We’re not there yet. There being where we are going. There being the ultimate goal, there being the ultimate end of all that lives, of all that is or was or is likely to be until Jesus comes. The worst part about it is that there has been there out there in the distance, on the horizon for as long as human beings have been born and have died and have thought about those margins of their lives and what might lie outside of them.
So our destination has been the topic of speculation and dreamy visioning and much art, lots and lots of art. Symphonies are written about what might happen after our run in this life is over. Museums in Europe might as well be wallpapered with pictures of what there might look like, as a matter of act if you aren’t fussy about the art being good, you could probably wallpaper every church as well, such is the popularity of the subject at hand.
Books too, not just music and visual art, and let us not forget plays and musicals and operas. Mainstream bookstores, the ones that have survived the onslaught of the Amazon Attack Drones have far more shelf space devoted to there than they do almost any other subject, maybe there and angels.
And don’t get me started on the angels. Goodness if there are half as many angels out there as there are in renaissance art, then the streets out there are littered with winged cherubim and seraphim, not to mention majestic adult angels as well.
There is often pictured as nothing more or less than a conglomeration of clouds, an insubstantial celestial sky dotted with puffy, fluffy clouds upon which are lounging the dearly departed, each fitted with their own wings, though I don’t recall where it says anywhere that you become an angel once you have shuffled off this mortal coil, but that idea snuck in somewhere along the line and it stuck and so there they are, sitting on clouds, serene and at peace, bathing in the light of Christ which is all in all.
Sounds a little too vague and also at the same time a little too specific in its vision of what there will be like.
If you are not a fan of the celestial cloud city, then perhaps the verdant fields and rolling hills pictures will work better for you. There are plenty of those in the wallpaper here and there. Fawns gambol and frolic and doves fill the sky and everybody is naked and unashamed as if flaunting the fact that they have overcome Adam and Eve’s shame. Since this was the renaissance, they are also a little Rubensesque, shall we say, a bit zaftig as they dance and play in, once again, the light of Christ which is all in all only this time there is a ground, a floor, so to speak upon which we will thrive and live beyond tears and beyond want.
Sounds a little more specific, but still, all these images cling to the credal idea of the resurrection of the body, the corporeal nature of there. There is a place and according to the Talking Heads, it is a place where nothing ever happens.
That perhaps is what I find most disturbing about the pictures. They are all scenes of placid, indolent leisure and not just leisure, but also a lack of variation, of dynamic energy. They painters have painted out all of the struggle and all of the conflict because in the presence of Christ there is none of that but isn’t that also painting out of the pictures what makes humanity human?
To be fair, the paintings were done in a time when life was nasty, brutish and short and so sitting around on clouds or on grassy hillsides looked like a pretty good deal, like paradise, like, well, heaven.
But we’re not there yet. But the days are surely coming.
In the meantime, here we are. If heaven is what they say it is, if it is lazy days basking in the sunshine of the Lord’s presence, then that’s what it is and since it will not be like this life, maybe that’ll be nice. After all, if there are no more tears and no more dying there, we are going to see the king, then there’s probably no more boredom there either.
We can certainly spend our time looking forward to a time of no stress and no tears and no strain. We can spend our time, our lives with our eyes at the skies, focused clearly on the ending of things, there, out there somewhere on the horizon.
But what if we’re wrong? What if heaven is as some have projected, a place very much like this place, just shinier because the light of the Lord is all in all and lights the holy city of God while we get up in the morning and go to our heavenly jobs?
The very notion of a heavenly job would have sounded ridiculous to someone in the Middle Ages. “This is the time when all labors will cease,” they might have said, “God promised us rest.”
Even worse, seriously, even worse than how much we have mangled and chewed and re-constituted and re-chewed up the idea of heaven, of getting “there” someday is how we have made not there the other end of the speculation.
As many pictures as there are of heaven there are far fewer pictures of Hell, the place you go when you can’t get into heaven, where not there yet turns into not there ever. After all, nobody wants to spend a whole lot of time imagining what it will be like if they do not “win” or “please God” or whatever their particular standard is. Usually, when someone wanted a painting of hell, they wanted it to scare other people into following them, their plan for avoiding hell.
