Revelation 22: 1-5
I never get tired of those stories and pictures of those who have been deployed in service to our country returning to family and friends. I remember one in particular. The aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln finally reached port in San Diego after 10 long months at sea. For the families on the dock, the excitement of that moment was expressed in cheers and tears, and hugs that held on forever. On the front page of the Washington Post I saw a picture of one particular reunion caught my attention.
A Naval officer in dress whites bent as low as he was able in order to look directly into the eyes of his not quite two-year old daughter. They were not touching, though his hands were held out. There were no words, just cries of joy. They were just staring at each other. In the father’s eyes you could see only love for his child from whom he had been absent all too long. In her face I was a mixture of curiosity and joy and maybe a little fear because he had been away for half of her lifetime. Her father was still a bit of a mystery. This homecoming blended a myriad of emotions, but mostly it came down to awe. They looked at each other in wonder.
I believe the day that you or I ultimately stand before our Lord in heaven may be something like that. Jesus will bend down as low as he is able, hands reaching out, looking with eyes filled with love, and for a moment, for our part, there will, I imagine, be curiosity and joy and maybe a little fear. Mostly, there will be a wonder, a feeling of awe in response to the presence of God. That, I think, is a little bit of what heaven will be like – but there is more, and that is what we’ll look at today. Let us first pray:
Lord, we’ve learned that home is where the heart is, but we confess our hearts are divided between what we see and what we hope for. In our confusion, doubts call into question our faith. Speak to us now through your Word and Spirit that we might find comfort and courage to face the living of these days. Amen.
When was the last time you thought about heaven? I’ll bet it was when you stood at the graveside of someone you loved, or when you heard a dire prognosis from a physician. Moments like that force the question, “What now? What’s next?” We hope there will be something more, and we hope it will be better, but sometimes we’re not so sure. Is this wishful thinking, or a fantasy, or a placebo to help us cope with our loss?
Bertrand Russell, the 1950 Nobel Prize winner of literature, thought it was. He wrote, “There is no splendor, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment – then nothing.” John Lennon agreed when he sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try; No hell below us, above us only sky; Imagine all the people just living for today.” If there is no heaven, that is all you have – just living for today. The book of Ecclesiastes indicates that if we hold to this view, “there is nothing better than that you should eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die” Is that enough for you? Is all you find in this life enough? Your answer will probably impact the decisions you make, the way you live your life, and the manner in which you face the end of your life.
Jesus, who probably knows more about this than anyone, believed that heaven is a particular place and not just a state of mind. In fact, he said that he would go to prepare that place for us, a particular place unique for each individual. “In my Father’s house are many mansions, dwelling places.” He doesn’t offer a lot of description of what these places will look like. There is no discussion of heavenly geography or celestial architecture. The images with which we are most familiar – pearly gates and streets of gold – come from the Revelation given to John and they are clearly used as symbols there. But Jesus speaks more relationally. He speaks of wedding feasts and homecomings. Again and again Jesus said, “The Kingdom of heaven is like something we can see, but it is only, like a mustard seed, leaven in bread, a hidden treasure, a pearl of great price.”
All of these snapshot parables are intended to give us a glimpse of something that is ultimately beyond our experience and knowledge. We will always be looking at this “through a glass darkly.” It will always be just beyond the horizon, so it will always be difficult to envision. There are two reasons our vision will always be unclear: sin and time. Sin questions purity and holiness and love that are promised in heaven and sarcastically asks whether any of these are really possible. If they are possible, if somehow sinful nature does transform upon entrance into heaven so that we can live that way; sin still see these virtues as being tedious. Heaven for some sounds boring. If it’s just harps and hymns and halos, then it sounds too much like church. The hour for worship on Sunday morning for many already seems like an eternity.
The second reason heaven is so difficult to grasp is time. Our view of time is completely linear. It is measured in years and months and days and minutes. It has a beginning and an end so it’s understood to be part of a zero-sum world where resources are limited and there is only so much time, and there are never enough resources and never enough time. So, the wisest course of action would seem to cram as much of this world into this life as we can, because you only go around once, so it’s beast to reach for the gusto.
This is the world in which we live. This is all we see, but the Bible says there is more, something not yet seen. I remember speaking with a grandfather about a visit he made with his ten year-old granddaughter to a place called the Butterfly Emporium. There, he said, they learned more about caterpillars and butterflies than you’d ever want to know. One of the things he told me that I did not know is that caterpillars just don’t grow wings when they are in the cocoon. He said that they kind of dissolve into a pupae stage and from that a new body is formed with beautiful wings. The technical term is metamorphosis. After learning this he said his granddaughter wondered, “Grandpa, do you suppose those caterpillars have any idea in the world that they will one day sprout wings and fly wherever they want to go, or do they think their whole world will always be this Mulberry tree they munch on is all there is?”
So, what does the Bible say is beyond our Mulberry tree? What does it say about heaven?
First, and most important, heaven is where God is. Though we believe God is everywhere, each week we offer a prayer given to us by Jesus that locates he center of God’s being in a place he call heaven. How does the prayer begin? “Our Father who art in heaven…” Here God is experienced as far more than a kind of vague presence or feeling. God is seen, or at least a reflection of the glory of God is seen.
Whenever someone like Isaiah or the Apostle John is granted a brief visionary glimpse of heaven, the first response is awe. They are overwhelmed. They are like that little girl on the dock who saw her father for the first time, as a giant in dress whites whom she as been told is her father. There is awe and love and maybe a little fear. Words fail to describe, but they do the best they can to convey that sense of wonder.
