Sermon preached at 3pm Evensong for the Patronal Festival at St Michael’s Baddesley Clinton. (Partly based on sermon from 28/09/2008.)
Sunday 26th September 2010, Michaelmas
Readings: Daniel 10: 4-end Rev 5
Today is our Patronal Festival. We are celebrating St Michael, to whom this church is dedicated. St Michael’s day is 29th September, and in the CofE we tend to call it St Michael and all angles. And this is because, rather un-typically for a saint, Michael is angel.
“And what are angels?” you might well ask. Well angels are spiritual beings which do not have bodies. They are creatures, that is to say they were created by God (Col 1: 16), but they seem to have been well established by the time that Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1, 24). As spiritual beings, angels have their own personalities and their own free will. Some angels have chosen (as we are all free to choose) to rebel against God and to try to go their own way. These we call demons and we think of the Devil, the prince of all demons, who we read about being cast out of heaven by St Michael in our second reading today (see also 2 Peter 2: 4, Jude 6). When we use the word “angel” we are generally not thinking of demons, but rather we mean spiritual beings that are good. That is spiritual being who choose to use their free will in harmony with the will of God. They choose to do God’s work. In fact, according to St Augustine, the word “angel”, which means “messenger”, is more of a job title than a description of a particular kind of being. Psalm 103 (v20) tells us that angels are “might ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word”. So angels are powerful, spiritual beings who are the messengers of God and who do God’s will.
Now if angels are spiritual beings, who can’t been seen or touched in the visible world in which we live, how do we know anything about them? Well, in the history of religious experience they have been extremely important, and this is recorded in many places in our scriptures. For example, Psalm 34 (v7) tells us that “the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” and psalm 97 (9-16) tells us that God will deliver those who love him, sending angels to guard them and bear them up. And so we can believe that we each have a guardian angel walking always beside us and protecting us. Certainly Jesus is thinking this when he talks about children. He says, “take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my father” (Matt 18:10). And with angels always so close to us and looking after us it is perhaps not so surprising that we do sometimes meet people who have had some experience of the presence of angels, or of angels protecting them in moments of crisis.
There are hundreds of references to angels in our scriptures. They are spread throughout the bible from Genesis, the very first book, to Revelation, the last book. We find them especially at critical moments in our salvation history; when Abraham is about sacrifice his son Isaac, when Moses is called by God to set the Israelites free, when the Blessed Virgin Mary is told she is to expect the child Jesus, at the resurrection of Christ. The other place that they appear a lot in scripture in where there are visions of heaven. Our readings from Daniel and Revelation today both described visions of heaven where angels were seen.
It is interesting to note that it is not just the Christian scriptures that talk about angels. The Jews and the Muslims, who also worship the God of Abraham, also have a great deal about angels in their scriptures. Michael and Gabriel are mentioned in the Muslims holy book, the Koran. The Jewish Talmud has extraordinary details about many angels including Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. It describes many different ranks of angels, and the many different heights of heaven.
There might be lots of reference to angels in the bible, but only three angels are ever named. These are Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Michael is the leader of the armies of God, as we heard in our reading from Revelation. Gabriel is the angel who tells Zachariah that he is to father John the Baptist, and tells the Blessed Virgin Mary that she is to mother Jesus. Raphael appears in the apocryphal book of Tobit. He heals Tobit’s eyes so that he can see again.
But what about Michael? What is his specific role? Well Michael seems to have a specific role as an Archangel, and as one who confronts the spiritual forces of evil. We heard about that in our reading from Daniel, as he fought against the prince of Persia. This is the only place where Michael appears in the Old Testament. It is a difficult passage for bible translators, apparently written in poor Hebrew and with inconsistencies between the various ancient sources. We might wonder who the man in white linen is. Biblical commentators are reluctant to provide a clear answer. There are parts of the description, like the golden belt, that make him sound like Jesus or at least a “Son of Man”, from Revelation 1: 13-15. Other things make him sound like God’s messenger, the angel Gabrielle. And it seems that some of these prices, like the prince of Persia, are evil angels to struggle against, but it all remains very mysterious.
Our second reading, Revelation 5 was more generally about heaven. Every now and again the scriptures give us a glimpse of the majesty, splendour and awe of heaven. This happens many times in the scriptures, especially in books like Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation, and they are always full of angels. I particularly like the passage in Isaiah when Isaiah describes his vision of the throne of God (Isaiah 6: 1-5), with seraphs singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts”. And we must not forget the moment when Jesus is born and a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds singing, “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2: 13-14).
And these glimpses of heaven are very valuable to us, because, remarkably, we are called to share in this life of heaven. God wants each one of us to be part of it all. In Luke chapter 20 (v35-36) Jesus is talking about resurrection and marriage. He says, “But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection”. We are called to share in this life of heaven and in the holiness of God (Heb 3: 1, 12: 10) like the angels. We know that all this is only fully realised after the resurrection of the dead. We know that we have a long journey to walk before we get there, because we know that we are far from being angels at the moment. But despite this, there is a sense in which it is true already. If we are in Christ then we are already part of this new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
So angels like Michael are good role models for us. Their obedience to God’s will, and co-operation with purposes show us the way to heaven. So, let’s thank God for our patron Michael, and let’s seek in this place to follow his example, and so to walk the journey to heaven.