21Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he 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.’
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ 6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
In June, 1917, a poem by an anonymous author appeared in the Hobo News of St. Louis, Missouri. Called “The Hobo’s Last Lament,” it relates the last words of one of those princes of the open road who was dying as he lay stretched out inside an empty boxcar on a railroad siding.
A fellow hobo is solemnly listening in. He hears his friend utter these words:
I’m going to a better land,
Where everything is bright,
Where beef-stews grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night;
And you do not have to work at all,
And never change your socks,
And streams of goodly whisky
Come trickling down the rocks.
The dying man has a message for his fellow wanderers. Don’t weep for him, he says. A train is coming: “A fast freight.” He intends to ride it to “a better land, where they hate the word called work”:
Hark, I hear her whistling,
I must catch her on the fly;
I would like one scoop of beer
Once more before I die.
The hobo stopped, his head fell back,
He’d sung his last refrain;
His old pal stole his coat and hat
And caught an East-bound train.
So, what is heaven like? Surely, it’s a question that’s occurred to all of us. And to respond to it, The writers at Homileticsonline.com are going to go to today’s text in Revelation, to the Orkney Islands in the U.K., and then to a Hans Christian Andersen story and one from C.S. Lewis as well, before winding up with a conclusion.
Heaven. Is it, as the fictional hobo imagined, a place of perfect indolence, of plentiful beef stew and open-air fountains of whisky and “a better land where they hate the word called work”?
Or does it conform more closely to the vision of John in the book of Revelation? Later in chapter 21 — just beyond the passage that is today’s lesson — John describes the very dimensions of the place with architectural precision: “The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel. … And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass” (21:15-19, 21).
You’ve heard of “the pearly gates”? These verses are the source of that image. Many old-timers will remember a song that still can be found in many hymnals: “He the Pearly Gates Will Open.” The refrain goes like this:
He the pearly gates will open,
So that I may enter in;
For he purchased my redemption
And forgave me all my sin.
It’s not like all those cartoons you see in which Saint Peter’s at his desk, quill pen in hand, leaning low over the Book of Life, guarding a couple of wrought-iron gates.
No, John’s image of the gates of heaven is nothing like that. Each of the 12 gates is a single pearl of immense size. (Is there a passageway cut through the middle of each pearl, or does that giant translucent gem somehow swing aside to allow the souls of the blessed to pass? John is not clear about the finer details.)
You’ve heard of “streets of gold”? This is where you find that image as well. But this is no earthly gold. The gold of heaven’s streets and boulevards is of such astonishing purity that it’s “transparent as glass.” How can that be?
But this is, after all, heaven. So, we can hardly expect it to conform to the physical laws of earth.
Yet, the vision of Revelation 21 is not about some distant heaven. The golden city with its gates of pearl does not exist in some far-off realm, on a higher spiritual plane. John’s triumphant vision is of heaven come to earth! The city comes “down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (v. 2).
By the grace of God, the day will finally come when we need not make a spectacular leap to celestial heights. On that great, glorious day, heaven will come to us.
“Heaven on earth” is the stuff of our most fervent imagination, our most persistent spiritual yearnings. When people use that phrase, they call to mind the most perfect earthly reality they can imagine: a vista of dazzling natural splendor, like the mist rising from Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite National Park; a cottage by the sea on a perfect midsummer day; or the fleeting vision of a dazzling rainbow bisecting the sky.
There’s a trend these days among some millennials to seek a sort of heaven on earth in the countryside. One such person is Amy Liptrot, who left the frantic pace of London — and a battle with incipient alcoholism — to move to the remote Orkney Islands. She stayed three years, discovering both herself and a new vocation as a writer. As she describes it:
“Kids stream out of universities and unfashionable counties to cities, in search of experience and stimulation. But it’s possible to only mix with people more and more like yourself in the city and remain unchallenged. It’s often the small towns and rural areas, the families and friends you thought you left behind, where the fertile weirdness lies. Some people who spend most of their work and leisure time alone with a computer are realizing they might as well do this in the countryside — where the rent is cheaper and the air cleaner.”
Heaven on earth, for Amy and her kindred spirits, is that place of “fertile weirdness” that can be found by living close to nature.
When we imagine heaven come to earth, it’s often not a heavenly vision at all. Rather, it’s an earthly vision of exquisite perfection.
That makes it, by necessity, an impoverished vision, for how could anything earthly compete with heaven’s glories?
Hans Christian Andersen captures this disjunction between earth and heaven in an odd little fable, “A Leaf from Heaven.”
An angel, carrying a heavenly flower, happens to drop a little piece of the plant, which slowly rides the air-currents down to earth. It takes root in the soil.
It grows up, different from any other plant: a vision of perfect loveliness, but strong enough to resist the snows of winter and the depredations of nearby weeds that have nothing but contempt for this newcomer.
