And I saw another angel flying in mid-heaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, "Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters."
Sermon for Reformation Day 2020 (Observed) 10/25/20
Fear God, and Give Him Glory
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Revelation is a challenging book. Lutherans don't preach it much because it is not as clear and easy to teach from, because so many reformed Protestants twist it in their apocalyptic fervor, it is easier to avoid confrontations and controversies about it, and because it is not a regularly a part of the lectionary, historically, except for Reformation Day. But today we observe Reformation day. This is our Reformation Day first lesson, chosen by our Synod's worship department, and so, we will take look at it this morning, drawing our theme from the words of the angel flying in mid-heaven, Fear God, and Give Him Glory.
This is the old, traditional Reformation Day Epistle because except for Roman Catholic scholars, the angel mentioned has been interpreted almost universally to be a symbol for Martin Luther. He is interpreted as the angel for a number of reasons. First, the word "angel" means "messenger". Earlier in the book of Revelation, the Apostle John speaks of the angels of the churches in Asia Minor, and they are clearly understood to be the pastors, and not merely spirit beings assigned to specific locations. So, here Luther is understood to be the messenger of God.
The second reason that it is thought to be Luther represented here is that the angel has an eternal gospel to preach, and that was the burden of Luther. Luther's focus was not Law but Gospel. Every other reforming movement in the church seems to have its grounding in the Law, but Luther was grounded in the Gospel, in the justification of the sinner before God. While most Protestants speak of the sovereignty of God as their fundamental doctrine, and Catholics tend to find the doctrine of the Church as their most basic doctrine, Luther said that the doctrine of Justification was the "articulas stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae" -- the doctrine on which the church either stands or falls.
The focus of the Lutheran fathers, beginning with Martin Luther, was to return the church to her first love, the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. The Confessions go out of their way to demonstrate that Lutherans have nothing new to say, but only teach what the Christian Church has always taught, when she is faithful. Therefore the Gospel which this angel bears is eternal, not new, or modern, but the ageless and eternal Word of God.
The apostle John, in his vision, sees this angel flying in mid-heaven. Those who write commentaries tell us that this because in the vision of John, the earth is the domain of the beast and of Satan. To be on the earth is to be within the grasp of the devil and his hoard. Being in mid-heaven places this eternal gospel beyond the reach and wrath of the devil, the Antichrist, and the devil's minions. He is bringing down from heaven a glorious treasure, and he is not in contact with those forces that would destroy him and kill the message.
Of course, that is not how it felt to Luther. He was in constant danger. But he was preserved by the Lord, and during his lifetime, no one could stand against him. The power of the Papacy and of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire we insufficient to threaten the life of this one man. God was with him.
And God was with His Gospel. It wasn't Luther's Gospel, actually. It is God's. The plan was God's, and the proclamation was God's, and the success was God's. Everyone who is a Christian acknowledges that the Gospel Luther proclaimed is true. Frankly, if they do not acknowledge it, they are not really Christian. Luther invented nothing. He simply uncovered what had so long been hidden.
What darkness reigned in the days before Luther! Men who could not read or write were taught legends and fairy tales in place of the truth. They were given phony relics to worship, and made-up saints to pray to, and taught that they could not approach God. They were told to do certain "good works" to earn their way to heaven, to spend money to buy the forgiveness of sins, and never to question their Church. Bibles were withheld from the people not just because they were so very expensive and that they were before the advent of printing presses but because the teachers of the church believed that the people could not be trusted with the Bible. They feared that too many Bibles in the hands of laymen and laywomen would create too many questions and too many heresies. Sadly, their teachers did not spend much time in the Bible either - or understand much of it very well, at times.
Not that things are much better today. Five centuries after Luther, people still prefer the fables and myths to the truth. The fables have changed, but there are still fables. Today many people prefer a theology where life is a mystery which rarely makes sense - and religion is all about being good, and being involved in the lives of others. People want the easy religion of ecumenism, where we can ignore the fact that those around us are hurrying to hell with false teachings and false gods. Some will pray with just anyone, and want to pretend that everyone is welcome to commune with us, and comfort themselves with the confession that "at least I know what I believe."
