On the Other Side of Glory (2.0)
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The text for today is Revelation 7:9-10: “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, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
St. John gives us a glimpse of the other side of glory. But be careful. Don’t miss this brief opportunity by focusing on the wrong thing. The great multitude is certainly impressive in scope and range. But look beyond the great multitude to the object of their focus. Notice how they are all staring in the same direction, with the same look of astonishment and awe and love upon their faces.
This certainly is a very diverse group. They come from all economic strata, ethnic heritages, skin tones, and eras of history. Some struggled with this sin and some with that. Some thought one thing and some another. Some came into the kingdom early and others late in the day. But the thing that holds them together as one crowd is the object on which their eyes and hearts are fixed, and the love and awe that shines from them as they rejoice to look at that upon which they gaze.
Still, one must not analyze that look and imitate it outwardly so that he can sort of “fit into the crowd.” That is to be what Dr. Luther calls a “paper saint.” Instead, one pushes this way and that to get in and to get a glimpse of what they are all so intent to look upon! Because if you do that, you too—no matter what the unique struggles and burdens of your life—will come to wear that same look of astonishment and awe and love on your face. Not because you are trying to be like the crowd, but because you also see what the crowd sees. And you’ll drop to your knees too, and astonishment and awe and love will shine from your face as well.
So what is that on which they are all so intently focused? They are all facing the throne of God and of the Lamb. And they sing aloud one song in perfect harmony: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” These saints are truly blessed, because they have been granted the privilege to come before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He shelters them with His presence. Nothing in all creation can harm them!
The blessedness our Lord describes in His mountainside sermon of our Gospel, St. John sees in his vision. He sees a great multitude of the poor in spirit made rich in the grace of Jesus Christ; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He sees those who were persecuted like the prophets; they have come to their reward. These saints have left behind all mourning, meekness, hunger, thirst, and evil.
And notice this: He sees no celebrities, no spiritual superstars. He does not name the apostles, martyrs, patriarchs, or prophets. He does not identify the kings or reformers or saints commemorated by the Church. Oh, they are there, to be sure. But St. John does not see them or notice them; he sees all the saints of God purified and gathered about the Lamb who has freed them by the outpouring of His blood. This is not to say that they are nondescript or blended into one New Age universal consciousness. They are individuals—from every tribe and nation.
Heaven is not a place where the self is lost, like some imaginary Marxist ideal, where every saint is interchangeable. Rather, heaven is where the self finally becomes most fully self—free of sin. Your gifts and talents, personality and intellect, will be finally free of all envy, malice, and greed. You will be that person God created you to be, still with your nation, tribe, people, and language, but no longer as divisions fraught with jealousy, fear, and enmity, but rather as distinctions of your unique character. You will honor God and shine according to the grace given you as only you can honor and shine. But you will be united to your brothers and sisters in the object of your affection—the Lamb.
Salvation belongs to the Lamb, to Jesus, and to Him alone; yet He gives it to men. Blessing and glory and wisdom, thanksgiving and honor and power and might are His; but He bestows these upon men. He has brought them out of the great tribulation. He has purified them with fire. They suffer no more slander and false accusations. No one steals from them, betrays them, or hurts them. They are free of gossip, jealousy, lust, anger, and fear. No one sins against them and they commit no sins. Cleansing their hearts and consciences, Christ has distilled them to their finest essence, their truest selves. For in removing guilt and regret, shame and fear, He has made them truly men, just as He is truly Man.
The saints on the other side of glory hold palms of victory in their hands. Their robes are white. They have overcome the evil one by the blood of the Lamb. They reap the benefits, the plunder, and the glory of His sacrifice. He relieves them of all burdens and bestows His own inheritance and perfect love upon them. And of all of their joys, here is the greatest: Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is with them. That is the definition of “blessed”—to be with Jesus for eternity. That is the definition of “saint” or “holy one,” one who is declared righteous or holy by grace through faith in the merits of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the Lamb who was slain but who lives. He did not love His life to death. Instead He loved them to the end; for He loves His Father in perfect obedience. He does not ask, “Where is the Lamb?” as Isaac did, for He is the perfect sacrificial Lamb. He looks for no scapegoat, no mercy, no rescue. He lays down His life in order to draw all men to Himself and show His love to creation.
