Click play to listen to the audio version of this sermon.
To download the mp3 file, right click the image below and “save as.”
On this Sunday every year, were read the names of all those who were members of this congregation when they died. Some we never knew. Some we knew quite well. They were fathers and mothers, husbands and wives and even the sons of some among us here this morning. Time has passed and the anguish of the grave has faded. Death has lost the terrible sting that it once had. And we give thanks to God for that.
But why do we do this? Why do we name our dead before the Lord? Why do we place flowers at the foot of altar with the names of our loved ones on our lips and in our hearts?
We name our LIVING before the Lord every Sunday in our prayers asking for the Lord’s care for them. But we certainly don’t need to do that for the dead, as some do. We do not pray FOR THE DEAD, because simply put, they don’t need them. Their bodies are in the grave awaiting the resurrection of all flesh. And their souls are in heaven and they ‘with the Lord’ and every sickness and disease both of body and soul is over.
So then, why do we do this? What are we doing when we call out the names of those who have died in the faith as speak their names in our hearts as we do on this day?
The answer is, we are counting the spoils of our Lord’s victory over the devil and over our sin. For Christ our Lord has gone to war with devil over these whom we have named. And has won the victory by His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. And the spoils of His victory are those whom we have named.
They were captives to the devil and to their own sin just as much as we are right now. It was the same daily battle for them between the good that they willed to do but didn’t and the evil that they hated but did. But now they’re FREE. Not because they have managed somehow to escape. But because Jesus Christ has set them free and brought them into His Father’s House.
So we name our dead, to mock the devil and to praise our mighty Lord, the God of Sabaoth. These whom we have named are the holy plunder of God. And this is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia.
Jesus described it like this. “When a strong man fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils.” (Luke 11:21-22).
The devil is a strong man. As we sung last Sunday, “No strength of ours can match his might. We would be lost, rejected.” The devil held every man and woman and child ever born of a mother and father captive to sin, death and his dark power over them.
“But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected. You ask who this may be. The Lord of Hosts is He – Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son adored. He holds the field victorious.” The strong man has been overpowered by a stronger man, the God/Man, Jesus Christ.
Our champion has disarmed the devil of the devil’s only weapon which is the guilt of sin that separates us from God and that leads to death. He shed His holy and precious blood for them. He died for them. And when He rose from the dead, He brought them with Him, just as He will do with us if we remain in this one, true faith.
I. The Multitude
St. John sees the plunder that Christ has taken from the devil and describes it like this, “Behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”
Even though this multitude of captives set free cannot be numbered, still we can single out a few who we know by name. There is George and Jim, Brendan and Franklin, Elizabeth and Cordula.
Shoulder to shoulder with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven before the Lamb of God who gave Himself up for them, to bring them out of this ‘great tribulation’ and into His kingdom of peace and love and joy.
II. White Robes
They are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb clothed in white robes.”
In the beginning, the man and the woman stood naked before God and felt no shame. Where there is no sin there is no shame, and we see God as He is, and He sees us ‘just as I am’. But later, because of our sin, we could not bare to let God see us bare because of our guilt. And God could not stand the sight of us because of His holiness.
“So the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:22). The official record doesn’t say what kind of animal it was that God killed for its skin that He might cover His people with it. But I’m going to take a wild guess that it was lambskin.
Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, took on human skin so that He might cloth guilty men and women with Himself, so we might not hide ourselves from God like Adam tried to do. But rather, so that we might be hidden in Christ, clothed in His righteousness and stand before the throne of God and the Lamb without guilt or fear or shame. And so that God Himself might see us and say, “With you I am well pleased.”
So we are not honoring these men and women whom we have named because they were perfect or good or even nice. This is no place for funeral parlor talk. “He was always such a good man.” “He was the perfect husband.” “She never did anything wrong.” We can be honest. They were human, infected with the same sin that we are.
We simply do not need to engage in such false pretenses. These clothes that they wear are given to them for the sole purpose of covering up all the filthy rags that they wore when they still walked among us. Already, in their baptism, their prison clothes were removed from them and they were clothed in the pure and sinless Jesus Christ. And as long as they remained so clothed, hidden in Jesus, trusting not in their own righteousness but in the righteousness of Him who called them out of darkness into His marvelous light, they stand before God without spot or blemish.
III. Palm Branches
“And with palm branches in their hands, they were crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!’”
In his gospel, St. John records this little detail about Palm Sunday that Matthew, Mark and Luke omit. When Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey, John writes that the crowd “they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…” (John 12:13).
They were like captives cheering their liberator as He came home from a successful campaign against the enemy. They waived palm branches like we would waive banners and shoot off fire-works. It was a celebration of His victory on their behalf.
Now, as the same John who wrote the gospel, sees the massive crowds in heaven, he sees that they are all still holding onto those palm branches that they were waiving along the roadside on Palm Sunday. Now, praising the one who came in the name of the Lord and who, by His cross and tomb has conquered the old evil foe and set them free.
An old funeral custom that has sadly passed out of use was to place a palm branch in the hand of the deceased in the coffin. A vivid reminder that this one is one of the “great multitude that no one could number.”
IV. All the Company of Heaven
“And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God.”
The prophet Isaiah had once found himself before the throne of God and he couldn’t bear it. “Woe is me! For I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” (Is.6:4-5)
But now, John sees the angels, the elders and the four living creatures which stand for men and women from all four corners of the world, standing before the King, the Lord of hosts, singing His praise, every lip sterilized by that which comes from the altar – hot coals for Isaiah lips – bread and wine for yours.
And what wonderful speech comes from those sanctified lips. ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
In just a few moments, we will claim our place in that multitude, or they will claim a place with us, I’m never quite sure if we ascend to heaven or if heaven descends to us. Either way, we will join our sanctified lips with the ‘angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, and laud and magnify’ the glorious name of this God around whose throne we gather.
ALL SAINTS, the saints in heaven and the saints on earth. All one, holy Christian and Apostolic Church. They, separated from us, only by the silky thin veil of time and space. They see Him face to face. We see Him under bread and wine.
“O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia!”
And so we name those who died in this one, true faith before the Lord, not because we believe that they were so good that they were worthy of such honor. But because we believe that the Word and promises of God are true and sure and certain.
“He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Col. 1:13-14.)
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses… God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus]. (Col. 2:13-15)
As we name our dead before the Lord, we should also be reminded that this is our destiny too. We will all one day die. And if we will persevere in this ‘one true faith,’ our name will one day appear on this list.
We too will be called out of this great tribulation and into His marvelous light. We will come before the Lamb on His throne, clothed in the white robes we received in our baptism, holding our palm branch, one of that great multitude praising the Name that is above every name.
“They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them by day 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.” Alleluia!