And Another Angel

Text: Revelation 7:1-17
Date: All Saints Day (Observed) + 11/4/12

Last Sunday the book of Revelation spoke of an angel with an eternal gospel. Celebrating Reformation Day we remembered not only Martin Luther but all preachers of the pure gospel as proclaiming that gospel throughout the world to this day. Today St. John says, “After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God” (Rev 7:1-2). It is with this “Another Angel” that John is given a view (and we through him) of the Church in her two states, the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. We are the Church Militant, the confessing, evangelizing, preaching, baptizing, “eucharistizing,” suffering, constantly dying and rising body of Christ in this world. As the hymn says, “we feebly struggle.” The Church Triumphant are all those “who in glory shine,” that is who have come out of this great tribulation and now enjoy the perfect peace and joy of eternal life in the presence of God. This Sunday and this Word is to give us who are still fighting the good fight of faith comfort, encouragement and assurance that, as St. Paul said it, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).

The complete reading from Revelation appointed for today includes the first eight verses of chapter 7. I assume that the shortened reading we heard is because the first verses sound merely repetitive and strangely monotonous. But they serve a purpose for they describe us, the Church Militant, the Church on earth.

The “another angel” John saw says to the four angels holding back the destructive winds of God’s judgment, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” Whatever form this “seal” takes it both identifies us as belonging to God’s family and serves as God’s guarantee to us of His protection, that He will not let us slip away from Him. We could ask each other a related question, namely, what is it that now identifies you to others as belonging to God’s family? And, how sure or assured are you that you will not fall away? This would be related to our Lord’s command to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). In other words, what sort of evidence do others see in you of your faith, that you belong to Jesus Christ?

Then John says, “I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000.” In this apocalyptic writing this relatively small number (relative to the whole Church of every time and place) should not be taken literally. It is, however, the number of perfect completion, taking the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles, twelve times twelve to the “myriad” or thousands. In this way the Church is described as the perfectly ordered and complete work of the Holy Spirit, the Church prepared to march into the battle of the mission given to it, a perfect and complete army, fully equipped and ready to do God’s work in this world.

Then follows what sounds so repetitive:

“And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:
12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed” (Rev. 7:3-8).

What sounds, at first, as mere repetition is quite revealing. For one thing this list of the twelve tribes of Israel does not match the other lists in the Old Testament![1] And it is that mismatch that says so much. For instance not Reuben but the tribe of Judah is mentioned first in this list because it is the tribe from which came the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. For another thing, one of the sons of Israel was Dan. But he is missing from John’s list because of his association with the apostasy of idolatry. The specific names show the Church Militant faithful and cleansed from idolatry and apostasy. She is sealed, protected in her faith, as she stands as a witness in the time of tribulation. And that opens to John’s eye and to ours the second part of the vision, the Church Triumphant.

Allow me a short pastoral interlude. We who feebly struggle, who are still in the battle, living by repentance and faith, living in the forgiveness of our sins and but the hope of deliverance, especially we who have lost loved ones to the terrible enemy of death—grandparents, parents, wife, husband or other relative or, God forbid, a child—we mourn and wonder and ask where our loved one has gone, and where we will go when we ourselves face death. We already addressed this question to a certain extent last Sunday. According to St. John’s Revelation we are constantly brought back to Revelation 6:9 to answer, when John “saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” The souls of our loved ones and of all before the last day of the resurrection of all flesh are “with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17), there joining the cry, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long?” Each is “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete” (Rev 6:10-11). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured this picture when he wrote his poem, “How they so softly rest, all the holy dead…And they no longer weep, Here, where complaint is still!” But here John is given the vision of the Church Triumphant, complete after the resurrection of all flesh.

Unlike the Church Militant, which can be numbered, the Church Triumphant, says John, is “a great multitude that no one could number.” There they are “clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” The white robes symbolize the gift of holiness through the complete forgiveness of our sins for the sake of the blood of Christ shed for us. Palm branches are the Biblical symbol of victory. There men and angels praise God for His gifts of creation and salvation.

But then we are given a wonderful word of hope. The question is, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” The answer is that “these are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” My brothers and sisters, today, this is the time of tribulation, the “great” one still to come, just before the end. Every Christian goes through tribulation, testings of faith and witness. Some of those tribulations and sufferings will be so severe that your very faith and hope will be tried almost to the point of despair and defeat. But the Word of God is able to strengthen your faith so that, despite the fiery trial, your faith will hold out and you will come through victorious and perhaps even stronger as St. James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-5).

Finally, we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. As Revelation 6 speaks of Christian souls being with the Lord, at the great day of the resurrection of all flesh, then in our new bodies God will dwell with us so that we shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, and every tear we ever shed will be wiped away from our eyes. Then we shall dwell, body and soul, together as God originally intended in peace and victory and joy.

All Saints Day is not a celebration only of certain Christians who were outstanding in faith and holiness. It is a celebration of the whole Church, both in her Militant state in this world with the beatific vision of her Triumph in the day of resurrection. It is a celebration and a picture that includes you. Yes, for now as Luther reminded us, we are saints and sinners at the same time. But we are saints, the redeemed of the Lord, the beloved of God who He has sealed for eternity. Take great comfort and confidence in this truth. Though we all endure tribulations of various kinds and degrees of severity, as our Lord said, “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22; 24:13).

Dear fellow saints of God: may the Lord “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:12-13).

[1] Names and birth order: Gen 35:23-26; 46:8-25; 49:1-27; Ex 1:1-6; Deut 27:11-13. Allotment of land: Num 34:1, 19-29; Num 13:1-16; Josh 13:1—22:34.