Before it disappeared from the newspaper my favorite comic strip was Calvin and Hobbes. One of the early Calvin and Hobbes strips shows Calvin talking to his pet tiger Hobbes and saying, "Hobbes, what do you think happens to us when we die?" Hobbes says, "I think we play saxophone for an all-girl cabaret in New Orleans." Calvin responds, "So you believe in heaven?" Hobbes shrugs and says, "Call it what you like."
I don't know how you would describe heaven, but one of the problems I have discovered is that for many people the traditional picture of heaven--floating on clouds playing harps--isn't all that appealing. They would rather be in New Orleans.
In her book Heaven: Your Real Home, Joni Eareckson Tada describes her first reaction to the vision of heaven we read this morning from Revelation 21. She writes,
I picked it up with the first verse: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth..." "Okay, I'll buy that. This old planet is in bad need of repair." "...for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away..." Wait a minute, you mean everything about this earth will disappear and pass away? But there are lots of things I like. Chili dogs with cheese. The NBA playoffs. Bridal Veil Falls at Yosemite National Park. "...and there was no longer any sea." What! No sea? But I love the ocean. The waves, the wind, the smell of salt in the air. What about splashing in the breakers? What about digging my toes in the sand? To me, heaven has to have oceans in it. ... I'm struck that heaven is often described in terms of "no this" and "no that." No more sea. No more night. No more time. No more moon or sun. And what about food, marriage, sex, art, and great books? ... That's not all. I was also struck that the positive descriptions about what heaven is seem clumsy and
ungraceful. Rainbow thrones? Streets of gold? Pearly gates? A glittering city 1,400 miles in length and as wide and high as it is long with walls 200 feet thick and made of jasper. It more closely resembled Minnesota's monolithic Mall of America. I was embarrassed to admit it, but even the descriptions about everlasting peace and eternal felicity seemed boring.
Of course, we have to realize that the book of Revelation was originally written to some poor, struggling, outcast Christians facing death for refusing to worship the Roman emperor. To them a city of peace and security with streets of gold sounded pretty good. I imagine it would also sound pretty good right now to some of the people in East Timor or flood victims in North Carolina. The point of the passage is that even the things we most like or yearn for in this world are but faint echoes of something greater that God wants for us.
Listen again to what Revelation says about the heavenly city in verses 24-26. It says,
The nations will walk by its light (meaning the light of God), and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day--and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations.
Up to this point Revelation has been filled with wars between various kings and nations. It is sort of like the 20th century. But now, at the end, they are brought together. Instead of racism, ethnic cleansing, and no fly zones, everyone is free to mix and enjoy all the best things about each other's culture: the food, the music, the art, the sights, the dances and traditions. That's what Revelation means by the glory and honor of the nations. All the best things we have to offer each other are brought together and enjoyed.
Now add to this picture some other things. All those people with cancer or other diseases for whom we have been praying are miraculously healed. Even the ones who have died are healed! Mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. Relationships are also healed. Estranged people are brought back together.
Now obviously for this to happen, some things have to disappear. Verse 27 says of the new Jerusalem, "But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood." This does not mean that if you have sinned, lied, or mistreated others, you are excluded. It means that when you come, you cannot bring with you the sins, lies, and mistreatment. These things have to go.
In another Calvin and Hobbes comic strip Calvin says to Hobbes, "If heaven is good, and if I like to be bad, how am I supposed to be happy there?" Hobbes says, "How will you get to heaven if you like to be bad?" Calvin replies, "Let's say I didn't do what I wanted to do. Suppose I led a blameless life! Suppose I denied my true dark nature!" Hobbes scratches his head and says, "I'm not sure I have that much imagination." Then Calvin exclaims, "Maybe heaven is a place where you're allowed to be bad."
Not according to Revelation. In the kingdom of God pride will have to go; but what you will get in exchange is acceptance, which is what pride yearns for in a misdirected way. In the kingdom of God lust will have to go; but what you will get in exchange is love, which is what lust yearns for in a misdirected way. In the kingdom of God greed will have to go; but what you will get in exchange is fulfillment, which is what greed yearns for in a misdirected way. In the kingdom of God the desire to dominate and control others will have to go; but what you will get in return is
community, which is what we all secretly yearn for in a misdirected way.
Later in her book Joni Eareckson Tada comes to a new understanding of what Revelation means when it describes a new heaven and a new earth. She writes,
Remember how I soured on all the "no this" and "no that" descriptions in heaven? No food, no marriage, no moon, no need for good books? Faith reminds us that every negative is only the reverse side of a fulfilling. A fulfilling of all that God intended our humanity to be. True, we may enjoy a good charcoal broiled steak or a night of romance with our husband or wife under a full moon, but faith tells us these things are inklings of better tastes and enraptured delights yet to come. They won't be negated, no; rather, the whisper of what they are on earth will find complete fulfillment in heaven.
Heaven is not the end of life but the beginning, and what we get here when we worship God and serve one another in love is a taste of what it will be like.