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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

March 4, 2018

 Aiming for Heaven on Earth

Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 21:1-5

            In Fiddler on the Roof, you will probably remember that wonderful figure of Tevye, who has a hard time accepting that his daughter is indeed old enough to be married to Motel the tailor.  After overcoming all the obstacles that this father, like all fathers, has in his mind, that any man would be good enough for his daughter, Tevye gathers the people in Anatevka for a wedding celebration, the way only our Jewish brothers and sisters can celebrate a wedding.  The wedding finishes, and no sooner does the dancing begin, with Tevye right in the middle, that a mob of Russian peasants surrounds them.  The music stops, and these interlopers pull out clubs and torches and trampling horses, and the ceremony that begins in joy and love, ends with blood and destruction.  When this painful and heartbreaking scene ends, we find Tevye standing alone looking up into heaven, saying, “Why?  Why this to us?  Why here and now?  Why?”

            Maybe we have not asked the question with the same drama and poignancy of Tevye, but we have all asked it in one way or another, in as many languages and accents as there are people.  We have all found ourselves asking the Psalmist’s question: “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?”  We ask the question because we all know there are times when things simply are not as they should be.  We sense it almost intuitively, in the world, in our nation, in our own city of Nashville, in our own families, and yes, in our own hearts.  We cannot help it, but to sometimes cry out, “Why?  What has gone wrong?”  We are all of us haunted by a vision that this life is meant to be more than it is.  Like the vision that Isaiah gives us of “the peaceable kingdom,” when that day will come when “the lion and the lamb lie down together,” that day when all the frustrating heartaches and ambiguities of life will finally give way to God’s vision of peace and justice and love.

            Jesus caught up all the ache of human hearts through all the ages, and shaped them into one of the most powerful petitions ever offered in a prayer: “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven – terms Jesus used interchangeably in the Gospels – were at the very heart of the life and language of Jesus.  Jesus lived in the kingdom’s light, and the light of the kingdom lived in Jesus.  This prayer for the kingdom to come “on earth, as it is in heaven” is utterly central, not peripheral, to the life and the lessons that Jesus offered. 

            Age after age, people of faith, especially Christians, have repeated this wonderful Jewish prayer that Jesus offered for His disciples.  The very fact that we keep praying it is a source of hope that one day, in God’s good time, the kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God in the world, will finally come.  Such is the power of an idea, especially when that idea is not held in the mind, but is literally a matter of prayer from the heart.  I like to think that every time we pray it, seeds of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, are planted in this world.  The prayer for the kingdom to come is the prayer for heaven on earth, and it is the pledge of the dawn.  Maybe there is nothing that links us more vitally to Jesus Himself than to make His prayer ours.

            Yet no idea of Jesus’ is harder to get hold of than the notion of the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, a notion that was central to Jesus’ life and His lessons, because Jesus never told us explicitly what the kingdom was.  Instead, Jesus dances around it in so many ways by telling us through many parables, what the kingdom of God is “like.”  My favorite parable of Jesus says that “the kingdom of God is like the grain of a mustard seed,” the smallest of seeds that people knew in the Middle East, which was for Jesus the word of God sown in the heart.  When Jesus shared it in His parable, He said it could grow up to the towering heights of a huge mustard tree, out of control.  The parable is powerful and suggestive, because it says every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” we are first of all praying for God’s kingdom to be planted within our own hearts.  We are praying that we are going to finally turn our all-consuming concerns for ourselves into something larger than our own concerns about “me and my hurts.”  I think that is one of the most powerful things about this petition in the Lord’s Prayer.  It literally saves us from ourselves.  It helps us to weave the pattern of our lives into God’s wonderful pattern and will for the whole world.  I think it is why Jesus said in the Gospel of Luke, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

            There is a line in the Book of Common Prayer that speaks of God as “the One in whose service alone is our perfect freedom.”  We long for freedom.  Maybe sometimes the reason why it is so elusive is that we are too involved in self-service, too caught up in selfish concerns, to lose ourselves in God’s dream of a world where everything is the way God wills and wants it to be.  Let me ask you the question: Who is freer?  A violinist in a symphony who plays whatever she feels like playing?  Or a violinist in a symphony who pays careful attention to the conductor’s leading, which enables her to add to the perfect harmony that is the symphony’s beauty and power?  The kingdom of heaven starts in our hearts like a mustard seed. 

            This week I flew on Friday to Hilton Head, South Carolina, to preside at a funeral at the First Presbyterian Church, Hilton Head Island, for one of the most important people God ever placed in my life.  You have probably heard me talk before about my friend Jack McConnell.  Some of you were kind enough to send me the wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal, complete with a fabulous picture of Jack.  Others sent his New York Times obituary.  Jack worked his whole career for Johnson & Johnson.  He served on their Board for a decade, but during his working life he was probably best known for heading up the team at McNeil Laboratories that invented Tylenol, and later the tuberculosis tine test, and then the team that sold on the market the first ever MRI machine sold commercially.

