Revelation 7.2-17 / All Saints’ Day
Epiphany, Castle Rock, November 2-3, 2013
By Rev. Robert Harmon
Grace, Mercy and Peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ !
During seminary, I had the privilege of serving for three years at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church of Monroeville, Indiana. For the last 166 years, St. John, Flatrock, as it is affectionately known, has been an island surrounded by a sea of corn and soy bean fields for as far as the eye can see in every direction. The architect of this very old church—it was built the same year our Lutheran Church Missouri Synod was founded—was a theologian. The main church building itself is in the shape of a cross. A sermon in stone, the long, narrow nave, comes to a beautiful sanctuary at the top that is flanked by transepts on either side, making a cruciform shape that reminds you every Sunday as you walk in the door, that we are saved by the cross of Jesus.
The beautiful stained glass windows in the sanctuary tell the story of salvation. Beginning to the left of the altar and moving counter clockwise you see the story of creation, the parting of the Red Sea, the birth of the savior, Jesus sending out the disciples with the Word, the crucifixion and finally, completing the circle at the right side of the altar, is the most beautiful window of all. Casting it’s bluish light into the chancel, is a window depicting the Lamb of God, who was slain for the sins of the world. The blood of the Lamb flows from His chest into a chalice, the whole scene illuminating the communion rail before the altar.
Here at the altar, the architect of St. John’s shows us the depth of His understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The raised altar stands in the center of a raised chancel. Inside the church, forming a perfect semi-circle around the altar is the communion rail where the saints of God receive His gifts of forgiveness and new life. Outside the church, completing the circle begun at the communion rail, is the church cemetery, where the saints of God who have received their reward, await the resurrection of the last day.
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With wood, plaster and grave stones, St. John Flatrock draws the perfect picture of the communion of saints; the full circle of believers, past, present and future, united forever around the altar, where the Lamb of God was slain for the life of the world. This is the reality we confess each Sunday in the creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
“And all the angels stand round about the throne,” St. John tells us in verse 11 “and the elders and the four living creatures, and they all fall before the throne on their faces and worship God” (Rev 7.11). Just like our church here on earth, the church in heaven encircles God, kneels and worships. In heaven, God is seated on His throne. Here on earth, it is the church’s altar where God comes to meet His people and serve us with His gifts. The church’s altar is the intersection where heaven and earth meet. Here at the altar, God comes to us with His Word of Law and Gospel. The all powerful Word of God that is able to create the universe out of nothing (Heb 11.3) and even more miraculous, this same divine Word is the power of God unto to salvation (Ro 1.16)—a more permanent creation than even the universe—God’s Word creates saving faith, eternal faith, in the hearts of each of you, His beloved children!
Our Father in heaven is a generous God, giving to us His children, more than we could ever ask for or even imagine! (Cf. Ephes 3.20). Your loving Father doesn’t want His saving Word to reach you only through your ears & eyes, as a Word invisible in the air or silent on the page. No, your God wants you to know the power of His saving, creative Word with all your senses, so “The Word was made flesh” (cf. Jn 1.14) and after He dwelt for time among us, He was sacrificed on the cross as punishment for the sins of the whole world, for your sins and mine and He was raised from the dead guaranteeing the resurrection of all who believe in Him. And now today, this same Jesus, the Word made flesh comes regularly to this altar and from here His very body and blood are placed onto your lips and into your mouths for the
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forgiveness of your sins, for salvation and new life as a member of His Holy Communion of Saints.
Such intimacy with God was unheard of in the days after Adam’s sin, when God placed an angel with a flaming sword to guard the way to paradise, keeping us, and our sins outside, east of Eden. At Mt. Sinai, if even a stray animal touched the mountain while God spoke to Moses, the animal was to be thrust through with a spear. And in the tabernacle of the Old Testament, the altar of God’s presence was so holy, that only once a year, on the day of atonement, did God allow a specially sanctified priest to enter in to God’s presence with the blood of the sacrifice for the sins of the people.
All that changed when Jesus, our Passover Lamb was taken outside the camp, and sacrificed at evening for the sins of the whole world. When Jesus died on the cross, sinless and pure and Holy, the flaming sword was extinguished, the veil in the temple was torn in two (Mt 27.51) and now, you and I come here, to this altar each Sunday and in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “[we] come boldly unto the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy” (Heb 4.16), “entering the holy of holies by the blood of Jesus …. through the veil that is His flesh … [we] draw near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Heb 10.19, 20, 22).
