Monday, November 10, 2008

All Saint's Day (observed) (Revelation 7:2-17)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this All Saints’ Day is first lesson, from Revelation chapter seven. Dear friends in Christ, we all have had the experience of losing a loved one. Since we moved to Fort Wayne to attend the seminary, Bethany and I have lost three grandparents. It is never easy, especially when you are far from home, when you can’t be there, but instead get the phone call and then start looking for plane or train tickets. My grandfather passed away this past Memorial Day weekend, and when we came home again in late June, I had the opportunity to climb a pulpit and preach a sermon. I said then that Grandpa’s most important death happened more than eighty years ago, when God put the old sinful Adam in him to death and brought forth a new man to live before Him forever. God knew what He was doing when He established Baptism- it gives us a rock to hold onto, a place to put our trust.

Baptism is this rock, because in the washing of water with the Word, God places His seal upon you. “Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, 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, saying, ‘Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.’” On your Baptism day, water was poured on your forehead “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The name of the Triune God was placed upon your forehead- there God claimed you as one of His own. A seal is a visible sign of ownership and of protection. In Baptism, God gave you that visible sign, declaring to you and the entire world that you are His child, that you are under His loving care. But God does not stop placing His seal on you in Baptism. He is continually sealing you each and every day, placing His Name on you through His Word. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ once again uses visible means, the bread and wine which are His Body and Blood, to seal you. They bear His name and His strength. The seal of God is not a one-time thing, but instead is continual and stretches throughout your life. Baptism, the Word, and the Lord’s Supper are all means by which He declares that you are His child.

We need this seal, we need this assurance, because once we are sealed, we are sent out into the world. When you were Baptized, Satan became your enemy, and he is continually working to separate you from the one who claimed you in those waters. He has little need to persecute someone who is already in his camp. Instead, Satan uses the turmoil of this world to divide people from Christ, to tear them away from their Savior. The book of Revelation describes the terrible events that will ravage the earth in the Last Days. What Christians often fail to realize is that we are living in the Last Days right now. Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, we have been living in the Last Days, as history moves toward its climax in the Return of Christ. Revelation does not contain things to look for to know if we are near the End, it is a description of the trials and tribulations that will occur in the great sweep of history from Christ’s first coming until His second. When we see the death and destruction of a fallen world all around us, when we experience the tribulation that surrounds us, we are tempted to despair, to give up hope. So many throughout history have turned their back on their Lord because they are angry at God for something that has happened in their life, or they cannot see any God at all in the chaos of this world. Satan is constantly working to put distance between you and God, whether it is through the tribulation of this world or your own sin. Every sin that you commit puts space between you and God, and an unrepented sin only increases that distance day by day. Satan wants to see you wallow in sin, pushing God further and further away. He only wants you with him in hell. The same day that Christ claimed you in Baptism, Satan declared war on you, and he does not intend to quit.

With such a vicious enemy and such great tribulation all around us, where are we to turn? From where can we draw confidence? John shows us in our text for today: “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, and crying out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” We draw strength from the great multitude around us, all those who have been sealed by God in Baptism. First we look at those around us today. We look at the courageous example of Christians living under persecution, those who risk their lives to serve Christ. Christianity is not an individual ‘experience,’ it is a community, it is a family, it is a Church, the entire Church throughout the world. That is why we come here and join with others, because we are called to strengthen and be strengthened by others. But this community, this communion of saints, does not only include those within these walls, or even all Christians living right now. The communion of saints encompasses every person sealed by Christ who has ever lived, from the first disciples of Jesus until this very day. The Church transcends time. That is why we worship the way we do, that is why we hold so firmly to the teachings handed down from the apostles. In our worship, in our teachings, we are joined with the Church of all ages in giving praise to the Lamb, we join with all those sealed by Christ in crying out: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” As Hebrews tells us, we are constantly surrounded by a ‘great cloud of witnesses.’

We draw strength, confidence, and courage from this cloud of witnesses, but this is only because their strength, confidence, and courage is in the Lord. In our text, John writes that “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” The word used here for ‘shelter’ is the same word used in the Old Testament for the tabernacle. The tabernacle was the center of God’s presence during Israel’s desert wanderings. In this tent God dwelt amongst His people, He ‘tented’ with them in His love and mercy. In John’s Gospel, the apostle uses the same word to talk about someone who appeared to be simply a man. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem, was the Son of God, God in the flesh, God ‘tenting’ with us. Just as God dwelt with His people in a tent in the desert, so in Jesus He dwelt with all people in the tent of our flesh. He was present among us, and He was present for a purpose
Jesus Christ did not ‘tent’ among His people simply to be present, but He came in order to restore the broken relationship between God and man, He came to take away our sin. And in order to take away our sin, He came as the Lamb. “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.’” Just as the blood of lambs bore the sins of Israel throughout the Old Testament, so now the shed blood of the Lamb bears the sins of the entire world away, as John the Baptist cried: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus Christ came to this earth to tent, to tabernacle, to dwell amongst His people, but His primary purpose was to die, to shed His blood as the sacrifice for all of our sin. As Isaiah says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” The Lamb of God was nailed to a cross, and there His blood was shed for all of your sin. And now your filthy, sinful robes have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, making them white and pure as snow. Your seal in our Baptism is founded in this blood, it is there that you wash your robes in the blood of the Lamb, it is there that your robes are made white.
Because of what Jesus did, because He offered Himself up as the sacrificial Lamb for all of our sins, God now dwells with us, we are the ones described by John in our text: “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.” Despite all of the tribulations of this world, despite all that Satan does in an attempt to tear you away from Jesus, you will stand before God’s throne forever, He will shelter you with His presence, He will tent with you forever. God dwelt with His people Israel in the desert, He dwelt with all people in the flesh of Christ, and now He will dwell with you into all eternity. Because the Lamb shed His blood for you, because you have washed your robes in the blood of the Lamb, because you have been sealed in Baptism, you will live forever in the glory of God’s presence. We are already in His presence for the sake of Christ, He comes to dwell with us when we gather in this place and when we are in His Word. But as John says in our Epistle lesson, we have much to look forward to, for in the new heavens and new earth “We will be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.”
Jesus is not only the Lamb, He is also the shepherd. John describes heavenly glory like this: “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 their throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” What a glorious picture of what we look forward to! Christ has sealed us through the Word in our Baptism and in the Lord’s Supper, and He has sealed us in order to bring us through every attack of Satan that faces us. He has sealed us to bring us through every tribulation that we face as we live in the Last Days before He comes again. It is in the seal that we take our confidence, it in the great cloud of witnesses that we draw our strength, and it is in the shed blood of the Lamb that we find our assurance. God has claimed you, He has sealed you, He has washed you, and He will bring you to His throne!

Our only response to this promise is to join with all the saints in the praises that echo out from every person claimed by Christ in every age, the praises described in our text. “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!”

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