The vision of St. John is lavish and rich in symbolism. The apostle loved by Jesus does not mean to give us a photo of heaven but paints with a broad brush so that we might glimpse the glory now hidden from our eyes but soon we shall see face to face. It is a vision consistent with Scripture – the Elect of God both Jew and Gentile, the Lamb once slain but now enthroned on high, those around them falling down before the Lamb and His cloud of witnesses in awestruck adoration. St. John not only sees others, he sees himself and his own future, then hidden with God in Christ but soon to be seen by the beloved disciple face to face. It is a vision of glory. And guess who else is there? YOU and me.
While straining for a full vision of this glorious and heavenly future, the elder comes to John with a question. Who are the saints of God? Who are the elect of the Lord? Who are the martyrs who gave their highest and utmost for faithfulness? The elder seems to press John a little too hard. Why does John not tell him the answer? Is he awestruck, mute before the heavenly vision, or ignorant of what it all means? Then comes the answer. “Sir, you know...” Is John just passing off the question to somebody else? Is he merely trying to get off the hot seat?
I suspect St. John knew exactly who these were. He sees and knows them, many by name as friends in the Lord who gave their lives for the faith. They may not be known or remembered on earth, but St. John is hinting at the most profound truth of all. They are known by John, by the other saints who had gone before, and by the angels who rejoiced over their repentance. But most importantly of all, they are known by God. The world has forgotten them and even the people of God no longer recall their names or their stories. But God cannot forget them. They are the very reason He sent His Son in our flesh to suffer, die, and rise again.
These are the saints, whether martyred and their lives taken or witnesses whose most profound truth is the cross. These are the saints – not those who have worked their way into God’s good side but those for whom the good Lord has emptied Himself into sin and death. They are the saints, whose stories you know and still speak of and those whose stories are known only to the Lord. John knows them but most importantly God knows them and though death causes the earth to lose its memory, God will never forget them. That is the good news of this day. We are the saints for whom Christ died and God can no more forget us than to forget Jesus.
This is why we gather. Not because the world remembers us or still tells the stories of our lives but because God cannot forget us and because the Lord knows the story of our lives and still loves us with an everlasting love. You, my friends, are not forgotten. Your plight is not forgotten. Your sacrifices are not forgotten. Your prayers are not forgotten. Your good works are not forgotten. You belong to the Lord and He belongs to you. Your death is precious in His sight and your life is sanctified by the Spirit. Whether you are famous or forgotten, whether you are marked by honor or anonymous saints, the Lord knows you and the Lord has heard your cry for mercy and the Lord has delivered you to be with Him forever.
“Sir, you know” is not some evasive cop out answer but the joyful acknowledgment that we are known to God, known to God in life, known to God in death, and known to God by the Redeemer who died our death to sin so that we might live His live in heaven with Him forevermore. Yes, God knows your sin and every shameful thought, word, and action that lay like a bounty upon your head. But God also know you as His own baptized children, washed in the blood of the Lamb, cleansed from sin and granted the new and everlasting life of Christ. He knows you as His own child, by adoption and choice – complete with all your bags and baggage. God knows you and has rescued you from oblivion in Christ.
The world buries more than our bodies but our memories. It does not take long after we die that no one can recall how we looked, the sound of our voices, the stories of our lives. If the world is your mother, death will claim everything about you and will give nothing up to the future. You are gone and forgotten. But if the Church is our mother, we have been born anew in Christ. God will see that our faces are not forgotten and the sound of our voices remembered and our stories told for all eternity. God can no more forget you than He can forget His nature or disown those His Son has redeemed. The glory of All Saints Sunday is the mighty remembrance that rescues you from the dust of the earth, glorifies your bodies for eternity, and prepares a place for you on high forevermore.
On this day, we speak forth from the altar the names of those who most recently have died and joined the chorus of God’s nearer saints. In the pews we speak the names of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, family, and friends who have gone before us with the sign of faith. And we rejoice. For God already knows them. He cannot forget them. They were His own in birth, were reclaimed by the gift of baptismal water, tasted Christ’s body and blood, and now live never to die.
We are not social security numbers that pass into oblivion or the dead whose tomb stones fall over or one statistic in a world of meaningless numbers of car accidents and heart attacks and covid deaths. God knows us and those who know God know us. John is not telling us His future but our own future. John saw it and tells it to you so that in your grief, sorrow, despair, and loss you might be comforted.
You are the Beatitudes – the poor in spirit who are right in Christ, the mourners who are comforted by the empty tomb, the meek whose only power is faith, the hungry for righteousness who are made righteous in Christ, the merciful who learned mercy, the pure in heart whose only glory is faith alone, the peacemakers who forgive as they have been forgiven, the persecuted for the name of Jesus, and those about whom lies were told only because of you belonged to the Lord. You are the Beatitudes and God has claimed you as His own, forgiven you all your sins, and raised you from death and anonymity to life and remembrance.
Who are they? God knows. And now YOU know. God is not ashamed to be called your God, do not fear being known as God’s child. He knows you better than you know yourselves, from the numbers of hair on your heads to the fears that live inside you to the sins you want to run from. He knows you and has claimed you and washed you clean and forgiven you and raises you up to be with Him forevermore. Who are those white robed martyrs? They are us. We are them. And God has made us His, for the passing todays of this life and for all eternity. Amen.