Sheltered by God's Presence

Text: Revelation 7:15
Date: All Saints’ Day (Observed) + 11/7/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

I need to apologize, right off the bat. As I approached preparation for All Saints’ Day this year I checked my calendar and my sermon from last year and realized that at that time, Sunday, November 1, 2009, I hadn’t yet even given one thought to the possibility that I would be losing Alice in little more than a month. So this is the first All Saints’ Day following the reality that my dear wife is now among those safely sheltered in the presence of Christ. We heard Revelation 7:15 say of those who have gone before us, “they are before the throne of God…and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.”

What is this “sheltering” with His presence? The age-old question always is, from our perspective, “Where are the Dead?” Until now I’ve been satisfied to teach people, first, that the scriptures are quite silent on that question and, secondly, I’d warn, saying, “Be careful of asking ‘space and time’ questions of eternal matters,” then I’d just move on. But you know, for all the funerals I have conducted over the years, for all the precious saints I have been privileged to usher to heaven’s gates…you know…it’s just “different” when it happens to you. So I found myself this week reviewing the question “Where are the dead?” not satisfied with the seeming “silence” of the scriptures and the philosophical or theological hesitancy to press the issue. This is different. This is personal. So what have I found? I outlined for you (on the handout) the Biblical doctrine on temporal death and the state of souls between death and resurrection from Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics. But then I found one more thing that it seems to me that Dr. Pieper missed. So I added some commentary from Louis Brighton’s Concordia Commentary on Revelation, specifically, a key verse from Revelation 6. So let’s review.

Where are the dead? First of all the Bible is clear in defining death not as annihilation of body or soul but that physical death is the separation of the soul from the body. The cause is sin. Separation is the essence of the effect of sin. Sin separates us from God, from His creation, from one another, even the closest or most intimate relationships. That separation can be demonstrated with anything from anger to murder or just completely and permanently ignoring someone. The ultimate separation, however, is the separation of the soul from the body in physical death; something God never intended to be. Human beings were not created by God only to live 70, 80 or 100 years and then cease living. He created human beings to live forever!

Now if sin is the cause of death, then the removal of sin means deathless life. Yet if Christians have that forgiveness of sins, why must they still die? It is because of the sin still dwelling in them as Romans 8 describes the Christian, saying, “if Christ is in you…the body is dead because of sin” (Rom. 8:10). Yet the difference is that the physical death of the Christian no longer has the sense of wrath or punishment as St. Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56-57). And so the death of the Christian is called but a sleep, and we sing comforting hymns like,

Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended,
Who through death have unto God ascended!
They have arisen
From the cares which keep us still in prison.

Or here are the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of whom I haven’t found any evidence of Christian faith, and yet which words seem strangely comforting:

How they so softly rest,
All they the holy ones,
Unto whose dwelling place
Now doth my soul draw near!
How they so softly rest,
All in their silent graves,
Deep to corruption
Slowly down sinking!

       And they no longer weep,
            Here, where complaint is still!
      And they no longer feel,
            Here, where all gladness flies!
      And, by the cypresses
            Softly o'ershadowed,
            Until the Angel
            Calls them, they slumber!

Now, of the doctrine regarding the state of souls between death and resurrection, the first thing is, “Holy Writ reveals but little.” Scripture
reveals, first, that the souls of unbelievers are kept in prison, a place of punishment according to 1 Peter 3:19. The souls of believers, on the other hand, are in God’s hand, with Christ, in Paradise or, as we heard in Revelation 7 this morning, “sheltered with His presence.” Should we press the silence of scripture the safest speculation would be to believe that God the Holy Spirit, Whose work is the resurrection of the body, is fully able to keep a soul in existence even without its body. And then there is Martin Luther’s comment, “A sleep of the soul that does not exclude the enjoyment (or awareness) of Christ cannot be called a false doctrine.” The only other things we can say from scripture is that departed souls do not return to this world (Lk. 16:26), they have no direct knowledge of things on earth (Is. 63:16), and there is no conversion of the departed souls of unbelievers (1 Pet. 3:19).

I find Dr. Louis Brighton’s treatment of Revelation 6:9-11 helpful. The passage says,

9 When he [the Lamb] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

This passage speaks of the martyred saints in heaven. And though we hold in special honor those Christians, both of the earliest days of the Christian Church under persecution but also of all ages where Christians have given their lives as martyrs, witnesses to Christ, these represent the suffering of the entire people of God, the whole Church of Jesus Christ. All Christians are martyrs in that they all give witness by their faith, their mouths, and their lives to the victorious Lamb, who died and rose again.

So the souls of our faithful departed are with the Lord, in the rest of paradise, clothed in the white robe of Christ’s righteousness awaiting the resurrection of the body on the Last Day. That is our comfort from the scriptures.

Now, then, what of us? For us is the task of Christian Perseverance. When speaking of the trials and tribulations of the Christian life our Lord made the statement, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt. 10:22). So, first, he who perseveres in faith does so only through God’s gracious preservation, that is, it is God’s work of divine grace. Secondly, whoever falls from faith does so only through his own fault; the cause of apostasy is in every case rejection of God’s Word and resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word.

Now on the one hand this is a difficult road, fighting against and resisting all false doctrine or temptations to give up. On the other hand it is an easy thing for it is the Holy Spirit who keeps you strong in the true faith through the use that is your faithful receiving of the Word and Sacraments. In that faith we do not fear but rather gladly anticipate the day when we will finally reach the completion of our salvation in heaven.

But we don’t have to only wait and wonder. Already we draw near and are intimately part of that number of saints when, at the Holy Communion, we join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, evermore praising God and singing that eternal song that Isaiah heard, and that St. John heard, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. The whole earth (and heaven, too!) is full of His glory.”

This joyful faith is what makes us say not only “I believe” in the resurrection but “I look for” the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.