Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (22 December 2013) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean
The Very Reverend David Ison looks at Heaven and says 'Heaven starts now by building our relationship with God in Jesus Christ through prayer, worship and service.'
‘Behold I make all things new’
If you look up heaven on the internet, you’ll find that Heaven is the name of a nightclub in London. Whether you’ll find heaven when you get there is another question.
What is heaven? In many languages the word ‘heaven’ means what’s above us both physically and spiritually. The stars are located in the heavens; and heaven is also the dwelling place of God and the souls of the righteous. Heaven is a physical and spiritual geography.
And that comes from our human experience of the world, the three-decker universe which we inhabit. We stand on the earth, in the middle, and look upwards and downwards: as our first reading puts it, ‘as deep as Sheol and as high as heaven’. Above us is the heavenly realm, which gives rain without which we couldn’t live; the sun which give us light and warmth and make things grow; the stars which we wonder at; and the strange things which in older times might be interpreted as the voice of God, but which now we call comets, rainbows, lightning and thunder. This infinite realm above us stands for the place where God must dwell.
Beneath us is the world of molten rock, earthquakes and darkness, of hidden and frightening things. When in the Apostles’ Creed we say that Christ descended into hell, the Latin word that’s translated as hell is ‘infernos’, meaning simply ‘what is lower’: the creed means that Christ descends to the lower regions, which in spiritual geography is the traditional abode of the dead in darkness away from the light of the heavens.
In this static three-level universe, heaven is where God lives, above the cares and sorrows of the world. And heaven is where we go to when we die – hopefully. Many ancient peoples constructed whole religions around the process of getting into heaven after death. In popular accounts of Christian faith, heaven is where God is with the saints, the especially holy people who’ve been accounted worthy of being with God for ever; the rest of us when we die will wait in the abode of the dead for the last judgement, after which we will either be sent down to hell, or up to heaven, perhaps through a cleansing process called purgatory, then to be in heaven with God for ever. Heaven is where all the good stuff will be, with no more death or suffering, where we can enjoy God and one another for ever.
Does heaven sound exciting? Well, no, for most people; it’s a comfort, perhaps a vague one in the back of the mind, perhaps a strong one when we ourselves encounter death in those near to us. But it doesn’t fire up our lives and change the way we live. And that’s because, with heaven as with the other Advent things of death and judgement and hell, we need to remember the two key Christian themes of relationship and reality.
A year ago I was invited to a Christmas party which included hundreds of people, many celebrities and government ministers. I’d got on well with the person giving the party at a meeting a couple of months before. But the experience of going to the party, in a very elegant house with lovely food and drink, while very nice, wasn’t one of warm personal hospitality. Because of the numbers, the host was unable to spend much time with any of the guests, and many of them seemed to know each other but not me. What made the party work for me was the opportunity to meet some people I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered. It was rather like the experience of going to a garden party at Buckingham Palace: the food is good, the Palace gardens are wonderful, there are thousands of people, and you can feel very lonely if you don’t make the effort to talk to anyone else: there is no way that the Queen can personally relate to everyone there.
Is heaven like a big party where God will be too busy with everyone else to make us feel at home? No, is the Christian answer: because we will know the host and the host will know us. The New Testament speaks often about Jesus Christ coming to make us children of God, to know God as our Father and Christ as our brother. Heaven is a family affair: less like a party or a nightclub, and more like a Christmas dinner with those you know and those who love you. Our Eucharist today, as the prayer over the bread and wine reminds us, is a foretaste of when with all the saints, all our brothers and sisters, we will ‘feast at God’s table in heaven’.
People and religions obsessed with getting themselves to heaven miss the point. Heaven isn’t a future state which we will enter as individuals if we’re good enough. Heaven starts now by building our relationship with God in Jesus Christ through prayer, worship and service, in the company of our brothers and sisters.
And more than that, we’re called to make heaven more of a reality in our lives right now. The very common view of heaven, as a place of reunion with those we love, then raises the question of what we say to one another for eternity after we’ve said hello again. For, if you want to grow in your relationship with someone, you have to be truthful and honest, whether with God or with those you love: and the Christian concept of judgement and hell requires us to face the reality of ourselves in the light of the love of God, and how we’ve fallen short of what God has called us to be. And heaven is where we will become really ourselves as God intended, and where we grow in love and understanding, always stretched by the infinite love of God: and heaven begins when we say Yes! to the living God who comes in Jesus Christ, to transform us and all things.
This is the Christian understanding of heaven: that it’s not a static place to go to, but a dynamic and renewing power. In the penultimate chapter of the Bible [Revelation 21.5] there’s a wonderful picture of God renewing the heavens and the earth, saying: ‘Behold, I make all things new’. In this vision heaven isn’t an eternal state, but a process which brings together heaven and earth in a new world, in which the love of God will be the only reality.
This is how God has worked and continues to work in the world: God makes all things new. Advent is about heaven, because heaven means being made new. God in Christ does new things: at the end of Advent we celebrate this wonder, that in a human life and human flesh, God touches and transforms the world. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the new birth given by the Holy Spirit in baptism, the ministry of the Church in the world, are part of the process where God is doing this new thing of joining heaven with earth in Jesus Christ, to be completed at the end of all things.
All that we long for, all the love we celebrate and have lost, all the joy and wonder we seek, we find in Christ. The reality of our lack of love, the pains and sorrows we have experienced or have inflicted on others, is made new in Christ. ‘Do not be afraid’ say the angels to Joseph and to Mary: and being made new by God come to us in Christ, we need fear neither death nor judgement. Come, invite the Lord of heaven into your heart; that you may desire to be at home with God in heaven and in earth, as we celebrate here today the feast of heaven with the one who says: ‘Behold I make all things new’.