Heaven Is Closer than You Think
Dear friends in Christ, heaven is closer than you think. It is appointed for all people to die just once and then comes the judgment. Every day pushes us closer to deathday. Moses wrote, "The years of our life are seventy, or perhaps eighty by reason of strength; yet their span is but toil and sorrow; they are soon gone, and we fly away" (Psalms 90:10). For Christians, heaven is closer than you think. Hell is closer than you think for unbelievers; because death will come soon to believer and unbeliever alike, or perhaps Jesus will hasten His return to judge the living and the dead.
All Saints' Sunday brings death into our minds because today we commemorate the saints of the Church and our own faithful departed. On this day death cannot be just an impersonal concept but is a concrete, heartbreaking reality. We think about our sainted grandparents, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends, spouses, and even children. We thank God for their lives and for the Baptism that saved them. Yet it is painful that they are not here sitting next to us in the pews, laughing with us around the dinner table, or walking with us through the park. We can't visit with them, hug them, kiss them, or hold their hands. At times the separation seems unbearable.
These saints were made righteous and holy by the blood of Christ, so we take comfort to know that they are in heaven. Nevertheless, we want them here. We cry out, "It wasn't supposed to be this way!" But it is this way and we mourn. Not just for a little while but for a lifetime. Even worse, the pain of loss is cumulative. Each additional death strikes another blow to our embattled hearts.
We are right to mourn our loss because if we were not to grieve the departure of those we love, we would in effect be denying that these saints were good gifts from the Lord to us. We mourn because our lives are emptier than before. We have lost those who are precious to us and for the rest of our short lives, we will live with the pain of having lost them. The Lord will bless us with love and warmth and light through other people in our life, but we nonetheless grieve the absence of departed loved ones, and this leaves our world colder and darker.
When we cry out in lament, "It wasn't supposed to be this way!" we're on the right track. It wasn't supposed to be this way. The death that took our loved ones—the same death at work in our own bodies—that death is not a creation of God. In the beginning, "God saw all that He had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Death is not very good; it is the wages of sin, which is evil. Therefore, God did not create death. Satan did.
Satan tempted Adam and Eve: "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Genesis 3:1). The woman responded, "Oh, no, we can eat from any tree in the garden except for that one over there. He said if we eat from that one, we'll die."
"You will not surely die!" Satan rebutted.
And with that, the man and woman closed their ears to God's voice and opened their hearts to Satan. When they rejected God's Word, they basically told Him, "We know better than you, God! Satan says we won't die if we eat from that tree, and in fact it will make us wise, so 'Who needs you, God?'"
Then God said, "Because you did not believe My Word but instead disobeyed, to dust you will return! The man must not be allowed to eat from the tree of life and live forever!" Sin had its consequence. "The wages of sin is death," St. Paul says (Romans 6:23). The tree of eternal life was exchanged for death. We face the same consequence Adam and Eve did. Because of original sin, all people die. Because of death, we mourn.
But God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Only He can turn our grief into rejoicing and He does in the Gospel. On that dreadful day in Eden He pronounced more than a verdict of death. He also promised a future reversal. He said to Satan, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your Seed and hers; the Seed will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3:15). God the Father fulfilled His promise by sending His Son Jesus, who stamped out death for good by dying on the Tree of Life.
God's Son arrived in flesh and blood and ever since then, heaven's closer than you think. Heaven came to dwell among us in the Incarnate Son of God. He came to restore Eden, to recreate what man had destroyed. So just as Adam's one trespass resulted in condemnation for all men, so also Christ's one act of righteousness on the cross resulted in justification that brings life for all men, to be received by faith. Just as Adam's disobedience made all of us sinners, now Christ's obedience even unto death brings righteousness and life to all who believe and are baptized (cf. Romans 5:18-19). Though we are all rebels against God, Christ Jesus has restored peace between us and the Father through His precious blood. His death has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.
"How could this be?" you might ask. How could death be swallowed up by a death? It was God's plan to place the wages of our sin upon His only Son. On the Tree of Life, the Son of God bled and died in our place. Christ "was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification" (Romans 4:25). Through this blessed exchange, He traded life for death, blessing for curse, holiness for sin, justification for unrighteousness. The wages of eternal death that we earned have been replaced with God's grace—"the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
And now because of what Christ has done to save us, heaven's closer than you think. Listen to St. John's description of heaven from Revelation 22: "The angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever." (Revelation 22:1-5)
Heaven's closer than you think. This window into heaven reveals the unseen reality of the Holy Christian Church on earth. The river of the water of life flows from the pierced side of the Lamb and gushes into the font, where Jesus inscribes His name on our foreheads and creates saints to reign with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. Baptism washes our consciences clear as crystal. It cleanses the curse of sin and pours on the blessing of Christ's righteousness. Water and Word translate us from the night of death into an eternal day of life. Baptism draws us into the holy city, the New Jerusalem. We bask in the light of the Lamb and see the face of God in the Gospel.
