Sola Gratia: Sealed and Delivered

Text: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17

“Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended, who through death have unto God ascended! They have arisen from the cares which keep us in prison. We are still in a dungeon living, still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving; our undertakings are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.”[1] These are the first two stanzas of the hymn “Oh, How Blest Are They,” #679 in our hymnal. Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. This day was set aside by the Church many centuries ago to commemorate those who have preceded us in the faith. We do so not by invoking them, but by giving thanks God for the faith that He gave to them and to us and for the grace that we have all received in Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God for their great example in the faith and the forgiveness they received, but we would be remiss if we ignored one major thing.

One thing we can’t ignore today is that all the saints that have gone before us have done exactly that – they’ve all died. Though they were forgiven their sins and covered in the robes of Christ’s righteousness, they still died as a consequence of the sinful condition which we’ve all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. But now they have been freed from all that. As the elder says in St. John’s vision of the throne room, they have come out of the great tribulation. Those who have passed from death to life stand before the throne where there is no hunger or thirst, no death, for the Lamb of God is in their midst and wipes every tear from their eyes. But what about us? We live amidst a culture of death; what about us? When will we get what the saints now enjoy? The answer to that is now, actually. At Holy Baptism God signed and sealed you as His, and He continues to keep you until, by His grace alone, He delivers you into His eternal kingdom.

I.

We have in our text a vision of the heavenly throne room. We’re in an interlude in the outpouring of God’s wrath, as if to see how the saints are doing while the world is in tribulation. The period described in the text relates to us now. The 144,000 in the first part of the text are those who are coming out of the tribulation of the times, but are still in it. Those in the throne room are those who now rest from their labors. They are in the presence of Christ continually as they await His second coming and the resurrection of their bodies. The camera pans and we see four angels with the authority to pour out God’s wrath on the earth and sea. Then we see another angel, who says to the first four, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”[2]

This is where we fit into the text. The 144,000 put before St. John and us is not a literal number of the elect, but a signifier of the completeness of the Church that will enter into eternal life. In Scripture the number 12 signifies wholeness or perfection. You multiple that by twelve and you get a number of completeness. Then multiply that by 1,000 – and you get the picture. Those who are sealed upon their foreheads are those marked as redeemed by Christ the crucified. Though they are now in the midst of trial and tribulation, they have received upon their forehead and heart the mark Christ, which signifies them as inheritors of eternal life.

The Church has long understood this passage, this sealing of the elect, as a reference to Baptism. The word for seal in the Greek is σφραγίζω (sphragizo), and it means to mark as a means of identification or to certify something for delivery. This is our connection to Baptism. In the ancient Church, at Baptism the pastor would take some olive oil, the sphragis, and make the sign of the cross upon your forehead and heart. This would be a sign to you and others that you have been claimed by Christ. In the same way we might put a seal on the back of an envelope, certifying that what’s inside comes from us. We carry on this practice today, though usually without the oil. When you were baptized the pastor made the sign of the cross on your head and heart, marking you as one redeemed by Christ.

It doesn’t always feel like it, though, does it? In Holy Baptism you are marked by the blood of Christ. You were given the gift of faith and the forgiveness of sins. You received eternal life and salvation in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And yet it doesn’t look like it. All around us we see death. We see the death of loved ones. We see long, protracted, painful illnesses. We live through the loss of jobs and closing of businesses, even the closing of churches. It says right here in Scripture the saints of God are before His throne and neither hunger or thirst, nor cry or suffer pain. When do we get that?

II.

The painful reality we live in is that, because of the Fall, we who are baptized into Christ are not only marked on our forehead and heart for redemption, but also with a target on our back. This is what St. Paul preached to the Christians at Iconium and Antioch. He taught them to continue steadfast in the faith, for, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”[3] You see, the devil hates you. This is why we suffer so many things. Ills of body and mind, broken relationships and lives, persecutions of various kinds – especially when we confess the pure Gospel of Christ against all false doctrine – these are all the result of the Fall into sin and the instigation of the devil.

