October 31-November 1
The Feast of All Saints
Text: Revelation 7:9-17
Dear Friends in Christ,
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. What are we doing? And why are we doing it? We are remembering all the faithful believers who have died in the faith. We are celebrating the fact that they are in heaven. Why are we doing this? Because they were great? No. Because Christ has done great things for them. We celebrate the fact that Christ, in grace, has taken them to heaven, and anticipate the day when we shall join them. But there is more. We are celebrating the fact that we join with them in the Divine Service. The liturgy, the Divine Service, is never celebrated alone, but with all the saints on earth and in heaven.
The Revelation or more properly the Apocalypse of St. John is a book of comfort. That is its purpose. The prophecy nuts would use these words to scare the you know what out of you. But such interpretations should be rejected, since they would not serve the original purpose of offering comfort. Why did people need comfort at that time? It was written in the 90's A.D. The Emperor Nero launched the first persecution of Christians, in 64 A.D., but his work was mostly centered on Rome itself. If you were a Christian in say, Corinth, you were probably not directly affected. Persecution of Christians ended with Nero’s death in 68 A.D. After three years of turmoil, Roman general Titus Flavus Vespatian Major became Caesar. He is known to history simply as Vespatian. He was the emperor who built the Colosseum, in Rome. Vespatian had no interest in persecuting Christians. There is some evidence that several members of his family were Christians. In fact his brother Sabinus, who had died before Vespatian became emperor, might well have been Luke’s Theophilus. Vespatian was succeeded by his son of the same name. To avoid confusion, they usual call him Titus. He in turn was succeeded by his brother Titus Flavus Domition. Domition, like Nero, was paranoid, and probably insane. He launched the first empire wide persecution of Christians.
By this time, John was the only remaining apostle. He was a very elderly man living in Ephesus. Domition was afraid to kill John. He feared that John’s death would lead others to become Christians. So he sent John into exile on the island of Patmos. Here John would record the great vision that now concludes Holy Scripture.
While John was in exile many Christians were imprisoned, enslaved, and killed. It was a terrible time to be a Christian. Many feared that Christianity would be wiped from the memory of man. Many wondered if God is really in charge. This is why God gave this vision to John. The theme is take heart, God is with you.
So how is this vision comforting? Who is it that is standing before the throne in the white robes? The martyrs. This is the assembly of those who had been killed for the sake of Christ. Where are they? In heaven. They are before the throne of Christ. They have been sealed for life. They will not die again. They will rest forever in perfect comfort. Christ Himself will wipe every tear from their eyes. So God is saying, through John, you saw them get their head chopped off, be crucified, be torn by wild beasts and so forth. You saw them enslaved and worked to death. But here’s the reals story. They are before the throne of God. Their death was not in vain. They live with Christ, their Lord.
Let’s contrast this to the death of their persecutor. Domition was murdered by his own guards. Truly a case of just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. One would presume that he now lies in hell. Domition’s life was in vain. So also his death. He accomplished no good thing in life or in death. He did not even achieve his own pleasure, for he was a bitterly unhappy man.
Why are the martyrs in heaven? They earned it with their suffering and death, right? No. Because this is something that human beings cannot earn. Each of those white robed martyrs was a sinner, just like you and I. All human beings are born in sin. As King David said: Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. (Psalm 51:5) God first convicted them. God showed them their sins. God showed them through Scripture, though preaching and teaching, that they could not save themselves. We could look to the first three chapters of Romans where Paul lays it on deeper and deeper, showing that no one is righteous before God. But what does John tell us here? Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!
What does that mean? Salvation belongs to God the Father and to God the Son. They can give it to whom they choose. It’s their property. They own it. The Scriptures teach us that God has placed all authority in the hands of God the Son. We read this most clearly in Daniel 7 as well as Matthew 28. So now, all who trust in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, will indeed have life. This is God’s promise, this He will do. For those who have died in Christ, this He has already done.
The martyrs, like us, did not choose to believe in Jesus Christ. They in fact believed in spite of themselves. True faith is a conviction. We are convicted in our hearts that this true. We can do no other. To trust in anything else would be to trust in what we know to be false. For one who is convicted that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, there is no option. Such faith cannot deny Christ, even on pain of death. This is because true faith is not something that we decide. True faith comes from God’s Word and Sacraments, and overwhelms whatever we desire.
The Feast of All Saints - the celebration of all that now live in the halls of heaven with Christ our Savior. This is our parents, grandparents, brother and sisters, sons and daughters, who have died in the faith. We do not celebrate nameless faces in a vision. We celebrate our families and friends. We celebrate because Christ gave them faith and salvation. We celebrate because, though we miss them, we know that they live and have a joy that we cannot imagine, but will someday share. We will one day join them yes. But we are also with them now. Think on this: if you have lost a faithful spouse, when you commune, they are with you, also communing at the rail. The same it true of all those close to you. I never met my sister Sandy, who died at age 10, two years before I was born, but whenever I commune she’s right there with me. She’s with me because she lives in Christ and I live in Christ. And that life will last forever. That life, though divided now, will one day be united in heaven. This is not our doing, but Christ alone. So yes, perhaps today is a morbid day. We are thinking about the dead. But they are dead who live in Christ. And we celebrate precisely because they do live in Christ.