For Such a Time and Place
Perhaps you recognize the title from Mordecai’s meant to be motivational words to niece Esther in the face of Haman’s pogrom of the Jews in Persia. “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this” (Es. 4:14). Today we celebrate the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation, but we don’t do so to remember the past but for such a time and place as this.
First though, step out of time. I made this difficult for you when after the 500th anniversary of the Reformation I kept counting each year 501, 502, etc.. German theologian Clause Harms said at the 300th anniversary of the Reformation, if our church were only 300 years old, we should hasten to leave it. That’s true at 505 and will be at 1005. But how should we answer the sneering question of the Roman Catholics since 1600, “'Where was your Church before Luther'" (MacCulloch, Reformation, 391)? How about reply as the Lutherans have been replying since 1528? It was then that the Lutheran’s started celebrating the Reformation, and our text from Rev. 14 was the appointed Epistle reading. This was so from the 16th century to 1978. It’s the appointed Epistle reading for TLH, but in LW and LSB it’s only for the 1-year series. I’ve never heard a Reformation sermon based on it. C.S. Lewis said that when we change the words of our forefathers it’s because we no longer understand what they were saying. The Epistle reading was changed because we no longer understood that the Reformation is about the Eternal Gospel not about a man named Martin Luther.
Our forefathers saw at least the Lutheran Reformation if not Luther himself predicted in Rev. 14:6-7. Already in 1522 and on into the 1540s his contemporaries identified Luther as the angel (Brecht, Luther III, 379). And in doing so they stepped out of their time and into eternity. There’s a familiar, comforting Bible passage in Ecclesiastes, but like in horror movies it turns suddenly frightening. Right after everyone’s favorite song by the Byrds ends in verse 8. We read in Ecc. 3:11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; so they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” To creatures born in time and moving through it, eternity is a bottomless pit. But not to the eternal God and He in Revelation is shown sending 3 angels. However, before He sends one of Wrath and then Judgment, He sends one of Gospel.
So step out of 2022 A.D., the 505 anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation; step out of time and into Eternity. The angel flying in mid-heaven, between heaven and earth is sent literally “having the eternal gospel to evangelize”. This Gospel goes back to the dawn of creation; first promised after the Fall. God would send a Man, but more than a man, to do what perfect men could not. Keep God’s Law perfectly and then crush the head of the serpent. Actually, Rev. 13:8 says this Gospel is even prior to creation. It speaks of the Lamb God being slain from the foundation of the world. Check your translations. They try to avoid this because it just blows the minds of us creatures in time that before the first Adam became a living being the second Adam was slain to become a life-giving spirit.
As in a dream, step out of time and into eternity, and step out of this place too. Our place, the Woke-crowd notwithstanding, is a place divided by nation, tribe, language, and people. There are always dozens of wars going on round the world based on these divisions. The eternal Gospel was revealed to Luther in the midst of such wars and humanly speaking those conflicts served to spread, preserve, and protect the Gospel. The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus’ victory over Sin, Death, and Devil, and He evangelizes it over all regardless of race, language, or what they have done. Most translate “to those who live on the earth.” But John uses the word katoike? 15 times, and it’s for those who dwell, settle on earth. These are those who think their citizenship is on earth not heaven. They are content to live in the here and now without God.
Yet it’s over these earth-bound, mud-bound, dirty people that the Lord proclaims His Gospel of washing, of renewing Water, of a well-spring of eternal life. The Gospel revealed to Luther was not that Jesus kept the law in the place of all sinners and carried the sins of the world to Calvary where he paid for them. The whole Church on earth knew this; preached it. The revelation was that God Almighty in Christ wanted sinners to be certain of their forgiveness. Luther’s Gospel was against what he called the Monster of Uncertainty, the conditional Absolution. He preserved in his own writings the Absolution of his day which wasn’t certain and therefore not a real absolving: “’I absolve thee from thy sins through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the sake of the contrition of thy heart, the confession of thy mouth, and the intercession of the saints’” (Luther Discovers the Gospel, 27-8). This uncertain Gospel is alive and well. Whether forgiveness is tied to you quitting sinning first, asking Jesus into your heart, deciding to follow Jesus, doing the best you can, being sorry enough, or believing it’s conditional.
