Looking to Heaven

By Dan Edwards

We have probably all noticed that life on this planet isn’t a cakewalk. A lot of bad stuff happens. I’ll spare you the list of horrors in the news. You already know that.

Along with the bad stuff, there is plenty of goodness and beauty. There’s a great deal to love here. But there’s a problem with that too. The lovely comes and then it’s gone. It’s transitory. A thousand poems have said it.

Robert Frost put it simply:

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf’s a flower
But only so an hour
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden came to grief
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

It is not so much the bad stuff that breaks our hearts as the passing away of what we love, the people, places, and times we love.

That’s why religion — not just ours — religion itself looks beyond what the Prayer Book calls “the changes and the chances of this mortal life” to find a place where our true hope resides. The Scriptures teach us to set our eyes upon that realm where God’s gracious and merciful will is done, not just now and then, but forever and ever amen.

As Christians, we have another world in view. Paul said, “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven.” Life was hard in Appalachia in 1784 when Christians began singing,

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While travelin’ in this world below.
There is no sickness toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go.

Since the 5th century B.C. in Greece — and earlier in the East — there have been compelling philosophical arguments for believing in a realm of enduring meaning, beauty, and goodness. But our first intuitions of such a hope did not come from philosophy. They came from the visions of prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Enoch, and St. John the Divine, who gave us today’s lesson from Revelation.

During a dark time of persecution, exiled from his home in Ephesus, living in a small cave on the little Greek island of Patmos — a dark and holy place today adorned with candles and icons — John had a vision that became the last book in our Bible. It has always been a controversial book. It made it into the Bible by the skin of its teeth. Parts of Revelation are seriously problematic. But there are also passages of such tender consolation, we just couldn’t let go of it.

There have been times when the Church was so heavenly minded we weren’t much use on earth. But in our day, we have turned our eyes away from Heaven, reducing our faith to either a political agenda or an amateur psychology. The gospel certainly has social-justice implications, and faith can support psychological health. But if we lose sight of our hope in eternity, we betray the gospel and fail to offer this heartbroken and despairing world the very thing it so desperately needs.

Today’s lesson begins with the key words I looked. Albert Einstein said, “Reality is an illusion but a very persistent one.” Our greatest physicist said this realm of time and space is illusory. John the Divine used his sacred imagination to look past that illusion, the chaos of this world, to find the context of sacred meaning in which it floats.

John looked and he saw a multitude gathered before the throne of God. The multitude were those who had come through the great ordeal. Which of us has not been through the great ordeal? And the multitude sang, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb.”

Then John tells us the ultimate fate of the multitude — that would be us. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more. The sun will not strike them nor any scorching heat … and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

When we say Heaven, we are not talking about a geographical place. We are not talking about a date in time.

We use images of space and time because that’s how we think. But Heaven is a realm beyond space and time. John is describing the larger reality in which space and time exist. It’s made of love beyond our capacity to imagine. That larger reality already holds us in being.

Lady Julian of Norwich in a vision saw the whole cosmos as a hazelnut, so frail, so insubstantial, she asked God, “What holds it in existence?”

“It exists,” God answered, “because I love it.”

But why should we trust such visions? Are they not perhaps psychotic breaks? Why trust one vision rather than another?

There are two reasons for us to believe in St. John’s and Lady Julian’s visions. First, we put visions to a moral test. What does faith in such a vision do to people? If we say, when life’s play is done and we ask what truly mattered, and we answer, the bottom line is love, what kind of person does that make? It makes us kinder. It makes us compassionate. It inspires us to live in hope instead of the despair that possesses so many, leading to paralysis at best and, at worst, to violence.

The second test is coherence. Marilyn McCord Adams, one of our very best philosophers of religion, wrote a book titled Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.

She says, “If God is who we believe God to be, infinitely good, boundlessly merciful, then the Eternity which waits for us has to be so wonderful, so splendid, that we can look back on even the worst things that have happened, and say that, awful as it was, the destination makes it worth the journey, having endured all we have endured.”

God will wipe away every tear we have ever shed and replace them all with joy.

The Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards is the retired Bishop of Nevada.

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