“Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5)
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†
We’re in the season in which we look back to the birth of Jesus and forward to his return. His second coming will herald the time of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Traditionally, the third Sunday is set aside for the contemplation of Heaven and that is what I intend to do today. It is also Rose Sunday and you can see the rose-colored vestments on the clergy. This is in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus and so, strangely enough, the mother of God.
Heaven is acceptance of God; the presence of God; the life of God. He is all the good things that have ever been or ever been hinted at…and better even than that. He contains wonders that our minds cannot now comprehend and perhaps some that we will never be capable of understanding.
Now the Fullness of the Reign of Jesus, Our Lord and King, will not be revealed until the aftermath of the Resurrection of all Humanity. At that time the journey from slavery to freedom that was writ small in the Exodus of the Israelites will be transposed onto the largest canvas possible. Instead of leaving a slave-holding Egypt under a despotic ruler, the People of God leave behind them sin and evil. It will be a renewal and a recreation, a new ordering of reality in which the essential elements remain from the first creation (which God said was “very good”), but all the dross and pollution that were the sick results of both cosmic and earthly wickedness will be banished, wiped away forever under the authority of God the Father at the direction of Christ the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. And after that…well, even better things await.
What have we been given to understand of Heaven from scripture? In the Old Testament we get glimpses in some of the prophets (like Isaiah). These visions all appear to be conditioned by the pattern of worship that the children of Israel had in their Temple and Tabernacle. And, of course, this pattern of worship was given directly by the Lord Himself to a people wandering in a wilderness. They had been redeemed from slavery in a far country, but they had not yet reached the land of milk and honey that they had been promised. It was while they were sojourning in the desert that the Lord spoke to Moses, commanding, “…let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them, according to all that I will shew thee”. (Exodus 25: 8-9) The furnishings of the Tabernacle (and later Temple) and their arrangement formed the basis for the visions of the prophets that followed:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the Temple. Above it stood the seraphims; each one had six wings…and one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory. (Isaiah 6:1-3)
The Tabernacle (and later the First Temple) was the place where the Name of God—which was in some sense His presence—dwelt with His people. He had promised that He would hear His people—and not just the children of Israel but also Gentiles—when they would pray “toward” the Temple. There were more than half a dozen prophecies speaking of how the Gentiles would come to worship God in Jerusalem.
Fast forward 900 years: There were many reasons that the Jews around the time of Jesus were in a state of restless ferment, of heightened expectation. They had left exile in Babylon but things had not played out as they thought they would. The scriptures told of a coming reality that seemed to stand in dramatic contrast with the situation that now obtained.
For one thing, their Temple (one that had been built by Zerubabbel but was currently being fantastically improved by Herod the Great) had not been visited by God. Remember that when Solomon dedicated the First Temple, the Shekinah glory of God had appeared and descended upon it, taking a shape that would have been familiar to the Israelites who had seen the pillars of fire and darkness in the desert. Nothing like that had ever happened to the Second. God had promised many prophets that He would come if it was built, but He hadn’t yet showed up.
Another thing is that they had understood that they (the Jews) would be on top of the New World Order that would be instituted by God when He came. There was also a bunch of mysterious stuff about the Messiah who would somehow play a crucial role in bringing about the reign of God on earth. By which it was obvious to most interpreters that the Jews were supposed to reign over all the surrounding pagans. This contrast between Jewish expectation and reality is what accounted for the many and varied troubles the Romans had in governing Palestine.
Well as it turned out, one day, in the reign of Augustus Caesar, God did fulfill the words He gave to the Israelite prophets, showing up to grace Herod’s magnificent Temple with His presence. But only two people, Simeon and Anna, recognized him (besides his parents). Of course, we probably shouldn’t blame them. Instead of a huge glowing cloud, he showed up as an eight day old infant, arriving to be circumcised in the arms of his mama. The babe Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, thus had his blood shed in the Temple upon His arrival as a foreshadowing of what was going to happen later.
