Sunday, December 16, 2012

the four last things 3: Heaven



May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Advent is a season of journeys … we journey back in time to remember the Incarnation of our Lord and Saviour, thinking back to that first Christmas in Bethlehem when the second person of the Triune God humbled himself to take flesh in the humblest of circumstances, as the child of a poor carpenter and his young wife, and spend his first night on this earth in a stable sleeping in a manger because there was no room at the inn and his poor parents had not the money to go anywhere else …

And we journey forwards in time to the day when Jesus will come again, this time as our judge … it is that knowledge that makes this season a penitential one, forcing us as it does to contemplate those things that his second coming will bring to pass – that which we call the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, & hell …

One of the ways in which we mark our journey through Advent is the by now traditional 'Advent wreath,' which has five candles … one for each of the Sundays of Advent & a final one for Christmas day itself … each candle mirroring the liturgical colour appropriate for the day on which it is to be lit … white for Christmas … purple or violet for the penitential Sundays … and one Rose …

Why Rose, you may ask? Why not purple like all the rest? That is because the third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudate Sunday – refreshment Sunday … the day when the penitential character of the season is lifted somewhat, so that we may refresh ourselves a little before entering into the final days of this penitential season … and I am sure that all here are grateful to know that they are today allow to take a break from the arduous spiritual disciplines they have been practicing no doubt for the last couple of weeks …

And on our journey of considering the four last things we also take something of a break … at least in the sense of contemplating something of a more cheerful subject. We first looked at death, which will for most human being be the doorway we pass through in order to face the other three last things; & last week we looked at judgement, the one which will decide what our eternal reward will be. Death and judgement are perforce grim subjects … but this Sunday, refreshment Sunday, we look at the most cheerful of the four, heaven, and the hope we have of attaining it …

So what can we say about Heaven? Well we know from scripture that it is the dwelling place of God, the angels, and the saints … and as God is eternal and therefore existed before the creation of the universe, it follows that heaven exists outside of our time and space … it is what we might call a spiritual dimension … and therefore the 'three-tier' model of the universe, which showed images of the earth with heaven above and hell beneath, while picturesque and perhaps helpful to the limited human mind when it comes to trying to imagine these things, are clearly not literal!

However, even though it is a spiritual place, that does not mean that human beings do not occasionally have access to it … many times in scripture we hear of prophets and other holy people being granted visions of it … the prophet Isaiah for example & his vision of the temple … the patriarch Jacob and his vision of the ladder with angels ascending and descending … in the Gospels, at the baptism of Jesus, John the Baptist sees the heavens torn open and and he sees the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus … in Acts, St Stephen just before his death sees the heavenly throne with Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father … 

and of course in the Revelation to St John the Divine we get perhaps the lengthiest account of such a vision of the dwelling place of the Almighty … and it is from Revelation that we learn that it is the place where tears and sorrow are no more … a place where the suffering we face in this life is left behind … We hear in our psalm today: Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God … in the Gospels, Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and Dives where heaven is described as a place of good things … and in Matthew's Gospel, we hear Jesus tell us that at the judgement he will tell those standing at his right hand ' come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.' Heaven is the place we were created to be … but we can not assume because of that that we will automatically attain it … 

St Paul tells us that we must work out our salvation with 'fear and trembling' … fear and trembling can not be interpreted to mean lazy complacency … that ordinary decent folk, like we assume ourselves to be, are assured of a place in heaven as long as we do not commit some kind of monstrous crime … St John the Baptist says to those who come to him in today's Gospel, who no doubt thought they were ordinary decent people also: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?' They ask him what they must do … do we wonder what we must do? Think of the commandments and all the teaching that Jesus has given us through his Church … do you lead your life accordingly? 

Serious sin un-repented of kills the love of God in us … never forgetting that to repent of sin does not simply mean saying sorry & carrying on as before, but rather turning your back on the sin & resolving never to behave like that again ... and sin is all the more dangerous when you have hardened your hearts to it to the extent that you no longer even think of it as sin … everyone else is doing it … all the world applauds and says it is OK … why shouldn't I? Why? Because narrow is the gate that leads to eternal life … because the pleasures of this life are a poor substitute for the eternal bliss of heaven … because Jesus came to save us from our sins not to soothe our consciences when we behave as if we were living in a pleasure palace where anything and everything goes … 

I did say the mood would be lighter today ... so sorry if it seems to have gotten a little grim there for a while! But I'm nearly done ... I began by saying Advent is a season of journeys … part of the reason that it is so is in order that we may be reminded that our journey through life is intended to take us from the cradle to the grave and past it to heaven … and so today I pray that your Spiritual journey through Advent and your Christian journey through all your life may, with God's Grace and mercy, help fit you to end that journey with him in that place where pain and suffering is no more … with him in Heaven forever. Amen.

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