This is exactly what happens when someone tells you that a place exists but doesn’t do a very good job describing it, it allows our imaginations to wander and we can cook up some pretty amazing things if you get us going. Give us lakes of fire and we’ll give you legions of demons with pitchforks, or tridents or whatever, nasty pointy things for jabbing the sinners; give us being cast out of God’s presence and we’ll make it an amusement park ride of boiling oil and thorny branches and rivers of ice, like Disneyland for Stephen King.
It seems to me, though, that we have spent a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of creativity and a lot of labor and talent imagining what will happen after the end of this life, as the next one begins. We have dreamed and plotted and schemed on how to make it through the end okay and have distracted ourselves in the process from the world we are already living in.
We have spent our time hoping for the clouds and dreading the pit because we all know that this life, the only one we know, the only one we understand, this life will end and because God in the Bible has promised that there will be another day, that the seed that falls and dies only to be reborn again is the faith that is in us and that where Jesus is His disciples must be also, and since we trust that Jesus is with God in Heaven then we spend our time thinking about the time when we will join Him, join them. You know, or not.
We forget, I think we try and forget, that joining Jesus also means joining Him on the road to Jerusalem, and when He is lifted up, like John says this morning, we will all be drawn to Him.
But we’re not there yet.
Obviously not since being drawn to Him is being drawn to the cross, being conformed to His image is being drawn to the cross, being Christ-like is to be drawn to Him, on the cross, not for His own sake or even for our own but for the sake of those who might languish in the lake of fire we have created in our art and in our literature if they do not hear the word and see the cross and hear the promise and know the peace.
We focus too much on the fluffy cloud or the burning sand and forget that Jesus will draw all people together, to himself, and that means us of course, but it also means those behind us, beside us, the ones we see as beneath or above us.
Like the tide, the movement toward the cross is inevitable. During Lent we focus in on it and think about it a little more clearly, a little bit more intentionally, but all the time, all year round we are being drawn toward Jesus and the cross.
When we hear the word and it reaches into our hearts and convicts us of our pride, our betrayals of God’s grace large and small, we are being drawn towards Christ.
When we give of our time or our treasure or of our love for the sake of the church, the Kingdom of God or the least among us, we are being drawn toward Christ.
When we falter and fail, indulging our baser instincts and failing to trust that God can provide for us all that we need we are still being drawn toward Christ.
What we need to do is to live as if this were true.
Imagine what that would be like, if an entire community of people stopped vying for position, stopped focusing in on heaven on high, which for a community like this is fifty more people in church every Sunday, what if we took our eyes off of heaven for a minute and paid attention to the world around us, seeking to see it through the same eyes that Jesus looked through, seeking to see it from the perspective of one lifted up, of one on the cross.
It took imagination to come up with the various images, the various dramatic plays and operas depicting what heaven might be like, what those consigned to hell might suffer, but it will also take imagination to pull our eyes from heaven and create a better world here, to remember that Jesus came to redeem this life not just open the gate to the next one.
If we lose that vision then we forget all about the ones who have not heard, the ones who are not drawn towards eternity. They’ll be down here somewhere while our gaze will be far above them.
The problem with a vision that is only on the horizon, for the people with the NOTW stickers on their cars (Not of this World) the challenge is that this is where we are, this is where we live and this is the world Christ came to redeem, not just us, not just humanity but the whole thing.
It takes imagination and courage to behave as if you are already living in heaven, as if you are already there. You have to understand that the promise is not just that there will be parties and candy and celebrations all of our days, but that being drawn to the cross means being drawn to the cross, to the work of the Kingdom of God, Jesus wasn’t going to a party as he got closer and closer to Jerusalem, I have never understood why the faithful decided that faith was supposed to be a party.
We’re not there yet.
There is only once we have finally joined Christ for the final step, “where I am there will my servant be” will at last mean that this life has passed and we can stop worrying about it, can lay down our labors and find out what is really behind curtain number one, whether or not the painters were right or something even better, even more blessed is waiting for us.
Until then, until there, we are here. We are here living as if we were there, as if every day drew us a bit closer to Christ and the cross and the service to the whole of creation and that the promise had already come to us and we were laboring to bring it to others as well.
There, heaven or whatever you want to call it, is supposed to be crowded, filled to the brim with the faithful of every age. While we’re here, we should point that out and see if we can draw a few to Christ, he’s got the rest.