In this last month of The Church’s Year of Grace, we are led to see the last things. Perhaps it’s because the leaves that have turned colors are falling to the ground. Perhaps it’s because the temperature is supposed to be getting cooler and the weather dreary, which in turn means we’re not feeling so chipper anymore, but rather depressed. Perhaps it makes us think about our own mortality. So today The Church points us not to the sorrows of the grave, but to the joys of paradise of the blessed.
St. John was not very popular, not to Rome at least. He was in exile on a small island off the coast of Asia Minor called Patmos. Some stories claim this was because Rome failed to poison him - a snake came out of the cup, they say - , or boil him in oil outside Rome’s Latin Gate. Rome was angry because St. John was preaching Christ. The problem was that faith in Christ didn’t allow Christians to worship Cæsar, or even pretend to worship him. And that upset public order as far as Rome was concerned, and as far as Rome was concerned it was high treason to upset public order. So John, obviously the ringleader of that group, just had to go!
So what did John do? He did what he always did every Sunday. He celebrated the Divine Service. And in conjunction with that celebration one Sunday, Jesus gave him His Revelation. It’s not a scary book for you, dear Christian, but a book of comfort. Here Jesus paints for us these words from St. John’s Gospel: “Fear not, I have overcome the world.” And since He has overcome the world, you shall too.
Historically, our reading from Revelation 7 is The Epistle for the feast and it begins at verse 2, not 9. At first glance, we think it’s tedious to read “12,000 from the tribe of” this or that son of Jacob were sealed over and over. But there are important words before that. The angels say they won’t destroy the world until 144,000 are sealed. Yet that number is not an exact number, as some claim. It’s a symbol, and each tribe is a symbol. Our Lord simply wants to tell us that the world will not end until all the elect, all those who will be saved eternally, are brought to Christ. How are they sealed? With Holy Baptism. There you received God The Holy Ghost, Who keeps you in the true faith through His Word and Sacrament.
It’s only once John has heard about all the faithful being sealed unto salvation that he sees a great multitude that no one can number. That means the innumerable great multitude = the 144,000, so we can’t take that number literally. It also means St. John saw you, dear Christian, and all your loved ones who have departed this life in The Faith and now sleep the sleep of peace.
He sees all The Faithful, but not as we are now. He sees us dressed in white and holding palm branches. Palm branches, we hear on Palm Sunday, are a symbol of victory. White is a symbol of holiness. These robes also remind us of Baptism; after all, we often wear white robes when we’re baptized. Ancient practice was to put them on the child after the baptism; with these words: “Receive the white, holy, and spotless robe which thou shalt bring before the judgment seat of Christ so as to receive eternal life. Peace be with thee” (LW 53:101)
St. John sees us all victorious over the world, receiving our reward of eternity with Christ. How did we get the reward? “Salvation belongs to our God and to The Lamb.” It’s not something we can earn on our own. It’s not something we can buy with what we do. It’s something God must give us. On our own, we are dirty, disgusting sinners, unable to do anything good for God. We are most certainly not the poor in spirit, ever mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking people He desires. We want to be rich and better than others, never mourning our sinful state and always proud and puffed up. We don’t care for righteousness, would rather show no mercy and be indecent in heart, and pick fights. That’s how sinful man is wired.
Yet Christ comes and covers over our sins with His Blood. He clothes us with His righteousness, the righteousness He won for us on The Cross. That Cross is what saves us. What He did for us, and nothing else, saves us. Salvation belongs to Him therefore. He gives it whenever He wishes, and He wishes to give it to those who believe in Him.
So what can we do? Worship Him! Praise Him and what He has done – proclaim it! Give Him thanks for it! Confess that He is far wiser than we are – and stronger too. Give yourself over to Him completely. Let Him reform you into a saint, one saved by Jesus’ Blood, desiring His will, not ours. Follow Him, wherever He leads through great tribulation, to paradise of the blessed. This is what the ancients did, what our fathers and mothers in The Faith did, and they were saved. Nothing has changed these past 2000, 6000 years.
But then St. John tells us what comes next, what comes to the Christian when he or she dies, what will come in completion when Jesus raises us from the dead. The faithful departed, and us in the future, are before God’s throne, always serving Him while He shelters them just by being with them. They’re never hungry or thirsty. They don’t have to worry about sunburn or desert or humid heat or heatstroke. The Lamb is their Shepherd. He guides them to springs of living water. He’s wiped every tear away from their eyes.
You know life is full of that stuff. We get hungry all the time and thirsty. We appreciate the respite Indian Summer gives from autumn chill, yet we can’t wait for the dog days of summer to end. We know full well all the toils of life – health issues, family trouble, job problems, classmates, the list goes on and on. So often we feel like God is nowhere near because things are getting so bad. But the words St. John records for us tells us that on the contrary, God is very much near, and has something so much better in store for us.
This world is full of toils and troubles because of sin. God will give us who believe in Jesus a far better place, a truly perfect and holy place, a place where God is completely revealed and graciously with us in a way we can’t even imagine yet. It will be full of joy and love and peace with God. Everything that has come about because of sin will be gone and forgotten forever. Satan and all his horde will never be able to attack us again. The souls of the faithful departed already experience this.
So look forward to that day, to that day when we shall be forever with The Lord. How do we do that? How do we prepare for it? Be with Him where heaven and earth meet, right here, where God comes to meet you in Word and Sacrament. You’ll be with Him all the time there, so here He’s training us to be with Him. Serve Him in your everyday life as you strive to keep His commands at home, on the job, anywhere and everywhere. But as you do that, never forget this: the most important thing in serving Jesus is that you hear and believe His Word that says to you: “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden: and I will give you rest.”