Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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.
John wrote Revelation as an old man exiled to an island called Patmos. Most of his friends were already dead. Martyrs. Killed in creative and painful ways. He’s all that’s left of the 12. Maybe he didn’t always get along with Peter, but I bet he misses him. The old rivalry was fierce, but I guarantee John didn’t want Peter to go the way he did. He was crucified upside down at his own request. He didn’t feel worthy to die the same death as his Lord.
The letter that would be called Revelation was written to the handful of fledgling churches only in their second generation and already slipping. Into heresy. Hatred. Hopelessness. John watches, wondering whether there will be anyone to carry on what he saw start on Pentecost.
He’s an old man, waiting to die alone. He’s not doing nothing. Still, he wishes he could do what he used to. John peaked. In his time with Jesus. Maybe later, when the Spirit penned the gospel through him. Either way, looking forward, it was pretty much downhill. The best he could hope for was not to be martyred. To die an uncreative death on an island cut off from where he’d rather be.
I’ve been kicked out of a few places, but never exiled. Not for the rest of my life at least. I don’t know any martyrs. My peak, whatever it was or just might maybe be, won’t be remembered in 100 years. But I can still relate to the last apostle. I know what it’s like to mourn someone you love who should be with you here and isn’t.
We ascribe a lot to our heroes. Not just the biblical ones. The ones who have gone before and just seem larger than life. Who seemed to radiate strength that always calmed us. Love that washed over our tempers and fears. Wisdom and knowledge that always knew what to do or say or even just how to say nothing yet convey everything all the same. Our heroes were there when we needed them. Were. Too many of our heroes are dead. Too many of our problems aren’t.
I know what it’s like to mourn heroes. And I know what it’s like to mourn the rest too. I know what it’s like to wrestle with the memory of someone. Because you might not have gotten along perfectly, but you want to remember the best of them, and you’re sure now that all that stuff shouldn’t have meant they went like they did.
I know what it’s like to look around and remember what was, to know what was lost, to worry about what will be, and to just feel…tired. John did a lot I’ll probably never do. But I think I still understand what he felt on Patmos. Too many of us probably do. Despair.
This is the John shown the vision of the great multitude. Through him, God gives us a gift to guard against the same despair that infects heroes and the rest of us alike. A vision that speaks to that quiet pessimism that says “I’ve peaked. I’ve lost. It will only break.” John shares his glimpse of a reality outside of the tunnel vision we get when we mourn and despair. It brings hope. Light. Life.
He is taken up to see the heavens, and outside of time, the resurrection of the body on the last great day. He saw the victory. Not just Peter and the heroes. “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “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” They’re the baptized. The church that continued to the end against all odds to include multitudes no-one can number. Those who you loved and mourned because they fell asleep in faith. Those who felt the despair of dark and latter days. Who are these coming out of the great tribulation? Us. He saw us.
Ordinary heroes who have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. Ordinary heroes who God saw fit to pen into the bible for all generations to see and remember, whether or not their names cross our lips. You’re in the bible. Right there. The baptized, brought through tribulation and unto glory.
The world deals with despair predictably. They grasp the false optimism of bumper stickers like “fake it till you make it, dance like nobody’s watching, live laugh love.” They craft blame into stones to throw at each other because hate at least hasn’t given up and anger feels better than pain.
Christians are called to confront despair differently. We’re called to confess the truth even if it isn’t popular. Never yield it. No matter how crazy it sounds. We are dust. To dust we shall return. And Christ is risen from the dead. The thing that chases away despair isn’t just lying to yourself about things, wishing for what used to be, or finding someone to blame it on. It comes from seeing the victory. We answer despair with the God who fought for us. He didn’t just smite the enemies we can’t. That does no good. I’ve seen heroes do stuff I can’t, and it’s inspiring to some, but only makes me feel more helpless about my situation. I can’t do those things. I can’t be those heroes.
God didn’t ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, make a passionate speech while rousing music played in the background, then smite the devil. He didn’t topple the corrupt governments and live a happily-ever-after life free from worry or death. He came to bear our despair, our loss, our fear. He came to cry our tears. And then to conquer our enemies by dying our death. All for you. To bring you out of the great tribulation.
We are are not bound by the same feelings and struggles or some measure of how important we are in the grand scheme of things. We’re bound by Jesus who gives us a new identity. Holy ones. Saints. The ones brought out of death to life.
What we see toppling and in decline, God answers with a heavenly vision of victory. I know who we are. I know where we stand. Sheltered in the presence of God. Not just someday. Now. Because He has already accomplished it. He let it all fall down, then rebuilt the pieces, bringing us through with Him. He died and rose for you, that you would rise again. That the ones we mourn as gone, God would call alive, and more, alive with Him.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
And these are not far away. They are now. They are here. Because the same God comes to us. We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus that unites us to a victory that endures what we’re afraid might crumble. We call it the communion of the saints. We mean all of them. God makes Himself present with us this day in a meaningful way. In His body and blood for you to eat and drink. He brings all of heaven along. The saints kneel together. All of us. You kneel with those who have gone before us. Shoulder to shoulder. So close that the last enemy death gets ground beneath us in Him who brought it to nothing.
All Saints Day is for ordinary heroes, everyone of us holy, not by doing things that will be remembered in 100 years and defeating odds the rest couldn’t. We are made holy by being united to Him who makes us that way by washing us white in His blood. Who, even as He brought the world to a halt and ripped the sun from the sky as He cried out it is finished to redeem us from sin and death, works simple acts of love through us for each other that make this day so important to us. Remember the saints for what God has worked through them. Holiness. Love. Salvation. We remember. Viola Kaddatz. Carl Roberts. John Grieshaber. Ray Kniepkamp. Roy Lehrmann. Donna Travis. June Wendt. Mark Hagedorn. Alene Hensel. Don Morris. We remember the saints who left holes in our hearts, but kneel with us here in the same faith. We remember them by a cross and an empty tomb. We remember them by a baptism that joins us in white robes washed in the blood of the lamb. We remember in a feast that we share even as it unites heaven and earth.
You didn’t bring anything into this world, and there’s a lot you can’t take out with you, but there’s some things you can. The most important. By Christ’s resurrection. By baptism. By faith. You will see your loved ones again. Who are these coming out of the great tribulation? The baptized. Us. We are all saints.