All Saints Day Sermon 2001

Revelation 7:2-17

“Receive the sign of the holy cross, both upon your forehead and upon your breast, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified.”  So says the pastor as he holds the baby in his arms, just before he pours water on his head, calls him by name, and says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The sign of the holy cross is no empty gesture!  It causes the powers of evil to quake and shudder. It drives the devil right back into hell where he belongs.  The crucifixion of Jesus is the decisive event of all human history.  When God joins the crucifixion of his dear Son to us, when he marks us as his own, when he puts his divine seal upon us, he guarantees us eternal life.  And so we sing in celebration of the fact that we are baptized into Christ.

Simple water poured on the head or covering the whole body means nothing more than a bath.  But when that water is joined to the command and promise of Jesus it becomes a cleansing that gives everlasting life.  This washing seals the church here below.  It protects the church from every evil.  It guards and protects every single individual Christian.  The church is symbolized in the Revelation of St. John as 144,000 people from the 12 tribes of Israel.  They are all sealed.  They are all baptized.  There is no doubt that this 144,000 is a symbolic number referring to all the Christians living in the world.  The list of the tribes of Israel given here in our text is unlike any other list in the entire Bible.  It begins with Judah because Jesus is the head of the church and Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah.  It leaves out the tribe of Dan because of the idolatry that that tribe fell into.  As we know, the church of Christ is separated from all idolatry and the baptized renounce it when they are sealed.  This vast gathering of 144,000 who are sealed here below correspond to the “great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues,” gathered around the throne in heaven.  Indeed, it is the same people.  Here on earth they are pictured as the 144,000 who have the sign of the cross on their foreheads.  In heaven they are pictured as those wearing white robes that they washed in the blood of the Lamb.  The washing that sealed them here on earth from the power of the evil one is the same washing that brings them to heaven spotlessly arrayed in the white garments of perfect purity and innocence.

Others pretend to be innocent and they love to use the color white to promote their pretense.  For example, the Freemasons, who teach that a man is saved by his good religious character, in their Masonic ritual wear a lamb’s apron that is pure white.  According to their teaching, that white apron “symbolizes that purity of heart and rectitude of conduct so essentially necessary in gaining admission to the celestial lodge above where the Supreme Architect of the universe presides.”  The white apron is a symbol of the Mason’s pure heart, and so he relies on the purity of his heart to gain admission to heaven.

Not so, for the Christian.  The Christian has washed his robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  The innocence and purity of the Christian doesn’t come from the Christian.  It comes from Jesus.  And this is why baptism seals us, washes us, and cleanses us, preparing us for heaven.  Baptism is the blood of Christ joined to the water.  This is why Jesus was identified as the Son of God when he was being baptized.  This is why St. John the Baptist was the first man to identify Jesus as the Lamb of God.  Baptism is incomprehensible if you disconnect it from Christ’s crucifixion.  This is why St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”  Jesus himself said, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.”  How can baptism save us?  By joining us to the crucifixion of the Son of God!

And that joining involves pain.  So when we invite folks on this Mission Sunday or any other day to join us here at River Heights Lutheran Church we are inviting them to share in pain.  In a sense they will understand that pain is good for you.  After all, every athlete knows that only those who are willing to embrace the pain of working out will reap the benefit of winning the prize.  So nobody should be surprised to learn that becoming a Christian will require pain and suffering.  But there is another sense in which those who don’t yet know Christ cannot understand the pain involved in living the life of a Christian.  They will assume falsely that the pain we endure is what gains for us the benefits of the Christian life.  That’s not so.  The pain that Jesus endured is what gains for us the benefits of the Christian life.

Consider the benefits or blessings of being a Christian.  Just look at the beatitudes that St. Matthew records for us in today’s Gospel reading.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Is this a description of the church of Christ here on earth?  Yes, it is.  But more than that, this is a description of Jesus Christ himself, is it not?  Who was so pure in spirit that he was willing to toss aside his rightful claim to the riches of heaven to become poor for our sakes?  Jesus.  Who mourned in deepest sorrow and commiseration for the sinners whose sins he came into this world to bear?  Jesus.  Who meekly bowed his head before those that tormented him and mocked him and crucified him?  Jesus.  Who hungered and thirsted to make us righteous to deeply and so completely that he submitted to every rule and law and obligation we faced and did so without complaint?  Jesus.  Who was so filled with mercy that he cried out to heaven that those murdering him should be forgiven?  Jesus.  Who was so pure in heart that he was incapable of any sinful thought?  Jesus.  Who made peace between God and this sinful world by becoming the sacrifice to bear God’s wrath against all sinners?  Jesus.  Who willingly bore persecution for doing what was right?  Jesus.  Now who is it, then, who has procured for us the benefits of being a Christian?  Whose poverty, sorrow, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity, and peaceful intentions have been given to us?  Whose name do we bear?  Whose sign is on our minds and hearts?  Whose death for us has made us holy?  Jesus’!

