There can be a tendency, when we refer to people who have died, to simply think of heaven as an improved version of here. It can be seen as the perfect family reunion, or a time when someone has unlimited hours to do the things they loved to do while on earth. And while those provide comforting thoughts, I think it misses the point about how grand is the life that awaits those who are saved in heaven.
It is true that we do not know much about heaven, in fact almost nothing. We know it exists, and we know that it involves both the personal and the communal. We do not cease being who we are, but we do receive the fullness of God’s presence. But exactly what that means is still a mystery to us. Writers like John Milton and Dante have tried to express their views on heaven and hell, but they are not definitive.
The best we can do is speak by way of analogy. We can talk about what heaven is like, drawing clues from the Scriptures. And just as we use familiar imagery to comfort ourselves as the loss of our loved ones, so too the Scripture readings use analogies to help us to understand just what heaven may be like.
Today we are confronted with the image of a mountain. A mountain holds a special place in biblical imagery, since God appeared on mountains. There was the appearance to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the Transfiguration experience which also took place on a mountain. As such, a mountain is a symbol of the encounter with God.
So what do we learn from Isaiah’s imagery today? First, we know that heaven is bigger, better and more wonderful than anything else. “The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it.” It simply is so much more than we think it is. It is not simply an extended period of happiness doing something we enjoy with someone we love. It is not simply a great family reunion. It is more. It is a fulfillment and happiness that is far more than we can possibly imagine.
The second lesson flows from this first lesson. We are tempted over and over again to limit God to what we know or see. It is hard for us to grasp and maintain the immense transcendence of God. God’s love is more powerful than we could ever imagine, because we are not capable of loving as God loves. God’s care for us is so much greater than we think it is, because God’s care is beyond the level at which we could care.
And perhaps most importantly, God demands more from us than we think we are capable of providing. The demands of God are not motivated by fear of punishment, or harsh ill treatment, but rather the demands that strong love makes upon the beloved. Are not the most difficult words we can hear from someone we love “I am so disappointed in you.” It is not because we are afraid the lover will punish us, the beloved, but rather that because of the love of the lover for the beloved, there is an unbelievable desire to respond in love, which is a very high demand.
In this spirit, Isaiah speaks of walking in the way of the Lord. It is the Lord’s ways that help us to understand that when we walk in the ways of the Lord, things occur that are beyond what we think possible. Swords as beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Each nation walks with the other in peace. And we are in a powerful community ruled by the love of God.
And so do not think small. Think big. Because God is not a god of small, but rather a God of the big and bold — things so amazing they are beyond our ability to grasp.