This morning, you and I come here and make up our part of the circle that surrounds the holy of holies, this altar, where God promises to be found. This day, in the words of our hymns, our prayers, our liturgies we say back to God what He first said to us, we repeat His promises to Him and He is faithful to forgive our sins and give each of us new life in the life of His Son (cf. LW p. 6). Here, at this altar, this mercy seat, our loving Father in heaven hears our prayers and gives us the very best possible answer, at just the right time.
This morning, because you are here, this morning, because God is faithful and keeps His promise to be here, the circle remains unbroken and once again, God comes to us in His living Word. Today, that Word of God pulls back just a corner of the veil and allows us the
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briefest glimpse into heaven, the glory of God and the future glory we will share with Him in His nearer presence. Our text in Revelation 7 reveals not only the glory of God to come, but the glory of God among us here today.
“Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun,” we read in verse 2, “with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” [4] And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” (Rev 7.2-4).
The four angels whose job it is to destroy the earth at the end of time, are held back until the full number of God’s people are ‘sealed’. These 144,000 people represent the full number of God’s church on earth, 12,000 from each tribe of Abraham’s children through whom, God promised the whole world will be blessed (Gen 12.3). But what does it mean to be sealed? Revelation 14.1 gives us a clue when the Holy Spirit tells us that the 144,000 are sealed ‘with the name of God on their foreheads,’ in other words, God holds back the destroying angels of the apocalypse until, you, me and the full number of God’s children can be sealed in Baptism, “Receive the sing of the holy cross both upon your forehead + ” our Baptismal liturgy begins, “and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified” (LSB 268).
This is the first group of believers mentioned in Revelation chapter 7. The believers who are still on the earth, the full number of people sealed by God, living here today, on this side of the circle in God’s ‘Church militant’, eagerly awaiting Christ’s return and the new heavens and the new earth that God will create after the apocalypse at the end of time (Rev 21.1).
This is the church you and I belong today. You and I are the part of the communion of saints which gathers on this side of the communion rail, this side of the altar so that we may be
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strengthened by God’s Word, Sacraments and Christian fellowship strenghtened here to live the life of faith and good works that God created us to do ! (Cf. Ephes 2.10).
But there is another group of believers revealed in Revelation chapter 7, the ones who now live forever on the other side of the circle, those among us who have passed through the valley of the shadow of Jesus’ death and now live in God’s nearer, eternal presence. Hear how St. John describes the communion enjoyed by these, our fellow saints: “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, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7.9-10).
“Who are these?” the elder asks St. John, “these [worshippers] in white robes, where do they come from?” (cf. Rev 7.13). Just like the rest of us who get confused reading Revelation, St. John, scratches his head and admits, “I don’t know” (cf. v. 14). So the elder explains to John and to us, “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” (v.14).
In His mercy and love, God your Father pulls back just a corner of the veil that hides your future life in heaven. Because He wants to encourage you today, give you hope, He gives you just a tiny glimpse of the joy He has prepared for you whom He has redeemed through His gift of faith in the blood of Jesus, poured out from the cross, for you.
The first thing we notice is the white robe of purity covering each of the redeemed, reminding us that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3.27). God’s symbol of victory is the palm branch that He Himself places in the hand of each saint as the congregation joins in singing the liturgy of our victory song, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (v. 10).
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This innumerable throng, as innumerable as the stars in the heavens or the grains of sand on the seashore, is the full congregation of all the redeemed of all times, of all places, languages and groups, right down to this group of believers, Epiphany Lutheran Church, Castle Rock, Colorado in the year of our Lord 2013!
“Count the stars if you are able” God says to Abraham in Genesis 15, “so shall your descendants be” (Gen 15.5). “and in thee, shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12.3). You, beloved of the Lord, are blessed through this promise from God to Abraham. His promised fulfilled in Jesus, the child through whom all families on earth are blessed. Jesus! the one who redeemed you from the cross, made you His own in the waters of Holy Baptism, the One who even now is preparing an eternal place for you to dwell in His nearer presence forever on that great day (not long from now) when He comes so that you, may be with Him where He is, forever! (Jn 17.24). You, beloved of the Lord, are both today and in God’s future, a part of that innumerable throng that God allows us to peek behind the veil and see this morning.
Your future self is there! You, whose robe has been washed white in the blood of the Lamb, are right here in Revelation chapter 7 standing in your glorious and sinless resurrected body, gathered around the throne together with all the Communion of Saints, “serving God day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter you with His presence. You shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike you, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne is your shepherd, and he guides you to springs of living water, and God Himself will wipe away every tear from your eyes” (vs. 15-17).
AMEN! So be it! Come Lord Jesus! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.