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, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 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, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
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.
“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” (Revelation 7:9-17).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“May you live in interesting times” is an English expression that is dubiously claimed to be an ancient Chinese curse. While phrased as a blessing, the expression ironically puts forth the idea that life is better in “uninteresting times” of peace and tranquility than in “interesting” ones, which are usually times of trouble and upheaval.
Given that understanding, I think most of us would agree that we certainly live in “interesting times.” Since the pandemic came to our country over seven months ago, we’ve found ourselves constantly navigating new territory. We watched the gas prices go down to their lowest level in decades, but there was no place for us to go. We experienced shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, Plexiglass, and bread flour. Farmers were forced to euthanize thousands of hogs and cattle because local packers were closed, eggs and milk were dumped even as supermarkets limited meat, milk, and egg purchases for each customer.
We stayed home and shut down our businesses for the longest two weeks in history. Those who have long felt undervalued and unappreciated suddenly found themselves designated as “essential workers.” Local family-owned businesses struggle under shut-down and executive orders, while giant corporations experience unprecedented sales and profits. Unemployment rates hit depression era levels. Lots of us learned more about communication technology than we ever thought we could or wanted to. Teachers and students met in virtual classrooms. Pastors preached to a camera and microphone, while pajamaed parishioners curled up on the couch and watched from home. DCEs and volunteers figured out creative ways to continue Sunday School, VBS, and youth programs.
We’ve come to know (and perhaps detest) a lot of new terms and phrases: flatten the curve, herd immunity, social distancing, Zoom, new normal, out of an abundance of caution, follow the science, unprecedented, slow the spread, when things get back to normal again, we’re all in this together apart, stay home, stay safe, and turning down the dial, just to name a few.
The pandemic and attempts to deal with it have led to suffering, death, inconvenience, and encroachment on privileges and freedoms we may have taken for granted. Families have not been able to see their loved one in person for months. Patients die in hospitals and nursing homes without the comfort of family and pastoral care. Families and communities have been unable to gather to mourn their loved one’s death and to comfort one another.
Then, there’s COVID’s collateral damage: Suicides have surged, drug and alcohol abuse has risen, domestic and child abuse have risen dramatically. As we seek to protect the most susceptible to sickness and death, our residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers are becoming more fearful, lonely, and depressed. Important healthcare appointments, even surgeries and procedures, have been postponed. Health care professionals, caregivers, daycare personnel, and teachers have had to work harder and in more difficult, perhaps dangerous, circumstances to provide even basic care.
There’s compassion fatigue and fear. Congregations are divided over approaches to opening or keeping churches closed. Folks are scared to come back to church or gather with family for holidays. Those not as concerned are accused of being unloving or uncaring. Pastors are war-weary and worn down, trying to figure out to care for God’s flock who are scattered or scared or scarred. And perhaps the worst part is that no one has any realistic idea when, if ever, it will all go back to our previous idea of normal.
In the midst of the doom and gloom that seems to hang over everything, one might look longingly to the future in hopes of better things to come. That, too, will likely leave us with fear, dread, and disappointment. Living in a world broken by sin, we should never be so foolish to expect utopian dreams to materialize. In this age, there will never be a heaven on earth. But our text for this festival celebrating God’s work in all the saints does assure us that ultimately all God’s saints are signed, sealed, and will be delivered by Christ Jesus into the new heaven and earth for eternity.
So where do we children of God turn to faith in Christ Jesus, our only Savior from sin? Where do we turn for hope, encouragement, and strength to remain faithful to the faith put in us by the Holy Spirit in Baptism? How can we imitate and follow the example of the saints in heaven described in today’s First Reading from God’s Word, who come “out of the great tribulation” and who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v 14)? How do we get where they’ve gotten?
The answer is quite simple and clear in today’s text. But it’s not easy. It’s one that can make us weary just hearing it. It’s one that we often would prefer not to know, because it’s not easy to abide by. That’s because it foretells terrible tribulation until the time God delivers us safely home to eternal life in the glory of His heaven. Yet at the same time, it gives us once again God’s faithful promise that He has done, and is doing, absolutely everything necessary to save us from the damning power and guilt of our sin and to take us safely, in faith, all the way home for eternity in the perfect glory of heaven.
That’s what God is doing in today’s text when He tells us through St. John’s revelation that Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit “have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” The Greek word for sealed means “to set a mark or seal on us in faith to serve as protection and also identification.” All those God has made His children in faith in the sin-purifying waters of Baptism, God is protecting. That—in our Baptism—is when the Holy Spirit signed us into saving faith in Christ crucified, when the sign of His cross as made over our foreheads and our hearts. He is thus identifying His believers as His dearly loved possessions, whom Christ Jesus bought with His sin-free lifeblood on Calvary’s center cross.
This saving act not only destroyed all the power of all our sin, death, and hell, but it also strikes dreadful fear in Satan. The truth be told, it also marks us as an enemy of the evil one. Satan, therefore, relentlessly and futilely seeks to prevent the Holy Spirit from delivering us safely, in faith, into the “multitude that no one could number” in heaven, those Christ Jesus Himself has robed in white.
And this ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in us, which He works through the Gospel power of God’s Word and Sacraments, is the sealing action of God in us, in faith, just as it was for all the saints who from their labors rest in the loving arms of the Lamb of God in heaven. In those arms they do not hunger, thirst, or cry from the war-weariness of the great tribulation they endured in this sinful world that we endure for the sake of Christ Jesus and His Gospel. That’s because this world still considers the sealing Gospel so offensive and terrifying, since it implies that they have sin from which they need saving.
That’s why God continues to protect and identify us as His redeemed children in faith. That’s why He continues to seal us with the assurance of His forgiving love in the Gospel promise—Christ Jesus born as one of us in Bethlehem to die in our place on Calvary’s cross. That is the ongoing and even more relentless sealing and delivering the Holy Spirit does in fulfilling His guarantee work, in which He specializes. Because the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts signed by our Savior’s cross, we have God’s guarantee in this, His presence, that we will inherit heaven. This is God’s guaranteed delivery into the glory of His heaven, when the white-robed, palm-waving saints sing our enthroned Savior’s praises. They sing well-rested and triumphant through God’s faithful delivery out of the great tribulation, where we still have tears.
In this high-definition picture revealed in today’s text, God’s Word gives us His faithful promise: “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” Even as we still cry our way through the great tribulation that we all must endure in this life, He will shelter us until He takes us home to the glory of heaven.
God lives with us through faith—in a very real way in His Word and Sacraments—right here and now. This includes living with the sorrow, pain, and tears this sinful world causes God’s believers until God turns them to joy. This is His sealing and delivering of us home to heaven, as surely as He did the very same for every single saint in that “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.”
To sustain us and inspire us to soldier on, John gives us a glimpse of the glory that is Christ’s. How incredible to be part of that blessedness! How wonderful to be numbered with all God’s saints. By Calvary’s cross, delivered to us at the baptismal font and the Lord’s altar, God has signed and sealed us in His grace. In that grace we already now stand in faithful assurance alongside the saints triumphant, and one day we will be delivered to join them in praising God, from whom all blessings flow!
Go in the peace of the Lord, all you His saints, and serve your neighbor with joy! You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.