Sunday, November 7, 2021

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints - Rev 7:9-17


All Saints

                                                                                      Rev 7:9-17



          A book of the Bible that fascinates people is the Book of Revelation.  I can’t tell you how many times during the course of my ministry I was asked about when we would do a Bible study on Revelation. My answer was always that we would, but I would only lead a study of Revelation when I could do it right.

          I think there is something to be said for knowing enough to know what you don’t know.  For me, doing it right meant reading two commentaries on Revelation that amounted to over eighteen hundred pages of material. One of the commentaries is three volumes – twelve hundred pages of small print.

          I had always wanted to this this, and so I launched into the work with great enthusiasm.  Along the way, two things happened that delayed the work so that I just finished the Bible study last week.  First, it turns out that when you work carefully with the text, Revelation is just really challenging.  I mean, it was hard work.

And second – perhaps appropriately since I was working with Revelation – a worldwide pandemic broke out.  This disrupted everything at church, and for an extended period of time my efforts had to be directed towards ministering to members who were not able to come to church when services resumed. 

Thankfully, the Bible study is now completed.  I have worked my way carefully through all of Revelation.  The thing that I find striking about Revelation is that you have chunks of the book that are challenging to understand.  But then at the same time, you have some texts in the book that are so incredibly clear and comforting. The text assigned for the Feast of All Saints is certainly one of those.

In chapter six, John had described how Christ the Lamb had opened the first six seals of the book which reveal the tribulations of the end times.  He has seen the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” who bring war, famine, and plague. He has heard the souls of the martyred Christians cry out from under the altar, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

The sixth seal had been opened and there was a great earthquake, the sun became black as sackcloth, and the full moon became like blood. The stars of the sky fell to the earth, the sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.  Indeed, the powerful ones of the world hid themselves in the caves, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’”

This is frightening stuff! But then, in chapter seven, we encounter something that is a recurring feature of Revelation. Sections that describe the harrowing end times, are followed by interludes that offer great comfort and encouragement. First John sees the 144,000 who have been sealed by God.  The number is symbolic of the fullness of Christians who are protected by God in the midst of the end time tribulations.  Christians will be martyred and die, but God promises that a fullness of his Church will be protected and survive the tribulations.

In the second half of this interlude, we hear 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!’” 

In chapters four and five, John had seen God on the throne, and Christ the Lamb surrounded by the four living creatures – the cherubim, and the twenty four elders.  These twenty four elders are the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles, and most likely they represent the whole of God’s people from the Old Testament and New Testament eras.

Now once again, John sees them. But this time he sees a great multitude of individuals clothed in white robs with palm branches in their hands who are praising God and the Lamb. The angels surrounding the throne join in praising God.  And then one of the elders asked John: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”

Now if I were John, I think my response would have been, “How should I know? I just got here.”  But the apostle replies by saying: “Sir, you know." Then the elder said to John: “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.”

It is a great irony that Christianity has often focused on something that God’s Word says very little about.  We tend to be focused on the question of what happens to a Christian when he or she dies.  However, this is not a major concern of Scripture.  Instead, without any question, the emphasis of Scripture is the final outcome.  Again and again, God’s Word talks about the return of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, and the new creation.  The Last Day and the things that will occur as Gods’ saving work arrives at its consummation is the repeated focus of Scripture.

Now on the one hand, this means that we need to adjust our way of thinking.  We need to let God direct our attention to what he thinks is most important.  And on this, the matter is clear.  The events of the Last Day are the goal.  When your team has won the World Series – and I actually have experience with this now - do you think about what happened in game fifty nine of the regular season, or do you remember what happened in the games of the World Series that produced the championship?  In the same way, our attention should be on the final outcome that God has promised, and has guaranteed by our Lord’s resurrection and ascension.  Our prayer should be, “Come Lord Jesus!”

While this is so, it is also impossible for us not to think about the status of our loved ones and all other Christians who have died before our Lord’s return.  The Bible speaks very rarely about this. But when it does … wow, what is says is clear and comforting.

The Feast of All Saints is about the Christians who have already died in Christ.  In our text, John sees a great multitude in white robes, bearing palm branches as they gather at the throne of God.  Now strictly speaking the timing in the revelation given to him is near the end of the great tribulation of the end times. Nevertheless, we do see here a depiction of Christians who have died before the return of Christ, and so what is said of them is true of the Christians we remember today.

The 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.” They have come out of the great tribulation into God’s presence, and they are no longer in the midst of the fallen world with its suffering, pain, and death. 

The elder says that they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. If you stop and think about it, this is a very odd image.  We know that blood stains.  But of course, Jesus’ blood is a reference to our Lord’s death on the cross for our sins.  In the first chapter, John describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead,” and as the One “who loves us and released us from our sins by his blood.”  Later Christ is praised by those around the throne as they say, “you were slain and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

Christians, both who are now living and those who have died, have been made holy by the saving death of Jesus Christ on the cross.  He has taken away our sins, so that in God’s eyes we are saints – holy ones.  Our sins have been removed so that we can be in the presence of the holy God.

That is what the Christians who have died experience already now.  After describing the saints as those who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb, the elder goes on to say, “Because of this 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.”

We learn that those who have been called to be with Lord in are in God’s presence. We find that because they are: “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.”

What amazing words of comfort! This is what the Christians who have died already experience now.  This is what we will experience if we die before our Lord’s return.  We will because of baptism and faith in the crucified, risen and ascended Lord.  Death is the enemy, but it is a defeated enemy. It cannot separate us from God because of Jesus the Lamb.  Instead, in death we experience a life with God that surpasses all we know now.  With good reason, St. Paul told the Philippians, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

But at the same time, the very language in which John describes this blessed existence points to something even better. Our text says that Christ the Lamb “will guide them to springs of living water.”  Literally, in Greek this is “springs of the water of life.”  In chapter twenty one John sees the new heaven and the new earth.  He sees the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. We receive a description of the city. Next John tells us, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.”

John sees the Garden of Eden renewed as part of the new creation.  His words direct us toward the fact that when Jesus returns on the Last Day he will raise the bodies of the dead and transform the bodies of those living to be like his own resurrected body. He will give us bodies that can never die again as we live in the new creation that is very good, just as God intended it. Jesus will do this.  When John sees the exalted Lord in all his glory at the beginning of the book, he tells John: “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.”

The experience of the saints now who are with God reflects the final peace and joy that we will know when Christ returns.  When John sees the new creation and new Jerusalem, he reports: “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.’”

On the Feast of All Saints, we are called again to faith in Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain to take away our sins, and then rose from the dead.  Because of him, we know that our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died are with God in joy and peace. And we pray “Come Lord Jesus” as we look for our Lord’s return when we with all the saints will share in our Lord’s resurrection as we live with him in the new creation forever.  











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