Sermon for Trinity 17 Sunday 30 September 2012
ST. MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS, BEDFORD PARK
MICHAELMAS 30the September, 2012
Whoever the mysterious visionary who wrote the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse was, there is one thing of which we can be certain: he was not a Welshman; for which son of Wales would portray the personification of evil as a dragon, and a red one at that.
The Book of Revelation is strong stuff; it comes from an imaginary world which seems strange to us; although perhaps not so strange to readers of Tolkien and C.S.Lewis – both of whom were profoundly Christian writers. Revelation has of course been a happy hunting ground for cranks and zealots who think it is about encrypted predictions and prescriptions, which once decoded will allow us to know when the end of the world will come. These people frequently a positive glee in the destruction of God’s enemies – who usually turn out to be their own. For this reason, many other Christians tend to shy away from the Book of Revelation but the Bible is far too important to be left to fundamentalists, so this morning, we should not just pass it by thinking it has only been chosen because our patron saint gets a mention.
Religions and philosophies have long struggled with the problem of evil in the world. Ancient cultures and faiths frequently did so in terms of the conflict between mythical divine beings. In Jewish thought of the time, in the book of Daniel for example, Michael is the angelic protector of God’s people Israel. Jewish thought also had stories of the expulsion of Satan and his angels from heaven. The Book of Revelation is written against such a background but radically alters it.
The battle between Satan and Michael the archangel with their angelic armies comes in the middle of a chapter in which the dragon seeks to destroy the “woman clothed with the sun” who is about to give birth to a child. The woman is at one and the same time representative of the Daughter of Zion (that is the people of Israel), Mary the mother of Jesus, and the Church. She is set in clear contrast to the goddess Roma – the representative of the empire which persecutes the children of God.
The dragon’s attempts to destroy the woman and her child are frustrated. Then comes the titanic conflict between Michael and Satan and their angelic armies. If someone was to make a film of the Book of Revelation, this would one of the high points. It would be like one of those great battle scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
In fact, John’s account of the conflict does not read like a film script. It is remarkably restrained. All he tells us is the “the dragon and his angels were defeated”. Literally, they “lacked the power” or “did not prevail”, and that “there was no longer any place for them in heaven.”
Then, as at other points in the Book of Revelation, a canticle proclaimed by a “loud voice in heaven,” rather like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, provides the key to interpret what has been going on. In a reversal of the usual in this kind of literature, where events on earth are merely a shadow of those in heaven, the really significant story is not that of Michael and Satan in heaven, or the fall of Satan – but the earthly story of Jesus Christ and his followers.
In St. Luke’s Gospel (10.18), Jesus links the fall of Satan “like lightning from heaven” with the proclamation of God’s kingdom in his own ministry, and that of his disciples. And in St. John (12.27-32, the “Hour” of Christ’s death and resurrection is the time in which the ruler of this world will be cast out.
So also, the Book of revelation presents the crucial battle as a hard-won human battle involving Jesus and his faithful witnesses.
The picture of Satan as an accuser, a sort of head of the Celestial Prosecution Service, which we find in the Book of Job, has already appeared in the letter to the Church in Smyrna, transformed from an agent of God into a malign persecutor of God’s people: “Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested…Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
But they are assured of victory in this courtroom drama. Christ has brought Satan’s role as the accuser of the brethren: “the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down” at the cross. The heavenly voice continues; “these have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.” The Lamb’s blood is his sacrifice and its defeat of hostile powers.
What to earthly eyes might have seemed to be no more than the execution of another criminal or rebel on a hill outside Jerusalem, from the perspective of heaven, that is in God’s purposes, is a glorious victory which has unseated evil itself.
But Christ does not stand apart from his people and just as his cross is not just another judicial murder, so their martyrdom is not just so much blood spilt. The Church is called to the continuation of Christ’s witness to the truth. Soon the foundation of his victory on the cross, they have conquered “by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
“Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.”
Revelation looks forward to hostility in the future as well as back to what has already occurred. Speaking the truth, unmasking evil and falsehood, continuing the witness Jesus bore, will continue to bear fruit.
This heavenly canticle takes up the earthly struggles of John’s seven churches in Asia Minor, and churches ever since, into a struggle of cosmic and cosmos-changing proportions. Their and our battles are no localised conflicts, but part of the great battle in which order is re-established over chaos.
At present, however, though heaven may now be free of satanic activity, the same cannot be said of the earth, where God’s people find themselves. The expulsion from heaven is reason to “Rejoice”, not only for the heavens but for “those who dwell in them”; those who shelter there. This expression contrasts deliberately with the fallen who have made their home on earth; that is, those who are hostile to God and his Christ because of their disordered priorities. So those who dwell in the heavens embraces more than those, such as the angels and the martyred souls under the altar, who are in heaven. It embraces those whose lives are oriented towards God and who experience his sheltering presence. They have reason to celebrate, for they ultimately belong to the realm from which Satan has been expelled and over which he now has no control.
Revelation treats historical evil as first of all a reaction to God’s prior initiative. Satan is cast out of heaven, and therefore he is exceedingly angry, knowing that his time is short. Having no place in heaven and only a limited time on earth, the devil is afraid, a point made in the Letter to the Hebrews when it links Satan with the fear of death. (Heb. 2:14-15). The truth is that Christ holds the keys of death and hell.
The devil’s only recourse, then, is to make his way through the world as a teller of lies. He is “the deceiver of the whole world” and “the accuser of our comrades.” He deceives the whole world with the fear of death, causing men and women to distrust the Creator who has given them life. He accuses our comrades by spreading the false rumour that their life and witness mean nothing to God. A life devoted to God is a life wasted. We would be better off worshipping the idols of this world, whose rewards are much more tangible and immediate. The devil is the original bearer of false witness. His lies are as legion as his multiple personalities. They include all the strategems of deception and doublespeak and propaganda by which governments and corporations seek to keep people from the knowledge of the truth. They know all too well that, if the truth were known, their time too, would be uncomfortably short.
But while the devil is a tireless worker, accusing our comrades day and night, we know that his lies will ultimately prove powerless. We know this because he is no match for Jesus Christ the true witness, the one who tells the truth about us by claiming us as God’s own.
Because Christ speaks the truth, Christians too are called to be courageous truth-tellers. We do this first of all by bearing witness to the gospel, but also though a quiet passion for truth in everyday life: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour” (Exod 20.16). This commandment of the Law is also integral to the gospel. Whenever Christians refuse to go along with the devil’s lies, they confirm their love both of the true witness and of the neighbour who suffers the burden of false witness.
The Book of Revelation blurs time, holding past, present and future together. Those who are Christ’s disciples in this age know that the victory has been won, and they are enabled by the Spirit to share in the fruits of that victory in the here and now. We who have been brought to see the Christ who is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, are enabled to see greater things than these: “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
In our worship on earth, we hear that voice from heaven which speaks the truth and shows us the reality of God’s love for his creation, and we share already in the rejoicing of heaven, with saints and angels we worship the Lamb who is slain and share in his victory.
Sermon preached by Fr. Alan Moses