Revelation 12:7-11 Matthew 18:1-10
"They overcame [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb,
and by the word of their testimony;
and they loved not their lives unto the death."
Tonight we are celebrating the Feast of St Michael and all Angels. It is fitting we celebrate this feast at this point in Trinity season, as we lift our hearts and minds away from the world and towards the contemplation of God. As we move our sights higher, it is fitting that we look upon those who surround the throne of God, his holy angels.
In the modern world, even in the Christian modern world, I suspect we don’t think often about angels, beyond a kind of happy thought, or fairy-tale like thought. In Protestantism, there was a concern about confusion caused by too many mediators between God and man – they wanted to lessen the role of the saints, of the clergy, and of the angels. We have given the angels not just less attention but little attention at all. In charismatic movements such as New Wine, there is a renewed interest in prayer ministry and in angelic involvement, but only of the negative kind – with the recognition of fallen angels, of the demonic influence in our lives binding us in sin or in painful memories – but I’ve not heard in that ministry of the positive influence of good angels. Should we give a greater attention to them?
Surely we can give at least one day a year to acknowledge the angels, to reflect on them, and to give thanks to God for this whole hidden realm in Creation.
Our church does not have images in it, except what we have brought – behind the altar is the image of the three angels who visited Abraham – seen widely by the Church as a kind of figure of the Holy Trinity. Abraham’s hospitality becomes turned around in the icon to God’s hospitality to us – inviting us to feast in the kingdom of heaven, the Holy Communion. But look closely and you will see these figures have wings.
We don’t have a choir here, but we have servers with long flowing white garments with large sleeves, like wings. The server sits near the altar, it is a picture of the angels surrounding the throne of God. The server is an image of the host of heaven, helping to lead us in our worship of God. And, of course, we also refer to “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” every time we celebrate our liturgy…
If we look at the Bible, we see about 400 references to angels from the beginning to the end. A few facts – there are about the same number of references to angels in the New Testament as in the Old Testament, when you count references also to the cherubim and seraphim. Given the size of these books, the New Testament has a much higher concentration.
Revelation has the most references of any book (75), about 1/5 of all the references. Two of the Gospels speak of angels often – Matt (18) and Luke (24), whereas Mark only 5 times and John only 3!
What about the origin of angels and their witness in the Old Testament?
Angels are the first creatures in the order of the creation. Many Church Fathers see them referred to in Genesis 1:3, as the first thing created by God:
“And God said, Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”
The Fathers find support for this interpretation elsewhere in the Bible, because Psalm 148, which is a psalm calling on creation to praise God, follows the same order of creation as in Genesis 1 but, begins with the angels.
- Later in Genesis, we see the angels are involved with the Patriarchs, guiding and encouraging them.
- In Exodus and Joshua, angels are involved in leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and also in going before them to protect them as they move into the Promised Land.
- In Exodus God told Israel to make large statues of the cherubim in solid gold over the ark of the covenant and gold embroidered images on the curtains in the Tabernacle and later the Temple.
- We see later in the Writings and the Prophets, angels are in God’s hand to carry out his judgements – destroying the enemies of Israel and sometimes bringing plagues upon Israel itself.
- Angels act sometimes in a prophetic ministry, so that the prophets may know what the Lord has said, or, for example, telling Isaiah that his sins are forgiven,
And in the New Testament?
- Angels were involved in the principle moments of Jesus’ life
- to announce his conception to Mary,
- to announce his birth to the shepherds,
- to guide Joseph,
- to comfort Jesus after his temptations in the wilderness, and
- when he suffered in deep prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.
- Angels were the first to see and to witness to Jesus’ Resurrection,
- they were there at Jesus’ ascension into heaven and to guide the disciples in their next steps.
- They appear often in the book of Acts guiding and protecting the early Christian Church.
- Jesus says they will be prominent when he returns to gather up the elect from the four corners of the earth.
- Angels are seen explaining to the Apostle John what he is seeing in heaven when he was caught up in the spirit in Revelation.
What exactly are angels?
