50th Anniversary Celebration
Who Are These People Dressed in White Robes?
Revelation 7:2-4, 9-17
2 Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: 3 “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” 4 Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.9 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 in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God,who sits on the throne,and to the Lamb.”11 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, 12 saying:“Amen!Praise and gloryand wisdom and thanks and honorand power and strengthbe to our God for ever and ever.Amen!”13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”14 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. 15 Therefore,“they are before the throne of Godand serve him day and night in his temple;and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.16 Never again will they hunger;never again will they thirst.The sun will not beat upon them,nor any scorching heat.17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;he will lead them to springs of living water.And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Revelation 7:2-4; 9-17
St. Luke Lutheran Church celebrates today 50 years of life as a congregation under God’s grace. This is not an insignificant celebration. 50 years of babies being baptized, children and adults being instructed in the Christian faith and confirmed; 50 years of hundreds of people receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with their mouths, for the forgiveness of their sins. 50 years during which the marriage unions of men and women were given God’s blessing before this altar. 50 years of sorrowing people sitting through funeral services and walking through cemeteries toward graves, yes, people with tears in their eyes over the death of a loved one, yet with a living hope in the certain knowledge of the resurrection and even a joyous conviction in the knowledge of what their lost loved ones have gained through faith in Jesus Christ. 50 years of God’s Word preached in the pulpit of this congregation and then, through mission work which you have done, all over the world. And because during all those years God’s holy, precious Word was preached, 50 years of saddened people comforted, frightened people encouraged, weak people strengthened, broken people restored, sinful people absolved, Christian people fed and nourished.
As we consider this morning those 50 years and the many people who have served and worshipped here during those years, I think it very appropriate that we celebrate your history on All Saints Day. In a very real way the history of those who have been members of this congregation is the history of the entire church and the history of all God’s saints. And I think that history can be summed up in the answers given to the Apostle John to two questions that he could not answer.
It happened one Sunday while John was exiled on the Island of Patmos. The Holy Spirit came to him and gave him a wonderful revelation in which He showed John a number of visions, visions meant to comfort John and every Christian who would ever suffer on account of his faith. These visions were about Christ and His Church, about Satan and Jesus’ complete victory over him, about the suffering of Christians and the final victory which will be theirs on the last day, about Heaven and the joys awaiting all Christians there, visions about the saints, All Saints.
In one of these visions John saw a huge multitude of people, so many that he couldn’t count them. They were dressed in white robes with palm branches in their hands. They were standing before God’s throne crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” As John was watching this tremendous crowd of people worshipping God with such happiness and enthusiasm, one of the twenty four elders around God’s throne turned to him and asked him two questions: “These people dressed in white robes – who are they and where did they come from?”
When John was asked these questions, he didn’t know what to say, which should hardly surprise us. He’s had visions of angels and golden lampstands, and creatures with six wings, covered with eyes. He’s heard trumpets and seen horses white, red, black and pale, bringing death and drought and famine and plague. He’s seen a vision showing God’s throne made of precious stones and covered with a rainbow, surrounded by a sea of glass with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder coming from the throne. He’s seen a vision of Jesus with his hair white like snow, his eyes like flames of fire, his feet glowing like melted bronze, his face like the sun in all its brightness and a sharp double-edged sword coming out of His mouth. He’s seen so much, he can hardly absorb it all and so when the elder asks him about this great crowd dressed in white, John says simply, “Sir, you know.” In other words, “Please don’t ask me: you tell me.”
So the elder tells John. He tells Him first where these people came from, these people dressed in white around the throne of God and the Lamb. He says, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.” Or as another translation says, “These are the people who have come through the great suffering.” They have come out of tribulation: they have come through suffering. These are people who used to have troubles and afflictions; these are people who lived with great grief and distress, people who experienced misery, hardship and tragedy. That’s where they’ve come from! They came from this earth, didn’t they? They came from this earth which promises happiness and success and fulfillment and freedom and ecstasy, but in the end points us to a grave and tells us, “That is your inheritance!”; and leaves us with nothing.
But there are many, says the elder to John, who have conquered their graves and have come out of tribulation and through suffering to stand around the throne of God in joy. And now we’re told, they’ll never hunger again or thirst again, they’ll never suffer from too much heat; the Lamb will lead them to springs of living waters and wipe away all their tears forever.
On earth their work was not thought wise
But see them now in Heaven’s eyes.
Before God’s throne of precious stone
They shout their vict’ry cries.
On earth they wept through bitter years:
Now God has wiped away their tears,
Transformed their strife to heavenly life,
And freed them from their fears.
That’s where they’ve come from – from tears and fears and bitter years – and they’ve gone to live in joy with God. But who are they? We know where they come from: who are they?” The elder tells us that as well. They are the ones who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. Every one standing around the throne has washed his robe in the blood of the Lamb. There is not one there who has not washed his robe in the blood of the Lamb.
You see, every single one had a robe that needed washing. They were sinful people. There stands Rahab in that crowd around the throne, Rahab who made her living as a prostitute, but she washed her robe, that is her life of sin, in the blood of Jesus Christ and her robe is now white – God sees her as pure and righteous. There stands Samson – he’s one of that group – Samson who made a fool of himself with Delilah and was often unfaithful to his God, but he washed his robe in the blood of Jesus. There stands King David – David who committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, killed. But he washed his robe in the blood of Jesus. There stands Peter who denied His Savior and forsook His Lord, but he washed his robe in the blood of Jesus. All these came to Jesus with robes soiled from sin and disobedience against God but they stand now before God in robes that have been made white by Him who took their place on the cross, was punished for their guilt, sacrificed for their sin, shedding His blood that they might be cleansed.
