A Season of Saints | CLOTHING OF THE SAINTS
What are these arrayed in white,
Brighter than the noonday sun?
Foremost of the saints in light,
Nearest the eternal throne?
Charles Wesley, alt.
Suggested tune: ARFON (MAJOR), UMH 541
Entire text of tune and refrain: https://hymnary.org/text/who_are_these_arrayed_in_white
The Book of Revelation often dissolves the veil that shields our present view of the age to come. When it does, the glimpses we can catch are sometimes terrifying, sometimes thrilling, and always inspiring.
Today, All Saints Sunday, we are given a stunning view of a massive throng of people from everywhere, a multitude no one can begin to number, people from every nation, tribe, ethnicity, and language. They wave palm branches and cry out together, rejoicing in Christ’s victory over sin and death. And they are all robed in white.
The scene becomes even more raucous with joy, as the multitude in white is joined by angels, living creatures, and other heavenly beings all falling on their faces before the One seated on the throne and adding their own praises and blessings to that of the innumerable host.
One of the elders comes over to John, no doubt dazed and amazed and overwhelmed as any of us would be on seeing this, and asks him, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
John knows what he himself doesn’t know. He trusts the elder may know. So he says, “You are the one that knows.”
The elder does know, and he tells John, and through John, all of us:
“These are those coming out from the great suffering, and they have washed their robes and whitened them in the blood of the lamb.”
Then the elder shifts from speaking to singing. (In the Greek text, the form shifts from prose to poetry).
“This is why they are before God’s throne,
serving night and day in God’s temple,
and the One seated on the throne dwells among them.
“And they do not hunger anymore,
they do not thirst anymore.
And the sun does not beat down on them,
nor any burning heat.
“For the lamb in the midst of the throne shepherds them,
and leads them to the streams of the water of life,
and God wipes every tear from their eyes.”
(Revelation 7:15-17, translation Taylor Burton-Edwards)
Or as Charles Wesley paraphrased the final two lines,
He shall all their sorrows chase,
All their wants at once remove;
Wipe the tears from ev’ry face;
Fill up ev’ry soul with love.
What are these arrayed in white?
These are the saints.
These are those among whom God longs for us to be.
God longs for us to wear their clothes, and join their victory shout.
So what does it take for us to be among them, to wear their clothes? And what happens to us once we we’ve donned their garments?
The elder is quite clear, but we may miss just how clear the elder is.
“These are the ones coming out from the great suffering” (Revelation 7:12, translation mine). The first thing the elder tells John about them is they are coming out from great suffering. This means, at a minimum, that they had been in the midst of suffering. For some, no doubt, it meant great suffering happened to them and they could not escape it.
But that reality wouldn’t be likely to apply to every person in the innumerable throng. That means many of these people made a choice. They chose to enter into the suffering of others and with others. In other words, they followed Jesus, the one who went directly to those suffering the most and offered presence, love, hope, and healing where it was needed most.
But notice something more. The tense of the participle “coming out from” is present. This isn’t pointing to a select group of people who managed to get through a specific time of suffering in the past. Nor is it, as in dispensational premillennialism, a specific period of time just before the second coming of Christ adherents to that view call “The Great Tribulation.” No, it’s pointing to an ongoing reality. It points to followers of Jesus of every generation both entering by choice or circumstance into times of great suffering and coming out or through it.
And so it points the way even for us, here and now, who may also seek to be clothed as they are, who want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.
If we want to wear what saints wear, we, with them, will enter without reserve into the great sufferings of others, of those who suffer the most around us, wherever we find ourselves.
These so arrayed have done more that simply enter into suffering, though. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” They had identified fully with the lifeblood and the execution of Jesus. They have plunged their garments into everything he stood for in his life and everything about him that led him to a bloody death, and so have made them dazzlingly bright. They do not simply “wear Jesus on their sleeves,” as we say of those who seem to want to make a show of their religiosity. This is no show. This is who they are. They wear him on their entire bodies. They are his, and they let the whole world know it even through their clothing.
They have entered into the suffering of others, not on the basis of any ideology or attempt to the make the world turn out right. They have entered into the suffering of others because this is what Jesus, their Lord, has done. They have drawn near to people who are despised, persecuted, harmed, targeted, rejected, and made to suffer hunger, thirst, scorching heat, and every deprivation because they seek to follow Jesus, and this is what he did and does still through them.
We can speak of what they have done. Probably all of us know some saints, people who have entered into the great sufferings of others and have plunged their lives so fully into Jesus that they became clothed in him. We can name some of them now, people we know who are walking the way of Jesus among us, as well as those who are walking among us no more. It does us good to remember them.
[Here is a good place for a naming of saints within the body of the sermon, if you choose to do so. A common practice in the naming is to ring a handbell or chime or light a candle as each person is named, and in larger congregations where not everyone may know everyone, for those who knew the deceased well to stand in witness and solidarity with the immediate family who may be present.]
We can speak of these saints and what they did and meant to us. The elder spoke of them, and how they made their robes so dazzlingly bright.
But as we’ve noted, just after that, the Greek shifts from prose to metric poetry. The elder stops speaking and starts singing. Because now the elder is not talking about what the saints did, but what God is doing.
So it is for us. We can only sing of what God has done and is doing among them and us, now and forever.
God has drawn every one of those whom we have known and loved and seeks to draw us all into the innermost circle of God’s throne, into the Holy of Holies in God’s heavenly temple. God has made of the despised, the suffering, and those who stand with them priests forever. And as they are drawn around God, God dwells among them. For those who knew hunger and thirst and merciless labor under scorching heat, all of that is no more. Jesus is their shepherd, leading them evermore to pasture and life-giving streams. And in their sorrow for all the grief they have witnessed, felt, and may still feel, God wipes away every tear from their eyes.
No wonder they cry, “Deliverance is our God’s, seated upon the throne, and the Lamb’s!”
No wonder the heavenly beings join in chorus, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength are God’s forever and ever. Amen!”
How can we, this side of that hope, and seeking in our own lives those same garments, not join Charles Wesley’s refrain:
Victory! O Victory!
We shall gain the victory.
O how happy we shall be
When we’ve gained the victory!