St Michael’s 23rd July 2017
Reading – Revelation 4:1-11
What is the most beautiful or breathtaking place in the whole world you have ever been to? What is it that made it so special?
Six years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Israel. There were so many amazing places to visit: the site where Jesus is said to have been born; the tomb where Jesus was laid; the mountain where Jesus ascended into heaven – all of them powerful and never to be forgotten reminders that the Bible tells the story of a real person who lived a real life so many years ago.
But to me the most special place in the whole trip was down by the shore of Lake Galilee. It was such a beautiful and tranquil location – plus the fact there were loads of cute rock badgers looking on. Of course what made it even more significant was knowing that Jesus Himself walked on this very shoreline – calling the local fishermen to follow Him, preaching the good news to the crowds, healing the sick and the demon-possessed.
I don’t know if I will ever make it back to Israel. But I do know that thanks to Jesus I have been given the opportunity to go to somewhere even more wonderful. And for this journey, I won’t need a passport or a package tour. I won’t need to go searching in the ruins of history. No, Jesus offers me the chance to go to none other than where my Heavenly Father lives. And it won’t be some exotic foreign place with a different language and strange local customs. It will be in the deepest sense of the word home, a place where I can belong forever.
We often call this place heaven, and in our first reading this morning we hear how a man called John is shown a vision of what heaven is like. How he describes heaven is perhaps very different from how we usually imagine this place. We might think of angels on fluffy clouds playing harps, or a long road up to some pearly gates. John’s vision is far stranger and perhaps even slightly disturbing. There is a rainbow, and flashings of lightning, and a sea of glass. There are bizarre-looking creatures flying around constantly singing. And in the middle there is a throne with someone sitting on it – God Himself.
Now I’m not going to explain every detail of John’s vision. What we have to realise is that John is trying to describe the indescribable. Heaven will be so different from any place we have ever seen before it is hard to put into words what it is like. But the main point John wants to get across is that heaven is real, and we’ll see why that’s so important in a moment.
Of course I realise many people have tried to describe heaven. People publish whole books about their experiences of apparently seeing God, and there’s always a ready market for such material as, for obvious reasons, I guess most of us really do want to know more about heaven. So the question is: how do we know John’s vision of heaven is the right one? Why should we trust His description more than one we find, say, in W.H.Smith’s?
The simple answer is that, as we shall see next week, at the centre of John’s vision is Jesus. And the thing that is so special about Jesus is that He really did come from heaven to earth, lived, died and rose again. That isn’t just me saying this. Nor is this just the claims of an ancient book called the Bible. The more you look into all the evidence the more you realise that Jesus rising from the dead is one of the most well documented facts of the ancient world. So when the lives of Jesus called the gospels were first written, there were still people living who could back up the claims that this Jesus who had been crucified was seen alive three days later, and not even the fiercest opponent of the Christian faith could deny what was being said about Him.
That’s why when Jesus appears to John and gives him a vision of what heaven is like, we can be sure that what John sees is real and the truth. And although we may not understand everything John is telling us, one thing is clear. Heaven is where God is. And not only God but all the angels and people from every race and tribe and nation gathered round His throne worshipping and praising Him forever.
Now, I wonder, does that vision of heaven excite you? I guess to some people the idea of being in the presence of God constantly singing His praises perhaps sounds a little boring. Maybe they’ve watched Songs of Praise on TV, or been to too many church services that have been as dull as the proverbial ditchwater. Let me say straight away, heaven is going to be nothing like that.
Imagine that you’ve been away from home for a long time. You may have had a wonderful time and you may have all kinds of special memories. But somehow there is nothing like sleeping in your own bed under your own roof or eating your own food within your own four walls. Yes, the hotel or the campsite may have been great, but it wasn’t home. Home is where you belong, and it’s your safe space you can call your own.
And if you can identify in any way with this idea of a homecoming, then the best way to think about heaven is to see it as the ultimate homecoming. It is a coming back to the one who made us, who loves us, who deeply, deeply cares for us, and longs for more than anything else that we enjoy being in His presence. That’s why the song of heaven we heard just now goes like this: You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being. (Rev 4:11). It’s the song of those who finally have put behind them all heartbreak and sorrow and misery of this life and know that they are with God, before His throne, safe forever.
I hope by now you can see that, far from being boring, heaven will be the best experience ever. So the question is: how do you get there? Well, in our second reading Jesus’ followers come to Him with exactly that kind of question: Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? You see, the disciples think heaven is for people who are good or clever or all grown-up, and they think they should have top spot because they are friends of Jesus.
But in reply Jesus does something which at that time was truly shocking. He takes a little child and makes him or her the centre of attention. Now back in His day no-one paid much particular attention to children. They were expected to be seen and not heard. They were not respected much and their voice was often ignored. Yet Jesus says: Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What does He mean by these words? Simply this, that one day, when we will all stand before the throne of God what will matter is not how many good deeds we have done; how many qualifications we have; what age we have reached. What will matter is whether you have believed and trusted in His Son Jesus who died and rose again for us.
So in the baptism service in a moment I will ask the parents and godparents the following question: Do you turn to Christ as your Lord and Saviour? Of the many, many people I have asked this question no-one has ever dared say “No.” But this is a serious question that demands a serious response from all of us today. Are we looking forward to coming home to the One who made us and loves us? Will we respond to His generous love by believing and trusting in His Son Jesus? Or will we reject His offer and miss out on knowing God as our Heavenly Father?
Only you can answer those questions. Let’s pray …