The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
*I RARELY ever use Powerpoint in worship, but due to the material, I made the call to do so, figuring that the visuals will make it easier for the flock to understand.
[Slide 1] Last week was Reformation Sunday, a day that tended to focus on we Christians who still take up residence in the Church Militant; the Church here on earth, where the enemies of the Gospel still prowl around like a lion, seeking to devour and destroy all the Christian soldiers who cling by faith to Christ alone. [Slide 2] Today being All Saints Sunday, it makes perfect sense that we shift our focus to those faithful ones who've died in the faith and who have gone home to heaven to be with Christ. These departed faithful ones—saints in Christ—are now part of the Church Triumphant; the eternal and perfect Church in heaven. This is our hope, our joy, our comfort and peace. This is what we saints on this side of eternity look forward to—eternity with Christ and all the company of heaven, where there are no more tears or sorrows or aches or pains or worries; just heavenly, Christ-centered joy and bliss and perfection and peace. This is what John is speaking of in today's lesson from Revelation.
Now it is worth noting that John is describing for us in verses 9-17, as best he can, his vision of the Church of God in Heaven—the Church Triumphant. [Slide 3] This glorious vision of heaven stands in contrast to his HEARING the number of the faithful ones that make up the Church here on earth—the Church Militant—which John tells us in verses 5-8 consists of 144,000 people of Israel [Slide 4] (12K from the tribe of Judah, 12K from the tribe of Reuben, 12K from the tribe of Gad…12K from all twelve tribes, adding up to that magic number 144,000). *Remember: John only HEARD this number! He didn't actually SEE 144,000 people! This will make more sense as we continue on.
But…before we go any farther, it is worth spending a little time on this subject, because, as you probably already know, much has been made regarding what this magic number "144,000 of Israel" really means. [Slide 5] "Israel," a term used throughout Scripture, especially by St. Paul in Romans, is a term that simply denotes those people of God who trust in God's promise of salvation. In this way, you can begin to understand that we are very much a part of Israel—the "new" Israel that doesn't look to blood lines or family trees for salvation, but instead holds fast to the promise of forgiveness that is found only in Jesus Christ and His all-redeeming death and resurrection.
[Slide 6] The same can be said for the number "144,000." This is simply a figure of speech; a way of describing something for the listener. It doesn't mean that 144,000 Jewish people are marked for salvation apart from all the rest of the people who receive salvation by faith (like what many post-tribulation, rapture-believing Millenialists insist upon), nor does it mean, like the Jehovah's Witnesses believe, that Heaven has a fire capacity of 144,000 people—period. ONLY 144,000 can get into heaven. There's no room for anyone else. Like many numbers used in Scripture, this too is a number used in figurative, instructional terms. *Remember: How does John know that there are 144,000 faithful Christian soldiers on earth? He HEARS this number. Do you know who the true and faithful Christians are among you? Do you know their heart? Do you know if their hypocrites or wolves in sheep's clothing? Do you know that they will remain faithful until death? How do you know they won't fall away? This is why our Lutheran Confessions refer to this earthly Church Militant as the "invisible Church." We can't see who the truly faithful ones are. Only God can. To be sure, there is the "visible Church," which is where the Word is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered, but John isn't referring to the visible Church in these verses. He's referring to the invisible Church here on earth, which is why he can't see, but only hear the number of those who are sealed in faith.
[Slide 7] Okay… if this is so symbolic and figurative, what does it mean? Well…I don't want anyone breaking into a cold sweat, but there is some math involved. The number "10," like the numbers "3" and "7," is a number used throughout Scripture to denote "perfection." We still use this notion today in rating different performances and such; e.g., gymnasts or dancers earn a "perfect 10" on the performance. "1000," for all you math majors out there, is simply 10 x 10 x 10—a "trinity of perfection." [Slide 8] The number "12" is often used throughout Scripture to denote "completeness or wholeness." Examples include Old Testament Israel being composed of twelve tribes, Christ choosing twelve apostles, and the apostles, upon the death of Judas, deeming it absolutely necessary to name another man to the group and restore the band of the apostles to its intended completeness. [Slide 9] If you're doing the math in your head right now, you can deduce that 12 x 1000 equals 12,000, just as chapter 7 notes in verses 5-8. Each individual group or tribe can be thought of as complete, whole, and sealed by God with His insignia of life and salvation.
[Slide 10] If there are 12 tribes of faithful ones, then simple math gives you the number 144,000 (12 x 12,000). These 144,000 people of God represent the Church Militant on earth; ALL those who are sealed by God in His divine protection as they march through life in the midst of great tribulation and spiritual warfare. These 144,000 people are the "Christian Soldiers" here on earth, faithfully doing battle with the forces of sin, death, and the devil in the name of Christ Jesus. This is a symbolically complete and whole military unit for God; staffed by God, sustained by God, and, most importantly, lead by God. Do people die in war? Yes, they do. Nobody ever said that the Church Militant won't suffer casualties. However, our comfort this day, and every day, as saints here on earth is the comfort that comes with knowing that God is always protecting, guiding, and leading His Church on earth. No matter what assails the Church militant; no matter what losses we suffer here on earth, God is always protecting us and preserving us, which is why we can rightly understand that God is always replenishing the ranks of the Church Militant, maintaining her completeness and wholeness in order to accomplish His good and gracious Will. *Remember: How does John know of the 144K saints on earth? He HEARS the number. He doesn't see it.
