“The Saints: Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Revelation 7:2-17)
I’m sure you’ve all heard the old spiritual, “When the Saints Go Marching in.” The chorus goes like this:
Oh, when the saints go marching in,
Oh, when the saints go marching in,
Oh, Lord, I want to be in that number,
When the saints go marching in!
Well, I don’t know about you, but I sure want to be in that number! On second thought, I think I do know about you, and I know that you want to be included in that number also. For that great multitude of the saints who go marching into God’s eternal kingdom of glory–that’s the only place anyone in their right mind would ever want to be when that day comes. But that will happen only if we are numbered with those saints. And that means we need to be, to borrow a line from another song, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”
“The Saints: Signed, Sealed, Delivered”–this is our theme today on this All Saints’ Day. What is this “All Saints’ Day,” anyway? Why do we observe it? And what do we mean by “saints”? And then, “What are you talking about, pastor, ‘signed, sealed, delivered’? What are we, a bunch of UPS packages?” Well, let’s get at this, shall we?
First of all, “All Saints’ Day.” What is the purpose of this day in the church year? It has a long history. In the early years of the Christian church, it was customary for a Christian congregation to gather at the gravesite of a departed brother or sister on the anniversary of his or her death, to commemorate that person who had died in the faith and who now was with the Lord. Over the centuries, this practice came to be transferred to just one day, toward the end of the church year, when a church would remember all the faithful departed from that congregation who had died over the previous year. That is what is being done in thousands of congregations all over the world today, on this first Sunday in November. Now of course there are saints’ days for all the big-name saints scattered here and there all throughout the church year, for example: St. Andrew on November 30; St. Mary, Mother of Our Lord, on August 15; St. Matthew, on September 21. But on All Saints’ Day, we remember the Christians who have gone before us who don’t have a day on the calendar, whose names may not be well known. But the Lord knows their names. He has not forgotten them, and they are with him. This is what we celebrate on All Saints’ Day.
Now the term “saints.” What exactly do we mean by that? For most folks, when they hear the word “saints,” they immediately think of certain individuals who have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. But we are using the term in a broader sense than that. The word “saints” literally means “holy ones.” But then we have to ask: What do you mean by “holy”? To be “holy,” in biblical thinking, means “belonging to God,” to be “his.” “Set apart to belong to God.” Holy days, holy places, holy things, holy people–these all are such, they are holy, because they have been set apart from ordinary use to belong to God alone. That’s the idea behind “holy,” and that tells us, therefore, who the “saints” are.
The amazing thing is, is that we are! Yes, we are “saints,” “holy ones.” But wait, you say: “Look, pastor, I know who I am, and I sure can tell ya, I ain’t that holy!” Well, you know what? Neither am I! In myself, that is, in my flesh, according to my sinful nature, I am indeed not holy. I am not that pure, clean, morally upright–however you want to define “holy” in that sense. No, I am a sinner, and so are you. So how is it that we lousy sinners can get to be called “holy”?
It’s because we have been “set apart” to belong to God. This is not our doing, but his. He is the one who makes us holy. God has taken us rebels, sometimes by the scruff of our neck, and dragged us over to the baptismal font there, and washed us clean and pure. We don’t deserve it, we didn’t do anything to merit it, but God chose to wash us in Holy Baptism. There’s that word “holy” again. In Holy Baptism, God makes us his holy people. This is where we’ve been signed and sealed, and in the end, this is how we will be delivered.
You have been signed. At your baptism, the sign of the holy cross was placed on you: “Anna”–I’ll use the name “Anna,” because my daughter was baptized on All Saints’ Day, 17 years ago–“Anna, receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your + forehead and upon your + heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.” You see, baptized Christian, you have been signed, signed with the cross.
And the cross of Christ is the only thing that will save you. The blood that the Son of God shed on that cross paid for all of your sins–indeed, for the sins of the whole world. Then that cross is placed on you, applied to you personally, in Holy Baptism. Again, it’s God’s doing all the way–Christ dying on the cross, then God applying the cross to you in Baptism.
All your sins are washed away. It’s like the great multitude clothed in white robes, standing before the Lamb, in the Book of Revelation: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This is the only solution, truly, that will get the stain of sin out: the blood of Christ, shed on the cross. And you have been signed with that cross.
So that’s the first thing: You have been signed. Now what about sealed? Yes, you’ve been sealed, as well. God has placed his seal upon you, again, at your baptism. That is when you received the name of the triune God upon you: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You belong to God. You are his. He put his name on you. He sealed you. That is, he sealed you with the Holy Spirit and put his seal of protection on you.
God has enrolled us in his “witness protection program.” As we bear witness to our Lord, in this hostile world, we do so under God’s protection. In baptism, we were given the gift of the Holy Spirit. He will guard and keep us in the true faith, so that the world cannot harm us. Oh, the world may persecute us–they may arrest Christians, even kill us–but they cannot harm us. They cannot separate us from our God. They cannot strip us of our faith. They cannot take our eternal life from us. God will see to it. We have been sealed.
And so, signed and sealed, we will, in the end, be delivered. That is the final outcome of our faith. Salvation. Divine deliverance. God will graciously take us from this vale of tears to himself in heaven. We will come out of this time of tribulation. “Deliver us from evil” we pray, and delivered from evil we will be.
Even now, those who have departed this life in the faith–those Christians whom we have known and loved–they now rest from their labors, and their souls are with the Lord. Together we all await the day of resurrection, when our Lord Jesus will return and raise up our bodies, new and glorious. That will be the final deliverance, which is already our sure and certain hope, as sure as Christ’s own resurrection, to which we were united in baptism.
So know that all the saints who have gone before us–they are rejoicing with us on this All Saints’ Day. They know the victory Christ has won for us. It’s not just we few here who are celebrating today. Besides all our fellow Christians all around the world, the one holy Christian church includes all the saints we remember but do not see on this day.
You know, in our Communion liturgy, there is that line, “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name.” Yes, “with all the company of heaven.” They are joining us today–or rather, we are joining them, in their song of praise to God and to the Lamb.
In the churches in Scandinavia, it is an old custom that the communion rail around the altar is formed in the shape of a half-circle. The half-circle stops at the back of the chancel. Beyond the chancel, on the other side of the wall, would lie the churchyard, the cemetery, where the members of that parish would be buried. And that is the reason why the communion rail is only a half-circle. I’ll let the great Swedish churchman Bo Giertz explain. Giertz writes:
“Where the circle ends at the chancel wall, the fellowship still continues; in the churchyard is the resting place of the dead, the Lord’s faithful, who now are partakers of the great banquet in heaven. They are with us as a great cloud of witnesses, they continue the small circle of people around the altar in my parish church, a circle that widens and is extended both back in time through the centuries and forward into the eternal world. It is a table fellowship without end. Shoulder by shoulder are they with us: our own faithful ancestors who once received the sacrament here at this altar, saints and martyrs elsewhere through the ages, and finally the Lord Himself and His apostles in the glorious kingdom in heaven above where the circle comes to its conclusion. This is ‘communio sanctorum,’ the communion of saints in Christ’s kingdom of grace. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I am connected with the saints who sit at the Lord’s Table in the heavenly kingdom. I am counted as one of God’s holy people.”
“Counted as one of God’s holy people” Not only do we say, “Lord, I want to be in that number,” the good news is, we are! For you and I have been signed, marked with the sign of the cross of Christ. We have been sealed, sealed with the Holy Spirit, who will protect and keep us until the end. And so we will be delivered, you and I will be numbered with the saints in glory everlasting. Yes, fellow saints of God: Signed, sealed, delivered–you are his!