As I went through the songs the congregation requested for the summer, I noticed that a number of them shared a particular theme. That theme is what we are waiting for when we end our journey through this life and arrive in our heavenly home. “Sweet By and By,” “Mansion Over the Hilltop,” and “When We All Get to Heaven” all envision what “heaven” will be like.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews acknowledges that we are part of a long history of sojourners and travelers who looked towards the new place that God has prepared for us, whether earthly or divine. Hebrews speaks of how our ancestors in the faith were always journeying: first Abraham and Sarah, then Isaac and Jacob. They travelled to the places God called them to, not knowing what their final destination would be or what it would be like. But they were faithful; they trusted in God’s promises—that they were the beginnings of a people who would be “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
They had a choice about whether or not to go where they were sent. Once they arrived, they could have chosen to turn around and go back to the place they’d come from. But they continued on, trusting in God’s promise that one day they would live in a home that was superior to the one they carried with them as they journeyed from place to place. Unlike the temporary tent city of their journeys, they were waiting for a permanent home—one that had solid foundations, both designed and built by God. Their faith in God’s promises, demonstrated by their confidence that a divinely-constructed home awaited them, is the proof that what we cannot see exists and is waiting for us. It’s by that same faith that we can trust in the promise of what we cannot see.
What kind of heaven are you waiting for? We sing about mansions for each of us, but that idea seems to have its roots in the language of the King James Version of the Bible, which is beautiful but not necessarily a good translation. Rather, in the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus assuring his disciples that he will make a place for them in his Father’s house—a house with many rooms, one house containing many places to dwell.
In the 1st century, it was typical for several households within the same extended family to share a house, with each household having its own room or two while sharing common spaces for meals and socializing. As the family grew with new spouses and children, more rooms were added to make space. The disciples would have recognized Jesus’ promise of that arrangement. But, they probably would have been surprised if Jesus had suggested that they would each get a luxurious mansion of their own.
Are you waiting not so much for a particular kind of house but a particular kind of heavenly neighborhood? The 21st chapter of the Revelation to John gives us very detailed images of the world to come when Jesus returns. Although it’s a description related to the second coming, that doesn’t stop us from using its beautiful words to furnish our imaginings of what heaven is like now.
John’s vision of the New Jerusalem that Jesus will bring with him when he returns is of a city surrounded by walls of jasper, marble-like but clear as crystal, with twelve gates each made of a single pearl. I especially like the part about how the foundations of those walls are adorned with every kind of jewel. It makes me think of a wall I used to ride my bicycle past when I was a little girl. The wall was made of stones, and embedded in the mortar were marbles of every color and type and size—aggies and puries, cat’s eyes and tigers, shooters and peewees. I was awe-struck every time I saw it, especially in the evening when the sun would hit it just so and make the marbles gleam like jewels. I couldn’t resist putting down my kickstand and examining that wall with its embedded treasure—a “this-world” wall like the one John describes.
If there is a mansion set aside for each of us, it makes sense that it would have walls of gold, because John says that the buildings inside the city are made of gold, but like that jasper, it’s clear like glass. Main Street is made of that same clear gold, with the crystal-clear water of the river of life flowing right down the middle of it. John describes the landscaping of the New Jerusalem, but he doesn’t discuss the interior decorating, so I’m not sure where we can find a basis for silver-coated interior walls. But John does say that the New Jerusalem has the radiance of a rare jewel. And why wouldn’t it, since the glory of God will light up the city, shining through the lamp that is Jesus?
Maybe you’re waiting for someone rather than some place. In our hymns, we sing of our hope that we will be reunited with the loved ones who have gone before us. We trust that we will recognize one another in heaven. How that will be possible is a mystery, both before and after our physical resurrection. Our bodies won’t be resurrected until Jesus’ return, and we don’t know exactly what form those resurrected bodies will take. The first letter of John tells us, “what we will be has not yet been revealed, [but] we do know this: when [God in Christ] is revealed, we will be like him.” Using a farming metaphor, Paul speaks to the mystery of our new bodies in his first letter to the Corinthians: “…you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.”
Though we may not know what our new bodies will look like, the disciples and others recognized Jesus after his resurrection. So, it’s reasonable to assume we will be able to recognize each other after our own. We just need to be comfortable leaving the mechanics of how that will work to God when we are reunited with our loved ones.
Are you waiting for the time when we will shed our physical bodies which can cause us so much pain, and leave behind the worldly burdens that can cause us so much grief and sorrow? We envision heaven as the place where we will get a head start on the life to come in the new earth of Jesus’ return, when God will wipe every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. That’s a time worth waiting for.
