“Then 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.” (Revelations 21:1)
Yes, I’m preaching on Heaven … again! It’s been a few years actually, and I think I need to preach on Heaven at least once every two or three years, as I need to keep reminding myself (and reminding the rest of us) that Heaven is probably not the place we were brought up to believe it was!
I heard a story recently about a politician who died and approached the pearly gates, asking St Peter, “does this mean I made it into Heaven?” St Peter says to him, “well, it’s your choice actually. You can choose Heaven or Hell as your future abode, but the Devil has asked if he can give you a one-day tour of hell before you make up your mind.”
The politician is a bit surprised by this but he thinks that it will at least be interesting to do the tour so he agrees, and he’s astonished when he finds that hell appears to be a very attractive place. Instead of flames and sulphur he finds the climate very agreeable and, of course, all his friends are there, and they’re playing cards and enjoying good food and wine, and there seem to be no shortage of attractive women to go around. He then tours Heaven and finds that to be quite agreeable too, with lots of contented looking people but frankly the whole scene is a little less vibrant. So when he fronts up to St Peter the next day he says, “I never thought I’d be saying this but I’d actually prefer to live in Hell if that’s ok with you.” “It’s your choice entirely”, says St Peter, and immediately dispatches him in the downwards elevator.
Of course as soon as the politician lands back in hell he finds it’s a place of fire and sulphur and constant torment! Shocked, he locates the Devil and asks him what happened! “Oh, I’m sorry”, says the Devil, “but yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted.”
Heaven and Hell can be very confusing places, evidently, and perhaps the biggest confusion, Biblically speaking, concerns whether we should really be thinking of them as places at all?
Is Heaven a place? If so, how do we get there? And if it’s such a great place, what are we doing hanging around here? These and other such questions have plagued the religious mind since time immemorial, and who am I to think I can answer them all now?
Mind you, my girl Imogen, worked out where Heaven was years ago when my dad died. It’s inside a box! She’d been told Grandpa had died and gone to Heaven, and she was also told at the funeral that that he was in the box, so Heaven had to be somewhere in that box!
Most in our society think of Heaven as that place where we go when we die, though I don’t think Heaven is actually spoken of in exactly that way in the Bible at all (despite the fact that this is regularly held to be the heart of the Gospel by people who refer to themselves as ‘Biblical’ Christians).
Now I’m not denying that the New Testament affirms the resurrection of the body, which of course it does, nor that ‘to be out of the body is to be with the Lord’ , as St Paul puts it (in 2 Corinthians 5) but I don’t think it is ever said of anybody in the Bible that they ‘died and went to Heaven’
The word ‘Heaven’ is in fact used to mean a lot of different things in the Bible but I’m not convinced that it ever carries the meaning that so many ‘Biblical’ Christians give to the word when they use it.
For the most common use of the term ’Heaven’ or ‘Heavens’ in the Bible is when the term is used to simply refer to the sky! When it says in Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, it’s just a way of saying that God created all that is above and all that is below – the earth and the sky and everything in between! But of course that’s not the only way the term ‘Heaven’ is used in the Bible.
In other contexts the term ’Heaven’ is used is to refer to that special place where God is. When we say, “Our Father who is in Heaven”, we’re speaking of Heaven as a place where God is as opposed to where we are, which is most definitely NOT Heaven – God’s own dimension, in other words.
This is indeed the most common understanding of the term in our culture – Heaven as a sort of parallel universe, that we ourselves hope to enter upon death – a place that is somewhere else in the space-time continuum, in another dimension that most people rarely have contact with in this life.
This is, I appreciate, is the popular understanding of the word, though I’d suggest too that it’s not the most significant Biblical one. For the most important use of the word, ‘Heaven’, in the Scriptures is when it speaks of ‘Heaven’ or the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ as that point to which all human history is moving. This is ‘Heaven’ as a historical event – indeed, as the crowning historical event of human history, where all things come together in Christ. This is the Heaven we pray for when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’ and this is indeed the Heaven that we read of this morning in the book of Revelation:
“Then 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.””
What we have here in Revelation chapter 21 is a Biblical vision of the world as it will one day be. It is a world of peace and of love, where the lion and the lamb lie down side by side and where we don‘t study war no more. And, notably, according to this vision, it is a place where the sea is no more!
This may stand out as a rather odd detail to highlight about the world to come, but it is indeed the only geographical detail mentioned in this passage. The idea of a place where the ‘sea is no more’ may note square easily with our images of Heaven. Moreover, if you know anything about the eco system, you know that where there is no sea, there are also no clouds, and while some of us might be able to imagine a ‘Heaven’ without a sea, the very idea of a Heaven without clouds is surely outrageous!
Why would the people of the Bible envisage Heaven as being without a sea? Well, most likely because the people of ancient Israel were a people who didn’t like the sea, and didn‘t have a lot to do with it!
If you’ve read your Hebrew Bible at all, you will have heard something of the might of the armies of Israel. You never read anything about their navy though, and that’s because they didn’t have one. The ancient Israelites were not a coastal people. It was the Philistines who lived along the coast of that region. The people of Israel lived inland and stayed inland as much as possible. They didn’t go for seaside holidays by the coast on summer breaks, and didn’t get into boats unless they had to.
