Read 1 John 3:1-3, Revelation 7:9-17
Today is All Saints Day, the day we remember those who have gone before us, and anticipate the eternal life that is promised to us all in Jesus Christ. It’s a subject that we might not think about much until we are facing death, or someone we love is. When we do, we find comfort in the long-term view, that our earthly lives are brief but our lives with God go on forever.
Here is a story about a boy who is thinking about heaven, written by Rev. Tom Gordon, a pastor in Ireland:
‘Wot’s heaven like?’ Young Nathan asked.
He was always asking about stuff, and sometimes he didn’t wait for an answer. But this time, he wasn’t running away.
‘Wot’s heaven like?’ Nathan repeated, just in case his question hadn’t actually been heard the first time.
‘Why are you asking that?’ I replied, because grown-ups are clever, you see, and it’s always a good technique to answer a question with another question because it gives you time to think, and respond properly to Mr Questioning.
‘Well, you said my Nana had gone to heaven. So, wot’s heaven like, if Nana’s there?’
I suppose I could have answered his question with another question of my own. But I couldn’t think of one. And anyway, it didn’t sound much like he was in the mood to be [pacified with just any old answer.]
‘I suppose it’s kind of nice,’ was all I could say. Kind of feeble, really, I reckoned. But I hoped it might help.
‘Nicer than here?’ Nathan went on.
‘I suppose,’ I replied – sounding really feeble now.
‘Nicer than our house?’ he continued.
‘I expect so,’ the increasingly feeble-grown-up response.
‘So, where is it then?’ Nathan asked.
Feeble responses appeared to be no deterrent to Mr Questioning’s current line of enquiry. So I reverted to type – again – reduced to answering a question with another question, trying desperately to negotiate time to think.
‘What do you reckon?’ I asked.
‘Dunno,’ Nathan shot back. Why did it not sound feeble when he was honest?
‘Dunno …’ he repeated. Clearly, he wasn’t finished with his answer.
‘See, I was thinking about my Nana, right? And it’s just that … I don’t want her to be in heaven, cause that must be far away, and if you don’t know where it is and I can’t find it anywhere, even though I’ve looked and looked and looked, I don’t want my Nana to be in a place I can’t find, like far away, see? And if I knew where heaven was I could pop over and see how she was getting on, just like we did before she went away. But I can’t, ‘cause I can’t find heaven and you don’t know either, eh? So I just think about my Nana, and there she is, OK?’
He paused … The current line of enquiry appeared to be temporarily suspended.
‘OK … I suppose …’ I replied, feebly, not supposing anything was OK at all. ‘So you can find your Nana when you think about her …’ I continued, feebly, reduced now to repeating what I’d just been told, because there wasn’t a question to use to respond to a question, any more … but I still needed time to think.
‘Yeah. When I think about my Nana, she just feels close, eh?’
I was going to reply, but I really had nothing to say. Neither had Nathan, really, apart from a final contribution to our heaven-centred discussion.
‘I suppose’ he said, ‘if my Nana and me are together when I think about my Nana, then I’m in heaven with her, eh? So heaven is … when Nana is with me …’
‘Wot’s heaven like?’ I was still stuck with his original question. He was always asking about stuff, and sometimes he’d work out his own answer, that usually turned out to be helpful to me too – like this time. And now [Mr. Questioner] was running away…
What’s heaven like? Do you wonder about it like Nathan did?
A friend once asked why we talk about heaven in church as if it were like going to Disneyland. He said he would certainly be excited about going to Disneyland, but sitting around on clouds playing harps for eternity didn’t sound like much fun. That image of angels and harps comes from chapter 5 in the book of Revelation, of John’s vision of the cosmic battle at the end of time. But if the angels aren’t playing harps, maybe they’re lyres.
In Revelation chapter 7, heaven sounds like a giant worship gathering on Palm Sunday. John says, “I saw a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches, standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing: Salvation belongs to our God who sits on his Throne!” (7:9-10)
In John 14, we get a vision of a heaven as God’s mansion. Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms; I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2), and so we talk sometimes talk about death as going home to God’s great house.
In the book of Hebrews, chapter 12 says that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, all the saints who’ve died before us. This sounds like what Nathan, the boy in the story, is describing. Whenever he remembers his Nana, he feels like she is there with him. So maybe heaven is not a place as much as a different kind of existence.
