What is heaven going be like? Inquiring minds want to know. Don’t you want to know? What will it look like? Who will be there? What will it feel like? Smell like? Taste like? You long for a glimpse of the glory, a sneak preview, something to hold you through the shortening days and creeping darkness of your autumn.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. Maybe so, but the movie is seldom as good as the book. With God, a Word is worth a thousand pictures. St. John got a glimpse of glory. His visions come to us in picture-words: Holy City, radiant beautiful Bride, precious foundation stones, pearly gates, streets of translucent gold, the Tree of Life in full fruit, the Spirit flowing like a river, proceeding from Father and Son. Can you imagine it? No, you can’t begin to imagine it, because it’s unlike anything you’ve ever known in your life. You can now only hear it and believe it. But soon enough, very soon, you will see it for yourself.
John saw the holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem, coming down from God in heaven. This is not the city man builds. That city is Babylon, hearkening back to Babel, the city of man’s ambition to reach to God, to be a god. Babylon the drunken prostitute city with her crooked merchants and corrupt politicians and immoral bedrooms and false religions. But the holy City is a lovely Bride, the Bride of the Lamb, ready for her wedding day, the day of your salvation. That’s your city, the city of your citizenship. Where you are most “at home.”
The city shines not with her own glory, but with God’s glory. No “Here Comes the Bride” blaring for her saying “Look at me, look at me!” She says, “Look at Him,” the Lamb, her Groom. In His light, she is precious stone glistening in the light, a sparkling crystal. She doesn’t give off light, she reflects and refracts it in glorious 12-fold color. That’s how God sees you in Jesus. That’s how He sees His church. Not in all her faults and blemishes, but radiant, holy, perfected in Jesus, washed in Baptism, forgiven, shining in the light of Jesus.
There is no temple in the city. That’s strange. You’d expect a temple in heaven. Where will they go to worship? Then comes the answer. “The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple.” Heaven is nothing but worship – all worship all the time. What goes on here this morning in the Liturgy is as close to heaven as it gets, at least for now. No temple means no sacrament, no mediating means by which God comes to us hiddenly. In heaven there is no need for God’s hiding under water, words, bread, and wine. There your eyes are gazing directly at the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.
Word and Sacrament are for now, the present time. We, as sinners, dare not look on the face of God, or we would be destroyed. But He comes to us in gentle, hidden, incarnate ways. Ways that don’t threaten or harm us. The Baby in the manger; the Man on the cross. Baptismal water, absolving words, bodied-bread and bloodied-wine. Giveable, receivable gifts. Take and eat. Take and drink. Listen. Be baptized. Trust. That’s how God deals with sinners through the death of Jesus. Try to deal with God any other way than His way, and you will be damned for it. No sense in that.
The city has no need for light. No sun, no moon, no stars. No evening and morning. Only endless Sabbath day, like the 7th day in Genesis. Jesus, the Lamb who hung in darkness, Jesus the Light of the world, is the city’s lamp in eternal Day.
The nations will walk by the light of Jesus, the kings of the earth will bring their splendor, as the wise men once brought their gifts to the holy Child, guided by the light of a star. An eternal Epiphany. Peace, shalom, shabbat. An end to warfare, to terrorism, to false religion, murder, violence in the name of God. No more greedy and corrupt governments; no more oppressive leaders; no more killing, dying, sickness, sorrow, pain. The glory and honor of the nations are there because God was at work, in, with, and under our tortured history – the holocausts, the genocides, the hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, fires, all of them embraced in one dark Death that brings peace. God was at work, in Christ and His death, reconciling all things to Himself. God was at work in Christ, making all things new, working all things together for good to His beloved children, weaving a glorious tapestry out of the sordid strands of our fallen world.
God’s city is a gated community, but its gates of pearl are never shut. There is no night, no cover of darkness, no thief or gang banger or prowler. Nothing impure can enter through those gates. Your sin does not enter with you. Nor does anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.
