[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]
Today is All Saints’ Sunday. But what is a saint?
This is an important question. In a real sense, the eternal destinies of every person here today—and every person in the world—depends on the answer.
To find the answer, we’ll turn today to the New Testament book of Revelation. That’s where our first lesson comes from.
Revelation, you know, is based on a series of visions given to John about sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection, while John was imprisoned for his faith in Jesus.
Beginning at chapter 6, John sees Jesus, the second Person of the one God, open the first six of seven seals. With the opening of each seal, each one of which God has been using to hold together this sinful universe and to delay the judgment that must come at God’s selected moment, John sees this creation moving closer to its inevitable end.
John also sees glimmers of the new creation that the risen and ascended Jesus will finally and fully usher in when He returns to claim His kingdom from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus’ return will bring celebration and relief to all who have turned from sin and who have believed in Christ.
But, as the last verse of Revelation 6 points out, the return of Jesus won’t be a universally welcomed event. Those who have lived for themselves, for their own sinful impulses, who have rejected Christ and the Holy Spirit’s call to repent for sin, will ask the caves, mountains, and rocks for help. “Fall on us,” they’ll beg, “and hide us from the face of the One seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb [the Lamb being Jesus, Who, Revelation also describes as the Lion]; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
But then, just before the opening of the seventh and final seal, John is allowed to see two scenes in Revelation, chapter 7.
The first scene comes in Revelation 7:1-8, right before today’s lesson. The location of this scene is this world. God assigns four angels to hold back the final destruction of the old creation. “Don’t damage the earth,” God tells the angels, “until we’ve marked all of the servants of God with a seal on their foreheads.” (Like the seal of the Holy Spirit with which McKenzie was marked on her forehead last Sunday after her Baptism.)
Then the numbers of those sealed for salvation are counted out. The total comes to 144,000. Don’t be worried by this number, though! The Bible is not saying that a measly 144,000 people out of all human history will be part of God’s eternal kingdom! For first century Christians, this would have been a number of perfection and completion. The number144 is the total derived from multiplying the 12 tribes of Israel times the 12 apostles Jesus chose to lead the post-resurrection church. For first-century Jews and Christians, tacking thousand onto the back of 144 would be a bit like one of us talking about “a gazillion” in describing the numbers of people shopping at Kroger’s on a Friday evening.
We see how symbolic a number this 144,000 is when we look at the first verse of our lesson, Revelation 7:9. John writes, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count…”
Now, I can hardly read those words without getting goosebumps! This is no little crowd of 144,000. This is a multitude! But what brings me chills is the phrase saying that the crowd was so big, “no one could count.”
Here’s why I find those words so moving: On a starlit night 4000 years ago, an elderly man to whom God had promised the impossible struggled to believe that God could overcome change, decay, and death to give him a son and his descendants a future. The man’s name at the time was Abram. (Later to be changed by God to Abraham, a name that means “father of nations.”) Turn to page 8 in one of the pew Bibles and read what God did Genesis 15:5 to help Abram believe. “Then He [that is, God] brought him [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”
Do you know who that multitude from every nation is that John sees in His vision of heaven after the life of this old world has come to an end?
They are the descendants of Abram whom God had promised on that starry night so long ago.
And each of those descendants came to be part of the kingdom of God—they came to be the saints of God—not because they were the genealogical descendants of Abraham and his wife Sarah. They became saints in just the way Abram came to be a saint. Genesis 15:6 says that when Abram heard God’s promise, he “believed and [God] accounted it to him as righteousness.”
Today, God has revealed Himself to all the world in the crucified and risen Jesus. “If you know Me,” Jesus says, “you will know My Father also.”
And He says, “The Father and I are one.”
And, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Everyone who turns from sin and believes in the God we see in Jesus is a descendant of Abraham. They are saints.
What gives me the chills when I read the vision Jesus gave to John is the realization that God has never changed.
God has always wanted to rescue His fallen children from sin and death and to give them life.
And His plan has always been the same: to give eternal life in His new creation to all who will trust, not in their own achievements, smarts, money, shrewdness, health, or anything else, but who trust only in Him.
