It is easy to look around us and conclude that we live in difficult times. We continue to experience a very weak economy and the unemployment situation is even worse than the figures indicate because of the way we count the unemployed. Islam seems to be ascendant and threatens the status of Europe during the twenty first century. Worldwide, the Church is experiencing the worst persecution that she has at any time in her history. And here in our own country the new orthodoxy about homosexuality, and now even transgenderism, seeks to exterminate the biblical view of sexuality from the public square. This at the same time that sex outside of marriage is considered normal and internet pornography ravages our culture.
Now these are all serious problems, and I certainly don’t want to minimize any of them. But sometimes a reflection on history helps to put things into perspective. For you see, things could be worse – a lot worse. Things were worse in the fourteenth century in Europe. First, between 1315 and 1322 there was the Great Famine which was caused by the arrival of climate changes that were part of the “Little Ice Age.” It is estimated that the famine killed 10-25% of the population of Europe. Then, between 1336 and 1353 the Black Death arrived in Europe. It is estimated that this plague killed 30-60% of the population of Europe. As if that wasn’t enough, beginning in 1336 and lasting until 1453, the Hundred Years War was fought in western Europe between England and France, bringing with it widespread death and devastation. And meanwhile in eastern Europe Islam was a major problem as during the fourteenth century the Turks began to conquer the Balkans and push into Europe.
The fourteenth century was a time of tremendous suffering and death. And during this period the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse became a powerful image in the medieval world. The four horseman are depicted in Revelation chapter six, the chapter just before our text for the Feast of All Saints. In that chapter six seals of a scroll are opened by Christ the Lamb, and after each of the first four seals a horse comes forth carrying a rider. The horses are white, red, black and pale. They bring conquest, war, famine and death upon the earth in events that are part of the end times leading up to judgment day. The people of the fourteenth century thought the four horsemen had arrived and that the Last Day was near. It’s not hard to understand why.
The Book of Revelation is certainly unique. It is unlike anything in the New Testament. Filled with dramatic imagery and symbolism it has always been something people use to promote bizarre beliefs – like the idea that Christians should only worship on Saturday. We need to approach the Book of Revelation with a healthy dose of humility – there are going to be places where we can’t claim to be absolutely sure about an interpretation. But at the same time, we can never lose sight of the fact that Revelation is meant to comfort believers. It sets forth the big picture of what God is doing. It leaves no doubt that he is in charge. It is absolutely clear about where the life of faith will take us.
On this day in the church we remember and give thanks to God for the saints he called to faith; preserved in the faith; and who now are with Christ. We are reminded that we too are saints because of Jesus. And we find in our text that all of God’s saints will share in a future peace that will have no end.
The book of Revelation is actually a series of visions that repeatedly tell the same basic facts with variation in emphasis. Our text is really the end of the first vision. John has been shown that the last days are a time of terrible hardships. I say “are” because we are living in the last days. The last days began with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because it was the last days, Christ poured forth the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, just as the prophet Joel had said. We live in the last days, and so we should be eagerly awaiting the Last Day.
The present is a time of suffering for Christ’s Church. We especially see this in the world today. John’s vision addresses this because he tells us that after the fifth seal had been opened, “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. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ 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.”
We look at the persecution of the Church and it seems pointless to us. It seems to us like God is nowhere and has abandoned his people. That can cause us to doubt. Yet our Lord said that taking up the cross and following him is the Christian life. The word “martyr” means witness, and death of the saints is the ultimate witness to the power of the Gospel. And through Revelation God tells us that he is still in charge. Events are still moving according to his plan and timing. And note what these saints are told to do – they are to rest a little longer. They have died in Christ and now they are at rest as they await Gods’ final action.
Immediately before our text in chapter seven John sees an angel carrying the seal of the living God and then he hears that the number of the sealed is 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel. This is you. You are the Israel of God. You are part of the fullness of the Church that God is creating through the proclamation of the Gospel. You have been sealed with the Spirit of God in your baptism as you were born again of water and the Spirit. There you were joined to the saving death of Jesus who redeemed you, and so in the baptismal rite you were marked with the cross on your forehead and heart. In baptism your sins were washed away through water and the word. For this reason you are saint – you are a holy ones. You were clothed with Christ’s righteousness in your baptism, and so when God looks at you he does not see your sin, but instead he sees you as one who is in Christ – one who is holy because of Jesus.
And what is true of you is also true of those who have died in the Lord. They were made disciples by baptism and teaching. They were born again through the work of the Spirit as children of God. They were made holy through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit preserved them in this faith through his Means of Grace. And now they are with the Lord. They are at rest with him. They no longer struggle against the old Adam. They no longer suffer the physical and emotional pains of this life.
That is good. But by his grace, God has something even better in store for them and for us. We hear about it in our text. John tells us, “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, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
John gets a glimpse of the final victory God will bring to all his saints. He sees the saints clothed in white and carrying palm branches – a symbol of victory – as they gather before Christ. When asked about who they are, he doesn’t know. Finally the heavenly elder says, “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.”
The elder describes the time when we live in as a great tribulation. Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” When Jesus returns in glory and raises our bodies to be like his, we will share in this victory. The tribulation of living as Christians in this fallen world discourages us. But Jesus says “Take heart” because he has overcome the world. And in our text he gives us a glimpse of what this will mean in order to encourage us to continue on the way in faith.
We hear John told: “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.”
The future of all of God’s saints is one in which we will dwell with God forever. It is one in which we will no longer experience hunger or thirst or discomfort. It is one in which God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and never again will be there a reason to cry.
This dwelling of God with his people has already started. It started as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in the incarnation. It has started because the risen Lord who is still true God and true man continues to dwell in our midst in the Sacrament of the Altar. Here he gives us forgiveness and strengthens us in faith as we press on and look for Jesus’ return in glory. Here he guarantees our resurrection, for bodies that eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood will be raised up to be like the Lord on the Last Day. At this altar we gather around the Lord with the angels, and archangels and all the company of heaven – all the saints.
And because it is the risen Lord who does this in our midst we know that this is merely a foretaste of the feast to come. We know that it will find its consummation in the return of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of the flesh. Our Lord raise us up and renew his creation so that once again he can look at all that he has made and behold that it is very good.