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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Glorious Company

The creation is far greater than we can sense or know, and the celebration of the gift of God’s angels, servants of God as are we, reminds us not only of the splendor of the Creator but is a promise of the work of the Triune God against evil through all the servants of God.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, feast of St. Michael and All Angels; texts: Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3; Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22; Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 10:17-20

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

We live in a rational, scientific world where we believe things to be true that can be proven, studied, tested, examined, seen, touched, sensed in every way.  Yet we come to worship the almighty, Triune God every week, something that in itself is not easily proven, if at all, by any evidence lifted from any of those methods.  And it’s not just our faith in an invisible Deity who created and redeemed and inspires the creation that is outside that rational, scientific sense.  Whenever we come here for worship we enter into a world of language that speaks of supernatural things, events, realities as if they are matter-of-fact, a world of images that many who do not claim to believe in God would call fantastical, mythological, fictional.  We speak easily and hopefully of miracles, of a divine, Holy Spirit who comes to us, of a divine Word who literally took on our flesh, died, and rose from the dead, and we consider this all to be truth, reality, the core of our hope and our life.

This is something true about us: whatever the challenges of integrating our confidence in science and intellect and the human ability to study and understand, with our faith in God, whatever difficulty that incurs, it is who we are, it is what we do.  Unafraid to use our minds, thrilled by the ability of humanity to learn and understand amazing things, we are also unafraid to open our hearts to what we cannot easily explain, what we cannot often see, what we only can trust is truth.

It’s important that we say this on this day.  Because, after all, we do confess that “we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

And on this day the Church says, remember that this God, then, is also maker of angels, heavenly messengers, spiritual beings.  Things unseen.  But of God’s creation.  So if there is a part of us that winces at saying we believe angels are real – and for some that is never a concern, for others it is a very real concern – if there is a part of us that wonders if this is all fairy tale language, this talk of Michael and archangels and wars in heaven, this celebration of all the angels, if there is any of that in us, we might wish to remember that there are other far more wondrous and improvable things which we claim easily and without apparent difficulty.

Lutheran church historian Philip Pfatteicher has said, “As All Saints’ Day . . . is a reminder of the size of the one church in heaven and on earth, so this feast of Michael and the angels is a reminder of the breathtaking size of creation, seen and unseen.  The feast teaches an understanding that there are aspects of reality beyond what can be grasped with the senses.  Angels, like mortals, are children of the infinite imagination of God.” [1]

You see, it would be supremely arrogant for humanity to assume that we are the pinnacle of all the creation of the infinite Majesty, and that the vastness of creation’s reality is limited strictly to that which humans can study, explain and diagram.  Celebrating the angels on this day puts us in our place, you might say.

But as the readings assigned for this feast indicate, there is a richer value for us in honoring God’s creation of the angels beyond simply making us mindful of God’s multifaceted creation and our smallness in it.  The Church also remembers the angels and gives thanks for them because in their service to God they give us hope in a world which often seems rent by pain and hatred and wickedness.  They provide a promise that we are not the only ones called to stand for God’s grace in the face of evil, we are not the only ones working for good, and we are certainly not the only ones praising God’s goodness and shining it into the universe.

From the beginning the Church has recognized that there are powers at work beyond what we can explain.  Something we also understand.

We don’t need much convincing to believe that there are forces of harm in the world far beyond our ability to see or understand.  Forces that work through institutions, armies, mobs, governments to cause evil and pain which seem to be greater than the sum of poor human decisions.

Ideas which receive the “ism” ending often seem to carry a life and a power of their own, such as classism, sexism, racism.  Or their cousins, ideologies of hatred and oppression, philosophies of power and domination.  Groups act in ways that seem to magnify the power of the wickedness beyond the individual actions of the members.

It isn’t necessary for us to think of little demons running around in red to recognize these many powers which seem to be at large in the world and beyond our vision and our ability to stop them.

In the face of this reality, the Scriptures and the Church, as well as the Jewish and Muslim faith traditions, proclaim that God also has spiritual servants who have not fallen, who are not working evil, but in fact are doing God’s grace and will for us and for all.  These varied but related traditions speak of God creating an order of spiritual beings who do God’s bidding, who do not have our physical bodies.

Jesus says that they watch over children, and throw parties in heaven when sinners repent.  They watch over us, according to the psalmist, that we not stumble or fall.  The Bible tells us they speak the mysteries of God to humanity, they witness great miracles, and they lead us in praise of the Eternal God.

