The Festival of the Reformation, 31 October 1517 – 31 October 2017
On the Occasion of the 500th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Lutheran Reformation
Revelation 14.6-7 (See Text Below)
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
On this occasion, let’s not simply journey back to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517. By now, you probably know the story of the 95 theses.
Instead, let’s go inside the Church behind those doors, to the pulpit of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and to the 22nd of February, 1546. Preaching from that pulpit is the longtime pastor of the city of Wittenberg and Luther’s close colleague, Johannes Bugenhagen. Laid to rest at the foot of that pulpit is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, where his remains await the resurrection to this day.
Bugenhagen preached these words about Luther at his funeral:
“For the person has indeed died in Christ, but the mighty, blessed, godly doctrine of this precious man still lives most powerfully.
“For he was without doubt the angel concerning whom it is written in Revelation 14, who flew through the midst of heaven and had an eternal Gospel, etc., as the text says:
And I saw an angel flying through the midst of heaven. He had an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who sit and dwell on earth, to all heathen and races and languages and nations. And he said with a loud voice: ‘Fear God and give him honor, for the time of his judgment has come. Worship the one who has made heaven and earth, the seas and the springs of water.’ And another angel followed and said: ‘She has fallen, she has fallen, Babylon, the great city, for she has made drunk all the heathen with the wine of her harlotry’. (Rev. 14.6-8; Bugenhagen)
“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. To these two he has also added this passage (‘the time of his judgment has come’) and has taught regarding proper prayer and invocation of God the heavenly Father in Spirit and in truth. As the angel also says in Revelation 14: ‘Worship the one who has made heaven and earth, etc.’”
I do not believe that Pastor Bugenhagen was engaging in polemical, triumphal rhetoric concerning his dead friend and colleague. I believe he meant this, and I believe he is right. Not because we should elevate Martin Luther to some higher, holier status than the rest of the saints who have died in Christ, and not because we want to worship a hero.
But he is right about Luther being the prophetic angel from this text in Revelation because of the doctrine that Dr. Martin Luther preached, which is God’s doctrine, from the Scriptures. What Bugenhagen is telling us today is not that Luther the man is to be worshipped, but that God sends men to preach the truth of the holy Bible to people who desperately need to hear that truth, that God has always and still sends messengers – angels, if you will – with an eternal, heavenly message: “…the Law and the Gospel, through which all of Scripture is unlocked and Christ, our righteousness and eternal life, is recognized.”
That, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the ongoing story of the Lutheran Reformation, not just its history, but it continues to make history, the story is not over. Wherever the Law and the Gospel are clearly distinguished and preached rightly, where Christ crucified and resurrected for the forgiveness and salvation of the world is proclaimed to the dark and sin-corrupted world that needs so dearly that light and life, that story continues. It is the story of the real and truly catholic church, of all times and places.
As the Word of God is living and active, so is the Lutheran Reformation, so the Word of God goes forth into the world. As men need to be dispelled from the darkness of sin, death, and the devil, so does God keep sending many prophetic, preaching angels, like Martin Luther, who preach rightly that Word and teach rightly “Christ, our righteousness and eternal life… regarding proper prayer and the invocation of God the heavenly Father in Spirit and in truth.”
What a weight was lifted off the shoulders of a young Martin Luther five hundred years ago. He came to realize by God’s grace that the Scriptures taught that God was seeking to exchange God’s own holiness and righteousness for Luther’s lack of righteousness, through the sacrifice of God’s Son:
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… For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:23–25, 29; ESV)
God teaches through the Bible that He does not expect us to work for a lifetime and beyond, to somehow advance our own way towards Him and His holiness, for we cannot. We humans have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Luther the monk intensely struggled with this – that as God is righteous, and he is not, how can one then ever be saved? Instead the Bible teaches us that the Lord Jesus Christ had done all things on our behalf. No indulgence need be bought to earn forgiveness of sins, no good work, no pilgrimage, no accounting need be made before God, instead, God Himself gave the accounting for every sinner, when His only-begotten Son shed His precious blood to pay the punishment owed for our every sin, “the propitiation by His blood.”
