Monday, November 03, 2014

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17, for All Saints' Day, "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb"

To the saints who are in Maui, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Our reading from Revelation chapter 7 is the vision Jesus showed to St. John, of what heaven was like. Chapter 7 is divided into two sections—today’s section about the “great multitude that no one could number” is part 2, and part 1 is the famous roll call of the 144,000. Scene 1 watches the angels guarding 144,000 of those on earth, who have been sealed by God to protect them from harm. The number 144,000 symbolizes the complete number of believers. Scene 2 moves up to the throne of God in heaven, and views a countless number of saints, having passed through the great tribulation, and washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.

As the scene moves from earth to the scene of heaven—it’s a transition from the place where danger and suffering still exist, to the place of God’s presence and eternal peace. We sometimes call believers still living on earth “the church militant,” to refer to Christians engaged in a spiritual struggle, not against flesh and blood, but against the devil and his spiritual powers of darkness. We live in that church militant, complete with all the scars of spiritual battle—grief and losses, signs of persecution and distress. Last week, Reformation Sunday, sings the song of the saints on earth—clinging strongly to Jesus Christ, our Mighty Fortress, against all the assaults of the devil, who would try to deceive us and take away God’s Word. This week, All Saints’ Day, moves us with Revelation chapter 7 to the scene of the heavenly worship around the throne of God, and saints gathered in glory. We call it “the church triumphant.” Saints in heaven, around the throne of God in victory. Holding palm branches and wearing white robes, celebrating what God has done for them, and praising Him with an everlasting song: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!

Witnessing the scene of heaven may fill us with longing and hope—but also what a beautiful gift to be able to listen in to the songs of heaven, and to join them! To have the chorus of heavenly triumph cascade down from God’s throne to our ears on earth, to be taken up and sung on our lips as well. The hymn of praise in our liturgy, “This is the Feast”, comes right out of this chapter and several other heavenly worship songs in Revelation. Do you ever think about the fact that when Christians gather in God’s presence to worship, that we are joined in heaven by all the saints who have died and gone before us, and all the angels who worship around God’s throne forever? Heaven and earth are brought together in great anthems of praise that are lifted to our God and to the Lamb who was slain. That Lamb of God is Jesus Christ, who takes away the sin of the world. He, as God become man, bridges heaven and earth and makes us all His One body, the church. Saints triumphant stand on the other side of glory, while we feebly struggle with suffering and the cross. But we “all are one, within His grand design,” as in the words of our hymn (LSB 677).

As St. John watched this great heavenly scene, he is told that these people dressed in white, “are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” What great tribulation? Back in Matthew chapter 24, Jesus was teaching about the end times, just before He was going to die on the cross. It was there that He mentions this great tribulation. He said, “For there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” Jesus describes the great tribulation as the worst crisis of suffering that the world has ever experienced; and so great—in fact—that  if God does not intervene to cut those days short, no one will be saved. But for the sake of the “elect”, God cuts those days short. So here’s a little “election week” reminder—the “elect” are the people of God’s choosing! Saints are God’s chosen people, not from any works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy. God’s elect endure the great tribulation, but they come out of it into the glory of heaven, with robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.

We have no way of knowing directly when this “great tribulation” that Jesus describes will happen. It does, however, immediately precede Jesus’ second coming, which Jesus says will happen at a day and hour that only God the Father knows. There are some warning signs, though. There will be false prophets and false christs who come to perform signs and wonders to deceive the elect, God’s chosen, if possible. These are already common today. We are warned not to fall for them. Jesus then says the sun, moon, and stars will be darkened, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then Jesus will arrive in power and glory to the sound of the trumpet blast, and attended by His angels.

