There’s a scene in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where Harry and his godfather, Sirius, find themselves in a desperate situation. They’re at a lake and under attack by over 100 evil creatures. Just when it looks like all is lost, a shadowy figure appears on the other side of the lake and comes to the rescue. Harry blacks out, but before he does, he catches a glimpse of his mystery hero. Having a familiar appearance, he supposes it was his father. Later on he finds out that the person he saw on the other side of the lake was, in fact, himself.
It’s easy to make the same mistake and not realize what you are seeing in our Lord’s revelation to St. John is, in fact, yourself. John saw the entire host of heaven in today’s first reading: those who are there now, and those who have yet to join them. Here’s how he describes what he saw:
After 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… (Rev. 7:9)
Upon hearing this, we might very well ask the same question the elder asked St. John: “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”, not realizing that this is a picture of yourself in glory with all the saints in heaven.
What a blessed comfort it is that the Holy Spirit thought to include an end-time picture of the saints in heaven in Holy Scripture, and it’s a picture that includes you. Here St. John sees that great multitude that no one can number, from every nation. He sees the saints from the Old Testament and New Testament, from 16th century Germany and 21st century Summit and Hodgkins. St. John sees you standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in a white robe and crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
As the elder told John, “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.” That’s how you know you’re in this picture. You are currently experiencing the great tribulation, and you have already washed your robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
This is the great tribulation, as anyone with a pulse can testify. Satan has launched an all out, no holds barred assault on the Church. You suffer the consequences of the enemy’s rage daily, and it often feels like he’s winning. But at the baptismal font, you have already been enrolled in Christ’s army of saints. Whenever someone is baptized, they receive a white garment and hear the words,
“Receive this white garment to show that you have been clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers all your sin. So shall you stand without fear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the inheritance prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
That’s what Jesus does for you in Holy Baptism. He washes you clean in His own blood so that you might stand without fear before His judgment. He doesn’t call you into His courtroom to terrify you. He calls you there so that you might receive the inheritance He has prepared for you. His verdict, “Not guilty”, has already been declared. Now it’s just a matter of time before you receive your full inheritance.
As much as we preach the pure Gospel of salvation by faith in Christ alone, people still routinely worry about their salvation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people—even Lutherans—say to me, “I sure hope God doesn’t send me to hell.”
And you have reason to fear that, on account of your sin. God threatens to punish all who break His commandments. You haven’t kept God’s Law, and this has left you with a nagging sense of inadequacy, and the fear the God will give you the hell you deserve.
But Christ suffered that hell in your place. Your sin is great, but Christ is greater. He has washed that away in Holy Baptism. Notice St. John doesn’t say he sees those who never sinned, he saw those who had sinned, those who needed to have their garments washed by Christ. That’s what He has done for you in Holy Baptism, and that why you need not fear. If you, the baptized, who cling to your Savior in faith aren’t in that picture from Revelation 7, then God is a liar. He’s not.
You only get into our Lord’s heavenly banquet if you’re wearing the right garment, and it’s a garment He Himself provides. Fig leaves weren’t what Adam and Eve needed to cover their shame. What they needed, and what you need, is Christ. In Holy Baptism you have been clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers all your sin.
It’s easy to get discouraged. Our Lord doesn’t call this life “the great tribulation” for nothing. We live in the Church Militant, and when you’re at war, there are always casualties. St. John’s vision is meant to strengthen and encourage you. You need to hear that distant triumph song, to see this vision of glory, for by them, Christ makes your heart brave and arms strong.
Don’t give up. As our Lord promises in Revelation 2, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
But it’s incredibly difficult, I think, for us to actually picture ourselves in that heavenly multitude in Revelation 7. As highly as we like to think of ourselves and as hard as we try to impress, you can’t fool yourself. The fact that you try so hard is proof that you don’t measure up, not to God’s standards, and not even to your own. You always feel like you have something to prove—because you do. You’ve forsaken God, let others down, and are discontent with yourself on account of your sin.
The problem is that you keep looking back into the mirror. You have a hard time seeing yourself in that great multitude because your tendency is to evaluate yourself on the basis of your performance rather than on the basis of Christ’s. There’s no mistaking your presence in that heavenly multitude when you look at yourself through the eyes of Christ.
When Jesus looks at you, He sees His beautiful Bride, in whom there is no spot or wrinkle or blemish. You are as beautiful as Christ was ugly. His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, as One from Whom men hide their faces.
But you are so beautiful to Christ that He devoted an entire book of the Old Testament to singing about it. This is what Jesus does in the Song of Songs, a Song of His great love for you, His Bride. You’ve already seen yourself as Christ sees you in Revelation 7—spotless and radiant—now listen to the part of the Song your Lord sings about you:
Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful;
your eyes are doves.
You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.
My bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.
How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
(Song 1:15; 4:7; 4:9-10)
Repeatedly Christ identifies you, His Bride, as “most beautiful among women.” He brags of your beauty:
My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the only one of her mother, pure to her who bore her. The young women saw her and called her blessed; the queens and concubines also, and they praised her. “Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, awesome as an army with banners?” (Song 6:9-10)
You are already God’s saint now. It can be difficult to see yourself with the radiance and beauty which Christ sees you, for what you will be has not yet appeared. In Christ, you are more beautiful than you could ever imagine. What you will be has not yet appeared, but know this: there breaks a yet more glorious day. Even now, in His Body and Blood, He gives you a foretaste of the feast to come.
We feebly struggle while the saints in glory shine. You don’t see your own beauty in Christ and it looks like the Church is dying. One of Satan’s favorite lies! The Church only gets bigger as time goes on. New saints are daily being born into God’s Kingdom through water and the Spirit, and those who used to sit with you in these pews are now in the Church Triumphant. They, too, are in that picture of the great multitude from Revelation 7, standing by your side. As we sing:
Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Christ has promised that you will share in the same glory as all the saints in heaven, including Gladys Schauer and Ray Dolgner, whom we especially remember this day.
The promise Christ made to Gladys and Ray, He also makes to you: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Soli Deo Gloria