A Glimpse at Our Friends Who Have Fallen Asleep

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Sermon for All Saints (transferred)

Revelation 7:9-17  +  Matthew 5:1-12  +  1 John 3:1-3

Today is our celebration day, on which we celebrate the eternal life of the saints who have gone before us, who have died, whose bodies have returned to dust but whose souls live with God in heaven.  I know that some of you have lost loved ones who did not die in faith.  For them we mourn.  But we don’t mourn for the saints.  We may mourn our temporary separation from them, but we don’t mourn for them.

Today is our celebration day, not unlike Easter Sunday.  On Easter we celebrate Jesus’ victory over the devil who sought to destroy him, over the world that hated him, and over death that held him captive for a measly three days.  Today, as we commemorate the faithful departed, we celebrate the same victory that is theirs through faith in Christ Jesus, the faith in which they were baptized, the faith that they confessed in life, the faith in which they fell asleep.  It’s the same victory: Victory over the devil, who can harm them no more; victory over the world that hated them and still hates us; victory over death.

But unlike Jesus, the grave has held them for longer than three days, hasn’t it?  Who are the saints who are on your mind today?  A mom or dad, a son or daughter, husband or wife, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, a close friend, a fellow church member?  How long have they been in the grave?  We don’t see their victory.  All we see is dust and ashes, coffins and cemeteries, empty rooms and vacant chairs at the dinner table.  If only we could get a glimpse of something more!

God gives us that glimpse in the Revelation of St. John, just a little glimpse beyond the veil of death to see things as they really are.  There’s plenty of fiction floating around out there about what heaven is like, but fiction is worthless.  It’s a lie.  It isn’t real.  Only God can tell us the truth about the saints in heaven.  Only God can give us a real live glimpse of our friends who have fallen asleep.

First, see how many of them there are: A great multitude that no one could number.  Jesus once said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” In comparison to the billions and billions of people who have lived on earth over the six thousand years of its existence, the number of saints is relatively few.  And in any given room or any given city, the number of believers in Christ is relatively few.  But add them up, year after year, century after century, from every nation, tribe, language and people across the earth, and you have a multitude that no one can number, children for Abraham that are as numerous as the sand by the sea and the stars of the sky.  And they all stand together, not one over here and one over there, not black people over here and white people over there, rich or poor huddled together.  There is no loneliness, no isolation – no divisions in heaven.

See where they are gathered:  standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They are standing, not lying there helpless as you might remember them on earth, not stranded in a wheelchair or hobbling slowly across a room.  They are standing.  They are standing before the throne of God, not gone fishing or playing golf.  Our sinful minds sometimes imagine that our favorite past times on earth become the stuff of heaven.  Many people – even some who call themselves Christians, are disappointed to learn that all you get in heaven is God.  But those who aren’t satisfied with God on earth need not worry about having to put up with him in heaven.  They won’t be there.   Only those who love God and find their comfort in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – only they will stand in his presence forever.

See how the saints are dressed:  Behold, a host arrayed in white, white robes, like our white paraments today, but even brighter and whiter.  Pure and sinless, no longer plagued by a sinful nature that pulls at them and drags them off into shameful thoughts and deeds.

See what they hold in their hands:  palm branches, like the Israelites waved at their Feast of Tabernacles when they remembered, every year, the temporary dwellings in which they lived during their sojourn – their journey from Egypt’s slavery to their permanent home in the promised land of Canaan.  That Feast of Tabernacles was a foreshadowing of the temporary dwellings of the saints here on this sin-filled earth as we journey from death to life, to the permanent dwellings with God in the new heavens and the new earth.  So the saints in heaven hold palm branches remembering that their days of temporary dwellings are over.

Palm branches also recall the events of Palm Sunday, when the crowds welcomed the Lamb of God into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week and called out to him, “Hosanna!  Come and save us now!”  That’s similar to what the saints in heaven are saying, although now it isn’t “Come and save!”  Now it’s, “You have come and you have saved!”  They cry out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

See who else in there, in whose company the saints stand: all the angels were standing around the throne. Our loved ones do not become angels when they die.  That’s a pagan myth.  But they do stand with the angels, one great company of the heavenly host, standing always before the Lamb and singing his praises.

