All Saints, Wimbledon
23rd December 2001
"Ö and the life everlasting. Amen"
On the four Sundays in Advent we are asked to think about the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Since Iíve no means of knowing which, if any, of these your preachers have dealt with in the previous three Sundays, my sermon today is entitled "And the life everlasting. Amen" and it will consist of an overview of all four of these serious matters.
And serious they are Ė although itís not unusual to hear people, even committed Christians if you please, say that theyíre "not really interested" in what is going to happen to them after they die. So that is a good point to begin, since itís like saying that theyíre not interested in whether they are in good or bad health, happy or miserable: in other words itís a good, thumping lie which needs to be firmly nailed. To that lie we shall return in a minute.
But first thereís a question which these people need to be ask themselves: whose future are they so unconcerned about? Are they seriously suggesting that they will stand beside the deathbed of someone they have loved deeply and say to them, "Well, my dear, I donít know what is going to happen to you and frankly Iím not interested"?
We might Ė just Ė admire someone who said they werenít interested in their own welfare after death; we should have nothing but contempt for someone who brazenly claimed to be disinterested about the welfare of someone else, especially someone to whom they are related by marriage, kinship or close affection.
So whatever anyone says, we have an unavoidable duty to interest ourselves in the eternal prospects of those whom we love; but we also have a duty to ourselves. Yes, it sounds all very noble and unselfish to claim that one isnít interested in oneís own well-being Ė on a par with the soldier, a fireman or a missionary doctor endangering their own lives on behalf of others. But the person whose care-lessness leads them to takes no thought for their own well-being are fundamentally self-centred people and cause a lot of grief and trouble to their nearest and dearest. We blame them, whereas we praise those who lay down their lives for others.
So letís ask ourselves now why people unthinkingly and untruthfully should claim to be "not interested" in something which so obviously concerns their welfare.
Thereís a simple answer. Think for a moment of the picture-language which has been traditionally associated with heaven. Music, light, gold, jewellery, fine clothes, feasting and riches are what the Bible provides us with; and itís easy to see why these ideas fail to resonate or make as much sense to people living nowadays as they did to those for whose benefit they were originally devised.
The reason is this: until, say, a hundred years ago, ordinary people were often hungry, their clothes were full of holes or at the pawnbrokers, they had no money or beautiful possessions to speak of, and much of their life was spent in the darkness of the coal-mine or the factory with the only noise being that of heavy machinery to listen to. For us, thankfully, these are things of the past: but we can still understand why those people thought of heaven in terms of those very things theyíd never enjoyed in this life: food, wealth, comfort and beauty, for example, and hell in terms of everything they most dreaded: darkness, pain, destruction, illness and poverty.
The picture language which resonates with one lot of people doesnít immediately "speak" to others: not because these images have outlived their usefulness because it only takes a little imagination to see what hunger still means today to civilians in Afghanistan, or fear to child-prostitutes in Thailand. But getting secular-minded people today to use a little bit of imagination is a problem, not because it is difficult, but because itís disturbing and uncomfortable.
So what you and I as Christians need to discover are those everyday experiences in well-fed, adequately clothed and reasonably affluent and satisfied society correspond which today most closely correspond to those things that their less fortunate forebears found so attractive on the one hand and repellent on the other.
My candidates for such experiences would be the two words fulfilment and frustration respectively.
Heaven represents our true fulfilment "The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever" is one relevant text; "[God] has made us for himself and our hearts are restless till they rest in him" is a second, and a third is "The glory of God is the living man; the end of man is the vision of God". Notice in passing that all three of these truths have God at the centre of them. He alone is the source of our joy and our fulfilment both in this life and in the life of the world to come.
So far from the joys and pleasures of this world preventing us enjoying life eternal (unless, of course, we abuse them), these sayings tell us that such joys are meant by God to be appetisers for what we can expect to enjoy hereafter. That explains, incidentally, why God will never allow such joys and pleasures to be too intense or to last too long, for if he did then we would certainly cease to look any further. In other words, any life which is intended to be a prelude to the "real thing" must give rise to a certain sense of longing, to a realisation that the pleasures of this world are both finite and temporary, whilst those of heaven are infinite and permanent.
A good way, then, of thinking about heaven is to get people thinking in terms of those things which give them as individuals most pleasure and satisfaction in this world: a good meal, that would be to go no further than the humble poor man we were thought about earlier on. But letís hope that people today have other, more valuable experiences than this. So for one person such an experience may be the passing of an examination; for another, winning a prize in an athletic competition; for yet another it may be writing the last page of a book; for yet another, taking part in an orchestral performance in which everything "just goes right".
All of these experiences, and many others besides, have about them this sense of fulfilment or achievement; but donít ignore the humbler, more mundane events which to some people, though not necessarily everyone, "mean" so much: getting married; giving birth to a child; the vicarious joy when oneís child or friend receives a decoration from the Queen for their bravery; or the simple joy of being restored to health after a serious illness thanks to the care and skill of other people.
Itís a profound mistake, you see, to imagine that glory is something which only happens as the result of what we ourselves do. The fact is that most of us are never going to be great Achievers in this world; a world that was populated exclusively by Great Achievers would be one of permanent strife and envy. That is why so much of the imagery of Heaven is concerned not with what man had done for God, but on what God has done for man. The focal point of van Eyckís famous painting in Bruges is the Lamb of God. All the other figures in the picture are looking towards him. It reminds us, in the words of James Montgomeryís famous hymn that:
Kings for harps their crowns resign,
Crying as they strike the chords,
"Take the kingdom, it is thine,
King of kings and Lord of Lords.
Round the altar priests confess,
If their robes are white as snow,
ĎTwas the Saviourís righteousness,
And his blood, that made them so.
In other words, our joy, our happiness, ultimately depend upon the fulfilment of Godís will for us not our will for ourselves. Of course Godís will entails our co-operation, and without it even God can do nothing for us; but that co-operation may, and probably will, mean that we shall find ourselves collectively rather than individually involved in working his purposes out Ė which means, not to put too fine a point on it, coming to terms with belonging to his Church on earth with all the frustrations and embarrassments that belonging to such an imperfect and irritating organism necessarily involves.
Once we have rediscovered a taste for heaven, itís relatively simple to imagine what hell must be like. If heaven is understood as fulfilment, then hell must be frustration. This is not because God inflicts punishment on those who disobey his laws. Thatís only one way of looking at it, though itís a way that people would do well to pay heed to.
The truth of the matter is that if people want to shut God out of their lives they are perfectly free to do so. Like most things shutting God out can become a habit, and the longer that habits persist, the more difficult it is to break away from them. Hell is the state of those who have become so preoccupied with their own Achievements that they have no time either for what God has achieved for them, or for what anyone else has achieved. Indeed such people see the achievements of others as a threat, something to be resented, and if possible, rendered fruitless if only because they are seen as in some way belittling their own success.
For those who embrace this way of life, eternity will seem an experience of everlasting boredom. Loneliness and isolation will be its keynotes, and enmity and uncharitableness its currency. And if you should be wondering why anyone would choose this way of life knowingly, just remember that, like all bad habits, hell is a gradual creeping up of reality. Nobody who sins imagines at the time that itís going to do them harm; but then every addict believes that at the beginning of his addiction. So far as we know we only have till the end of our life on this Earth to set our compass straight towards the Kingdom of Heaven. Today, whilst it is called today, is the time to begin doing so. Amen!
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