Thus does His Father love Him and in Him He loves them. He loves His saints, washed in the blood, drowned and raised again in the water, fed with His body once hung on the cross, anointed with His own Holy Spirit. His name is upon them. And as He is holy so they are holy. The kingdom is theirs. They are His; He is theirs. The Bridegroom is joined for eternity by the Bride, His Church.
That is the view from the other side of glory—the Church Triumphant, the saints, the holy ones who are with the Lord in heaven, living in eternal bliss. It sounds so… well, so heavenly… doesn’t it?
But as you gaze upon Christ’s Bride from this side of glory, here on earth—it doesn’t look quite so glorious, does it? And sadly, much of the damage is self-inflicted. So often it seems we’ve earned the name Church Militant, not because we’re Christian soldiers marching off to war against the forces of evil, but because we’re a bunch of tyrants and rebels, engaged in a dangerous, deadly civil war amongst ourselves. Congregations struggle financially, some unable or unwilling to afford a full-time pastor. Pastors run roughshod over congregations. Congregations run out pastors. Politics replaces churchmanship. Sound doctrine and practice gives way to expediency. Grace gives way to grudges. And many people, so fed up with all the troubles, are tempted give up involvement with organized religion altogether, and just sit at home with their Bible and spouse, until even he or she begins to look suspicious.
Sound familiar? If you haven’t seen it yet, just stick around long enough and you’ll experience it yourself. It is part and parcel of what it means to be living in the great tribulation. And the worst part is that the devil can use that to get your Old Adam to start thinking you might as well give up on your Savior, too. After all, if Jesus can’t keep His Church operating smoothly here, in time, how can you count on Him for eternity? That’s what makes it so dangerous!
But in your most honest, soul searching moments, you must admit there’s trouble even closer to home. There’s a civil war going on in your own heart, too. St. Paul’s words on the frustrating paradox of living in this world simul iustus et peccator, as simultaneously sinner and saint, strike a raw nerve. You desire to do the right thing but don’t. Instead, you end up doing that very thing you hate. Like the dog that returns to its own vomit you go back to that pet sin again and again.
And you are not alone. You are not the only one who grows frustrated and tired with your own failures. You are not the only one who thinks that the Church on earth should look and act more like the Church in heaven. You are not the only one who believes that the Church of the Reformation should be more faithful to the Reformation. You are not the only one who is shocked, scandalized, and disgusted by the Church’s in-fighting and worried about the impact of that fighting on its mission and witness. That is the way that it is on this side of glory.
Such anxiety comes from cloudy vision, from judging by appearance only. Those who live by sight are betrayed by it. By themselves, the eyes can only see the immediacy of poverty, meekness, hunger, fighting, and persecution. But faith sees through today and into tomorrow. It embraces the promise. It sees blessedness in the cross, in suffering, in fighting, and even in what seems to be death; for faith knows that there is no death for those who die in the Lord. They pass through death from this living and temporal death we call “life” into real and everlasting life. Death has been swallowed up in the cross and empty tomb.
This is the peace that passes all understanding. It is peace that exists in turmoil, in sadness, and in the face of tragedy. It exists and endures because it comes from God. It lives by faith, by things unseen, things promised, things yet afar off (though not as far as they used to be). It is the everlasting hope of the Church which has been bought and redeemed by the death and resurrection of her Lord. It is peace with God, not men. It is peace not now, but then.
This is how our Lord describes the Christian’s lot on this side of glory: poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungry, cursed, reviled and hated by men, at war, in strife and difficulty—but only for a time. In Christ, you shall be comforted. By grace, you shall inherit the earth. With righteousness, you shall be filled. For you—baptized into His death—shall obtain mercy. You shall not be judged by your sins, or by your deeds, but by His perfect life and atoning death.