That is no small thing. Those who are world weary, who believe they’ve seen everything there is to see, done everything worth doing, gone everywhere worth going often long for a sense of wonder that only children seem to have. That is perhaps why Jesus said, “Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
There is a place in every heart that only God can fill and God will that heart most completely when attention is undivided and finds a focus only possible in his presence. Heaven is where God is and that glory is beyond our experience as flight is to a caterpillar.
Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, believes that deep within every person there is a homing device. There is a home detector and it will not ring its bells for anything on this earth. The Apostle Paul speaks of believers who have died as being “at home with the Lord.” It is a homecoming, and many see it as a glad reunion with those who have passed on before, a reunion between parents and children and friends who had been separated by the barrier of the grave.
One of the difficulties some have with this idea though is that some of us aren’t too crazy about some of the people we’ve known in this world and certainly don’t want to be reunited with them, spend an eternity with them, or even run into them after they have died. Heaven, we believe, can’t be heaven if that old so-and-so is there.
One little girl saw that problem and wrote God a letter and asked, “Dear God, don’t you find it hard to love everybody in the world? There are only four in my family. I can never do it.”
The Book of Hebrews tells us that heaven is filled with “the righteous made perfect.” That means sin will have no place. It could not or heaven would not be heaven. How can that be? Sin is so much more a part of who we are. Does God in that metamorphosis just erase our desire for dominance and control and acquisition? Does he reformat the hard drive to erase those viruses that corrupted the operating system? Does God change that old so-and-so we found so annoying? Does God change us?
The Apostle John believed “When Jesus appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” His love and righteousness will be contagious. When we see him clearly we will want to become like he is, and there we will have the ability to do so.
Why there and not here? How will we better reflect Jesus there than we can here? Perhaps it is because our zero-sum world with its limited resources and limited time prompts us to do all manner of evil so that we can get ours. It is the competition that leads us to misuse others. On this the Bible is clear, both time and resources in heaven are not finite – but infinite, so it will no longer become necessary to grasp and grope to get yours. It will be your home after all and no one steals from himself.
Finally, heaven offers a fresh start, a new beginning. The Apostle Paul promises a new body, which is great news for some of us. The Bible also promises a new vocation. In our scripture lesson for today, we read that those in heaven will reign with God. What this means exactly is not clear, but it is an active verb. People in heaven will do something that is meaningful and important. It is not an eternal vacation where you struggle to find something to occupy yourself. We will have a role to play and a responsibility.
All of this is good to know, but all of it is on the other side of the grave, so what difference does it make now? I think it makes a difference in three ways:
First, it helps us to set our priorities. Jesus warned us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is there will be your heart also.” So don’t sweat the small stuff and keep the main thing the main thing. Keeping this in mind helps us see beyond the Mulberry tree in which we live to a wider world, and reminds us that our actions and attitudes have consequences that may be eternal. They are the treasures we store up in heaven.
Second, knowing there is a heaven provides courage and comfort when times are hard. This is a reminder that they won’t last forever. Something better is promised by God. The Bible says, “Don’t lose heart, because we look not to things that are seen but to things that are unseen.”
In the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, the writer goes through a list of saints who by faith had endured great obstacles that challenged their faith. He acknowledged though, “that all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but saw them only from a distance.”
That means before they died they caught a glimpse of heaven on earth, and it was that glimpse that gave them comfort and courage. That’s what we pray for isn’t it, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Sometimes heaven leaks out into this world, but we don’t always recognize it.
In the movie “Field of Dreams,” Kevin Costner finally receives the revelation at the conclusion of the film. He had been driven by an unseen voice to build a baseball field in the middle of Iowa so that long deceased baseball players would have a place to play, but he story is not really about baseball. It is about reconciliation and reunion of father and son.
In one of the concluding scenes, one of the players who just appear out of the cornfield asks, “Is this heaven?” Kevin Costner replied, “No, it’s Iowa.” The player looks around at the sparkling sky and at the corn shocks rustling in the breeze and this perfect baseball diamond and he’s puzzled. “I could have sworn this was heaven.” Costner picks up on this query, looks over at his wife and daughter laughing on the porch and in that moment when he counts his blessings, he catches a glimpse of heaven that was right in front of him all the time. So he says, “Maybe it is.” Maybe heaven is a bit like that.
One day each one of us will be called home, and we will come before our Lord in heaven and it may be something like this. Jesus will bend down as low as he is able, hands reaching out, eyes filled with love, and for a moment, for our part, there will, I imagine, be curiosity and joy and maybe a little fear, and then a glad reunion – homecoming.
Let us pray:
Lord, because you are our shepherd we know that we shall not want, that you will make us lie down in green pastures and beside still waters – that you will restore our souls. When we walk through the dark valley, we pray for the courage and comfort that come from the assurance that you are with us, so we need not fear evil. We thank you that you prepare a table for us, and refresh us with the oil of your Holy Spirit. We pray that goodness and mercy will follow us all of our lives, and that one day we shall dwell in your house forever. Amen.
 Washington Post May 7, 2003, pp A-1.
 Ecclesiastes 2:24, 3:13, 8:15
 John 14:1
 Matthew 13
 1 Corinthians 13:12
 Grady Smith
 Matthew 6: 9-10
 Isaiah 6, Revelation 1
 Matthew 18:3
 Preaching: March/April 1996, pp 56
 Children’s Letters to God
 Hebrews 12:23
 1 John 3:2
 1 Corinthians 15:35ff
 Revelation 22:5
 Matthew 6: 19-21
 2 Corinthians 2:16
 Hebrews 11:13
 Matthew 6:10