Heaven has been a long way away from Newtown, Connecticut in the last six days. For some people it’s been a long way away from Richmond, Virginia.
I was with some of those people last night at a service of remembrance for those who have lost loved ones in the last year, and for whom the holidays can be especially difficult. I was asked to bring a message of hope. I want to share it with you today and ask you, also, to be mindful of those people who may be having a hard time this Christmas. See if you can bring a little heaven to earth for them simply by saying, “I’m thinking of you.”
This is a service of remembrance, so let me begin with a memory.
My first church was in the little town of New Castle, Kentucky. There were some wonderful people there, including Hilda Powell, who was about five feet tall, and extremely sturdy: rooted to the ground by support hose and thick-soled orthopedic shoes. She was walking with a cane when I first met her but graduated to a walker soon after. She may have been the only person I knew who actually rode the lift we had in the back stairwell of the church. She would sit on that chair and ride up the stairs looking very much like the Queen of England, glaring out through the thick lenses of her glasses, and daring anyone to say a word.
At Christmastime, Hilda made bourbon balls. These were a Kentucky tradition—made of butter and powdered sugar, chopped nuts and chocolate, with just a hint of bourbon, except in Hilda’s case. She had a different recipe, which seemed to be mostly bourbon. You might imagine they were very popular. When she gave me my little box each year she seemed to do it with a secret smile on her face, as if she knew the Advent season is hard on ministers, and was doing her part to help it go down a little easier.
Her funeral was not the first I did at that church, but it may have been the first where I felt the loss quite so deeply. Hilda and I had become close in those years. Her gradual decline had given me plenty of reasons to visit her at home and in the hospital, and plenty of chances to have those kinds of honest talks you have when you know the end is near. So, I felt the lump in my throat when I said goodbye at her graveside, and the next Sunday when I looked out over the congregation I couldn’t help but notice her empty place on the pew.
Do you know how it is in church, that people seem to settle in one place in the sanctuary until it becomes “their” place, so that if a visitor sits there by mistake everybody else begins to clear their throats nervously? Hilda had that place. I can still see it if I close my eyes. And even though it wasn’t the first time I had ever seen it empty—she had been sick for a while—it was the first time I knew she would never sit there again.
You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen that kind of thing happen at church, and, sadly, you’ve seen that kind of thing happen at home. For some of you, there will be a place in your house that is empty for the first time this Christmas. And if you have the tradition of sitting down to a big Christmas dinner it may be a place at the dining table—an empty chair—that will remind you more poignantly than anything else how your life has changed.
Maybe that’s why one of my favorite visions of heaven is what some scholars call “the eschatological banquet.” It seems to get its inspiration from a passage in Isaiah 25, where the prophet says:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9, NRSV).
This is the banquet Jesus seems to have in mind when he says, in Matthew 8:11, “Many will come from east and west and eat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven.” And when he tells the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, he talks about a king who gives a banquet for his son, and when those who are invited won’t come he sends his servants out to gather anyone who will, so that his banquet hall may be filled.
I like that idea. Even more than I like the idea of mansions in heaven and streets of gold I like the idea of a heavenly banquet hall filled with people sitting at long tables that are groaning under the weight of more good food and drink than most of us have seen in our lives. A kind of Renaissance feast with a big fire in a huge fireplace, and musicians strolling around playing mandolins and fiddles as people eat and drink and clink their glasses together and laugh out loud.
And I like this idea: that as soon as our parents give us our names God writes them down on place cards and arranges them on the table in his heavenly banquet hall. I like to think that every child born on this earth has a place card in heaven, and only if they refuse God’s gracious invitation does he remove their card from the table.
So, picture this: when Hilda Powell died all those years ago her place on the pew was empty, but her place at the heavenly banquet table was finally filled, a place that had been waiting for her since she was a pink-cheeked baby girl. And because God is the one who arranges the place cards, I can picture her sitting with the people she loved most in this world and a few of the people she has come to love most in that one. Maybe you can picture your own loved ones sitting in that banquet hall, enjoying that feast, laughing until tears of joy run down their cheeks. Listen again to what the prophet says:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isa. 25:6-9).
So may it be, and so may we pray:
Gracious God, it’s comforting to imagine our place cards on a table in heaven where the banquet is already in full swing, where people we have loved and lost are clinking their glasses together and laughing out loud, looking forward to the day when we can join them and discover for ourselves that this has been your intention all along—to bring all your people together forever in a place where there will be no empty chairs. Amen.