the scriptures. We only know God commands humans not to eat it. Why?
It isn’t that God is against knowledge and education. So much of scripture is spent telling us gain wisdom. God is not an impatient parent telling us to stop asking so many questions. God isn’t arrogantly hoarding knowledge from us so God can stay God and keep the rest of us under God’s thumb. It isn’t the knowledge difference that makes God god, and us not. God created us to grow with the Garden, expand the heaven on earth. Wisdom, understanding are ways of peacefully expanding the gift of life itself.
What if the problem isn’t that we ate from the tree of knowledge. The problem is that we disobeyed God? What if the issue isn’t the knowledge but the disobedience?
The rules from God for the garden were few. Take care of the garden and it will take care of you. Eat what you need from the garden and give to the garden what it needs from you. You and yours will grow in the garden and with your help, the garden will grow along with you. As you begin to grow beyond the garden, your growth will help the garden grow beyond as well, until this beautiful abundant garden covers every corner of creation. Only, do not eat from that one tree.
Can we accept that? This God who created Eden, and created us, and breathed life into us, and placed us into the garden, Eden itself, paradise, heaven on earth, gave us everything and asked us for two things… Take care of the garden, and enjoy eating anything you see except for that, one thing? Can we? Why is it our heart long first and strongest for forbidden fruit?
The command wasn’t as much about eating, or about knowledge. It was a simple challenge to accept that we are created not creator, that we are not God, that someone over us does get to make a rule that we need to follow to enjoy the benefits of all we’ve been given, one another, more than enough, heaven on eart itself. If we can accept and realize that, imagine there is someone, something, some power greater than us whose command for us we may not understand, but we need to follow, will we obey even before we understand?
The disruption of heaven on earth came not from our desire to know. Wisdom, learning, understanding are fruits of life. The disruption of heaven on earth came from our unwillingness to accept being under God’s command, being dependent on God and one another and creation.
Human beings are a paradox. We are created to rely on one another and work together. When we do that, the garden grows. Heaven on earth grows and expands. It feeds us and others beyond us. And, at the same time, we are created as unique individual creatures, differentiated from each other with unique appearance and personality, experiences and perspectives.
If we ever let the great collective human community squash the individuality, we lose our humanity and the heaven on earth God created us to tend and enjoy. But, if we ever pursue or protect our individuality, our individual wants, desires, opinions, at the expense of the community, we also lose our humanity, and access to the garden of abundance, the paradise we were given into in the beginning.
Its no coincidence that the scriptures begin and end with this image. In Genesis, it’s a garden. In Revelation, it’s a city. Both are paradise. Both are heaven on earth. This heaven on earth is where we are from, and it where we are going. We have chosen and will continue to chose to break from the community God created us into to pursue what looks good to us, to go pluck and taste forbidden fruits. That choice will expose us. It will not give us what we want, but it will break the heaven on earth we were created into and given before we could make that choice.
May all glory and honor, now and forever, be to God and God alone. Amen.
And now, blessing laughter and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the world turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forever more.