Live Audio recording from Lessons and Sermon:
Sermon Text: Revelation 7:1-8
Date: September 13 & 14, 2014
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Revelation 7:1–8 (NIV84)
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.
From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed,
from the tribe of Reuben 12,000,
from the tribe of Gad 12,000,
from the tribe of Asher 12,000,
from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000,
from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000,
from the tribe of Simeon 12,000,
from the tribe of Levi 12,000,
from the tribe of Issachar 12,000,
from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000,
from the tribe of Joseph 12,000,
from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000.
Nothing Will Overcome God’s Seal
1. Cling to God’s Seal
2. Bring out God’s Seal
The book of Revelation can be a challenging read. If you were able to join us for our first study on Monday evening this past week, you know partly why. So much of Revelation is fantastic pictures and visions. In some ways, it’s like book of parable after parable back to back to back. Like with parables, usually the point God is making through the pictures in Revelation are not overly complex, but understanding what the point is just by looking at the pictures can be a challenge at times.
This morning we’re looking at a fresh vision from God for the apostle John. We note the start of a new vision not because it’s the beginning of chapter 7 but because of what John says, “After this I saw…” He’s not notating chronological change in a broader vision, but a new picture for him to puzzle over and to share. While some of the pictures in Revelation may be scary and troubling, and may serve as warnings and rebukes to those who reject God, this morning’s vision is a pure dose of comfort for you and me. Here God tells us why we do not need to be afraid, because nothing will overcome his seal.
We begin the vision by seeing four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. While “corners” of the earth might feel like a strange way to talk knowing that our planet is a spheroid, this was an ancient expression that still finds use today to describe the extreme reaches of the earth. In other words, as the angels stand at the four corners, they are guarding the entirety of the world. They are holding back “the four winds.” We don’t hear of these four winds elsewhere in Revelation, but elsewhere in Scripture, especially in the visions of the prophet Daniel, it’s clear that these are destructive winds—world destroying winds. To have these four winds from the four corners blow would wipe out all that is on the earth. The four winds will blow on the last day and destroy creation before God makes a new heaven and a new earth—the eternal home of heaven for his people.
That will come, but what John sees in this vision is the depiction of a time that is not ready for it. The angels are holding back and restraining these winds until the right time. When will that time be? Well, someone has work to finish first. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” The angel directs the angels holding back the winds to keep doing so until all of servants of God have been sealed on their foreheads.
When I first went away to school for my first year of high school, I can remember spending a long time writing my name on every item I was bringing to school. For higher-valued things, my mom borrowed a diamond tip pencil from her work that they used to write on glass culture slides to etch into the back of the TV and computer. We spent the time and effort on that to make sure that in the communal nature of the high school dormitory, items would get returned to their proper place; the name on each item made clear to whom it belonged.
That’s exactly what this angel is doing. He’s marking, not clothes and electronics, but people with God’s seal. In a vision, the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel is told to do something similar by taking a writing kit and writing on the foreheads of the people in the city who are devoted to God (see Ezekiel 9). God is marking those who belong to him.
Of course, being a vision, God doesn’t literally come with a wax or metallic seal and place it on our foreheads. But he does mark us as his own. In the waters of baptism when he washed your sins away he made you his child. He adopted you, made you his own. Nothing can take that away from you. The seal is there. You belong to him and he to you forever. God has chosen you from eternity to be his own. Even if the worst should happen, even if someone were to take your life, even if they were to take your life because you were one of God’s sealed servants, the only thing that would accomplish is hastening you out of this world of misery and sin to bring you into the land of perfection that Jesus gave to you on the cross.
This is exactly what Jesus promised Peter in our Gospel this morning. His church would be built on that beautiful confession that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah. He is the promised Savior. Forgiveness for the world’s sins have been won by his death, and the perfect life that God demands has been made ours through Jesus’ obedience. That faithful truth will stand until the end. The gates of hell itself will not be able to overcome them because God has the powers of the destruction held at bay until the appointed time comes.
And so until that time we cling to that seal. How do you cling to something you cannot hold or see? You go to where you can see it. You see it in the pages of Scripture. In God’s Word, he clearly tells how he ransomed you from sin, death, and the devil. You return to the Lord’s table where you receive anew his body and blood, the very forgiveness of your sins in a tangible form. You grasp tightly to the reality of your adoption, your baptism. We fly to these means of grace, these pathways through which God brings us strengthening of faith, renewal of appreciation for the rescue he’s freely given, where the Holy Spirit does his work and thereby allows us to cling to the reality that we have been sealed as God’s own servants, his children, forever.
We know that the winds of destruction will not blow, the end of this life will not come until that sealing work is done. When will that happen? Jesus put it succinctly when speaking to his disciples just before he died. He warned them that they would go out with a message that would be poorly received. Enemies would imprison them and kill them. “But,” Jesus said, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The message of sins forgiven must reach all nations before the end of the world will come. After all, God does not desire that anyone perish in their sins but that all people come to know the forgiveness that they have in Jesus’ life, death, and glorious resurrection from the dead.
This is where we come in. We may not be doing the sealing, but we have the means, the message to share, that will allow the Holy Spirit to mark those who belong to him. We share and share and share this message of grace because in that, we are accomplishing what God asks us to do and what he wants most of all.
We said last week that we cannot know the response that we will get when we share that message, but we needed only to remember that Christ is for all. That remains true, and the promise we find here is that God will hold back the end until all of those who have been elected are marked with his seal, made his children through faith in Jesus.
The long list of numbers in our lesson points to this fact exactly. This is not a traditional list of the tribes of Israel. Ephraim and Dan are missing; Levi and Joseph are never among those listed in any other lists of the tribes of Israel. That’s because this list has nothing to do with the physical children of Abraham, but those who share the faith of Abraham.
Throughout the book of Revelation, numbers are used symbolically. The number of people in heaven will not be limited to 144,000—we have more than three times that many members in our little synod alone to say nothing of the many, many other believers throughout different Christians denominations in the past and now! But the number 12 is used to describe the church—the Holy Christian Church, all believers in Jesus from all times and in all places. The number 10 is used to describe something that is complete. 144,000 is 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. The repeated multiples, the squaring and cubing of the numbers, just underscores their meaning. 144,000 is the number of the complete church. In other words, when the sealing is done, when the winds do blow, there will not be anyone who was elected missing. Everyone will be there. Spiritual Israel will be safe with her Savior forever.
This world will not last forever; the winds will eventually blow. For as miserable as this life can be at times, for those who do not trust in Jesus as their Savior, something much worse is coming. We have the message that will rescue them. We have the means by which the Holy Spirit will seal them for heaven. The end of the world will not come because there was a great earthquake or other catastrophe. Wars and other suffering will not bring it about. No, it will come about because God’s Word was shared with someone. It will perhaps come as a child is baptized. It will perhaps come as someone shares her faith with her friend. Because in the sharing of Jesus’ victory are people sealed for him. In sharing that comforting seal, we are doing the work God has for us!
God’s Word is the most powerful tool ever given to mankind. Use it. Share it. And rejoice that nothing can overcome or undo the seal that God has placed on his own. Thanks be to God forever and ever! Alleluia! Amen.