Lloyd Lange. Robert VerHoef. Solveig Steen. Tyler Barrett. Viola Myott. The dead who have died this past year at whose funerals I have served. You could add any number of other names.
Death surrounds us. It comes expectedly and unexpectedly. It doesn’t stop. God told Adam that he would work the ground “until you return to the ground.” The Spirit calls death man’s destiny. Paul says because of Adam, death spreads like a deadly plague from one person to the next, infecting and killing everyone. And it’s not cruel and unfair. It’s the fair day’s pay for a fair lifetime’s work of sinning. As I’ve said at almost every funeral I’ve preached, the coffin preaches the law perfectly. Death isn’t supposed to happen. Thus death terrifies us, because death here only foreshadows eternal death in hell.
Yet Christian funerals aren’t terror-filled; and you know why. At a Christian funeral, we talk about the dead who die in Christ. We talk about saints triumphant. Who are these saints, these dead who die in Christ? They’re pictured for us in Revelation 7, which serves as the verse of the day today.
In Revelation 7, the dead who die in Christ are described as “these in white robes.” The NIV muddles the translation here. John wrote, These, the ones having been clothed in white robes. This tells us everything we need to know about saints. They have been given white robes. The righteousness of Christ has been given to them as a gift. They didn’t take these upon themselves. They didn’t make them themselves. They received them from the Father, on account of Christ. Scripture speaks clearly:
“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” And they’re white because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb, which got there by no effort of ours, but only because Christ came with it, Christ shed it, and Christ gave it. One could paraphrase 1 Corinthians 12, “No one can wash their robes and make them white except by the Holy Spirit.”
This turns funerals into celebrations. Dying in Christ means heaven, and celebrating Saints Triumphant helps us understand that. It means, first, that the dead who die in Christ have left the great tribulation: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation,” the NIV says. Again, hear it a little more literally. The Spirit inspired John to write: These are the ones coming from the great tribulation. John doesn’t just see the ones who came out in the past; he sees saints coming out of tribulation now. He saw the saints and martyrs of his day, perhaps people he knew personally. Put yourself in John’s shoes and what do you see? You see Lloyd, and Solveig, and Viola, you see your aunts or uncles, neighbors, cousins, or children who have died in Christ. For them, death means escaping tribulation.
Note that carefully. Our only Biblical reference to the great tribulation teaches us not about a terrible seven-year period of chaos and destruction ushered in by some fantastic Antichrist imagined by those who write the Left Behind books. It teaches us about here and now. This is the great tribulation. Sin binds and chains creation. Sin makes humanity hostile to God and to each other. Nothing works. Nothing’s right. Death roams about freely.
And it’s only getting worse. Revelation 6 tells us that those killed for Christ huddle underneath God’s altar, pleading, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” They see how terrible things are. But now they know peace. They have come out of the tribulation, for the dead who die in Christ, it’s not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. The dead who die in Christ stand before the throne of God day and night.
And it’s because of Jesus. Because of the blood of Christ that is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, that is our redemption, that justifies us through faith in it, that has made peace between us and God because it reconciled the world to God, that purifies us and cleanses our consciences, that frees us from our sins, because of that blood, the dead who die in Christ “are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.”
Note that incredible present tense describing the saints. God doesn’t sentence them to reside in limbo until judgment day. God doesn’t suspend them in soul sleep. God doesn’t place them in purgatory to await the right number of masses, the right number of prayers, or the right number of indulgences. They’re in heaven, now and forever.
Doing what? Standing before the throne of God. God the Father doesn’t reserve this spot for Mary and the super saints, but for all the dead who die in Christ. Our Father leaves room before His throne for your aunts, uncles, moms, dads, and YOU! There the saints render God the service and worship owed Him, because without God, it’s hell, with the devil, locked up, cast into the lake of burning sulfur, the second and final death.
But then the action turns away from the saints coming out of tribulation, washing their robes, standing before the throne and serving God. It turns to God: “He who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.” There we find God, right now, ruling and reigning. And Jesus too, because He’s God. Here’s the mystery of faith. Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. He’s with us always to the very end of the age. Yet He’s also the Lamb, looking as if He were slain, standing in the middle of the throne.
And what does He do? Does He sort of pull himself away from us, as the Apostles tried to pull Jesus away from the mothers and their children? No. Jesus pitches his tent right here among this multitude. This King doesn’t seek peace and quiet and solitude in an ivory tower, He lives among His people. He dwells with them. That’s the point of sending His Son and giving up His atoning blood for our sins. He comes among the dead who die in Christ so that “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. 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.”
Here’s where my sinful nature kicks in. We hear this about the dead who have died in Christ, and we say, “Sounds great for them, but what about me? God, you left me behind with all this tribulation and pain and suffering. Now you’re just rubbing it in my face.” Quite the contrary, Saints Triumphant eases the pain you feel regarding the dead who have died in Christ; but it also whets your appetite for glory.
Has it? We should long for heaven as much, if not more, than any other thing for which we long here on earth, for which we say, “I can’t wait…” Do we? Think of the pathetic nature of the things for which we can’t wait: hunting season, thanksgiving dinner, Christmas or birthday presents, a new TV show, the release of a book or a movie, a sporting event, a trip or family event. All of which when done or achieved or come are often unsatisfying, or ruined by something. And we’ll gripe and whine and moan about that too. But heaven…
No, Saints Triumphant Sunday isn’t irrelevant. Today the Spirit uses His Word to remind you about the heavenly mansions prepared for you by your Father and won for you by His Son. Today God reminds you that what He’s doing now for the dead who died in Christ, He has let you taste already here when He killed you and made you alive again in Baptism, releasing you from the first great tribulation of sin’s guilt; when He gives you a sample of hungering no more by feeding you with the rest won by Christ in His holy Supper.
More, John wrote that God “will spread his tent over them.” That same verb is used in John 1, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” The Incarnation of Christ, God’s biggest intrusion into history, is described as God setting up His tents among us. Immanuel, God with us, came to us on earth, in order to bring us to Himself in heaven. What we said about heaven applies here. Your God is not stand-offish or cliquish. He comes to dwell among us. He rubs shoulders with us. He shared our death. By His death, He vanquished our death, He took away the sting of death – which is hell – and made our earthly death a sleep. It’s always Him doing it all. We didn’t come up to heaven, we can’t, there is the vast gulf. So, He built the stairs. He set up the tents. He gives us the robes. He makes the perishable imperishable. He cleanses the dirty.
The dead who die in Christ have left the great tribulation and stand before the throne of God. Jesus promises you today in His Word, yesterday in your Baptism, and always at His Table that those who live in Christ by faith in Christ, have the same future. Lloyd and Solveig and Viola and Robert and those among us who have died in Christ recently aren’t the only ones triumphant. Amen.