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Sunday, November 2, 2014

“A Church United”

Revelation 7:2-17, All Saints Day
Focus: The vision of the Church Militant and Church Triumphant presented in this text is one of the most beautiful and comforting in all of Scripture.  It gives hope and inspires perseverance for the saints who are going through the great tribulation and are tempted to be disheartened.  While Revelation is rightly called a book of judgment, this scene shows that Revelation was written for the encouragement of the saints and to ease troubled minds. Function: That the listeners are inspired by the words of John to live confidently amidst the great tribulation. Structure: Verse-by-Verse

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
The book of Revelation has not only captured the imagination of Hollywood, but has captivated the minds and imaginations of the church throughout history.  Much has been debated over the centuries as theologians have explored the mysteries of John’s letter.  Questions concerning the millennial reign of Christ and the great tribulation have plagued the church since its birth, and more recently the development of rapture theology in the 1700’s has complicated things further.
Problems occur when we look at Revelation as the starting point for our theology, and use the prophecy to decipher the people and events in our world.  Using Revelation as a guide to interpret history is not only misguided, it’s a bad idea and misses the point of the book completely.  Revelation was never meant to be the basis for doctrine, instead it was written to encourage the saints and give them comfort.  It is the story of salvation in condensed form, played out poetically in the symbolism of John’s vision.  To understand Revelation, you must keep in mind the testimony of the rest of Scripture.
When you read John’s words, you begin to see a pattern emerge: Seven Seals; Seven Trumpets; Seven Bowls, all bearing God’s wrath.  Each repetition is a retelling of the story through different lenses.  The tellings are not a fixed time, but are representative of the conditions, circumstances, and contexts that all humans have faced throughout history.  Through these visions, John is witnessing the human experience from the fall of Adam and Eve through the return of Christ and even beyond.
Thus, each generation has seen the words of Revelation reflected in their own time since it was written.  Even today we see ISIS and the rise of terrorism, civil unrest in Africa, global financial crises.  We hear reports of Ebola and other diseases; of devastating earthquakes and tornados and hurricanes and tsunamis and floods and droughts and famines.  Often, these things leave us troubled and afraid of what is going to happen next.  For the unbeliever, and for those who don’t completely rely on God, John’s visions trouble their conscious and works at bringing them to repentance and faith in Christ before He returns.  But for those who cast every care on God the message is completely different.
In the midst of affliction and terror, John witnesses something that gives him comfort and assurance.  In contrast to the chaos of the world, John looks and sees another angel ascending from the place of God’s activity.  The angel called out to the others who were given power over creation for judgment.  “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”  God had sent this angel to preserve His servants, His saints, through all the evils they would face.  Many great and terrible things are headed their way, but they stand ready and steadfast because God has sealed them.  He has marked them and made them His own.  They are now under His authority, protection, and care.  There is nothing and no one that can pluck the saints from God’s hand, for this seal is founded on His eternal and unshakable word.  But just who are these saints that are sealed?
John declares, “And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.”  Who are the 144,000?  While this number is used nowhere else in scripture, we can infer its meaning with confidence.  Keeping in mind that the terrors that John had witnessed were an expression of the whole human condition since the fall, this number too is also a representative of a whole.  In the testimony of Scripture, the number 12 most often represents God’s people.  In its most complete sense, there were twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament and twelve apostles in the New.  12 times 12 is 144.  This is the COMPLETE Israel, the true Israel by faith, the Holy Christian Church that stands ready to do God’s will.
So we know where the 144 comes from, but what about the 1,000?  The number 10 is a number of completeness, and the number 3 is a number of perfection.  So what happens when you multiply 10 three times, 10 by 10 by 10?  In this case, the number 1,000 represents a perfect completion.  We see this number reflected in the Old Testament when 1,000 men from each tribe of ancient Israel were selected to represent the whole nation in battle.  This connotation also carries over to our text as we see the saints arranged to engage the enemy.  And what happens when you multiply 144 with 1,000?  The 144,000 becomes an emphatic representation of the whole Christian church on earth at any given time.  The Church Militant, ready to carry out God’s marching orders.  These saints aren’t just the faithful on the last day, but the number includes all the saints, from beginning to end, during their life on earth.  Past, present, future.  Right now, this means you and me, but we are not alone in our struggle.  There have been many who have waged this war before us, and there will be many who will wage it after.  We are numbered among the 144,000.
So how do we know that we are numbered?  We know because God has given to us His Holy Spirit who guards and protects us, who daily and richly forgives our sins and keeps us firm in the faith.  Through the proclamation of the Gospel, the waters of baptism, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, we can hear, see, feel, and taste that we belong to God and are known by Him.  We are reminded that Christ has taken away our sin and died in our place so that we are free from God’s judgment and wrath.  We do not have to fear His wrath for we know that we are His.  This confidence is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.  Because of Him, we can even stare death in the face, our final enemy, because we know that we are still the Lord’s even in our death.
With is, John’s gaze is shifted from the battle front to a new scene, one that fills him with much comfort.  He is once again looking at the throne room, where now “a great multitude that no one could number” was standing before the throne.  They are clothed in white robes, waving palm branches in victory and triumph.  They are “crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!””  What a contrast to the saints on earth.  While the saints are numbered as the 144,000, this crowd was so large that it couldn’t even be counted.  Among them were ones from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  While the saints on earth were aligned for battle, these were already singing a victory song, praising God and the Lamb.
The scene was so powerful that John was rendered speechless.  Knowing what he was thinking, an elder gave voice to John’s words: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  John was eager to know, so the elder answered his own question: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”  These were the saints that were sealed on earth, who are now being carried through death to the throne room of God.  Their righteousness has been made complete through the blood of the Lamb.  For them, the battle is over, the war is won.  These are the saints who have gone before us.  Among them are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Moses and the prophets; Kind David and Daniel; the apostles; the Church fathers; the reformers….grandpa and grandma, mom and dad, brother and sister, son and daughter.  These are the Church Triumphant.
The scene of the Church Militant, those who stand ready for battle, couldn’t be complete without this scene of the Church Triumphant, all those saints who have come through the battle and now, finally, are at rest.  Together they are the most beautiful, most powerful portrayal of the Universal Church in all of Scripture.  Together, we are one, connected by Christ, the lamb who was slain.  Today, on All Saints Day, we remember those who have died in the Lord.  While we struggle with the emptiness that death has left in our lives, we take comfort knowing that they have passed safely through the valley of the shadow of death.
And on the other side of death they have found comfort in the arms of Christ.  They are before the throne of God, and He is with them forever.  They deal with no more sin, no more danger, no more pain, no more evil, for there is nothing but God and His goodness.  God gives them every good thing, there is no need or suffering before His throne.  For God is their comforter and protector.  He shepherds them day and night as they eagerly wait for the resurrection and the bliss beyond.  What joy this is!  What assurance we have in the God of all comfort!  Though we may face all kinds of evil now, we know that our final resting place is with God, and in His presence we will lack nothing, nor will we suffer from sorrow or pain or any evil ever again!
So let your voices ring out with all the saints who have gone before and with all those yet to come and with all the company of heaven as we declare: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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