Over the past few decades, a lot had changed when it comes to the religious landscape across America. The number of people who say they are affiliated with a particular denomination has dropped significantly since about 1990. The number of people who attend church on a regular basis has also dropped dramatically over the past thirty to forty years. The number of people who give and support any kind of religious institutions has also gone down considerably during that same period of time. There is no doubt that religion in America has changed.
Now, as someone who might be considered a “professional religious person,” I worry about these things. The numbers are consistently moving in the wrong direction. By almost every single metric, religion in America seems to be on the decline. But just recently I discovered at least one statistic that defies these otherwise troubling trends. What I found is that over the past several decades, as church attendance and giving and religious affiliation have all been on the decline, the number of people who say they believe in heaven has actually remained about the same. While everything else is trending down, people still believe in heaven! Now this is good news, right? In the face of what is otherwise a dismal outlook for religion and faith in America we can hold on to the fact that a majority of people still believe in heaven. Yes! That’s a good thing!
But there is one problem. The majority of people who believe in heaven usually conceive of heaven as a distant place (a good place, but a distant place). The place where good people go to enjoy eternity with God. Even those who identify themselves as faithful followers of Jesus, often think primarily about heaven as someplace else. Another realm. Another dimension. A place we go to. But tonight, I wonder. What if God came to earth not only to bring us to heaven? But what if God came to earth to bring heaven to us? What if the story we hear tonight about a baby born two thousand years ago, in a backwoods village called Bethlehem is actually a story about a transformational moment in history when heaven touches earth?
Think about this with me for just a moment. Long before Jesus was born, God’s people were waiting, praying, longing for the day when God’s kingdom, God’s vision, God’s dream would be realized for the whole world. They were longing for the day when the knowledge of the glory of God would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. In so many ways, God’s people were looking and waiting for the day when heaven would come to earth. And then, in the fullness of time, a baby is born. A baby born like any other baby. A baby wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger. A baby crying and longing to cling to his mother.
But in response to the birth of this baby, the heavens are opened. The glory of God is revealed. Choirs of angels begin to sing. Hymns of praise begin to echo throughout the universe. Salvation has come. Grace has come. Peace has come. Heaven has come to earth.
And notice that in our story heaven touches earth in the most obscure and unlikely of places. Heaven touches earth in a remote province of the Roman Empire about as far away as you can get from the centers of power and wealth and influence. Heaven touches earth in a stable where a young unmarried couple far from home is forced to take shelter because there is no room for them at the inn. Heaven touches earth in the face and hands and toes of helpless baby lying in a manger. And then there’s the shepherds minding their own business in a nearby field. The shepherds, who are the first see the heavens torn open, the first to witness the brilliant radiance of the glory of God. You see, the glory of God is not revealed to Augustus, the Emperor of Rome. The glory of God is not revealed to Quirinius, the Governor of Syria. The glory of God is not revealed to Herod, the Great King of Judea. The glory of God is revealed to a scattering of lowly shepherds in a random field, watching their flocks by night. Heaven has come to earth.
A remote village. A stable. A manger. A field full of sheep. Not exactly the places where you would expect to find heaven touching earth. Not exactly the places where you would expect to catch a glimpse of the glory of God. But what if God came to earth not only to bring us to heaven? What if God came to earth to bring heaven to us? Right where we are. In the messiness of life. In the pandemonium of a pandemic. In our confusion. In our fears. In our grief. Right where we are. Heaven has come to earth.
Tonight, on Christmas Eve 2021, our world needs a vision of heaven touching earth. Because it seems to me that it is more than just religious affiliation and church attendance that are on the decline. Kindness is on the decline. Patience is on the decline. Gratitude and graciousness are on the decline. Respect and respectability and basic human decency are all on the decline. We need a vision of heaven touching earth. We need a vision of the knowledge of the glory of God covering the earth as the waters cover the sea. We need a vision of God’s kingdom, God’s dream breaking forth in the midst of the brokenness and confusion of this world. Today we will once pray together the all too familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. And we will offer our petition once again that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Tonight, may those words be more than words. May they represent our conviction that on this most holy night in the face and hands and toes of a helpless baby heaven has come to earth. Salvation has come. Grace has come. Peace has come. God has come to be with us. Thanks be to God.