Jesus promised that in this world we will have tribulation. But, “take heart,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world.”[4] When we look at our text from Revelation, and see those saints and the rest they’ve entered, where there is no suffering of any kind, and then we look at our lives, it’s easy to feel short-changed. We look at the pagans and atheists who prosper and cry out to God, when we will have what they (seemingly) have. When will we have eternal life and rest from our labors, when will we be free from the effects of sin? When we will come out of the great tribulation? Now. St. John wrote, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”[5]

By God’s grace alone, you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and now share in the inheritance of the saints in heaven. One of the meanings that I shared with you for the word seal is to certify something for delivery. In Baptism you were marked as Christ’s, and by that mark He promises to you that you will enter eternal life. He promises that He will guard and keep you until the time when we all feast together in the new creation. How does He do that? Through the preaching of His Word and in His Sacraments. In Baptism He washes you and makes you clean, and daily you rise before Him in righteousness and purity. Through the preaching of the Word He reminds you of your sinfulness, but also comforts you with the fact that He died for you. In the supper of His own body and blood, He gives, again, the forgiveness of your sins and the faith and love to serve Him and each other. Through these things He guards and protects you as His own redeemed and inheritors of eternal life until we become the saints who’ve gone before.

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. We celebrate not because they were better than us or more perfect examples of the faith. We celebrate because of the grace and forgiveness that they received, as we do, through faith in Jesus Christ. They have passed from death to life and rest from their labors. Some from among us are there now, too. May Christ keep us ever steadfast in the one true faith, and may He always remind us that we are marked by His blood for the redemption of our souls until these words are said of us:

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.”[6]


[1] “Oh, How Blest Are They,” Lutheran Service Book, 679.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 7:3.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 14:22.

[4] Jn. 16:33.

[5] 1 Jn 5:4–5.

[6] Rev. 7:15-17

The Parable of the Ten Virgins

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

In the first stanza of our opening hymn we sang, “O Lord, how shall I meet You, how welcome You aright…O kindle, Lord most holy, Your lamp within my breast to do in spirit lowly all that may please you best.” (LSB 334) It’s an Advent hymn, but it helps set our minds to the theme of the close of the church year: Christ’s return. Jesus uses the parable in our text to illustrate what His return will be like on our end. He shows us that there will be two types of people, those who are prepared and those who aren’t. He says that the wise virgins were those who had enough oil to keep their lamps lit, and we will see that the lamps of the wise are kept lit by a faith that is continually fed through the Means of Grace, Jesus’ Word and Sacraments.

I.

The text begins, “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”[1] Jesus often uses imagery of a bride and groom to describe the relationship between Him and His bride, the Church. Earlier in Matthew 9[:15], after Jesus was asked why His disciples don’t fast like John the Baptist’s, He responded that the wedding guests cannot mourn while the Bridegroom is with them. In this He was referring to Himself. The Church is described in Revelation 21[:2] as the holy city Jerusalem, which has been decked out as a bride adorned for her husband.

Perhaps most famously, this relationship between Christ and the Church is described in Ephesians 5. Paul writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.”[2] What Paul is describing is how we are made the Bride of Christ. On our own and by ourselves we are nothing. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. Our every waking moment is spent either sinning, or wrestling with the temptation to sin. Jesus took that sin upon Himself. He carried our guilt and shame to the cross and died, to present us without spot or wrinkle, as holy and blameless. Through Baptism we are brought into His Church and made members of His Body, which He feeds and nourishes through the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments to give and strengthen faith.

The virgins in the parable are members of the visible Church, the church on earth. As members of the wedding party they were to keep watch for the bridegroom to arrive and take them to the feast. This was part of an Israelite wedding custom where the groom would go to the bride’s house to pick up her and her friends and then they would process joyfully to the home he had prepared for them. It was just accepted that waiting was involved, and in that waiting there was revealed two types of virgins: the foolish and the wise, split half and half.

The difference between the two is that while the wise took flasks of oil to fuel their lamps, the foolish took only what was in the lamp to begin with. If we look at text before and after this parable, especially the Parable of the Talents, it becomes clear that the oil represents a faith that is being continually fed. The wise virgins are like those who continually hear God’s Word and receive His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of their faith. The foolish are those who say they are ready for the return of the Bridegroom, who believe in Him, and yet don’t ever hear the Word preached or receive the Sacrament.

