In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help? From You alone, O Lord, who by our sins are justly angered. Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.
So say the first words of an ancient hymn. For most of history death has been an ever-present reminder of the frailty of life. As we reviewed the life of Martin Luther in this 500th year of the Reformation, we remember the he was baptized the day after his birth. Disease and harsh living conditions meant that many babies would not see their first birthday. Even if you lived long enough to marry and raise a family, the odds were pretty good that you would not see your 50th birthday. Everyone was very familiar with death.
Some things have changed, and some remain the same. Vaccines, anti-biotics, and modern conveniences have added years to our lives. Most parents expect their children to live long, healthy lives. They expect to see their grandchildren and even great grandchildren. Never the less, death remains the same. It may come later, but it still comes.
Despite all the wonders of modern medicine, there still comes a time in life when our prayer becomes, "Lord, if You are going to take my beloved anyway, please make it soon and shorten this suffering." People don't need a lot of law in their sermons when they are at that stage of life. The wages of sin torture them daily. There is a small pile of pills by their plate at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is another set of pills before bed at night. Every one of those pills reminds them that sin is active in their lives. Every twinge, every pain, every trip to the emergency room, every surgery reminds them of the sin that attacks all people in this world. The faithful often pray, "Lord, I am so tired here. Please take me home to my eternal rest."
Eventually, the ultimate expression of sin separates us from these people. They die. God speaking through His servant Paul says, "The wages of sin is death." (Romans 6:23) Sooner or later each and every one of us must collect this wage. Sooner or later each and every one of us must leave this world behind. We all will give the ultimate witness to the sin in our lives. All of us will die.
The wonderful thing about a Christian funeral is that death is not the last witness. The church speaks through her pastor and witnesses to the life that is beyond death. As Paul writes in the fourth chapter of his first letter to the Thessalonians: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13) The grief of Christians is different. We grieve over the parting, but we know that our loved one is finally home. We know this because we have a savior who has gone through death and conquered it.
The first reading for this day symbolically describes the life that our loved ones lead when they die in Christ. 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, 10and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!" (Revelation 7:9-10) Those who died in the Lord are now at rest awaiting the Last Day when God will raise all the dead.
But God did not give John this vision just to give him a tour of heaven. God wants us to know how this great multitude got there. Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" 14I 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." (Revelation 7:13-14) Here John points us to "The Lamb."
"The Lamb" is a common theme throughout the book of Revelation. The introduction of "The Lamb" follows the common pattern of hearing and then seeing that fills the book of Revelation. John takes us into the very throne room of heaven. I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?" 3And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, 4and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. 5And one of the elders said to me, "Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals." (Revelation 5:2-5)
Aha! Here we go! The Lion of the Tribe of Judah … this should be pretty impressive. Now we'll see some real power. Now we'll see things get down to business. Boy, I can't wait to see the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Then John has a glimpse of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
6And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain. (Revelation 5:6) Can you think of a greater contrast than the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and a slain sacrificial lamb? The lion carries the nickname of the king of beasts. On the other hand, even a living lamb isn't much good in a fight much less a lamb that has already been sacrificed. Never the less, The Lamb is our champion. Here John the Baptist and John the Evangelist agree, for when [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, [he] said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
Therefore, the proclamation of Revelation is the same as the rest of the Bible. It proclaims repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ. In overwhelming imagery, it shows the power of sin, death, and the devil. It shows that we are helpless to defend ourselves in the face of evil. It shows that without a champion we would be lost forever and doomed to endless suffering in hell.
At the same time, it shows us that we have a champion … Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It is precisely because He offered Himself up as a sacrificial lamb that He defeated our enemy, saved us from sin, and gives us the promise of life everlasting. It is as John says in his epistle, "The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)
So in the part of John's vision that we heard today, the multitude has come out of the great tribulation. That is, they have come out of the tribulation of this sin-filled world. Ordinarily such people would have robes that were filthy with sin. For the Lord spoke through Isaiah and said, "All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment." (Isaiah 64:6) Never the less, the multitudes are in white robes … pure and clean … without sin. That is because they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14) That is, the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son shed on the cross has washed all their sin away. Their sin is gone. It is no more.
So we see that all the amazing imagery and symbolism of Revelation still points to Jesus Christ crucified on the cross and risen from the dead. It proclaims that the blood Jesus shed on the cross washes away all our sin and credits the holy life of Jesus to our account. Jesus has taken away our sin and covered us with His righteousness.
Wednesday was the Feast of All Saints. Therefore, today we remember our loved ones who have died in the Lord. According to the first reading today, they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. They are no longer here with us in the great tribulation of this sin filled world. They wait with the Lord. They wait for the day when the Lord returns and makes all things new … the day when the Lord raises them in both body and soul. If the Lord tarries, we shall join them and wait at the Lord's side. If the Lord returns soon, we shall not join them in death, but put on immortality even as our loved ones rise from the dead. Then we shall gather together on the new earth and live with them forever in the presence of the Lord. Amen
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