But, maybe you’re waiting for the time when you’ll leave all the distractions of earth behind and we can spend all our time worshiping God. John’s vision of the living creatures and elders praising God and singing, day and night without end, suggests that life in heaven will be constant joy and worship. Surely, God wouldn’t limit this joy-filled worship to just a few. Surely, we will all be invited to sing and shout the victory over sin and death, accomplished by Jesus and extended to all of us who love him.
We spend a lot of time envisioning what the life that begins after we die will be like. But Jesus said that he came to bring us eternal life now, in the present. We forget that the word “eternal” is an adjective that describes life as having no end but also no beginning. Eternal life doesn’t start when we die. It exists now. It has always existed. We don’t have to wait until we die to be part of it.
Jesus shows us how to enter into that life that is flowing all around us. In the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed to God, “…you have given me authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given me. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Not “will have.” Not future tense. Has, present tense, as in right now, right here.
Eternal life is life lived in relationship with God through our faith in Jesus, and we can have that now. Jesus came so that we might have that life, and have it abundantly, now as well as after our earthly lives end. The minute we accept the life Jesus offers, we enter into that river of eternal life that is flowing all around us now, as it will be in the world to come.
When we describe life as eternal, we’re not simply describing it in terms of time. We’re also talking about its nature. We’re talking about life that is in keeping with what God has planned for all who live in God’s kingdom, now and forever. Eternal life is marked by newness. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!” It’s life marked by freedom: free of the power of sin, freed from the fear of death. It’s life lived as the kindred of Jesus—his brothers and sisters, heirs with him of God’s kingdom. It’s life joined together as his body, with him as our head. It’s life where nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. What a glorious life we’ve been offered, to enjoy now and forever! If you haven’t accepted it, what are you waiting for?
Eternal life—life lived in constant communion with God—takes on a particular shape: the shape of the cross, reaching up to God and reaching out to others. Jesus didn’t talk much about what life after death will be like, but he talked a lot about what life before death should be like. The problem is that we sometimes get so focused on what eternal life will look like after we die, we forget what Jesus said about what eternal life should look like before we die. Jesus was pretty clear about what it means to live a life that’s fit for eternity. He lived that life, and he taught us how to live it, too, both in what he said and what did.
We’re pretty good at doing the things that are part of that life—helping out people in need, comforting people who are hurting, just generally being honest, kind people. And that’s all good. But the eternal life Jesus gave us and modeled for us is more demanding than that. He made connections with people who were very different from him. He crossed the lines of age and gender and religion and nationality and disability. He connected with Pharisees and Samaritans, women and children, the physically disabled and the mentally ill, even the Romans and their Jewish collaborators.
He offered them more than a hand-out. He offered them dignity and recognized them as God’s beloved children, talking with them, sharing meals with them in their homes, building relationships with them. Think about that, the next time you’re tempted to roll your eyes at the concerns of someone unlike you, considering them unimportant and better left alone. Think about that, the next time you hear yourself dismissing a whole group of people because their experiences aren’t your experiences: “Oh, those young people. Oh, those old people. Oh, those black people, those white people, those Asians, Arabs, Hispanics, Muslims, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives. Oh, those people.”
Accepting the eternal life Jesus offers requires that we first die to our old way of being. We die to our old way of responding to people and seeing the world. Then we are made alive in Christ, living the eternal life he does, with all its joys and its demands that we live in a way that befits the kingdom we’ve been given. It’s a life full of joy and peace. It’s a life guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But it’s also a life that calls us to self-examination, to see if we are truly living, or at least striving to live, as Jesus calls us to live. It’s a life that can be challenging as we allow ourselves to be changed. And if we’re not living that life and allowing, even welcoming, that change, we have to ask ourselves, “What’s holding us back? What are we waiting for?”
One day when Peyton was three or four years old, we were driving north on Reynolds Road and we were almost to Nebraska Avenue when she announced from the back seat, for no apparent reason, “Mommy, I know what happens when we die.” When I started breathing again, I said, “Uh, you do?” “Yes,” she said, with the complete confidence. “When all our days are gone, we die. When all your days are gone, you’ll die. When all my days are gone, I’ll die. That’s what happens when we die.” I thought about that for a moment and then I responded with this deeply spiritual and yet age-appropriate reply: “Oh.”
Peyton didn’t yet know (and I’m not sure I fully understood yet either) that there is more waiting for us after all our days are gone. She didn’t yet know that Jesus has made eternal life possible for us, and that we don’t have to wait, and we shouldn’t wait, until all our days are gone to enjoy it and live it—to know the one true God and Jesus Christ whom God sent. She didn’t yet know that once we accept that life, until all our days are gone we are called to live according to the radical teachings and love of Jesus. However we picture life in heaven, we don’t have to wait until all our days are gone to have eternal life. We can have it now. The only question is, “What are you waiting for?” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young