Text: Revelation 7:9-17
First Reading, All Saints Day (Observed), Series A.
In the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Have you ever had a dream or nightmare that felt real? Occasionally, I’ll get a nightmare like that. I’ll have a dream and wake up and have a hard time for a moment or two distinguishing between the dream and the reality. Usually, it’s a bit scary. So, I get up, go grab a drink of water, and within five minutes I’m reminded that it was not real. It was just a dream. The accident didn’t happen, so-and-so is still alive after all, and the monster attacking you was just in your imagination. The clash of dream and reality can at times be powerful. Sometimes it may be hard to tell which is which.
The Struggle and the Strife
John is facing a similar problem with the little communities to whom he is sending this book John wrote Revelation to seven churches in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. He wrote to them about an approaching storm. A terrible nightmare was upon them. After a generation of slipping under the radar, Rome had finally noticed the fledgling Christian church. Rome felt threatened. Now, all the powers of the imperial machinery were gearing up to destroy and eradicate Christ’s Holy Church. While the church had experienced persecution before, they were only local and sporadic. Now it was going to be an empire wide assault. This persecution exiled John to the island of Patmos. This nightmare persecution would involve the martyrdoms of such Christian leaders as Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Justin Martyr. And it would be an on-again off-again persecution for the next three hundred years.
So, John gets a vision from Christ himself. This is a message to help and comfort the Church as it sojourns here on earth. The World is hostile, and the Church must be prepared. Christ’s Vision to John reveals how things really are from a heavenly perspective, from God’s point of view. We tend to judge things by the way they appear to us here on earth. Things are not the way they seem. This Vision shows you the ultimate reality of the situation, and you must hold on to it for dear life if you hope to endure the nightmare. It’s like throwing a boy into a shallow lake. The boy is afraid of the water and starts kicking and screaming. “I’m drowning! I can’t swim! HELP!” But someone looking yells back, “Put your feet down!” And the boy puts his feet down and notices the water is only up to his belly and he need not fear anything. Revelation presents to us that underlying reality, it helps us stand firm when weathering the storms of this life.
Now, you might be thinking, “Ok, That’s great. I’m not being killed for my faith, so this has no application to me.” Sure, perhaps in Canada we are not being put to death for being Christians quite yet. However, we do suffer in this world. We live in an increasingly secular world which challenges and questions the very foundations of the Christian Religion. Students who go to secular universities suffer for their faith and most don’t make it out spiritually alive. It’s far more effective than throwing them to the lions would be. With the lions, at least you died in the faith. Today, we lose upwards of 85% of our young people when they go off to secular college. Today’s lions are more effective.
There are trials and difficulties we must face every day. Only you know what yours are. Maintaining faith while caring for the burdens and cares of everyday life can be a challenge. And then there are health problems. Maybe it’s depression, or a debilitating illness. Perhaps it’s the death of a loved one. It might be a constant barrage of one thing after another, with no chance to catch your breath. Maybe, it’s your own sinful desires and tendencies which you battle day in and day out. We all must suffer. We all struggle feebly. We are poor creatures, and our lives are ones of dependence, suffering, weakness, and pain.
That there is suffering in the world makes some people think that there cannot be a God. An all-loving, all-powerful God would not allow suffering to take place, people assume, but would make everyone happy. And since the world does contain so much suffering, God must not exist. Even worse, suffering is sometimes thought to be a sign the sufferer has been rejected by God. That if you’re suffering God must be angry with you. The assumption is that Christians will not suffer, that if we have enough faith, God will grant healing, prosperity, and success. God wants you to have your best life now. You just need to have more faith!
To God On High be Glory
But that’s not the ultimate reality. That’s not how things really are. John’s vision in Revelation shows us how God sees things. John in his vision sees a huge crowd of people. It’s an innumerable amount of folks. As he looks on the crowd he notices that the crowd is multi-ethnic. This is the biggest multi-cultural gathering of people ever. And this crowd keeps growing and growing. And what kind of venue can hold such a huge multi-cultural gathering? Well, they’re before the throne! They’re in heaven.