Ambient sound is sound that is so constant you don’t notice it, but it has an effect on you. The constant noise of the Devil, the World, and your own fallen Self is not Gospel: it’s law, it’s guilt, it’s self-justification: what you did is not really sinful or you’ll do better next time. Above this, flying in mid-heaven, is the clarion call of the Gospel from every faithful messenger of God, from every drop of baptismal Water, every real Absolution; every appearance of Christ’s Body and Blood. It proclaims forgiveness free and full in Jesus’ name. You want to know a frequent thing people have said to me over the years about sins? “Just tell me I couldn’t have done something so bad that God can’t or won’t forgive me.” I can say that because the Gospel says it. But how much better for them if they had told me what was weighing so heavy on them to squeeze out that plea?
If the Reformation is about a Gospel not bound by time, but eternally true, eternally proclaimed, for such a time as this, then not only do we need to step of this time and place, but we need to step back into His world. Remember the Devil’s great lie to Jesus? The world belongs to him and he can give it to whomever he wants. It certainly looks like everyone who dwells on earth, every nation, tribe, tongue, and people belong to him and are arrayed against God and His Christ and therefore us Christians. From this apparent reality comes the motivation to get away from the world. Luther was offered worldly power to protect him and the Gospel. Luther said his Gospel would protect him and them. Luther did try hiding from the death penalty pronounced against him by Charles V. He did much good work while hiding at Wartburg Castle, but he was also troubled by demons in his isolation and left when he learned the Reformation was veering toward rebellion. He then stepped back into God’s time and place.
It’s a lie; this is not the Devil’s world though Scripture does say he rules here, but not apart from God who makes all things work to the good of His people. Luther lived with a God who was as present as Words in his ears, Water on his skin, and Body-Bread and Wine-Blood on his altar. You’ve heard about the first time Luther celebrated Communion trembling with such fear he could hardly go on. In the last year of His life, 37 years later, during a long communion service, his trembling hand spilled the Blood of Christ from the Chalice. Luther stooped and licked it up so as not to trample and profane it (https://glossary.wein.plus/luther-martin#). You know the line from the woman who’s friend is married to a dullard but faithful man, who is over the moon in love with her? She says, “I want to be loved like that.” Don’t you want to live like Luther having a God that close, that tangible, that real? The Eternal Gospel for Luther was tied to his own time and place.
Luther lived with an All-Powerful God who was present with him in the Babe that nursed on His mother’s lap; who walked the hills of Palestine and lives today in Bread and Wine. But it started for Luther in the God who Created. This has been taken from us. We think that science won’t let us believe in a Creator God and so try to live with just a Redeemer God. That is ultimately living with science as God, and science is going to tell you dead is dead, the unseen is unreal, and this life is all. Kids who entered college as Christians but left as unbelievers were asked what made them lose their faith. The majority said evolution. You reject the God of creation and you lose the God of recreation. Irenaeus said something like that. If you don’t believe God created grains and wine, you can’t believe He can use them to give you His body and blood. God’s realm isn’t only that of the spiritual, the invisible, heaven, but of the material, the visible, earth.
Luther feared and worshipped “Him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.” This is Jesus whom John tells us not one single thing was made without Him. Luther believed that Almighty God made him and all creatures and “gave me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses.” He was never at the mercy of the Laws of Nature, but of the God of Nature who redeemed him “a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil…with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” But He didn’t leave him at the mercy of his unbelieving heart but “called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
Though G. K. Chesterton would say Luther was a heretic, he fails his own test of heresy. Chesterton said, "Every heresy has been an effort to narrow the Church" (Chesterton, Aquinas & Assisi, 316). Luther declared the boundaries of the Church were as broad as Holy Scripture and not bound to a time and place but to a Person. Certainly not him but Jesus. And He is here today in Word and Sacraments, flesh and blood for such a time and place as this. Amen!
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (20221030); Revelation 14:6-7