John Koessler is an award-winning author and faculty emeritus of Moody Bible Institute in pastoral studies. He serves as contributing editor and writes the monthly Theology Matters column for the devotional publication Today in the Word. His podcast A Stranger in the House of God can also be found on Apple, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
I am a little late with this. I should have posted it January 1. I am this month’s devotional writer for Today in the Word and the topic is People of Prayer. You can watch my interview about it below with my friend and colleague Jamie Janosz, who is Today in the Word’s managing editor. If you would like to read the devotions, you can find them here. The devotions are short, so if you want to catch up, it should be pretty easy. I also write the monthly “Practical Theology column for Today in the Word and you can find it by clicking on the tab at the top of my web page. Speaking of prayer, I am thrilled to be writing a monthly column on the subject for Mature Livingduring 2023.
All of this might give the impression that I am an expert on the subject of praying. Well, I suppose that as a preacher, former pastor and Bible college professor, I am a professional. That is to say, I know how to pray out loud in a group. But I’ve never felt like an expert. My personal prayers have always seemed like a bit of a train wreck to me. Or rather, as I often like to refer to them, “awkward conversations with God.” That’s why my January column on the subject in Mature Living was entitled “Prayer for Amateurs.” On the one hand, when it comes to prayer, we are all experts in the sense that most of us have cried out to God in one form or another. Yet most of us feel that we aren’t very good at it. Go ahead and pray anyway. The secret to praying is not in the way we frame our requests but our confidence in the fact that God hears (1 John 5:14).
I am excited about the upcoming release of my latest book, entitled When God is Silent: Let the Bible Teach You to Pray. It should be coming out in August from Lexham Press but you can preorder your copy now at Amazon. I’ll be talking more about in in the coming days in my posts.
In Charles Dickens’ AChristmas Carol, the first spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge notes the spirit’s small stature and asks, “Long Past?” “No. Your past,” the ghost replies.
Dickens is on to something here because this spirit often visits us at this time of year. The season of Advent, by its nature, implies a forward trajectory. It celebrates humanity’s long wait for the arrival of the promised seed of Abraham. In reality, we seem to spend most of it looking back. Ostensibly, we are looking back to the first Advent by recalling the details of the Christmas story. But more often, as Scrooge’s ghost observes, it is our own past that is the real focus of attention.
If you doubt this, look at the ornaments on your Christmas tree. If yours is like most people’s, it is a little like an archeologist’s dig. Your family history hangs in layers before your eyes, with ornaments that commemorate special events or have particular meaning for you. There are the ones with pictures of your children in elementary school and the threadbare elves who no longer have their arms but used to hang on your mother’s tree. Our ornaments trace the fads and passing tastes that have gripped us down through the years. Places we have visited, hobbies we attempted, tastes we acquired and then abandoned. For many of us, Christmas isn’t just a celebration of the past. It is, at least as far as the tree is concerned, a celebration of our past.
But there is more to it than this. When Scrooge asked what business brought the spirit to his bedside, the ghost answered that it was his welfare. “Scrooge expressed himself much obliged, but could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest would have been more conducive to that end,” Dickens writes. “The Spirit must have heard him thinking for it said immediately: ‘Your reclamation, then. Take heed!”
Here, too, I think that Dickens is on to something. But the trajectory of our own stories moves in the opposite direction. The aim of the spirits in Dickens’ tale is to save Scrooge from his past. Our goal is to reproduce it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this other than its futility. The world that nostalgia longs to generate is one that is self-constructed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as reconstructed.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis characterizes nostalgia as “the inconsolable secret” in each one of us. He describes it as a longing “for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.” If he is correct, then the nostalgia of Christmas is not the desire to reproduce the Christmases of the past so much as it is a longing to experience Christmas as it should have been.
Not only does this explain why the actual holiday so often disappoints us, despite our furious preparation and our genuine anticipation. But it also clarifies why we return to it each year with an optimism that a more objective observer would probably call naive. The conviction that drove old Marley, though “dead as a door-nail,” to haunt Scrooge was the hope that his appeal would procure his former partner a better future. But we expect the ghost of Christmases past to heal the present.
Whatever dysfunction has dogged our heels in the past, somehow, each time we reenact the passion play that is Christmas, we expect things to go differently. We think that people who have been at odds all year long and often for decades will endure one another’s presence with grace and even pleasure. That sibling who never calls and never visits will show up on our doorstep smiling, and with arms full of packages. The seat at the table that has long been empty will no longer prick our hearts. The drunk will miraculously arrive sober. The prodigal will come home and not in rags. We will be a “normal” family, if only for a brief time.
