May 5, 2013
Today we come to what is, for practical purposes, the conclusion of the biblical story, the climax, the consummation, the finale. We hear from the last chapter of the last book of scripture, and what we hear is glorious.
Do you want to know something of heaven and why it is a home to long for? Then ponder the words of this passage found at the end of the Bible. Let its rich colors and images soak into your soul, enlighten your heart, renew your faith and hope and love.
John, the author of the Book of Revelation describes the city that has come down to be the center of the new heaven and the new earth. He extols the beauty and perfection of this city, challenging the capacities of human speech.
This new Jerusalem is a golden city, and crystal clear like a rare jewel. The wall surrounding this four-square city has a dozen gates, with three gates on each side, each a giant lustrous pearl, each one guarded by an angel. This is a stable city, resting not on a single foundation, but on twelve foundations, one atop another, each foundation made of a different precious stone.
Hearing of this new Jerusalem, as John describes it, can elevate and enliven the desires of our hearts for God and the consummation of God’s purposes. But what we learn of the new Jerusalem can function in another way as well.
It can help us recognize glimpses of heaven that intrude into our lives. For when we live by faith, heaven is not a far and alien country, but rather we find ourselves dwelling, some of the time at least, in the suburbs of the new Jerusalem; and moments come when we are granted sights of its golden crystalline splendor, often when we least expect this to happen.
There are three points to remember about heaven that influence the glimpses of heaven that we have here on earth: Heaven is a community; heaven is a place of healing; and heaven is a place of vision.
First, heaven is a community. The story of humankind in the Bible takes us from a garden with only one couple to a vast city with a cosmopolitan population, this new Jerusalem.
Away then, with any small, narrow, cramped view of heaven or the salvation it represents! Away then, with any spirituality that distorts the intimate and the personal, turning them into merely the private and the individual.
There is intimate, personal encounter with God, with Christ, but properly it always leads us to a generous embrace of the world, which God created and for which Christ died.
Yes, the new Jerusalem described for us is a vast, cosmopolitan city with people of every kind, people from every nation. It is the capital of the God who delights in diversity.
If you want a foretaste of heaven, a little nibble to whet your appetite, go on a fine summer day to a city park where there are several big family picnics taking place. Catch the spirit there in the hubbub and the conviviality. Or go to a playground in that park where dozens of kids dash about in perpetual motion, each on a different trajectory. There before you on a fine summer day is a slice of what heaven will be like.
Second, heaven is a place of healing. John points to this when he describes what we may call the horticulture of heaven. Through the city runs the river, the beautiful river, the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, more splendid than your favorite waterway. On the banks of the river appear rows of magnificent trees, bearing fruit not once or twice a year, but a super tree astoundingly fruitful. Then John slips in the kicker that we miss if we do not pay attention. He tells us that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
The healing of the nations! So heaven has medicine for the wounds that separate and scar nations on earth. The new Jerusalem is thus a place of reconciliation, where old and deep antagonisms no longer produce their poison, where traditional enemies enjoy peace with one another. It is not that these costly antagonisms, these wars and feuds and oppressions, are forgotten, repressed or ignored. What happens is that the wounds are healed. Brokenness gives way to wholeness. Hatred gives way to love. Nations once at odds now together bring their glory and honor into the new Jerusalem. Leaving behind anything false or foul, they freely offer their particular gifts. All this happens because of the healing leaves of the tree, and the tree bears the shape of a cross.
If the national wounds can be healed, so too can smaller but no less painful wounds: strife between tribes and clans and families and classes and groups and individuals. All these are healed in heaven at the price of the cross. Everyone leaves behind what is evil and makes a particular offering to God.
So if you want to see a bit of heaven on earth, go someplace where reconciliation is real, where wounds big and small are treated and healed. Or bring this heaven to earth yourself. Work for justice and peace. Or bring it still closer to home: forgive someone who does not deserve it, maybe even yourself. You’ll catch a bit of heaven’s glimmer; you’ll be in the near suburbs of the new Jerusalem.
Finally, heaven is a place of vision. Note the references to light in today’s passage from Revelation. We hear that the light of the new Jerusalem is God’s glory and its lamp is the Lamb. By this light the nations will walk. The gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.
And what is the object of vision in this city of purity and light? John tells us in a few words: “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”
God’s servants will be marked as belonging to God, even as now the church marks the brows of newly baptized with the sign of the cross, the seal of the Spirit. It is the privilege of these servants not only to worship God, but to see God.
This, the sight of God, is what, above all else, makes heaven, heaven!
Here in our present life, worship remains indirect. We use sacraments and signs, images and words that suggest the divine reality to our hearts and minds. There, we shall see God face to face.
Here we encounter God amid the shadows and uncertainties of life. There we shall see God in the bright light of eternal day and in the delightful rest of eternal sabbath.
We shall have achieved the purpose of our existence and entered into abundant joy from which there will be no exit. In the celebrated words of St. Augustine, “We shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end.”
We do not now live in that great city, but from time to time we find ourselves, perhaps to our surprise, in one of its near suburbs. And so, as John might put it, we catch a glimpse of its golden crystalline walls, its gates of stupendous pearl.
This glimpse may come as a strange warming of the heart. A refreshment of hope and courage. An assurance in time of hardship. A beauty that beguiles and delights.
The creator of all things, the lord of all time is versatile in giving us glimpses of that great city, reminders of our true home. We cannot dictate when these glimpses will happen, but we can leave ourselves open to recognize and welcome them when they occur.
We can learn and re-learn that heaven is a community, a place of healing, a place of vision. We can long for heaven in its fullness and also enjoy the glimpses that appear to us now in moments of vision and healing and community. Then, when we come to the new Jerusalem, it will not seem like a strange and alien city, but will feel a lot like home.
— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals“ (Cowley Publications, 2003).