God desires to give and to declare Christ’s righteousness as your righteousness, and thus give the forgiveness of sins as a free gift. The baptized children of God in Jesus Christ simply live in and receive this comforting truth by faith alone, and not by works. By faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, alone. Luther wrote that when He first was given the truth of the Gospel, he felt as if he had been born again, and the very doors of heaven had been opened to him.
The Lord had sent many messengers to proclaim the truth of His Gospel since His life, death, resurrection, and ascension, beginning with His holy apostles and evangelists. But because by the time of the Reformation, the Gospel had been so obscured by the doctrines of men, as Jesus Himself warned would happen, and as the devil works very hard to deceive men from the truth, never has it been more necessary for God to send men to clearly teach and bring to bear His saving Word, the eternal Gospel to proclaim, for the sake of the Church. So we give thanks that God restored the right preaching and teaching of His Word, when He ignited the Lutheran Reformation through that lowly German angel in lowly little Wittenberg, walking quietly with hammer and nail and theses in hand to that Church door on this day five hundred years ago, never imagining what would happen. When the light of the Gospel began to shine in Electoral Saxony five hundred years ago, and the angel began to sing again God’s eternal, gracious message of truth and life by rightly preaching God’s Law and Gospel, many burdened consciences became free, and still do, and that’s what we rejoice in today. Hearts believe the Gospel, mouths confess and sing it, souls rest in heaven awaiting resurrection, men and women live and die justified by grace, through faith, for Christ’s sake.
“…As the angel also says in Revelation 14: ‘Worship the one who has made heaven and earth, etc.’” Luther was not some revolutionary. He did not nail the ninety-five theses simply to stick it to the Pope and stand up to some bad guy for his version of “social justice.” He was not out to clear the way for our modern, enlightened western culture of selfish indulgence and narcissism in the name of our perceived “freedom.” No. The Lutheran Reformation was a conserving one, where the Church was called to relish everything good the Church has stood for as the body of Christ, including the blessings of strong preaching and thorough catechesis in God’s Word, Holy Baptism and the blessings of the baptismal life of repentance and absolution, the communion of the saints in the Lord’s Supper and the ancient liturgy of the Church that builds our worship to that blessed meal, that the sung in hymns and canticles of the past and the present, every prayer and praise, would point to Christ and Him crucified, to the truth of the Gospel. There was an eternal Gospel to proclaim, and that Gospel found its way to the hearts and minds of people through Catechism and hymnals and prayer books and great confessions of the faith, large and small. And it still does.
This blessing and heritage God preserved and reinvigorated and extended for us through Luther and the Reformation. That’s why he is the prophetic angel. He called out the Word of God in season and out of season, popular or not, even at the risk of his life and reputation. Countless men, women, and children from all over the world have learned and taken to heart their freedom from sin on account of Christ thanks to memorizing the Small Catechism and singing their Christian faith in the hymns of our church. I’ve seen videos of Lutherans in Madagascar and Africa singing “A Mighty Fortress” and other Lutheran hymns and liturgy with great joy and gusto, as we do here. And saying from memory the same texts and meanings from the Small Catechism. Those books have sustained the faith of many Christians who faced war, famine, persecution, and pestilence. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some Lutherans were found in remote areas of Siberia, who despite being allowed no hymnals or catechisms during that regime had carried on their Lutheran faith by memory, for multiple generations, for decades.
Some who opposed the Reformation at the time of Luther lamented the fact that so many people were exposed to Lutheran doctrine through the Lutheran hymns. And they probably lamented the Small Catechism too. They deemed the truth of the Gospel too dangerous to put in the mouths of all the common folk.
But that’s what happens when God sends His angels to proclaim His eternal Gospel, His Word of life and light. Darkness is dispelled. Consciences are consoled. Hearts are renewed. Sin and the old Adam is fought, sins are freely forgiven, the new man in Christ daily arises. Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing. By its fruits true faith is known, with love and hope increasing, as genuine good works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living. Those things keep happening. It’s the Church’s story. The gates of hell shall not prevail against her.
All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise To Father, Son, and Spirit, The God who saved us by His grace, All glory to His merit. O Triune God, in heaven above, You have revealed Your Saving love; Your blessed name we hallow. (LSB 555:10)
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +