The Light of Glory

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on December 23, 2012.

What is Heaven Like?

“Those who ask me what heaven is do not mean to hear me but to silence me; they know I cannot tell them.”  John Donne, was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, when he said that almost 400 years ago, and if John Donne couldn’t tell you what heaven is, neither can I. But I promised three sermons about heaven and, although we missed one last week, there’s still time to say something.

Donne said, “I cannot tell them,” but, nonetheless, no one has ever described heaven better than John Donne. So what I want to do this morning is piece together some things Donne said that will describe heaven in the words he used. I think they still have value.

“When I meet them there,” Donne went on to say, “I shall be able to tell them, and then they shall be just as able to tell me. We shall be able to tell one another that this, this that we enjoy, is heaven, but the tongues of angels, the tongues of glorified saints, shall not be able to express what that heaven is, for even in heaven our faculties shall be finite.”

So that’s point one: only God is infinite; only God is unlimited.  Even in heaven we will still be limited. We will not have God’s power or God’s knowledge and the tools we have for communication will still be limited.  I would hope to have time to pick up another language or two, and that will help because each language has special terms and ways of putting things that are unique and enable those who use it to say things they understand simply because they have the words for it. English has to borrow from French to talk about a coup d’etat because the French have a word for it and we don’t.  Maybe it’s because we have less experience of it, and thank goodness for that.  The Japanese can say “Ite mairimasu” “I’m going out and coming back.” and that’s useful.  The Navajo have words and ways of speaking that are said to be more useful for atomic physics than English is (who knows why?) and the Greeks have words for love that make distinctions we can’t make in English. So if we pick up a few more languages in heaven – and we’ll have an eternity to work at it – we may be able to say more about heaven than we can now but we’ll never have words enough to understand or express it all. That’s why, after two sermons on heaven, there will be a lot left unsaid.  There would have been even if I had had time for three or even more. We simply don’t have enough words.

But we have some words and we can use the words we have and stretch them almost to the breaking point to say something.  For example: John Donne writes, “In heaven it is always autumn.”  Literally? With falling leaves for ever and garden cleanup to do?  Well, no, of course not.  That’s not what he meant.  But something of what autumn is, is what heaven is. Donne put it this way:

“God’s mercies are always in their maturity. We ask our daily bread, and God never says you should have come yesterday.  God never says you must come again tomorrow, but today God will hear you . . .  Now God comes to you. God comes not as the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon to light all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest to fill all need.  All locations invite God’s mercies and all times are God’s seasons.”

In other words, heaven is that place where the fullness of God’s goodness is always and everywhere evident; that’s like autumn and heaven is like that.

Another way to talk about heaven is to talk about the earth and say, “Like that only more.”  Donne said,

“In that heaven the moon is more glorious than our sun, and the sun as glorious as the one who made it.  In this new earth all the waters are milk and all the milk is honey; all the grass is corn and all the corn is manna;  all the clods of the earth are gold and all the gold of countless carats; all the minutes are ages and all the ages eternity; everything is every minute in the highest exaltation, as good as it can be, and yet superexalted and infinitely multiplied by every minute’s addition; every minute is infinitely better than ever it was before.”

In other words, take the best of everything and heaven is better than that; infinitely better.  And yet there are other words we can use that convey something important. Donne also said, “Heaven is that place where righteousness is at home.” All the good things that we only have a glimpse of here will be familiar there.  Righteousness, for example, and justice and mercy and truth and love.

When people take a new job, they think it’s terrific; when people fall in love, the other person seems perfect; when you get what you want for Christmas, you’re thrilled.  But the new job makes you work with real people and the person you fall in love with has little habits that begin to get to you, and the perfect Christmas present that you’d been hoping for for weeks, gets chipped by the end of the day, or the batteries go dead, or you find out somebody else got a better one. Heaven is where that never happens; where the best only gets better; where the thing you longed for never disappoints.

But the central theme in all Donne’s writing about heaven is the theme of light: heaven is that place where there is always enough light. Have you heard of seasonal affective disorder, SAD for short? It’s a psychiatric phenomenon of which some people are victims and this time of year gets them down. They need light to keep positive. And we all do to some extent. Dull days get us all down. That won’t happen in heaven.

