Longing for heaven?

(a sermon on Revelation 5:6-14, given at All Saints Crowborough on 24 August 2014)

I love the story of a man who is crazy about golf, and he really wants to know whether there will be golf in heaven. He just can’t get the question out of his mind. So he prays and prays about it – and in the end he sees a vision where an angel appears to him with the answer. “Golf?” says the angel. “Absolutely! And let me tell you more: the courses are the most stunningly beautiful you’ve ever seen; the greens are rolled and mowed as flat as a pancake; it’s all free; and it never rains when you’re playing.”

“That’s wonderful news!” says the man. “It’s all I ever dreamed of!”

“I’m so glad you’re excited,” says the angel, “because we’ve got you booked in to play on Friday.”

What do you think heaven is like? Do you think there’ll be a golf course? Do you believe in heaven at all? Surveys suggest that around half of British people do – though I think if you asked people at funerals you would get a higher percentage. After all, when it comes to the crunch no one really likes to think of a loved one as having just ceased to exist, as if the lights have been turned out and that’s it.

Or maybe you do think that – that the lights go out and that’s it – like Stephen Hawking, the legendary scientist with motor neurone disease. ‘Heaven?’ he says. That’s just ‘a fairy story for people who are afraid of the dark’.

So what about you? Do you believe in heaven, and if so, what do you think it is like?

[DISCUSSION TIME]

Well through August in these evening services we’ve been looking at some ‘prayers to imitate’ in the New Testament. Today we’re in Revelation 5, looking at a prayer that is prayed in heaven. In fact, it’s one of the greatest worship songs in the bible. And I think it asks us three questions tonight – and the first question is: do you believe in heaven?

I don’t know what kinds of thoughts you had in your discussions just now. But if we want to know more about heaven, then the book of Revelation is the right place to go, because it’s all about heaven – what is going on now, and what is going to happen in the future. You see that right from the first words of the book, Revelation chapter 1 verse 1:

“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John…”

As we read this book of Revelation it’s as if we get a glimpse into another world – both of things going on now, and things that will happen in the future.

So let’s read from verse 6 of chapter 5 (p245):

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.They sing a new song:

‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.’

I don’t know what you make of that talk of a throne, strange living creatures, people’s prayers as bowls of incense, and a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. Are they just a vision? Are they real? Well, they are real – John saw them in a vision, but they do exist. Do you know that there is a whole spiritual world which we don’t normally see? The bible is clear that there is a heaven where God the Holy Trinity is currently being worshipped and adored, from where he is in total control of the universe and is working out his plans. The book of Revelation shows us these things that are going on now, in our present age, but in a different place. Heaven is real today.

But that’s not all. Revelation also shows us what is going to happen in the future, after the end of the world. In chapter 20 there’s a great white throne of judgment. God is seated on the throne. And the dead stand before the throne to be judged. Books are opened. There are books recording what people have done – that is the basis on which they are judged. But the book that ultimately counts is the Lamb’s book of life. If your name is not in the book of life, you are thrown into the lake of fire.

The bible says that the presence of God as he judges is so fearful that earth and heaven flee from it.

And then a few verses later, in chapter 21. John says in his vision,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “See, the home of God is among mortals.

That’s the climax – a new heaven and a new earth. And a kind of unity of the two, because God and his redeemed, purified people will live together. “The home of God is among mortals.” Heaven on earth, in a sense.

That’s why back in chapter 5, our passage tonight, in verse 10, it says of God’s people, the saints, “and they will reign on the earth”. It’s not talking about our present age, but about a future age, on a new earth. At the beginning of the bible, Adam was put on earth to rule over it, but he sinned and ignored God, choosing to rule on his own, with all the consequences that brought. But at the end of the bible, we see God’s redeemed, renewed people reigning on the new earth.

So when we talk about Christians who have died being in heaven for ever, that’s only part of the story. After Jesus returns will come new heavens and a new earth. It’s not just that we leave the earth behind and go to be with him. The earth will be reborn in a way we can’t quite visualise; but in perfection, untainted by sin. God will be right with us. Imagine this earth in a perfect form, without sickness, crying or death; without hatred and without even wrong thoughts. Imagine Jesus as our brother and king, living with us and being eternally worshipped. I don’t know about you, but it blows my mind.

Do you believe in heaven? That’s the first question. Here’s the second one: do you believe in worship?

Let’s read the rest of our passage, from Revelation 5 verse 11 (p246).

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,

‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honour and glory and blessing!’

13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,

‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honour and glory and might
for ever and ever!’

14 And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.

Heaven is all about worship. Eternally, where God is, those around offer their worship to him. How many angels in verse 11? A myriad to the Greeks was 10,000. So that’s a hundred million at least!

Then in verse 13 John hears every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea singing praise. Here, perhaps we’re getting a window into the future of that new heaven and earth where God will be worshipped by everyone.

After that in verse 14 the four living creatures around God’s throne say, “Amen” – which can sound like a bit of an anti-climax if you say it the wrong way, but means “Yes!” And the 24 elders, representing the twelve tribes of God in each of the Old and New Testaments, fall down and worship.

