November 2, 2014 1 John 3: 1-3 Revelations 7: 9-17
Rev. Catherine Purves
A couple of weeks ago I read a book that had been loaned to me by two different people. The first loaner I put on my book shelf and promptly forgot about. The second time that the same book was given to me I read it in an afternoon. I’ve since returned both copies to their owners. This was a book that had captured a lot of people’s imagination, so much so that it became a best seller and has now been made into a movie! The book was entitled Heaven Is for Real. The reason why it was so popular, I think, is that it taps into our basic curiosity about something we know very little about: what happens when we die. This book describes the reported experiences of a four year old boy who nearly died during a critical operation. His descriptions of heaven were quite amazing. It would be foolish to treat his account as gospel, but it does raise for us the persistent question of what we do know about heaven and the shape and content of our future hope as Christians.
What do we know? And how do we know what we know? Both of our Scripture readings today reflect a degree of hesitancy when it comes to claiming absolute knowledge about the age to come and our resurrection hopes. John in his first letter writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” That actually tells us specifically at least one thing that we do know – that we are God’s children. But it also tells us something that we don’t know – what our future will look like, what we will be. What John seems to be implying is that if we know what we know, we can be content with not knowing what we don’t know. Knowing that we are God’s children now means that we can entrust our future, what we will be, into God’s hands.
The book of Revelation, which describes the prophetic vision of John, is full of elaborate visual images and mysterious messages that in many ways are more confusing than revealing. John himself is quite overwhelmed by the sensory bombardment of his visions, the strange numbering of things, the graphic depiction of dragons, angels, and saints, and the imminent threat of the end times, times that are full of testing and suffering. In the midst of all of that, chapter 7 describes the worship of a great multitude before the throne of God. John is asked, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” John’s response, again, is hesitant, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Even in this book that reveals so much confusing information about what is to come, there is a humility about what we can really know. The One who knows is God. And perhaps that’s really all that we need to know.
In the borrowed book that I read, Heaven Is for Real, the little boy who was hovering on the brink of death later tells his parents that he was sitting in the lap of Jesus. He describes people that he saw in his vision of heaven. He expresses knowledge that he could not have about his mother’s miscarriage and a little sister who was never born. And he vividly describes heaven in images that bear a remarkable similarity to some of the descriptions in the book of Revelation. Does that mean that we now have some sort of independent confirmation about what heaven looks like? Can we now rest assured that heaven is for real?
I expect that many people flocked to buy this little book because they felt insecure about what we do know, and perhaps didn’t fully trust in what the Bible teaches us. When it comes to specifics about heaven and the life to come, it seems to me that what the Bible teaches is: This is not what you need to know. In God’s wisdom, these are things that we just can’t know, even though they are things that we would all like to know.
Let me clarify that, because I’m not suggesting that we know nothing, just that what we know is limited, and, I think, intentionally so. Most biblical writing about the end times – which is called apocalyptic writing – is written in a style that perpetuates the mystery rather than conveying simple facts aimed at satisfying our curiosity. Books like Revelation and the Old Testament book of Daniel were not written to answer the question, “Is heaven for real?” They were written to assure the faithful that evil will not win because the future belongs to God. They were written to encourage people of faith, who already knew that God and God’s Kingdom were for real. They were written to enable those believers to persevere in spite of persecution, suffering, and even death.
I’d also like to suggest that our natural desire to prove things may even work against us. Curiosity about heaven is one thing, but using something as questionable as the account of a four-year-old in order to prove that heaven is real, could indicate an unwillingness to trust in God’s promises without proof. If we are always trying to know more than what God has given us to know, then might that not indicate a basic resistance or inability to live by faith alone. There is no doubt that living by faith is less comfortable than living with certainties. Certainties make us feel secure and give us a sense of being independent and in control. Faith requires us to depend upon God and wait for what we do not fully understand.
Of course, faith is not simply wishful thinking or blind trust. It’s not as if we know nothing. Faith simply requires us to be content with what we know – what God has allowed us to know – without trying to find out or prove what we cannot know. This is the delicate balance that we should attempt to maintain. And this brings us back to the important question of what we do know.
We have already noted that in John’s first letter he tells us that we are God’s children now. That is one thing that we know. But that is a huge thing. Consider how much you care for your children, or the degree to which your parents cared for you. Even with our limited capacity for love, we know that being God’s children means that we will be protected and cared for, we will be forgiven and blessed, we will be provided for, now and in the future. Even we know that a good parent’s love never ends, so we will always be God’s children. We may not know for sure that the streets of heaven are paved with gold, but we know that God loves us, and that is far more important.
Still, death is a real enemy that we all must face, and the Bible never underestimates its power. We must not make light of death, as if it doesn’t matter; nor should we use visions of heaven to try to minimize the pain and suffering of this life. Jesus died a real death and his suffering was real. What we do know is that he was resurrected from the dead. He emerged from the tomb to new life. What is the nature of that new life that is our hope? That is something that we don’t know much about. But John does tell us one that that we know in his letter. “What we do know is this:” John writes, “when he is revealed, we will be like him.” Our resurrected life will be like the resurrected life of Jesus. That’s all we need to know.
Of course, many other important things are revealed to us in Scripture, but there is one more thing that we know based on today’s reading from Revelation. In his vision, John is told who all those people were who were dressed in white. “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal;” the elder says, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” That great multitude of people like us had struggled through the great ordeal of life hanging on by faith when their knowledge was incomplete. And their imperfect faith and witness was made perfect through Jesus Christ, so that they could sing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.” The love of God for all his children will never end. The suffering will end; our hunger and thirst and yearnings will end. And then a time, an eternity (!), of thanksgiving and worship will begin. That’s what we know and believe.
I already confessed that I read that little book, Heaven Is for Real, in just one sitting. Like everyone else, I guess, I am curious about what our future in Christ will look like. But I already knew, before I read the book, that heaven is for real, because Jesus is for real, and the Father’s will to save is for real, and the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is for real. We know what we know. Let us leave the rest to God.