It matters very little that the Christmas Spirits’ many brothers were unable to fulfill this expectation for us. Our hope in Christmas’s power to recast the past and somehow heal our present seems to be born each year anew. There is a kind of sad beauty in this fact. But there is a danger also. It is that we will fall into a kind of idolatry. Lewis captures its essence in his critique of nostalgia–or rather his critique of the longing the word so often represents. “The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing,” he writes. “These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.”
And yet we are not wrong to expect Christmas to reclaim our past and redeem the present. We are only mistaken about the timing. This annual cycle of longing leading to expectations that are never quite met is very much in the spirit of Advent. It is a kind of living plainsong that forcibly reminds us that we are still waiting for Emmanuel, who having come once to redeem, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28).
When that day comes, salvation will reach back and reclaim our history in its entirety. All our longings, all our disappointments, all our successes, and yes, even all our failures will be drawn into the redemption that Christ accomplished at His first coming. I do not know what form they will take as they are drawn into the new creation. Perhaps they will be absorbed and replaced as all things are made new. Or maybe, like ornaments hung on the Christmas tree, they will bear joyful witness to God’s faithfulness to us in the past. On that day, as the prophet Isaiah predicts, the Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces and remove His people’s disgrace from all the earth. We will have the celebration we have longed for all our lives and say, “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).
After his wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer, C. S. Lewis kept a journal of observations about the grief he felt. It concludes with her final moments. Lewis writes, “She said not to me but to the chaplain, ‘I am at peace with God.’ She smiled, but not at me.”
I remember being disturbed the first time I read these words. They seemed to speak of despair rather than hope. But the description is so like a sentence Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory,” that I have come to believe I was entirely mistaken about this. The sentence comes in a section of the essay where Lewis discusses the nature of glory. Lewis seems to be saying that the essence of this glory is a kind of recognition. The glory we hope for as Christians is to be known and recognized by God. More than this, according to Lewis, it is to be appreciated. This, Lewis explains, is what we long for–“to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.”
It is this recognition or sense of belonging that we hunger for when we are caught up in longing, and it is the feeling that we are trying to create by the attempted reconstitution of our past through nostalgia. It is the sense of finally coming home. It is what compels us every year to go to such measures to create circumstances that will produce the feeling and whose subsequent failure so breaks our hearts that we aim for it again and again. “For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing,” Lewis explains. “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.”
“She smiled,” Lewis observed at his wife’s passing, “but not at me.”
It seems right to speak of death in the same breath as Advent because Advent is the season of ghosts. It is that rolling time of year when the spirit of Christmases past rises up to remind us that the world is still broken and that the home for which we long has not yet arrived. It has not come. But it is on its way.
 Charles Dickens, The Christmas Books, Vol. 1, (New York: Penguin, 1971), 69.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (New York: HarperOne, 1976), 29.
December is the season when tinsel-haloed angels draped in bedsheets announce the birth of Christ to bathrobe-clad shepherds on the church stage. There is a kind of charm in the way we tell the nativity story that might fool people into thinking that it is merely a rustic folktale. But the Bible’s account of the birth of Christ is not a children’s story. It is a record of history and an act of divine revelation.
Luke begins his recounting of the Nativity story by anchoring the story to a particular place at a moment of time. Luke starts his telling, “in the days of Herod, king of Judea” (Luke 1:5). Its true beginning, however, is much earlier than this. Earlier than the reign of Herod. Earlier than the prophets who predicted Jesus’ coming. Even earlier than the promise made in the Garden that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Indeed, one might even say that this is a story without a beginning since, in the beginning, Jesus Christ, who is the Word, already was (John 1:1).
God, who has no beginning, entered time and space in the person of Jesus Christ. The God, who already was, took to Himself a human nature that He did not previously possess. The theological word for this is incarnation. It is a word that basically means “to become flesh.”
The Gospels describe the incarnation of Christ as a historical fact. But the Scriptures also point out that it was a revelatory event. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says that God has “spoken to us by his Son” and that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:1, 3). This assertion does more than claim that Jesus is God in human form. It distinguishes Jesus from the Father, just as John does when he says that the Word was “with God” and also “was God” (John 1:1).
