October 28, 2007
“And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.”
A couple of Sundays ago when my granddaughter Gracie was here, several ladies gathered around her, and smiled at her—everybody smiles at babies—and she smiled back. And someone said, “Isn’t she just like a little angel.” People often say that about babies. Maybe they have the idea that angels are little and cute. And we think of angels as pure and holy and certainly little babies are pure and holy if only because they have not done anything yet, even though Martin tells me that Gracie was sick this week and when they tried to take her temperature, she pitched a holy fit and acted far more demonic than angelic—but she was sick.
However that may be, I have a somewhat different take on angels. Our word “angel” comes from the Greek word “s” which means “messenger.” It can be any messenger. If you hired someone to deliver a message to a friend or an enemy, that person you hired is your “s,” your angel, but in the NT, “s” has come to have a special meaning as the messenger or representative of God. An angel speaks for God. A baby is a gift from God, and an angel is that, but far more than that.
Our scripture passage today is from the Book of Revelation, that mysterious book of signs and symbols at the end of the New Testament. In his vision, John sees the gospel angel of our text. Many have thought that this angel is a prophecy of Martin Luther. When Luther died in 1546, his pastor, Johann Bugenhagen, used these verses in his funeral sermon.
Bugenhagen said, “This angel who says, ‘Fear God and give him the honor,’ was Dr. Martin Luther. And what is written here, ‘Fear God and give him the honor,’ are the two parts of Dr. Martin Luther s doctrine, the Law and the Gospel, through which all of Scripture is unlocked and Christ, our righteousness and eternal life, is recognized.”
Bugenhagen also said, “…for we mourn justly that such a dear man, a proper bishop and shepherd of souls, has departed from us. But in this sorrow we should also rightly recognize God’s grace and mercy to us and thank God that he has awakened for us through his Spirit this dear Dr. Martin Luther against the antichristian doctrines of the abominable, satanic pope and against the devil's doctrines…” [http://beck.library.emory.edu/luther/luther_site/luther_text.html]
As you may gather from that the pope was not well thought of in northern Germany in the 1500’s. But Luther was not so much against the pope as he was for the gospel. Luther had a lifelong struggle against doubt and despair. He was afraid that his sinful nature forever separated him from God. He believed he was damned. But studying the Scripture, he came to see that through Jesus Christ, God would reckon him as righteous, even thought he was not righteous. God would forgive him and love him. And so we live only though faith in Jesus.
That is the gospel Luther and the other reformers of the sixteenth century rediscovered. Through their writings and teachings that gospel was again proclaimed to the world.
It would be wrong of us to suppose that Martin Luther is the only fulfillment of this prophecy of an angel. The gospel angel represents more than one person. This angel has flown throughout the history of the Christian church, and it continues to soar today.
That we are here this morning is a miracle. You might think, “Well, not really, we come to church every Sunday…no big deal.” However, if you look at the Church’s history, and see how many people over the centuries have tried to destroy it, how many poisonous false teachings have threatened to tear the Church apart, you realize that the fact that we are here today studying the untainted Word is a miracle of God’s grace.
To understand what this flying angel in our text means, we need to go back to the previous chapter in Revelation. In chapter 13, John sees two beasts. One beast comes from the sea, and the other from the earth. Listen to the description of the first beast: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy” (13:1).
This beast wears crowns. It represents secular government. This is a warning that the rulers of this world are the bitter enemies of the church. Early Christians soon discovered the truth of this. Their government, the Roman Empire, became their worst enemy, torturing and murdering them by the multitude. Today this still happens in Moslem countries. Churches are burned, Christians are intimidated, tortured, and murdered, and we are supposed to pretend that Moslems are nice folks, and we can live with them in peace and brotherhood.
Against this melancholy backdrop, the angel proclaims the gospel message. Earthly forces will try to stamp out Christianity, but they will not succeed. Notice that the angel flies “in the midst of heaven”—that is the angel flies beyond this earth. Governmental authority is restricted to here and now. This gospel angel has no such restriction and therefore the earthly enemies of Christ cannot touch this messenger. The angel proclaims: “Worry not about the powers here on earth. Instead, reverence the only true source of power in the universe: the Lord God Almighty.”
Martin Luther had much to worry about from his government. His immediate ruler, Elector Frederick, king of Luther’s German province of Saxony, at first was not thrilled that Luther was preaching against his collection of relics that he had amassed over the years. These relics were things like bones of the saints, little pieces of wood that were supposed to be from the cross of Jesus, one of the pieces of silver that Judas got for betraying Jesus. Pilgrims came to view these relics, and gave money, and so this was a source of income for both church and state. Luther knew this, of course, but he stood unflinchingly for gospel truth. There is no spiritual value in making long journeys to look at old bones. Salvation is by faith alone.
