What does heaven look like? Take a moment and picture it. Maybe you have clouds and angels playing harps in your head. Maybe rainbows and green valleys’ …. What would it look like?
St. John was exiled to the prison island of Patmos for being a Christian. There, as an old man, he had a marvelous vision – and he wrote down what he saw. We call that writing, “The Book of Revelation”. And while Revelation is filled will all sorts of the images John saw, some of them even quite scary, we also see here some of the clearest pictures of heaven in all of scripture.
One striking thing about heaven, pictured in Revelation, is that it’s not so much a place as a people. Or, should we say, a situation – between God and his people. John doesn’t so much describe the surrounding environment – that’s not what’s important. But what is important is who is there, and why.
God is there. That’s what makes it so heavenly. That’s what makes it a good place – a place we want to be. Heaven means a blessed reunion of God and man – a relationship restored to full and perfect harmony, after it was lost in the ancient paradise of Eden. To be cast away from God forever is Hell. But to be in his presence forever, singing his praises, is heavenly. John certainly pictures God throughout his vision – both as a mighty king on his throne, but also also as the Lamb who once was slain – Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the dead.
But on this All Saints Day, it’s worth noting who else is there – his people.
In Revelation 7 we see two pictures of God’s people. First, we have the 144,000. Contrary to the teachings of some, this does not mean there’s a limited number who can be saved. It’s not as if heaven has a big flashing “no vacancy” sign, and the rest of us are out of luck. Here is a symbolic number – 12, the number of God’s people throughout scripture – is squared and multiplied by 1000. It really stands for the totality of all God’s people, the church, the chosen ones of God.
Then there is the great multitude no one could count. And these are really the same people – God’s people. Some say the first is a view of us on earth, and the second a view of us in glory. Others suggest the 144,000 are from God’s point of view, and the multitude is from man’s point of view. But this much is clear. The number of those saved and standing, ultimately, before God in heaven is great.
John sees this great crowd, and one of the elders asks, “who are they?” We might wonder the same, but the answer is obvious. One wonders, too, if John didn’t even recognize some of them. Perhaps as he looked on the crowd he saw Christian friends – apostles and martyrs who had gone before him. “Oh there’s Peter, there’s Matthew. There’s my brother James”
Who are they? It’s obvious. “Sir, you know” he says. But this moment is worth comment. Of all the visions in Revelation, few are explained to this extent. The elder makes it plain, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” These are believers in the glory of God’s eternal presence.
These are, in fact, all the saints. Can you see their faces? There’s ….
And there, by the grace of God, you and I will be too. For in Holy Baptism, our robes are washed clean in the blood of the lamb. There you were first clothed with Christ. And his righteousness covers you even now, and even forever.
And all the trouble of this world, or as Revelation calls it, “the great tribulation” – none of it compares to the glory revealed there. There, in the presence of God, there is no more pain, hunger, thirst, suffering or sorrow.
What a beautiful picture it is, that God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Like a loving father whose kiss makes the boo boo all better, but even more perfect and full. His tender, loving, mercy will take away all cares and troubles, not just for a moment, but forever. It’s almost impossible to comprehend.
By rights, heaven is already yours. You already stand in the merciful presence of God, by grace through faith. One day we will see it in all its fullness, but we possess it even now.
Yes even now, God gives us a taste of it. We have the forgiveness of our sins, and the peace with God that brings. We have the promises of blessings now and future, and in those words we trust. We have the hope of the resurrection, the certainty of things unseen. And we have his gracious presence even now – “Lo, I am with you always” and “where two or three gather in my name, there am I”.
Even now, before the great marriage feast, we have a foretaste, a sample, if you will, of that blessed banquet. When we gather to receive his body and blood, we participate in the great communion – the community – of heavenly host, together with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. It’s as if the saints themselves are here with us, praising and thanking the God who has brought us salvation.
That’s why we sing the same songs. Power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and blessing and glory to God and to the Lamb, forever and ever, amen. We, like the saints, are blood-bought and victorious in Christ. We, like the saints, will live forever. And that eternal life with God has already begun.
All Saints Day – not a day to mourn or bemoan those who have departed this world, but a day to rejoice in triumph with those who have joined the everlasting company, the great multitude in the eternal presence of God. All saints – all holy people – who continuously praise the Holy One, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Today we see images, visions, with St. John of the glories of heaven – not a place, as much as a state of being – God, in mercy, dwelling with his people forever.
For the promise of glories to come, and for the present blessings he so richly reveals – we thank you, O Lord. For all the saints who from their labors rest, we thank you, O Lord. And for the grace to remain in that great company here in life and there for eternity we pray, keep us always, O Lord, in Jesus Christ. In his name. Amen.