Poet Richard Crashaw captured the mystery of our Lord’s birth with these words:
Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer to winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
But the Son of God was not born simply to make a poetic statement about God. His humanity does more than translate the divine into human terms. Jesus was born to die and rise again. Without the cross and the resurrection, Jesus’ translation of the divine nature into human experience would be little more than a babble to us. Without the deliverance which the Savior’s death and resurrection secured, the portrait of God that the incarnation provides would be meaningless. We would suppress its truth, just as we push down the things that God has revealed about Himself “from what has been made” (Rom. 1:20).
Jesus is also much more than a moral example. Without the cross’s power to cover sin and “put to death” whatever belongs to the sinful nature, the incarnation is like a virtuoso’s musical score, beautiful to hear but impossible to perform (Col 3:5). Viewing Christ as little more than a moral example reduces Him to a mere recapitulation of the law instead of its fulfillment. We may, like John, be able to look and touch (1 John 1:1), but we would never be able to follow. Jesus took on a human nature not only to correct our false perceptions about what God is like but to rescue us from the sin which was the cause of this distortion in the first place.
When Christmas comes around, there is an unfortunate tendency to co-opt the nativity story for other purposes by placing it within frameworks that diminish its bearing on the Bible’s theology of atonement. It has been portrayed as a morality play about the plight of refugees, divine lobbying for the Pro-Life platform, an argument for showing hospitality, a statement about the role of women in the church, and much more. Perhaps the account of Christ’s birth has implications for all these concerns, but they are not its primary point. The main point of the nativity is that God became human.
The doctrine of the incarnation does not teach that the God merely took up residence in the man Jesus, who was subsequently elevated to a divine status. Neither does it assert that God only appeared to be a human. Instead, this teaching of the Church asserts that the incarnate Christ was both truly God and truly man. His divine nature did not alter his human nature and his humanity did not diminish his divinity.
The incarnation is fundamental to the Christian faith because it is the foundation of Christ’s atoning work. Jesus was made in human likeness so that he could suffer and die on the cross for our sins (Phil. 2:7–8). The fact that Jesus was made like us ensures that he is able to be a merciful high priest, one who understands and sympathizes with our struggle against temptation (Heb. 2:17–18). Christ’s true humanity also meant that he could suffer in our place by taking on himself the penalty for our sin. Though he was tempted like us in every point, Jesus was without sin (Heb. 4:15). This enabled him to go beyond sympathy and provide a genuine remedy for our transgressions through the shedding of his blood.
Jesus was, as the old confession says, “very God of very God.” Jesus shared our humanity, “so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14). To accomplish this Jesus had to be made like us. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”
Jesus does not merely sympathize with our suffering and provide an example of what holiness looks like. He took our sin upon Himself. Jesus’ humanity meant that He could be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. His punishment brought us peace. By His wounds, we are healed. Jesus’ life was an offering for sin. His death was the price paid to the law in compensation for our sins. Because we have been united with Christ in His death, we can also share the hope of His resurrection (Isa. 53:11–12).
When we separate Christmas from the cross, all that remains is a charming story about a babe in a manger. It may be a tale fit for children, but it has no value for broken sinners. The Nativity of Christ is more than a sweet story. It was a cosmic revolution that shook creation to its very foundation. It brought about a change in the Person of Christ so that He became what He previously was not, without ceasing to be what He was before. Still God, but now in the flesh. There was never a time when the Word was not, but there was a time when the Word had not yet become flesh. Unto us has been born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Let all the tinseled angels shout this news to bathrobed shepherds everywhere. This is no tale but a fact of history. Our God has come. Clothed in human nature. And we will never be the same.
Christmas was important to me even before I called myself a Christian, though admittedly, this was mainly for non-religious reasons. I’ve long suspected that I have always loved Christmas more than any other holiday, not because of its spirituality but because it purchased my affections. It’s true that I loved the music and the pageantry. The glow of the lights and the smell of evergreen seemed to transport me to another world. But it was the presents that clinched the deal. When it came to gifts, Christmas was the motherload. Far better than birthdays or any other holiday.
When I became a follower of Jesus, I expected the change to transform Christmas the same way it transformed the rest of my life. I assumed the season, which seemed magical to me already, would become transcendent. It did not. If anything, the change somehow managed to dim the glow.