Today the danger to the truth is not one religion or another. It is the false idea that I make the difference, that I can decide, that I can measure up, somehow. It is the loss of the doctrine of "church" to the American philosophy of radical individualism. It is the loss of the doctrine of the ministry to the American pride which says that I can know it all just as well as anyone and that God must deal with me directly, and not through any messengers or sacraments. It is the loss of the very concept of truth to the American ideal of pluralism and to an American pragmatism that says what I do is more important than what I believe: deeds, not creeds. The danger is more the Pentecostal fascination with how and what I feel rather than who and what I believe. The danger we face is the idea that I am the judge and measure of all things and so we surrender the authority of Scriptures to the authority of my personal opinion.
In short, the dangers we face are precisely the same as what Luther rebelled against in his day. It is the darkness of the medieval papacy dressed up in the clothing of the modern television evangelist. But it is the same flight from the truth of God. And we see modern Lutherans even in the Missouri Synod many times in full flight from the Truth. The Reformation "Sola's" are as important in our confession of the truth today as they were five hundred years ago.
By grace alone, holds before our eyes the truth that we were chosen by God, not the other way around. We were chosen for His purposes and not for our own. We were chosen because of His will and not because of who we are or what we have done. We are saved by grace alone!
Through faith alone, stands to remind us that all that we receive from God we receive through faith. We don't earn it. We don't reach out and grab it. We don't make ourselves worthy recipients. "It is the gift of God." We trust God to do what He has promised that He will do, and through such faith, He pours into our hearts and lives all the rich blessings of Christ and all that He has promised in connection with Him.
In Christ Jesus alone, gives us the heart of it all. Jesus. He came to do what we could not do, and would not have done for ourselves even if we were able. Our nature is sin and evil, and we hated God from our conception. But Jesus Christ came and took our place, actually became one of us for our salvation. He kept the whole will and law of God for us. He did not fail, He did not sin. He obeyed where we had rebelled.
Then, when He had earned life everlasting, and health, and peace with God, He died. He chose to take our place, according to the will of His Father, and die a death He did not deserve, but we did, so that we might inherit from Him the life He had earned. His resurrection is the event in which God announced before the whole world that our sins have been atoned for, paid for entirely, and forgiven. The Law of God has been removed from the equation of everlasting life. It is the gift of God, poured out on everyone, and received only through faith by those who know the truth which God goes to such pains to reveal, and who take God at His Word, and trust in Him and in Him alone. As Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father but through Me."
Your salvation is already complete, done up for you, and presented as a gift. You don't need to feel anything special to get it, or make certain decisions, or pray special prayers, or visit certain relics, or anything to earn or deserve it. You can't. You lost the ability to earn it with your first sin actually before, by inheriting that original guilt and sin. But when you rebelled against what is right and true for the first time, you earned death and hell for yourself. When you sinned, you became unable to earn and joined the ranks of humanity as those who have no right, and can never deserve anything good from God.
But God is good, and sent Jesus to earn it, and pours it out on us all to be received by faith. And how can I be so sure? It is through God's Holy Word. Scripture alone is my authority. That is the final Reformation "Sola", By Scripture Alone. It is the Word of God. Nothing that it teaches can be ignored, and nothing that contradicts this holy Word may be believed. It doesn't matter how it seems to me, or how I feel, or whether it makes sense to me immediately or not. If God reveals it, it is true, and I must also accept everything He teaches me, because it is His Word, and because it is true!
Scripture, trusted as the very Word of God, is the answer to all the confusion and independence, and uncertainty of our age. It is not my theology, it is God's Word. It is not my opinion, it is His truth! It is not up to me or my feelings, but God has established it in His holy Word. We can argue about precisely what this or that passage means, but we must start by agreeing that when we understand the Word of God, it is the truth, and we will humble ourselves, our reason, our minds, our ego's before it.
And that is what we celebrate when we celebrate the Reformation. We celebrate knowing God and knowing the truth. We celebrate the faith once again clearly revealed. We know and confess clearly that He is All and all, and all glory belongs to God alone for our lives and our salvation. In other words, we hear, and we heed the message of the angel flying in mid-heaven we fear God and we give Him the glory!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)