“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.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Reformation Day comes from the First Lesson just read from the book of Revelation. [Knock, knock, knock] His hammer drove the nails into the thick church door. He was excited, a bit nervous, but most of all he was angry. [Knock, knock, knock] That anger drove the nails in deep. This young monk was upset at what the church had taught him, but what made him even more irate was what the church had taught to the people he preached to and cared for, the good Christian people of Wittenberg. [Knock, knock, knock] Those nails tacked to the door what young Martin Luther called his ’95 Theses,’ ninety-five points of disputation. He was calling on people to debate him, to start a conversation, but what started was the Reformation. Luther could never have predicted that what he began on October 31st, 1517 would consume his entire life; in fact, his hammer would echo throughout history, resulting in a church split into literally hundreds of denominations. His message would divide, for it was the message of the pure Gospel: You are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.
Martin Luther’s message focused on that vitally important word ‘justification.’ Today, many people, including even more than a few Lutherans, have said that this complicated word has no meaning to modern people. I disagree; in fact, I think we know all about justification, because we attempt to do it all the time. You are by nature a justifier. To justify means to make things right, and you try to justify your actions each and every day. When a confirmation student forgets his memory work, what does he say first? Does he apologize, or does he justify? Does he say, “I’m sorry, I sinned and didn’t do what I was supposed to,” or does he say, “I was too busy this week, and I had too much other homework, and I forgot the sheet, and your expectations are too high,” and on and on. When you sin against someone, what is your first response? Do you ask for forgiveness, or do you justify? “If you would’ve done what I asked, I wouldn’t have lost my temper.” “If I wasn’t late, I wouldn’t have been speeding.” “If my classmate had covered up his paper, I wouldn’t have cheated.” You would much rather justify yourself than ask for forgiveness; you want to make things right yourself, without any help from anyone else. We even justify our inactions: “I would’ve stopped for that accident, but there were other people there already.” “I would’ve shared my faith, but it just wasn’t the right time.” “I would’ve helped my neighbor, but he’s never helped me.” Pastors are not immune: “I should’ve told that person about their sin, but I don’t want to make them mad.” You were conceived and born a self-justifier; that is what you’re good at, that is where you turn first.
Luther knew all about this; perhaps more than any other theologian in the Church’s history, Luther understood the depth of human sinfulness, because he knew the depth of his own sinfulness. He knew that we try to justify our actions before others, but even more importantly we even try to justify ourselves before God. He had traveled that road himself, he had spent his life trying to reach God with his own actions. That was what made him so upset as he hammered on the Wittenberg church door; the church of his day didn’t discourage self-justification, instead, it made self-justification the chosen path of salvation. People were directed toward their own efforts to justify themselves; they were supposed to reconcile themselves to God through an elaborate system of good works, they were supposed to climb their way up to God. Our world, and unfortunately even the church, has these same ladders today. The ladder of the mind declares that our own understanding and reason can reach God. The ladder of the emotions proclaims that if I feel God more and more in my life, then I am coming close to reaching Him. The ladder of good works declares that I can climb up to God through my own obedience to His Law, that I can justify myself before my Creator by doing what He wants. Luther had walked that road, he knew its end. He knew that no ladder could reach God, because he had tried them all, and had found only despair. He was an exemplary monk; he worked harder than his brothers, he followed every rule to the letter, but still he was painfully conscious of his own sin. All he saw was an angry, all-powerful God, who demanded that humans justify themselves, then delighted at condemning them when they failed.
“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.” This eternal gospel had gone forth throughout the world as the apostles boldly preached it, but the church had forgotten it, instead burying that sweet message under a pile of attempts at self-justification. Luther was to be God’s instrument to proclaim that message once again. The eternal gospel rang forth into his own ears as he studied the Scriptures, especially the third chapter of Romans: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, do you hear the sweet message of the Gospel in that verse? You do not have to justify yourself; you are justified by faith ‘apart from works of the Law!’ You are freed from any attempts to make yourself right with God, for Jesus has done it all for you! Believe that message, cling to His redemption in faith, and you are justified! No works are required, no ladders, no self-justification; God has justified you through faith on account of Christ. “There is no distinction: 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.” Jesus Christ is the atonement sacrifice, the Lamb who was slain for you, for me, for all people. He hung upon that cross bearing your sin, He was raised to justify you, to make you righteous in the sight of God. You are set free from your sin, you are set free from any attempts to justify yourself, but instead you confess your sin and receive the blessed forgiveness Christ won. You do not have to make things right with God, for Christ Himself has reconciled you to your Creator with His suffering, death, and resurrection!
That is the message, the eternal gospel that the angel proclaims in our text: “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.” This is a call to the entire world to repent and believe the Gospel. God is glorified when people cling to His Son, He is glorified in His Son’s death, in His Son’s resurrection for the sins of all people. God is not given glory in your self-justification, but in your faith. God is not given glory in your own righteousness, but in Christ’s righteousness given to you. And having being forgiven, having been justified by the very blood of Jesus Christ, we can now truly worship God as our Creator. That is the chief end of Christ’s death and resurrection, His redemption and justification of lost sinners: to reconcile us with His Father, the one who created us and has loved us from all eternity. Only through Christ’s salvation do you worship the Father as the one who gave you life, who knit you together in your mother’s womb and has given you every good gift since. You have all things because of Christ: freedom from self-justification, redemption from you sin, and the sure and certain promise of eternal life, founded upon His resurrection from the dead. That is the message Luther was called upon to proclaim, the ‘eternal gospel’ that rang forth in our text.
Some Lutheran theologians through the centuries have therefore made the claim that the angel in our text for today is Luther himself. It is unlikely that this text is a direct prophecy of Martin Luther, but what we can say is that he was another in a long line of saints who were appointed by God to proclaim the ‘eternal gospel’ to every nation and tribe and language and people. In fact, we can say even more: God used a German monk as His instrument to uncover once again the free message of God’s grace from all that had obscured it. Today, we do not celebrate a man, or even a church; Luther himself would be disgusted to see us place our focus on him alone. No, instead today we rejoice in the Gospel, we rejoice that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Today we rejoice that the Lord in His grace used Martin Luther to proclaim it freely again. But Reformation Day is not simply about God’s gifts through one man, for God placed around Martin Luther a talented cast of theologians, faithful lay people, and a loving and devoted wife, all of whom were blessed with the gifts needed to carry this message before the entire world. Indeed, they had the opportunity to fulfill the words of our Introit for today: “I will speak of your testimonies before kings, O Lord, and shall not be put to shame.” The Lord Himself gave them boldness, the same boldness that drove Luther to the church door on October 31st, 1517.
[Knock, knock, knock] That young monk had no idea where the journey he began with a sheet of paper, a hammer, and some nails, would end. He didn’t know that five hundred years later congregations would bear his name, not because they worship Martin Luther, but because they revel in the Gospel that he proclaimed. What he did know was that God loved him for the sake of Jesus Christ, that He had justified him through faith, simply on account of His grace. Because Luther understood the depth of our inability to come to God, he understood all the better the enormity of God’s grace, that when we were unable to come up to Him, God came down to us for our salvation. In the Name of the One whose righteousness we bear, whose blood justifies us before God, Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord, Amen.