January 18, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
PREVIEW OF HEAVEN
Michelangelo may be best known for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I have no idea how he did that. It took him four years. It’s one of the greatest artistic achievements ever.
Twenty-five years after he was done with that project, he returned to the Sistine Chapel. The wall behind the altar was still a blank canvas. Could Michelangelo work his magic again? He did. It took him another four years. Even though I’m sure painting on a wall was a lot easier than painting on a ceiling. It is a very detailed, very strange painting called “The Last Judgment”. Jesus is in the center. To his left are those who are going to hell. To his right are those who are going to heaven.
Nudity never seemed to bother Michelangelo. But it bothered one of the Pope’s assistants, a man named Biagio da Cesena. He complained to the Pope. Too many people in this painting were wearing too little clothing. He should have waited to complain until Michelangelo was done painting. Because Biagio da Cesena’s face ended up painted on one of the people going to hell. He is given donkey ears and he, too, is naked with a snake apparently biting him in an unfortunate place. Now he had more reason to complain. But Pope Paul III said there was nothing he could do because the Pope’s jurisdiction does not extend to hell.
There have been other attempts to help us see what heaven looks like. Our scripture for today is one such attempt. Like Michelangelo’s work, it is very detailed and very strange. Quite a few years ago I was teaching a class on the book of Revelation and we came to this chapter. I gave the class an assignment. They were to draw a picture illustrating John’s description in these 11 verses. I wish I had saved their pictures. They were quite creative. I did save mine. Here it is.
Now you’re probably going to want me to paint that on the ceiling of the sanctuary. And now you know what heaven looks like.
It reminds me of the boy who announced that he was going to draw a picture of God. His mother told him that nobody knows what God looks like. The little boy said, “They will when I’m through!”
Revelation 4 gives us a picture of what heaven might look like. We don’t need any pictures to show us what hell looks like. We have more than enough pictures every time we turn on the news. 2014 was a year filled with truly awful news and 2015 doesn’t seem to be getting off to a better start. I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you that we have not yet reached that moment Jesus taught us to pray for, when God’s Kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.
This is the Sunday churches have been observing for about 30 years now when we remember the efforts of a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. to build a world that resembles heaven more than it resembles hell. We’ve made progress. Actually quite a bit of progress. Overt racism is no longer fashionable or funny or acceptable. What was a bold statement 50 years ago is pretty much universally accepted now: that we should be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. We’ve elected and re-elected an African-American president. After Barack Obama’s first election some were even saying that we had become a post-racial America. We had moved past prejudice and discrimination. We had become color blind.
Not many are saying that anymore. In the last five months it almost seems we’ve regressed fifty years in race relations. We hadn’t seen race riots since the 1960’s. Then a young black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And Eric Garner in New York City. Another black man. Another white police officer. The grand juries sided with the police. And then the race riots were back. Most demonstrations were peaceful. Most but not all. It didn’t improve things when a mentally unstable black man took the lives of two police officers sitting in their patrol car. Maybe they looked white. They weren’t. One was Asian, the other was Hispanic. Both were married. One had children. There is a lot of hurt, a lot of anger, a lot of fear, a lot of raw emotion these days in this land we love.
Clay Christensen teaches at the Harvard School of Business. He tells of a conversation with a Marxist economist from China who had spent some time at Harvard and was now on his way back home. They were talking about his impressions of America. This guest from a country that actively discourages religion said something surprising.
I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy. The reason democracy works is not because the government was designed to oversee what everybody does, but rather democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily choose to obey the law. And in your past, most Americans attended a church or a synagogue every week and were taught there by people they respected. Americans follow these rules because they have come to believe that they aren’t just accountable to society. They are accountable to God.
If that’s true, and I think it is, what happens when religion loses its grip on Americans? When worship attendance goes down? When faith goes out of fashion? When Americans no longer feel accountable to God? Clay Christensen concludes by saying, “If you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t always voluntarily choose to obey the law. He was arrested a number of times. “Parading without a permit” was his usual offense. He was quite familiar with the inside of a jail cell. One of the best things he ever wrote was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. He said in that letter that sometimes the laws of man must be broken so that the laws of God can be obeyed. There is Biblical precedent for that. Paul spent a lot of time in jail. But the reason Dr. King is held in such high regard today is because he condemned violence. If you break a law you believe is unjust, you do so nonviolently. You do so prepared to peacefully and respectfully accept the consequences. Even if you are mistreated, you don’t retaliate. Because violence only begets more violence.
