“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this All Saints’ Day comes from the first lesson read a few moments ago from the seventh chapter of Revelation. Dear friends in Christ: In chapter thirteen of Genesis, God gives to the patriarch Abraham a great promise. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them… So shall your offspring be.” In chapter twenty-eight of that same book, God says to Abraham’s grandson Jacob, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” God promised these two men an abundance of offspring, a multitude that would be difficult, if not impossible, to count. In our reading for today from the book of Revelation, the apostle John saw the fulfillment of that great promise, a promise that spans the entire Bible: “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.”
The elder who is showing John around this great vision asks the obvious question: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” Can you really blame John for deferring to his angelic tour guide? “I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’” The answer of the elder is striking and beautiful. “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.” These are the saints, all the saints who from their labors rest, they are the unnumbered multitude of spiritual children promised to the patriarchs of old. These are those who have gone through great tribulation. They have faced the evil and sin of this corrupt world and they overcame- not by themselves, but because of the gracious deliverance of the God of Abraham and Jacob. Many of them shed their blood for the sake of Jesus Christ, dying horrible deaths because they refused to forsake Him. In giving up their lives they followed the pattern of Jesus, the Lamb who shed His blood to atone for our sin, who shed His blood to make us clean. These are all the saints, they are you and I, all those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, those who bear the white robes of purity before God forever.
What do saints do? They worship. More specifically, they worship the One who brought them salvation, the Triune God. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Both the Father and the Lamb, Jesus Christ, are given heavenly worship because they are together with the Holy Spirit the one God of heaven and earth, but they are especially worshipped because they have brought salvation through the death and resurrection of the Son of God. They are worshipped without ceasing, they are worshipped with great joy, they are worshipped in the great heavenly throne room, the Divine Service of the Lamb in His Kingdom. Their white robes show the cleansing of the blood of Jesus Christ, which has wiped away their sin, and the palm branches are a sign of victory, the victory of the Lamb over sin, death, and Satan. It is because of His victory that they stand there, that they have no part of the condemnation of hell, that they have been delivered from the great tribulation, and for that they give Him joyous worship. “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Why do they worship? They worship because “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence.” They worship because God has protected them, He has brought them through the great tribulation by the blood of the Lamb, and now He protects them from all evil for eternity. “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.” The fires of judgment over sin will not touch the saints, for God’s wrath was poured out on the Lamb, and therefore will not be unleashed against them. They are protected by the shelter of the Lord for all eternity. “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.”
That is the picture of heavenly worship, that is the picture of your destination and your future in the presence of the Lamb who shed His blood for you. But what about earthly worship, what about today? Like the elder in our text, this morning we ask, “Who are these, sitting before this pulpit, and from where have they come?” You are those in the midst of the great tribulation, living in a world full of sin. You are those who see the effects of this sin each and every day, in your own life and that of others. You live in the midst of the great tribulation well aware of your own sin, and your need for a Savior from that sin. You are among those who bear the name of Christ, and therefore may be called upon to shed your blood for His sake, following the pattern that He set like the saints of old and your brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world. You wear ordinary clothes, yet those clothes say nothing at all about your status before God. For you are indeed those who have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, those cleansed by Baptism, which incorporated you into Christ’s death and resurrection. In Him you died to sin, and in Him you were raised up as His child. Even though you cannot see it with your own eyes, you truly are one of God’s saints, one of those purchased with His blood.
What do saints do? They worship. We offer praise to the Triune God for His great deliverance, we worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one God who acted to deliver us. We give praise to the Triune God as we sing the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of power and might: Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” We worship the Son as the Lamb who was slain for our sin by singing the Agnus Dei just before we receive His Body and Blood: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” On Sunday morning we are doing what the saints are doing in heaven, our worship mirrors their worship in every way, with one exception: our earthly worship is faltering, it is often weak, it can even be nonexistent. We need God’s gifts so desperately, for we are dwelling in the midst of the great tribulation and we ourselves are sinful, but sometimes we cannot even bring ourselves to where those great gifts are offered. When we do come, we can often go through the motions, following the words on the page, but forgetting the significance of those words. We are here in body, but perhaps not in mind or spirit. The saints in heaven worship God with great joy and enthusiasm, remembering His great deeds of salvation, while the saints on earth worship Him too often thinking only about lunch or the NFL. The Divine Service is a weekly proclamation of what Jesus Christ has done for us in the midst of this great tribulation, but it can become simply something we do to check off our list. Why is this? Our worship can become faltering because Satan, the world, and our sinful nature know that we need it. If they can cut us off from contact with God’s great gifts, then they can much more easily entice us away from our loving God.
Satan can roar and accuse, he can attempt to entice us away from the gifts of God. The world can encourage us to find something better to do with our time on Sunday morning. Our sinful nature can distract us from focusing on the Lamb as we worship. But that unholy trinity has no answer for the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The Lamb shed His blood to forgive your sins of faltering and weak worship. He redeems you, He forgives you, He loves you not because He has decided to ignore your sins, but because He paid for them. We come here to receive the forgiveness of Christ even for our failing to worship Him properly, we come here unable to please God on our own, but instead depending on another, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All the saints that went before us were also sinners, and so they all needed the forgiveness of Christ. They have passed through the great tribulation while we still remain in it, but we are linked together as those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. That is one of the reasons why in many churches the communion rail is a half circle. As we gather here on earth receiving the forgiveness of Jesus Christ in His Body and Blood, we can imagine the other half of the rail populated with those who have gone before us. Their worship is our worship; heaven joins earth wherever Christians gather to receive God’s gifts and give Him thanks and praise. When we come here to this place, we stand at the border between earth and heaven, and we join all the saints in the great praise they give to God: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Death takes us over that border, it brings us from earthly worship to heavenly worship. It is the last enemy, but it has already been triumphed over by the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, and therefore is simply the gate to heavenly glory. On the day that the Lord brings us to be with Himself and all the saints in eternity, we will look toward the throne of God and see “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages.” The words of the elder to Saint John at the end of our text will then describe you and me as well: “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. 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 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.” In the name of the Lamb who was slain, Amen.