II.

We continue on, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.[3] As the virgins are waiting time began to pass and they fall asleep. As the hours of waiting went on, it seemed to the virgins that the bridegroom was delayed and they became sleepy. Surely at this point the wise virgins were okay, because they knew they had enough oil to carry them through the night; but the foolish haven’t figured, yet, that as the night drags on, their lamps are going to run out.

Then, at about midnight, there was a cry: “The bridegroom is coming! Come meet him!” All the virgins quickly arise from their sleep, when there is a terrible foretaste of the end of the parable. The foolish realized that their lamps were running out of oil, and so they asked the wise to give them some of theirs. The wise responded that there isn’t enough to give them, they cannot share their oil. It suddenly becomes clear, the wise are prepared for the return of the Bridegroom, and the foolish aren’t. The wise are the ones who have kept their lamps fed continually being in the Word of Christ. They have built their house on the Rock, while Jesus says of the foolish, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.”[4]

The wise virgins confess that, as we sang in the opening hymn, we lay in sin’s fetters. And yet, Christ came to set us free. We stood moaning in shame, and yet Jesus came to honor us. In love Jesus came down to win for us the crown of life through His suffering and death in our place. We receive the benefit of His sacrifice only through faith. This He gives to us in Baptism. Faith is nourished in us through the preaching of His Word. He strengthens our faith as He gives us the forgiveness of sins through our His own body and blood. We are the wise. The foolish shun all of these things, assuring themselves that they do not need these things to be a Christian.

III.

And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.[5] The brakes are hit for the foolish virgins. While they were out trying desperately to find oil for their lamps, the bridegroom came. He gathered those who were ready and waiting, whose lamps were lit, and brought them into his feast and shut the door. When the foolish arrive later they beg to be let in, but the only answer that came was “I do not know you.”

The foolish virgins were found without oil for their lamps, without a true and living faith, and then when they wanted to get into the feast, the kingdom of heaven, they were not let in. This is what will happen to those who remove themselves from a faith nurtured and fed by Christ. Here, Christ comes to us in His Word, in the Holy Absolution, and in Holy Baptism. If you want to see Jesus, look to His Word and to His precious Sacrament. It is by these things that we are made the wise virgins and welcomed into the wedding feast.

In the opening hymn we asked how we may welcome the coming Bridegroom, how we may partake of the wedding feast – It is only through the gift of faith that the Holy Spirit gives to us and that Jesus keeps alive in us through the preaching of His Word and the receiving of His Supper. Even as we bear a debt and burden of sin, the temptation to avoid hearing God’s Word, we know that will are covered by His grace. It says in stanza 6, “He comes, for you procuring the peace of sin forgiv’n, His children thus securing eternal life in heav’n.” In Christ you are wise, your sins are forgiven, and you are welcomed into heaven.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 25:1–4.

[2] Eph. 5:25–27, 29.

[3] Matt. 25:5–9.

[4] Matt. 7:26.

[5] Matt. 25:10–12.

And So We Are

Text: 1 John 3:1-3

Today we remember and give thanks to God for all those who have preceded us in the faith, especially for the good He permitted Edwin, Geraldine, Imogene, and Ina to receive and to give. They are those who hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, who are shepherded by the Lamb beside springs of living water; whose every tear has been wiped from their eyes. They each have received their crown of life and now live before the throne of God forever. But we are still here. This is a common theme that we’ve been dealing with for the past couple months. While we are here on earth awaiting the return of Christ and the completion of all things, we sometimes deal with disconnect. Things are not always as they seem.

Often it seems that life just goes on, then we die and it’s over for us. Society exhorts us, in fact when you leave this building, it’s like the world is ready to give you a second sermon: telling you to live in the now. St. John wrote our epistle reading, in part, to combat those who denied the humanity of Jesus – saying that He wasn’t really human; He was a spirit. Therefore, they concluded that the flesh was of no concern to eternal life and they lived fulfilling and seeking to fulfill whatever desire they should have. But, St. John writes, “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world,”[1] and this world and all that is in it is passing away.

