May 26, 2019
May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When you think of heaven what’s the very first thing you think of?
My guess is that we don’t often think about heaven directly – in terms of what it will be like. Or maybe when we think of it it’s a big pool of vague ideas maybe not connected to scripture at all. Or perhaps pondering heaven raises a plethora of questions that stop us in our tracks.
Our reading from the book of Revelation today helps us to understand some characteristics of heaven. This is a book Russ described last Sunday as themed on the restoration of all things.
It was written toward the end of the 1st century. Maybe 50 to 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian church in that time was slowly finding its identity – it was not in the synagogue and not part of the Roman empire – in fact, horrifying persecution had already begun.
The gospel of John – which we also heard from today, thought of as the last of the four gospels written, was written before Revelation – maybe 10-20 years – and in our reading today we hear a bit of the development of the church – it’s literally looking for a home and existing in gatherings in homes. It was not fitting in a tidy way between the synagogue and the empire. No wonder John focused on these comments by Jesus: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Home. Words of security in the fits and starts of place while the Christian faith is developing in its self-expression.
As John writes Revelation he is addressing the Christian church then – and speaking of the way’s life will get harder before it gets easier as the Roman empire amps up on persecution. But he’s also addressing us – it’s a multifaceted book. It was written to encourage and inform its present audience, but also written to encourage and inform future generations.
In today’s reading we are hearing a description of the new Jerusalem – and within that, aspects of what heaven will be like.
We can be tempted to read it all quite literally. But it’s steeped in the limitations of words. John is likely ‘seeing’ something God has shown him – he self describes being caught up into something - and is reaching for words to describe it. In the opening chapter of the book he writes: “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard a voice behind me like a loud trumpet” [even in that phrase we see him searching for ways to describe – ‘like a loud trumpet’] the voice was “saying, ‘Write in a book what you see.’” (Rev. 1:10). We may speculate that he is seeing things that are not of this world, so there is difficulty finding words to describe something no one has seen before.
For example, he writes that God took him to a mountain top and showed him Jerusalem coming down out of heaven…do we read that literally – an entire city lowering out of heaven? Or perhaps do we incline ourselves toward other themes of writing and symbolism in scripture and infer the divine and the human are intermingling as never before: God’s unlimited presence and humanity’s ongoing daily life. Scripturally mountains are often used to communicate ‘thin places,’ – places where the divine presence is palpably experienced and where the revelation of God takes place.
A reflective reading with an awareness of image and symbolism spurs excitement about what heaven will be like. This is in contrast to what happens when we read it with a literal mindset: not much.
In our passage today we glean characteristics of heaven, categories if you will of what it will be like.
First, there’s presence – which has always been an important aspect of God’s revelation of God’s self. Think back to Moses before the burning bush: “If they ask me,” Moses poses to God, ‘what is his name? what shall I say to them?” and God says: “I am who I am.” The present tense of the verb to be. To be present. God is present.
First, we hear: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb,” and further: “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it.” In Israel’s history, the temple was the place of God’s dwelling…now, God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit…and in the full manifestation of God’s kingdom there’s no need for temple or place for God to dwell because God in God’s fullness is everywhere…and Jesus in bodily form will be literally walking among us.
Unlimited Presence. Everywhere. All the time.
Then we hear: “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, we hear language of light and darkness contrasted. This may allude to the presence of God in contrast to evil – darkness. Or refer to knowing the way to go/the way to live – walk in the light.
No darkness. No evil. Another aspect of continual light everywhere is that nothing will be hidden – Jesus has proclaimed: “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.” This is not a fearful/shameful thing…but a thing of freedom. Nothing will be hidden…there will be no shame. No hiding…all will be in the light. We will live in the light all the time and all the time there will be no evil. This is a big deal – so different from what life can look like now…no shame, no evil.
Our last consideration is the gates: “They will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.” The implication of no night and open during the day is that they will never shut. Historically the gates of a city were shut at night for reasons of safety and protection. In heaven complete safety. No fear. And also - complete availability and accessibility. No limitation from God’s presence and kingdom. Perfect freedom and sense of security.
The presence of God, the accessibility of the Kingdom of God is not based on anything we do – there is no performance, there is no evaluation – no test to pass. In the language of Easter: this is love. This is grace. And also, this Easter season, we are keenly aware that this freedom and accessibility to God for us cost God everything. Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection.
Our future living directly in God’s presence in heaven is hard to grasp, but it can begin to make more sense for us as we live our lives here. Here we live in what theologian George Eldon Ladd called “the now and the not yet.” The presence of God, the kingdom of God is here now. Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God – presence, love, light, power. Those things that will exist for all eternity with God. And as we follow Jesus we experience and contribute to the kingdom of God on earth. We experience in part what we will know fully in heaven.
Light – no shame, no hiding, no evil.
Completely safe and secure.
Our awareness and appreciation of this comes as we think about heaven. About where we are going – we bring clarity to that pool of vague ideas and questions about eternity with God. On a practical level, thinking about where we are going fosters anticipation, perhaps a bit of a ‘getting ready’ mindset – not out of fear but out of excitement - and it influences how we live our lives now.
Thinking about heaven is important.
Let us be mindful that we are a people of God now, and we are a people of God on our way somewhere – somewhere glorious.