If we could imagine heaven, what would it look like?The ancient Hebrews didn’t really have a concept of the afterlife. But they did have a vision of what it would be like when the Realm of God came to fruition. The blind see, the lame leap like deer. The desert will blossom and water shall break forth in the wilderness. All people will have enough and more, and laughter shall be heard throughout the land.
By the time of Jesus, we started to develop more of an idea of what happens after death, but even there heaven looks remarkably like what the ancient Hebrews thought when they considered the fulfillment of God’s world: Plenty. Peace. Beauty. Wholeness, where there is no suffering, nor crying, nor death. All of us gathered around the table of joy.
Whether we believe in an afterlife or not, we all have a remarkably similar vision of what the fulfillment will look like. And what it looks like… is paradise.
There is a book called Summerland, a children’s book about hope after death. Summerland is a story of a dark valley, which is another name of death. As a dark valley it can be scary, reminding us of Psalm 23 where it says, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.”
In this story anyone who enters into the dark valley will most likely be frightened, especially children, because of all those shadows. But as they walk in the valley they begin to see a light ahead and they soon stop crying and forget the bad things that hurt them.
There is someone standing at the end of the dark valley who is called “The One Who Is Waiting.” This is what he does: he waits, he is always there, just waiting. Just beyond the dark valley is a wide open meadow, called the summer meadow. In this land there is no night; it is always day. It is so good to walk into the summer meadow, into the warm summerland after going through the dark valley. Right away it makes you feel warm all over. You can lie in the green grass and feel the sunshine on your face, but you will never burn in the summer meadow. The sun is always just right.
The One Who Waits stands at the end of the valley and has three angels by his side. The first is the angel of light, and this angel watches especially for children. When a child enters the dark valley this angel of light goes quickly to the side of the child, and lights up the path, so that the shadows disappear and the dark valley becomes almost as bright as the day. The little child sees the light and hurries to it. When the child comes to The One Who Is Waiting, the One reaches down and picks up the child and holds her in his arms.
The second angel is the angel of Hope. This angel helps the child walk through the dark valley, takes her by the hand and helps her walk. If the child is too tired or too young to walk, the angel of hope carries the child.
The angel of hope plays a flute and sings beautiful music. If the child sleeps the angel sings lullabies and if the child is awake the angel sings happy songs. The angel brings the child to The One Who Waits, and the child recognizes him, even though she has never seen him before.
The third angel is the angel of comfort. Back home everyone is very sad. When the loved one enters the dark valley, family and friends cry and mourn and feel lonely. The angel of comfort goes to their side and comforts them, wipes away tears from their eyes, helps them remember the promises of The One Who Waits.
When the child has gone all the way through the dark valley, and is now in the arms of The One Who Waits, the child is at peace, and sees the beautiful summerland just ahead. And The One Who Waits speaks to the child and says, “You are my child, you are my child.” At that moment the child remembers a name and she smiles and takes the hand of The One Who is Waiting. And the child says, “You are Jesus. You are Jesus.” And she lets go of his hand and runs barefoot into the summer land.”
It’s just a story, just a story. But there is something there…
There is another book called Proof of Heaven. It was written by Eban Alexander, a Harvard trained neurosurgeon. He was brain dead for a week, and took this incredible journey into what he now believes was heaven. Dr. Alexander writes, “There was this wooshing sound and I found myself in the most beautiful place I had ever been. Brilliant, vibrant, stunning, but words fall short. Below me was the countryside, green, lush, it was like the earth, but more. I was flying, passing over trees and fields, streams and waterfalls, and I could see people. Children were laughing and playing, people were singing and dancing. Everyone was filled with joy. People… exuded warmth and love, just as the trees and flowers were warm.”
Surely this is just a story. Just another story. One that comes out of our all-too-human yearning.
In CS Lewis’s The Great Divorce, heaven is described as a place more real than anything we can imagine. And the water shines brighter, and the valley is greener, and the sounds of music more true and more piercing, and heavy with the weight of glory. And when we look at it, our breath is taken away because it is so real, and so true. It is as if the world itself has come to a new life.
Just another story. Another story. But these stories, they keep showing up in culture after culture: the yearning of the human heart for its proper Eden, for its paradise. We can almost remember it, like a shadow playing at the edges of our deepest memory, which is why it keeps showing up in our stories. Like the story at the end of the last book of the Bible:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea of chaos was no more… See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God, and they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them, and will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more… See, said the One seated on the throne, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
Stories. Just stories. But stories that ring so true in our hearts. Something greater than us… truer than this world… more whole and more real than this reality we live in now- just beyond our reach, but not beyond our imagination.
In times of trouble; in times of sorrow; in times when today looks like the valley of the shadow of death, God has given us stories and visions of what yet will be. And in these stories is our hope for what is beyond today, and what our loved ones know now and forevermore.
In the name of the One who will never let us go, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: Rev. Merv Thompson, Nov. 15, 2015 sermon. CS Lewis, The Great Divorce; Elin Hilderbrand, Summerland; Ebon Alexander, Proof of Heaven.
Scripture of Nov. 19, 2017
ISAIAH 35:1-2, 5-6
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus it shall blossom with wild profusion, and rejoice with joy and singing… Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea of chaos was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold! The home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God, and they will be God’s peoples. God will be with them, and will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.