Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
All Saints Sunday + November 3, 2019
Text: Revelation 7:9-14
This scene of the faithful at rest is given to John in the middle of great judgments at the end of the age. After the sixth of seven seals, the proud of the earth who have rejected the Gospel vainly call for the mountains to hide them from Judgment. What follows is further judgment against God’s enemies. But chapter 7 stands apart as interlude—both a heavenly picture of the Church on earth arrayed for battle (Rev. 7:1-8), and a vision of what our Lord has promised his disciples when He says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…”
This time of year, sneak previews abound. Retailers like drop hints about what will be on sale over the holidays (like Costco sending out a flier detailing their sales week by week). It creates anticipation and the promise—however remote—of good things on the horizon.
Hope is why the Lord gave the Revelation to St. John. It is an inspiration and encouragement, and yes, it’s meant to evoke excitement for the end of our lives and the end of the this present world. Sure, it has a lot of scary scenes and hideous depictions of God’s enemies, but it doesn’t really tell us anything which the Gospels haven’t already covered. It’s as simple as we confessed in the Creed—“He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. From thence He shall come in glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”
Now, if we can get manipulated by advertisers to get excited about worldly goods, think about how much greater Revelation is for our spirits:
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Before His Ascension, our Lord commanded that His Church make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them. This is a picture of the sum total of all the Church’s evangelistic ministry. It’s the fruition of the seed of the Word being planted, and while we often see the part that gets snatched by the devil, falls away in persecution, and gets choked by the cares of life—the Gospel is truly effective at doing what God sends it for. The Holy Spirit continues to “call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian Church…and keep it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
In this, we ought to be encouraged that God’s purpose is fulfilled—that He would bring the blessing of salvation to all the families of the earth who receive Him. There’s much to do in reaching out with God’s Word in our various callings—pastors must preach faithfully, parents must catechize their children, Christian citizens must exercise their conscience as a witness against ungodliness around them, we must be ready to share this hope we have within us when friends and neighbors ask us. Yet, the Church feebly struggles. Earlier in Revelation 7, we’re pictured as this great army in companies of 12,000, but we march together like kindergartners. Tugging, lagging behind, hitting each other, wandering, and throwing tantrums. But the miracle in this—the grace to us—is that God’s Kingdom still comes in spite of that.
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
As the Lord does in other prophetic writings, He asks a question to get us thinking before He explains. This great countless multitude, who is gathered around the Throne of God, and singing full-voice to God their Savior—who are they and where did they come from? Like cliffhanger in a TV show that flashes forward after a plane crash, you’re left wondering how did things go from the world as we know it, to seeing this countless throng of the saved?
Some of it is known to us, how the Lord saves through increasing persecution, hearts growing cold, wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes. Some of it will be worse still, as Jesus warns, “Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matt. 24:21-22) But the blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might belong to God because He gathered His elect, He kept them in body and soul to join in this heavenly court! Neither by our willpower, nor our ingenuity, nor as our proof of our dedication do we arrive safely across the Jordan. Neither by how many good works we’ve done, nor by how much we’ve studied, nor our offering dollars do we have the privilege to stand among this throng. All glory belongs to God alone, and to the Lamb who adorns us with all the righteousness needed to be welcome in God’s house and recipients of this blessed rest!
Now in words that can only be appreciated after we have felt the sharp pangs of our earthly pilgrimage, does the elder speak these consoling verses:
“Therefore 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.”
Paradise at last restored, but this time better. This time we will be innocent, after we have known guilt. We will serve Him, after we have wandered and denied Him. We will be sheltered after having been exposed. We will be satisfied, after we have hungered and thirsted. And then, we will not be naked in this new creation, because we will be clothed by God after we had been covered with shame. But the Day is coming when all those things will pass away, and this is what we will enjoy forever.
What we need now is that foretaste, that preview of the good things to come. That’s what we have in the Divine Service and in His Word. It’s our sanctuary from this wearisome life. When we are here, first thing our Lord assures us of His peace by forgiving our sins. He puts His Word on our lips, and then feeds us with His Word and we respond with singing. After the sermon, we acknowledge our present life, giving of the things of this life to carry out God’s work on earth and bringing him our cares and needs in prayer. Then, before dismissing us to those burdens, our Lord invites us to table with Him, with angels and archangels, and all the saints at rest.
An ancient name for the Divine Service is the “Mass” (although this name is usually only used by Roman Catholics now). It comes from the Latin, missa, which means dismissal, named for the prayer at the conclusion of the service. The point is this is a service which comes to an end, one which we are dismissed in peace. But, we look forward to that Day we will no longer have to leave the Lord’s immediate presence. In the meantime, having had this foretaste, we are prepared by the Lord for all the tribulations of this present age, with the steadfastness we need to endure to the end.
This is the hope toward which we press in Christ our Lord. Amen.