Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Blessed Dead: An Oxymoron?

The Blessed Dead

(What follows is a the service homily I preached on February 27, 2012, at the memorial service for Juanita McNair, the mother of one of my students from campus ministry days.)

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds do follow them.” Revelation 14: 13,14

It’s hard to combine the concepts of death and blessedness. Yes, sometimes we speak of someone’s death as a blessing, but that is when it is an end to suffering – the indignity and deterioration of old age, the humiliation and pain of disease, the loneliness and intractability of mental affliction. We can think of the release of death as a blessing of mercy. But this is a negative not a positive blessing, a blessing of release not entrance, of ending not beginning. It is like being let out of your room after a timeout, not like going to a party.

But a voice speaks from heaven – from the perspective of God’s dwelling place where his glory is fully revealed - and tells John to write that the dead are blessed. They are not just released from this veil of tears, but they enter a condition of positive blessedness. It is not just that the dead leave behind earthly suffering. They gain blessings that Paul says human language is inadequate to describe.

The Holy Spirit, sent from heaven by God the Father and the Son, adds his “amen” and explains how the dead are blessed. They rest from their labors and their deeds follow them.

They rest. How blessed it is to rest. Since sin entered the world, it has been a place of multiplied pain for women and of thorns and thistles for men. Our life of this world has its successes, fulfillments, and joys, but pain and frustration are constant, even, perhaps particularly, in our labors for the Lord. It is wonderful to rest – to see the fruits of our labors and to be refreshed in body and soul. To experience a taste of harmony in our relationship to the creation, to ourselves, to other people, and most important to God. In this world such rest is always imperfect and fleeting. But, when we die in the Lord, we enter into God’s rest, the rest and delight he experienced when he pronounced the creation very good. At death that rest becomes ours.

          The golden evening brightens in the west;
          soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
          sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.

When Christian believers enter their rest their deeds follow them.
In many senses I would hate to think of my deeds following me to heaven. There are too many bad ones of all sorts. But, I am not comfortable about my good deed either, because of their many imperfections of motive and performance. But God is pleased to accept our good deeds because he sees them in the perfection of Christ, and to let our good deeds follow us into eternity, and there to reward them.

This answers one of the questions that nag us. Is there any meaning to our lives? Has anything positive come from our being here? Is there anything significant? Anything that will last? The Holy Spirit says, “Yes”, the  lives we have lived and the good we have done matter. God invests them with meaning and purpose.

I think from time to time of my one of one part of my wife’s labors as a mother. We had five kids, and, except for a few times of travel, they used cloth diapers, not because we wanted to spare the landfills but because money or lack thereof required their use. Sometimes I think about those stinky diapers that had to be washed out in the toilet, collected, put through the washer and dryer, folded, and put up, and it strikes me that all that diaper labors are eternally significant and will follow her into heaven and the resurrection.

Our deeds follow us. Therefore, we can “be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

The voice from heaven declares that from now on those who die in the Lord are blessed. What has happened to transform death so that from now on those who die are blessed? What makes the difference? In two words, “Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ came into the world and added to his divine nature our sin-weakened mortal flesh. He became one with us and entered into the trials, temptations, and sufferings common to human life.

He was like us in ever way except for sin, but he took to himself the guilt of our sins. Paul tells us that “the wages is sin is death” and that the “sting of death is sin.” Having taken responsibility for our sins, Jesus suffered the penalty of sin, which is death, death without hope, death forsaken by God, death under the judgment of God. But he did ito remove guilt and condemnation from us. He died a purposeful death to destroy sin, to remove the sting from death.

But death was not his end. He committed his spirit into his Father’s hands, while his body was laid in a grave.  His spirit went to Paradise where he met the thief who, as he was dying, believed in him. But Paradise was not the end either. On the third day, he rose from the grave to immortal, eternal life. His body and soul were united in perfect harmony. His post-resurrection human nature shows us what future waits at the last day for those who believe in him. Then he, in his glorified humanity, ascended to heaven, and took up his authority which he will use to defeat all his enemies. The last enemy he will put defeat is death itself. Then there will be no more death.

The reason that the dead are now blessed is that Jesus has accomplished everything necessary to open heaven to them and to assure them of everlasting life. There is nothing more that needs to be done. It is all finished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

Somebody had to be the first to travel all the way across this continent, to show others the way to transverse this land mass, and to open the way for others to follow. It was Lewis and Clark and their expedition that did that. Jesus is our pioneer who shows us the way through death to eternal life. Jesus shows us what to expect – what will happen. At death our bodies are laid in the grace for awhile, and our spirits are committed to God. We will be with Jesus in a realm of blessedness and peace. There we wait – happy but not yet complete. We wait for the “yet more day” when our bodies will be raised up and made like Jesus’ glorified body. What happens is that you die, you go to be with God, and you wait for the fullness of your salvation.

Those who die in the Lord, who die united to Jesus Christ by faith, are blessed. The voice from heaven and the Spirit tell us it is so.

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