By Nathan Brown … I’ve seen a few of these social media posts recently: earnest church members expressing their “concern” or disappointment that Adventist pastors aren’t preaching like they used to. Too many sermons these days—so the complaint goes—are “merely” about Jesus or the gospel or love or caring for others. These are sermons that you could hear in any “other” church—it is assumed—rather than the “real” Adventist preaching of prophecy and preparedness. Whether a criticism of a particular pastor or local church or the perception of a larger trend, in the minds of these concerned critics, Adventist preaching has lost its edge.
At the other end of the church, the three angels of Revelation 14 are back in focus, if they ever weren’t. The General Conference has voted that the Three Angels’ Messages will be the worldwide church’s theme for emphasis, study, and evangelism in the current quinquennium. Resources are being developed, books written, logos designed. Away from church headquarters, a plethora of independent ministries seem to compete to be the most Three-Angel-y; thus, the most “Adventist” and most worthy of your donations.
But this continuing attention on the Three Angels raises questions about whether we risk a preoccupation with the angels themselves, as some kind of shorthand, slogan or logo, rather than the messages that they and we are called to share. And perhaps if we understood these messages more deeply, we would come to recognize and hear them more commonly, even in supposedly mundane sermons and everyday faithfulness.
The Angels Are Not the Message
The ideal delivery system is one that we don’t notice. If we are noticing the system, it is likely that there is a problem. When I am in my office, reading and sending many emails each day, I am thinking about what I am writing, not the functions of the email software or the hardware of our internet servers—unless these systems stop working.
Throughout the Bible story, one of God’s key messaging systems has been angel delivery. As dramatic as this tends to be, the risk is that the appearance of the messenger tends to overwhelm the recipients, which is why so many angelic messages begin with, “Do not be afraid.” The natural human reaction can get in the way of good communication. Yet the angel would be the first to urge that they themselves are only the messenger, not the message.
Similarly, proclaiming, sharing and living the messages of the Three Angels do not always require a scripture reading of Revelation 14:6–14, an explanation or depiction of the angels, or a stylized triple-angel logo. It isn’t that the angels are unimportant, but they are not the message. There’s a place for that specific Bible study, but read the messages again . . . Wherever the gospel is shared, whenever diverse people are invited, welcomed and included; when the created goodness of our world is affirmed, protected and celebrated; when the injustice, oppression and the systemic evils in our world are condemned and undermined; wherever people are called to live differently and better; whenever we anticipate and imagine a world in which evil will be undone and creation restored, the messages of the angels are shouted again.
The Messages Are Good News
When reading the Bible through, by the time we get to page 1031 (in my Bible), the key messages of the angels are not new. These messages are a summary of the good news of God’s intentions for our world, including His plan to remove evil and restore us and our world to what they were always meant to be. Revelation 14 has an added element of end-time urgency, but even the warnings of judgment against the fallen systems of this world and those who profit from them or are deceived by them are themes that have been growing across the breadth of scripture.
The earliest Hebrew prophets were insistent that a day would come to destroy wickedness and those who have refused to give it up. That our world is broken and fallen is not news to anyone paying attention. But the real news is that a different story, a different ending, and a different way of living is possible—and necessary.
This is what makes the good news “good.” For us and for all who choose, the world as it is does not have to be this way. The “eternal Good News” is that God offers a choice, an alternative, that “everyone who believes in Him will not perish” (John 3:16*). The content of the messages of the angels is an expansion and specific application of this good news, expanded beyond all human prejudices to include everyone and applied in a final warning to and demarcation of those who insist on evil.
Such judgment is a two-sided equation. Judgment can be for or against. For those who suffer injustice, judgment means liberation and restoration. For those who benefit from injustice or just don’t care, judgment is a grave danger. God’s announcement of the liberation of the slaves in Exodus sounds very different if one is a Hebrew or an Egyptian, a slave or an oppressor.
So how do we live in expectation of such judgment? Jesus’ answer was given in the second half of His end-time sermon in Matthew 25. Wherever we live and act with hope, anticipation, faithfulness, and compassion, we respond to and enact the messages of these angels. When we begin to see with God’s eyes and work for greater justice and mercy in our world, we are doing the work the angels have urged us to do. And whenever we worship the God who promises ultimate justice and restoration, we answer their call.
A Sermon Without Angels
As such, these messages are heard and repeated in a million ways. The angels are part of the picture, but they are not the point. In fact, the angels might be a distraction. Not that I have anything against angels but in a world where stories of angels are often misunderstood or dismissed, there might be better ways to share their messages. We don’t need to quote the angels to sound their call.
And within our community of faith, we need to be careful about mistaking the Bible study for the application or the invitation. One could be suspicious that Paul was writing to a particular faith community that understood itself as repeating the shouts of the angels and aspired to a superior understanding of the Bible’s prophecies: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, . . . but didn’t love others, I would be nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2).
It can be helpful for us to understand our faith with the picture of angels flying with an urgent message. But Paul would caution that the loudest proclamations are not always most faithful. We live and share this understanding most fully when we love our neighbors, our communities, even our enemies and those who might persecute us, and even if at great cost and self-sacrifice. Without that, we are only making more noise in an already noisy world.
Often the strongest invitation is given quietly. The most faithful sermons are not always the most dramatic, sensational or complicated. The best story we tell is always the story of Jesus. And the best witness probably doesn’t have a logo.
Rather, love is our edge, the thing that makes our faith real and unique, the thing that will set all our preaching, sharing and serving apart. That is the most Adventist-y thing we can be looking for and living out. That is the worship that most honors our Creator God and all those who are equally created in His image, with whom we are firstly recipients of the angels’ call.
So those humdrum gospel sermons that are “merely” about Jesus suddenly take on a fresh urgency. These preachers are speaking in tune with the angels if they are again reminding us of the story of Jesus, the grace and love of God, and urging us again to surrender our lives to His invitation to follow Him with all our lives. Even in the most “unprecedented” of times, the most important thing any of us can say to the world is to insist that God is good, that we can see this still in the now-broken world that He has made, and that we can see and accept it most fully in the story of Jesus. This is the best, everlasting and ever-new Good News that we offer to our world.
–Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan is co-host of a new podcast series called “Moe and Nathan Go to School” as part of the Adventist Peace Radio podcast: http://www.adventistpeace.org/podcast. Email him at: [email protected] signspublishing.com.au
* Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.