God in Pop Music Series | Is Heaven a Place on Earth?

The Legoland hotel, where we stayed on part of our vacation, has an open lobby area with a stage, TV, and huge lego bins for playing. Kids can run around freely, exploring cubbies and alcoves made kid-sized with lots of Legos available for building. 

By good luck, we had scheduled our vacation days there at the same time as two other couples who are friends of ours. The husbands are also pastors in our Annual Conference and they are in my clergy covenant group. In the evenings, after having been out at the park riding rides, we would gather in these lobbies to talk, enjoy each other’s company, and let our kids run off what energy they had left. 

One night, Carter ran by me, wielding a foam spear-like weapon from Lego Ninjango that he’d purchased from the gift shop.  He was chasing after one of the other kids, who was shooting something back at Carter. I paused and asked Carter what they were playing. He said, “Dad, we’re playing the apocalypse. Duh.” I said to Carter, “what is the apocalypse?” He said, “Dad! The end of the world!” And then he ran off.

Playing the apocalypse. 

In a way, don’t we sometimes play the apocalypse? 

We think of the apocalypse as the end of the world. That’s not a very good definition; not theologically speaking, but that’s how we often conceive of it: a fire-laden, war-torn, world that eventually is destroyed under the weight of its own evil. We think of the book of Revelation that way, too, painting a picture of a world that comes to an end with God wielding weapons of war to vanquish foes who fight for the forces of evil. 

We think of the end of the world as a nightmarish and chaotic scene. 

If we think of the world as coming to this kind of end, then we think of the world as descending, however gradually, toward chaos and destruction; a negative worldview. It’s a worldview that’s easy to adopt because it fits the narrative around us all too easily. We espouse that worldview when we say things like: “things just seem to get worse” or “people aren’t like they used to be” or “I guess that’s just the way the world is now” or “you just can’t trust people anymore.” 

And here’s the question for us this morning: what is the right Christian worldview? 

To get at that question, let’s hear the end of the book of Revelation. We’re reading from chapter 21

Scripture

Do you know what that’s worth? Heaven is a place on earth. They say that in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth. 

That’s Belinda Carlisle in her 1987 hit “Heaven is a place on earth.” Today, we begin a sermon series called God in Pop Music. We’ll spend this week and the next three weeks examining pop songs we all know and can sing in our heads to see where God may be found, if God may be found at all. 

And Carlisle, in singing about Heaven as a place on earth, sounds naive at best. 

The world is descending toward chaos! Perhaps she should have read chapters four through twenty in Revelation where we learn about the beast and the armies of evil and the armies of God and the like. 

Even here, in the pretty picture first portrayed in our scripture, we discover that there’s an alternate universe: “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” That’s where sinners go, according to our scripture. 

Ever since the writing of those worlds, hell has been portrayed in just this way, as a lake of fire where there is eternal torment. Certainly, that’s not heaven. 

And then, let’s consider that Carlisle is singing about the love she’s found in some relationship in her life. Love comes first in that relationship, and she’s overtaken by the love she shares with some guy. Within that relationship, she finds her heaven. 

So she’s not singing about some greater sense of heaven as a place on earth, something we can construct together if we’ll overcome our differences and live out some pie-in-the-sky reality of all the world holding hands, singing kum-bay-yah, and thereby, somehow, making the world look like heaven. 

Unlike Carlisle, we’re very aware that the world slides toward chaos. We know it from our own lived experiences. We know it from the loss of relationship, from financial loss, from family disputes, from terrible diagnoses in our health, from tragedy and loss, from heartbreak and fear. 

We also know it from the news. We know it from listening to what’s happening in the world, from being constantly reminded of discord. We know it from the suffering we see on a regular basis and from the world’s inability to adequately and fully address that suffering.

And then, we’ve all been in love like Carlisle describes: with fluttering hearts, quickening pulses, and the absorption of our thoughts by that one special person. She calls that love. We know that’s not love. It’s a mixture of things: infatuation, lust, and the appeal of the new. But that’s not love. 

