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When I was young, our annual summer vacation was to the Jersey Shore, usually Wildwood. We went to Wildwood, because at the time it was a nice family place to go, and because it was close to Cape May, where my uncle managed the Cape May Airport. Uncle Caddy flew those banners up and down the beach that advertized things like ‘Laura’s Fudge ‘ Best on the Boardwalk,’ and ‘Pier One Salt Water Taffy,’ and ‘Tony Bennett ‘ Tonight at the Red Garter.’ Every time one of those little Piper Cubs flew overhead, towing one of those banners, my sister and I would wave and shout at the top of our lungs, ‘hi uncle Caddy.’
St. John describes what he sees. ‘An 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.’ That’s quite a banner that this angel is towing.
The banner proclaims ‘The eternal Gospel.’ ‘The Gospel’ is the good news that the holy, holy, holy God has restored His fallen creation through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. ‘The Gospel’ is that divine fact that mankind’s sin, has been completely atoned for, not with our gold or silver, or our good works or our penance or indulgences, or other any such thing, but solely by the precious blood of Christ. ‘The Gospel’ is the victory that that Jesus Christ has won over the power of the devil that sets every man and woman ever born into slavery under sin, free. Not because we are worthy, but because Jesus loves you.
The banner proclaims that the Gospel is ‘eternal;’ that everything that has just been said has always been true and always will be; that what God has done in Christ Jesus for you and me, is what He has done for all ‘those who dwell on the earth, EVERY nation and tribe and language and people.’
Think about what this means.
?? This means that the gospel was in effect for Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden.
?? It was in effect for Noah as he was building the ark and riding out the storm.
?? It was in effect for Abraham, when he left family and friends, house and home and went without knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)
?? It was in effect for Moses and Israel, as they traveled through hostile territory on their way to the Promised Land.
?? And the whole time that Israel was in exile in Babylon, the angel was flying directly overhead, with the ‘eternal gospel’ of God’s promise of deliverance.
John saw an ‘angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel TO PROCLAIM.’ The ‘eternal gospel’ must be ‘proclaimed.’ It must be ‘bannered.’ Otherwise it remains the best kept secret the world has never known.
On January 1, 1863, president Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that all slaves were free. It was the Emancipation PROCLAMATION. It had to be PROCLAIMED. Sadly, many slaves remained in slavery because they never knew they were free. The angel flying directly overhead, has an ‘eternal gospel’ to PROCLAIM. The Good News must be published and broadcast so that the word will get out.
?? The word that our sins and transgressions are forgiven and not counted against us because Jesus Christ has taken the full punishment for all of our sins in His own body on the cross, must be proclaimed.
?? The truth that the devil no longer has any power over you because Jesus Christ has crushed the serpent’s head by His resurrection from the dead, must be exposed.
?? The good news that a new creation is in the works and that Jesus Christ has chosen you to be a part of it by the power of His Word in the water of Holy Baptism, needs to be declared.
?? The invitation to the banquet where Jesus Christ gives His very body and blood to all who hunger and thirst for righteousness that they may eat and drink and be satisfied, must be delivered.
And so it is that before Jesus ascends into heaven, He sends His apostles with His authority, to ‘go to all nations, [and tribe, and peoples, and languages] baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:18). To all who are slaves to sin, and that includes ‘all those who dwell on the earth,’ the Word to be proclaimed is that ‘the Son has set you free. You are indeed free.’ Otherwise, no one will know.
So then, just who or what is that ‘angel flying directly overhead with the eternal gospel to proclaim’? Throughout the Old Testament, that ‘angel’ is none other than Israel, the people of God. God established Israel to be the proclaimer of the ‘eternal gospel’ to ‘every nation and tribe and language and people.’ They were to announce the good news that God was making all things right again through the ‘offspring of the woman.’ They were to proclaim that ‘the Son of the woman has set you free. Therefore, you are free indeed.’
Now, in the New Testament, the New Israel is the Christian Church, the people of God. And the message is the same today as it was yesterday as it will be until the last day comes. ‘The Son has set you free. You are indeed free.’
Looking back, we see that the Church sometimes forgets what its all about. Sometimes, Israel forgot what it was supposed to do. Sometimes the New Testament Church forgets what it’s supposed to do too and looses sight of its mission to proclaim the ‘eternal gospel’ to all.
Sometimes the church itself looses faith in the ‘eternal gospel.’ Sometimes the Church isn’t all that convinced that that’s the message is should be proclaiming. And so it proclaims another message that seems like it would be more effective. It seems to us that it would be more effective to make our standing before God dependant on our performance. That’s how you get people to work harder to be better people and do good works. You know how people are. If you make it too easy they’ll loose interest in it. If you make it too cheap they won’t give much for it. If they don’t have to do anything to earn it, they’ll never appreciate it.
When the church looses faith in the ‘eternal gospel’ it tends to turn its focus to proclaiming the ‘eternal law’ instead. The Law says, ‘if you want to be right with God, here’s what you must do.’ Jesus will help you, but you know the old saying, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ ‘God will help you after you have done all that you can do.’
We can point our finger at Old Testament Israel or at the medieval New Testament Church. And yea, they quit proclaiming the ‘eternal gospel’ in their effort to build the church, and proclaimed the ‘eternal law’ instead. But we can also point the finger at ourselves. The Church is capable of losing its focus in every age. Even in our zeal to ‘build the church,’ it is easy to loose faith in power of the Gospel to do the building. It appears it isn’t working. The Church is shrinking. The message isn’t getting through. Maybe we need a new message. Maybe ‘proclaiming’ it isn’t enough.
But St. Paul declares that the ‘gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.’ (Rom.1:16). Solomon says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.’ (Psalm 127:1) The Church has done a lot of ‘vain laboring’ throughout it’s history.
For those of you who are using the ‘Treasury of Daily Prayer’ for your daily devotions, (and if you’re looking for a good tool to use for daily devotions, I highly recommend the ‘Treasury of Daily Prayer’) one of the ‘writings’ for this past week really caught my attention. It was by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German, Lutheran pastor during WW II. Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Christian Church in Germany for abandoning the proclamation of the ‘eternal gospel’ for the sake of loyalty to Hitler.
‘It is not we who build [the church]. Christ builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess- he builds. We must proclaim ‘ he builds. We must pray to him ‘ that he may build.
We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times, which by human standards are times of collapse, are for Him the great times of construction. It may be that the times, which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is being pulled down.
It is a great comfort, which Christ gives to his church; you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do WELL and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from his grade alone can you live as you are. Christ builds.’ (Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Treasury of Daily Prayer. P.840f).
We are thankful that from time to time, the Lord raises up men like Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many, many others like them who show us where we have gone astray and return us to where we should be focused. In all of our zeal to grow the Church and reach the lost, we proclaim the ‘eternal gospel’ of Christ and Him crucified as the power of God and the wisdom of God.
So today, here and now, allow me to be an angel to you and proclaim the ‘eternal gospel’ to you. In all of your transgressions and iniquities, in all of your doubts and fears, in all of your disappointments and sorrows, I declare to you what is most true and real, God in Christ has made you His new creation. You have been justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom.3:24).
And now the same Jesus Christ puts His body in your hand and His blood to your lips as the sure and certain sign that this proclamation is true and real, and so that with faith in this gospel, you may proclaim it, both with your lips and with the work of your hands.