Sermon for High Mass – St Michael and All Angels Sunday 29 September 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Genesis 28.10-17; Psalm 103.19-end; Revelation 12.7-12; John 1. 47-end
The Greek word angelos means “messenger”. In scripture and Christian tradition they bring news from God. So in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, the angel Gabriel announces the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah as he ministers in the Temple, and the birth of Jesus to Mary the shepherds here the choirs of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.” That angelic hymn is sung at Mass on Sundays and feasts. And another, the Sanctus, the thrice-holy hymn of Isaiah’s vision in the Temple is sung or said at every mass.
The news messengers bear, alas, is not always good. Yesterday brought us word of the tragic death of Mark Bushby, for years a regular member of our choir. His singing and theirs echoes the music of the angels. We hold him, his wife Julia, and their two young daughters Lucy and Sophia, who were baptised here, in our prayers. May the Good Shepherd lead them through the valley of the shadow of death; May his blessed Mother, who wept over her own son, pray for them; “May angels bear him to his rest.” Amen.
As you leave church today, look up to your left and you will see a stained glass window representing the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
- Michael, whose name means “Who is like God”, was the warrior against Satan;
- Gabriel, “The Strength of God,” announced the end of time – thus Luke’s designation of Gabriel as the one who announces the births of John the Baptist and Jesus;
- Raphael, “God’s Remedy” best known in the story of Tobit in the Apocryha, is the bringer of healing
While they do not figure in the accounts of creation, angels are to be found in some of the most significant narratives in the first five books of the Old Testament. Except very rarely, humans do not see God, but they can see angels. Often it is an angel of the Lord, not the very being of God, who speaks with humans. Angels carry out the will of God. They are the mouth, the face, the arms of the Divine.
Abraham and Sarah are visited by angels who tell them of the birth of Isaac and an angel intervenes to halt the sacrifice of that beloved son. Isaac’s son Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of the brother he has cheated out of birth-right and blessing, has a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth with the angels ascending and descending upon it. He calls that place Bethel, the house of God: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!…How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Then, after many years have passed, as he returns home, he is met by a mysterious angelic figure with whom he wrestles all night.
In the age when the celebration of Michael began, in the ancient Near East, there was a world-view populated by an array of powerful yet unseen beings. Many deities and spirits, some benevolent and some malevolent, filled the religious consciousness of the peoples who were the Israelites’ neighbours. In the Jewish version of these crowded skies, such beings were messengers of God, servants of the Eternal One, dependent entirely on the one God.
In the period between the Old and New Testaments, Jews systematized an elaborate hierarchy of angels. It is during this period that the myth of the “war in heaven” became popular. No longer could the sin of Adam and Eve sufficiently explain the pervasive evil in the world. A greater, more cosmic story was needed. Before human time, it was angels, who had been created to live in harmony with God, who decided to wrest for themselves a higher status, to be like gods, thus precipitating the battle between the good and the evil angels and the exile of the evil ones to the nether regions. The continuing power of these evil spirits helped account for the horrific experience of the faithful people. Lucifer – the ‘bearer of light’, is the name given to the angel who attempted to take over the rule of heaven, and Michael, “who is like God”, is the name given in the book of Daniel to the angel who drove out the evil spirits.
Michael, the warrior of God battling against Lucifer, we find again in Jude and Revelation in the New Testament. Not surprisingly, it is in the apocalyptic writings intended to strengthen beleaguered and oppressed Christians, that a prehistoric story of a cosmic battle between good and evil, is especially useful. For the persecuted, looking forward to the end of evil, anticipating God’s final battle at the end of time, the story of a divine messenger who once before overcame evil and finally will once again lead the troops to battle is comforting.
This is the story which seized the imagination of Milton in his Paradise Lost, which seemed when I was reading it for A Level English Literature, almost to make of Satan a defiant, tragic hero; who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. But it is certainly true that the perversion of the good, in humans made in the image and likeness of God, is indeed the stuff of tragedy.
The evidence and effects of that tragic perversion, that destructive pride, are seen in the evils abroad in our world; wars which lay waste to whole nations, injustice and exploitation which rob people of the dignity which is their birth-right, lies and hatreds which poison the attitudes of one group against another. The battle against evil is not yet over.
In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus describes Satan as the “Father of Lies.” The denial and distortion of the truth is hardly new, but it seems particularly brazen and widespread in our day; aided by new media of communication which often seem more anti-social than social; when they are used to foment divisions and hatreds, to propagate falsehoods old and new as truths, or to seduce children. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters may not rise to the poetic heights of the Milton whom he studied, but they testify to the subtle power of lies and half-truths over us. While he was writing from a Christian viewpoint, George Orwell was saying much the same from a secular political context.
The ladder between earth and heaven reappears in St. John’s Gospel, after the appearance of Nathanael, whom Jesus describes as “an Israelite without guile.” The disciples, says Jesus, will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. Jacob had seen that “God is truly in this place.” The Gospel tells us that God is truly present in this person, in Jesus Christ: in who he is, in what he says and does, we see God, we hear God’s voice. We see it in him resisting the blandishments and lies of Satan in the wilderness. We see it when Pilate cynically asks him, “What is truth?” The Gospel tells us that it is this Jesus who stands before him on trial who is the “way and the truth and the life.” It is not so much Jesus who is on trial but us and our world. The cross is both God’s judgement on the world and the hope and promise of healing and reconciliation, because it shows the truth of God’s love.
So the Church’s task then is, like Gabriel, to proclaim that truth in the world; to proclaim it even when, like Zechariah, people are sceptical, or even like Pilate cynical. Like Michael it is to wage war against the Father of lies, by its commitment to the truth; even the uncomfortable truth about its own failings, as it faces up to a record of abuse. But that struggle is to be waged with the weapons of love. It is only such weapons that bring healing of the world’s ills; that can drain the poison from our system.
To speak of angelic beings and the worship of heaven in a scientific and technological age may seem the stuff of poetic fancy and imagination – but poets often hear and see the truth more clearly than the rest of us. In sharing in the worship of the angels, in the music of heaven, the Church acknowledges the ultimate reality of God and the claims of his truth upon us. In its mission its task is, like Gabriel, to proclaim the coming of that truth among us, through the power of the Spirit in Jesus Christ and to call us to respond in faith like Mary. Only then will that healing and reconciliation which Raphael represents become possible. And when we are tempted to despair, to wonder when, if ever, truth and goodness, healing and peace, will prevail, to be reminded by Gabriel that “with God all things are possible.”
As Fr. Michael said in Friday’s Parish E-Letter, we go to the altar of God, we can only go to it aided by angels and archangels and all the heavenly host; and we can only go from it to our tasks as God’s messengers and servants in the world with their defence and succour.