So is Carlisle’s song just pie-in-the-sky foolishness? Or is it Christian? 

For the world is chaos. The world is, we might say, going to the lake of fire described here in the scripture. 

Is that the Christian perspective we’re looking for?

What is the right Christian worldview?

Sometimes, pop stars want us to imagine a different world is possible. Belinda Carlisle wants us to think that way. Or think of John Lennon’s famous song, “Imagine,” that asked people to imagine a world without any divisions, including a world without religion. 

Bono also asks for us to imagine a different world is possible. His band, U2, has a classic hit titled, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” The song is a contrast between places he visited in Ethiopia, when he was on a volunteer-aid mission, and where he grew up in Belfast. His birthplace, like many places in the world, has divisions that can be known by the name of the street where you grew up. He hates the way that divides people and causes them to see you as rich, poor, snobbish, down to earth, a common laborer or a professional. 

In Ethiopia, he finds places where the streets have no names. Those places, for Bono, don’t have the divisions he knew in Belfast, and so he writes: “Where the streets have no name/We’re still building then burning down love/Burning down love/And when I go there, I go there with you/It’s all I can do.” He catches a different vision in Ethiopia of what could be and, inspired by it, writes those lyrics. 

This is the power of music. It can inspire us to see the world differently. It’s why we sing in worship. Music connects different parts of our psyche together in ways that just listening to music or just speaking words cannot. There’s power there, and when we hear that alternative vision for the world, it can be inspiring. 

But the question remains: are they just pie-in-the-sky notions of what the world can be? Because the world is descending to chaos, so is there any truth behind what U2 and Carlisle sing? 

What is the Christian perspective on the nature of the world? Descending to chaos? Heaven as a place on earth? Building a place where the streets have no name? Or enduring until it all blows up?

What is the right Christian worldview?

Let’s go back to scripture for the answer. 

After sixteen chapters of mostly doom and gloom, chapter 21 of Revelation opens with a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. “Behold,” God says, “I make all things new!” God has recreated, bringing about the New Jerusalem. If we had kept reading past the lake of fire we would discover that this New Jerusalem is the restoration of the Garden of Eden. It’s lush and contains many descriptions similar to what we find in Genesis 2 and 3. 

In this New Jerusalem, we hear Jesus saying from what we read this morning, “See, the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them; He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” 

Death will be no more. Suffering will be no more. Pain will be no more. Mourning will be no more. That’s the reality after the world has ended. That’s the reality in the New Jerusalem described here. What a wonderful thing to look forward to! 

But, are we just looking forward to it? The end of death, the end of suffering, release from fear and pain, God as comforter, all that ought to sound very familiar.

At funerals, I open with these words: “Dying, Christ destroyed our death, rising, Christ restored our life, Christ will come again.” I then go on to say, “Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. I died and behold, I am alive forever more, and I hold the keys of hell and death. Because I live, you also shall live.’” 

That is not a declaration of something that is only to come one day. It’s a declaration of a here and now reality. The words I share at every funeral, the words printed starting on page 870 of the hymnal in front of you and every United Methodist Hymnal, share that these words from Revelation 21 are a here and now reality, not just one we wait for. 

What are we to make of this? Here, in Revelation, God declares that the new heaven and new earth will be a place of release from suffering and death. But in our funerals, and from this pulpit, we declare in our faith that we can know today release from suffering and death and that death, for our loved ones, is not the final word. 

What are we to make of this? 

It’s clear from what we just read that the world is not merely descending to chaos. If it was, we could not declare at funerals that those who believe in Christ, even though they die, yet shall they live. We could not declare that there’s comfort to be found in the midst of death. We could not declare that God is our comforter, wiping away our tears, releasing us from mourning, crying, and pain. If that wasn’t a here and now reality, we could not declare with faith these things to be true. 

So it’s both/and: release from suffering is a here and now reality and something we can look forward to when God brings the New Jerusalem.

