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Sermon for Sunday 3 November 2019

First Reading                       Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17

2I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, 3saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” 4And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 9After this I looked, and behold, 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, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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. 15Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Psalm                                                             Psalm 149

1Hallelujah! Sing to the Lord a new song; sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful. 2Let Israel rejoice in his Maker; let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. 3Let them praise his name in the dance; let them sing praise to him with timbrel and harp. 4For the Lord takes pleasure in his people and adorns the poor with victory. 5Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds. 6Let the praises of God be in their throat and a two-edged sword in their hand; 7To wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples; 8To bind their kings in chains and their nobles with links of iron; 9To inflict on them the judgment decreed; this is glory for all his faithful people.  Hallelujah!

Second Reading                           1 John 3:1-3

1See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

Gospel                                                 Matthew 5:1-12

1Seeing the crowds, {Jesus} went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”


A saw a statement the other day that read, a person can be understood as being similar to a house.  We have our living rooms, where we entertain, and our basements, where we hide our stuff.  The way to observe All Saints’ Sunday, they suggested, is to walk out into your front yard and salute the people on your balcony.  The balcony people in our lives are those godly people who have gone before us, those who have been our encouragers, the ones who have left us legacy.  That’s what we do on this Saints’ Sunday.  We remember all the saints who have gone before us, those who lived righteous lives and who have encouraged us in the faith we have today.

In the book, Pilgrim’s Progress, we’re introduced to two characters, Christian and Hopeful, who are drawing near to the river of death.  As they reach the river, they’re met by two shining figures whose raiment shines like gold and whose faces shine as the light.  These two shining figures are able to lead Christian and Hopeful as they emerge from the river of death into the Celestial city.  These shining figures are not angels.  Rather, they are the saints of God shining as lights in the world of darkness and sin.  That’s one of the myths we need to dispel. 

When we die and are resurrected, we do not become angels, we don’t “get our wings.”  Angels are created beings that serve God in the heavenly realm.  Angels and the saints John sees are different this why he sees angels, saints, elders and the four living creatures.  Each have a different purpose and function.  John see the saints before God’s throne because this is who we’re called to be, living saints in this world, shining lights, helping the wanderer find his or her way home.

One of the most beautiful portrayals of saints is found in our First lesson for today from Revelation: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.  They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’  “All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures.  They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: ‘Amen!  Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever.  Amen!’  “Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes who are they, and where did they come from?’ “I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’  “And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’” (Rev. 7:9-14).

To begin with, I’d like you to take notice of who these saints are: “Before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .”  One could easily say that the faith God gives each of us is the same, a universal faith.  What I find interesting is, that so many Christians forget this.  Christians aren’t just comprised of those of European descent:  The Saints of God are from every socioeconomic background, they come in every color, are from every nation and speak every language.

Clarence Jordan is a pastor who is best known for his Cotton Patch Gospels.  Pastor Jordon went one time to do revival services at a church in the Deep South.  This was more than sixty years ago, when segregation was the norm in the South.  Clarence Jordan got up to preach, and he realized that the congregation wasn’t segregated at all.  There were people of African descent and European descent all sitting together.  After the service, he asked the pastor, an old hillbilly preacher: “How did your church get this way?”  The old hillbilly preacher said: “What way?”  Clarence Jordan said: “Well, black and white folks all together.  Integrated.  Is that because of the Supreme Court decision?”

The preacher answered: “Supreme Court!  Why would Christians need the Supreme Court to tell us that black folks and white folks ought to be all together?  Jordan asked: “Well how did it happen?  What’s the history?”  This old preacher said: “Well, there used to be about twenty people in this church . . . When the old preacher died, they couldn’t get no one to preach . . . So, after about two months, I told the deacons I’d preach.  They couldn’t get anybody else, so they said, ‘Yes.’  

I got up the next Sunday, opened the Bible, put my finger down on that verse that says: ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Colossians 3:11).  So I preached on that.  I told them how Jesus makes all kinds of people one.  When I finished, the deacons said they wanted to talk to me in the back room.  When they got there, they told me they didn’t want to hear that kind of preachin’ no more.”  Clarence asked: “What’d you do?”  The old preacher said: “I fired them deacons!  If a man’s not gonna’ ‘deac,’ he oughta be fired!”  Clarence Jordan was amazed.  “Why didn’t they fire you?” he asked.

“They didn’t hire me,” said the hillbilly preacher, “so they couldn’t fire me!  You know, once I found out what bothered those people, I gave it to them week after week.  I put the knife in the same place Sunday after Sunday.”  Jordan was stunned.  “And they put up with it?” he asked.  “Not really,” said the old preacher.  “I preached that church down to four people.  Sometimes revival happens, not when people come in, but when people go out.  If people were going to stand in the way of the moving of the Spirit of God, it’s better they be gone.  After that, we decided that we were going to build the church on people who were actually serious about following Jesus.  And that’s when it started to grow.”

That night Clarence Jordan stayed at the home of a member of that church, a graduate of Yale, a college professor, who had a PhD in English Literature.  He drove seventy miles each week to go to this church.  Clarence asked that brilliant young professor: “Why do you go to that church to hear an old hillbilly preach?  You have a PhD from Yale.  He can’t utter a single grammatically correct sentence?”  The young man said: “Sir, I go to that church, because that man preaches the Gospel.”  And that, is the Gospel.  All people on the earth are represented around the throne of God.  That’s the first thing we want to notice about the saints of God in St. John’s Revelation.  The second point we need to consider is, notice how the saints are dressed.  