The Greek word for Angel means “messenger”.
Angels are described in the Bible as a higher form of life than human beings in the order of creation. In Psalm 8 – the Son of God, in taking human flesh, is described as becoming, for a little while, lower than the angels.
Angels appear to have had a moment to choose for God or to reject Him – so there are good angels and fallen angels or demons. For those who chose God, they live in heaven, the praise of God is their whole being, and they move out to give service to humanity at God’s bidding. We are not to worship angels, they are creatures, but we will hold them in awe if we see them – their appearance in the Bible frightens as well as strengthens those who see them.
Daniel recounted his experience of meeting an archangel:
Gabriel came near where I stood. And when he came, I was frightened and fell on my face. But he said to me, “Understand, O son of man, that the vision is for the time of the end.” And when he had spoken to me, I fell into a deep sleep with my face to the ground. But he touched me and made me stand up…. [8:17,18]
In the next chapter…while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the first, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He made me understand, speaking with me and saying, “O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. [9:21,22]
Richard Hooker, the greatest theologian of the Anglican Reformation describes angels as pure praise. This is what Hooker says:
God…move(s) intellectual creatures, and especially his holy angels; for beholding the face of God, in admiration of so great excellency they all adore him; and being rapt with the love of his beauty, they cleave inseparably to him for ever. Desire to resemble him in goodness [makes] them … [insatiable] in their longing to do by all means all manner of good [to] the creatures of God, but especially [to] the children of men…
Hooker says, that because they love God so much, they love us because we bear the image and likeness of God. So they are moved by the same love of God to act to sustain and help us. Jesus makes reference to this in today’s Gospel where he says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” From this we have the idea of a guardian angel for each of us.
A few things for us to take away today…
First, I hope that just in speaking of angels, we correct our own perception of the world so that we are left with more wonder and amazement at what we cannot normally see. Would it be helpful to have some reminders in our homes of angels? An icon of St Michael? It’s not wrong to be more watchful. St Paul says to be hospitable to strangers, you never know when you might be entertaining an angel [Heb 13:2]…as Lot did to the angels who came to him in Sodom and delivered him from God’s wrath [Gen 19]. The Bible shows many times that angels can take the likeness of a human being to engage with us. I think this may have happened to me once in a street as I was being converted to Christ – I still wonder about that encounter!
Second, today is a day to give our thanks to God for the angels! for their involvement in His providential care of the universe and of God’s promise that there are many more for us than that are against us. How precisely that care happens is unknown to us. It is behind the scenes, hidden, spiritual, unseen, but truly there we are assured. The many biblical references give us some ideas – maybe you can do a word search on the Bible this week and check them out.
There is a modern interpretation in the movie Wings of Desire that shows some beautiful depictions of how angels might intercede – I think of one scene in a subway in Berlin… Maybe you have had the experience of a sensation that lifted your mind heavenward in wonder? E.g. a tingling sensation on the head, a white feather, a strange happening with emails … We give thanks today for these angels. May our eyes be opened to their unceasing activity!
Third, Jesus says that in heaven we will be like the angels. What would it be like to be pure praise? Whole hearted, fully committed? Surely there is something of the description of angels by Hooker that appeals to us – that even on earth we will desire more and more to resemble God in goodness and, as we see it, as we taste that goodness, will be filled with an insatiable longing to do all manner of good. We pray for the vision of God that the angels have, that our whole being will be transformed into His likeness in that vision and to this longing to do good to others – to be firm and angelic in a stedfastness of will – rather then teetering back and forth. And also to engage, as St Paul says, in the battle against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places [Eph 6:10f] – that is angelic work, as we see in our reading from Revelation!
And like St Michael and all angels, we will overcome all wickedness by the blood of the Lamb, that is, washing ourselves of sin in Christ’s blood that our hearts might be purified and healed and that we might see the truth more clearly and so be able to be witnesses to it!
So let’s remember the angels and watch out for them, let’s give thanks to God for them and their ministrations, and let’s emulate them in their stedfast love and action!
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2