Reformation Day (Observed) (October 28, 2007)
"Angels of the Reformation" (Revelation 14:6-7)
In the name of Jesus, beloved children of God.
Our text today is this morning's first reading from Revelation 14:6-7, where St. John writes: Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language 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 heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Revelation 14:6-7, ESV)
Last week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our congregation. For 50 years God's grace has been poured out here every time his Word was preached, every time someone was baptized, every time someone came to this altar and ate and drank the Body and Blood of Jesus. For 50 years God's gifts have been given here. The gifts of life, forgiveness, and salvation were unwrapped here. With lives dedicated to God, people have given thanks to him for his wonderful gifts. For 50 years, God's glory has been present here. You can't see it. There's no burning bush here with a voice telling you take off your shoes. But God's glory has been hidden here under the forms of water, spoken words, bread and wine. Christ is truly present here in the Sacrament of the Altar. So maybe we ought to think about taking our shoes off, because when we are here, we really are standing on holy ground.
Following on the heels of Messiah's 50th anniversary is the remembrance of something that happened nearly 500 years ago. It was an event that started what is known as the Reformation. The false teachings and abuses of the church of that day were publicly addressed and and to some extent corrected. On October 31, 1517, a German monk wrote a document in which he questioned a current practice in the church. He walked to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed his document there. He didn't expect to cause a big ruckus. All he wanted was for the topic to be debated. What was that document? It was a series of statements, or theses -- 95 of them, to be exact. What was the topic? Simply put, it was the selling of indulgences.
Let me explain what that was all about. Here's how it worked according to the theology of that time: Christ died for your sins, but there are still earthly punishments for your sins. You can work these off by doing good works. If you have not done enough good deeds before you die, you go to purgatory, the place where you are "purged" of your remaining punishments. However, there are some folks who go right to heaven when they die. They did so many good works in their life that they have extra good works that can be applied to others, either people still alive or those already dead and in purgatory. In order to take advantage of those good works, you had to be granted an "indulgence."
Our monk with hammer in hand was not to the point yet in his understanding of the Bible where he denied that there was such a place as purgatory and such a thing as indulgences. The rejection of that whole system was to come later. He still considered himself to be a faithful son of the Church. What bothered him initially was that it had turned into a money-making scheme to rebuild the church of St. Peter in Rome. And so one of his theses said, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the [wealthiest of wealthy men], build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” (#86) And in another, he writes, “Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?" (#82)
With the recent invention of the printing press, the 95 Theses were copied, printed, and distributed all over Germany and the Empire. The author's name -- Martin Luther -- became a household name. He wrote many more books and pamphlets besides that which he nailed to the church doors of Wittenberg. In his writing and in his preaching, he set forth his recovery of what had been covered over due to centuries of church tradition and the teachings of man rather than the doctrine of God. Luther recovered the truth of the central teaching of Holy Scripture. And this is that truth that sets us free: That we are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone apart from works of the Law. In other words, we are declared not guilty because Christ took the punishment for our sins upon himself at the cross. It's all because of God's love and favor towards us sinners. We receive this gift of justification and forgiveness by simply trusting in God's promises in Christ. It has nothing to do with our good works. And it certainly cannot be bought with money. Listen again to St. Paul's words in Romans 3: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith." (Romans 3:23-25, ESV) And as Luther wrote in one of his hymns, "Faith clings to Jesus' cross alone And rests in Him unceasing; And by its fruits true faith is known, With love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; Works serve our neighbor and supply The proof that faith is living." (LSB 555.9)
Over the years, some have said that the words of Revelation 14:6 about an "angel" with "an eternal gospel to proclaim" are about Luther. That may be true. After all, the word "angel" can also be translated "messenger." On the other hand, to say this is only about Luther may be narrowing things down too much. And many dispute how "angelic" Luther was. At times his language was crude and his tongue sharp. Nevertheless, Luther recognized that he was a sinner daily in need of forgiveness and he trusted in Christ alone for that forgiveness. He is the father of many more "angels" or "messengers" who follow in his footsteps.
And that includes you and me. We are all "angels" of the Reformation. We are all called to proclaim and support the proclamation of that "eternal gospel." It is eternal because it never changes. It is as true today as it was in Luther's day. It is called "gospel" because it is "good news." The word "gospel" comes from the old English "god spell" meaning "good news." The Greek word is "euangellion" from which we get our word "evangelism." It means "good message." You can hear the word "angel" in it ... "evANGELism." And that does not mean going door-to-door ringing doorbells. It simply means talking about Jesus and his cross...wherever, whenever, however, to whomever God gives us the opportunities. If we were to literally translate the words "with an eternal gospel to proclaim" we could put it like this: "with an eternal gospel to gospelize" or "with an eternal good news to be good news-ing." That's what happens here when the message about the death and resurrection of Jesus is preached and when we sing and speak our Christ-centered liturgy ... you are being "gospelized." That's what happens when you forgive each other for the sake of Christ who has forgiven you ... you are being "good-newsed." It's a message that's meant to be shared, proclaimed, sung, talked about. Remember St. Paul's words in Romans 10: "Faith comes from hearing." You've got to speak it in order for it to be heard.
If the Gospel is truly good news, why are we not more happy to hear it? Why do we not receive this word as true good news? Do we get tired of hearing it? Do we think that we know it so well that now we need to move on to other things? And if we believe this good news is for all people, as our text says, why are we so afraid and tentative about sharing our faith? We discussed this last week during our Sunday morning Bible Class. Part of the reason is that we really don't believe the depths of our depravity. We really don't think our sins and the sins of others are all that bad and that we really need saving from eternal death and damnation. Jesus said in today's Gospel, "Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin." (John 8:34) Do you sin? Yes. You are enslaved to sin. You need to be set free.
Thanks be to God that Christ has set you free. The Son of God became the Lamb of God, sacrificed for your sins at the cross. In Baptism, you were made to be sons of God, inheriting all that Christ won for you with his perfect life, death, and resurrection. In Christ, you are now a son who remains in God's house forever. And "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)
Therefore "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth the sea and the springs of water." The hour of his judgment has come ... not the final judgment, but the Gospel call that has gone out to all the world. "Behold," writes St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 6, "now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." What response has someone given to the Gospel? Is it received in faith or is it rejected in unbelief? If it is rejected in unbelief by a heart hardened by sin, then God's judgment of condemnation already rests upon that person. If it is received in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, then God's judgment of justification rests upon that person.
Give thanks to God that you have been "gospel-ized" ... that you have been "good news-ed." You can now "fear God and give him glory" for his judgment over you in Christ. In Christ, you are justified, not guilty, forgiven, redeemed, bought with the price of Christ's blood, reconciled, made friends again with God.
With Luther and all the other "angels" of the Reformation, you can share that message with the world.