Washed in the Blood of the Lamb. Funeral Sermon
In Memoriam + Helen Wheeler
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 24, 2015
“Washed their Robes in the Blood of the Lamb”
Helen’s family and friends,
Members of St. Peter Lutheran Church:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
God comforts us with His Word this morning, in particular with these words from the Epistle: They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation 7:14
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…” Revelation 7:9
John begins telling us about the saints in heaven who have finished their race and fought their fight by describing a great crowd, a giant multitude too great to be numbered. Sometimes people complain that they feel lost in the crowd, that they don’t stand out as individuals. How wonderful it will be to be lost in that crowd! That is where Helen is today, lost in the crowd of the numberless multitude of saints gathered before the throne of God and the Lamb, Jesus Christ.
In reality, no one in that crowd is lost. They are saved, each one of them. And each one is known to God. Each one has every tear wiped away from their eyes by the hand of God.
The fact that it is a great crowd, a great multitude, must have come as a comfort to the first hearers of the words of this book. The first Christians who heard the book of Revelation were not members of big, thriving churches like we used to have several decades ago. They were members of little congregations of believers who met secretly and who were liable to be persecuted for believing in Jesus Christ. We also seem to be coming to days when the churches are becoming small and the believers feel like a few castaways in a boat on a vast ocean. But in this glimpse of heaven from Revelation there is a vast crowd that no one can number. It is a virtual flood of people gathered before the Father and the Son. God reminds us that though our brothers in Christ may seem to be few on earth, in reality we are surrounded by a great multitude of fellow believers, as many as the stars in the night sky or as the sand on the sea shore, as God promised Abraham.
And this great crowd gathered before God is clothed in white robes and carrying palm branches in their hands. White robes signify innocence, righteousness, and glory. Palm branches signify victory and salvation. This great crowd to which Helen belongs is righteous and innocent before God. Because they are righteous they also share in the glory of God and are able to stand before His presence. They are victorious and have salvation as they wave their palm branches before the Lamb of God, who once rode a donkey in to Jerusalem on a road of palm branches to shouts of “Hosanna! Salvation! Victory!”
This crowd is victorious. Victorious over what? Over death. Over hell and the devil. They have conquered and won the victory. They have been judged righteous by God.
But notice that the crowd does not glory in their victory as though it were their own doing. They dry, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They have not saved themselves or won the victory for themselves. They attribute their salvation to God and to the Lamb, to the Father and the Son. This is their part in the heavenly liturgy, the Divine Service that goes on for eternity. They give praise to God and to the Lamb, on whom their whole salvation depends. And in response all the holy angels who are gathered around the throne of God prostrate themselves and fall on their faces before the Father and the Son, “saying Amen! The blessing, and the glory, and the wisdom, and the thanksgiving, and the honor, and the power, and the strength, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
This is a glimpse of heaven given to us by the Holy Spirit through John. To the unbelieving world it probably sounds like no heaven at all. But to Christians it is full of comfort. Nothing could be more joyful to a Christian than to hear that one day soon he will stand before the face of the Father and the Son, that he will be righteous before God, therefore not condemned. Nothing could be more joyful than having escaped hell—except the joy of seeing God Himself. Because Christians love God. They love God because He first loved them. They love God because God gave His Son to win victory and salvation for us, by processing through streets lined with palms to the garden of Gethsemane, the high priest’s court, the torture chambers of Pontius Pilate, to crucifixion and death on Calvary. There Jesus accomplished our victory and salvation. There He atoned for our sins with His agony and death. And because they believe that God has loved them in such a way, Christians love God and long to be with Him face to face. The hymn we sang on the way into Church expressed it well:
Lord, Thee I love with all my heart
I pray Thee, ne’er from me depart
With tender mercy cheer me.
Earth has no pleasure I would share
Yea, heav’n itself were void and bare
If Thou, Lord, wert not near me. (LSB p. 708 st. 1)
The joy of heaven is that we will be with the Lord who loved us and gave Himself for us. That is the joy that Helen has. She sees her God and she stands righteous before Him.
But in case we think that entrance into this great company of saints is beyond our reach, one of the elders turns to John and says, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” Then in answer to his own question he says, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
In other words, these saints have not floated into heaven on a breeze. They came out of great tribulation. In that tribulation—in which you and I live now—they were tested. They were tempted by various sins; above all, tempted to give up faith in Christ. When you are part of a little congregation subject to persecution, when the pleasures of the world entice you, when death looms over you, it’s not so easy then to believe that God is with you for Christ’s sake and that you will win the victory. These saints came out of that tribulation. And in that tribulation they were not without sin. They stumbled and sometimes gave way to temptation. Throughout the great tribulation the saints struggled against unbelief and the evil that lives in their flesh. That’s why the text doesn’t say that they came into the presence of God with garments that were already white. It says, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We are born with stained robes, with original sin. Then throughout our lives we add to that stain with sins of thought, word, and deed. We can never get our robes clean so that we are fit to stand before a righteous and holy God.
