There’s an episode of Open All Hours, where Arkwright looks up to the sky, and remarks in a philosophical tone, “93 million miles from here to the sun”, and Granville, sweeping with a worn out brush, replies, “aye, and that’s about how many miles this brush has done”.
I don’t know about you, but my mind starts to boggle when I think about that things that I can see so brightly in the sky, and try to get my head around the fact that it’s 93 million miles away. And then I recall that our solar system is only a tiny pin prick in the vast universe, and my head really begins to spin. Yet, when we pray, “Our Father in heaven”, we’re praying to the one who rules the whole cosmos, who spoke to Elijah in earthquake, wind, and fire. But then I look back at our world, and see so much that’s wrong, people who are poor, sick, and desperate, and I think that perhaps it’s good that God is so much, in the face of how much we need God.
I have heard it said that Jesus is no more than a helpful moral example, a wise teacher of ethics, an empathetic friend, but if that’s all Jesus is, what hope is there? What good can even the best moral exemplar do against all that is wrong? After even our best moral efforts, after all our good deeds are done, there is still a great deal of suffering and pain. This is why I think it matters that we pray. Our prayer is certainly not auto-suggestion or self-therapy.
If our prayer matters, then I think it makes a difference where we think God is when we’re praying to God. If God resides safely tucked up in our hearts, if God is only a projection of our wish for the very best of human aspiration and experience, then there’s not much hope. However, because we call God our Father who is “in heaven,” we can be bold and pray for ways to make right so much of what is wrong in the world.
When we pray to God “in heaven”, I don’t think we’re suggesting that God has an address in the sense of a Post Code, postman, milk man, and pizzas can be delivered, but what we are doing is locating God, giving God a home, which is more specific than just saying God is everywhere. God can be present anywhere, and there is something of God in many places, but I think it’s misunderstanding to simply suggest that God is always and fully everywhere. We have names for those special places where it’s easier to sense God’s presence: the promise to Abraham on a starry night, the covenant with Israel, the law given to Moses, the calling of King David, the prophets, the Temple, Jesus of Nazareth, the apostles, Baptism, Communion. And likewise, we know those special place sin our own circumstances, where we’ve felt the closeness of God. These are surely little glimpses of heaven, and heaven is the name we give to God’s kingdom. Heaven is breaking out everywhere, the kingdom is intruding. You might remember the spectacular intrusion that happened in Bethlehem, when a baby was born. Jesus came among us, walked and ate, breathed and shared, and went through what we go through, and now Jesus is with God, so heaven is directly linked with our struggles.
Another aspect of god being in heaven we cannot domesticate God, or turn God into our own image. It reminds us that God is not some pale image of ourselves and our best aspirations. God doesn’t live here in our town, or even our country, and certainly not our church building. God is in heaven. Yes, we can have a personal relationship with God, through Jesus, but we can’t turn God into a reflection of ourselves, because God is always so much more than we are.
Of course, you might, by now, be desperate to tell me that heaven is not a place, and that heaven is an idea, a metaphor, a state of mind. I can’t agree to just that. When the Lord’s Prayer speaks of God, it locates God. God is not some mushy, generalised presence in creation always and everywhere. God is placed, en-fleshed, incarnated in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So God has to be more than an ephemeral presence who may have set the whole thing in motion and then slips into eternal elusiveness. To say that God is in heaven is also to acknowledge that God is still at work today, just as an artist can continue to work with a piece of sculpture after it receives its initial form, so God continues to work through creation because it is God’s creation. All creation longs to praise God, including heaven.
If we were to say that we can always find God in every rock, tree, and glade, the danger becomes that too often God can become something and nothing. God is very close, because in heaven, God has a good view of us, all of us. When we look at things, far too often it’s difficult for us to see much beyond ourselves. God takes a larger view. Looking at the world, God’s view is not limited by our human boundaries. Heaven provides rather a good vantage point for the whole picture. God stands a little over us, in order to stand with us.
Every parent knows that, in order to be a good parent, you must not only be very close to your children, listening to them, spending time with them, talking to them; you must also be at some distance from your children, disciplining them, advising them, reminding yourself that your children are not mere extensions of you. God manages to do that with us. In heaven, God is intimately part of creation and its creatures, but at the same time God is not identical with creation. When we pray, we never pray alone, because we always begin with ”Our Father”, we are part of a community, a family, and with the mention of heaven, “our” expands to include who’ve gone before, as well as those all around the world.
Revelation is poetry and metaphor, nothing literal, but it’s worth observing from that that heaven is a probably crowded and raucous place, where there’s no more hunger or thirst, and there is the fullness of God. In our Communion service, the table is not just the piece of wood that we see, but a table that extends all the way from our congregation to the great congregation made possible by Jesus’ resurrection.
The Christian hope is that if we share in God’s kingdom now, here on earth, we shall be ready fully to participate in God’s final triumph eternally. We shall dwell forever in the house of the Lord, a dwelling we have prepared for in our prayer here on earth to “our Father in heaven”.