MEET THE CHURCH TRIUMPHANT
Prayer: God, let our heart be in heaven. Amen. [Laache, p. 690]
Sermon Text, Revelation 7:9-17.
Do you know this name for heaven? – “The church triumphant.” You don’t find this name in a Bible verse. But what do we see in Revelation 7? – We see the church in heaven – not a building, but the people who make up the church – and the only way to describe them is: triumphant – enjoying their victory. The Church Triumphant is the church in heaven. It’s not a different church but the one Christian Church – the church in earth and the church in heaven. We need to meet that part of it, the church triumphant, daily.
We have met them, but in the Church Militant.
Here on earth we’re in the “Church Militant,” the church that has enemies: the devil, the world and our own flesh. It’s how the Bible pictures the church on earth. Put on the armor of God, fight the good fight of faith, for the devil seeks to devour you, and in the world you have troubles – tribulation. This is the word the angel uses in Revelation 7. “Who are these?” the angel says, then answers: “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation.”
The word “tribulation” means trouble, dire trouble, real distress. Some people think this refers to some really horrible time right before the end of the world – that the great tribulation is yet to come. But the Bible says: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Ac 14:22).And Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). So this word tribulation brings us to Jesus!
If it’s the great tribulation, think of it this way: the troubles, your troubles, are “great.” The Lord is saying He considers your troubles to be big ones, they aren’t too small for Him to notice or care about. They matter to Him!
He knows your troubles. He knows your sadness. He knows your weakness. He knows your pain. He knows your sin and your guilt. He knows when you’re sinned against and trampled on. He knows when you want to give up. He knows when you’re filled with uncertainties and dark forebodings of the future. He knows when your grief or your loneliness is unbearable.
This is why these words about the saints in heaven – “these are the ones who come out of the great tribulation” – are so precious to us.
It’s being revealed to us that they came out of the same suffering, the same hard stuff, the same tribulation, troubles, that we are currently in. This phrase, “the great tribulation,” sums up all their suffering in life. They had it here, but they don’t have it there –none of it’s there! Even those who were abused sexually or by violence. Even those who marred their own bodies through sins or addictions. Even those who suffered mental health deficits or struggled with self-acceptance. We dwell on those miseries, we cry out in anguish in this life, and we’re being shown that in the church triumphant they’ve come out of it.
We live in a fallen world where there’s sin and death, where the wages of sin is death. We love and form attachments with people who are taken from us in death, and our hearts fill up with such anguish and pain.
We also live in a fallen world that isn’t a friend to our faith. It’s easier and easier for people to fall away. Fewer and fewer people are willing to deny themselves and live a godly life. It’s harder and harder to be at peace. Our sins trouble us. There are griefs and hurts of everyday life. It’s hard to trust in God as His children. This is what it means to be in the “great tribulation.”
We also see this in what the angel says the ones in heaven don’t have to endure anymore: “They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat. And God will wipe away every tear.”
This church festival – All Saints’ Day – is for remembering the departed Christians. What do we remember? We remember the good times, but also (if it was hard toward the end) their tribulations, their hurts and griefs. When I hear “the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat,” I think of my dad, who was a surveyor. The South Texas sun beat on him 10 hours a day for 42 years. That wasn’t exactly a spiritual hardship, but the point is: we remember our loved ones as they were here. We saw them having hard stuff to bear.
This is often how we’re tempted to define our life: all that’s wrong in the world or the church, all that we get down-hearted about, our worries or fears.
But as Jesus gives us this picture, He’s naming all this in your life, and in the lives of our departed loved ones.
Obviously we need this picture of the Church Triumphant. This is why Jesus reveals this in Revelation 7 to St. John. It’s written down for us, to meet the Church Triumphant and be comforted, encouraged:
We meet them in their revealed reality. We don’t see them. We didn’t see them actually going to heaven. That glorious sight is hidden from our eyes. But this wasn’t hidden from St. John’s eyes. It’s written down for us: “a great multitude that no one could number standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches,” and singing!
This is here to encourage us. So now we come to the answer to all of this. How did they “come out of the great tribulation,” and make it to heaven, how will we? “They washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” How can blood make something white? It’s Jesus’ holy blood that cleanses us from all sin.
What makes His death enough to take away your sins is His righteousness, His holiness, His purity, His keeping the Law perfectly for all people. He took from each and every person in the world all their sin onto Himself, and in exchange He gives His perfect righteousness to you.
He dresses you in it. He puts it on you like a white robe. This is done in baptism. It happens when you receive the gift of faith in Him. As the Holy Spirit gives you faith in Jesus, and preserves your faith, He’s dressing you in a white robe of Jesus’ righteousness.
This is our reason for hope, when we think of our departed friends and loved ones who put their trust not in themselves but in Jesus. They all have their personalities. I have some names in my head – my father Jerry, my father-in-law Bill, my cousin’s daughter Sarah, others named Marlene and Vic and Lila and Monica and Barb and Tim and Kenneth. You have other names and faces in mind. When the Lord called them home – no matter how shocking or devastating that moment was for us – they were ready for it, they were (and are) full of joy, since they were already wearing the white robes, and joined in this hymn of victory in heaven above as those who belong.
The only way for us to be with them now is to be dressed in a white robe – to be righteous, with no sins in God’s sight. He doesn’t wait to put it on you in heaven. He does it now in Word and Sacrament. We don’t see the white robes. We see how we’re sinful, unclean. But this isn’t where we get to see our white robes. Here we believe it. Believe it! By faith in Jesus, you have no sins in God’s sight. Just as John saw the white-robed throng, God and the angels see you in white, with the church in heaven, with those who have gone before us. In the Lord’s Supper, as we’re united with Christ we’re united with them. We are all wearing white robes, in the church triumphant and the church militant. That’s when we’re with them on earth, as we wait to be with them in heaven.
One of the great things in this picture in Revelation 7 is that John wasn’t seeing a nameless, faceless multitude, but he sees individuals. He sees that they are of different nations – not races, since “race” doesn’t exist according to God in the Bible, humanity is all one race – but they are of different nations and tribes, different languages even, he says. So people keep their personalities even when we’re glorified, they keep their unique faces and bodies (once our bodies are raised), so you can recognize them, talk to and understand them.
Also, John wasn’t looking just at all the people who came before him and went to heaven. Surely it consoled him greatly to see his brother James who was martyred, to see Mary whom he cared for until her death, to see Peter, Andrew and the rest, even the people in the churches he served. But John is taken out of time for this vision, so he’s seeing all the people who ever go to heaven: St. Augustine and his mother Monica, the martyrs Polycarp and Perpetua, Martin Luther, his wife Katie and their daughter Magdalena who died at 13, down to your parents, and yes, you. You’re in that picture of heaven. You are there.
Even though your life here is still going, in this picture – for your comfort, encouragement and confidence of salvation – Jesus shows you being in the church in heaven, with all those you know who are there, shoulder to shoulder.
So fear not, you haven’t seen them for the last time and nothing will remain unspoken. The joys you had with them here are not past; but more joys await, and you’ll know them even better there where we are more ourselves than we are here, exactly as God created, redeemed and sanctified us to be. Amen!