Readings: Revelation 7:2-17; Matthew 5:1-12
Dear saints of God, blessed are you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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.
All Saints Day, the day we name our dead, those whose faces we will no longer see, whose voices we no longer hear, on this earth. These are people with whom we had agreement and disagreement, shared happiness and sorrow. This also brings to mind all those names of loved ones who died in other places and in earlier years. With thanksgiving we rejoice and remember those who died in the faith, for they are blessed. We rejoice that they have joined the Church triumphant, those who sit at table of the marriage feast of Lamb.
We don’t see the Church triumphant, it is invisible to us. Setting our mind on things above is not our default setting. Being in the world but not of the world is test we perpetually fail. C.S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters notes that one Satan’s temptations is for us to limit what we call the church to that which we see around us now. To the degree that Church triumphant becomes unreal to us, we are weakened in faith and in our perspective today. This unseen reality is confessed as we pray in the Communion liturgy “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” Jesus leads you to recall this unseen reality every day as you pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
John, exiled to the island of Patmos, is given a revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1) and there is those joined with him. This vision is a restful interlude between the horrifying scenes of the first seals being opened (6:1-7) and the even greater destruction that is to follow when the seventh seal is opened and trumpets begin to sound. There is conquest, bloodshed, disease, murder, and martyrs followed by plagues, famine, painful torment, and destruction on earth. Through all the tribulation described in Revelation and throughout Scripture is the drumbeat that fills it all, that drumbeat is death. In the midst of it all are these saints.
Even the listing of the Church Militant, the church yet on earth bears testimony to the Lamb. The 144,000 who are sealed are listed by tribes – in perfect order – ready to march – ready for mission. These 12 tribes of 12,000 picture the Church throughout the entire New Testament period and at any given moment in that period. You are in that throng at this time in human history.
It is important to note that the 12 tribes recorded are a redefined list. This list is not according to birth order nor is it according to the allotment of the Promised Land as are the lists in the Old Testament. Judah (the fourth born) but the tribe from which the Messiah came is listed first. The tribe of Dan and the tribe of Ephraim (both tainted by idolatry and apostasy) are missing while the tribe of Levi and the tribe of Joseph are added. The twelve tribes of the sons of Israel listed in Revelation thus bear testimony to the Lamb and His cleansing blood. They show the Church of Jesus Christ cleansed from all apostasy and idolatry.
They also show the Church sealed and ready for action in this world of turmoil and suffering. This sealing is not conversion, but the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacraments that keeps us in the faith and protects us in godly hope.
The Church Triumphant is invisible to us! But it is not unimportant to us! Indeed, what is seen is temporary and transient and passing away But what is unseen is eternal (II Cor. 4: 16-18).
If we were able to see those who have gone before us, those we name later and those loved ones whose presence we recall from earlier years, what would they be like? In other words, what does heaven feel like, smell like, taste like? Can you imagine it? No, in fact, you cannot imagine the reality of heaven because it far surpasses anything you’ve known in your life! Mostly the Holy Spirit in Scripture describes heaven by stating what isn’t there – that is, the negatives of heaven – no hunger, no thirst, no scorching heat, no tears.
One of the positive things we know about heaven is also clear from our texts. If we were right now able to see those who have gone before us, we would see them all looking in one direction. They are looking at Jesus. They now see Him as He is! No longer do they see through a mirror dimly, but now they see face to face (I Cor. 13:12). The Saints in heaven all look to Jesus. 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. The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water.
That living water comes from our living Lord. All the beatitudes that we hear on this day speak of Him and flow from Him! Therefore all the beatitudes that we hear on this day also speak of those who die in Him. What is the state of those whom you know who have died in the faith? Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They are comforted. They are satisfied. They see God. They are sons of God.
When we look at the beatitudes, we realize they cannot describe any human being born naturally of Adam’s seed. The beatitudes cannot describe a sinful human being. Yet, when the beatitudes are given to whom they belong, to the one born out of the Holy Spirit through the womb of the virgin Mary, then the beatitudes begin to make sense.
The beatitudes belong to Christ. What does this mean? This means two things: first the beatitudes describe who Christ is, secondly they are His to give to whom He desires. First off, the beatitudes describe Christ. Christ was poor in spirit. What does it mean to be poor in spirit. It means to claim no standing before God, especially in terms of righteousness. It means that no matter what, we do not make any claim to have done any work which in any way contributes to our salvation. Christ was poor in spirit because He was the one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself be becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) The kingdom of heaven belongs to Christ.
Who is it who mourns? Christ mourns for Jerusalem and her apostasy from the faith when He says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37) He is the one who mourns. What about the meek? Christ. The merciful? Only one is capable of truly having mercy, Christ. Christ hungered and thirsted for righteousness so greatly, He gave His body to be eaten and His blood to be drunk. Only the pure in heart shall see God, and so St. John testifies of Christ in his Gospel when he writes, “the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14b) Jesus is the one who has seen the Father face to face. Christ is the only peacemaker the world has known, for only in the blood of Christ can peace be made for sins.
Christ gives out the beatitudes as His gifts to His saints. So the beatitudes describe the saints, since they have been born of water and the Spirit. The beatitudes describe you. You have been shown mercy through Christ. You have been comforted, though you mourn for your sins. You have been filled with the body and blood of Christ in order to satisfy your hunger and thirst for righteousness. You have received mercy and have become a son of God.
Though we weep for those we loved who are no longer in our midst, though there were times of suffering, God has already wiped away every tear from their eyes. They have been freed from every form of suffering. No longer for “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.” (Rev. 7:16) These are they who have gone through the tribulation of suffering and death, of existence in this world. And you also have been promised this same comfort from God. You too will be freed from all pain and suffering, to live forever before the Lamb in His kingdom.
Dear saints in Christ Jesus, rejoice and be glad, blessed are you! Blessed are you, for you are poor in spirit, you have nothing and are a beggar, but yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you, for you mourn in repentance, but are comforted knowing that God in Christ has forgiven you. Blessed are you, humble and meek, bringing nothing to the table and receiving the blessings of eternal life. Who like Luther on his deathbed confess, we are all but beggars, this is true. Blessed are you, unrighteous sinners who hunger and thirst and are satisfied with the gifts Christ freely gives you this day, creating in you a clean heart.
Today Christ says to you, dear beggars, you are his saints, his holy ones, “Blessed are the beggars for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… blessed are you… rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven.” You are among the saints, with all the company of heaven, who have been brought out of the great tribulation, whose robe is made white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”