In these readings today about one of those angels, Michael the archangel, great comfort is taken in the ability of the angels to defeat evil.  Another angel, probably Gabriel, tells Daniel of his fellow angel Michael’s struggle with an angel assigned to protect another nation, but promises that Michael will arise in the end days to protect the people.  And John the seer has a vision in Revelation of Michael leading the angels in war against the great Deceiver, the chief among the fallen servants of God.  Even Jesus says that when the disciples were casting out demons he experienced seeing Satan fall from heaven at their work.

These readings are intended as comfort to those suffering in evil, difficult times.  Do not be afraid, we are told: there may be powers at work to do harm, but God’s angels are also at work and they will ultimately prevail.

And there’s no mistaking that this is a comforting thought, God’s angels running roughshod over the powers of evil that befuddle, frighten and confuse us, powers over which we feel we have little or no control.

However, it might be needful to step away from the military, war-like imagery.  In fact, we might not even be understanding the Revelation properly when we think of this struggle as we think of human war.

In the first place, the angels, just like humanity, are servants of the Most High God, who, when he took on human flesh explicitly refused to fight evil with power and strength.  The Incarnate Son of God, in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his betrayal, refused the help of the heavenly armies.  As Matthew tells it, Jesus said he had twelve legions of angels to fight for him, 72,000 spiritual beings, if he wanted it.  But he had decided, the Triune God had decided, that only by the Son of God facing evil with his own being and letting it do its worst to him could it be defeated.

This is the center of our hope and life, this willing setting-aside of power that Christ Jesus does, for in dying he did not lose.  Rather, he rose from the dead and emptied evil of all its ultimate power.  But since this is the crucial center, literally, the center of the cross around which all our faith is shaped, we cannot then hope that God’s new plan is to have a huge heavenly battle to decide all.  As thrilling as that might be, that’s not what Christ Jesus calls us to be, nor is it the way he modeled for us.

And it turns out, it’s not really what John saw in his vision, either.  What John sees is that this defeat of Satan, the great Enemy, is accomplished by three things that are very different from swords and weapons of any kind.

First, they conquered him by the blood of the Lamb, John says today.  That is, they recognized that the victory was already accomplished in the sacrificial death of the Son of God and his subsequent resurrection to his eternal throne.  It was that power-releasing willingness of Jesus to face the cross, John says, that was the downfall of evil.  And the center of the whole book of Revelation is that picture of the Lamb who was slain, sitting on the throne of God.

And John says, second, it was the word of their testimony to this work of Christ that also conquered evil.  The testimony of the angels, the testimony of the saints who have died, the speaking of the Good News of God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil, the proclamation of God’s reign of grace, this is what brings evil to its knees.  Not weapons.  Witness.

And last, John says, and we have to assume he means this to apply to the saints around the throne perhaps even more than the angels, they conquered evil by the fact that “they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”  The willingness of the servants of the Crucified One to also offer their lives is the turning point in the struggle against evil.

When you do not fear dying, you can be a powerful force of good in the world.  Consider the difference between those who in genocide and war hide their neighbors who are being slaughtered and those who inform on their neighbors and ensure their slaughter.  The former are not willing to cling to life in the face of death, not when they can do good.  The latter are afraid of death for themselves, so they sacrifice someone else.

But there’s one more thing.  While the angels do their work, we are still needed to do ours.

You may have noticed in our consideration of Revelation that there was not only a sense of the angels’ struggle, but a gradual movement to our involvement.

As powerful as it can be to trust that God has created spiritual beings who are also working against evil in this world and who by their testimony to the blood of the Lamb and their willingness to lose in order to win will help God conquer evil, as good as that is, we must remember this: they have their jobs to do.  We have ours.

There are spiritual forces of evil and God has spiritual servants to work against them.

And there are human forces of evil and God has human servants to work against them.

And with the same things we will be a part of defeating all evil: with the blood of the Lamb which has washed us and made us whole, and which saves all God’s children, with that surrounding us, with our witness to God’s Good News in Christ for all, and with our willingness to face death without clinging to this life, evil will stand no chance.

That’s the great gift of this Revelation: hope that there are others struggling for God is given to us so that we can be encouraged for our struggle.

And so today we celebrate this great unseen company, this glorious companionship we have with our angelic cousins in service to God.

All of God’s creation is needed in resisting the evil which would destroy all things.  The wonderful good news is that we are not alone, and that they are struggling, standing against evil alongside us in ways we might never see.

But best of all we are not alone because, like the angels, we are surrounded by the strength and grace of the Crucified and Risen One who has overcome the world, overcome evil, overcome death – even if they don’t know it yet.  And that’s all we need for the courage to stand the ground on which we are planted, in the name of the grace and love of the Almighty God who made all things, seen and unseen, and whose love will ultimately bring all creation to wholeness and life.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Philip H. Pfatteicher, New Book of Festivals and Commemorations, Minneapolis: Fortress Press © 2008; p. 477.

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