During the last ten years, fourteen people who were members of Good Shepherd have died. That is a remarkably small number – not even 1.5 members per year. To put that in perspective, I just talked with a pastor this week who has buried twelve members in the last eight months.
Now this pastor is at a larger congregation, so that does help to explain why he has had more deaths. He also has a congregation in which a much larger portion of the congregation is older. It is a congregation in an area where people are born, marry, have children, stay there, and then die there.
Our situation is quite different. Very few of our members are originally from Marion and the surrounding area. Because that is the case, members often move to be closer to family when they get older and are approaching the years when they probably won’t be able to live on their own anymore. And beyond that I can only say that the Lord has blessed us in the last few years as members have survived serious threats to their health, and as treatment for cancer has kept it at bay.
But while the number of deaths may not be large, each one has still been a great loss. They are people that we knew and loved, people like Myrtle Pickens, Vivian Valley, Shelby Tippy, Ted McNeil, Roy Elting, Pat Crow, Patrick Campbell, Stan Valley, Ellen Patterson, Will Genz, Herb Rowold, and most recently, Janet Myott.
On the Feast of All Saints we remember these and all the other brothers and sisters in Christ who have departed to be with the Lord. Now they are not saints because they have died. You are all saints – holy ones – because of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul often begins his letters by addressing the believers in that location as saints. For example, he writes in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
You are saints – you are holy ones – because you have the forgiveness won by Jesus’ death and resurrection. You are saints because you have received Holy Baptism which has washed away your sins. Paul told the Corinthians that they used to be sinners, yet then he adds: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
But while we are certainly saints, on the Feast of All Saints we remember the saints who are in a very different category than we are. We remember the saints who have died. They have died, and in our text today we learn that they are with the Lord in a setting that is far better than anything we know now.
Today in the Sunday morning Bible class we are beginning a study of the Book of Revelation. We will see that Revelation actually tells the same basic story – with varying details and emphases – three times. It has three cycles, each of which describe the tribulation of the end times, and the ultimate victory that is guaranteed for God’s people.
Our text is part of the first cycle. In chapter four, John had seen God seated on his glorious throne, surrounded by the cherubim and the twenty four elders. Then at the beginning of chapter five he tells us: “Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals.” The problem is that there is no one who I able to open the seals so that the scroll can be read and its contents revealed.
However, it is then learned that Jesus Christ, risen, ascended and exalted can open the seals. The company of heaven sing a new song saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
As Christ opens the seals, they reveal the terrible events of the final end times. For example, the first four seals are opened and reveal the infamous four horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s terrible stuff in general. But we learn that it is also a time of great suffering for the Church.
After the fifth seal, John tells us, “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.” We learn that they cried out, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
John tells us that 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.” In other words, there are more who will suffer and be martyrs before the end, but God is still in charge and the final victory will be theirs.
Chapter six and its six seals have been the revelation of terrible and frightening stuff. And then in chapter seven there is an interlude before the seventh seal is opened. It is a pause that serves to comfort and encourage. John says in our text, “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!’”
The white robes indicate the righteousness and holiness of Christ, and the palm branches are a symbol of victory. We learn that these individuals wete not alone, but instead all the angels, the elders and the cherubim who were all standing around the throne fell on their faces and worshipped God.
John tells us, “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’” John responded in the only way he could, as he said to him, “Sir, you know.” The heavenly elder said to him, “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.”
John is seeing the Christians who have died in the great tribulation of the end times that has been described by the previous six seals. Many are probably the martyrs who were yet to die mentioned after the fifth seal. They had died. But what really mattered was they had washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Now when you really stop and think about it, this is strange imagery. We know that blood doesn’t make clothes white or clean them. Instead, it makes a stain that can be hard to get out if you don’t treat it first. But of course this symbolic language is used in the Scriptures to describe what Jesus Christ has done for us.
I have a pair of jeans that I wear when we are painting. And let me tell you, when the pandemic hit and schools were closed and Amy couldn’t work, Amy and Abigail had us doing a lot of painting in the house. Poor Timothy can barely even recognize the place that he now refers to as house 2.0.
Those jeans are ruined with different colors of paint. I could never get them clean to wear in public again if I wanted to, no matter what I might do. That is a description of our lives. They are filthy with sin – marked in a way that our efforts can never remove it. There is no end of the things we put before God. We speak angry and hurtful words. We hate, and lust, and covet.
But Jesus Christ was the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. The shedding of his blood on the cross was the atoning sacrifice that takes away our every sin. Through faith and baptism we have washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb, and so now in God’s eyes they are white and pure. Our sins are forgiven. We are holy before God. We are saints.
When John first sees Christ, the Lamb of God, in chapter four he describes him “as a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” Jesus Christ died on the cross. But he defeated death by passing through it as God raised him up on the third day. John begins Revelation by saying that Jesus is “the firstborn of the dead.”
And in that chapter John encounters the risen Lord who is described in frightening might and power. John tells us, “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” But when John falls at his feet as if dead, our Lord says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”
Because of what Jesus Christ has done, John sees the saints coming out of the great tribulation in white robes with palm branches in their hands. What John see is specifically a description of the very final end times. But it is not true only of those who die then. It is true for every Christian who has died in the faith.
He says, “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.”
Because Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Lord, we have the peace of knowing that this is true for all who have died in Christ. They are with the Lord, and they have been freed from the struggles and hardship of this fallen world. There are no more tears for them because sin and death are no more. Instead they know the peace of being sheltered by God’s presence. They know the joy of dwelling with the Lamb – the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
God gives us this glimpse in Revelation in order to encourage us. We are encouraged to know that our friends and family who have died in Christ now enjoy this peace and joy in God’s presence. We are encouraged to know death that cannot separate us from God. Instead, it means the end of our struggle and a place with the saints who dwell in God’s presence.
Yet we also must remember that while what our text describes is good – far better than what we now know – it is also not yet the very good that God intends for us. John ends Revelation by saying, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Revelation ends with the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of creation itself, freed from sin. John sees the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, because this world – this earth – is the place God made for us to live. And then we hear words that echo those of our text this morning because what the saints in heaven already enjoy will continue to be our existence as we live with resurrected bodies in the new creation.
John says, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” This is the joy the saints who have died already know. This is the joy we will know if we die. This is the joy that all will know when Jesus Christ returns on the Last Day. And so we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”