            Jack McConnell grew up in East Tennessee, the son of a Methodist minister, who moved every three or four years.  He was the youngest of eight children, and they had almost nothing growing up, except the love and support of the churches that his father served, and a belief that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the truest and most important thing in the world.  I got to know Jack because his kids were in the youth group I led in the first church where I was called, in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.  Jack took an interest in my life – he and Mary Ellen together.  Jack retired from Johnson & Johnson at sixty-five, and went to Hilton Head Island to play golf during his retirement. 

            One day Jack picked up a hitchhiker, and asked the hitchhiker a question that he asked everyone: “Tell me about where you get healthcare for your family.”  He found out that on Hilton Head Island, a host of people were virtually cut off from the healthcare system.  When Jack was interviewed years later by NBC News, he said, “Frankly, my vision for what turned out to be my life’s work, started with a lump in my throat, and a sense of anger that our world wasn’t what God intended for it to be, especially around healthcare.”  Jack went to the South Carolina state legislature, knowing that there were a host of retired physicians living on Hilton Head, who had left behind the practice of medicine because they could not afford in retirement to practice without insurance.  The South Carolina legislature gave in to Jack McConnell, who was a force of nature if ever there was one, and permitted retired doctors to treat people in a free clinic with very reduced insurance rates.  It became the first of clinics across this country known as the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic.  Today there are thousands of people served by hundreds of retired physicians at the clinic in Hilton Head, but there are eighty-nine other clinics across the country founded on the same model.  All because the kingdom of God was planted like a seed in Jack McConnell’s heart, and translated itself into a world that more nearly approximates the way God intends for this world to be. 

            The kingdom is something that happens in our hearts, but it is also meant to be something that happens, that comes, here in the world.  Our Founding Fathers believed in this.  It is why in the Pledge of Allegiance we say, “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  It is why our Founding Fathers gave cities names like Concord, Providence, Salem, New Haven, New Hope and Philadelphia. 

            One of my favorite theologians is H. Richard Niebuhr.  He wrote a book called, The Kingdom of God in America, in which he suggests powerfully that the greatness of our nation is in relationship to the vision that this “city set upon a hill” could somehow, in some way, be a provisional demonstration of the kingdom of heaven to the world.  At its best, it was a vision rooted in humility, and born of a longing for a better world, for liberty and justice, not just for those who can afford it, not just for a chosen few, but for all.

            What I want to suggest to you is that prayers have a way of shaping character.  My hunch is all of you had a health teacher who would put the basic food groups up on a really old-fashioned chart (now it is probably done more sophisticated and more digitally), and they would talk about the basic food groups, and they would always say, “You are what you eat.”  Do you all remember that?  It is powerfully true.  At least as true are these words: “You are what you pray.”  Your prayers literally have the power to shape your life.  It is so easy for us to twist our prayers to fit our wants, or to cater to our fears, and to lose the real freedom and power that comes from prayer.   No prayer is any more powerful to pray than Jesus’ prayer: “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  Heaven is our home.  It is our ultimate destination in this life.  And to have a sense of where you are heading is utterly crucial to becoming the kind of person that you want to become. 

            You know these days what drama is involved in flying on commercial airlines.  When I went to step onto the airplane in Hilton Head – Josh had driven down for the day for Jack’s funeral, because Jack McConnell was like a grandfather to Josh.  (Josh said, “I think Jack was the last person who said to me, ‘Come sit on my lap, and tell me about your life, Josh.’  I was sixteen!”)  My flight was cancelled from Hilton Head, and I was thinking, “Oh, do I call Stuart, or do I call Adam, or do I call Sandra, or do I call Josh, to tell them that they have to come up with a sermon tomorrow, because I am not getting home?!”  Then Josh Jones said to me, “Dad, I drive through Columbia on my way – why don’t you check on Columbia?”  Sure enough, there was a 7:59 flight out of Columbia, South Carolina, and the kingdom of God happened between Hilton Head and Columbia, South Carolina, because Josh and I had two-and-a-half hours together that we had not planned, sitting in the car, and all he did, the whole way, was to talk about things that matter most to him.  (I thought over and over how blessed by God I am!)

            We got to Columbia, and there was, in the line in front of me at the airport, a woman who was a Mennonite.  She had on the white bonnet, and she was wearing the kind of dress that a married Mennonite woman wears.  I could tell that she was very, very troubled because her flight had been cancelled, and they redirected her flight to Wilmington.  Only when she looked at the ticket, she realized it read Wilmington, North Carolina, and she needed to get to Wilmington, Delaware!

            If you do not know where you are headed, you are going to get lost, and chances are, you will end up someplace other than you want to be.  C.S. Lewis thought the idea of heaven was the right, the powerful, and the God-given idea given to us with regard to our destination, or our home.  That is why he said, “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in.  Aim at earth, and you will get neither.”

            In the closing scene of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye and his whole Jewish community are forced to pack up everything and to find a new home.  They have three days to sell what they can, to pack what they need, and to depart.  One man named Lavish comes to the Rabbi and says, “Rabbi, is this not the time for the Messiah finally to come?”  I love the Rabbi’s response: “Perhaps, Lavish, perhaps.  But we will have to wait for Him someplace else.  Go home and pack.”

            “Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”


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