But it is not so among you. Our text today reminds us that we are God’s children now. Jesus said in the Gospel last week that the slave does not remain in the house forever, the son does. You, like those who have gone before you in the Christian faith, have been purified by the blood of Christ. You are a co-heir of eternal life. We don’t always look at things that way, meaning that we don’t always see things as they are – that those purified by the blood of Christ have been made children of God and will see Him as He is.

I.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” [2] Thus, the words of St. John. He says, see what kind or  what sort of love that God has given to us – that we should be called His children, children of the Heavenly Father. If you know your catechism, this is the idea that comes up every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Martin Luther writes that when we say the words, “Our Father who art in heaven,” we confess that “God would tenderly encourage us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that we may ask Him confidently with all assurance, as dear children ask their dear father.”[3]

God loves us in such a way that He brings us into His family, where He becomes our true Father and we, His true children. In confirmation we’ve just been going through the Book of Exodus, particularly the Exodus itself and now the giving of the Ten Commandments. Before He gave the commandments, God went through how He brought the people out of slavery in Egypt to make them His own treasured possession.[4] He says that all the earth is His, but those He rescued out of slavery are His treasure, His children. As Luther says in his catechism, God invites us to pray to Him because we are His children, because He loves us. The word in the Greek is ἀγάπη, love. This is the kind of love that would lead a shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep, the kind of love that would lead a father to sacrifice his only son to receive adopted children as his own.

St. Paul writes, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”[5] We are only able to become the children of God only through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Through His fulfilling of the Law, through His suffering and death, He has reconciled us to God and made us co-heirs with Himself of the kingdom of heaven. In Him we are no longer children of wrath and darkness, but of life and light.

John writes, “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him.”[6] The world scoffs at this, that we have become His children, because it does not know God nor His Son, Jesus Christ. It scoffs at our hope, because it does not know the true God and insists that what we see here before us is all that there is. It says to walk by the senses and the rational human mind, and not by faith. And so it scoffs at the idea of a Father God, the idea that there is God out there who created us, who cares for us and sent His Son to die in our place, who like the father in the prodigal son runs to meet his son who once was dead. We even battle our own flesh over this idea.

II.

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.”[7] The future, and even the present, looks pretty good for those in Christ. This is where we start to see the disconnect. Even amidst the death of loved ones, amidst crippling sickness and suffering, through personal turmoil, the beloved in Christ are God’s children. Those who hope in Christ have been purified by His blood. In Holy Baptism you were given the gift of faith and the hope that in Christ all things are made new. You were purified by the washing of the water and the Word and welcomed into the kingdom as a child of God.

Those baptized in Christ have put off the sinful flesh, slavery to the desires and passions, the cares of the world – and the temptation to despair and lose hope. Paul writes that while we are on earth we see things like looking through a dim glass, but we will soon see things clearly. The text says that we don’t know entirely what the future holds, but we know that we will be like Christ and see Him as He is, face to face. For us, this is a future reality. We look forward to the time when we will be in heaven, where we will be united with Christ and with one another, and removed from the sorrows of this world.

But for those who have preceded us in the faith, this is their present life. The live before the throne of the Lamb with the multitudes who have gone before them. There is no more crying, no pain, no shame, no suffering, no death, no mourning, just purified perfection. There is only happiness and bliss forever. This is what we look forward to, but we do get a glimpse of it here on earth, even today, even during this service.

Dr. Arthur Just, a professor at our seminary in Fort Wayne wrote a book called, Heaven on Earth. The book is about how our liturgy transcends time and space; it connects us with the saints of God in every time and place, even with those in heaven. The songs that we sing are sung by choirs of angels and the white-robed faithful in heaven as well. Especially are we connected in the Lord’s Supper, in the communion of saints, we feast on Christ’s true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. We when approach this rail we are connected with those around us here and with the faithful in heaven. It is a foretaste of the future that belongs to us all in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), 1 Jn 2:16.

[2] 1 Jn 3:1–3.

[3] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 331.

[4] Ex. 19:5

[5] Ga 4:4–5.

[6] 1 Jn 3:1.

[7] 1 Jn 3:2–3.