This means that a perspective on the world that only believes the world is descending to chaos, that the world is only getting worse, that you just can’t trust people anymore and things will never be what they once were; that negative worldview is not Christian. 

So there’s the first answer to our question: a negative worldview is not Christian.

So what is the right Christian worldview?

There may be chaos first. I’m not sure how the world will end. But like those children from the intro, we play apocalypse when we believe the world is only descending to chaos, giving into the vision of the world that evil itself has cast: a vision that says things can only get worse because that’s a vision, a worldview, that says there’s no hope.

Here in scripture, we know that no matter the chaos that ensues, and no matter the apocalypses we may know where our worlds seem to come to a chaotic end, there’s a next chapter, chapter 21, a final word that God has. And that is our hope. 

A hope we hear when God says, “Behold! I make all things new.”

Not just in the future, but now. When Jesus came, died, and rose again, Jesus brought a bit of heaven to earth. We can know release from death, from human suffering, now. We can know freedom from fear, as I shared in my last sermon, we can know order when chaos abounds, we can know love when hate seems to be winning, we can know all of these things and more because Jesus has provided them and brought them into the world, now.

God makes us new, now. We celebrate that at baptism. We remember and celebrate that when someone joins the church and professes their faith in Jesus Christ. We remember and celebrate that at confirmation. We believe that receiving communion renews us by imparting grace into our lives; we are made new again when we come to the Table. 

Belinda Carlisle and Bono are certainly short-sighted and shallow in their lyrics from a Christian perspective. But they’re on to something. They cast a vision of the world as a beautiful place that we can create by our own actions. They’re half right. The world is a beautiful place but it’s God who creates it. And God is in the midst of creating it now, just as God created it to begin within Genesis, offered a renewal through Jesus Christ, and continues to offer us new life through the church. 

So what is the right Christian worldview? 

It’s the hope we hear when God says, “Behold! I make all things new.”

We must place this story of the New Jerusalem, here in Revelation 21, as our worldview, rather than some fiery apocalypse. 

Because when we focus on the apocalypse, we believe that the world is marked by chaos, and we thus believe that evil is winning. That is not Christian. 

But when we focus on the restoration of the world, one happening now and one that will happen in fullness in the future, we believe that the world is marked by God’s redemption, by God making all things new, and thus God is winning. That is Christian. 

We are to be ambassadors of this reality. The world gives plenty of reason to think that it is descending only to chaos. We know better. At least, we should know better. 

So when tempted to believe that the world is only getting worse, hear the bellowing words of God, “behold! I make all things new.” God is redeeming this world; a fancy theological word that means God is making new, good, things out of the old, bad, things. Look for that redemption. See it in the life that’s changed for the better. See it in the apology that comes out of the blue and restores a relationship. See it in the life lessons learned from setbacks. 

And then, when you’ve seen that, in fact, God’s home is among mortals and death is no more and mourning and crying and pain need not have the final world; when you’ve seen that sometimes heaven is in fact a place on earth, go and bring relief to others. Go and walk into their suffering. 

Bono got something very right in his lyrics. He says, “when I go there, I go there with you, it’s all I can do.” When we see human suffering, when we know of someone who has died, when we see someone who is struggling with a weight of sin, when we see anyone who is suffering at all, we have opportunity. 

When we walk into their suffering, we bring a little slice of heaven to earth. When we choose to sit with someone who’s grieving, we bring a little slice of heaven to earth. When we give a listening ear to someone who’s struggling with sin, whether theirs or someone else’s, we bring a little slice of heaven to earth. 

For we, people of faith, know that chaos, destruction, apocalypse is not the last word. The world is not ultimately descending to a fiery lake. The world is ascending toward heaven. It might be rough getting there. There might be setbacks getting there. 

But the world will get there because God is in our midst, now, redeeming, righting wrongs, repairing what’s broken, wiping away tears, comforting those who mourn, relieving those in pain. 

In sum, God is our midst, now, saying, “Behold! I make all things new.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.