(The following is a sermon I gave on 1 November 2015 for All Saints Sunday. I preached it at St. Luke & the Epiphany Church in Center City Philadelphia. The texts are from Isaiah 25, Revelation 21, and John 11.)
I think I was in second grade when my Sunday school teacher talked to all of us about Heaven and then asked us to draw it. I’ve never been a great artist, but I gave it my best shot, waiting impatiently for the chance to use the same colors of crayons that all the other kids were using: blue for the sky, whites and grays for the clouds and robes of the angels, golds and silvers for the harps and for the pearly gates.
But I remember that the kid sitting next to me, Seth, had very different crayon colors lined up by him: reds and greens in addition to the blues and whites. I peeked over at what he was doing and saw what I thought was the wrong picture. It was of him and his family (stick figures, of course), next to their red brick house and green grass, and with the sky and clouds above them. I think I asked him something like, “What’s that?” “Heaven,” he said. “It doesn’t look like Heaven,” I replied, the way people do when they think they’ve got all the answers. “Mrs. Walters says Heaven is where you feel safe and loved and with Jesus.” I think the class ended after that, and I wasn’t curious enough to keep asking him about it. Nor do I think we would have had a very theologically-deep conversation about it. But years later, I finally came to the conclusion that he really may have been on to something with what he drew.
Heaven has been on my mind a lot lately as we’ve approached All Saints Sunday. And today, I want to follow the Seth model of Heaven by looking at the ways in which Heaven and Earth intersect, the ways in which that eternal life that God offers us in the Bible is accessible in the here and now.
Again and again in today’s readings, the Bible hints that the heart of God’s plan for us may not be that we just go up to Heaven when we die, but that Heaven and new life would also come down to us. I think we’re told that God has a strong desire to meet us where we are, redeeming our situations and our lives until the day when all of God’s physical creation is restored, when Jesus returns.
So in our Old Testament passage, Isaiah writes of God wiping away tears and providing a great feast for all peoples, and of death being swallowed up. He writes not of what happens when we die but what would happen when God’s people would return to the Promised Land after their exile in Babylon. And the setting of this passage isn’t some otherworldly, non-material afterlife, but the very physical Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Isaiah’s God is one who fervently wishes to enters into events of human history.
In our reading from Revelation, which has adopted much of the same vision of Isaiah, note that it’s not we who go up to Heaven to dwell forever with God in the New Jerusalem, but that the holy city itself descends from Heaven to earth.
In Revelation, God and God’s reality come down to us. And not for the first time, for at the very center of our lives as Christians is that Word-made-flesh, Jesus, who God sent to dwell among us, who ate and breathed and worked in the dirt and dust of Palestine, and who died on the Cross so that we would have new life, sometimes against all appearances or expectations.
There was no expectation that new life would come to Lazarus. By the time we enter into our Gospel passage for today, Lazarus has gone from being deathly ill to being in the grave for long enough that he is stinking. It seems like death is the end of his story. But new life does come. Jesus, the embodiment and messenger of new life, commands that Lazarus's tomb be opened and floods it with light. The one who makes all things new starts life over for Lazarus when he loudly calls for him to walk out of his tomb.
The Bible passages this week tell us that what we do in this world matters, that our days on this earth are not just a prelude or prologue to the real story, because God continues to come down to us as much as for the characters in the Bible. Our Lord continues to call us out of our tombs (whatever they may be) and offers us new chapters to our story, healing our relationships with God, others, and ourselves. Heaven comes down to our world in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in the mundane-seeming water and bread and wine that keep us connected with one another as God’s beloved children. God has sworn to be in the places and in the people we would least expect God to be: on the cross, in our weakness, in our neighbors in need, in the poor, the hungry, the unfamiliar, the sick, the imprisoned. And, I would add, in our struggles for justice and humane treatment of all people. God came to this congregation in its ministry of care for people with HIV and AIDS. And God is with us today as we mourn those who we have lost.
The real pain that we have this day, thinking about the people who have meant the world to us but have died, is but one indication that the reality I’ve described about God's Kingdom of Heaven being in the midst of our daily lives, has its limitations.
We are Lazarus, suddenly experiencing the power and love of God. But just as often, we are Lazarus's sisters Martha and Mary. We are the ones waiting and weeping, mourning our losses and lamenting what seems like God's inaction in situations like gun violence, racism, anti-gay and transgender bigotry, the Syrian refugee crisis, and instability around the world. Like Mary and Martha before Lazarus walks out of the tomb, we might challenge God in anger and sadness, saying "Lord, if you'd been here, this would not have happened.” This person that we loved would not have died. This natural disaster would not have occurred. This act of injustice or violence would not have happened. We might question God's ability to bring about God's Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven, or question Jesus' ability to call out the dead.
But then, we see it happening in front of us. We see lives transformed and enemies reconciled. We see how God provides us new opportunities to start over. And if we’ve already seen how much God is present while we are in this imperfect world, how much more should we have hope and confidence for that reign of God to be truly fulfilled, when Jesus comes once more to bring all situations under God's care in a new heaven and new earth?
On that day God will bring us together again with everyone we have lost, on an Easter to trump all Easters, when God will wipe away all the tears from our eyes, when death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more, because Christ will have made all things new. In the meantime, we can try to absorb into our hearts and minds the promise that Jesus made to Martha, that “Those who believe in [him], even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in [him] will never die.” Give us that life, Lord, now and forever. Amen.