They fall down and worship.

And worship should be the key activity on earth today, too. This is a great prayer to imitate. So what is worship?

One mistake is to think worship means music. If I asked you to pick up a pen and draw a ‘worship leader’ (which is a term that isn’t directly in the bible anyway) you probably would draw a musician, rather than drawing one of your leaders in house group, or 24:7 or RnB, whose job is precisely to lead you in worship of God. But the essence of good worship is not actually music, from a biblical point of view. Even here in Revelation 5, the word translated “singing” in verses 12 and 13 is really just the normal Greek word for “speaking”. It’s perhaps fair enough to translate it “singing” in view of the ‘new song’ mentioned in v9, but the music is not essential to the worship. Music is a wonderful gift that helps us in worship, and in learning and in lots of other ways – but it’s not worship.

But if worship is not music (even if it’s sometimes musical) then what is it?

Well, actually we’re all worshippers. 24 hours a day we are all worshipping something. I could show you my bank statement for the past 3 months, and it would give you a pretty good idea of what I worship. It shows you what I consider to be important enough to spend money on. You could look at my diary and you’d see what I consider to be important enough to spend time on. My diary and my bank statement would probably show you what I love with my heart and what I prioritise with my life. And we can never split the heart from the life when we talk about worship. It’s Adoration and Action. They are like two sides of the same coin.

That’s obvious if you think of a marriage, or any human relationship. If I say sweet and wonderful things to my wife but then never lift a finger to help her when she’s in need, what kind of relationship is that? There’s lots of adoration but no action. On the other hand, if I do all the jobs around the house and provide her with lots of money but never show any affection, then she doesn’t have a husband, she has a wealthy full-time handyman. So adoration and action, two sides of the same coin.

And we want to imitate this heavenly prayer and worship in both those ways – adoration and action. They both feed off each other. God doesn’t want people who’ll say the right words, but have no love for him in their hearts. He doesn’t want people who’ll do jobs for him but consider it a waste of time to fall before him and tell him how wonderful he is. I’m not just talking about church on Sundays either – on Sundays and at other times in the week we get the privilege of gathered worship together. But our lives must be full of worship every day – both the adoration and the action.

Perhaps God wants to refresh you as a worshipper tonight. If so, ask him; we all need to repent regularly for our worship failures; and thank him for his forgiveness and grace. Spiritual life is all a gift from him. And we can look forward to eternal renewed worship in the new heaven and the new earth – perfect adoration and action, with God living right with us.

So: do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in worship? The third question – do you believe in Jesus?

Who is it who’s the object of all this worship in Revelation chapter 5? To get the story we need to go back to the beginning of chapter 5. In John’s vision there is a scroll in the right hand of God. It is sealed up with seven seals. Who is worthy to open it (v2)? No one could be found anywhere!

The scroll in God’s right hand represents God’s purposes in working out the end of time as we know it, in judging rightly, and in making history right and complete. The rest of the book of Revelation, in a sense. And no one can be found worthy to open that scroll – not even one of the 100 million angels. John even weeps bitterly in his vision (v4), at the thought that the great purposes of God might not be seen. But then one of the elders says, “Don’t cry! There is someone worthy! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David – that’s the Jewish Messiah, Jesus – has triumphed!

And then John looks and sees, v6, not a lion … but a lamb – looking as if it had been slaughtered.

And they sing to him, to this lamb, v9:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation…

The lion conquers through the lamb’s sacrifice. That’s what we remember tonight as we share Holy Communion together. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. By his blood he ransomed for God – paid the ransom price – for saints (that just means holy people, people set apart and purified for God) from every people group on earth.

That is the most significant event in human history. That is what Revelation 5 is all about. That is why there is such worship in heaven: because Jesus died as a ransom for people like us. He died in our place, dying the death we deserved and he didn’t. He’s the one to worship!

That’s why when we’re in church we aim regularly to focus our gathered worship on the cross of Jesus; why that so often comes up in our songs – because it is ultimately what it is all about.

Do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in worship? Do you believe in Jesus? I’m aware that tonight, as we’ve looked at this heavenly worship of Jesus, we’ve skipped over lots of things. But if I could do one thing tonight, then what I want to do is to make you thirsty. I want to make you thirsty for heaven – to be with God; to be finally freed from your sin; to be reigning in his name on a new earth, enjoying life with him and his people for ever. I want to make you thirsty for worship – so the idea of eternal worship in heaven isn’t something that bores us but something that excites us. I want you to be thirsty to worship on earth, to love and long for God’s presence, to love to be worshipping him here with his people, as a foretaste of heaven, and to want to put him absolutely first in everything every moment of every day.

And I want to make you thirsty for Jesus. To know him, and to know him better. To know the conquering lion and the sacrificial lamb. Partly just to know him because he is the most wonderful person you could ever know. But also because each of us will one day stand before that great white throne of judgment – from which heaven and earth flee away, and only the Lamb can put your name in his book of life.

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