Saints are those who trust God to give them the free gifts that come to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus: gifts like forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and a sense of purpose.
But if sainthood is a free gift from God, we must not think for a moment that sainthood is easy. We see this from just four words in our lesson from Revelation today.
The first two of those words appear at the beginning of verse 9: “After this.” After what, exactly?
John saw the multitude of saints after an event that’s mentioned in verse 14. That’s where you can read two more important words: “great ordeal.”
The great ordeal is something John never saw in the scenes described in Revelation 7.
But the great ordeal is something through which every believer in Jesus will go, in big ways and small.
Folks, we live in a world filled with beauty and wonder. But with its beauty and wonder marred by human sin, death, and even the suffering of the saints, this world also presents but a glimmer of the beauty and wonder—the perfection—that await all who persevere in following Jesus to the end.
After life in this world, the saints who have kept on trusting Jesus, will be met by the Savior, Who will make them clean forever, Who will dry their tears, Who will feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty, and lead them into the new creation for which each of us were made.
For now, we live in an in-between time in which, as Paul writes in the New Testament, both we and the whole of creation wait with eager longing for Christ to reveal Himself and His children.
Life in this world can be hard. And sometimes, as we’ve noted before, life in this world is made harder because we believe.
I am personally convinced that the devil couldn’t care less about tempting or testing those who live their lives without faith in Christ or fear and respect for God. The devil already has them bagged; so, why should he bother them?
Instead, the devil tests, tempts, and tries the saints. And every believer in Christ will, eventually, bear the scars—physical, emotional, or relational—that come to those who put following Jesus first in their lives.
Our own personal “great ordeals” may include persecution, chronic or fatal illness, disagreements over priorities with those we love or with whom we work, or the internal conflicts that happen within us when a sin tantalizes us and we know that we must choose God’s way and not our own.
A dear friend of Ann’s and mine, Karen, spoke for millions of Christians after she’d gotten yet another poor report on the cancers that would eventually take her life. We were sitting alone when she remarked, “I just can’t seem to catch a break, Mark.”
People who haven’t experienced the biggest break any of us could possibly get—forgiveness and new life through Jesus—have no reason to wonder about the bad breaks life brings them. If you don’t know the God we meet in Jesus, Who is all-powerful and all-loving, the bad breaks of this life aren’t mysterious or baffling.
Yet, despite her disappointment and mystification, Karen, an exceedingly intelligent and wise person, persisted in her faith, confident that while the many prayers for her healing weren’t answered in this life, she would, because of her faith in Christ, experience the ultimate healing when she would, in eternity, be with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with all the saints who, like her, trust in Jesus.
And unlike others who endure life’s difficulties without meaning or purpose, the saints on earth, like the saints in heaven, have a purpose: to glorify God and to point to Jesus as our only hope.
A year ago, my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot, suffered a heart attack that required two stents. Just a few weeks ago, he learned that he was suffering from a serious form of skin cancer, Merkel Cell, which is rare. The initial signs are encouraging, but Glen will be undergoing radiation treatments between now and Christmas. Today, once more, he is in the pulpit proclaiming the new life that belongs to all who repent and believe in Jesus. In an email to the subscribers of his daily devotions this past week, Glen gave glory to the God he knows in Christ. “God is good all the time,” Glen affirmed. “All the time, God is good!”
What are saints?
They’re people who trust their whole lives to Jesus.
They know to Whom they belong and they know where they’re headed.
They know that this life is not perfect.
But they have a purpose in this life: To let the whole world know about the Lamb Jesus, Who will, after the last page has been closed in the last chapter of this world's story, welcome all who have trusted in Him to His new creation.
In the meantime, dear saints of God, don’t be afraid!
Trust in Jesus.
Know His love and power for you even in the midst of life’s greatest ordeals and know for a fact that, like the saints whose names we have read, remembered, and honored this morning, Jesus will welcome you in His heavenly kingdom.
He’s eagerly waiting for the moment when you too will join angels and saints in singing and savoring the glories of our loving God and when all who have persistently, perseveringly followed their Savior in this world hear the Lord say to them in the next, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Amen!