Perhaps their hands shook, afraid; for sure their hearts were bold. Their voices may have trembled some, but their confession was firm: “[T]he God we serve is able to save us from [your fiery threats]…But even if he does not…we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Nebuchadnezzar, the king, was enraged, of course. And soon the three men found themselves bound with ropes and squinting into a searing heat. Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace screamed its hot breath in their faces and then swallowed them whole. Perhaps… Shadrach, eyes closed in prayer; Meshach, a shout of fear; Abednego, every muscle tense…somehow they fell. Can you imagine how it was when they hit the floor of that fiery furnace? And found it like a hot, summer day; a stand-able heat… And, after looking at one another, they lifted their eyes up to see God’s angel standing over them?
It is with the same hope that the people of God have cried out in the midst of fiery troubles throughout the ages. You too have cried tears in the midst of terrible, shaken lives – when even the solid footings you’ve known have given way. Those things you rely on daily: jobs, relationships, health – even the reliable mountains sometimes crumble. You have experienced tumultuous seas and engulfing waters that would swallow you whole. Spiritual tests, temptations that catch you again, and problems to which you cannot see an end. You know the trouble like the psalmist shared it today. It’s just for when you have found yourself on your knees in those crumbling, shaking things, as a resident on this kind of earth, that today God says, “Look! Another angel!”
It appears in Revelation 14, which puts us near the end of the fourth of the seven visions of John’s book. If you’re afraid of the great pictures Revelation presents or tempted to be super-fanciful with it all – remember to keep it simple. John writes what God showed him seven different ways, each time the same theme: that God is almighty and, through his Christ, he will bring salvation victory to his people. This fourth vision (fr. ch. 12-15:8) is broken up into seven pictures, this one: three angels announcing to those on the earth what God wants them to know.
Listen again to this first messenger. Flying high overhead, it cries out in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him…” Now, for everyone living on this broken world, that’s a necessary message. As Solomon writes it for us in Ecclesiastes, “This only have I found [to be true about mankind]: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.” Indeed, by the Fall into Sin, every person ever born – any tribe, nation, people, language – all are alike in sin. “There is no one who does good, not even one” the psalmist concludes. St. Paul agrees that, by nature, humans are “objects of wrath” – deserving of anger and punishment because of sins. And, continually scheming for the way to be okay – whether it’s earning it by good deeds before God, or some other god; or achieving it in the perfect society with the perfect government with perfect life – there is a natural knowledge that things aren’t right and must be made so. There’s a natural inclination that we must make it so.
As people living on the earth, it’s good for us to hear this message too. Naturally, there’s a temptation for you, while living on this earth, to fix it. When the mountains give way or the seas roar and foam, there is a temptation for you to quell them. Sometimes it’s just easier not to bother him – “He’s too glorious for my troubles.” Or to glorify yourself first – “When I’m right then I’ll come to him.” Or perhaps to put our heads in the sand and disconnect from the facts – that things are like this…
Does that ever happen to you with Reformation? That sometimes you wonder, “Why would we celebrate this day? Perhaps it’s a bit presumptuous – who are we as opposed to…? Or are we guilty of Luther-worship?” It’s a good question – what is this day about? Sometimes I think we would like not to think about the facts – like that the church of Luther’s day didn’t glorify God: it made systems by which you could buy your salvation – still does; it proclaimed a salvation by the work that you do – still does; it pointed to a glory housed in a certain place in one certain, human person and required allegiance to the same – still does. Perhaps we hesitate to acknowledge that it is good and right to say what is real and true: that for this kind of self-worship and glory there is judgment coming. The other two angels speak of devastation for all those who have been the Church’s enemies and eternal torment for those who have marked themselves with this world’s beastly way in unbelief, those who have sought their own glory and disregarded God’s… And, if we have felt this to be anything less than glorious, that God’s judgment ought to come on the unrighteous… if we’ve wanted to hide these man-glorifying things as though they don’t matter… then we must repent. And we must lift high our heads and recognize the facts.
Oh, the joy this messenger brings! My friends, do not ever be ashamed! He is carrying the eternal gospel to proclaim—to every nation, tribe, language and people – a message without compare the world wide! The world is marching toward judgment before a righteous God. But he does not prescribe that we sacrifice our babies once a month to avert destruction… He does not demand payments from your IRAs… He does not list the four thousand pretend-achievables by which you will earn his favor. No…He calls out from the heavens the greatest good news. That God was in Jesus Christ bringing the world into a right relationship to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them but, on account of the atoning work of his own Son, he is setting sinners free from condemnation, giving them confidence to stand righteous in the judgment, by faith in the Word that forgives sins. It is the Word, and that Word alone, Luther confessed and fought for in every aspect of his Reformation work. It is the Word of the gospel, the Word of the Cross, the Word by which we have become and remain Christians.
Rejoice that this eternal gospel has a history. It was promised to Adam and Eve after the fall, proclaimed by the prophets, and fulfilled as the Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, suffered and died under Pontius Pilate for our trespasses and was raised again on the third day for our justification. This eternal gospel was preached by the apostles, confessed by the creeds, and when it had been dimmed and diminished by human teachings, it was restored to the church by the Lord through his servants – people like Martin Luther, who shouted this gospel out as loudly as they could.
Revelation 14:6-7 is the historic epistle reading for Reformation, in part because reformers like Pastor Johannes Bugenhagen identified Luther as that angel who carried the eternal gospel (Brecht III:379). Well – it’s true – the gospel Luther preached was nothing other than the one eternal gospel that is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. But I don’t think he is this angel – the historical fulfillment of John’s Revelation prophecy. I think God has something much grander in store…
That as you live on this earth, he keeps on proclaiming this gospel – high above the turmoil, outlasting kingdoms, beyond the scandals of the day and the worries in our hearts. To you who live with all the others on this earth, around whom the waters roar and the mountains quake, when life falls to pieces he calls. In baptism, he washed you clean. With his Word he has instructed your hearts; he shapes your lives by faith. Through his Savior he has promised that his Spirit will speak through you as you carry his eternal gospel out into the world. So that someone on this earth will one day in their trouble hear this Word and lift their eyes and see your face, and – just as with St. Paul, or Martin Luther, so with you – to them God will be saying, “Look! Another angel…”
Messengers of Jesus Christ – on this Reformation day, rejoice in this eternal gospel that forgives your sins by the work of God in his Son, Jesus Christ, and prepares you and me and many, many more to stand without fear before his judgment throne.
To God alone be the glory. Amen!