I have been spending the better part of two weeks transferring all of my CDs to iTunes. It has been a fun trip down memory lane, running into music that we haven’t heard for several years. And yet, it’s amazing how quickly you can get bogged down in the minutiae of such a project: iTunes doesn’t have the right cover art for the album; some of the song titles are misspelled; the rules of capitalization seem to have gone out the window.
It is incredible how much time we can put into frivolous, unimportant things: alphabetizing the spice rack; arranging the closet according to Roy G. Biv; spackling over that hole in the kitchen wall you made with your unicycle. In my lifetime, we’ve taken audio from vinyl to cassette to CD to mp3 and back to vinyl, kind of. My dad owned and used a reel-to-reel tape machine, and I remember when we thought, for a few minutes back in the mid-90s, that Digital Audio Tape was going to be the future. Super8, BetaMax, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray…it most certainly won’t be long before iTunes is tossed out on its ear, and we will start the whole process of transfer all over again. When the world around can be a place that demands such serious attention, how can we focus on such pointless activities?
Those of you who know me well know that I’m probably not going to be arguing against trivia this morning, or in favor of a life that is filled with nothing but the important stuff. There is a place in our lives for pleasure. And the truth is that when we fill our lives to overflowing, we usually end up with self-importance rather than real importance. And the temptation is to make our lives so full that they become relatively useless. But the point is this: if we are praying for God’s will to be done on earth like it is in heaven, why do we not do more to be part of that transformation? How can we jibe this desire to be God’s instruments with our deeply troubled we can be over whether our Urban Dance Squad CD is sampled at 128 or 192 kbps?
It has taken us three weeks now to unpack this one phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And as we’ve looked at this phrase, the one thing that remains consistent throughout is that earth most certainly does not look like heaven. We never have to look far to recognize that the created order often bears little resemblance to what we understand God’s desires to be.
Our New Testament lesson is a stark reminder of that fact. John the Baptist, God’s own prophet, is snuffed out in the blink of an eye. The good guy loses his head; the bad guys win; and the king stays in power, going on to rule another day – paranoid, yes, but still in charge.
Centuries have passed, and yet, it often seems that nothing has changed. There is little justice or accountability in society. Integrity is viewed as a quaint ideal rather than a character trait. And illness, not healing, holds our bodies captive. The desire of this phrase, that God’s will be done, is genuine and necessary. But how do we make it reality?
After all, what is heaven? In most languages, Biblical and otherwise, the word for “heaven” is the same as the word for “sky” or “skies”. The same is true in English, actually, as “heaven” comes to us via the old English-Germanic route. So to speak of this literally, heaven is the sky – or the skies.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure that God isn’t in the sky – at least, not in that way. We aren’t worried that a 747 will burst through a cloudbank and go crashing into the pearly gates. We don’t lose sleep over a satellite colliding with the throne of God and ruining the upholstery. When Scripture was written, however, we knew nothing about what lay beyond our vision above. We could see the sky, but we could not touch it. But this is no longer true.
So what is heaven, then? Is it ultimately about place at all? Or does it describe a reality that, no matter how much knowledge we have, always lies just beyond our reach?
There’s a hint in our lesson from the prophet Amos. In it, God holds a plumb line against a wall. The image is straightforward enough: the plumb line is in God’s hands, and the righteousness of ancient Israel is measured against it. In this case, the nation doesn’t make the cut, and Amos the prophet gets the lucky job of breaking the news to the king. It makes you wonder if his head will end up on a platter.
I’m reminded of the first church I worked in after seminary. I was a youth pastor, and we took a youth mission trip down to Mexico. We spent a week in one of the coloñias of Reynosa, the haphazard shanty towns that have sprung up across the border filled with folks hoping for a better life, whether that means coming across the border or getting a job in one of the American factories on the Mexican side of the wall. This one was built on the side of a garbage dump, and the children could often be found scrounging through the burning piles of refuse to find whatever little treasures they could.
Our job, partnering with a Methodist church there, was to build a simple wood frame eight-by-eight house to house a family of four. We were, all of us, untrained, but they had given us an easy step-by-step guide to build. On the third day, one of the certified builders came to check on us. His quick assessment was painful: we needed to start over. The ground wasn’t level where we were building, our frame wasn’t squared up, and we had decided that “close” was good enough. What we didn’t realize is that any small mistake in the foundation would be magnified by the time we got to the roof, making the whole structure unstable. Our orders were clear: take it apart and start all over.
How is our life’s foundation? Have we measured ourselves against God’s desires? Have we decided that “close enough” is good enough?
There’s an old word, “canon”, spelled like the camera company, which means “measuring rod” or “standard”. It goes back to the Hebrew for “reed” and the Arabic for “law”. The only time you hear that word these days, usually, is when referring to Scripture. The books of the Bible are the Biblical canon. And the implication is fairly clear: they provide the measuring line, the reed, the standard by which we are measured.
As we build our lives, or perhaps as we rebuild them after the roof has wobbled and caved in, we want to be sure that we begin with a foundation that measures up. And the most certain way to do is prayer. Will we mess up? Absolutely. We’ll bend nails and hit thumbs; our 90 degree angles will be 89.9. And even if we build it perfectly, the whole structure will be exposed to the elements that will gradually wear away at it. After all, we are far from perfect.
And so, the posture of prayer we take makes all the difference. When we pray, and specifically, when we pray to God, “your will be done”, it’s not ultimately about forcing God’s hand, or saying, “OK, God, now is the time for you to act.” Instead, it’s about aligning ourselves with God’s desires. It’s about opening ourselves up to see and know what it is that God hopes for this world. The parables of Christ, the example of his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, all of them point to heaven, to the reality that lies just beyond our grasp. And in that reality, the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the prisoners are set free, and the whole earth sings to the glory of God.
Making the world a perfect place is an impossible task. But what is possible, and more importantly, what is faithful, is praying that we would be God’s vessels of that feeding, that healing, that freedom, that whole-throated song of praise.