[This message was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio today.]
Today is All Saints’ Sunday. But what exactly is a saint?
This isn’t just some academic question. The answer has eternal consequences for all of us here this morning, in fact for everyone in the world.
To find out what a saint is, we’ll turn today to the New Testament book of Revelation 7:9-17, our first lesson.
Revelation, you know, is based on a series of visions given to the apostle John about sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection.
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, John sees this creation moving closer to its inevitable end.
He 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 our enemies, 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 universally welcomed. (Just as He is far from universally welcomed today.)
Those who have rejected Christ and the Holy Spirit’s call to repent for sin and trust in Him alone for life, will ask the caves, mountains, and rocks for help. “‘Fall on us,’ they will beg, ‘and hide us from the face of him who sits 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 can withstand it?”
Then, just before the opening of the seventh and final seal, John is allowed to see two scenes which he records 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 which the Baptized receive on the day they are made new by water and the Spirit.)
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!
The number 144 is derived from multiplying the 12 tribes of Israel times the 12 apostles Jesus chose to lead the post-resurrection church. For John, it would have been a number implying perfection and completeness.
And, tacking three zeroes onto the back of 144, making it 144,000, would be a bit like one of us talking about “a gazillion” people showing up for Black Friday sales at Macy’s or Target.
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 before me was a great multitude that no one could count…”
I can hardly read those words without getting chills! This is no little crowd of 144,000! It’s a multitude!
But what brings me chills is the phrase saying that the crowd was so big, “no one could count.”
Here’s why it’s 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 a future to his descendants. 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 9 in one of the sanctuary Bibles and read what God did in Genesis 15:5 to help Abram believe: “[God took Abram] outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” "Abram," God was saying, "I Who made more stars than any mortal could ever count is capable of keeping My promise to you. I will give you a son. And not only that, your descendants will dwarf the numbers of stars you see in the sky right now."
The multitude from every nation that John is shown in His vision of heaven after the life of this old world has come to an end are the descendants of Abram, the very descendants 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 that Abram came to be a saint. Genesis 15:6 says that when Abram heard God’s promise, “Abram believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to [Abram] as righteousness.”
Abram--Abraham--was saved by grace through faith in the God of promise. That God has since revealed Himself definitively 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.”
Jesus is the God Who gave Abraham that promise four millennia ago.
And He is the God Who promises that everyone who turns from sin and believes in Him becomes a descendant of Abraham. They are saints.
What gives me the chills when I read the vision that the risen Jesus gave to John is the realization that God has never changed. In God, there is, James 1:17 tells us, “no variation or shadow due to change.”
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, the power to live each day for His purposes.
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 tribulation.”
Despite the propaganda who misconstrue Revelation, "the great tribulation" does not refer to some endtime cataclysm. It’s the common experience through which every believer in Jesus goes, in big ways and small.
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 can, at its best, still only give us nothing more than a glimmer of the beauty and the wonder—the perfection—that await all who persevere in following Jesus as their only God and King to the end.
After completing 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 their hunger and quench their thirst for the righteous life only He can give, 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 Romans 8, both we and the whole of creation wait with eager longing for Christ to reveal Himself and His children.
Here's a fact you may not have noticed: Life is hard.
Even in the best of times, life can be a struggle.
And sometimes, our struggles are made even harder because we believe in Jesus Christ. How much easier the lives of so many here today might have been had they, when confronted by evil and false teaching in another church a few years ago, stood with the shifting mores of the world instead of with the truth and grace of God revealed in His Word?
And I am personally convinced, by my experience of moving from being an atheist who rarely had a troubled conscience to being a follower of Jesus Who wants to please the God Who loved me all the way to the cross, 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.
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.
Mark it well: Follow Christ and He will most certainly thwart you in some of your most heartfelt desires because He’s less interested in giving you momentary happiness than He is in fitting and forging you and your character for eternal life with Him.
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 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 member of our parish in Cincinnati, 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.” There was nothing I could say to make her situation understandable. I couldn’t understand it.
Yet, despite her disappointment and mystification, Karen, an environmental scientist who was exceedingly intelligent, persisted in her faith, confident that while the many prayers for her healing weren’t being answered in this life, she would, because of her faith in Christ, experience the ultimate healing when, in eternity, she would be sheltered forever from all disappointment and pain by God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all the saints who, like her, put their trust in Jesus.
What is a saint?
Saints are people who trust their whole lives to Jesus. Sometimes haltingly. Always imperfectly. At times even resentfully. But no matter how their hearts may wander, they always know to come back to Christ.
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 live for and 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, do not be afraid!
Trust in Jesus.
Know His love and power for you even in the midst of life’s greatest tribulations and know for a fact that, if you remain steadfast in following Jesus, like saints before us, Jesus will welcome you in His heavenly kingdom.
If we remain faithful to Christ, you and I will one day join our fellow saints, along with God’s messengers, the angels, in singing and savoring the glories of our loving God and all who have persistently, perseveringly, enduringly followed their Savior in this world will hear the Lord say to them in the next world, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Amen!