So – Who are these dressed in white?
Behold a host arrayed in white
Like thousand snow-clad mountains bright.
With palms they stand.
Who is this band Before the throne of light?
Lo, these are they of glorious fame
Who from the great affliction came.
And in the flood of Jesus’ blood
Are cleansed from guilt and blame.
Now gathered in the holy place,
Their voices they in worship raise,
Their anthems swell Where God does dwell,
Mid angels’ songs of praise.
Who are these dressed in white? These are they who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. And where do we fit into the picture? Do we fit in at all? We may wonder how we can possible stand together with that holy crowd above. Consider the sinful thoughts you have had, thoughts of coveting, lusting; think of all the mean and sinful things you have done, the lies you have told, the backbiting, the disobedience, the misuse of God’s name or the lack of love for Him. Yes, when we look at our lives and the abundant evidence of our disobedience against God and His law, we may be very inclined to believe that we simply don’t fit in at all with that multitude around the throne.
But you know we do! Every time we have the Lord’s Supper we confess in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church, One holy, Christian church – One Church. We are members of the same church as that great multitude which at this moment stands around the throne and sings praises to the Lamb. We’re members of the same church as they are, all of us who see our sins and weaknesses and failures and bring our soiled robes to have them washed in the blood of the Lamb. Yes, we’ve already got those same white robes they’re wearing, all of us who believe in Jesus. We’re all members of the same church. Or don’t you believe that every time we come together and sing “Beautiful Savior,” they’re singing it too?
Think for a moment of some of those who right now are standing around Jesus’ throne. Paul is there. He once put Christians to death and fought against Jesus. Later he boldly proclaimed the name of Christ and was persecuted greatly for it, but he washed his robe in Jesus’ blood and now has come out of great tribulation. Martin Luther is there, for much of his life persecuted and hounded because of his testimony, but he washed his robe in Jesus’ blood and now all suffering is behind him. I know of a little boy who was run over by a car and another little girl who killed by a tractor tire. They both died, but they had washed their robes in Jesus’ blood and so they joined that multitude above, around the throne of Jesus. Perhaps you’ve lost a husband or wife, a son or daughter, a mother or father to death. There they stand together with Adam & Eve, Noah, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Shadrach, Meschach & Abednego, Stephen, Joseph, Mary. Every soul that has washed its robe in the blood of Jesus and has come through the great suffering which this world has to offer has joined that crowd of people dressed in white which John saw one Sunday on the island of Patmos almost two thousand years ago.
They’re our brothers and sisters in Christ. For the last 50 years and every time you came to church you have expressed your fellowship with that great, white host above as in various ways you have sung together with them, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Every time you pray you express your fellowship with that great white host above, as in your own way you join with them in praising God for His mercy and love. That’s why, every time we have communion we pray, “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of Heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Sabaoth.’” We are in fellowship with the saints above. We belong to the same church.
Or do you think that death can break our fellowship, when Christ has conquered death: it’s lost its sting? No, we’re in fellowship with them still. Even death can’t divide members of the holy Christian church. We’re in fellowship with each other. And we express that fellowship every Sunday when we sing the Kyrie. That’s the part of our worship service where we sing, “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy” and we express our fellowship with David who three thousand years ago, over and over in his psalms, prayed, “Lord, have mercy.” We proclaim our fellowship with blind Bartimaeus who sat outside the gate of Jericho and cried out, “Lord, have mercy.”
For the past 50 years you have been proclaiming your oneness with them every time you celebrated the Lord’s Supper and in effect, Jesus said to you, “The saints in Heaven have me: you shall have me, too, not just some vague assurance of my presence but the very body and blood which they behold in Heaven you shall take with your hand and receive with your mouth. That body which my disciples saw crucified and which they now worship in Heaven is given to you and that blood in which they washed their robes is yours to drink.”
We proclaim our fellowship with them every time our service comes to an end and you hear from the lips of the pastor the words of Aaron given to him by God, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” Just think – every week for forty years the two million plus Israelites heard those words from Aaron. And then he went to Heaven but God’s people continued to hear those words of Aaron for thousands of years. You members of St. Luke Lutheran Church have been hearing them for 50 years and you hear them still today and you know when you hear them, that you are one with Aaron and with millions who have heard his words of blessing and together with him have joined that great white host above.
Today we observe All Saints Day and 50 years for St. Luke Lutheran Church. We thank God this day for the example of those saints who have gone before us: and we thank God that He has made us His saints as well, His holy ones. We are sinful and have broken His law again and again but He has washed us clean in the blood of Jesus and has given us faith in the Savior, so that we one day can join the saints above. And finally, we thank God for that Day which is coming soon on which we will not only see our Savior face to face, but also all those saints whom we have known and loved and together we will sing not for a mere 50 years, but for all eternity, “Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen.”
Soli Deo Gloria
Rev. Daniel Preus– November 3, 2002
Delivered on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of
St. Luke Lutheran Church, Clinton Twp., MI