Christ—His perfect life and atoning death—is enough. It is enough to make dead men alive, sinners into saints, a people from people who were no people. All God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ. All of St. John’s vision of the other side of glory are yours in Christ. All the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount describe you. In the resurrection, you shall see God. You shall be called blessed. You shall be called the son of God, for the kingdom of heaven is yours.
I know. This all sounds impossible. But remember, this is how Abraham lived in the Promised Land: in a tent, as a foreigner, while hostile, pagan people claimed his land as their own and built fortified cities to prove it. He was an old man, with a barren wife, with no prospects for children. The Scriptures say that he was as good as dead. But he waited. He waited for a son, for a people, for a land… but most of all he waited for the Savior. Abraham embraced the promise, and in that faith he was blessed. The kingdom of God is his.
It is also yours. For this is how it is with all saints still on this side of glory. We are waiting. Mostly, this is waiting in the midst of sorrow and uncertainty…or of hardship and worry. Some days are better than others, but there are no days when everything is just right. We are foreigners, not putting down roots, always outsiders, always suspect. Always a target for the devil’s lying doctrines of glory now, always the object of the world’s scorn. Thus the Word of God calls us to live by faith, to rejoice in things unseen but believed, such as a communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
You see, the great multitude that John saw was not simply those saints who had already come to heaven up to that point. They were there, of course, but there were more. For John saw the culmination of creation. He witnessed the great multitude after the resurrection on the Last Day. When he was transported to heaven, he was also transported out of time. So he saw people who weren’t even born yet, like St. Augustine and Martin Luther.
And I bring this up because this means what John saw and describes in our text is not about “those” saints of God. It is about you. These are your people. If you were to look closely at that great multitude you would see among them your own loved one(s) who have died in the faith. There’s St. Jack, St. Jeanine, St. Freemond, St. Les, St. Ray, St. Lavonne, St. Gordon, St. Lois, St. Larry, St. Wilfred, St. Justin, just to name a few. There’s also your fellow believers gathered here this morning, as well as those who are unable to be with us today. This gathering of the saints in heaven and earth is the Holy Christian Church that we confess each week in the Creed. This is the blest communion, the divine fellowship we just sang about in our sermon hymn, “For All the Saints.”
By God’s grace, you have all been called into the Una Sancta, the one holy Church made up of believers from every nation, tribe, people, language, denomination, and era of history. The only difference between you and many of them is that they are already on the other side of glory. They have already passed through death and you must still abide in it. They rest from their labors while you still toil. They are free from turmoil and strife while you still live in the midst of it. They nobly fought and won the victor’s crown. While you feebly struggle, they in glory shine. Yet all are one in Christ, for all are His. Allelulia!
The other side of glory is your future, too—foretold in God’s Holy Word and seen by St. John. So it doesn’t matter what happens tomorrow; what they say about you at work; whether you suffer injustice or painful trial: out of the great tribulation you shall come with robes washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb, the Beatitudes fulfilled in you, and for you. You shall neither hunger nor thirst anymore. The sun shall not strike you, nor any heat. The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd you. He will lead you to living fountains of waters, to Life itself. God Himself will wipe away every tear from your eyes. You will be called blessed.
But dear people of God—even now on this side of glory you are blessed: Jesus, the Lamb, is in your midst. He is with you always, as near as His means of grace. The kingdom of heaven is yours. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the object of angelic protection and prayers, for you were sealed and anointed in the holy waters of Baptism with the triune name of God. You are here today to receive anew the forgiveness of your sins, to be absolved, to hear the Word, to pray and praise your God, and to finally join in communion, to join your fellow saints of both sides of glory in a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb.
You are blessed. You are holy ones. You are saints of God—not because of anything you have or haven’t done, but because of what Christ has done for you with His innocent suffering and death on the cross. He is now risen and ascended to the Father’s right hand. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.