13 November – On Heaven

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Pentecost 23

Isaiah 65:17-25
Psalm 126
Luke 21:5-9

In a sentence:
The heaven we need and live towards is our here and now

When the question is heard in our house, “Can you tell me a story?”, the following little tale is sometimes told:

Once upon a time, there was a spider who wanted to spin a web.
But she couldn’t. So she died frustrated.

(End of story).

These days that story is re-told either to be annoying or in mockery of my story-composing skills. But it wasn’t until I read closely our text this morning from Isaiah that I realised the theological significance of that frustrated spider.

Isaiah 65 tells of the coming creation of new heavens and a new earth. It’s difficult to hear this without hearing its much later echo in the book of Revelation 21, but we must try to filter that out for at least a moment. Revelation is a thoroughgoing apocalyptic text, but even late Isaiah is too early for apocalyptic ideas. In particular, unlike in Revelation, Isaiah’s vision has no promise of resurrection.

Isaiah’s vision of heaven, then, has no “eternal life”:

No more shall there be … an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. (65.20)

What is promised is not eternal life but enough life. This is because, for the Hebrew mind, the problem is not death but dying frustrated. In the restored creation,

[t]hey shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD – and their descendants as well. (65.21-23)

The new heavens and earth signify, “They shall not labour in vain”. The problem to which Isaiah’s vision is an answer is vanity of purpose, thwarted intentions, not enjoying the fruits of our labour. Heaven is the opposite of this, Isaiah says: no more “dying frustrated”. The death which remains in this vision of restoration is now a “good” death after a life that proved to be worthwhile. Un‑fulfilment is the problem; fulfilment is the correction. Isaiah’s heaven needs no eternal life because one fulfilled life is life enough.

A heaven without eternity is a confronting thought for those of us accustomed to speaking of never-ending life. In truth, we don’t think much about eternity. But what do we imagine we would do in a “forever” heaven? “Forever” is what we usually associate with boredom; to say that the sermon went on “forever” is to say that it was not, in even the remotest sense, an experience of heaven! Heaven-as-forever might be somewhat less than we hope for.

But it gets worse. In Isaiah’s vision, not everyone gets to heaven, even the worthy! “I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy”, declares God, meaning that it’s not here yet. It will be the case that some listening will not see it, perhaps even all of them, because Isaiah has no resurrection to carry them there.

And so a surprising thing emerges: Isaiah’s first hearers both rejoice that this restoration of the heavens and the earth is coming, and know that they will not see it. They look forward to the coming of what they will not see. For Isaiah and those who first hear him, it is heaven enough to know that Jerusalem will be restored, without having to be part of that restoration. Faith here is not that I will experience the good thing but that someone will. For Isaiah, not I but the Jerusalem-to-come will know the new heavens and new earth – a new Jerusalem in which I may not get to live.

This is about as un-individualistic an idea of faith and salvation as we could imagine – that the promise of heaven could be for me a life-giving promise even when I don’t expect to experience it. I rejoice and take heart that God’s salvation will be experienced by someone else.

If we are surprised by this, we will also be surprised to hear that precisely this understanding of the promise of heaven is at the heart of Christian confession and life. Christian faith begins not with the idea that I might get to heaven – something often mocked by non-believers. Christian faith begins with the idea that Jesus “gets to” heaven. Christian confession simply displaces Isaiah’s Jerusalem with the crucified Jesus. It is Jesus’ life which is frustrated by being cut short. He doesn’t see the fruit of his work but dies too early, and all he built is thrown to the wind. Good Friday is what Isaiah describes: houses built, vineyards planted, children born – but all in vain. In the death of Jesus is caught up all frustration of human work and intention. The cross is exactly non-heaven, exactly the frustrated, disordered world. But to speak of the resurrection of Jesus is to say of him what Isaiah said of Jerusalem. It doesn’t overturn pointlessness and thwarted goodness in happy consolation for Jesus but rather says that his thwarted life was enough, that the frustrated life he lived from his vision of heaven was enough.

This is more than a clever theological trick, tying Isaiah’s earthy salvation to what we’ve learned to be the “more” heavenly Christian salvation with its overtones of resurrection and eternity. But the point is that faith doesn’t leave the earthiness behind with a dose of resurrection and comforting notions of eternal life for everyone. If Jesus is Lord now – is now the sign of God’s kingdom – he was also the presence of God’s kingdom before the crucifixion, in his seemingly frustrated life and work.

Consider what it is like for us to believe here and now. We live not in the glorious heights of heaven but on the plain of frustration. Perhaps we “believe” in heaven, but all this can really mean is that we believe that Jesus is restored, that he is in heaven. This is the only angle on heaven we have, apart from sentimental and wishful thinking which proposes a heaven as some kind of retirement payout. We might hope that we join Jesus in heaven but this is precisely the point: we hope. And what do we hope? We hope first and foremost not that we might get to heaven, but that Jesus is there. Because if he is not there – if someone is not saved – then no one is, and we have no idea what we hope for. Our hope is that Jesus’ thwarted life was enough, because then our thwarted lives might be enough, too.

This is to say that an overgrown hope in heaven to come threatens to deny the real possibility of life here and now. There are some who expect heaven to come as a consolation for a frustrated life. And there are some who find solace in that, though they might not see heaven, it is nonetheless real and they will live here and now in view of that reality. There is a world of difference – even a heaven of difference! – between these two mindsets. Heaven as reward or consolation makes what I do and experience here and now less important than the coming life of heaven itself. I live now for the coming heaven in which I’ll really live, rather than living to live here and now. This is because the heaven I look forward to makes me think that this present world is not the real thing. I’ll be good for heaven’s sake rather than for goodness’ own sake. I’ll “wait” for heaven, and get on with things when it comes. This is not just a frustrated life but a procrastinated one.

But, against this, the real heaven I might not see requires me to start living here and now, because there is no other life to which I can put things off. I must live as if there were no heaven to come, as if the promise of heaven were as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing it, apart from getting on with a heaven-shaped life here and now.

This is to say that we might need to set aside our infatuation with a heaven to come – for our own sake, for our neighbour’s sake and for God’s sake. We pray, of course, for the coming of God’s kingdom, “on earth, as in heaven”. But we do this knowing that the coming of God’s kingdom is the gift in the Incarnation, and the gift in the Eucharist, and the gift in the promised presence to us of Christ in our neighbour. It is into our Now that the kingdom comes, and heaven is possible.

Lift up your hearts, Isaiah says to his people. God will come.

Lift up your hearts, we hear each week: God has come, and made dwelling among us, and comes and comes and comes again in glimpses of heaven in the lives of the saints and those who don’t yet know they are saints.

We gather as those learning what the kingdom looks like, learning that we might be saints, and so learning how to become God’s kingdom here and now.

So, Sleepers, awake.

Lift up your hearts.


Become the coming of God.