Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday and remember all those who have gone before us in the faith. We follow in the footsteps of the Church since Christ’s ascension and therefore stand here today with our ancestors in the faith behind us and with our descendants yet before us in the future. The Church is not only the collection of God’s people across geography, but also across time. So we are part of a much larger communion of saints who were, are, and yet to be.
For this reason, I want to focus on the reading from the book of Revelation today (Revelation 7:9-17), because in this book we see the universality of the Church as it exists across geography and time. The book opens in verse 1 with: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.”
So, this is the revelation of God through Jesus Christ to the apostle John. It is a single consistent message consisting of, as the ascended Christ told John in chapter 1 verse 19, “… the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” The book of Revelation is Christ’s closing message to his Church until he returns.
But, how to interpret this message? Many people have all sorts of strange interpretations of Revelation and completely miss the point of the book.
Imagine being one of the first disciples. You have followed Jesus Christ for about three years, and then he is arrested and crucified. Your first thought is to fear for your own life, but then you see the risen Jesus Christ and so you are strengthened in your faith. But, then the Roman authorities start to crack down on the Church and it seems impossible for the Church to stand against such power. The Romans sent legions all over the place to conquer and subdue their neighbors and it would seem impossible for the Church to be able to stand against this pressure. In the face of all of this opposition where it seemed like the Church will be overcome and crushed, wouldn’t you crave a Word from the Lord that everything is going to be ok?
Well, the Lord has given the Church this Word, through his Revelation to John to show us the things that must take place. And John actually received this revelation near the end of the First Century during the particularly brutal campaign of persecution carried out by the Roman Emperor Domitian. John himself was exiled on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean Sea and many Christians were being executed. The Church needed, and still needs, a word of hope, and the Book of Revelation is the Lord’s closing word to us until he returns. It is the bookend of the Scriptures. It is the last book of the Bible, and it ends essentially where everything began.
The Bible begins in Genesis with God creating the heavens and the earth and filling them with His creatures. He creates people and dwells in their midst within His perfect creation. And after His people fall into sin and cause creation to be marred by sin and death and evil, the Lord gives His people His promise of salvation and the accompanying restoration of creation to perfection.
The Lord forms His Church to carry on His promise, and this promise is carried throughout the Old Testament as the Church waits for the coming of Christ. And then Christ comes to fulfill the promise of salvation. The New Testament tells of his coming; he died for our sins and rose for our justification. But, the end is not yet, because creation has not yet been restored to perfection. For this, Christ said that he would come again and points our eyes towards the horizon to look for his coming.
But, in between his ascension and his coming again is the time of the New Testament Church; this is the “thousand year reign” of the saints of God that Revelation speaks about. This is the period where you, as saints of God, believers in what He has done through Christ, rule as conquerers over sin, death, and the devil; for Christ has already defeated these enemies on your behalf; you are conquerers through him. These enemies are still around, but they are on the losing team.
And so during this time, the Church is charged with bearing witness to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ. But, this is not yet the end, because although sin, death, and the devil have been defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection, he has not yet returned to finish what he started then by resurrecting our bodies so that we may be fully restored creatures, dwelling with the Lord for eternity in the new, restored, perfect creation of God.
So, the Church is now in this era between Christ’s ascension and his return. But, how is the Church to keep hope and faith alive until Christ returns for us? How is the Church to endure through wars, famines, and disasters? How are we to endure as we are hated and turned over to death for the sake of Christ? We need a word from the Lord to keep our hope and faith alive.
Well, the Lord gives this Word of hope to us in Revelation. Revelation recounts what was, what is, and what is yet to be in a series of three visions given to John, with each vision consisting of 7 parts. Each vision recounts the time period from Christ’s ascension to his return, from three different vantage points; so, each vision is showing the same events from a different angle. And then at the end of the last vision Revelation essentially ends where Genesis began – the Lord again dwelling in the midst of His perfect creation directly with His people, with no sin, death, or the devil to get in the way.
And in these visions, we see that in this world, in this life, until Christ returns for us, there will continue to be wars, famines, and disasters. We see that there will be death and suffering. We see that Christians will be hated and handed over to death.
But, we also see something else in Revelation – we see the end. We see that Christ says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).
Christ is the first, he was there in the beginning. He is the Word of God by whom God spoke everything into existence. He is the Word made flesh who came in person to effect our salvation.
And just as he is the first, Christ is also the last. He is returning to raise up all flesh for the judgement, and to bring His people to Himself. He is coming to gather together the children of God to be with the Lord for eternity. He will gather you, those who have gone before you in the faith, and those who are yet to be, into one, united, holy perfect communion of all saints, a communion we have in part now and which will be perfected at Christ’s return.
And so, the book of Revelation is a book of hope, a message of hope to the Church. Although Christ died, he is alive forevermore and he has the keys of Death and Hades. You are the children of God through faith, made so by the will of God through Christ. God created all things through Christ, the Word of God – He has recreated you as His children through the Word and water in Baptism. And so when Christ returns, he will unlock death and raise you up to be with him forever. And Christ will also cast Satan and his demons into Hades, and they will be no more.
This is the hope that the Lord shows to John: that although in this life we may be hated and handed over to death, the Church will endure to the end. The world may win its battles here and there against the Church: believers may be persecuted, hated, and killed; death and the grave may take its victims. But, in the end, the Church will still be here, thanks to Christ and the faithfulness he bestows upon the saints, while its enemies will pass away. And we will inherit a new heaven and a new earth, God’s new creation, restored to perfection, with no sin, death, or evil, but only the Lord and His people.
So, on this day, we remember all those who have gone before us in the faith, like the prophets of the Old Testament, the apostles’ of the New, and the believers of all times and places who have carefully safeguarded the faith for us so that we too may be united with them in Christ. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who have lived and died, who are living now, and who are yet to be born. They may speak languages we do not know, and look different than we look, and come from far away nations, yet we are all united in Christ. And some day our children, and our children’s children will remember us on this day as they look back to the Church that has been and look forward to the Church that will be as well as to our future reunification at Christ’s return.
So we are all one in the Church – although separated by geography and time – precisely because we are centered around the crucified and risen Christ. You are part of that great multitude that John saw in Revelation, “… 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).
When Christ returns, your voices will be joined with the voices of the saints of God that have gone before you and who are coming after you, and all saints will stand before the Lord and sing His praises for the salvation He has given to you, and you will dwell in His presence forever. For yours is the kingdom of heaven, you shall be comforted, you shall inherit the earth, you shall be satisfied, and you shall see God because He has made you His children (Matthew 5:1-12). Amen.
(Image: By William Walsham How – The Sarum Hymnal, 299, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31362823 )