And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)
There are nine beatitudes (blesseds) in the Sermon on the Mount that you heard in this morning’s Gospel reading. And there are similarly nine beatitudes in the Revelation, of which the ones I just read are numbers 3 and 4. I’m not sure what that means, but I find it interesting and noteworthy nonetheless. Nine – a triple three of divine blessing. There are no numerical accidents in the Scriptures.
What is surprising though, is who are called “blessed” – the dead. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.” They correspond to the spiritually poor, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting of righteousness, merciful, pure hearted peacemaking, persecuted disciples. These are dead to the world and dead to themselves. In the Revelation, the blessed are the literally dead as a doornail dead. And that might take us by surprise.
We know from the Scriptures (Romans 8) that death is the just wages for sin. Death is what our sins deserve. Death is the outcome of sin. “On the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” From that perspective, death is anything but blessed. There is a similar passage in the psalms. Psalm 116:15 – “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” Precious and blessed is how the death of God’s holy ones, his justified ones, looks in the eyes of God. Precious and blessed.
I think it’s safe to say that none of us, at least at the gut reaction level, would think of death as anything precious and blessed. We live in the midst of a death-denying culture that spends billions of dollars creating the illusion of youth and defying the process of aging which is really the slow, steady drumbeat of dying. I’ve noticed that Halloween is about as close to death as we’d like to get. I walk around the neighborhood and some people have actually turned their front lawns into macabre cemetery scenes with coffins and skeletons and tombstones. It’s really kind of bizarre, but understandable. Pretend death is so much easier to deal with than the real thing. We all know that those skeletons are really made of plastic, the coffins are empty, and the headstones are made of styrofoam. It’s pretend, play-death. But the real thing – no, no. We don’t want anything to do with that sort of thing.
When I was building one of those coffins in my garage, the neighbors thought it was novel, interesting, funny (in an Adam’s Family sort of way), until they realized that this coffin was being built for somebody. Then it wasn’t so interesting or funny any more. Our funerals don’t really square up to the reality either. We cover the hole in the ground and the mound of dirt with a sheet of astroturf. We leave the business of putting our loved ones to rest in the ground to a couple of hired workers who take care of things long after everyone’s gone. We get commercials and billboards from the local big box burial grounds telling us to “celebrate a life” but not to rejoice in and embrace a death. We exchange a lot of sentimental sweetness about our loved ones “going to a better place” or how they’re in heaven playing golf or trout fishing or whatever they loved to do. Or we hear about how they live on in our memories (that’s “heaven” for an atheist, by the way. Living on in the memory of others.)
You don’t hear much about what we confess in the Creed: we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. In that order. And we believe that for the simple fact that Jesus died and rose bodily from the dead, demonstrating decisively that death has no hold on Him and that His death on a cross conquered death once and for all.
You might say we Christians have a blessed monopoly on the whole business of death and resurrection because Jesus Christ is the only One to have died and risen from the dead. Moses and Abraham died; they didn’t rise. Gautama Buddha died at the age of 80; he didn’t rise. Mohammed died in 632; he didn’t rise. Jesus died on a cross and three days later appeared risen from the dead. That’s why we believe in the “resurrection of the body,” because Jesus rose bodily from HIs grave and promised to raise us up from ours on the Last Day when it all comes to its completion.
It’s because of the death and resurrection of Jesus that we can use words like “precious” and “blessed” in reference to our own death and the death of all baptized believers. Blessed are those who die in the Lord. Not just any death, but “in the Lord.” Those who are united in baptismal faith with Jesus’ death; who have been buried with Him. Blessed are you, dear baptized believer, trusting the promise of life in Jesus’ name. Your death is precious and blessed to God. Not because of you, but because of Jesus. And not because of your works. The works of the saints follow them in death; they don’t precede them. That’s what it means to be justified by grace through faith. Your works follow behind you, but you don’t lead with them. Nothing you do can make your death precious and blessed.
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. In these last days, in the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ has made the wages of sin a place of blessing for all who trust Him. The Lord’s beatitudes are fulfilled in them. Their poverty of spirit has been answered by the riches of the kingdom of heaven. Their mourning has turned to rejoicing in the comfort of Christ. Their meekness has been vindicated. The world walked all over them, but now the earth is their inheritance. Their hunger and thirst for righteousness has been satisfied; they are justified, declared righteous in Jesus’ righteousness. Their mercy has returned to them with dividends – they too receive mercy. With hearts purified by the blood of the Lamb, they now see God face to face. As makers of peace they now share a name with the Prince of Peace – sons of God. The wounds of their persecution, inflicted for righteousness’ sake, have been healed. the kingdom of God belongs to them.
So what’s it going to be like in heaven? And what’s it like for those who are already there? The most faithful answer is “blessed.” Beyond that we simply don’t know much for God hasn’t revealed much. Oh, we have pictures, and they aren’t pictures of angels sitting on clouds strumming harps. (I’m not a big fan of harp music; I’m not sure I’d look forward to eternity of harps. Trumpets yes; harps only in moderation.)
The Bible calls the dead in Christ “asleep in the Lord.” That’s a nice peaceful picture. They are asleep, they rest from their labors. Now “asleep” does not necessarily mean inactive or unaware. Just unaware of the passage of time, because the evenings and mornings of this creation have no relevance in the eternal. We do have this much: a new heaven and a new earth thanks to Jesus who makes all things new. That sounds much better than sitting on clouds strumming harps. A whole creation brought through death into resurrection where death and decay is no more, where the entropy of our sin is vanished. Isaiah pictures a lavish feast on God’s holy mountain, a feast of fatted meats and fine wines. (If there’s no death in the new creation, I don’t know where the marbled meats will come from, but I’m sure the Lord will provide.)
The one thing that’s certain about eternal life is that worship is the main activity. Actually, it appears to be the only activity, as all of life has now become worship. High liturgy to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. John caught a fleeting glimpse of the heavenly congregation. This is the side of worship we don’t see, but we confess by faith that we are joined by the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. This is the heavenward side of worship that John saw and reports to us.
It’s a white-robed congregation. They are all covered with Christ, wearing their baptisms like a spotless robe. The blood of Jesus, the Lamb, has washed away all their sins. Not a spot of sin remains. Their time of tribulation is over. Listen (for hearing is all we get right now), listen to how it is with them and how it will be for us:
Therefore (because they are washed in the blood of the Lamb), they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple (they are eternal priests to God in Christ’s royal priesthood. That’s your eternal vocation – priest to God).
And He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. (They live under the umbrella of His grace).
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore. (They hunger and thirst for righteousness has been satisfied.)
The sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat (the days of the wilderness are over; they have come into the promised land of life).
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd (the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep).
And He will guide them to springs of living water (He will refresh them with His Spirit as He refreshed them in their Baptism).
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (Those tears you shed are not in vain and not unnoticed; the hand of God will carry them away forever)
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Blessed indeed, thanks to Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,