Donne said, “The light of heaven is such a light that the one who sees any of it sees all of it, and so the light of glory is communicated entirely to every blessed soul. God made light first, and three days later that light became a sun, a more glorious light. God gave me the light of nature when I quickened in my mother’s womb, by receiving a reasonable soul. And God gave me the light of faith when I quickened in my second mother’s womb, the church, by receiving my baptism. But in my third day, when my mortality shall put on immortality, God shall give me the light of glory, by which I shall see God’s own self. Compared to this light of glory the light of honor is ony a glow worm; the majesty itself only a twilight; the cherubim and seraphim only candles; and that gospel itself, which the apostle calls the glorious gospel, is only a star of the least magnitude.”

So will we then be blinded by so much light?  How much light can we stand?  Even when the sun is eclipsed, we can’t look at it directly without being blinded.  Everyone knows these days that you need to protect yourself from the sun. We have the advantage of living in a state where it’s less of a problem than in Florida.  Some people think Florida is heaven but you can’t ever go outside there without sun screen.  And heaven is not like that. Donne wrote a prayer in which he said that in heaven there will be “no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light.” We will not be blinded by either the light or the darkness.  In fact the Bible itself says that in heaven, “the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;” and that’s because there will be no sun in heaven. The Book of Revelation says, “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” God will be our light. And in this world, that is a light too dazzling for human eyes. Even reflected, the light of God is too blinding for human eyes.

Maybe you remember the story of how when Moses first came down from the mountain with the ten commandments “the skin of his face was shining, and (the people) were afraid to come near him and therefore Moses had to put a veil over his face whenever he came back from talking with God.”  Even the reflected glory of God was too blinding for mortals.  But John Donne says that the chief joy of heaven is that there we shall see God: “We shall have a knowledge of the true glory, the essential glory of God, because we shall see God as God is.”

Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  And that has always been held up for Christians as the goal of all existence.  A former Bishop of London said of this goal: “the simple words of this beatitude have in their day called men into the desert, have drawn them into the cloister, have made of them saints and solitaries, martyrs and missionaries. They have bred errors and schisms past man’s power to number . . . they
have led a Pope himself to the verge of formal heresy ; they have been tied with the bands of orthodoxy, only to break their chains and witness again to the freedom of the gospel. They have torn men from the . . . love of family and friends; and . . . have taught them to look for God in the sanctities of the Christian home. Under their influence some have learnt to hate the beauties
of nature and of life, whilst others have been inspired to embrace those beauties perhaps too rashly.  And all this for the hope of seeing God hereafter.”

But what’s the thrill of that for people like us who can say, “Now I’ve seen it all.” Well, that’s our 21st century malaise, but we haven’t yet seen it all. We do have a longing – even in this day and age – to see more. Some people retire and buy an RV so they can travel endlessly and see something new every day. They’re hungry for God and don’t know it. Some people are always renting another movie to watch at home.  They’re hungry for God and don’t know it.  Some spend their free time wandering in shopping malls. They’re hungry for God and don’t know it. Every new place you visit reflects something of God’s glory because God made it. Every movie or play that’s worth anything, that depicts something of humanity in all its diversity, reflects God’s glory because we were made in God’s image.  We’re always looking for something more of that infinite glory that we were made for and that at last we will see.  And perhaps some will be blinded and some will turn away  but those who have looked for God here will see God there and be satisfied.

“Do not therefore,” Donne said, “be strangers to this face. See him here that you may know him there.  See him in the preaching of his word. See him in the sacrament.”  Jesus said we should see him also in the poor and the hungry; see him in his human face.  “Look him in the face,” Donne said, “in all these respects, of humiliation and of exaltation too. And then as a picture looks at the one who looks at it, God, on whom you keep your eye, will keep God’s eye on you. And, as in the creation, when God commanded light out of darkness but gave you a capacity for this light, and as in your calling, when God shines in your heart, God gave you a beginning of this light, so in associating yourself to God at the last day, God will perfect, consummate, accomplish all, and give you the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

So that’s what heaven is like, and it’s because the birth of a child at Christmas breaks through the boundary between earth and heaven, and brings the heaven of God’s presence to this earth that we celebrate Christmas. And that’s why heaven matters.

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