The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      14th May 2017
A new heaven
Jeremy Fletcher

In the last fortnight I’ve been asked twice about my first memory of something. It’s a tough question, because it takes you right back into childhood, and makes you reflect on how you not only became aware of something for the first time, but also how you, and it, have developed since then. As it happens the areas of life were about money, and about bereavement. Perhaps, if the rest of this sermon fails to excite, you might ponder on your first memory of money, and your first experience of loss. It’s instructive. 

I begin this way because I know exactly when I first encountered the passage we had as our second reading this evening, and I have often pondered on how it, and I, have developed together since then. I was a chorister in a parish church. We were part of the Royal School of Church Music, and the RSCM held festivals where such choirs came together. They still do. In the late 1960s one of these festivals, in Bradford Cathedral, featured the anthem And I saw a New Heaven, by Edgar Bainton. I must have been around nine years old, and it had a profound effect on me.

Some of that will be to do with the music. Bainton was a skilled composer, who studied under Stanford and influenced Vaughan Williams. The fact that he once turned down Schoenberg for a job teaching composition and harmony, saying that he exhibited ‘dangerous tendencies’, perhaps reveals that his own music is more gently harmonious and instantly accessible. Though it is pleasant stuff he is not performed much any more: he’s very much, nicely, of his time. That one anthem is like a journeyman golfer who, for once, puts four good rounds together and wins a championship. For me, it is the text he chose to set which led him to compositional heights he didn’t reach elsewhere.

This is, after all, a vision. The whole Book of Revelation is a series of visions. John the Evangelist, on his island, Patmos, sets out in poetic, metaphorical and mystical form, what is to be. The vision is not without a context. Revelation draws from centuries of Jewish mystical and apocalyptic literature and worship, and has its roots in prophecies and writings much pored over by rabbinic commentators on the Hebrew scriptures. There is some danger in taking Revelation as a blueprint, or a strict chronology of the future; though looking at some American churches it’s quite lucrative to do so. We need rather to let the vision inspire and challenge It may be that hearing Revelation sung, or even singing it ourselves, is the best way of interpreting it.

John’s context was one of persecution, of geopolitical instability, of world orders clashing, and of new Christians struggling to work out how to be both citizens of earth and of the Kingdom of God. Their day to day life was consumed with moral, ethical and spiritual questions of how to be faithful followers of Christ when all around them were other adherents of other gods living in radically different ways. For the people for whom John was a pastor, questions of how to shape their lives, what to spend their money on and which authority to serve were as pressing as they are for Christians in volatile situations today. No wonder the familiar apocalyptic tropes of evil, with monsters and cities associated with violence and death were what John used to offer a world view to those looking for a new future. Today’s Marvel superheroes universe does something similar – but that’s another sermon.

This is a vision. Having opened up the great battle of good and evil, and assured his people that those who do not bow the knee, those who remain faithful to Christ, will conquer, and be given white robes, John opens up the hope of what will be. This is not a timeless paradisal heaven where people go instantly when they die. This is what Tom Wright calls ‘life after life after death’. Rather than being in a suspended animation of eternal bliss, this is a place of active healing, hope, action and engagement. John continues to delve into his roots. As Haggai, Ezra and Zechariah (in the Old Testament readings at Evensong in Eastertide) see the rebuilt Temple in the rebuilt Jerusalem as a sign of God’s eternal presence and healing, so John now offers not a rebuilt old universe, but a newly made one. 

I always enjoyed the verse ‘and there was no more sea’. I asked why, as a young chorister, and was told that the Jews were not great sea farers, and associated the sea with evil. Words from the Psalms came to mind: ‘they that go down to the sea in ships’; ‘there is that Leviathan’. The monsters in Revelation are sea creatures. A world without the sea is new, different, and free from evil. It is a place where God acknowledges pain and brokenness and suffering and death, and where God actively and intimately heals. Whenever I hear the words ‘and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes’ it, rather paradoxically, makes me cry. We are all acquainted with grief – as that question about childhood bereavement revealed to me this week. The God of the new heaven and earth will wipe away such tears for ever.

And there will be a new place to be, new ways of engagement and action. This will be a city. I have not yet computed what effect it has had on me to move to a great world city, having been in smaller places for the majority of my life. But the Bible sees our future as together, in a massive and vibrant gathering encompassing the whole world. Every tribe and tongue and nation will join the song of the Lamb. God’s home will be among people. The vision is not of a new Temple – you will hear next week that there is no Temple there at all – but a new city, where God and people are at work together, with no boundaries of sacred or secular, physical or spiritual. 

Somehow, encountering these words as a boy whose voice had not yet broken was a defining experience. Since then the vision of God’s people as those gaining and giving glimpses of reconciliation, healing, hope and glory has been a shaping one for me. It has given context and meaning to the music and art offered in worship. And it has been galvanising in seeking to make the church on earth a foretaste of what we will encounter, one day, in a new heaven and new earth, by the grace of God.

To whom be all blessing and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen. 

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