Now it turned out that Elector Frederick agreed with Luther about the futility of relics, but Luther did not know that initially. He simply preached the gospel. He preached “Sola fide” which is Latin for “by faith alone.” That is, we are forgiven our sins by the grace of God when we have faith in Jesus Christ.
All the forces of medieval society were arrayed against Luther, but he never flinched because this gospel angel realized that the Lord is more powerful than human society. If the choice was between obeying the desires of men or obeying the commands of God, the choice was a simple one for Luther. As our text says, Luther was going to “fear God and give glory to him.”
Now, we are not likely to be called before a government tribunal to boldly confess our faith under threat of death. In the US, we are certainly not in fear that the government might execute us because of our faith, but our world is just as hostile to Christianity as Luther’s world, and we need to be s, messengers of the Lord, willing to confess our faith no matter what the cost.
This beast of secular power is still alive, and we do not need to cross oceans to find him. We face him in our own country. We have had numerous court rulings in recent years that reveal a hostility to Christianity. Our culture at every turn says to us that Christ is nothing special. The lawsuit at Great Falls, just a few miles away from us, that was carried to the Supreme Court and resulted in a ruling that the name of Jesus cannot be mentioned in public prayers was just one example among many. Our society is seeking to secularize itself, to remove all mention of God, and especially of Jesus, from public life. Again, we see this in the movement to ban the ten Commandments from our courthouses. The beast trying to destroy the Church, just like Revelation said he would.
You might reply that it is the church’s job to change society, and therefore we ought to start working harder. That is true, but not exactly. It is the church’s job to be a witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We were alienated from God. Christ came to restore that relationship. That is the gospel. In a sense, we are all “s,” messengers. We are called to be gospel angels, to present the love of Christ to a sinful world. If the world accepts that message, it will certainly be changed. But if the world refuses to accept, then our job is to be prophets, to continue to proclaim God’s word, even if the world chooses to be ruled by the beast.
However, the church has another enemy. This enemy does not come from outside the church, but from inside the church. Revelation 13 describes it in this way, “I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon” (11). This beast is even more dangerous than the first. This beast does not appear to be an evil monster. It looks like a lamb, it looks harmless, even Christian. Yet the words and teachings of this beast are from the dragon, the devil.
In Martin Luther’s day, this beast represented the church hierarchy. They tried to appear as servants of God, but their teachings were directly against the Gospel. According to this beast, the forgiveness of sins could be purchased by doing the right deeds—making pilgrimages, doing penance, or paying the right amount of money. This beast fooled many people. They thought it was from God, but it was from the devil.
However, in God’s providence, the gospel angel appeared. In the fifteen hundreds this angel was Martin Luther and the other reformers. This angel proclaimed the gospel to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.”
Martin Luther fought this second beast with his pen, and his most important work was the translation of the Bible into the common language of the people. Before, only highly educated people could read and understand the Bible, that is, if they could find a Bible. Martin Luther, the gospel angel, was God’s messenger in that he made the Word of God accessible to everyone, at least to everyone in Germany. The work of Luther has continued through many other gospel angels. The Bible has since been translated into hundreds of languages. People all over the world are understanding that their salvation is free, won by the blood of Jesus.
In our day, we too experience this beast that has the appearance of a harmless lamb but speaks with the voice of the dragon. Most Christians seem blissfully unaware of what is going on. For example, the beast pretends that all denominations are pretty much the same, so it does not matter which denomination you belong to, and all religions are pretty much the same so it does not matter which religion you belong to. It does not really matter about Jesus. God loves and accepts us all, regardless of religious beliefs. That is the message of the second beast.
How do we respond to this beast? It is World Series time, so let us consider baseball. A runner is trying to score on a hit. As he barrels around third base, the catcher receives the ball and braces himself for impact. If the runner can jar the ball out of the catcher’s hand, he is safe. So, the catcher must hang onto the ball.
You are the catcher. A beast is rounding third, running full tilt, to slam into you. A second beast is coming the other way from first base. I know that it does not work that way in baseball, but we are not really talking about baseball. When both beasts slam into you, you need to hold onto the ball. You need to hold on to the gospel. You do this by hearing the Word of God, by studying the Bible, by prayer, by celebrating the sacraments. We still need gospel angels. God is calling you to be a gospel angel, to tell others about the truth of Christ.
So I guess the next time someone calls my granddaughter Gracie an angel, I should say, “Yes, you are right. We pray that she grows up to be a faithful messenger of Jesus Christ.” I pray that we are all Gospel angels: messengers who are bold to confess Christ as lord and savior.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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