Perhaps this was because of the church culture to which I had become attached. The church tradition I joined was what is commonly described as a “low” church. Apart from Christmas and Easter, we didn’t follow the church calendar. Even the attention paid to those two days seemed grudging at times. We were proud of this bare-faced approach that disassociated us from Roman Catholicism, with its robes, smoke, and long lists of feasts that never seemed to involve actual food.
Of course, we had our own list of special days and celebrations. So I suppose you could say they were feasts of a sort. There were potlucks and suppers, the annual Valentine’s day banquet, and a church meal after every funeral. There were also a vast variety of informal meals, usually related to specific events or the passing of the seasons. But, in retrospect, it occurs to me that most of these occasions were more social than religious.
Christmas, on the other hand, was overtly religious. By it, we aimed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. We did this with a measure of reserve. There were a few decorations, but they were not elaborate. A handful of evergreen sprigs and the occasional wreath decked out with red and green ribbons were usually enough. Some churches, which would normally have eschewed putting up a Christmas tree in the sanctuary because of its pagan roots, even constructed a large tree-shaped scaffold for the choir and covered it with pine branches.
Christmas Eve was the only time we allowed candles in the sanctuary. Instead of lighting them for the dead like Catholics, we held them in our hands. We dimmed the lights and sang Silent Night as the wax dripped on the upholstery of the pew in front of us. I liked the flickering shadows but hated the song, not because of its content but for its familiarity. It bored me. As a rule, my tastes in Christmas music tended toward the medieval. I would rather sing Prudentius or some repurposed Gregorian chant.
The low church tradition in which I still worship appears to have overcome its reticence about candles and greenery. Advent candles, midnight services on Christmas eve, and strung lights are so common these days that we hardly notice the difference anymore. The church I currently attend piles so many Christmas trees into the place of worship that it feels like we are at a campground instead of in the sanctuary. I have even visited a church that broadcasts Chuck Berry singing “Run, run, Rudolph!” through loudspeakers outside its front door. On the stage in the auditorium where the congregation meets, a smoke machine generates a thin shekinah of mechanical fog.
As for me, my tastes in worship, like my tastes in Christmas music, tend toward the minor key. I have always felt a little envious of my high church friends who, when they lift their eyes in worship, see arches and stained glass instead of ductwork. I have wondered what it would be like to preach a sermon wearing vestments. It would be refreshing to attend a church that feels like a church instead of feeling like I am visiting a shopping mall, an office complex, or a repurposed grocery store. But God, I suspect, does not really care. Even the tabernacle, raised by divine command and meticulously constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses on the holy Mountain, turned out to be only “a copy and shadow of what is in heaven” (Heb. 8:5).
We hunger for a sense of the presence of God. But tend to confuse transcendence with ambiance. In its worship practices, the church seems to struggle to find the happy medium between Puritan austerity and baroque gaudiness. This struggle is further complicated by differences in culture, style, and taste. Not every church celebrates Christmas the same. Indeed, as far as Scripture is concerned, we do not need to observe Christmas as a holy day at all. There is certainly no evidence in the New Testament that the first Christians did. In his book Ancient Christian Worship, Andrew McGowan contrasts “the colorful calendars of feasts, fasts, and saints that churches of the fourth and fifth centuries celebrated” with “the relative silence” of the New Testament on such matters. The apostle Paul criticized the Galatians for “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10). In Colossians 2:16, he warned the Colossians not to let anyone judge them “with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” Christmas, it would seem, is not the queen of days. We are free to observe it or not observe it as we wish.
Meanwhile, when God’s presence does show itself, it is more likely to be on the periphery of our daily experience than in the church sanctuary. God seems to inhabit the corners and shadows, preferring the unnamed days of ordinary time to the high holy days from which we expect so much. He does not come with fanfare. But as the carol says, silently, and in the places where all our hopes and fears meet. “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”
This is the message of Christmas. It is the old, old promise whispered in the Garden, shouted by the prophets, and trumpeted to shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem. It is the good news that God has drawn near by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He came with a real body to the real world. He came to die, rise, and will one day return. Only then will we know what it is like to experience God’s presence in its fullness.
 Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 259.