[Slide 11] Contrast this imagery of the Church on earth with what John SAW when he looked into Heaven; namely, the Church Triumphant. He tells us that he saw a multitude of people so great that no one could ever number them. These were people from every tribe, nation, and language that ever existed on this earth and who believed and trusted in Christ alone for salvation. Where did they come from? [Slide 12] John tells us specifically that these people, each and every one of them, were coming out of the great tribulation (Church Militant warfare) and were now clad in white robes and were waving palm branches as they sang a loud and thunderous hymn of praise to God the Father and Christ the Lamb of God.
Dear friends in Christ: This "all saints" reality is true comfort in every sense of the word. Our loved ones who have departed this world in faith are now completely clad in Christ's white robes of righteousness. They are completely and perfectly covered over in baptismal robes that have been washed and made perfect in the all-atoning blood of Jesus. And this isn't just their reality. This is how God sees us right now. He doesn't see our works, our frailties, or our blemishes and sins. All our Heavenly Father sees is one whom His Son has completely clothed and covered in the victories He won for all of humanity on His lowly cross. [Slide 13] Unlike the saints of the Church Militant, the battle is over for the saints of the Church Triumphant. The Holy weaponry of Word, Sacrament, and faith that is ours in life is now put down at death and the palm branches of victory, used by people throughout the ages to welcome and praise the victorious king, are taken up in Heaven as the faith and hope in things not seen on earth is now fully realized and recognized in Heaven as the true Word and Sacrament of God sits enthroned before the whole company of Heaven in His risen and victorious flesh and blood.
My friends in Christ, the joy of beholding Christ is also ours today as saints here on earth. He does come to us in His Word and in His Sacraments, though this reality is only recognized in faith. The fullness of this reality will not be realized by us until we, too, pass through the gate of death into our Heavenly home for eternal rest and communion with our Lord and Savior. However, that doesn't mean that we are cut-off and separated from the Church Triumphant, as if there are two separate Churches. That doesn't mean that we have a separate communion with our Lord and Savior. [Slide 14] Remember: We boldly confess faith in ONE, HOLY, CHRISTIAN, and APOSTOLIC CHURCH. In fact, the traditional chancel areas and communion rails have always conveyed this reality. These areas, whether they're octagon or circular or rectangle in shape, have always been constructed as a "half unit." *Note: The glory of the Lord coming from the east, as prophesied and proclaimed by Ezekiel. [Slide 15] What I mean by this is that our chancel areas and communion rails have traditionally been constructed as HALF of an octagon, circle, or square [rectangle]. This is God's table where He feeds and nourishes His saints; this half on earth, and the other half in heaven. ("8" is very baptismal and resurrection-minded; Christ rising on the eighth day, the New Adam giving us new life.)
My friends: This is one reason I take Holy Communion so seriously. You are approaching God's table! This is not merely bellying up to the bar to punch the clock, or put on a good show, or to make Nana happy (and keep her quiet). In this holy meal, God is taking you out of time and into eternity. Here is where heaven is meeting earth; eternity meeting temporality. You are being fed and nourished with the eternal and victorious lamb of God—Jesus Christ—the same Jesus Christ your faithfully departed loved ones are being nourished with at the very same moment in full glory and heavenly reality. We don't fully recognize this glory here on earth—not yet—which is why our liturgy has often referred to this as a "foretaste of the feast to come."
It is especially because of this Divine present-tense reality that I make it a point to encourage grieving loved ones to come to church on the Sundays following the funeral service. I know they want to stay away. I know that many people struggle with being in church after the funeral for a loved one because all they can see in their mind's eye is the casket. All they are reminded of is the hurt and pain of their loss. However, this is where Christ is reaching out to you to comfort you and heal your pain and suffering. This is where our Lord is nourishing you back to health. This is the one place you can, through faith, be truly united with your departed loved one as you both come together and commune with your loving and gracious Lord and Savior; they in heaven on that side of Christ's feast table, and you on earth on this side of Christ's feast table —both simultaneously reclined at God's feast table and being fed by Him. "Angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven…." We sing this at communion. We sing these words of praise (the Agnus Dei—Lamb of God) with the angels, archangels, and all our departed loved ones—the whole company of heavenly saints. This [Word and Sacrament] is the Communion of Saints—ALL saints; all "holy ones" in Christ—Saints of the Church Triumphant, and saints of the Church Militant—One, holy, Christian and apostolic Church…the communion of saints.
This [Immanuel—God with us; Holy Communion] is the greatest comfort and peace one could ever possibly know or share; far better than anything we could ever possibly mutter at a funeral out of awkwardness or out of our own selfish grief of no longer having our departed loved one here in this spiritual "war zone" with us. There is no better joy or peace than the blessed knowledge that we are eternally saved by God's grace alone, as a free gift; a gift which we apprehend through faith alone in the all-atoning and all-redeeming work of Jesus Christ alone. Jesus Christ sums it up best in our Gospel lesson today when He speaks about the life which is lived out in faith in this promise of God; the life we lead today as saints of the Church Militant, and the lives we give thanks to God for today for all those who have gone before us in the faith and who now rest as saints of the Church Triumphant: "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven…."
[Slide 16] May Almighty God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you and keep you in this joy and gladness and peace until that blessed day when He calls you home to your heavenly reward. In His name and to His glory… AMEN
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
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