In the second half of verse 14 we read, “They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands . . .”  White is, of course, symbolic of holiness, of purity.  These saints were in the presence of a holy God, which meant they must be holy as well.  Sadly, it seems, we don’t meet very many holy people these days.  How did these saints in heaven get anyway?  “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  I know I’m partly to blame for this, but we in our Lutheran churches today, simply don’t talk about being washed in the blood of the lamb as we should.  We don’t sing gospel hymns like Are You Washed in the Blood?  Maybe the words are a bit graphic for our modern sensibilities.  Or maybe, we simply don’t understand what the author is saying.

Here in Revelation, the elder is telling John, and us, that this is a symbolic way of saying that these saints have been made worthy to inherit that which was promised by the Father because of Jesus’ death on the cross.  The good news is, they are standing around the throne praising and serving God the same way each of us will one day stand around that throne, by the grace of God.  If getting into heaven was a matter of merit, we’d all be in trouble.  To illustrate, there’s a story told about Saint Teresa.  

In this story Mother Teresa is in heaven and she’s sitting down at dinner with God.  The only thing in front of them is a couple of tuna fish sandwiches.  While they’re eating, she looks down into Hades and sees the citizens of that realm feasting on steak, lobster, and crème brûlée.  “Not that I’m complaining,” Saint Teresa says to God, “but why are they eating lavishly, and we’re having tuna fish sandwiches?”  “Well,” says God, “with just the two of us up here, I figure, why cook?”

If getting to heaven were based on merit, maybe Mother Teresa might make it and only a few others.  The question is, would we?  God’s grace is received through faith alone.  Two passages remind us of this:  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (64:6a).  St. Paul reminds us in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (2:8-9).  If we tried to get in by our “good deeds”, we will most certainly be on the outside looking in.  

Our admittance to that select company will not be based on merit, but on God’s unconditional love for us, God’s amazing grace.  Some have commented that we sometimes talk about grace too much in the church today, that we need to talk less about grace and more about faithful living.  There is some truth in that statement.  But the one thing we need to understand is, there are a good many people, even a number of church people, who don’t really believe that God loves them unconditionally.

Pastor Billy Hornsby, in his book, The Attractional Church, tells about his experience of Christian faith.  He grew up in a very strict Christian household.  He said that he and his siblings had chores to do each day, like preparing their own breakfast and ironing clothes.  One morning when Hornsby was around ten years old, he was ironing his shirt.  He could just see the top of the ironing board and was pressing a shirt for school.  The iron slipped, and before he could catch it, it burned his chest.  He screamed and ran to get some ice from the refrigerator.  He writes, “Mama calmly looked at me and said, ‘See there, God punished you!’”  

He goes on to say, “If she said this once, she said it hundreds of times.  It was her doctrine of God and forgiveness.  She wanted to make sure we knew that we were accountable for our actions and the consequences . . . of everything we did.  This was my experience,” he writes, “and it was what I had as a basis of faith:  Do bad and get punished, but never forgiven.”  He said, “I needed and wanted forgiveness.”  Later he met an atheist who told Hornsby there was no God.  This made Billy Hornsby mad.

He said, “I knew that there was a God in heaven because He had been punishing me all my life, according to Mama.”  Strangely enough, this atheist’s statement about there being no God motivated Hornsby to go into the scripture and to learn for himself who God is and what God expects out of us.  And in his research, he discovered the God he’d always hoped existed, a God of love and acceptance and forgiveness.

There are still far too many religious people who have a god who plays havoc with their lives and who punishes them for sins of which they aren’t even aware.  So, it’s important to note that the saints of God have had all their sins taken away because of God’s great love for them.  It’s good for us to take note of who these saints are and of how they’re dressed.  Finally, we also need to consider what they’ve come through.

Again, in verse 14 we read, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” But take note the first part of this statement: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.”  It’s important for us to understand that God’s promises are to a very special group of people, those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  

Sure, we’re accepted as we are, but once God’s grace has been accepted in faith, we are then called to live just as Jesus lived, love as Jesus loved, forgive as He forgave.  Look again Paul’s statement in the 2nd chapter of Ephesians: in verse 10 we read, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  Far too many have a mushy kind of faith that says, “Everything’s all right.  Jesus loves me, this I know.  It doesn’t matter what I do with my life.  I can go ahead living for myself as if I’m the only person on earth that matters.”

We live too often like the little boy who says to his father, “Let’s play darts.  I’ll throw and you say ‘wonderful!’”  That’s what many want from God.  Tell us that we’re wonderful.  Tell us that we’re accepted, forgiven and loved.  But…don’t tell us that our robes are dirty.  Don’t tell us there are changes that need to be made in our life.  Don’t tell us that we need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Let me share a statement made by Max Lucado, “God loves us just as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way.”  God’s desire for us is to be renewed in the image of His Son, Jesus; to be returned to His created perfection.

Who are these saints around the throne of God?  The elder is clear: these are the ones who came through the great ordeal and have been cleansed by the precious blood of Jesus.  These are the ones who responded to God’s unmerited act of grace and lived lives in service to the living God.  And the good news for us today is, everyone on this earth is a candidate for sainthood.  All we have to do is confess our sins, receive God’s unmerited grace by faith and live lives that are pleasing to God. 

The truth is, by our own merits, not a single person on this earth is worthy of God’s salvation, St. Paul is clear on this: “all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Rom. 3:23).  However, we have hope because of what Christ has done in our behalf.  In His death and resurrection, we have reconciliation, forgiveness and it comes to us as a free gift.  Once we accept this free gift in faith, we join that holy company seeking to bring light to a world of darkness through lives that reflect the glory of Christ.


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