Heaven has fallen on hard times. In Christian thinking, looking forward to heaven is no longer fashionable. Jeffrey Burton Russell observes in his book Paradise Mislaid, “Heaven has been shut away in a closet by the dominant intellectual trends of the past few centuries.” There are a number of reasons for this. To some, the idea of looking forward to going to heaven seems frivolous. They feel that it is an exercise in self-absorbed indulgence. A quest for “pie in the sky by and by.” For others, notions of heaven are too abstract. It seems too wispy. Not the kind of place that those who have only ever known flesh and blood would feel comfortable, let alone happy. Mark Twain speculated in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.” Twain’s skepticism has uncovered the root of the problem. Either our imagination is too small to truly grasp the things that occupy our time and attention in heaven, or our nature must be radically changed before we can even endure the experience, let alone enjoy it. It seems likely that both are probably the case.
Admittedly, the few passages of Scripture that do speak of heaven are spare in detail, but those that exist suggest that their intent is not to provide us with a detailed travel brochure. They give the impression that a different order of things operates in heaven than the one that exists on earth. “Heaven is a wonderful place filled with glory and grace,” the children used to sing in Sunday school. Yet some of the Bible’s descriptions of heaven seem more unnerving than they do appealing with their winged many-eyed creatures (Rev. 4:8). Yet we should not be surprised that the biblical snapshots of heaven seem so alien to us. “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:12). If even the most basic aspects of heavenly reality are beyond us, how can we expect to grasp its full nature, except by faith?
Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs. The images seem fantastic. Yet they refer to things we know. They describe animals, rivers, seas, and cities. There is an obvious reason for this, according to C. S. Lewis. “Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience” he writes. This is the way of all analogies. They use the known to explain the unknown.
Scripture speaks of heaven using the language of signs.
But this does not mean that Scripture merely employs spiritual baby talk about these things. It is no accident that nature often evokes a sense of God in us. God has not made heaven like the earth so that we will be comfortable there. Rather, in making earth, God has vested it with a kind of beauty and glory that is an echo of his own. Just as God made Adam and Eve in his image, He has also put a reflection of himself in creation. Heaven is not the earth. Based on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, we can be sure that it is much more. Yet whatever beauty heaven may hold, it is certainly not less than the beauty of earth.
Heaven is a Place
Heaven is a location, not a mystical abstraction. The children’s Sunday school song was right. Although “heaven” sometimes serves as a synonym for God in Scripture, it is also spoken of as a place. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught the disciples to ask that God’s will would be done “on earth” as it was “in heaven.” In his speech in Acts 3:21, Peter describes heaven as a location when he says that heaven “must receive” Jesus “until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” Likewise, in Galatians 1:8, Paul gives this warning: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” In Paul’s statement, heaven and God are clearly not synonymous. The angel comes “from heaven” but not from God. Likewise, in John 3:13, Jesus asserts that He “came from heaven.”
An old cliché complains that some people are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good. But perhaps our problem is actually the opposite. We are not heavenly-minded enough. In the opening of his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis observed that our problem is that “We are far too easily pleased.”
A second reason heaven is no longer of interest to us is that we have grown impatient. A focus on kingdom theology has replaced an earlier generation’s emphasis on the hope of heaven because it seems to have more practical value for the present. To dwell on heaven seems selfish, while “working for the kingdom” feels more missional. When Christians talk about heaven, they speak of “going.” When they talk about the kingdom they speak of “building.” “You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site,” N. T. Wright explains in his book Surprised by Hope. “You are–strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself– accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.” He is not wrong in saying this. The earthly analogies Scripture uses to describe the life to come indicate that it involves both continuity and reconstitution. Life on earth continues but on a new earth and in a greater city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Yet, despite what Wright says, the garden is about to be dug up so that something else can be put in its place (2 Pet. 3:11-12).
Not Heavenly Minded Enough
The problem we have with being heavenly-minded is not that it is too removed from the concerns of earth. In a way, it is the opposite. Our idea of heaven is too vague to be of much use at all. Yet the Scriptures, as sparing as they are on the subject, do speak of heaven and in concrete terms. For example, Scripture indicates that heaven can be seen. John’s description of heaven in the book of Revelation begins with an open door, a throne, and someone seated upon it (Rev. 4:2). This language may be figurative, but it is concrete. Even if one is reluctant to take such things in their literal sense, the material quality of these images leaves us with a concrete impression. John goes on to speak of heaven in earthly terms when he writes of crowns, gates, walls, and in the final battle, even animals. At the center of it all, of course, is God. He is unseen, except in the person of Jesus Christ, who appears in John’s vision, not as the familiar but undescribed Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels but instead as a lamb. Or, earlier in the book, Jesus appears in human but terrifying form (Rev. 1:14–16).
