I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for hat we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8.12-25
What’s your vision of heaven? What does it look like to imagine heaven?
I’ve been intrigued this week by Paul’s words from Romans 8 and a quote from Joel Stein, which was printed on the side of a Starbucks cup and received some publicity a while back:
“Heaven is totally overrated. It seems boring. Clouds, listening to people play the harp. It should be somewhere you can’t wait to go, like a luxury hotel. Maybe blue skies and soft music were enough to keep people in line in the 17th century, but heaven has to step it up a bit. They’re basically getting by because they only have to be better than hell.”
I asked you about your vision of heaven because I’m not so sure my old vision of heaven is going to suffice anymore. Even before I heard Mr. Stein’s words on a sermon podcast this week, I was struck by the thought that eternal relaxation and leisure might not be the plan God has in mind.
We worship a God who chose to begin creation out of a desire to create. Forming existence as we know it was not a masters’ degree project for God: all that exists, exists because God has willed it so. Our God is not just an awesome God: our God is a creating, energetic, dynamic God – and we are made in God’s image. We are made to work, to envision, to create, and so I wonder: in the world to come, when all things worship their Creator as they were made to do, it seems logical that the children of a creative, energetic, dynamic God would be at work, in a creative, energetic, dynamic heaven. What we might be making is beyond my imagination, but as the adopted children of God the Creator, it seems certain that we will be reborn into eternal life with a creative purpose, to do more than lounge around and play our harps on fluffy clouds.
Creation and work and all of that are on my mind with this passage because Paul mentions labor pains, too, how the creation is groaning with the work of bringing forth that which God has envisioned. Of course, for me and my 38-weeks-pregnant wife, the term “labor pains” brings up a lot of thoughts, most of which have to do with waiting these days. It seems like all of our friends are either new parents or expecting kids in the next six months, so we’re all in this constant state of waiting for what will be coming forth. In our case, we know there’s a baby almost ready to come into the world, but we have no idea what she will look like (or even if she is definitively she, though the ultrasound folks seem pretty certain). And there is a certain amount of suffering here, too: not only Kristin’s suffering in her body, but also the knowledge that we are bringing forth something that will change our lives forever. There is something of God in the experiences that change our lives, the things for which we suffer, whether it’s bringing a child into the world, earning a degree from a university, running a marathon, envisioning a mission for campus ministry: all of these creative, energetic, dynamic endeavors are in some sense holy because in them we experience something akin to what God experiences suffering the work of creation. I wonder: if you asked God what it feels like to create the world, would God tell you that it is an experience of suffering? Perhaps so, for in our own work we suffer as we bring something new into being – and we are, after all, created in the image of God.
One fear which I find myself addressing quite often in my life is a fear that I’m not creative enough, that I am too much the consumer and not enough the creator. With the way this week’s readings and my thinking on them have moved and worked, I wonder if this is the voice of God reminding me that we are made for more than just satisfying our own desires – that we are creatures made to create, to work for the good of the world, even when such work might bring suffering into our lives. This, I think, is the calling of every Christian: to discover the unique gifts for work which God has given us, and to use them for the sake of the world. As J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testament says, “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the [children] of God coming into their own.” The mercy of Christ sets us free to be creative, to work in God’s world for the benefit of others, and in so doing, we stand on tiptoe, waiting for the glory of God that is coming into the world. Amen.