Scripture: Revelation 7:9-17
“What is heaven like?”
If you ever had children, or maybe you taught children in Sunday school, you have probably been confronted with this question: What is heaven? What does it look like? What will it smell or feel like? Who will be there? What will we do?
It makes sense that children ask these questions, we say the word heaven a lot in church, we say it’s important, we might even talk about it as a goal but we don’t actually talk about it very much.
If you were only to watch television or movies, you’d likely be convinced that heaven is either a place where we all sit around on clouds playing stringed instruments all day being extremely joyful or where we hang out with our friends and family doing whatever we enjoyed in life – whether that be golfing, singing, dancing, enjoying a cool drink on an afternoon.
I don’t know about you but the first image just seems downright boring and the second a little self-centred if we’re honest with ourselves.
Our popular images of heaven, miss out one pretty big detail – perhaps the most important detail of all – they miss out God.
Nowhere in either the angelic cloud vision of heaven or the doing-what-I-love best vision of heaven does God play any role, or at a minimum plays a minor role to own self-interest. Not only is God missing from these visions of heaven, but either they are completely ethereal and un-relatable (who really wants to play harps on clouds all day) or they are just continuations of life on Earth (do we really expect heaven to be just like our favourite parts of earth?). They are too far from our imagination or not imaginative enough.
The biblical vision of heaven that we witness in our reading from Revelation, and really throughout the whole book, is completely different. And I think this vision is far more hopeful and has a greater impact on our lives today then any far off heaven or any extension of our earthly pleasures.
Our passage from Revelation is a reprieve from the prophesied destruction of the 6th and 7th seals that John saw in his dream, and in this reprieve we are brought into a vision of the heavenly court.
In the centre of our image is Jesus, the very Lamb of God that was slain for the sins of the world. Jesus the Lamb but also Jesus the shepherd, who cares for and tends to his sheep as we heard in our Gospel reading today. Around Jesus, there is a great multitude of people, such a throng of people that neither John nor any observer could count reliably. And that great throng is made up from every tribe and every nation of the world, it is not monochrome, all skin colours, all types of people, and they are all celebrating the victory of Jesus, waving palm branches to celebrate their king and saviour.
And not only are they waving palm branches, but they are singing songs of salvation, songs glorifying God, song praising Jesus for all that he had done for them.
And John tells us that this multitude was made up of the Christians, the followers of Jesus that had gone through the ordeal, had suffered persecution, had perhaps died on account of their commitment to Jesus – and who’s robes have been made white by the blood of Jesus – they have been purified, sanctified by the blood of Jesus.
A couple things are important to note here: first of all they have been made pure by the blood of Jesus, not by their own actions. This great multitude of the faithful were not perfect, they would have had their failings, but by the blood of Jesus they have been made worthy to stand before God and sing his praises.
Secondly, John is writing the whole Book of Revelation to the church of his day that is suffering intense persecution under the Roman Empire. John is writing so that his hearers and readers might be encouraged by this vision of heaven that no Roman centurion, no cruel dictator, no earthly power could ever take away from them.
He is reminding them that heaven is more than just an extension of their life on earth (because for them that would offer not much hope at all), but it also isn’t an ethereal escape from their reality (in it we see the all the nations and tribes of the earth present, the marks of their human earthly existence part of their identity is still present) it is something transformed by the redeeming love of Jesus, by his death on the Cross and his Resurrection on the third day.
We don’t suffer the oppression, the persecution or the threat of death for our faith that John’s first readers did, but the attacks on the Churches in Sri Lanka three weeks ago on Easter Sunday remind us that for many of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world this is still a reality – they still need a vision of hope and a vision of God’s victory over the powers of sin and death – and so do we, even in the comfort and security of the Western Church, we witness the devastation of poverty in our city; we witness our loved ones ravaged by diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s or MS; we see God’s church marginalized and humiliated even as our membership declines and we aren’t able to have the impact in our neighbourhoods that we want to.
And so John’s vision of heaven is for us as well – it is here to give us hope and to transform our life together in the here and now.
We may still live on earth, we may still deal with the ravages of sin and death, the challenges of a world that is broken, but by Jesus’ death and resurrection we can live a slice of the divine life here and now. John’s vision of heaven is not for some far off place, but
In our common life together as a church, we can reflect the diversity present in John’s vision even as we await the day when every tribe and nation will celebrate the victory of God. Here in our church we can celebrate the diversity in our midst, the diversity of race, the diversity of age, the diversity of socio-economic standing, the diversity of ability and anything else that makes us unique.
In our common life together as the body of Christ we can wipe away each others’ tears away even as we await the day when Jesus will wipe away everyone’s tears and suffering and death are no more. As a church we can hold one another in care through times of grief and suffering, we can find support when we ourselves are in the midst of grief and suffering too.
In our common life together as the body of Christ we can feed the hungry even as we await the day that we will hunger no more in God’s kingdom. We can support those in our midst who are in need, we can advocate and work towards greater food security for all and when we in turn are in need we too can receive the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In our common life together, as the body of Christ we can shelter one another from the storms that ravage our lives even as we await the day when God will be our only shelter and no storm or searing heat will bear down on us. We can help those who are homeless, offer refuge to the refugee, advocate for affordable housing and in our need perhaps the church will be a home for us.
Just like John’s vision in Revelation 7 is merely an interlude, before the final vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of his dream, the divine life that Jesus offers to us in the church won’t be perfected until his Kingdom comes in it’s fullness at the end of time – but as we get to know Jesus better, as we follow him, it will grow more and more in us and in our life together.
Each day we strive to love one another and the world around us more and more heaven becomes more and more of a reality here on earth; every day as we strive to serve one another and the world around us more and more heaven becomes a reality that we can rest our hopes on; each day we break down the barriers or hatred, of systemic oppression and prejudice heaven becomes something we can tell our children about.
The day will come when Jesus wipes away every tear, when Jesus takes away all the suffering, all the pain and even all the death – but until it comes let each and every day be an opportunity for God’s Kingdom to grow in our lives, let every day be day where a little bit more heaven breaks through to offer hope to weary world.
Today as we gather around this table, around the Lamb that was slain, around the good shepherd, may heaven break through into your life, may God’s love and life fill you heart, and may you become an outpost of heaven here in this world showing others the way.
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