But there is a soap that takes away the stain of sin from our robes. It is the blood of the Lamb, the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Our tears and regrets over our sins are not enough to take them away out of God’s sight. But God laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all, says the prophet Isaiah (ch. 53). “For our sake [God the Father] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) God made His Son to be sin and punished our sins in Him, so that they might be taken out of His sight. That’s why our text says the saints are righteous and innocent—not because they lived without sin, or because they committed less sin than other people. They were innocent because they washed their sin-stained garments in the blood of the Lamb, the Lamb God provided to take away our sins.
The blood of Jesus was first applied to Helen a long time ago, in September of 1924, in this place. Her parents brought her as an infant to Christ, and Christ through His minister poured out on her head the life-giving water of Holy Baptism. The water joined with the Holy Word of God gave her the forgiveness of sins, victory over death and the devil. It washed her robes and made them white in the blood of Jesus; she as a little baby became a believer that Christ died for her.
And throughout her life she heard God’s holy Word. It threatened death and judgment because of her sin. But then it held up Jesus, the Lamb of God, who was crucified to take away all her sin. As often as she heard that word and believed it, her robes were washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb.
And not only this, but Jesus the Lamb of God fed her His body and blood which took away the sins of the world. “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you,” He told her. “Take and drink, this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
That is why we can say with confidence that Helen is in heaven before the throne of God, and why we can say with confidence that all of us who do nothing but believe that Christ took away our sins with His blood will join her in heaven. If it depended on our good works, we could not say for certain. But it does not depend on works. It depends only on faith in Jesus who suffered for us. Helen trusted her Lord Jesus’ blood shed for her. She “washed her robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Therefore we can speak about the good works Helen did, because we speak about them not as her righteousness before God, but as the fruits of her justification. Jesus died for her, forgave her sins, and gave her faith in Him through His Word. AS a result she worked faithfully at her job for decades. She also worked diligently at the Church, teaching hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kids about Jesus and what He had done for them. She served for years at the Ladies’ Evening Guild and then later in the Ladies’ Aid. She was a loving aunt, sister, and wife. She was always hungry for God’s Word, reading the Scripture, listening to it preached, and discussing it with others, including people she lived with at Our Lady of Angels. And because she listened to God’s Word, she was able to speak its comfort and encouragement to others. I know this because I was one of the people she encouraged. She was often an encouragement to me as I visited her at OLA, both by her words and her receptiveness to the Word of God.
Now a Christian’s works do not make him righteous before God. The blood of Jesus alone does that. And yet the good works that God does through us endure for eternity. Jesus says in John chapter 15, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (v. 16). And in Revelation chapter 14 it is written: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (v. 13)
What a wonderful comfort. Everyone who only believes in Jesus has his robes made white in the blood of the Lamb and can stand before God. But he will also produce a harvest of good works that will abide forever. The good work that Helen did in teaching children God’s word will endure forever. Some of those children will be in heaven and that will be in part because of what God did through her. But Helen’s sinful works will not follow her. They are no longer hers. They are Christ’s, and He took them out of the way when He died.
“Therefore 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 water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Now over Helen and over the great multitude in white robes the Lord has stretched out His presence like a tent, to shield them from everything harmful. There is no hungering and thirsting there for the Lord’s presence as there was on earth during the great tribulation, because the Lord satisfies them with Himself. There is no longer the heat of the sun, because the saints now rest from their labors. They serve the Lord day and night in His temple, but that is not hard labor by the sweat of one’s face but rather joy. For Jesus shepherds the saints to fountains of living water, of the Holy Spirit. He quenches their thirst. “In your presence there is fullness of joy,” says the Psalm, “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Ps. 16:11) Jesus shepherds the saints and quenches all their thirst, and the Father wipes every tear from their eyes. That means that the saints in heaven are not burdened by any sorrows. They rest. And they are part of a great, joyful multitude that no one can number, all of whom are freed from sin, death, and the devil, and have the victory and salvation that cannot be taken away from them.
Helen has come to that great multitude. Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” But we are still in the great tribulation. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh harass us, try to lead us into sin and make us despair of ever reaching that great company of saints. But we will attain that glory if we persevere in faith in Christ. Then it will be said of us as well, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
May God grant us consolation about our dear sister Helen and give us confidence that we will also take our place in that great company of saints through the blood of Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria