“Behold, I make all things new!”
How do you imagine the unimaginable? How do you comprehend the incomprehensible? How do you express the inexpressible? Is there any language on earth that is big enough to sum up that which infinite, eternal, unbounded—God? I love the story the singer Kathy Troccoli tells about her little niece Gina and how they would engage in that kind of conversation that so many of us have had with our children, trying to express inexpressible love. She asked Gina one day, “Do you know how much I love you?” The little girl shook her head. Kathy said, “All the way up the sky!” Gina climbed up on her lap and said, “Well, I love you all the way to the ocean!” Kathy say, “Oh yeah? Well, I love you all the way to heaven!” And the child said, thinking hard, taking a deep breath, “Well….well….I love you all the way to K-Mart in the toy department!!!” It was the biggest and best thing that she, in her pint -sized experience, could imagine to express her inexpressible love.
How do we, the children of God, express what we believe to be true about God, the One who is himself inexpressible love? “What language shall I borrow?” says the poet. Theologian Robert Bellah says: “When we human beings try to describe God we are like a bunch of oysters trying to describe a performance of Swan Lake.” We simply do not have the equipment to comprehend something so utterly beyond us. But that has never stopped us from trying!
This is why the language of faith has always been the language of metaphor, symbols, images, parables. When the Bible says, “God is a rock,” or “God is a fortress,” or “God is a shepherd,” we are not to take that literally. If we do we miss the meaning. When Jesus says, “I am the bread,” “I am the door,” “I am the vine,” clearly he does not want us to take it literally. If we do, we will miss the deeper meaning. Thus the primary language of faith, is not the language of math or science. It is necessarily the language of metaphor, images, symbols, parables. I saw a bumpsticker once that said, “May the Metaphor be With You.” Yes, may the One whose presence and power can never be confined in mathematical scientific concepts or any words of any language be with you!
This is one of the criticisms of Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven. That it’s not scientific. It’s not really proof. It is so filled with images and visions. I told you in my Easter sermon that I didn’t need to read this book, because I already had all the proof I needed to believe that there is only future and it is a future I can trust, a future that belongs to a God who is Love. I do not know what the future holds, I know the One who holds the future. In the beginning, God. In the end, God. That’s all I need to know.
But Rob Worley insisted that I must read this book, so I am, and I am almost finished with it. For those of you who don’t know, Proof of Heaven, #1 on the New York Times bestseller for 25 weeks, was written by a very well-respected, highly trained, Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon who contracted a rare bacterial meningitis, went into a deep coma for 7 days, was almost given up for dead, but just before they were to unplug him from all life support, he woke up, he lived to tell about his near death experience, his “journey into the afterlife,” one which totally “blew his mind,” an experience of inexpressible beauty and beatitude, light, love, peace, not unlike other accounts of near-death experiences.
What makes Dr. Alexander’s account extraordinary is that the part of the brain that was shut down completely during this coma, the cortex, is the part of the brain that controls thinking and feeling, the part, as he puts it, “that makes us human.” So, he asks, if it was not his brain, then what part of his being had this vivid experience? Dr. Alexander, a former skeptic, believes it was his soul that journeyed into heaven. His critics say that the experience he reports could have occurred just as he was resurfacing from the coma, what is called a “reboot phenomenon” by which the brain creates a montage from disjointed memories left over from before the cortex shut down. Who knows? My point is this: all through the book Dr. Alexander says again and again, “there are no words to describe” this amazing experience he cannot stop talking about. He says, “It’s like trying write a novel with only half an alphabet.” He says it is like being a chimpanzee who becomes a human for 1 day and then returns to the world chimps and tries to explain what it was like to know several different languages, calculus, French cuisine, Bach and Beethoven. Whatever he experienced during his coma—butterflies, music, a green valley, a village, angelic beings, wings, flight– he has no choice but to filter it through the limitations of language, metaphor, images. Again, what matters most is the meaning. What did it mean?–this mind-blowing life-altering experience of heaven? It meant, he said, three things: You are loved. You have nothing to fear. You can do no wrong.
