Dear Church in this place,
“Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” (Revelation 1:4-5).
All Saints Day is one of the favourite festivals of the Church Year. We are blessed that this year it falls on a Sunday and there is no question about marking it in our schedule of services. When it doesn’t fall on a Sunday we are faced with the question of whether we should observe it on the first Sunday in November anyway, and displace one of the unique days marking the last Sundays of the Church Year. For although All Saints Day is one of our favourites, we don’t seem willing to come to church an extra time in the week in order to mark it on its own day, if it fall on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday through to Saturday.
All Saints Day also has some particular traditions that we like to follow. The appointed Hymn of the Day is “For All the Saints,” but we also want to include “Behold a Host Arrayed in White.” In some parishes the names of the members who have died in the past year are read aloud, perhaps in connection with the Prayer of the Church, or accompanied by the tolling of a bell, or printing their pictures and obituaries in the church bulletin or up on the video screen. There is no doubt we all have our own ideas of when and how we would like All Saints Day to be observed.
People often also have their own ideas of what the departed saints are up to now. It is quite common for people to say that their departed loved ones have become angels, especially when children die. Given the fact that God’s angels are sent to fight demons and protect us in spiritual warfare, I’m not sure that we should wish that on anyone, especially not children.
I have heard many people talk about their parents or grandparents watching over them, and I’m not sure how blessed a rest they could possibly have or how that could give them uninterrupted happiness for their eternal existence. You have probably also heard it said that departed loved ones are here with us. There might even be an empty place reserved at the supper table or a belief that some kind of ghostly afterglow remains in the house, imparting the smell of mom’s perfume or grandpa’s pipe tobacco.
There are many things that we want to believe about the state of our departed loved ones because we love them. We want to believe that they are still connected with us, that we have some kind of ongoing interaction with them. We want to believe that they are doing the things that they loved to do in this life, like fishing or playing cards with friends. We want to believe that our imagination can determine what their eternal existence will be. But that ends up giving them no eternal existence at all, because if their eternal life is founded on our imagination and dreams, it dies out with our passing.
There are religions that believe that the spirits of the dead dissolve into the cosmic soup of the universe and that their bodies decay to become part of the trees and plants that grow off of the nutrients that dissolve into the soil. But those religions are not the Christian religion. And many of our own ideas and imaginings are not the Christian religion either, but speculations that arise from a place of great loss and heartache as we try to fill the void with something other than what God has given to fill it. We believe that we can solve the pain of grief better than the one who rose from the dead Himself, the one who gave Lazarus back to his sisters (John 11), who gave the young man at Nain back to his mother (Luke 7), and the twelve year old girl back to Jairus and his family (Luke 8).
God revealed to John exactly what has happened to our loved ones who have died in the faith and it is more blessed and glorious that anything that we could either ask or imagine. “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, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).
There are more people enjoying the blessedness of eternal life than anyone could ever count. The LORD has kept His promise to Abraham that his offspring would be like the number of the stars in the sky (Genesis 15) and the sand on the seashore (Genesis 22). Our departed loved ones are not wandering around alone, they are not isolated or dependent upon us for companionship. They are at the largest celebratory gathering that will ever exist.
John sees people there from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. There are no minorities, no racial divide. There are people there from Ghana and Italy and England and Germany and Afghanistan and India and Korea and Canada. No one is classified as indigenous or immigrant or refugee. They all belong and they all belong together.
Yet, they are recognizably distinct. John sees their differing appearance, their differing characteristics, and he hears their differing languages. So your departed loved ones do not get lost in the crowd. They maintain their distinctive identity and are recognizable. John saw their faces. He heard their voices. And best of all, the One who does know how many are there, the God who has recorded each of their names in His Book of Life (Revelation 3:5), also knows them all individually.
Not only does He see their face and hear their voice praising Him, but they see His face and they hear His voice. They are not mere memory. They are not only what I remember them to be, fading more and more each day. They have become more themselves than they ever were, for they are in the presence of the One who gave them life, called to them to faith, redeemed them from death, and gathered them to Himself. And now all that the curse of sin had done to them in body, mind, and soul is perfectly healed.
They are doing what is most important to them. They are praising their loving God for saving them. Having passed through death, the sentence imposed for their sins, and living in the presence of the One who rescued them, they can’t stop talking about what He has done for them and thanking Him with all of their being.
They have come to the deepest realization that they did nothing to deserve the perfect life they now have and that there is nothing they could have done to undo the hurtful sins they committed against themselves, against others, and each and every one of them against God. Yet they are standing alive before the God whom they offended and looking into the face of His love. “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Revelation 7:10).
They are not angels playing harps, they are not a stoic, robotic choir forced to stand stiffly erect as they follow the downbeat of an archangel’s staff. They voice their praise together and yet with their own personal idiosyncrasies. This great multitude where no one is the same as any other, blends together in the purest form of adoration, praising and acknowledging God to be the Lord.
Whereas, in this life, we have learned from the angels to sing according to their “Gloria in Excelsis” sounded forth to the shepherds (Luke 2:14), gathered around the throne it is not the angels who are leading the hymn. But when they hear the people praise God for how He has saved them, the angels respond. They don’t know what it is like to experience salvation from sin, death, and the devil, but they find it wonderful. And before the throne of God they listen to the songs of the redeemed, and in response, they fall on their faces and give their hearty “Amen!” (Revelation 7:12).
