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All Saints, observed
November 3, 2019 A+D
Revelation 7: 9-17
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Lord gave St. John a vision. He saw all of the elect, both Jews and Gentiles, worshiping the Lamb. The Lamb who was slain but who lives sat upon the throne. The elect stood or fell upon their faces, basking in His presence and grace.
Right away we have a math problem. Not only do we have Lambs dying and rising and sitting on thrones as God and judge but the numbers don’t add up. Distinct among the elect John sees 24 elders and 4 living creatures. Traditionally, commentators have thought the 4 living creatures were representations of the Holy Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John himself. The 24 elders are the 12 Patriarchs of the Old Testament and the 12 Apostles of the New, of whom John is one. So John sees himself outside of himself in two different places.
This is a vision not field guide for identifying obscure saints in heaven. It is more like a Picasso than a Ducks Unlimited print. It is meant to convey more than human eyes can behold. John is seeing the time after the Last Judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead. He sees not only himself twice and his apostolic colleagues. He also sees us. He sees Christians of every tribe and nation and language, even of the United States and Mexico and Germany. He sees us arrayed in white with palm branches, and yet, at the same time, with distinctive characteristics. We are so distinct that he knows where we are from, what language we speak, to what tribe we belong. And all of us, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, forgiven our trespasses, are praising God to whom belongs Salvation and who dispenses it to His people by grace.
In the midst of this, John gets pulled aside by one of the elders for a bit of catechesis. Ancient commentators thought this elder was likely Peter. Who knows? It either an apostle or a patriarch. Maybe it is even John asking himself for a yet another iteration of himself. In any case, in heaven there is still more to learn of God’s mercy. God’s Word endures. It continues to speak.
The elder asks John: “Who are these and where have they come from?” John knows who they are. He sees their faces. He knows many, maybe all, of them by name. Perhaps he is too awed to say it out loud. But I have come to think that he is actually confessing something even greater than who they are. He is confessing that they are known.
The elder knows who they are and says: “These are they that have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In heaven, the saints like to talk about the martyrs, those who have come out of the great tribulation. The martyrs are known by the saints and by the angels. They are recognized and honored. They are known.
Notice to whom the elder applies this language. Which of this great multitude that no one can number came out of the great tribulation? All of them. All of the elect. This is not a special category or description for only a few or for a select group. All who are baptized and believe are martyrs, not just in the sense that they are witnesses but also in the sense that they pick up crosses and they follow Jesus. Some of the saints suffer and endure with great fanfare and in spectacular ways like Lawrence and Perpetua or John the Baptist and James of Jerusalem, but some die quietly in their sleep with little outward evidence of their sorrows or pain. Others make great secret sacrifices and endure terrible indignities without complaint but are denied any honor or notice here on earth. Some are even mistaken for sinners of the worst sort even within the brotherhood on this side of glory.
They, together, are the embodiment of the beatitudes. They are the poor in spirit, the simple, the mourners, the meek, who are reviled for the Name of Christ. Yet they belong to Him and they are celebrated in heaven. They are blessed and theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. John knows them. So does the elder.
A few do get famous or honor for what they have done on earth but it is usually only after they die. Whether they do or not, absolutely no one gets away unscathed. No one is above the Master. They all come through the great tribulation. They all mourn. They all hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are all persecuted in some way. And not only God, but also the elders, the apostles and the patriarchs, the holy angels and all the saints, they know. That is what John means.
“Sir, you know!” is an exclamation of joy. The saints in heaven, along with God, know what you endure. They know your sorrow, your repentance and your faith. They rejoice over you. They count you as a hero equal to Moses and Joseph, a peer of Isaiah and Zacchaeus, with a story every bit as compelling as a bunch of brothers who almost killed their own brother and then sold him into slavery only to be saved and forgiven by him in the end, with a faith as moving as the tears of David at the death of his illegitimate son by Bathsheba, with a hope as courageous as Daniel refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar. In heaven they love a good martyr story, and the number of those that they have no man can number.
“Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” “Sir, you know.” “Yes, I know,” says Peter. “I know too,” says Rahab and Ruth and Tamar. “We know” says James and Jude and Mary. “We know and we rejoice,” exclaim Reuben and Ezra and Malachi. “We know also” says Frank and jean and Donna. The whole multitude from every tribe, nation, and language knows.
This means that they know your mother that the world has forgotten. They know how great she was, how significant she was, how she prayed and endured and provided. Her good works have followed her. The saints in heaven tell her stories to one another right next to the stories of Jesus Himself. She is not forgotten or insignificant. She will never be forgotten. Her achievements, her faith, her good works are being sung now and will be sung forever and forever because she is washed in the blood of the Lamb and they know her and they know what she has done and they love her and what she has done and they cannot forget.
And they know you, too. John describes your future. He has seen it. You have come out of the great tribulation. You have washed your robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. No doubt, the stories they tell of you will be a surprise, but they won’t be embarrassing or painful. They, too, are washed in the Blood of the Lamb.
You belong to God for you are Baptized into Him, into His death and resurrection. You will never leave His gracious presence. Peter and John and all the rest know. They know you. So does God. God knows. He, from whom no secrets are hidden, knows. And He does not turn away. He is not ashamed of you. He knows you better than anyone. You are not a cog in a wheel or a number in a column or faceless saint indistinct from the others. You did not get caught up by mistake or land here by accident or coincident. You are His. You belong here. You belong to Him and with Him and He is here. He knows you by Name. He counts the hairs on your head. He was slain but He lives. He pours out His Blood in this place for you and joins you to the saints who know you.
“Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” We know. We are they. They are ours. For we are His.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.