In the Gospel lesson just read (Matthew 11:12-19), Jesus makes some rather pointed comments about his generation. The short parable he tells marks them as self-centered. His follow-up remarks paint them as unfairly critical of others.
Like Jesus, God’s prophets of every age have sometimes felt called to speak to their times. Such messages might be critical of things that are happening in that day. Or, they might bring a word of comfort that is particularly needed for that time.
Today in the Church we are observing Reformation Sunday. This day takes us back to the 16th century and the generation of church leaders who spoke so powerfully to their time—so powerfully, in fact, that they brought about a great reform of the church.
We call it a “reform” – and we celebrate it – because it did bring about many good things. But as you know, it also brought about a great split. Our opening hymn made a reference to the “cloven church.” That means it’s divided.
In the years following the Great Reformation, those who implemented reforms and rejected the authority of the Church at Rome often had to defend their actions. One of the things they did was to establish this yearly observance of a Reformation Festival. Not only did this give them an opportunity to give thanks for something they saw as good, but it also allowed them to affirm their ongoing commitment to the reforms in their generation.
Of the many traditions surrounding the observance of a Reformation Sunday, one of the more curious is the choice of a first reading. For years and years, Lutherans have read the verses from Revelation 14 that we read as our first reading today. The connection between these verses and the Reformation, is not immediately clear. There’s no reference to things such as justification by faith or freedom in the gospel. No mention of the church. No mention of grace.
There is, of course, a connection. I’ve known of it for some time, but I’d never really thought about it or researched it in detail. But having just completed a Bible Class on the End Times where we studied much of the Book of Revelation, I decided that this would be the year to preach on this text.
The connection point between this text and the Reformation is the flying angel proclaiming an eternal gospel. The angel can remind us of Martin Luther. Some even went as far as saying this angel prophesied Luther. While most people today think that is going too far, we can certainly say that Luther, like the angel in the text, soared above the world through his preaching. Indeed, he was, and still is, one of the most well-known and influential people of his generation. And his legacy was all about the Gospel – both his theology of freedom from the demands of the Law and his clear and effective proclamation, done through his translation of the Bible and his extensive writings.
It was natural for people to see Luther as a messenger sent from God. That’s what an angel is, right? A messenger. The Revelation 14 text captures that connection well.
We, too, sometimes refer to people as angels—like those who help us, or who have a meaningful message for us, or who are kind, loving and seemingly from God. I’ve called some of you angels. You’ve served that role, through something you’ve said or done. We’re all thankful for God’s messengers.
Of course, as much as Luther was loved and respected by many people, others saw him as wrong and dangerous. The feelings against him, in fact, were often so strong that people would call him a devil, or Satan himself. Calling him an angel was a good way of rebutting that charge.
As interesting as it may be to explore the historical reasons for this Reformation text, it is more important, however, that we seek to understand the message that the text was originally intended to give, as well as to read it for what it says to us now. So, let’s move on to that.
Chapter 14 of the Book of Revelation concludes one of the many cycles of visions in which the author, St. John, seeks to assure the church of Christ’s victory over evil. The chapters just before this, 12 and 13, give visions relating to the persecution of the church. In chapter 12, the church is like a woman being attacked by a dragon. In chapter 13 the church is attacked by two beasts—representing ungodly secular authorities and false religious leaders.
In Chapter 14, God then comes to rescue his persecuted church. The chapter begins as the conquering Lamb appears. The Lamb, as we know, is Christ Jesus. His coming is announced to the church through the singing of a new song. His message is then announced by three angels.
The verses we read as our text tell of the first angel—the one who proclaims the eternal gospel to all the nations and peoples. Next comes an angel who announces that the ungodly secular authority, here called Babylon, is being defeated. After that comes the third angel who warns people against following the beast – the false religious leadership.
After recording the vision of these three angels, John then summarizes their purpose by saying: “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Christ Jesus.”
The summary call to endurance is then followed by a blessing—a beautiful blessing that we often read at funerals or at the time of death: “And I heard a voice from heaven say, write this: ‘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.’”
After the blessing, John then tells of the final defeat of evil and the salvation of the saved—using the language of a harvester with a sharp sickle, from where we get that well-known character, the Grim Reaper. This vision of the End then concludes the cycle, just as similar visions of the End do with all the cycles.
These cycles in the book of Revelation comfort us because they show us that God is in charge. God will overcome evil. Justice will be accomplished someday. Those who are “faithful unto death will receive the crown of life” – to quote an earlier verse from the book.
The Book of Revelation offers particular comfort to a persecuted church. The first readers of the book certainly knew persecution. And we know it too, although to a much lesser degree. Today’s Church, as strong as it is, is also under attack by ungodly and false forces that seek its defeat. We hear it in the voices of those who mock us, oppose us and work against our teachings. We see it in the surveys and studies which mark a current decline.
To the persecuted church, God proclaims comfort. Hang in there. Keep the faith. Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment will come. And on that day, you, the people of the church, will be vindicated.
But what if we’re not keeping the faith so well. Or what if we’re not hanging in there but really just going through the motions. What if we’ve given up and are simply living our life as we… well please.
To the confident sinner, to the one who has jettisoned the faith, to the one who no longer cares, these words of our text are not words of comfort but of warning. They may be called words of “gospel” – but in this case that word simply means a message. It is good news only in the sense that a warning is good. It is not good news for those who are unrepentant. Those who fail to repent will soon experience the judgment of God Almighty. Those who persist in their rebellion will soon be cut down and cast into the fire.
Truth be told, none of us are keeping the faith so well. We all fail to live its teachings. We all fail to stand for the truth as we should.
But, some of us want to do better. And some of us do kneel before the Lord in sincerity. And some of us are troubled by our sin. And some of us do fear God and give him glory.
To you who are repentant in such ways as these, you can be confident that the Lamb of God has taken away your sin. He died on the cross for your salvation. And he rose from the dead, showing you that the curse of death has been overcome. His words to you are Good News. The best news possible.
You have an eternal gospel—one that will always be there for you; and one that will carry you into eternity. A gospel that is proclaimed by angels—many of them, in every generation, speaking to every nation and tribe and language and people. This gospel “sets the Lamb before our eyes”—which is a line from the next hymn we will sing. This gospel is the only true balm for troubled hearts.
I realize I’ve now segued into the next hymn, but I want to close by praying a line from our first hymn. I know we already sang it, but sometimes we’re concentrating so much on the singing that we don’t adequately pray it. And this is a prayer that deserves to be prayed with great passion.
Will you pray with me? “O Spirit who didst once restore Thy church that it might be again the bringer of good news to men, breathe on Thy cloven church once more, that in these gray and latter days there may be those whose life is praise, each life a high doxology to Father, Son and unto Thee. Amen.”