Well who are they? This ever growing, multi-ethnic crowd in heaven, celebrating a victory, are those who have come out of “the great tribulation.” This life is a great tribulation. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil are all against God and his kingdom just as much as any Roman Emperor was. These are the people who have woke up from the nightmare. They have lived through the nightmare and can now wake up to a glorious, fresh new morning. These are all the Saints who have passed on. These are not just those famous saints, but also, “all the unsung saints, that countless, nameless throng, who kept the faith and passed it on, with hope steadfast and strong through all the daily griefs and joys.” (We Sing for All the Unsung Saints, LSB 678. Stanza 1).
As John looks at the crowd, he notices that they’ve all got palm branches in their hands. That should remind you of something: Palm Sunday. Palm branches were used in celebrations when a conquering king returned home victorious. When Jesus came on a donkey into Jerusalem, he was hailed as King, the Son of David! Here, this enormous multi-ethnic crowd is celebrating a victory.
And they’re singing a victory song. They sing a song to God and to the Lamb. Even the Angels themselves join in with a heavenly “Glory be to God on High!” Earlier John reported, “I saw a Lamb standing as though it had been slain.” (Rev. 5:6). God himself has become a man and has suffered worse than anyone else, and by his suffering and death victory has been won. John notices that they’ve also got identical white robes. White standards for purity. The reason their clothes are white is not because they lived lives of total holiness and purity but because the blood of the lamb, the sacrificial death of Jesus himself, has rescued them. They were baptized, and their baptisms have placed them into God’s favor, making them able at once to stand in the very presence of the living God. “Around the throne of David, the saints from care released raise loud their songs of triumph to celebrate the feast. They sing to Christ their leader, who conquered in the fight, who won for them forever their gleaming robes of white.” (Jerusalem the Golden, LSB 672, Stanza 3).
That’s the question you need to think about on All Saints Day. What makes one a saint? Do you need to have lived an extraordinarily holy life? Do you need to have been another Mother Theresa? Do you need to have done some miracles or perhaps been a martyr? Oh! I know! You need the arbitrary decision of Pope Francis! That’s what makes you a saint, right? No. Jesus in our Gospel reading says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, that is, “the spiritually poor” the spiritual beggars. Saints are those who have recognized that they are spiritually destitute. Saints are those who receive grace from God, like a beggar receives alms. All they can do is cry out to God.
You see, we don’t look like saints. We don’t really talk like saints. We don’t really act or think like saints. But that’s not the ultimate reality. That’s what the Epistle is getting at. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3.2) God has called us blessed. Despite being spiritual beggars, mourning, hungering and thirsting for a righteousness we don’t have, persecuted, reviled, and suffering, despite our poor condition God calls us his children. Saints. So, there’s this enormous crowd. Salvation and victory are not something they did. They have absolutely no need to wait or fear of a lengthy postmortem clean-up period in purgatory. The suffering and death of Jesus, and their baptism into his death, have done all that is required. Salvation belong to God and to the slain Lamb.
The Joys that Await us there.
The ultimate reality is that the creator God and the lamb have already won the victory. Because the Slain Lamb has won the victory already, this means that those who trust the lamb are rescued from harm. The reality is that the people who trust the lamb’s promise of protection may well have to come through a time of great suffering and tribulation, but they will then find themselves in the true reality, in God’s throne room, in the heavenly temple, worshiping in the ultimate Divine Service. The tears, and sorrows, sufferings and afflictions of this life are gone. God wipes them all away. He comforts them and in his presence, there is fullness of joy forever more. That’s the ultimate reality. That’s the hope which is ours through Christ Jesus, the lamb who was slain.
“And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and Hearts are brave again and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!” (For all the saints, LSB 677 Stanza 5.) The fight is fierce. The warfare is long. This nightmare requires endurance. But you are surrounded with a great crowd of witnesses. You are surrounded with saints. You are surrounded by saints who went Dryden and Vermillion Bay who have died in the faith. You are surrounded by your loved ones who have died in the faith. And we are encouraged not only by those who have gone before us, but by those who we run alongside. Look around you. See your fellow saints, all racing toward Jesus. And see who is not here, those who have become weary, and remember that you can encourage them as well, and help and strengthen them as we press toward the goal.
For it won’t be long now. Rest will come. The One who began a good work in us will bring it to completion. One day the bell will toll for us, and we will rejoice in the victory of death, the victory of Jesus, and all those who are left behind will rejoice for us. Death will give way to life, tears will give way to joy, sin with give way to bliss, and, dear saints, until that day, we fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, to life everlasting. Amen.