On Earth as in Heaven
A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 24 December 2019 by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
When you sit down to try think about what to get your friends, family and colleagues for Christmas you realise there’s one person it’s impossible to buy a present for, because they don’t really have interests or their interests are so obscure you have no idea what will please them. Then there’s the person it’s easy to get a present for, because they seem to love everything, and so long as it’s handmade or natural fibre or recycled they’re bound to whoop and squeal on opening it. Then there’s the person who’s pretty fixated on just one thing and, while that seems limiting, once you hit the sweet spot you can be pretty sure you can keep on hitting it.
I know one such person, quite a small person, who won’t eat much for breakfast but will eat a boiled egg. So one year I got her an eggcup. The next year I got her a fancier eggcup. Deciding it was time for a change, I thought I’d explore an egg-timer. Not one of those tick-tock ones that’ve been superseded by stopwatches on an iPhone. No, I wanted to find an hour glass, which of course wasn’t an hour glass exactly, but could pass sand through a tiny gap for as long as it takes from dropping a raw egg into boiling water till it’s soft boiled.
It turns out that whatever your poison, Amazon, eBay or the High Street, such a thing is incredibly hard to come by. Making a glass wide enough to hold a weight of sand but narrow enough to let through just one grain at a time is a highly skilled operation. And I’ve no idea just whose job it is to count the grains of sand individually to reach exactly the right number for a soft-boiled egg. Then of course we might disagree on what texture a soft-boiled egg has. No doubt it boils faster at altitude.
But what I do know, because her mother told me, was that when finally I did track down a real hourglass egg-timer, I hit the jackpot, because this young lady spent Christmas Day pleading with her parents to lay aside the new cappuccino machine and the turkey and just boil an egg instead, over and over again, because she was mesmerised by the grains of sand sliding through the aperture in the hourglass. Then she would turn it over and religiously wait for every grain of sand to pass through before overturning it again. She loved trying to guess when the last grain would drop. There was no ending the pleasure she took in it.
I want to ponder with you the significance of that aperture, and the hourglass that surrounds it. Imagine for a moment, if it’s not too overwhelming, the whole activity of the world, all the bustle and life of human beings, all the wonder of creation, all the micro level of amoeba and electrons, all the macro levels of stars and space and galaxies – and then stretch that colossal breadth of reality back 14.8 billion years to the beginning of time, and if you’re still going stretch it forward to the end of time, whether that’s less than 14.8 billion years or maybe a whole lot more. I want you to think of that as all the sand at the bottom of the hourglass. You may well say, that’s a mighty big hourglass, too big for a soft-boiled egg – and you’d be right. But encapsulate it all there, nestling at the bottom of the glass.
And then I want you to turn your attention to the top of the glass, the part that because of gravity is empty, so empty you can see through it from one side to the other. I’m going to give a name to that part of the glass. We can look down at the sands of time at the bottom of the glass and we can call that reality. The top of the glass has a different name. It’s called heaven. It’s empty not just because of gravity but because we don’t exactly know what’s there. But what I’m going to suggest to you is that it’s a lot larger than the bottom of the glass. That’s a mindboggling statement, because the bottom of the glass is vast beyond description. But I want you to imagine the top of the glass as even bigger.
Now, ponder with me the aperture that joins the top and the bottom of the glass together. The first thing that strikes you is that it looks absolutely tiny. The second thing that you realise is that it’s somehow, astonishingly, able to bear the whole weight of the top of the hourglass without cracking. The third thing you wonder is how on earth everything that’s currently in the bottom half could ever get through this tiny aperture and reach the other half.
Stop there for a moment, because that’s the crucial point. Listen to the language very carefully. How on earth could everything get through to the other part – the heaven part? And here’s your answer. At one moment in history one person emerged who was totally part of the bottom half and totally part of the top half. Just contemplate that aperture for a second. That aperture is utterly of the same substance with the bottom half and of the same material as the top half. And yet it’s utterly unique, because there’s nothing else like it at the top or at the bottom.
That aperture represents what Christians believe Jesus is. Jesus is that tiny moment in history that connects time to eternity, reality to heaven, now to forever. He is completely part of time, reality and now; but at the same instant he’s completely part of eternity, heaven and forever. And more than anything else he is the aperture, the route, the causeway from now to forever, from earth to heaven, from time to eternity.
See how this is what the Christmas story is telling us. The full range of humanity, from underclass shepherds struggling on zero hours contracts and facing the unforgiving reality of universal credit to affluent kings, citizens of nowhere, with their heads in the stars. The full dimensions of existence, from the lowly earth of the manger to the ethereal skies above Bethlehem. The full range of experience, from the terror and humiliation of an unexpected pregnancy and the horror of Herod’s massacre to the joy and gladness of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The story sums up in the language of its time everything we mean by reality, all 14.8 billion years of it across the whole universe, in its ordinariness, depth, texture, fragility and wonder.
And then three things happen. An aperture appears. This tiny baby, this delicate, swaddled new born child defies description, because, like the aperture above the bottom half of the hourglass, this one being encapsulates the whole of the glass – and indeed makes us for the first time realise it is an hourglass, and we’ve been looking at only the bottom half of it. This is the second thing: in the light of this birth we discover that the whole of existence is contained in the bottom half of the glass, and that there’s this whole colossal upper glass called heaven that all the splendours of existence can’t come near to and can never reach – or could never reach if it wasn’t for this astonishing possibility, the appearance of a causeway, route, aperture that leads us from one to the other, time to eternity, earth to heaven.
And then a third thing happens. Not perhaps suddenly, but gradually as the gospels tell the rest of the astonishing story. What happens is that the whole almighty hourglass is tipped over at 180 degrees, turned upside down, and now the full panoply of time and existence is on top, weighing down on the tiny aperture that is Jesus. That’s what happens in the rest of the gospel story. The full weight of existence, and most painfully the aspects of existence that are hurtful, cruel and wrong, weighs on the shoulders of the one who opens a way from time to eternity. That’s what culminates in the cross. It must be hell for Jesus to carry all that weight. In the resurrection the aperture becomes unblocked and now we can pass through Christ to heaven, a glass indescribably more wonderful than the other glass. It’s like the gravity that held us down in the lower glass and the minuteness of the aperture that looked impossible to traverse have been transformed by the upside-down 180-degree transformation of God’s kingdom, and now we’re drawn towards forever just as surely as once we were locked in time.
That’s the wonder of Christmas, the mystery of the gospel, and the joy of Jesus. And what we’re doing right now, as we gather this holy night to worship and celebrate this story, this upside down glory, this reverse of gravity, is like my young friend, for a moment to leave aside the presents, the anxiety, the hubbub of the season, and become mesmerised by the hourglass, the aperture, and the absorbing sight of tiny granules of existence passing through the full humanity and utter divinity of Jesus. It’s like we’ve blocked everything else out. Nothing else matters.
Well let me tell you a secret – the secret of Christmas. Nothing else does.