Sunday 8 May 2022: Fourth Sunday of Easter
God in his heaven
Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Context: a small, well-educated congregation in a prosperous area just outside London
Aim: to think about what God’s heaven means to us today
God in his heaven – how often have those words been said down the millennia? They have been a source of awe, hope, reassurance and comfort to millions of Judaeo-Christians throughout the ages and yet, what is this heaven that is being spoken about? For the early Jews, God was a special person who must inhabit a finer place than they did with their tents and makeshift homes in the wilds of Sinai and Palestine. For them, that could mean a multitude of things, though I can’t think that their image of God’s home might stretch to what in the 21st century is the equivalent of a billionaire’s mansion. But who knows? Indeed, how important was it to them? They had a very direct relationship with God and surely that was the most important thing? Think of Adam and Eve talking directly to God in the Garden of Eden, or Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from him (her?!). Or indeed, in the book of Job, God talking to Satan and Job himself arguing with God and wanting to know why God had allowed all these terrible things to happen to him. For many of those early believers, God was a tangible – almost physical – presence for them and that was the most important thing. God was there with them.
By the time of Christ, things had changed. God had become more remote – a Supreme Being, a godly presence in many ways removed from people’s everyday lives. For many if not most, their relationship with God was filtered through the temple hierarchy: the Pharisees and Sadducees and their decrees on what God expected of his people. If the people were thinking about what God’s heaven was like, they probably started with an image of the Greek and Roman palaces that they saw and heard about, and then upped the stakes quite a bit. Certainly, John’s Gospel and the book of Revelation paint a picture of God on his throne, surrounded by angels and archangels and the faithful robed in white and waving palm branches – the glory and might of God for all to see. The artists of the European Middle Ages and Renaissance frequently painted it this way and it is this image that many of those of the Western world tend to think of.
The phrase ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world’, is one that I often heard when I was a child. Looking back, I have to shake my head – all is not right with the world and I daresay it never has been except perhaps in small little individual bits. That is why the role of God has been so important to people throughout the millennia. Humans need God on so many different levels. However, how important is the tangible image of God’s heaven, this magnificent place, somewhere out of our ken, that has been portrayed as God’s home?
Jesus was born to a lowly carpenter and his wife, in a stable, with animals around them. Jesus worked as a carpenter before starting his missionary work – hardly the prince, the Messiah, that most of the Jews had long been expecting. This is a far cry from the heavenly place that John describes. With Jesus, God was bringing a human face to the peoples of earth, saying to them – ‘I am not a remote being. I care about each of you individually and I love you and want the best for you.’ Jesus wasn’t just talking about some celestial being who lived in a palace that reflected his importance and majesty. Jesus was speaking about a loving father who is with us throughout whatever may occur. Oh, he works on a much longer timescale than any of us can comprehend, but the promise is there that he loves us, he will be with us through whatever befalls us and, at the end of time, the faithful will be with him and Jesus – wherever they are – be it a heaven as described by John, somewhere out in the cosmos, or on a level that we can’t imagine or comprehend.
I suspect that all of us believers have different takes on God and his heaven. Does that matter? No, I don’t think it does. The message that comes out of the New Testament and particularly John’s writings is that all believers will ultimately be with God and Jesus. And, for all those believers, that is what heaven is – being with them. It is that reassurance that has consoled, supported, and brought joy to all his people and will continue to do that for future believers until the end of time. That is the promise of God’s heaven.
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