If we are surrounded by saints, who are the saints? Our reading from 1 John calls them “children of God.” All those who know God in Jesus Christ have become God’s children. We are the saints. Those here in this room, those of you who are with us online, those who are in different places all over the country and the world, and all those who have already died.
One reason we have so many different ideas floating around about heaven is that we don’t really know what it will be like. 1 John 3:2 says “Who knows how we’ll end up!” We don’t know whether any of these visions of heaven are what it’s really like, but John reminds us of what we do know. John says:
What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it—we’re called children of God! That’s who we really are. -1 John 3:1 MSG
Being called children of God is not something we achieve for ourselves. It’s God’s loving gift to us. Jesus talks about making room for us in God’s house because we’re God’s children. God sees us as beloved children.
John also says, “What we know is that when Christ is openly revealed, we’ll see him—and in seeing him, become like him.” And, “All of us who look forward to his Coming stay ready, with the glistening purity of Jesus’ life as a model for our own.”
Do we look forward to Jesus’ coming?
Or to the day when we die and we see Jesus face-to-face?
If we don’t, why is that? There can be many reasons, but I think one of them is that we get so busy being followers of Jesus that we don’t spend time just enjoying God.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we are also surrounded by the presence of God. Jesus promised to be with us always, and that the Holy Spirit would live in us, and Paul tells us in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God that we have in Jesus Christ, and yet we can go hours, days, maybe even weeks without talking to or maybe even thinking about God.
In our small group that’s reading the book “How to Pray” by Pete Grieg, we talked about this last week. Taking time to be present with God. Pete says:
“I cannot emphasize too strongly how important it is for your spiritual, mental, and physical well-being that you learn to silence the world’s relentless chatter for a few minutes each day, to become still in the depths of your soul. You must seek solitude and silence as if your life depends on it, because in a way, it does. When you are stressed, your adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol, which impairs your capacity for clear thinking and healthy decision-making. But as you sit quietly, the cortisol subsides and things become clearer. The swirling sediment of life settles down quite quickly. You become more aware of your own presence in place and time and of God’s gentle, subsuming presence around and within you.”
Sometimes at the beginning of worship, I’ll encourage us to just take a deep breath because I’ve been running around taking care of last minute details, and maybe some of you have been rushing around getting ready, too, and taking a deep breath helps us settle out of those frantic feelings and allow God’s presence into our thoughts. Taking a deep breath is a good way to pause in the midst of whatever we’re doing and be aware of God’s presence.
Grieg also points out that we don’t have to be sitting still. In the gospels, we read that Jesus was often going up into the mountains to pray. Maybe he went there to find a secluded spot with a great view and sat down to pray, but maybe Jesus was engaging in some kinetic or more physical prayer time, while he was hiking through the mountains. Those of you who are runners may already know about enjoying God’s presence while you run.
- Artists enjoy God’s presence while they draw or paint or sculpt.
- Musicians enjoy God’s presence while they make music.
- Gardeners while they garden.
- Dancers while they dance.
How do you enjoy God’s presence?
It doesn’t always require silence. I have had some rather profound encounters with God in a room full of music that was so loud I could feel the beat. The music helped me to let go of all that was filling my mind and allow God’s presence to seep into my soul.
Sometimes it helps to have words to say. In worship, we’ll sometimes use a prayer refrain, “Lord, have mercy.” A verse from the Bible is another way. “Be still and know that I am God.”
In the Star Wars movie The Rise of Skywalker (2019), when the young Jedi Rey needs to connect with the power of the force, she says over and over, “Be with me.”
That’s another great way to pray. Be with me.
A song from the 40s says we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but meeting God can happen any time and any where and as soon as this very moment.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, all the saints who have gone before us, and by the Holy Spirit who never leaves.
John tells us that God calls us his children. When a child is upset, often the only one who can comfort them is their mother. God is always standing by waiting to comfort us with his loving presence. Psalm 131 helps us to humbly approach God and enjoy God’s comforting presence.
My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
 Original story says “fobbed off.”
 From “With an Open Eye” © Tom Gordon – www.ionabooks.com found at https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/71199/1-November_All-Saints-V2.pdf
 Arun W. Jones in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby, Carolyn J. Sharp. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (Kindle Locations 13585-13586). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Greig, Pete. How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People (pp. 39-40). The Navigators. Kindle Edition.