Those gates may concern you, if you stop and ponder them. There are lots of jokes about the pearly gates and questions about why you should be allowed in. We joke about things we take most seriously.
Will you be allowed to enter those open, pearly gates? You who are born in sin? You who sin in thought, word, deed? If you attempt to enter by way of the Law, you must be pure, for “nothing impure shall ever enter it.” If you attempt to enter by way of your works, those too must be undefiled, for “no one who does what is shameful or deceitful” shall enter. If you look at yourself in the mirror of the Law, you must conclude that you don’t belong there. That’s the way of unbelief – refusing gates that are open to you.
But the Law is not where you look for entry. Your works don’t get you in, nor will your purity, piety, or prayers, your martyrdom or your personal holy war, whatever it may be. Only this: That your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. That’s what matters in the end – that your name is written in Christ’s book of life.
When was your name written there? From all eternity, from before the foundations of the world. Before you could life one finger to do the tiniest work for God. Before there was a finger to lift, or a you to lift it, it was all done in Jesus, the eternal Son. Who did the writing? Certainly not you, but the One who authored this book with His blood and death and life – the Lamb.
And how can you be so sure that your name is there? You can’t see this book, or turn its pages, or search its table of contents. You know it by your Baptism, wherein God named and claimed you as His own in Christ. As surely as He put His name on your forehead with the water, so surely is your name written in the Lamb’s book of life. Only in Christ the Lamb, in His death and life, can you enter those precious gates. He alone is pure; He alone has no shame or deceit. He bore your sin and shame on His cross. His holiness, innocence, and perfection, He gives to you, a seamless white robe covering your shame and deceits. There will be no questions, no doctrinal exams, no inquiries or inquisitions, no “why should I let you into my heaven” trick questions. All that counts is that you are in Jesus – His Name on you and your name in His book.
Today is a day of names. Shortly, we will read aloud the names of the faithful departed of this congregation. Forty-three years of names, (I’m not sure how many there are, exactly), saints who have fallen asleep in Jesus, baptized believers whose Baptism has been brought to its fulfillment. Their names are mentioned in the same breath as the saints and martyrs of old – the Virgin Mary, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, evangelists, the fathers of the early church – Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Chrysostom, Gregory. Men like Luther, Melanchthon, Chemnitz, Walther. The names of your own beloved, the faithful departed in your family.
Someone once commented that All Saints Sunday in our congregation is a bit like a big funeral or memorial service, where everyone is remembered all together. That’s a good way of looking at it. It’s the church’s “Memorial Day.” We remember them all together – in the company of the angels, the archangels, and all the company of heaven. They are not far from us, but very near, as near as Christ their Savior is near. We remember them because God remembers them, and He remembers their sins no more. And He has blessed them in their death with this Beatitude: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
It’s a bitter-sweet day. Sweet with Jesus-wrought salvation, yet bitter for us who must remain in the “now” awaiting the “not yet.” There may be a tinge of sadness in your remembering, especially if the ones you remember have died recently. And even if it has been a long time, you never really “get over” grief. (Don’t let anyone tell you that you do.) You get on, you get by, you move on, you adapt to the loss of their presence. But you never quite get over their death, nor should you. They are precious to you; they are precious to the Lord. You can only do as He does: Embrace them in their death knowing they are safe in His hands.
Jesus blesses you in your mourning, with the promise that you will be comforted. His word is sure. Those who mourn join those who are poor in spirit, the meek, the spiritually hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure hearted, the peacemakers, the persecuted. They are blessed because they have nothing to give; and everything to receive from God.
That’s the way it is with the saints, the holy ones whose holiness is in Christ and not in themselves. Their deeds follow them, but Jesus is the One who leads them. He leads you too from the Font of your birth to the altar, from the grave to resurrection and life, to a shining holy City built by God, to the Throne and the Lamb and the flowing Spirit, to the tree of life in continual fruit, to endless Sabbath Day, and face to face communion with God.
In the name of Jesus,