Revelation 4:1-11; Luke 9:28-36
Last Sunday before Lent
St Barbara’s 27.02.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we finish our series on resurrection, having thought about Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrection over the last two Sundays, by thinking about heaven.
Both passages from the Bible we have heard this morning give us glimpses into what heaven is like. They show us things beyond our comprehension, things which may seem unworldly, strange and odd. They are touching on things that by their definition are beyond our worldly experience. And yet from them, we can begin to get a sense of what heaven may be like, and why it matters.
We begin with John’s extraordinary vision in the book of Revelation. Inspired by God’s holy spirit, he sees a throne in heaven, with someone sitting on it with the appearance of precious stones. John makes no attempt to describe God: instead he describes a vision of brilliance and richness, an overwhelming sense of beauty and magnificence. We are in the throne room of almighty God, before which the throne rooms of Roman emperors, the most powerful and feared individuals on earth, pale into puny insignificance. Here is the world’s creator, the lord of heaven and earth.
From the throne John describes “flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder” emanating – imagery that reminds us of the power and authority of God, of his awesome holiness, that Moses encountered on Mount Sinai, that we are reminded of on the Mount of Transfiguration in our gospel reading. God’s presence is holy ground. Heaven is not a place of folksy charm, a place of slippers, hot cocoa and a snug fireplace. Its a place of awe and reverence.
Encircling the throne John describes “a rainbow resembling an emerald”. Again, its difficult to quite imagine what that is, but clearly John is wanting to convey that he beholds something of astonishing beauty and value. And the symbolism of the rainbow points us to something of immense importance. For the rainbow is a reminder of God’s promise to Noah, and to all humankind, that he would never again destroy the peoples of the earth, that He would be forever merciful. God is seated on a throne encircled by a symbol not of power or wrath or judgment, but of mercy. Heaven is a place of mercy, of love, of forgiveness, a place where we encounter the full nature and character of God.
Here in visual imagery John is painting a scene that gives us glimpses into the character of God: a God of holiness, power, awe, and yet of mercy and love too.
John goes on to describe those who gather around the throne. There are the 24 elders, symbols most likely of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles – in other words the whole people of God is represented here before God’s throne. And we have this image of these four creatures – a lion, an ox, an eagle and a human being. In Jewish thought, these four creatures represented the greatest of God’s creatures. The lion was the lord of the wild beasts; the ox, the strongest of all domestic animals; the eagle, the most powerful of all birds; and human beings, made in the image of God. These images came in time to be associated with the four gospel writers (and you will see in our windows images of them), but at the time of John’s writing they represented all created beings. In other words, if the 24 elders represented all God’s people, then the four creatures represented all God’s creation.
And what are they doing? Day and night, without ceasing, they are giving praise to God. They fall down in worship. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” they cry. “You are worthy, our Lord and God to receive glory and honour and power.” The purpose of all creation, the purpose of all God’s people, is worship – to praise God, to give him thanks and to acknowledge who he is in our actions and our words. And heaven is a place where that happens without ceasing or distraction.
Our reading about Jesus being transfigured on the mountain reinforces these glimpses we gain from John’s revelation. Once more in the presence of God we come across beauty and awe and wonder – Jesus’ clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. The presence of Moses and Elijah suggest once more the gathering of God’s people around the throne of God in worship. And the response of Peter, James and John, wanting to build shelters, or shrines, on the mountain, suggests a desire to offer worship, even if a slightly confused one.
But what do these glimpses of heaven – the awe and wonder and power of God; His mercy and love; the community of creation and God’s people that gathers round His throne to offer worship and praise – what do these have to say to us today? Is any of this relevant to us? And what does it have to say to us about the horrific events in Ukraine? Well, maybe there are at least three things for us to take away.
Firstly, heaven is not just a future hope; it is a current reality. One writer suggests that when we read John’s words at the beginning of his vision: “there before me was a door standing open in heaven” we are not to imagine a small door far up in the sky, but a door right in front of us that when we look through shows us a whole different parallel world taking place right alongside us. Like putting on infra-red glasses that show us heat waves that we didn’t know were there, heaven is a reality taking place all around us. God is present in our midst, we stand on holy ground.
And John’s image of heaven shows us that when we worship, we never worship alone. We join in with the angels, we join in with all the saints, we join in with all those who have gone before us. Sometimes we may get a sense of that when we worship – of being part of something bigger than just ourselves or this immediate community, but of something infinitely greater and richer – a taste of heaven. And when we pray, that is true too. We do not pray alone. The people of Ukraine do not pray alone either. Not only does the worldwide church cry out in prayer with them, but heaven itself too.
Secondly, heaven is what God desires for his world now. What we see in heaven – God’s wonder and awe, his mercy and love, all creation giving him worship and praise – is what God longs for in the world, and what He empowers us to be part of making happen. Its why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “God’s kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
For the people of Ukraine the opposite must feel true at the moment. Life is hell on earth, not heaven. As it must be for those countless parents in Afghanistan forced to sell their children into slavery to feed them and their other children; or those suffering domestic abuse or neglect.
God calls each of us, through our prayers and our actions, to be focused on working for more of heaven here on earth. In the light of these international crises, we may feel helpless, but we can pray. And there are things we can do nearer to home that can make a difference. In our family relationships, in our workplaces, here in church, or in our community – to see a world where mercy and love are the cornerstone of all we do, a world where God’s goodness and love are made manifest in our relationships, a world where every act becomes an opportunity to glorify God. To pray and act that God’s kingdom will come, here on earth, as in heaven.
And thirdly, heaven is our future. I was often struck when I travelled to some of the poorest communities in the world with my work with Tearfund that alongside a desperate desire for God’s kingdom, his heaven now, there was an absolute hope amongst those communities that one day they would experience the fulness of God’s heaven. For those experiencing the horror of war, for those here going through difficult times, for those for whom the immediate future feels tough and unrelenting, these glimpses of heaven may give hope too. What we experience now is not the end nor an irreversible decline nor the sum total of our existence. A day will come when the fulness of heaven will be our reality, and we will experience the awe, wonder, joy and praise of being before the very throne of God.
As the hymn writer puts it:
Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place
Till we cast our crowns before Thee
Lost in wonder, love and praise!