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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Heaven Is Not a Do-It-Yourself Project

Heaven is Not a Do-It-Yourself Project
John 3:1-17


If you were going to build heaven, how would it look? Would you go with the "Streets of Gold" theme, or would that be too gaudy?  What about the color scheme? That's easy: Orange and White. Why change what's already there? Maybe your heaven would be more  earth tones and pastel accents. Stainless steel appliances? Granite countertops? Don't worry, you'll change them in a few years. Hardwood or carpet? Oops - dangerous question to ask in a church.

If you were building heaven, where would you start? You know the first three rules of real estate: Location, location, location. So, where? Peter Pan said Neverland was second star to the right and straight on 'til morning. As Carl Sagan said, there are "Billions and billions" of locations. More than Starbucks. How would you pick the perfect place? Would aliens be able to cross over? Or could it be inhabited by only a chosen few?

Floor plan. Would you put different people in their own areas? Presbyterians over here. Roman Catholics over there. With big, high walls between them so neither knows the other made it? "Shhh. They think they're the only ones here."

Would there be forests and mountains? Desert streams and plains? Angel choirs or miles and miles of silence? Or dogs barking, cats meowing, and little kids laughing? Libraries? Observatories? Cheesecake? Free wifi?

If you were building heaven, how would it look?

Jesus was a carpenter. But when it comes to a heavenly home, Jesus messes up our designs. Jesus is not what you'd call a *discriminating* judge of locations, colors, and schemes. He doesn't seem to put much thought at all into who the neighbors are. When it comes to heaven, Jesus has a long history of revising our plans without notice. 

Heaven is not a do-it-yourself project. 
A lot of us find that upsetting.


Is it just me or do the marketing mottos of home stores always sound religious? Lowe's tells us to, "Never Stop Improving." Home Depot says, "More Saving, More Doing." I really like that one. "More Saving, More Doing." We should put that on our signs. People would say, "More saving, more doing. That's good. Can we get appliances, too?" Ace is, "The Helpful Place." All churches want to DoIt Best and offer True Value. If you're really messed up we have Restoration Hardware. If you're surrounded by emptiness, we can be a Habitat ReStore. And then there's Knox Rail Salvage, bringing new life to that which others have discarded. I hope the long-range planning committee is getting these.

'Tis the season. Spring is hopefully almost upon us, we think. Polar vortexes are gone, time to spend Saturdays knee-deep in mulch and toe to toe with dandelions, slaying the evil that the seeds of righteousness may flourish in our gardens of paradise, can I get an, "Amen?"

This stuff has a strong religious aroma. Those home stores are smart to capitalize on it. The people who like do-it-yourself projects have an intensity about them. Whether quilters, cooks, carpenters, landscapers, painters, mechanics, hip-replacing orthopedists, or sermon-writing preachers. We can get a little obsessive, religiously enthusiastic about polishing our craft and hot-gluing our crafts, trying to get things as perfect as possible. Because if we can ever reach perfection, well, that'd be just heavenly.

Do-it-yourselfers are religious people. And a lot of religious people are do-it-yourselfers.


The Bible tells us the man who snuck in to talk to Jesus was a leader among religious enthusiasts. Nicodemus was Jewish, but when you're talking people who are religious about their religion, the flavor doesn't really matter. All religious enthusiasts share the same obsession for their projects which are all, at heart, do-it-yourself.

The problem was, Jesus messed up Nick's heavenly plans. 

The Bible says, "Jesus answered him, 'Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?'"

Was Jesus insulting the man? Or just stating the facts? It doesn't sound to me like a friendly conversation. It sounds tense.

The temptation for us is to shake our heads and say, "Tsk, tsk. Poor Nick. It's so OBVIOUS. Jesus is standing right before him, but he just can't understand." It's tempting because 2000 years later, Christianity has been built into such an elaborate structure. You can't drive two blocks without running into a church although please don't drive like that. Churches are built of checklists, carefully constructed creeds, tradition. We Presbyterians have ours. Every church does, big or small, old or new. We say, "Do it this way and your plans will be successful. You'll keep improving. You'll save more. You'll do more. You'll be the helpful place. You'll build a little bit of heaven on earth." In fact, Christianity is so prevalent - at least in these parts - you wonder why Jesus hasn't already come back to see the finished project.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, which is ironic because Nick was supposed to be a pretty bright guy. He tried to talk to Jesus but his mind was dim. Not because Nick wasn't intelligent but because he was. His brightness had become his darkness. His faith was a do-it-yourself project. He clutched the instructions well in-hand. Too well in-hand. Part A always went with Part B. Jesus was a square peg who spoke of things that were off the page. 

And that's always the tension with things religious. There's this plan from the past, and then these *people* from the future come and mess things up.

What messes up your personal sacred space? What do you have to do rebuild it? How do you treat those who try to change your plans? What if the plan-changer is Jesus? How would you know? Even if he was standing right in front of you?


Has anybody else bought one of those home-improvement items that looks so attractive in the store? You see it and think, "If only I had a titanium-plated whatzit-whoozit my home would be complete." You get it home, unbox, lay out the pieces and look at the instructions. You know they're instructions because the big bold letters say, "INSTRUCTIONS." With the subtitle, "If pieces are missing, DO NOT RETURN TO STORE." Except these instructions were NOT written by anyone for whom English is even a second language. So, frustration sets in. You need a beer and a bigger hammer. Soon, the children are hiding upstairs and whispering about calling 911. 

Maybe that's kind of how Nicodemus felt. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didn't know what to make of him.

Scripture does not say, "God so loved how efficiently the religious folks got things assembled." It says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son." God so loved the broken world. The unassembled world. The spinning apart world.

Jesus did not say, "God sent the Son to condemn the stupid people who can't read instructions." He said, God sent him "in order that the world might be saved through him."

What are we to make of this?

If heaven was a do-it-yourself project, we'd all be buying and building and decorating our own improvement ideas, and there'd never be enough room for anything or anyone who didn't fit the plans. I guess that's always the danger. 

God sent Jesus to save us. Not to fix our ineptitude, but to show us a heavenly view of how things *can* and *will* fit together. God sent Jesus to tell the world that God is crafting something more than paradise, a building not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens. 

But to see the way, we've gotta put the hammer down. To find the light we've gotta put away the do-it-yourself dimness. The Bible is not a set of instructions written in another language; the Bible is a book of hope written to a world God so loves in spite of itself. Heaven is not our project. Heaven is God's hope.


I can't read this passage without every time wondering what happened to Nicodemus. The Bible doesn't tell us. Did he leave the Pharisees and start following Jesus? Or did he pick back up the hammer and keep banging heads of people who didn't measure up? We don't know. 

I also can't read this passage without wondering if God isn't still sending Jesus into our personal and public darkness - as individuals and as a church. As a world. I can't read it without wondering how much of Jesus is standing right in front of me, right now, and how much of him I can't see, because I'm so busy trying to do-it-myself, and keep improving. Instead of opening my eyes, and letting Jesus build something heavenly new of out my salvage.