Keep all of this in mind as we turn to the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation, for it is absolutely thick metaphors, symbols, images. Think of the context. You and I may look around at our world today with its intractable problems and wonder what this world is coming to. John of Patmos, exiled by the Roman Emperor Domitian, in a time of terrible persecution, his life hanging in the balance, everything he believed in under attack, facing monumental adversity, was surely asking that question. It was under intense pressure that John had this eschatological vision of the future, the last things, the end of life, and it totally blew his mind. How do you imagine the unimaginable? comprehend the incomprehensible? express the inexpressible? What language shall I borrow? The language of metaphors, symbols, images deeply steeped in Hebrew scripture and Jewish mysticism.
John begins by saying what it is NOT: this is a place where there will be NO tears, NO death, NO sorrow, NO crying, NO pain, not any more. This is a place where there will be NO faithlessness, NO murderers, NO liars, NO evildoers—a place where you can do no wrong. This is place where there is NO temple, for God will be all in all, his dwelling place with people everywhere, everyday, in everything. This is a place where there is NO night, for all is light. This is place where the gates are never shut, always open with one stream of one-way traffic going in, never out, no one turned away, radically inclusive. ALL are there. Because God is making ALL things new. NOTE: it is not God makes all new things. God makes all things new, even the worst things. Kathleen Norris tells a story about a woman who was dying. Her daughter tried to comfort her, saying, “Mom, everyone you love will be in heaven.” Her mother said, “No, in heaven I will love everyone who is there.” Everyone. For the God who is love, who makes all things new, will be all in all.
Then, after trying to expressing what heaven is not, in the very next chapter, John tries to tells us what it is. Of all things, it is a CITY. Not, as New Testament scholar Eugene Boring says, “the idyllic Elysian Fields of the Greeks, nor the happy hunting grounds of the Native American,” nor is it a return to Eden. I for one am glad it is not people with harps and halos sitting around on their private clouds. There is a Gary Larson cartoon that depicts this guy in heaven sitting alone on his personal cloud with wings, harp, and halo, looking very bored, and the caption says, “Man, I wish I’d brought a magazine.” Someone once called that “a preacher’s heaven,” a place that only a preacher would enjoy, “which members of other professions might something of a strain.” C.S. Lewis once asked, “Will heaven be boring?” Not if John is right, for what he saw was a city, a huge, bustling city of ceaseless activity, people living in harmony and peace, a city that works. And the city is a bride—beautiful, loved, cherished.
“And a river runs through it,” says John, the water of life. I think of that wonderful Carly Simon song that won a Golden Globe and an Academy Award, based on these verses in Revelation, “Let the River Run,” about the New Jerusalem, a vision of life in a city on earth that has been utterly redeemed and made new. It’s asking for the taking./ Trembling, shaking./Oh, my heart is aching./We’re coming to the edge,/Running on the water,/Coming through the fog,/Your sons and daughters./Let the river run,/Let all the dreamers/Wake the nation./Come, the New Jerusalem.
I could go on and on, but it would be like trying to write a sermon with only half an alphabet. All these symbols, images, metaphors!—what do they mean? I can only say what it means to me: that the One who is the Alpha and Omega, whose head is on both sides of the coin, the same One who is with us on the day we are born giving us the gift of life is the same One who will be with us on the day we die giving the gift of life made new. The Apostle Paul put it like this, “If we live, we live to the Lord. And if we die we die to the Lord. So whether we live or whether we die, we are his.” We cannot lose! His head is on both sides of that coin. In the beginning GOD. In the end GOD. He is the One loves us all the way from A to Z, all the way to K-Mart in the toy department! What then do we have to fear if this is what our world is coming to? Nothing. Nothing can separate us, not even death itself, from the One who is Love!