How Did I Miss That?
Part 12: The Kingdom of Heaven is Near
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”
I do not know how I missed it, but somewhere in my childhood, and reinforced throughout my life, was the concept that heaven and hell were faraway places where we would go after we die. Heaven was somewhere above, and hell was somewhere below. Heaven was a paradise where we would be reunited with long-lost relatives, and hell was a place of eternal punishment where we would go if we did not live a life on earth worthy of heaven.
I believe the church I grew up in perpetuated these images and many churches today do the same. In spite of insisting we are saved by grace, as the apostle Paul proclaimed, there is still an element of needing to earn our salvation present in too many religious discussions. The threat of hell is ever near for those who do not give enough money to the right causes, live an acceptable lifestyle, vote for certain candidates, or regularly attend the right kind of church. Thankfully, many churches recognize an inclusive God. If God is the God of any of us, God is the God of all and is not limited by our imperfect, individual perceptions. But I digress…
The first recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and repeated throughout the Gospels, are that the kingdom of God – heaven – is near. We consistently overlook that reality. For all the speculation about possible states of being after we die, we completely ignore that heaven and hell are present realities in our world right now, today, this moment, and in this place! Speculation about the future comes at the expense of the blessings of the now. Eternity stretches out in all directions from wherever we are at a point in time, and from that point we can experience heaven, or we can experience hell. The choice is ours because we are co-creators with God of the world we experience.
Finding heaven on earth is challenging because there are so many attractive distractions that entice us to look in other directions, like possessions, positions, and power. The earth is a beautiful place with many lovely entertainments. But none of them are eternal. Finding hell on earth, however, is much easier. There are many opportunities to succumb to illness, financial straits, disabilities, loneliness, and broken hearts. When we focus on our suffering – and everyone suffers – we lose another moment in which we could experience heaven. Jesus invites us to repent (turn around) and live the good news.
The kingdom of heaven is near. The kingdom of heaven is here. How did I miss that?