Do you know the old spiritual, “Everybody talkin’ about heaven ain’t goin’ there?” It’s a slightly frightening but useful reminder that if we want heaven to be the last stop on our own personal railway line, then we have to do more than just tell the conductor to let us off there.
Well I read about the streets of gold
And I read about the throne
Not everybody callin' "Lord, Lord"
Is gonna see that heavenly home.
And I read about the throne
Not everybody callin' "Lord, Lord"
Is gonna see that heavenly home.
Other lyrics include the line: “But those who do the will of God enter heaven… if you wanna go to heaven, you gotta do more than talk about it.”
Today is All Saints’ Sunday. Surely if heaven is anything, it is the home of the saints, and if sainthood means anything, then it must mean that they are the ones who did more – much, much more – than just talk about heaven.
So, I thought I’d talk a little about heaven this morning. Just what is this place called heaven that we want to go to? What do we know about it?
Today’s reading from the Book of Revelation tells us of the “new heaven and new earth.” The author is using the word “heaven” in the sense that it is used in Genesis 1. In other words, he is speaking about the region above the earth – the dwelling place of the moon, sun, and stars. But then he goes on to say that
“… the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
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."
I believe what the author is saying is that God will abolish the distinction that we make between this world and the next. This world will come to an end, and it will be replaced by a new earth that will be united with heaven. Previously, heaven had been the dwelling place of God, but when heaven and earth are united, God will dwell with us and we with God.
So the first thing to know about heaven is that it is the dwelling place of God. Indeed, a great way to define heaven is to say that it is union with God. Wherever God is, there is heaven, and wherever heaven is, there is God.
It would even be correct to say that heaven is not “a place”; it is to be united to God. If we are one with God, then all places are heaven.
But the opposite is also true. In Elizabethan author Christopher Marlowe’s play, Doctor Faustus, Mephistopheles – that is, the devil – says:
this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?”
In other words, every place is hell because he is cut off from the presence of God.
But if hell is to be cut off from God and heaven is to be united to God, what do we mean when we talk about union with God? Does that mean that our individual identities will be extinguished? Will Barry and Janice and Robert and Susan cease to be when we are united with God in heaven? I don’t think so.
Maybe the closest earthly analogy to union with God is marriage. In marriage we say that two become one. Now, one of the things that we do NOT do in the Episcopal Church is the so-called “unity candle” ceremony at weddings. You know what I’m talking about: there are two lighted candles and one large unlighted candle. The bride and groom light tapers from the separate candles, then extinguish those candles and light the one large candle.
The symbolism is terrible. Are they saying that when they get married they will cease to be? Will they become some new hybrid being? The way the tabloids report stories about J-Lo and Brangelina almost make you think that is the case.
The problem with the unity candle ceremony is that the bride and groom do not cease to be themselves when they get married. Yes, the bride and groom become one, but they do not cease to be themselves. I believe that they get married because they have found that they become more themselves by being in relationship with that one special person.
And I believe that that gives us an insight into heaven. By becoming one with God, we do not cease to be the person God created us to be. Instead, we become even more of the person God meant us to be. However, I do believe that in heaven we may discover that the person we THOUGHT we were may not be at all like the person God meant us to be.
You’ve heard me tell this story before, but it bears repeating. It is said that when a great rabbi died and went to heaven, the angel who writes down all our deeds in the book of life, stopped him at the entrance and said, “You must wait here until your name is called.” So the great rabbi sat and waited while the names of every person who had ever lived and every person who was yet to live was called. And finally, the angel closed the book. In despair, the rabbi asked, “Is my name not in the book of life?” And the angel said, “Yes, it is, but the problem is that you do not know your name.”
Could it be that we, too, do not know our name? That we do not know who it is that God has created us to be? I believe that heaven will be an eternal process of discovering who it is that God has created us to be.
What other insights does the Book of Revelation give us about heaven?
One thing that Revelation emphasizes over and over and over again is that heaven is a place of music. The author’s visions of heaven are full of music.
The four creatures who stand around the divine throne sing, “"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!"
The 24 elders sing, "Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created."
And I could go on and on.
