Revelation 21:1-6Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
I would like to see the start of a rebellion. Now, as we celebrate the birth of the one Christians call the Prince of Peace, this may not be the kind of thing we might expect to be thinking about, but nevertheless, I want to see a rebellion, a rebellion that is against the belief that what you can see, touch, taste, listen to and measure is all that there is. Such a rebellion could profoundly alter the West. Our culture is dominated by a belief that reality consists entirely of what is material, and I think it’s time we challenged that with a message that starts at Christmas and finds its fulfilment at Easter, and it is all to do with heaven, or more precisely it’s all to do with heaven and earth. But when we think of heaven, what are our first thoughts?
Many of us have had to bury loved ones as we have had to come to terms with their deaths. So for many of us when we think of heaven what we think of is somewhere, far away, where our loved ones now live. Our natural inclination is to think that heaven is distant because our loved ones seem distant; they’re no longer with us. But I think we need to change this belief, because it is so very mistaken on two counts. Firstly because we have come to think of heaven as primarily a place where the souls of our loved ones go when they die, and secondly because that implied distance makes us think heaven is a long way away, when actually I think it is far closer than most of us have ever imagined. So let’s think about these two points and how heaven relates to Christmas and the Christian understanding of God's plan for humanity and for our future.
The first thing we have to alter is our belief that heaven is primarily where the dead go when they depart this life. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the dead don’t go to heaven, but what I think we need primarily to change is our belief that this is the most important characteristic of heaven, because it isn’t. By far and away the most important thing about heaven is that it is the primary dwelling place of God. Now it is my belief that the presence of God is felt through every fibre of the material world in which we reside; that God is as much, ‘here’ as he is ‘there’. However I also have to recognise that if God’s presence was fully realised in this place, then we would lose our free choice of whether to seek him out of not. We would be overwhelmed by God’s glory. And so God veils his presence here, but in heaven God resides in all his fullness. And it is not only God who resides in heaven, but all the angels do too, all the thousands upon thousands of them. We may think of angels as primarily being messengers that come from heaven to earth but it seems that the limited numbers of accounts about heaven and angels in the Bible suggest otherwise, that there are only a small number that do that. So the first and most important thing for us to take on board is that God’s full presence is revealed in heaven, and that is it’s main reason for existence, as God’s residence. Now if we can take that on board, and shift the emphasis away from it being all about where the souls of the living go, then we can also begin to get a grasp on the second point, that heaven is not far away. In fact heaven is actually very close.
Think about it like this, and this is of course a metaphor, but this is just to get an idea of distance. In this world we think of three different spacial dimensions. There is up and down, then at ninety degrees to up and down there is left and right, and then at ninety degrees to up and down, and left and right, there’s near and far. Three sets of dimensions all set at ninety degrees to each other. But what if we could turn another ninety degrees to those three dimensions? Bit of a mind-bender that one, but if you can get your head around it, then that would mean that heaven isn’t ‘up there’ somewhere, it’s actually right here, right alongside us, just at a metaphorical ninety degrees to our reality. Yet there is some evidence for this, such as at the beginning of the book of Revelation. In chapter one St. John explains that he was in the Spirit on the Sabbath, clearly praying very deeply, when he hears a loud voice from behind him.
From behind, not from above.
Then he writes that he turned to see who was speaking to him, and turned his face to see straight into the face of Christ standing in the midst of heaven. He turns, he doesn’t have to look up or go anywhere. He just turns. Heaven is right there alongside him. Heaven is right here alongside us. This chimes far more with me than this idea that God is in his heaven, far away, and sometimes he chooses to come here. Now that won’t come as a surprise to some of us. Many people reading this will at some time have had an experience of the presence of God or maybe of an angel, and we know the truth of this, that heaven is close, it’s just that it’s masked from us.
And this is the kind of idea that you find growing throughout the Bible as it begins to become apparent that God created heaven and earth at the same time, right there in Genesis 1:1, and both of them were only ever meant to have a finite existence, to be here for a time and then to pass away. Heaven is a spatial place which lies alongside this spacial place. It is a real place, and the deepest presence of God dwells there. But this is not God’s final plan. God’s ultimate plan is for heaven and earth to be completely joined, and towards the end of the Bible, in the reading we had from Revelation, God declares that plan, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth because the first heaven and the first earth have passed away. And the comment there about there being no more sea refers to what they used to think of as the waters of chaos that sat between heaven and earth, dividing them.
In other words the very end of the story of this creation is about a new creation, where heaven and earth are joined and God dwells amongst us. All of which brings us back to this service because when we celebrate Christmas, what we are celebrating is God making a crucial step in the unifying process by coming to us, born as one of us. It is supremely difficult for us to access heaven because although 'spatially' it may lay alongside us, in terms of its nature we’re right to think of it as somehow being ‘up’. Heaven is a place of much greater dynamism than this, making it difficult for us to consider how we could be there. This is why most of the experiences that we have records of are of people having visionary experiences of heaven rather than actual ones. So we can’t go ‘there’, but God can come ‘here’...
...and so he did.
To get our head around what that means, consider the amount of emptying out of his power that the Son of God had to do. The one who created all things, both seen and unseen, was able to set it all to one side, allowing himself to step through reality, to step sideways. Let’s be honest, it is hard to get our heads around it, but I believe it to be true, that the Son of God, the Word of God who was with God in the beginning of heaven and earth, slipped into this world, born as one of us. No kings were summoned to the party, just the lowly shepherds, who really were the lowest of the low in that culture, and for them the veil between heaven and earth, so close together, was slipped back as they witnessed the angels singing out of this great mystery, that God should come to earth.
So this is what took place that first Christmas. Heaven is so close to earth you can almost touch it, especially at those thin places where God’s presence resonates with the surroundings, but at that time and that place they did touch, and by his birth Jesus began to open the door through which heaven could pour in to earth. This is why Jesus calls himself the way - because he is the way into the presence of God, into God’s dwelling place, so close to ours. This is why in worship we sometimes feel caught up into heaven, it’s because we actually are! This is why some of us have glimpsed angels in worship, because we are sharing in an activity that is happening at both places at the same time.
And when we come to Easter we’ll consider how Jesus not only pushed the door between the worlds open, but he pulled it off the hinges. But for now, this Christmas, let’s start the rebellion. This world that you see, this isn’t all that there is. There is so much more laid alongside us. Christ slipped between the worlds so silently, but it was just the first step in the plan that will one day culminate in heaven and earth being joined.
But for now, for this celebration, it is enough just to remember that heaven is close. Join the rebellion, because if we start to consider just how close heaven is, then with God’s help, we can change the world.