I spent two days last week in Heaven. I wonder what picture that brings to your mind? A tropical island paradise? A luxury hotel with everything laid on? A cruise? A health spa? An idyllic country cottage? As much chocolate as you want without getting fat? Fluffy white clouds and little cherubs? An empty place with a lot of people standing around in white robes (“One in Royal David’s city” has a lot to answer for!)? Or just possibly a house with lots and lots of different and equally perfect rooms?
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you – I was on a theology course in Ludlow. But no ordinary course. It was entitled “More than you can dream of ...” The dot-dot-dot is important, I think, because it indicates that there is actually space for more that we can think or dream of. So often we set boundaries around what is, around reality, by limiting it to what we know or can investigate or even what we can imagine – and some of us have pretty extraordinary imagination! This is one of the failings of the current debate on the importance of faith – so much of the discussion is limited by a desire to join up and fill in all those dots, to contain and control reality to a manageable size. One of the phrases that the lecturer on my course used was that heaven is “a more real reality”. (Think about it) The lecturer was Paula Gooder, who is, amongst many other qualifications, Canon Theologian at Birmingham Cathedral. If you think that sounds dry, she is young, feisty and glamorous, as well as being highly knowledgeable theologically. She has just written a book entitled “heaven”, about what the bible and particularly the Hebrew of the bible actually says about heaven. And she was able, single-handed, to hold a large audience enthralled from 10.00 on Tuesday to 3.30 on Wednesday!
I wish I had time to tell you everything I learned – but I guess you’ll have to buy the book! This morning I just want to take up one key point because it relates to our gospel reading this morning. In the bible, heaven and earth are part of one reality. The world picture of the Hebrews is one with which many of us are familiar because it persisted right up to the time of Galileo and Copernicus, when we began to discover that some parts of it did not fit in with the observed behaviour of the stars and planets. In this picture, God is at the top, on his throne, and beneath him – his floor, our ceiling – is the water above and the arch with it’s windows to let the rain through. Below is the earth, covered by the arch of the firmament, held up on pillars, and surrounded by the water below. Underneath is the place where the dead go – She-ol. The important point about this picture is not whether it is geographically accurate. It is that heaven and earth are part of the same reality. They are nearly always referred to as “heaven and earth”, not most people’s think today: “earth now, heaven later”. Indeed we shall shortly be saying “on earth as it is in heaven” – in God’s reality the two are halves of one whole. Heaven is not something to be postponed or achieved through good behaviour – it is part of reality now.
So how does this fit in with our reading? In the biblical picture, heaven is not only where God dwells but it is integral to earth. God’s messengers, the angels, come and go between earth and heaven, but for humans there is a barrier, symbolised by the veil in the Temple, through which you can sometimes see or even pass. The veil exists because of sin – something that we should be thinking about in Lent. When there are visions of heaven in the bible, they always have a purpose; they are accompanied by a task given to the person who sees heaven (check it out in the stories of the prophets). In the story that Mark tells, the veil is broken - the heavens, (that is the firmament) are torn apart and Jesus hears his commission: You are the Chosen One. But, looking at the story more closely, the breaking of this veil underpins the whole of the story of how Jesus began his ministry. It begins before the heavens are seen to be opened, in the act of baptism. Have you ever dived or jumped into deep water? There is a moment of suspension – a moment for me of terror – before “down” becomes “up”. Then you burst through the skin of the water into light and air. It is like being born. It is a literal tearing of a barrier between death and life. So Jesus physically passes through a veil which his death on the cross will remove once and for all (hang on to that thought – we’ll need it later).
Then Jesus sees into heaven and is assured that he is loved by God and that he is doing God’s will. At the same time, divine power flows between heaven and earth. Mark describes the power as the Spirit “like a dove”. Doves are white and white is God’s colour in the bible. His messengers are often dazzling white. The Spirit is an irresistible energy. It is described by a strong verb – it “throws him out” into the desert. Now the desert is often thought of just as a difficult place to be – a place of struggle and suffering, and, in New Testament times, the home of dangerous animals. One commentator on this passage describes is as a “God-forsaken place” and then corrects themselves by admitting that there is no place where God’s angels cannot go. But it is much more than this. Think of what happens in the desert of Exodus. Think of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven. One modern traveller described the Sinai desert as “the place where the heavens touch the earth”. The desert is not just a place to wrestle with temptation. It is also the place where there is no veil. The place where transcendence and immanence meet. And I can vouch from my own experience in Sinai, that the presence of God is so palpable that it is, after a while, unbearable. You have to pray that God will look away from you for a while. It is as near the experience of heaven – God’s dwelling place – as we can get on earth. So yes – Jesus passes through the test of his mission conducted by the angel whose job it is to carry out the ultimate testing, as we might say to “test to destruction”. But he is also in the utter presence of God – perhaps the last time of the total peace that this brings before he must begin his work.
To begin that work, the veil must be torn again by the violence of John’s arrest and immanent death which heralds the return to daily life from threshold of heaven. But that work is carried out in the utter presence of God. Jesus proclaims that the time is fulfilled, the kingdom is near – but the English does not really capture the sense of the Greek that “the time has started and is going on”. Jesus does not say that God’s kingdom will come, he says that it IS now. Just as God names his name as “I AM” (not I was or I will be). God’s utter presence is NOW, not in the future beyond what we call “this life”. There is no veil between us and God, unless we put it there. Peter says, in the epistle, that baptism enables us to appeal directly to God’s love, through Jesus presence in heaven. The heavens are open to us and we should be living in this knowledge. Recently I’ve been studying Twelfth Night with my students. At the end of the play, Orsino finally comes face to face with Olivia and says: “Now heaven walks on earth”, which we all agreed was hyperbole, because of course heaven cannot be on earth. But as a Christian I should be saying “Yes, it can!”. The old Matins service reminded us that Jesus “opened the kingdom of heaven” and our job as Christians is to open it for other people. How can we do this if we do not tear down the veils of our own making? So, in the week to come, look out for the rent in the clouds and be ready to open the door not only to the amazing tropical islands of earth which are integral to heaven but to the most real reality, that utter and immediate transforming and empowering presence of God.