It seems clear that there is more to what John depicts than a photographic image. But once again, while the image as a whole may seem strange, its individual parts are not. We have seen and heard all these things. We know the color of bronze and the heat of a furnace. We have heard the sound of waves as they crash upon the shore. We have seen the stars high overhead and know a sharp sword’s intended use. The language does not need to be literal to leave us with an impression of the heavenly reality.
This is the key to laying hold of the Bible’s idea of heaven. We do not need a travel brochure with pictures and maps. A more literal description might capture the sights and sounds and still fall far short of the true nature of the experience. It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to thoughts of heaven, we are more easily captivated by the words of poets and storytellers than the theologians. A sermon may make us ponder, but a golden sunset will make us weep with longing. We think we would prefer prose so that we might understand what heaven will be like. But what we really need is something more akin to fantasy. I am not saying that heaven is a fantasy. It is as real and literal as a chair. But its reality is so fantastic that the literal does not seem to be able to do it justice, at least not on this side of eternity.
Heaven and Earth
But now comes the really strange thing. If the biblical writers are an example of how we must talk about heaven, it seems that the figures and terms of the literal world are essential to conveying its fantastic nature. It is no accident that those who speak of heaven, even in the Scriptures, more often than not describe it in earthly terms. They speak of the people and things we know.
It would seem, then, that we are not earthly-minded enough. Or rather, it might be better to say, our problem is that we are not thinking about earthly things in the right way. Like the door which stood open in Heaven for John in the Apocalypse, the natural world is often a gateway to anticipating the world to come. Not because the two are identical but because the latter’s imprint is upon the former. John Lennon famously sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” But Scripture admonishes us to do the opposite and employs earthly images to help us understand its nature and long for it.
In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes of a girl who had been blind since birth until an operation restored her sight. After her doctor removed the bandages, he led her into a garden where the girl stood in speechless wonder before a tree which she could only describe as “the tree with the lights in it.” Dillard writes that she sought to capture this same vision for herself as she walked along Tinker Creek. Then one day, when she wasn’t even trying, she suddenly came upon it. Or rather, I should say, it suddenly came upon her since she was not really thinking about it at the time. Dillard gazed at a cedar tree in the backyard, and suddenly everything was transfigured. “I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed,” Dillard writes. “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.”
This is what it is like to imagine heaven. It is not so much a matter of seeing as it is one of being seen. We become aware of something far greater through sensible signs and veiled images. It is not the shape of heaven or the specifics of what awaits us there that we apprehend. But the real presence of the One who fills both heaven and earth. When Jesus asked the blind man he healed what he could see, the answer was that he saw men as trees, walking (Mark 8:24). But when we capture a glimpse of heaven in the earthly images presented to us in Scripture and through the reflected glory of what has been created, we see God walking. Not like the trees of the garden, but among them (Gen. 3:8).
 Jeffrey Burton Russell, Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It, (New York: Oxford, 2006), 1.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (Grand Rapids: HarperCollins, 1980), 33.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 208.
 Annie Dillard, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 33.
It’s getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn’t saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it’s plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. The advent of Christmas is announced months in advance with music, decorations, movies, sales, and anticipatory feasting. We light candles, open doors on the advent calendar, and generally work ourselves into a state of hysterical glee and exhaustion.
In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
When I was a pastor, I noticed that my visits with people occasionally made them nervous. Maybe it was my personality. Perhaps I didn’t make enough small talk. But I think the cause lay elsewhere. I think they were sometimes uncomfortable because they saw me as a symbol of something else. Or, perhaps I should say, I was a symbol of someone else. One woman told me that she spent the whole day cleaning before I arrived. Then she said, “When the pastor visits, it’s almost like having God come to your house.” My wife, Jane, who had come with me, answered her with a laugh. “The difference is that God already knows what your closets look like.”
A few years ago, it was popular for some Christians to wear wristbands with the initials WWJD on them. The letters stood for the question, “What would Jesus do?” The question is probably a good one. But it seems to assume that what Jesus would do is always evident to us. This isn’t always the case. In fact, the question the disciples asked more often than not was a very different one. Instead of wanting to know what Jesus would do, they asked, “Why did Jesus do that?” The disciples were often puzzled by Jesus. They were as confused by His actions as they were by His teaching.
Jamie Janosz, managing editor for Today in the Word interviewed me about this month’s devotions from the book of Philippians. If you would like, you can read the devotions here. You can also check out my monthly Practical Theology column here.