Worthy Are the Sheep

Text: Revelation 7 (9-17)
Date: Easter IV + 4/17/16

Peace be to you and grace from Him who freed us from our sins. In our Easter celebration in the Book of Revelation today we move from “Worthy is the Lamb” to “Worthy are the Sheep.” Our three readings connect in most interesting ways. The tears of St. Paul reflect the great tribulation and promised final deliverance of Revelation. There also John views the Good Shepherd leading His sheep to springs of living water as stated in Psalm 23. The purpose of Revelation chapter 7 is to encourage us despite the fears and horrors of all the tribulations, sufferings and persecutions we endure in this life.

Our great tribulation. It troubles me to have to make the following observations. More and more these days I wonder how the younger generation or “the millennials” think about the things going on in the world that so deeply offend many of us older folks. Is this what they consider “the new normal”? I mean, for instance, there was a time when living together without marriage was considered wrong, and everyone knew it. You had to hide it in some way and certainly not talk about it openly in public. Today it seems to be accepted as a normal option. There was a time when homosexuality was considered perverse and wrong, and everyone knew it. You had to hide it in some way. I guess that’s why “closets” were invented. Today it is considered an option or a curse over which you seemingly have no choice. There was a time when abortion was considered an illegal sin and everyone knew it. It happened only in secret. What do I need to say about it today? Likewise, there was a time when simply being rude or disrespectful was wrong and everyone knew it. Now it seems to have become a celebrated characteristic of comedians and politicians (which is more of an oxymoron anymore). The phrase “and everyone knew it” is another way of talking about the conscience. A recent post on Facebook from LCMS Pastor Mark Surburg says, “The ongoing LGBT activism that has overtaken a large part of the United States puts us at a strange crossroads in our country’s history: for perhaps the first time in American history, a [so called] civil rights effort is in fact more authoritarian and intolerant than the structure of power against which it is rebelling.”

Now it seems we live in a world of more and more erring consciences. Even in the Church there were times when purity of doctrine and holy living were important enough to hold in discipline. There were times when everyone knew that. Yet even the great reformer Martin Luther believed and feared that the bright light of the Gospel would soon disappear again after his time. And indeed it did as it has here and there, over and over again throughout history.

All this is to indicate that we are still living in the first half of Revelation chapter seven. But it is with the entire vision and sure and certain hope of this chapter, today’s second reading and our text, that we can remain unshaken, even encouraged and comforted in the truth of God.

The first half of chapter seven is a picture of us now, of the Church on earth called the Church Militant. Here we can be numbered, that is recognized as the Church, the number 144,000 indicating the entire Church on earth. We stand in order to march in battle against the various forces and moods of the times. In this battle however it describes how God’s people are “sealed,” that is, given the identity of being in the family of God, God able to recognize you as His own. You can think of this “seal” as including your holy baptism, your continual attendance at the Lord’s Supper, your living in repentance and faith and the forgiveness of sins. Here we are given the promise of God’s safekeeping and deliverance. We are to remember that no matter how dark our days, as Psalm 23 has us say, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” as awful as we may rightly consider the times we live in we are still never out of the saving reach of God’s hands, those nail-pierced hands of our Savior Jesus Christ.

In addition, however, God has given us the vision of the second half of Revelation chapter seven, a view of the Church Triumphant in God’s presence. There we wear the white robe of Christ’s righteousness, thoroughly cleansed from sin and brought through death. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.”

Remember how Jesus spoke of the great tribulation which would be immediately before His second coming, saying it would be “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Mt 24:21-22). Are these present days the beginning of this great tribulation? I don’t think we can know that for certain. But what we can and must know for certain is that every Christian goes through tribulations throughout the entire time before the end. Some of those tribulations and sufferings will severely try your faith and hope in Christ almost to the point of despair and defeat. Only the Word of God can strengthen faith to hold out and you will be numbered among the numberless multitude coming out of the great tribulation. As the Church Triumphant the souls of all Christians enter the moment of their death and is consummated to the resurrection of the body at the End.

You will be before the throne of God because you have been washed and cleansed by the blood of the Lamb that is the pure, strong righteousness of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.

John then describes eternal life in communion with God as pure worship of God “day and night.” How comforting is the description that God “will shelter them with his presence.” Using very physical and human words we are to understand that, after the resurrection, our existence will be “a sensory reality”—hungry no more, neither thirst anymore, no scorching heat, guided to springs of living water, God wiping away every tear from our eyes. It will be as Job of old famously said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). Those attending your funeral will most likely hear those words. You have heard them now before that day that your faith may be strengthened and your hope secured.

We were created not to be bodiless souls like the angels nor only animal-like physical beings but humans, body and soul. As our Savior Jesus Christ “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became man” for our salvation, so will we be raised as human beings in the new heavens and earth. (This is why I say, only half-jokingly, that there is a good chance there will be golf in heaven!).

So don’t be afraid of the tears you shed in these days of suffering and tribulation. They will be turned to joy. That is to be our end—not the suffering here on earth, but instead the glory of God and of the Lamb.