            So flash back to the scene in heaven, from Revelation 7. The saints singing in heaven are “the ones coming out of the great tribulation,” and who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” It’s a puzzling image at first, that robes washed in the blood of the Lamb would come out white, instead of red. What kind of wash cycle is that? But we only have to jump back to the Old Testament, to Isaiah 1, to discover the meaning. Isaiah 1:18 reads, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Here we learn that God proposes to wash our sins away, and cleanse us so that we are white as snow. God removes the most stubborn stains of our sin, and presents us clean again. The only thing the Isaiah passage doesn’t tell us, is what God’s “cleansing agent” is—what gets the cleaning done. That’s answered in our reading—the blood of the Lamb cleanses us from sin. Hebrews 9:14 echoes this, telling us that the blood of Jesus purifies our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God. Ephesians 5:26-27 tells us that Jesus cleanses the church by the washing of water with the Word, so that He can “present the church  to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such things, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

            Whichever image you are looking at—whether the white robes in Revelation, or the church as a bride free of spot, wrinkle, or blemish in Ephesians, or the washing white as snow in Isaiah—the message is the same. Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, and His offering Himself up for the church, is how we are cleansed, forgiven, and made holy. And a “saint” is nothing other than a “holy one”—made holy by the blood of Jesus. That’s why I addressed you as the saints living in Maui; the faithful in Christ Jesus. Just as Paul addressed living Christians as saints, in Ephesus or Corinth, or wherever he spoke to fellow believers. Your status as saints has everything to do with Jesus and His blood, washing you free and clear of any sin or blot.

Guilt and the uncleanness of sin may run deep—it may cling desperately to your conscience—but confess your sins to Jesus and experience the One who is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The blood of Jesus and the washing of water with the Word, cleanses even the deepest fiber of our being, with the forgiveness of sins. This is the way that Jesus makes us pure and holy, to stand before the Holy God as saints who’ve been delivered out of the great tribulation. And He delivers to us in baptism the gift of a clean conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).

            And with our sins forgiven, we look forward to the sheltering presence of God, who dwells forever with those who serve Him. We look forward to the day when hunger, thirst, or heat will no longer afflict us—but we will revel in the presence of our God. “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.” Jesus, our Good Shepherd knows our needs and well provides them. He knows the heavy toll that living in a sin-broken and dying world has taken on us. He lived it Himself. He knew the full pain and evil of sin first hand. And He is there to wipe away every tear from our eyes. I’ve often thought this was one of the most tender images of God in the Bible—and it runs contrary to so many false ideas that people carry about God. God desires to be near us for our good and for our healing. He desires to lift our burdens and carry them, as Jesus did at the cross. And God desires to comfort those who mourn and to satisfy those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

            So we find ourselves back in worship—made holy in the presence of God, the Holy One—forgiven and cleansed by Jesus’ blood. And as the vision of heaven recedes, our song of praise still continues, as we lift our voices in a sacrifice of praise in our hymns and songs in worship, and we go forth to our daily lives to make them a holy offering to God. The rhythm and cycle of our Christian life courses back and forth from our workaday life and the refreshment of weekly worship, where the song is every renewed:  Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”


Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Read Ephesians 1:1 and 1 Corinthians 1:2. How does Paul address the Christians in these two churches?
  2. What are the two parts of the vision John has in Revelation 7? Who are the first group of people he sees, in 7:1-8? Where are they? Who are the second group, in 9-17, and where are they?
  3. In the liturgy, the song “This is the Feast” comes from Revelation 5:12-13; 7:12; and 19:5-9. What are the saints and angels singing about in heaven? How does this invite us into the song of heaven?
  4. What is the “great tribulation” that the saints have been delivered out of? Matthew 24:21-31. What signs will occur during this tribulation? Which signs do we see today? Which don’t we see happening yet?
  5. Who chooses “the elect?” John 15:16. What does God do for the elect, in the tribulation? Matthew 24:22.
  6. What does it mean that the saints washing their robes in the blood of the Lamb has made them white? Revelation 7:14; Isaiah 1:18; Ephesians 5:26-27. How does God make us saints?
  7. How does God treat the deep stains and blemishes of sin? How does He remove their guilt? Ephesians 5:26-27; 1 Peter 3:21; 1 John 1:9-10; Hebrews 9:14.
  8. What is God’s comfort for those who have mourners and suffered in this life? Revelation 7:15-17; Matthew 5:3-12.
  9. How does the song of worship continue through our lives? How is the Christian life a rhythm or cycle?

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