Summary: Jesus promise to prepare us room in his Father's house. There is more to that promise than the idea of our souls going to heaven to be with God. What did Jesus try to tell his disciples?
[Sermon preached on 22 April 2018, 3rd Sunday after Easter / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
Last week Saturday I conducted a funeral. It was a bright sunny day. Mostly, when I attend a funeral the weather is gloomy, windy and cold. But over the years, I have also attended funerals of some very special people. And often at their funeral the sun was shining, and the weather was beautiful. It was almost as if God was smiling.
Well, this woman was a very special person. And the more I learnt to know about her, the more I understood why God was smiling at her. She was only 55 years old when she died of cancer. Definitely too young to die. But for 55 years, she had lived her life for a full 200%—all the time. The more I found out about her character, her skills and her dedication not only to her loved ones, but also to the poor and disadvantaged in the world, and to justice and equality, the more I stood in awe at the thought of this woman and her impact on tens of thousands of people worldwide.
And at the same time, I asked myself the same question that so many others asked: Why was she taken away from this life so early, while her task was still unfinished—when she could have spent dozens of years more in service of humanity and of God.
It is just too easy to say that we should be happy that she has gone home to be with God forever—no more tears or pain or suffering. We know that, because she has been taken away from us, others must suffer more—like the women in many African developing countries whose human rights and gender equality she promoted. As I prepared my funeral sermon, I realized how easy it is to just focus on the hereafter as the place we are heading for, and to overlook the importance of the journey we are making to get there.
There is an old Gospel song that comes to my mind every time I read Bible texts about going to heaven. I learnt it as a young kid, when good old Jim Reeves sang it on the radio. The first stanza goes like this:
This world is not my home—I'm just a-passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore.
Whoever wrote these lyrics was homesick for heaven. Now I am sure that many of us know all too well from experience what it is like to feel homesick. We have come from other parts of the world to Finland. And it may take years or even decades before we start to feel at home in this country. Or maybe we never will. Or you are a Finn and you have lived abroad for some time. You know what it feels like to be homesick.
It certainly isn’t bad to be homesick for heaven. But we must be careful not to get detached from our lives here and now as we crave for a future “beyond the blue”.
The truth is that the journey is just as important as the destination. Our life here on earth is not meaningless. We should not live our lives sighing impatiently because we still have such a long time to go before we cross the final frontier and we can start our “real life” in heaven.
My mother used to say: “I love to go to heaven, but I am not in a hurry.” She made the most of life here despite a lot of grief and loss, despite handicaps and diseases. And she managed to spend 95 meaningful years here on earth before moving on.
At my mother’s funeral we read Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The same Psalm we read at the funeral last week. The next day, last Sunday, I preached about Psalm 23 in our service.
Psalm 23 is known as the Shepherd’s Psalm. David describes his experiences with God in terms of his experiences as a young shepherd of his father’s flock. But in the Psalm, God is the Shepherd, and David the sheep.
But in the second part of the Psalm, the image of the Shepherd makes place for an entirely different image: that of a Host who treats David to a fantastic banquet, his cup overflowing. It is a celebration of peace, security, and abundance. And David closes with the words:
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
It is not surprising, then, that Psalm 23 is read in so many funerals. It provides us who are left behind with comfort: One day we will be with God. There will be no more tears, except perhaps tears of joy. And we will be reunited with our loved ones forever.