In the OT the Lord provided a glimpse of Heaven in the arrangement of the Tabernacle that was the basis for subsequent prophetic visions. In the NT, the Lord comes personally to teach us of Himself, the living experience of which is the Kingdom of Heaven. He shows and tells us that where he is (for example) there is no disease, no deformity, no hunger, no want. In today’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples of John the Baptizer:
“Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
Jesus does the works of God and where Jesus is there is Heaven. The privations of the flesh and the mind that shape so much of our life now as a result of the curse on creation—a curse that is the result of our estrangement from our Creator and which is manifested as unnatural Death in our flesh—will be no part of our renewed and recreated Life lived with and in Him hereafter. This is the life that Jesus showed in Himself and enlivens us by His Spirit to emulate. There will instead be love, peace, joy, thanksgiving, and praise—which are the fruits of the Spirit. Our spirits can now be infused with the life of God, but we need new bodies that will allow the full expression of the marvels of the Spirit. The effects of the Fall haven’t been completely reversed yet.
Jesus has bought this life for us through his temptation, death, and resurrection. Jesus withstood (three times) the temptations to which Adam and Eve succumbed and in doing so He broke the power of the Devil over mankind. And His Resurrection and Ascension with Pentecost following inaugurated a New Age in which the benefits of His victory over Satan and Death—including the Spirit of God given broadly and a softened heart in those who receive Him—could be extended to all those that followed Him. Heaven, the Kingdom of God, has been loose in the World for 2000 years. Because Heaven is the life of God, Heaven is Jesus Christ who came that we might have life and that we might have it more abundantly.
Jesus knew that we would have this waiting period in which the Church expands and the Spirit moves as He will. But as the Lord gave to the Israelites the pattern of worship in the Temple, so Jesus has given us the privilege to stand just outside the door of Heaven where He is offered for the life of the World. We, who live in these last days, have the privilege of participating in the liturgy of the embodied Son of God. This is what He gave us in the upper room before His arrest and crucifixion. The Body and Blood that has been manifest millions of times upon thousands of altars throughout the entire world for nearly two millennia re-presents Our Lord to us and for us. He has been, is, and ever shall be our Emmanuel. My brothers and sisters in Jesus, it’s hard sometimes living in this apparent interregnum period. The power of the Devil has been overthrown but our rightful King who had returned and set everything right has gone away again. And while things are better, they still aren’t perfect. What’s the waiting for? What’s the plan? Does it involve us solving the problems because it if is—how’s that going for us? Are Christians looking like shining cities on a hill to the lost multitudes amongst whom we walk?
I’m going to end with something that is somewhat speculative. It is congruent with what has been revealed in Scripture and Holy Tradition but it may not be precisely correct. But as I begin to conclude I’m going to throw three things out here:
1) Our embodied life in Heaven is going to be a lot more like our life here than most people think except that mercy, forgiveness, and love will be the foundation of social currency in the Age to come. (And there won’t be a need for any other sort of currency.) We will still need (and have) government and our unique situation will be that our Head of State will be perfect. Under His direction, we will still do work, accomplishing things so marvelous that each new act will make the sum total of all prior human achievement look paltry in comparison. But, wait, you may be saying, I don’t like that term “politician”. Well, wherever one has a polis—in this case the City of God, descended from on high—one will need politicians.
2) Our life with and in God will be one of constant improvement.
3) Our limitations (not our sins—which are done away—but our ignorance and relative frailty) are and will continue to be our glory.
Let me bring (2) and (3) together, briefly. God is infinite, we finite. Growing in God, this gives us—unlimited capacity for improvement. And according to the nature of things mathematical, I suspect that our capacity for improvement will always be increasing so that each succeeding moment will bring new realizations, unite previously unperceived strands of divine thought so that our lives are lived in a state of ever-mounting rapture at the majesty, subtlety, and beneficence of the Most Holy Trinity.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:3-4)
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†