Heaven's closer than you think. You don't have to wait to enter on your deathday. In Baptism you're already in. Jesus came to us and preached, "The Kingdom of Heaven is here. Repent and believe the Gospel" (Matt 4:17). Where is that Kingdom of Heaven located? In the flesh and blood of Jesus. Wherever Jesus is, that's where heaven can be found. So Heaven is really nothing other than union with Christ Jesus. Have you been baptized into Christ? Then you are no less united with Him than your sainted loved ones are. When you received Holy Baptism for the forgiveness of your sins, you were granted sainthood. Baptism is a river of life that will carry you along right on past death. Deathday is not dreadful because Jesus has already died the big death for sin in your place and in Baptism you are united with that death. When your bodies die you go from life into life, not from life into death, because the eternal life that God granted you in Baptism will continue and the sin and death in your mortal body will remain behind.
But that's not the whole story! Just as God the Father brought the flesh of His Son Jesus back to life, so also will God bring the flesh of us and our loved ones back to life in the resurrection on the Last Day. Isaiah prophesied of this, saying:
Your dead will live;
Every week in the Apostles' or Nicene Creed, we confess our faith in the resurrection of the dead. This great fact of the resurrection of the dead tells us that heaven's closer to earth than you think. Heaven and earth are not radically different places. Your life here is lived in flesh and blood and your destiny in heaven will be in flesh and blood. "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). The creation did not cease to be good because of sin. When the Son of God took on flesh in His Incarnation, He proved that human flesh is not essentially sinful. Rather, our flesh was corrupted by sin and needed to be restored to righteousness. The whole creation needed redemption and Christ's death and resurrection accomplished that. Jesus now says from His throne in heaven, "Behold, I am making all things new" (Revelation 21:5). He's not starting from scratch, like when you hit the restart button on a video game. Jesus is restoring things to perfect, holy condition. The Lamb of God redeemed our flesh so that it might be resurrected and live eternally. Our life after the resurrection will be in a renovated and improved Garden of Eden.
The Book of Revelation doesn't portray heaven as some airy-fairy, intangible spirit land. St. John's look into heaven revealed a Paradise that brings to mind some of the most beautiful things of this world: the lush Tree of Life, the crystal-clear river of life, the Holy City shining like a jewel, the Lamb exuding warm and unending light. These are all gloriously tangible things. Perhaps this can help us understand the significance of our confession of the resurrection of the flesh: God intends for us to be in our bodies.
The Church is both Christ's Bride and His Body and no loving husband would ever destroy the flesh of His wife. Rather, Christ Jesus has purified His Bride with His blood, so we confess along with Job, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!" (Job 19:25-27)
All who believe and are baptized will see God face to face, with their own eyes. And as we face the decay of our bodies each day and the death of our loved ones, our hearts should yearn for that glorious day when we will see the Lord in heaven surrounded by all the saints, as we heard in our reading from Revelation, where St. John describes his look into heaven: that glorious host arrayed in white, washed in the blood of the Lamb, gathered around His throne worshiping forever: "Therefore," St. John writes, "they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Revelation 7:15-17)
What a glorious vision that is! That great gettin' up day on the other side of the tribulation of this world isn't here yet, but in the meantime, heaven's still closer than you think. Today as we observe All Saints' Day we mourn the loss of the faithful departed but we rejoice that these saints continue to be right here among us. Oh, we can't see them, but the saints are closer to us than a husband is to his wife. Closer even than a mother and her child in the womb. You can't get any closer to the saints in heaven than you will be in a few minutes at this Altar. During the liturgy of Holy Communion, you hear that we gather "with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven." This means that when we bow before the altar of the Lamb of God, we are surrounded by all the saints of heaven—plus the angels and archangels. That's what the various angels in our chancel signify. Like us, they encircle the throne of God singing "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Sabaoth." But unlike us, they get to see the flesh-and-blood Lamb of God face to face. That gift of seeing Jesus face-to-face is not yet for us, but God gives us something wonderful to sustain our faith until then. When we saints on earth receive the very flesh and blood of the Lamb of God into our mouths in the Lord's Supper, we are truly in Christ and He is truly in us. Though the saints in heaven live by sight and we live by faith, we all participate in the same Christ. He abides in both the saints in glory and in the saints on earth.
Dear friends, heaven's closer than you think. All of the saints in heaven and on earth are united in the same Jesus Christ and we are never more closely united with Christ than when we eat His body and drink His blood. Likewise, this side of heaven you are never more closely united to Your departed loved-ones than when you participate in the body and blood of Christ. So this morning, come, let us fix our eyes on Jesus and find comfort and hope in Christ's Holy Communion for His saints and in His perfect Communion with the saints. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.