Between Heaven and Hell Sermon No 7
Dr Simon Perry
10th June, 2012
This term we’ve been looking at heaven and earth and hell. So this evening’s attempt to conclude the series, feels like an attempt to summarise life, the universe and everything.
Perhaps the way to draw together the varying threads of this terms sermons on heaven, hell, and earth, are to reflect upon the concept of time. As every good Christian knows, human beings are trapped in time – whereas God is somehow out there, outside time. But I can’t help wondering whether, according to Scripture, it is the opposite that is true.
For instance, as the youngest college – we might be tempted to think that our chapel is simply a modern construction compared to most of the others. But – there are elements of our chapel that vastly pre-date every other college. In fact, they pre-date the city of Cambridge, the kingdom of England, and in fact – human existence. The fossils worked into the stone in our floor and altar speak of a pre-existence we can barely get our heads around.
And having recently dragged my kids around the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge, the same cabinet held a fossilised fish 300 million years old, and another that was a mere 200 million years old: sharing the same 1950s cabinet as we imagine them to have shared the same stretch of water – even if they lived a hundred million years apart. And yet, standing outside the cabinet, felt like standing outside time. To my children, the hundreds of millions of years that predate human existence, are comparable in length of time, to the era known as the Tudor Period… There is the sense in which – from the perspective of the modern era, it is we who stand outside time. A proper sense of perspective leaves Robinson chapel in the same era as Kings College chapel.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make us immortal. According to the Bible we are descended from Adam – and it was a former chancellor of this very university, Sir John Lightfoot, who – through his painstaking and meticulous work, calculated that "heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant, and clouds full of water," and that "this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 B.C., at nine o'clock in the morning."
Wouldn’t you love to know what Adam was up to at about half ten? Well, according to Genesis, by lunch time he hadn’t even got round to naming the animals – because the very first day that Adam saw, was the Sabbath. And from the Scriptural perspective, Sabbath is not simply a liturgical coffee break. It is an invitation to enter into time – in fact, one Rabbi has called the Sabbath a ‘Palace in time’, a palace into which God invites people.
Sabbath is a Hebrew verb that simply means, stop! In fact, the Sabbath command is smuggled into the psalm that we read: cease striving, and know that I am God: the word cease, is the Hebrew verb for Sabbath: Stop faffing, we might say, and know that I am God…
The reading from Hebrews echoes this concern: God set aside a certain day, calling it ‘Today’ - the Sabbath is a palace in time, an invitation to enter into the time that God has for us, to step off the hyperactive whirligig, merry-go-round – to dare to stop, and enter the time that God has for us.
This is why Sabbath is woven into Adam’s experience of creation. It is not that God was tired, so wanted to take a break. Sabbath is not something you do at the end of a busy week, so you can recharge your batteries for the coming week. Nor has it got anything to do with shops being closed on a Sunday. Sabbath is the call to stop, and to be re-oriented within the purposes of God – and in a hyper-active, non-stop, high-tech, high-speed, carrot-and-stick existence, Sabbath is the call to stop – and to enter into the time in which God himself has offered to meet us.
I used to have a car that was the same age as me. And I remember one day, I drove my vehicular equippage to a little village in Somerset to go into church: as I entered the village, I depressed the deceleratrix, parked the car, applied the hand brake, took the key out of the ignition, locked it and walked away. And as I was walking away, there was something odd about it… I turned round, and the engine was still running. And I had the ignition key in my hand. I had to get back in and stall it to turn the engine off. That, for me, is precisely the modern human condition – that even when we stop to rest and relax, the engine is still running. We are still plugged in to a hyper-active world, where a million distractions invade our space, even when we think we are resting. Not only because we have almost evolved into cyborgs, so that our lap tops and mac books and mobile phones, would need to be surgically removed from most of us. But because we live in a technological culture that has programmed us not to stop and think and reflect.
The only time that happens, for many people, is when they face some kind of a crisis. When my oldest son was learning to ride his bike, he hadn’t learned how to stop. I lined him up at the end of the drive and explained the brakes. Pull that lever, bike stops. (Nods). So you understand how to stop. (nods) Right – off you go… So three year old Willem pedals with all the energy of a Saturn 5 rocket wired up to a food blender – building to terminal velocity before ploughing straight into the back of my Peugeot 305. And from the mushroom cloud of carnage, mangled bicycle and grazed limbs, there emerged a big smile: “that’s how I stop!” In my line of work, I have spent far too much time with people who only learned how to stop, and think and reflect, when they had hit some crisis – the loss of a job, the death of a family member, the end of a relationship.
What has all this got to do with a series on heaven above and hell below and earth in the middle? Apart from the fact that these realities, as they are conceived by most people, have more to do with Greek philosophy than with the writings of Scripture – Sabbath, is the point at which we take our true bearings in the universe, where we find our place inside the time that God has called us to inhabit. This is a theme which has surfaced one way or another, with each of this term’s preachers.
Professor Kirkpatrick spoke about Dante’s view of purgatory: and the here and now of our “purgatorial in-betweenness,” as we seek to find our bearings in the universe: that is a call to Sabbath.
Dr Trudgill, spoke of a God of the soil, who stoops to the earth to get his hands dirty with human beings. And the appreciation that even something as basic and dirty as soil, is a precious gift that speaks of our treasured place in the universe.
Professor Hooker spoke on Ascension Sunday, of Jesus Ascending into heaven. But heaven, not necessarily as the eternal resting place of those with a terminal excess of virtue; but heaven as the here and now – where the Lord of Space and Time meets us in the here and now. That is Sabbath celebration:
And Catherine Mcfie, who spoke last week, spoke about the dual dimension of doing God’s will here on earth: that there is a cosmic scope to our down to earth action, drawing heaven and earth together in the here and now of the life of discipleship. That is Sabbath celebration.
Scripture, actually, has very little to say about heaven or hell. It has a lot to say about resurrection. It is no coincidence, that the resurrection of Jesus is all about the Sabbath day: Jesus entered the tomb the evening before the Sabbath. At dawn, on the day following the Sabbath – the stone has been rolled away and the body has gone. The event that lies at the heart of the Christian faith is an event that took place on the Sabbath. It is by entering the Sabbath, according to scripture, that we see and feel and become a part of what God is doing on the earth. It is by entering Sabbath that we find our place in the universe – by genuinely learning what it means to stop.
It has little to do with having a May week break now that exams are over – although, reading the reports from the Porters Lodge this week seem to demonstrate, that not many have chosen to celebrate the end of their exams with a period of peace and restful tranquillity…
But to celebrate the Sabbath, is to enter into the purpose that God has for us, to have a genuine sense of our place within the created order. The fossils beneath our feet in this chapel, draw our attention again to the lives that we have lasting no longer than the blink of an eye – but
in this tiny moment, we might just find eternity;
in this tiny little corner of time and space, we might just encounter the God of heaven and earth;
in this monstrously insignificant life that we live, God has promised to invest himself.
Sabbath – is the invitation to meet this God.