Theologian Karl Barth had a great love for the music of Mozart. Someone once said to him that surely if any composer was performed in heaven, it would be Bach, not Mozart. After all Bach was a Protestant, but Mozart was a Roman Catholic. Bach had composed the St. Matthew and St. John passions and cantatas for every Sunday of the church year and so on. But Mozart had been mainly a composer of symphonies and concertos and even operas that celebrated earthly love and sometimes love that was not even sanctioned by marriage! Barth replied that of course the angels would sing Bach to praise God, but he added that he was sure that they played Mozart at home to entertain themselves!
For some of us the idea that heaven is dominated by Bach and Mozart might make heaven seem less appealing. We might even choose a different destination where we can hear a little more Beatles and a little less Bach; a little more Willie Nelson and slightly less Wolfgant Mozart.
But the point about heaven being a place of music has nothing to do with the kind of music we prefer. A better way to say it would be to say that music is the language of heaven.
Think about that: music is the language of heaven. What does that mean?
In the film Amadeus, Mozart plays an excerpt from his opera The Marriage of Figaro for the Austrian emperor. In the excerpt, six characters are singing at the same time. If six people were speaking at the same time, it would be impossible to understand them. But our brains are wired to process music and speech differently. We can hear and make sense of six or even more voices singing at the same time.
Choir, would you mind illustrating that point? No? Well, maybe next Sunday!
But you should all try it some time. Listen to a piece of music in which two or more persons are singing different words at the same time. It is really quite amazing.
So, if music is the language of heaven, then that tells me that heaven is not about uniformity; it is about diversity. It is a place where we can all be both uniquely the person God created us to be and at the same time we can be one, united in heavenly music, united in the praise and worship of God.
The final thing I want to say about heaven is that it is a place of laughter.
Now, why laughter? Surely heaven is as solemn as Sunday afternoon in a teetotalling Baptist church.
Well, if heaven is like THAT, then I may look for an alternative.
I began this sermon (if you can remember that far back!) by saying that heaven is the home of the saints. If that’s the case, then I’m certain that heaven is full of laughter.
Someone once said that angels can fly because they don’t take themselves too seriously. I think something similar is true of the saints. They can rise above the anger and pride that severely limit most of us because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Instead, they take God seriously. They take justice seriously.
Jesuit priest, James Martin writes that “even the briefest glance at their biographies reveals joyful and energetic men and women who liked to have a laugh.”
St. Lawrence – the patron saint of deacons, by the way – was martyred in the 4th century by being tied to a spit and slowly roasted over a fire. Reportedly, he said, “This side is done. Turn me over and have a bite."
Seventeenth century saint, Francis de Sales, met a woman who had decided to devote herself to a life of prayer and service but who continued to wear low cut dresses. He said to her, “"Madame, those who do not mean to entertain guests should take down their signboard."
When someone once asked de Sales what prayers should be said at a wedding, he said, “Well, I think the best one would be a prayer for peace.”
Although he has not yet been declared to be a saint, many love and venerate the late Pope John XXIII, who initiated the Second Vatican Council that did so much to reform and update the Roman Catholic Church. Someone once asked him how many people work in the Vatican, to which he replied, “About half of them.”
But except for the fact that the saints liked a good joke, why should we think that heaven resounds with laughter? I think Francis de Sales said it best: “A heart filled with joy is more easily made perfect than one that is sad."
Exactly. We responded more easily to positive suggestions than negative ones. It is easier for us to change when we are happy than when we are sad.
But we hold on to our anger, our jealousy and envy, our grudges or at least I do, and I suspect that I’m not that different from most people. But God longs to fill our hearts with joy and our mouths with music and laughter.
Theologian Frederick Buechner says that his conversion took place while listening to a sermon by the great Presbyterian preacher, David Buttrick. It was around the time that Elizabeth II was crowned, and Buttrick was comparing the kingship of Christ with the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.
Buttrick said that we should crown Christ in our hearts with “tears and confession … and great laughter.” And Buechner says “For reasons I have never satisfactorily understood, the great wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face.”
In this world and the next, may Christ be crowned in our hearts amid tears and confession and music and great laughter.