04 November 2013
Homily for All Saints' Day (Observed)
If you feel depressed after watching the evening news, or after reading the news websites, try reading Revelation. The evening news and the news websites certainly reveal the corruption and wickedness of human beings. But even more depressing is that we Christians seem to be on the losing side. We are so tempted to lose heart. We are so tempted to think God doesn’t care, that He’s far away. That’s why we need Revelation. That’s why we need All Saints’ Day. You see, the saints of God march through the tribulations of this world to the goal of Christ’s eternal victory--and all by the work of Christ.
Our first reading comes right after some events that make the evening news look like children trick-or-treating. Four horsemen come riding in and bring trials such as tyranny, warfare, famine, and death. Martyred Christian souls are pictured asking, “How long [O Lord] before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). The sun becomes black; the moon becomes blood red; the stars fall from the sky; the sky rolls up like a curtain; and the earth quakes all over the place.
Then we come to Revelation 7. Two scenes provide comfort and hope. In the first scene, God sends four angels to push pause on the news of cosmic chaos. They hold back the winds of God’s wrath on corrupt humanity. A fifth angel arises from the east, from the dawn of new life. He brings “the seal of the living God.” And what is that seal, that signet ring? It’s God’s own mark of ownership, care, and protection. And He places it on His redeemed people who are traveling through this chaotic world filled with trials.
Think of that sign--that seal--of the holy cross that was put on your forehead and your heart when you were baptized. What does it tell you? You belong to God. God knows you, cares for you, and protects you in the midst of this troubled, corrupted, chaotic world. In fact, He even holds back those horsemen and the troubles they bring into your life, in order that you may grow in the grace and knowledge of your Lord Jesus Christ. And even when He lets those horsemen and their chaos loose, He still guards and protects you.
Then we get the roll call of all Israel. 144,000--the perfect number of 12 x 12 x 1000--the number of complete completeness. And the tribes of Israel are listed--12,000 in each tribe. This list is different from the Old Testament lists. Dan is missing, and so is Ephraim. They had turned away from the Lord. In their place we see Joseph and Levi. They were faithful to God. This list of God’s people has been cleansed of idolatry and apostasy. And it’s Judah who heads the list, probably because the Lord Jesus comes from his line. Here’s the perfect number of God’s people on earth, people who belong to Jesus Christ. And it’s not a literal number, so put your bean-counting tendencies on pause. All the tribes are equal in number--none is greater or lesser than another.
This list draws our attention back to ancient Israel as they wandered through the wilderness. When they camped around the tabernacle--God’s dwelling place on earth--each tribe had its assigned place. When they broke camp to march on, they marched in a God-given order on their mission to the Promised Land. And so it is for God’s redeemed people in this world of trials and chaos. You are among the perfect number of God’s people in the Church Militant. You dwell in your assigned place. You are ready for the mission--the marching order--He has given you: “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Jesus’] name to all nations.” (Lk. 24:47) “Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15)
We are the Church Militant. We are merely marching through this sin-ravaged, death-plagued world. We're on a mission to be sure--the mission of confessing Christ and giving the reason for the hope we have in Him--but it’s still cosmic warfare. Hence the trials. Hence the persecutions. And hence the Lord’s seal of ownership, care, and protection. Jesus even said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
And so we come to the second scene that gives comfort and hope to all saints. Now the saints praise God in heaven. It’s the eternal victory celebration. Who’s in the party? “A great multitude that no one could number.” (I told you to put your bean-counting tendencies on pause. :-) And the saints come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” No, Christianity is not just for Westerners, not just for certain colors or languages. It’s for all people. White, black, brown--they’re all there. Those who speak English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Bosnian--they’re all there.
And what are they doing? They’re celebrating! Think of when your team last won the World Series or the Superbowl or even the high school state championship. Everyone was elated! Everyone had a party! You went through the highlights of the game. You congratulated the players. Heaven is that final celebration, that final victory, that eternal victory. And it’s much better than any championship. Sports victories last only for a season. God’s victory is for eternity.
And, as they celebrate, what do they say? “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They go through the highlights of the salvation story. They congratulate the “players”--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You see, it’s only because of our God and the Lamb that we have this victory. God has saved you, His saints, and made you holy. He has saved you through the Lamb and His blood shed on the cross. God has rescued you from your enemies--from sour-puss Satan; the chaotic, hostile world; and even death itself. Here you have a picture of the final goal--eternal life with your God and Savior who loves you through Jesus' death.
And who else chimes in? The whole heavenly court--”all the angels...standing around the throne and...the elders and the four living creatures.” They all praise God for His work of winning the cosmic war.
In this second scene all the saints have come “out of the great tribulation.” That’s Bible talk for all time and all events since Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. But this is no mere escapist fantasy. For some it might look like it’s too good to be true. But this is no flight from reality. It’s a picture of hope.
You see, the Church does not live from one triumph to another. There’s no such thing as victorious living--or your best life now--this side of heaven. No, the Church lives in the way of the cross--as do we individual Christians. God does not lead His Church--His saints--around suffering. He leads us through the suffering. And as He does, “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.”
So, when those opposed to God seem to be stronger, when the Church seems to be on the brink of extinction, when you in your personal faith and life feel so weak and battered and bruised, take heart! Be comforted! Have hope! God has not forsaken you or His Church. All of that is par for the course for the Church and her Christians. It’s your Savior Jesus Christ--the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who shed His innocent blood--it’s your Savior Jesus who brings you to the goal, and all by His grace and mercy.
You see, you are also “the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” You just happen to be still on the march toward that goal. And you have also “washed [your] robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” No, not because you are so pure and strong yourself. Rather, because Jesus is the pure One; Jesus is the strong One. You are holy because He is holy and He makes you holy. And saints belong to God. Saints stay with God, because He stays with them. “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness / My beauty are, my glorious dress”! (LSB 563:1)
So, do not be afraid to be “out of date” or strange because you are a Christian. Do not be unsettled when adversity comes your way or to the Church herself. Your God and Savior promises to be with you, to keep you as His own, and to care for and protect you as you march toward His eternal victory. Most of all, stay in your Baptism. Martin Luther said this about living in your Baptism: “We must think this way about Baptism and make it profitable for ourselves. So when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say, ‘Nevertheless, I am baptized. And if I am baptized, it is promised to me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” (LC IV 44) Amen.