Good things don’t just happen.  Blood, sweat, and tears make for success.  Denying this won’t change anything.  Any religion that denies this isn’t much of a religion, either.  People know by experience that you cannot have the good without the bad.  The Christian faith doesn’t teach the contrary.  In fact, the Bible makes it crystal clear that the road to glory is going to be marked by pain.  Jesus says in Matthew 24:9, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.”  He says in John 16:33, “In the world you will have tribulation.”  Likewise, the apostles teach us in Acts 14:22, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”  But we know that it is not the tribulation we go through that wins for us the glory.  It was the tribulation Jesus endured for us that wins for us the glory of heaven.

Nevertheless, the church and every member of her does indeed go through suffering or affliction or tribulation in this world.  As our text makes clear in describing the saints in heaven: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation.”  The popular notion promoted by such popular books and films as the “Left Behind” series is that the Christians will be raptured out of this world before the so-called “great tribulation” begins.  That’s not so.  The church on earth must go through tribulation or suffering.  Jesus said, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) 

Where are we going?  We are going where Jesus went.  With palms the adoring crowd welcomed Jesus into the Holy City of Jerusalem which would reject Jesus and send him to die on the cross.  We, too, are going to be rejected.  With palms the saints in heaven stand before the Lamb of God and adore him.  They serve him; that is, they worship him day and night in his temple. There in heaven the worship is without any memory of sin.  There in heaven the worship is not tainted by any hunger for anything else.  There in heaven our eternal service to God brings us eternal joy.  There is no sorrow.  Every tear is wiped away and every cause for sorrow is forever forgotten.

But we’re not in heaven yet.  Two things still mar the joy of being a Christian.  Two things still exist that cause us to suffer.  I am talking about the sin out there and the sin in here.  The sin out there is the sin that others do that hurts us.  The sin in here is the sin we do that hurts us.  The sin out there often takes the form of persecution.  People like to put down Christians.  They tell lies about you because you confess Jesus.  They make life difficult for you because you confess Christ’s truth.  You take a stand on the pure teaching of God’s word and they call you a bigot.  You refuse to join in false worship or false witness and they accuse you of being arrogant or holier than thou.  You insist on placing the pure gospel – learning it, confessing it, and teaching it to your children – above any other loyalty, and they condemn you for it.  That’s tribulation.  And it will get far, far worse than it has been.  Count on it.

But that’s not as bad as the sin in here.  The sin inside is the source of all our doubts about God and his word.  It leads us to deny what God teaches us and to think that our baptism is just a silly gesture and the cross of Jesus just a symbol.  The sin inside is unbelief.  It tells us that there is no heaven, there is no victory, there is nothing ahead but what we earn while we are living.  It tells us to put our trust in this world that is heading for destruction.  Should we do that, we will surely be destroyed with this world and condemned forever.  That is a frightening thought!

But that will not happen because we are sealed.  The same power that brought us to the faith is the power that will keep us in the faith and that is the power of the Holy Spirit who came into our hearts and made his home with us when we were baptized.  He is the Lord and giver of life who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  He lives within us and gives us courage to confess the true faith to those who ask us why we believe as we do.  He is the One who seals us.  He is the One who is with the preachers and teachers and ordinary Christians all over this world that bear witness to the truth that sets sinners free.  He is the One who gives us courage when we doubt.  He is the One who gives us comfort when we are sad as we remember Christian loved ones who are not with us anymore.  He gave the Revelation to St. John and he reveals Christ to our hearts today.  He is the Spirit of truth who will keep proclaiming and defending the truth until the Church militant becomes the Church triumphant and the vision of heaven becomes blessed reality.


Rolf D. Preus

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