That’s why the story of Jonah and the storm and the big fish is such a drama for the people of that time. It was every Jews’ worse nightmare being caught in a boat in a storm at sea, let alone swallowed by a giant fish! Moreover, if you read the account of the Creation story in the early chapters of Genesis, you’ll see that the Ancient Jews understood the whole work of creation as a process of God pushing back the sea in order to create life.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1)
This is the uncreated mass (the ‘tohu wabohu’), as envisaged before the work of creation. God moulds land and life out of the dark and ‘formless void’ of water. To the Hebrew mind, God pushes the water back to reveal land, and then He holds that water back so that people might be able to live (except in the days of Noah, when he deliberately let the waters roll back over, with all the resulting death and chaos). That’s why when God parts the waters of the Red Sea so that Moses and his people can cross to dry land, it’s seen as a miniature re-enactment of creation – or rather an extension of God’s creative work – holding back the waters and so giving life.
To the Hebrew mind the sea thus comes to symbolise all that is dark and chaotic in human experience. And I can sympathise with that. There was a time when I used to think of the sea as my friend – when I used to be part of a rowing crew, used to swim regularly, and used to be out on the water or in the water on almost a daily basis. Those days ended for me when we had a boating accident a few years ago where Veronica almost drowned.
There we were, celebrating my birthday, paddling happily around in boats in the Lane Cover River National Park. One minute we’re all laughing and joking around. A few seconds later one of the boats has turned over, Veronica was trapped underneath it, and the boat, that had overturned on top of her, was dragging her down to the bottom. The next second I was in the water, and pulling Veronica down and then out from under the sinking boat, as the life jacket she was wearing was actually holding her inside the overturned boat and preventing her from escaping!
Veronica was fine. My mobile phone was never the same.
I lost a few things that day in the water, the most significant being my love for the sea. I learnt later that lots of people have been killed on that idyllic little river. There were weeds and things at the bottom of that little river that could tie you up and kill you.
I came that day to appreciate the Hebrew perception of the sea – quiet and placid perhaps on the outside, but beneath the surface there were dark and mysterious things lurking – things that will kill you if they can get to you. And if you’ve seen any of the documentary-type films on the undersea world, you know that this is true. Everything appears calm and beautiful to the casual observer, but there’s really a war going on down there, with almost every creature in the ocean dedicating itself to the work of killing and eating all the other creatures down there.
Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows have gone over me.
So says the psalmist (in Psalm 42) – and we know that feeling. That feeling that you’re ‘going down for the third time’. That feeling of being overwhelmed by circumstances beyond your control such that you find yourself sinking, splashing and fighting at first, and then ultimately relaxing and resigning yourself to your fate, unable to resist the surging waters any longer!
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and He did so by pushing back that dark and formless body of water. He pushed it back, tamed it, and brought life and light out its dark and mysterious depths. God pushed back the sea at the beginning of time, and the sea has been doing its best to break free and engulf everything once more ever since!
The whole story of the Bible could indeed be depicted as an account of the ongoing battle between God and the watery forces of chaos. When Job looks for answers to the pain of suffering and injustice, He appeals to God as the master of the monsters of the deep – Leviathan and Behemoth. When the prophet Isaiah looks forward to God’s coming, he speaks of the day when God will come down and kill the great dragon of the sea. And so when we see Jesus walking upon the water and calming storms we know that God must be in him, for He is continuing this work of mastering the deep.
And so, when John in Revelation speaks of the coming of the Kingdom – of the final day when all of human history will find its fulfilment in the coming of the new world – he speaks in terms of the sea being no more, for all that is dark and chaotic has gone, and those of us who have been furiously paddling to stay afloat over the depths will find ourselves secure on dry land.
This is the Christian hope – the ‘hope of Heaven’. It is a hope for a new world without injustice and hatred, where people are treated as equals, regardless of appearance or gender or colour or caste or sexual orientation. It is the world we long for, the world as it should be, the world as God created it to be, the new world coming that Jesus spoke of.
And so if we understand ‘heaven’ in this way, to ask ‘where is heaven’? is a bit like asking ‘where is the end of the war?’. ‘How do I get to Heaven?’ ‘Well, … you wait, and you keep fighting’.
The key point here is that the historic Christian hope is not that I get to go to heaven when I die. The Christian hope is for a new world for all of us, where the old things have passed away and where death and dying and pain and corruption are no more, and where all that is symbolised by the wild and raging sea has been tamed, where everyone and every thing is truly at peace
The Christian hope is not just about me making it to heaven and you making it to heaven. It’s about this world making it to the point where God is all in all.
The Christian hope is not simply that we as individuals might be able to cheat death and go on living, but rather that the world as we know it might be transformed into the world as God always intended it to be, and that we all might enjoy life on this planet in the way in which it was always intended.
This means that life, for the believing man or woman, is not just some test, wherein if we pass we get to escape from this life into a better life. Rather it is a war in which we have been ordered to enlist – a battle that has been raging since the beginning of creation, a battle against the forces of chaos and darkness, a battle which Revelation 21 tells us we will surely see won.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he 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,
“Behold, I am making all things new.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, May 2010.