We Cannot Imagine

HeavenLuke 20:27-38 NRSV

One day in the sweet by and by, when we all get to heaven, in the resurrection of the dead, Jesus says we will “neither marry nor be given in marriage.” And today, some of us on this earth who are married, or have been married, sing or shout with a loud voice: “What a day of rejoicing that will be!”

Yes, for some of us with bad marriages, or have Exes that we don’t even want to talk about, this is some very good news! However, for those of us who love our spouses, and cannot imagine life without them, this news is rather disconcerting.

I am thinking specifically about those couples where you never see one without the other. I am thinking about those who have lived together so long that they not only begin to act alike and talk alike, but they actually begin to look alike. Couples who have been married 50, 60 or even 70 years. And when one passes away, the other usually follows very soon after—sometimes just months later; sometimes just days. And none of us are surprised! Not only could they not imagine life without one another, neither could we.

But there lies our real problem! We simply cannot imagine any life beyond this life. A few years ago, the group called Mercy Me, sang a very popular song about heaven entitled I Can Only Imagine. However, the truth is, that when it comes to the resurrection, when it comes to eternity, there is no way we can imagine. Even that popular song that says that we can has more questions in it than answers.

One of the reasons that we cannot imagine it is that eternal life is not something that happens because there is something intrinsic in our nature that makes it happen. It happens only because there something intrinsic in God’s nature that makes it happen. We cannot imagine it, because it is not of us. It is of God.

Some of the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, but many in the religious community did believe in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. There was widespread belief that there is something within every human being that is eternal. When we die, our soul simply leaves our body and continues living in another realm. Heaven then is understood as a continuance of our present existence. So if we marry in this life, and our first spouse dies and we remarry, it makes sense to question who our spouse will be when we get to heaven. And if we remarry and our second spouse dies, and we remarry again, and that spouse also dies, and then we marry again, well, we’re going to have a real problem in the hereafter! You think you have problems now?

However, Jesus never talked about the immortality of the soul. Jesus talked about mortality and death and about the resurrection of the dead. As I said last week, when we face our deaths, because it is not God’s will for anyone to perish, it is in the very nature of God to resurrect and transform our deaths into a brand new life. It is just what God does.  It is who God is.

Therefore, in Revelation 21 we these hopeful words:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

And with our finite, mortal minds, we cannot imagine it.

The biblical revelation is clear:  Newness, a brand new beginning, a fresh start, a new life can come, but it comes only as a gift from the God of life, the God of the living, the creator of all that is. It cannot and does not come from those who cannot even begin to imagine it.

A very literal translation of the first line of Genesis is “In the beginning God began creating…”  William Willimon puts it this way: “Creation is not something that God did once and for all, but rather something that God continues to do in this world. God keeps making all things new. Day in and day out, God is actively involved with creation, intervening, interfering, renewing and doing battle the primordial chaos that threatens to undo creation. Creation continues as God keeps making something out of nothing.”[i]  This is just who our God is.

The key for us as people of faith in this ever-creating God is to come to understand that much of the pain and brokenness that we experience in this life is not the end, but only the beginning—the beginning of something wonderful that we cannot even imagine it.

We say we cannot imagine spending eternity without our spouses, without our children, without our friends. No we can’t. No more than a small child can imagine some of the pleasures of adulthood.[ii]

Try to explain to a child the immense joy that you receive sitting in front of your fireplace on cold mornings sipping a hot cup of coffee, listening only to sounds of sound of a soft blaze.  Try to explain to a youngster that has boundless energy the sheer gratification you experience rocking in a chair on your front porch at dusk, watching fireflies dance in your backyard.

“But mama, but grandma, but Nana, let’s go out there and try to catch some of them, put them in a jar.”

Think about the look you receive when you say, “No, honey, let’s just sit right here on this porch and quietly rock, breathe in the fresh air and just watch.”

No, just as a child cannot imagine what is pure heaven for adults, neither can we imagine the heaven God has prepared for us. The Apostle Paul put it this way,

But when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13).

But right now, we cannot imagine.  We can only trust that the God whose nature is to create and recreate and restore and resurrect will be faithful to God’s very nature.

And although I do not believe there is any way that we can fully imagine eternity, I do believe that we are privy here in our finiteness to glimpses of it. And I am not just talking about fireflies, coffee and fireplaces.

As a pastor, I have seen these glimpses, and though those glimpses might be like looking through a mirror, dimly, I have seen these glimpses often.  Someone loses a job.  They are overcome by depression and despair.  They think their world is coming to an end. They believe that life for them is over.  And I, as a pastor, try to minister to them the best way that I can.  I tell them that God will help them make something out of this mess.  God will make something good come from it.  They will be able to move on.  Things will get better.  And they, of course, cannot even imagine.

Then I check back with them in a few months, after they have landed a new job. And I hear them say things like: “Getting fired from that old job was the best thing that ever happened to me. I absolutely love my new job, and I have never been more happy!”

Someone else comes to me saying that their marriage was suddenly ending. They are completely devastated. They tell me that they feel like their life is over. Their marriage was the most important thing in the world to them, and now it was ending. They have no more reason to get up in the morning, no more reason to try to do a decent day’s work. They’re in utter despair.  Again, I try to reassure them. God will somehow, someway, work it out, help you get through this difficult time. God will work and wring whatever good can be wrung out of this horrible situation!”

“Preacher,” they say, “I cannot imagine.”

And then, a couple of years later, they fall in love again and remarry.  And I hear them say something like, “What I thought was the end of my life was only the beginning. And though I may never be able to go back to the good old days, I realize now that I have plenty of good new days ahead!”

Another comes to me and shares their doctor’s grim diagnosis. They use words like “terminal,” “inoperable,” and “untreatable.”  They say that life is over. Death is the only thing in their future. However, a short time later, as I visit them in the Hospice House, they let me know in a miraculous way that being fully alive and fully whole have absolutely nothing to do with physical well-being.

Who would have imagined?

A child dies. Then God steps in and miraculously begins working and creating and recreating and resurrecting. And untold dollars are raised in that child’s memory to fight a dreadful disease. And countless other children are saved.

Who could have imagined?

And the good news is that one day, when we face our final hours, with faith in the God of the living, the God of resurrection and restoration, that there is nothing final at all about them!

[i] Willimon, William. A quote found in some of my old sermon notes. Source uncertain.

[ii] Culpepper, Alan. Luke. The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 390.

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