The faithful departed are not angels who can only respond as witnesses to this great act of salvation. Our kindred in the faith are those who have experienced this salvation for themselves. They are the recipients of God’s greatest gift. They are the ones for whom God sent His Son, for whom the holy, precious blood of Jesus was shed, who have themselves passed through the sting of death to the blessedness of eternal life. Angels long to look into these things, but they will never experience this elation themselves.
It was such a glorious revelation given to John that it could hardly be comprehended. And those present wanted to make sure that John understood exactly what he was seeing, for it seems beyond belief. John was the last living of the apostles of Jesus. They had all died, being executed in gruesome fashion as the wicked world vented its hatred toward Christ and His Church. John’s own brother, James, had been killed by Herod with the sword (Acts 12). I’m sure that the deaths of the other apostles and Mary and the other followers of Jesus, men and women, were a deep source of loss for John. I’m sure also that in his extreme old age, while the Christian Church was suffering persecution, he was daily anticipating what was in store for him. All that had been revealed to him was more than he ever could have imagined, and so it is all underscored with the question: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (Revelation 7:13).
“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 ones coming out of death. Whatever tribulation they faced, it was the great one that brought death to them—car accident, illness, aging, drowning. War, famine, pestilence, disease, wild beasts—they all bring death, but God brings His own out of it all. Whatever tribulation might bring about a person’s death, those who have washed their robes in the blood of Jesus are brought out of it to live victorious forever.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who gave Himself for the sins of the world. All those whose sins are forgiven in Jesus have this victory over sin, death, and the devil. Their sins are forgiven for the sake of the one who died and rose again for them. Death cannot hold them because their sin is gone. The devil cannot torment them because they have nothing more to fear as they stand in the presence of their almighty, merciful, heavenly Father.
They washed their robes as they were baptized and lived their days in the grace that God poured upon them in Baptism. We often bring babies to baptism in white robes to make the connection that the righteousness of Jesus that covers them in Baptism is the victory over death that was revealed to John. They washed in the blood of the Lamb as they received the blood of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. The cup that is the new testament in His blood shed for the forgiveness of sins, gives exactly that—forgiveness, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation to all who believe (Small Catechism. VI).
Washing in the blood of Jesus is simply believing that God has poured out His grace upon you in Christ Jesus, poured it out through the Gospel message of His Word, the promises of what the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus has accomplished for you. As was the emphasis for the celebration of the Reformation last Sunday, this is all strictly by God’s grace given to you through faith in Christ Jesus. You are covered in His righteousness, wrapped in a robe whitened by His blood. This is the salvation given to all saints, all holy people, all who are made holy by Jesus, not by their own works.
We celebrate All Saints Day to remind us that all saints are worth remembering because their heavenly Father remembered them and sent His Son to save them and gave the Holy Spirit to each one of them to impart the saving grace that comes with faith. These faithful people, the saints we would normally remember on particular days of the calendar, and the saints that we don’t take the time to consider, the saints that are more near and dear to us by family relation and close friendship—all saints—are celebrated because of the salvation that God has imparted to them out of His love.
It was that love toward them which spilled over in their lives and touched us. It may be the love of John the Baptist who gave his head for trying to bring Herod to repentance (Mark 6). It may be the love of Mary Magdalene who was the first to go to the tomb out of love for her crucified Lord (John 20). It may be the love of father or mother, the love of spouse or child, brother or sister or your best friend. But it is really all the love of Jesus, for it was His compassion and mercy and sacrifice and grace that touched their lives in so deep a way that they had love for you, too, in a particular unique and special way.
God’s love for all His saints, known and unknown, results in an amazing salvation to eternal life that we could neither ask or imagine. It begins with the gathering in heaven before the throne until the Last Day when Jesus comes again. And then it gives way to the happy reunion with those of us who are still in this life, the glorious resurrection of their bodies, and life in the new creation free from the curse of sin.
As the redemption He has provided for us in Christ Jesus far exceeds any possibility of us deserving such grace, so does the life He has prepared for those who love Him far exceed anything that we could wish for them. “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” (Revelation 7:15-17).
And this life is yours, too. For there is forgiveness and grace for you in the blood of the Lamb. Jesus died upon the cross for your sins, to give you an eternity that is far better than you could hope. He forgives you for wanting something different for your departed loved ones, which is really wanting something different for yourself. He forgives you for doubting His love and care for them and for you. He forgives you for thinking that there might be something better than what He has provided for them and for you.
As you wash your robes in the blood of the Lamb, hearing this Gospel, living in your Baptism, receiving His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, you become one of those clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. You become more intimately united to those who have passed through death to life than any kind of memory or apparition may give to you.
When John saw that crowd beyond number “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,” he saw our departed loved ones who died in the faith. He saw his brother James, and Mary, and he saw your loved ones. He saw you, too. He saw all those who are coming out of the great tribulation. He saw us together in heavenly bliss and glory unmatched by any dream or memory. He saw all saints united in Christ Jesus.
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).