A botanist shows up, but is stymied in his attempts to categorize it. “It must be some degenerate species,” he concludes cluelessly
Not long after, a young girl of deep piety happens by. In Andersen’s words: “The girl stood still before the wonderful plant, for the green leaves exhaled a sweet and refreshing fragrance, and the flowers glittered and sparkled in the sunshine like colored flames, and the harmony of sweet sounds lingered round them as if each concealed within itself a deep fount of melody, which thousands of years could not exhaust.
“With pious gratitude the girl looked upon this glorious work of God, and bent down over one of the branches, that she might examine the flower and inhale the sweet perfume. Then a light broke in on her mind, and her heart expanded. Gladly would she have plucked a flower, but she could not overcome her reluctance to break one off. She knew it would so soon fade; so she took only a single green leaf, carried it home, and laid it in her Bible, where it remained ever green, fresh and unfading.
“Between the pages of the Bible it still lay when, a few weeks afterwards, that Bible was laid under the young girl’s head in her coffin. A holy calm rested on her face, as if the earthly remains bore the impress of the truth that she now stood in the presence of God.”
Apart from this one, pious soul, the neighbors of the heavenly plant — botanical, animal and human — continue to despise it. It has grown, by now, to resemble a small tree. Finally, a swineherd comes along, looking for firewood. He cuts it down and burns it. And so, the one heavenly plant on all the earth has been destroyed.
It’s only now that it’s gone, that people begin to appreciate its value. The king in that land is afflicted with depression — Andersen uses the antique word, “melancholy.” He’s desperately seeking a cure. The king’s wise men know of this odd plant, and suggest he seek it out for its medicinal value. But alas, when he sends his servants looking for it, there is nothing there but a hole in the ground. (No one knows of the surviving leaf, buried in the girl’s coffin.)
All the king can do is to build a golden fence around the spot and post a sentry to guard it. As for the botanist, he writes learned treatises about the plant in professional journals, for which he is paid handsomely and advances his reputation.
It isn’t hard to see, here, that Andersen is gently lampooning both the church and the discipline of theology for trafficking in things of heaven we barely understand.
In Andersen’s whimsical vision, when a beneficent plant from heaven falls to earth to grow in common soil, the mean residents of this fallen realm fail to recognize it for what it is. They know it stands out, that it’s odd and different, but they have no idea what a wonder has grown up among them.
Heaven, in Andersen’s fable, is completely separated from earth. It’s like Jesus’ grim parable of the poor man Lazarus and Dives, the contemptuous rich man who shunned him in life. The response of the blessed Lazarus to the rich man, tormented in a fiery place, is bleak: “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us” (Luke 16:26).
C.S. Lewis casts a different vision. In his novel The Last Battle, part of the Chronicles of Narnia series, Lewis allows his characters to glimpse heaven from a different perspective.
The victorious lion-king Aslan has triumphed over the forces of evil, but the land of Narnia has been destroyed. The Pevensie children join a host of virtuous humans and animals as they journey across a lovely landscape of grassy fields following Aslan, who has invited them to follow, but who is now so far ahead they can no longer see him.
They notice something wondrously strange about the place. It resembles the familiar landscape of Narnia, and yet it’s not Narnia.
“Those hills,” said Lucy, “the nice woody ones and the blue ones behind — aren’t they very like the Southern border of Narnia?”
“Like!” cried Edmund after a moment’s silence. “Why, they’re exactly like. Look, there’s Mount Pire with his forked head, and there’s the pass into Archenland and everything!”
“And yet they’re not like,” said Lucy. “They’re different. They have more colors on them and they look farther away than I remembered and they’re more … more … oh, I don’t know …”
“More like the real thing,” said the Lord Digory softly.
It’s a vision of heaven come to earth — inspired, no doubt, by that vision of the golden, gem-studded city of Revelation 21. Yes, in the narrative of the novel, the vision of heaven is still distant and far-removed, but by its resemblance to the more familiar Narnia places, it is a vision of the heavenly city already descended.
Lewis explains what the children are seeing, through the words of Lord Digory: “Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course, it is different: as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.”
Lewis’ advice to us, communicated through the characters of this beloved tale, is to look for signs of heaven come to earth. They are all around us for the discerning spiritual eye to discover. We just may be lucky — or blessed — enough to glimpse them, imbedded in the daily routine of life, harbingers of greater glories yet to come.
The hobo might hear the whistle of the Gloryland Express and dream of beef stew and whiskey, and Amy Lipptrot may still believe her Orkney Islands are a little slice of heaven on earth. We, too, may carry within our hearts a hope and longing for a world quite unlike the one we inhabit.
The good news is that when even the barest seed of heaven falls to earth, we know from its presence that the transformation of this earth has already begun. Amen.