See what the saints have left behind: These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  In case you were unaware, this – all around us – is the great tribulation, not the great vacation.  It’s not just sickness and pain and financial insecurity.  It’s not just the loneliness and uncertainty of the future and the fickleness of friends that plague us in this world.  Those are terrible things.  But you have to understand, your faith in Christ is under constant attack in this world by the devil, by the world, by your sinful nature.  Finding the truth of God and holding onto it – it’s practically impossible.  Holding onto faith in Christ is not automatic for the Christian, and it’s even harder as the dear cross presses harder.  And holding onto love in this loveless world in which we live – Jesus was right when he said “the love of most will grow cold…even the elect would be deceived, if that were possible.”

But the saints have overcome by the blood of the Lamb.  They come out of the great tribulation, one by one as death ushers them out of the great tribulation and into the great calm of heaven.  They can finally rest. They can finally breathe a sigh a relief, “It’s over. We made it.”  No more persecution.  No more pain.  No more struggling with false teachings, no more threats to their faith.

Finally, see what God does for them as they live in his presence and serve him day and night in his Temple:  He shelters them with his presence, providing for their every need, protecting them from all harm and dangerNo more hunger or thirst, no more scorching heat or any threat of catastrophe.  The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  After all the struggles with sin and its consequences here on earth, finally the saints in heaven reach the lap of their heavenly Father who knows better than anyone just how hard it has been, but he comforts them, “There.  There.  Now all that is done.  Now you’re here with me.”

This, my friends, is not pious fiction.  This is no false hope.  This is the Word of the Lord.  This is what heaven is like for our friends who have fallen asleep, and this is what heaven will be like for you when you fall asleep.  The grave may hold us longer than it held Jesus, but it won’t hold us forever.  “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

In the Apostles’ Creed, we also confess, “I believe in the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.”  The holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, includes both us and them – believers on earth and believers in heaven.  It is one great communion, one great fellowship.  But if you want to catch a glimpse of this communion, if you want to be close to the saints in heaven, don’t go to the cemetery.  The souls of the saints are not connected to their rotting flesh.  The souls of the saints stand before the Lamb in perfect communion.  Our connection to them, then, is not direct.  It’s through the Lamb. And the Lamb has given us a way to stand in his presence even on this side of death, in the Holy Communion.  Here our connection is with Christ, the Lamb, with the very body and blood that our friends in heaven stand before and worship.  Through Jesus, through the Lamb we are connected to the whole body, even the body of believers on the other side of death.  Here we stand before the throne and before the Lamb in Holy Communion and sing, “Hosanna!  Come and save us now! Blessed is he!  Blessed is he! Lamb of God, have mercy on us!”  There they stand before him, in the company of all the angels and sing, “Salvation belongs to our  God and to the Lamb!”  Here the circle is complete and the fellowship is complete.

And where the saints are, there one day you shall be if you hold onto the faith in which they fell asleep.  They have reached their goal.  We are still running the race.  Their blessedness is experienced in glory and seen.  Ours is hidden in meekness and believed, as we believe the words Jesus spoke in the Gospel, “Blessed are they…” The “they” is “we” as we live on earth in humble faith on our way to the mansions of heaven.

Luther wrote, “This life is not godliness, but growth in godliness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way; the process is not yet finished, but it has begun; this is not the goal, but it is road; at present all does not gleam and glitter, but everything is being purified.”

Hang in there.  It won’t be long now.  God has baptized you into this race for the finish line, this race toward the heavenly goal.  Jesus has finished the race for you and won the prize for you and feeds and nourishes you along the way with his Word and Sacraments.  Keep running.  You’ll make it.  God is faithful.  And when you do, those of us who are left here on earth until the final coming of Jesus will celebrate you, too, at least once a year at the festival of All Saints.  Today is our celebration day, and we give thanks to God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, for all the saints who from their labors.  Amen.

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