In these unsettled days, recalling Dr. King’s famous words has helped restore some calm and some reason. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” A country in which we voluntarily choose to obey the laws is good. A country in which we voluntarily choose to love is better.
When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he actually painted God. More than once. But he left the places where God was to be blank until he was almost done. He wanted time first to improve his technique. To get as good as he could be. He wanted his representations of God to be his very best work.
When John described heaven in Revelation chapter 4, there are many details. It was hard to get all the details into the picture I drew. But when it comes to his description of God, there isn’t much. “And the one [seated on the throne] looked like jasper and carnelian” (4:3). Jasper was clear like a diamond (See Revelation 21:11). Carnelian was fiery red. It’s a description of God as color and light. There is no attempt to make God look like us. No old man with a white flowing beard as we see on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is like the brilliant and beautiful colors that flash from precious stones. God is light. That is description enough. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
The Bible says we were created in the image of God. But it doesn’t say God was created in the image of man. We like to think so, though. How else do we imagine God if not an old man with a white flowing beard? Michelangelo had to paint something. That’s what he chose to paint. But John left it to our imagination. “And the one [seated on the throne] looked like jasper and carnelian. . . ” He continued: “. . . and round the throne was a rainbow.” Many different and beautiful colors.
I love what Anne Lamott said. She has a way of boiling a complex thought down into a few words that really say it all. She was talking about this tendency of ours to make God look like us and act like us. Here’s what she said: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Isn’t that an amazing coincidence! The people we can’t stand are the very people God can’t stand! The prejudices we still embrace must be OK, because God has those very same prejudices! God is just like us. Which must mean we don’t have to change. We already look like God and act like God. Isn’t that convenient!
Unless of course, we have this all backwards. That couldn’t be, could it?? That God doesn’t hate the same people we do? That God doesn’t judge people by the color of their skin? That God wants us to love, not hate? “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
We won’t know what heaven looks like until we get there. If we get there. If we get there it will only be by the grace of God. But until then we have to use our imagination. Michelangelo used his. I hope we have better imagination than Michelangelo. I am not criticizing him as an artist. Although, as you saw earlier, I am an artist, too! Nobody comes close to Michelangelo as an artist. But he could have been a better theologian. His preview of what heaven looks like misses the mark. Why do I say that? Because all the people Michelangelo has in heaven are white. And almost all of them are male. Michelangelo, I dare say, had the same problem we have. He liked to create God in his own image.
God wants us to live down here on earth in such a way that we are giving a preview of heaven. We are showing what heaven is going to look like. So when we live our lives exclusively with people who are like us and when we have nothing to do with people who are not like us, we are not doing what God wants us to do. We are not giving a preview of heaven. Heaven, where there will be light and rainbows and many different and beautiful colors.
I want to close with two pictures. One that is a preview of hell. One that is a preview of heaven.
Our daughter, Kelsey was with us for an early Thanksgiving when the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced. We were watching as President Obama addressed the nation on a split screen. The other half of the screen was filled with the flames and looting taking place on the streets of Ferguson. I asked Kelsey if she had ever experienced tear gas. She said she hadn’t. I said, “If you stay in the news business long enough, you will.”
She returned home and was assigned to cover the protests that had by now spread to Portland. The police maintained order, but barely. It was a scary assignment. No tear gas. She still has that to look forward to. But she did have some flash bangs go off near where she was standing. She said that was a bit unnerving.
So here are my two pictures. Neither one is from Kelsey, though the second one did come from Portland. Here is a preview of hell.
Notice black on one side, white on the other. No violence yet, but it looks like it could break out any minute.
And here is a preview of heaven.
This is the one from Portland. This is 12-year-old Devonte Hart. At a Ferguson protest he was a holding a sign that said “Free Hugs”. Officer Bret Barnum noticed him and saw that he was crying. He walked over and engaged him in conversation and then asked if he could have a hug.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
We live in troubled times, dear God. This world is far from what you want it to be, what we want it to be. And we have a choice. We can retreat into our safe cocoons and try not to worry about anything that doesn’t affect us directly. Or we can get involved, as Martin Luther King got involved, to do our small part to overcome the darkness with light. To overcome the hate with love. To give to all who might be watching a preview of heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.