Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Blessed Family Portrait

In Nomine Iesu
Revelation 7:9-17
November 7, 2010
All Saints’ Sunday

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

Did you hear what I just called you? You might have missed it, since I address you in the same way as I begin nearly every sermon. I called you “brothers and sisters” in Christ. Now, to be brothers and sisters is to be family. And on this All Saints’ Sunday we are able to catch a glimpse of just how big and how diverse and how blessed this Christian family of ours really is. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us,” writes St. John, “that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are.”

What we learn about our Christian family today is similar to what I used to learn in the family gatherings of my youth. My immediate Henrichs relatives were a small group indeed. Not a clan or a tribe by any stretch of the imagination. Even today I have but two sisters and four first cousins. But every so often in my childhood there would be a family reunion—at which all manner of Henrichses would seemingly emerge from the woodwork—people I had never met or seen or heard of before—people to whom I was related. Suddenly, I felt strength in those numbers. My puny, little family had hope—a lively history and an ongoing future. My only question was, “Who are all these Henrichses; and where did they come from?”

That question is not unlike the question that will be asked at the end of time when all the people of God, from the greatest to the least, are gathered together around the throne of God. “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” Today’s reading from Revelation chapter seven is a beautiful, hope-filled reminder that we are—each of us—on our way to a grand and glorious family reunion. And the sense of wonder and amazement that we sometimes feel at our earthly family reunions will pale in comparison when all the family of faith gathers around the throne of God in heaven. Then, the central question of today’s reading will be on your lips and mine: “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

St John describes them as a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They are wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. And this family is not a quiet family, but in a loud voice this multitude declares, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Those in white robes are also joined by all the angels and archangels in worship of God, lifting their voices to proclaim, “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Beloved in the Lord, my brothers and my sisters, this is your family being described. This is the family reunion to which you are being drawn—and in which you are already a participant every time you gather around this altar. Who is this host arrayed in white? “These are they,” John says, “who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. . . . Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb . . . will be their shepherd . . . and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

It sounds too good to be true; but it is true and better than good. You might think of these words as a kind of family portrait. Most of you have probably had a family portrait taken at some point. My little family of four posed in front of the camera a few weeks ago. Clothing was carefully coordinated. Hair was parted perfectly. Smiling faces were huddled together as if all was perfectly blissful between us and never was heard a discouraging word and the sky was not cloudy all day. It’s a beautiful family portrait that somehow manages to bring out the very best in us.

But I have to tell you, it’s almost too good to be true. It is true in that it is us; and we weren’t photo-shopped. But we don’t always look like that. Our hair is mostly messy and we’re probably better at snarling than we are at smiling. But a good family portrait brings out the best. And there’s no better family portrait than the one in which all of us are dressed in white robes, with palm branches in our hands, with eyes that weep no more, and voices that sing for joy. That’s the family portrait—that’s the family reunion—which is not too good to be true. It’s our family. It’s our reunion. And all this is thanks to our Savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s Jesus who makes it possible for sinners like us to stand among the white-robed saints of God. The beatitudes that Jesus spoke in today’s holy gospel are first and foremost descriptions of Himself—the perfect life He lived as our substitute. We are anything but meek, merciful, pure-hearted peacemakers. Not by nature. Not in and of ourselves. Jesus alone is all of this. He embodies these beatitudes perfectly. Jesus is poor in spirit. Though He was rich, He became poor so that by His poverty you are rich. Jesus mourns. He weeps over our sin as He did over Jerusalem; and He weeps over our death as He did at the tomb of Lazarus. But by that mourning He brings us comfort and joy. Jesus hungers and thirsts for our righteousness, and out of His hunger you are fed. Jesus is merciful, pure-hearted, peace-making. He showed mercy by laying down His life for the sin of the world. He made peace by the blood He shed. He offered His pure and holy life as the sacrifice for your sins. He was persecuted, insulted, and falsely convicted. But by that conviction you have been acquitted, justified, declared righteous before God. On the cross Jesus hung bloody in nakedness and shame. But by that blood you have been washed. You have been cleansed. You have been forgiven.

In addition to those formal family portraits, most families also have photo albums filled with candid, casual snapshots which tell the family story in a more informal way. These candid snapshots capture us the way we really are at a given moment in time. Sometimes it’s not too pretty. This is also true for the family of God here and now. For us who walk as yet by faith, there is hunger and thirst and tears and the ongoing struggle with temptation and sin and death. The wages of sin is death, and there can be no denying that. Death is the consequence of sin. But today and every Sunday we celebrate the fact that Jesus has done something remarkable with death. He has taken this feared and dreaded enemy, and He has made it into the gateway of eternal life in heaven. This is why it also says in Revelation, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”

Yes, you heard correctly, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” The Lord Jesus has gone the way ahead of them. He Himself has gone to death and the grave, and those who follow Him, trusting Him in faith, are called “blessed” in their death. They are blessed because those who die in the Lord are with the Lord. There’s no waiting around at the pearly gates—no standing in line. There’s no joking around with St. Peter. There’s no soul sleep. No, when you close your eyes for the final time in this world you will immediately open them in paradise with Jesus. Blessed are those who die in the Lord.

Our numbers here today are small. It will take our ushers a mere matter of minutes to total up the attendance here today. But let’s not forget the family portrait that tells the whole story for all the people of God on this day. That portrait depicts a great multitude that no one can count. Our numbers here today are not too diverse. I see a lot of white people of European descent. But don’t forget the family portrait that tells the whole story for all the people of God on this day. That portrait depicts people from every nation, tribe, people and language. Our numbers here today make a joyful sound with their singing. But don’t forget the family portrait in which all the saints who are alive forevermore in Christ, join their voices to sing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.” It will be the grandest hymn festival you will ever hear.

And you will be there, with all the family of God, dressed in white, standing shoulder to shoulder with the very people next to you now—and with that multitude that no one can even begin to number—a multitude that now includes Susan Kautz, Kaethe Scholz, and Charles Dittmar. Today we feebly struggle; they in glory shine. To say that you will be happy when you join them would be an understatement. “Blessed” would be more accurate. Blessed are you, my brothers and my sisters, fellow children of God, blessed are you in Jesus, now and forever. Amen.

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