Who can stand? That is the question at the end of the sixth of seven seals in the chapter immediately prior to the text from the Revelation read eariler. The entire cosmos is shaken to its foundation; the sun goes black; the moon turns to blood; the stars fall from the sky like ripe figs. As the great and mighty, the movers and shakers of this world cower in caves and plead for the rocks to fall on them and hide them from the wrath of the Lamb, the question is asked aloud, “Who can stand?”
At thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both rider and horse lay stunned. But thou, terrible art thou! Who can stand before thee when once thy anger is roused? Ps 76:6-7.
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:2)
The six seals, opened by the enthroned Lamb who was slain but lives reveals the fire of God’s judgment: conquest, warfare, famine, death, martyrdom, and then the end coming in a cosmic cataclysm in which the sky is rolled up like scroll and every mountain and island removed from its place. Who can stand?
We had our own picture sign of that here in southern California last week. The mountains and hills ablaze, the sun darkened in the day, the moon rising a deep red on the horizon. The air thick with smoke. Some thought, is this it? Is this the end? It might very well be; it certainly is a picture of the end and a call to repentance. And if how it will be in the end, who can stand?
The answer comes in Revelation 7, the interlude between the sixth and seventh seal. Four angels restrain the four winds at the earth’s compass points, just as they did in Ezekiel’s vision of the destruction of Jerusalem. And like the vision of Ezekiel, another angel appears to announce the sealed servants of God. Who can stand on the day of God’s wrath against our sin? Those who are sealed with the Lamb’s mark their foreheads; those who bear the Lord’s brand of ownership; those who are washed, justified, sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus and the Spirit of God. In a word, the baptized.
Between the sixth and seventh seal of judgment is the seal of God’s mercy: Holy Baptism, the mark that distinguishes God’s people, His Israel, the washing that declares a sinner to be a saint and makes one a child of God. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” Who can stand? The baptized can stand; God’s Israel, His Church, can stand.
Sound and sight are rhymed in John’s vision, what is heard and what is seen are held in parallel. John hears the mystical number of the redeemed – 144,000. A perfected Israel. Twelve times twelve times a perfected cube of ten. No one is missing; everyone accounted for, held in the all-redeeming death that will not let them go. John hears the census of an Israel the likes of which there never was on earth. Judah is at the head; the Lion of Judah has conquered, the scepter has not departed from David’s tribe. Dan is missing. The rabbis said that the anti-messiah would come from Dan’s rebellious tribe, and now Dan is no longer numbered in the rolls of Israel. There is a warning. Those whose names are written in the Book of Life, can, by their own rejection, be blotted out. The man who was removed from the wedding party for not wearing the wedding suit. The goats in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. The five foolish bridesmaids in His parable of the wedding. All were at one time included but in the end excluded by their refusal to be dealt with on Christ’s terms. In Dan’s place is Joseph, the one betrayed by his brothers who became their savior. Each tribe perfected to Israelite perfection.
The perfection of the Church as God’s Israel is something heard but not seen. This is a matter of faith and not of sight. No matter how hard we may long for it and try to see it with our eyes, the Church’s perfection remains a mystery revealed by the Word and taken on trust. In this life, the Church appears anything but perfect – weak, divided, flawed. But the Church as God sees it is a Bride washed and adorned, robed with Christ, her flaws hidden by His perfection.
What John sees with his eyes is a great multitude no one can count, redeemed humanity in all its inclusive fullness, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. This is the Church in her triumphant glory, standing, yes, standing! before the throne of the Father and the Lamb, her Savior, clothed in the white robe of His righteousness, waving palm branches in an eternal feast of tabernacles and proclaiming the Source of their salvation: Salvation belongs to our god who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!, to which the angelic hosts cry out “Amen” and bless God with their sevenfold doxology. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Who can stand? These can stand, and they worship.
Still the vision must be revealed and explained to us who see but through a glass dimly and not yet face to face. Who are these white-robed ones? And where did they come from? The answer surprises, even shock us. These have come out of the great tribulation of death into life eternal. They weren’t spared the sorrows and anguishes of this life, but they come out of this dark valley of sorrow and tears, led by their Good Shepherd Jesus who paves the way for them by His dying and rising. The Church that is unwilling to suffer cannot be not a sign of the kingdom of Christ. Neither the Church nor her ministers have any exemption from hardship and tribulation. There is only the cross of Christ the Lamb by which we live in our death.
Remember that the next time you are called to suffer, or when you are called to embrace your own death. The saints come through their time of tribulation, they do not get a free pass around it.
Who are they and where did they come from? You know, at least in part. John saw a great multitude that no one can count, but they each have faces and names. We will read the names of own this morning – the baptized, the believing, the blessed who have died in the Lord and now rest.
The multitude of saints John sees have washed their robes, bleached them white in the Lamb’s blood. These are no plaster saints of the legends, but genuine, justified sinners, whose scarlet sins have become snow white by the bloodied Word that imputes to them a righteousness that is not their own. They are saints not because of what they have done but because of what Christ has done for them. They are the baptized, clothed with Christ, covered with His holiness, redeemed by His blood.
You have nothing of your own by which you may stand before God. Your thoughts and desires and words and works all testify against you and would condemn you. Your underlying idolatries and adulteries and murders and lies would be your downfall. No one has a claim on God; no one may boast. The saints are forgiven, which is what makes them saints.
The crucified and risen Lamb has given you to stand with all the saints in glory. That great white robed multitude is a picture of your future and your present moment in Christ, the now of your salvation. You have been crucified with Jesus, raised with HIm, glorified in Him. You are given to dwell under the shelter of His tent, the tent of the justified. You shall hunger and thirst no more; the Lamb prepares a table for you, His own body and blood. The sun will not strike you as you are rooted in the deep soil of repentant faith, nor will the scorching heat of persecution cause you to wither. In Christ you stand. Good Shepherd Jesus will lead you to springs of living water, that Spirit-ed water of life that poured from His side over you in Baptism, refreshing and renewing you each day with His forgiveness. And those tears, shed in grief over your sin, your death, and the death of those you love, will be wiped away by the hand of God.
Who can stand on that great and terrible Day when the Lamb is revealed to the world that hates Him, the world He died for, the world He redeemed with His blood? Who can stand? You can stand, even as you now stand by faith, baptized in Him, believing in Him. You can stand by the Spirit of Christ and by His Word that establishes you. You stand with the saints who have lived and confessed and died before you, united in divine service with them to proclaim with sanctified and redeemed lips: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
In the name of Jesus,