St Michael and All Angels
Sermon at St James Colwall for Trinity 19
Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
I wasn’t exactly thrilled when I discovered that today we’re keeping last Thursday’s Feast of St Michael and All Angels. I’m not really comfortable with angels, arch or ordinary. They don’t feature in my everyday thinking or prayers, and I guess I’m not alone in that. It’s probably a reaction to their prominence in the not-too-distant past and to the way in which they were depicted. On the baptism anniversary cards which many churches, including ours, used to give out, a guardian angel in full robes and with massive wings stood grimly at the foot of the sleeping child’s iron bedstead – enough to give any young boy or girl horrid nightmares. Actually, I’m glad to say, we do here still send cards on the first three anniversaries of a child’s christening, but now they’re perfectly fine – no angels.
Anyway, St Michael and All Angels it is. I sometimes think that St Michael could be the patron saint for alcoholics or cars drivers, but that’s only because, when writing, I always abbreviate it to St Michael and A A.
The original meaning of the biblical word Angel is simply messenger. In the older and more primitive parts of the Bible the angel is really God himself. In the ancient world people generally thought that any god could appear and act in human form. But there grew up the belief that there is an order of supernatural beings, distinct from God, attendant upon him, to fulfil his will, to sing his praise and to be intermediaries between him and us mortals. Hence Jacob’s dream in Genesis.
As we heard, on his way from Beersheba to Haran he dreamt of a ladder stretching between earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending. Then the Lord himself came and spoke to him, and on waking, he could only say, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, the gate of heaven.”
That makes me wonder if sometimes we have become all too familiar with our churches, with this church. We seem to have lost that sense of holiness associated with churches in the past. How awesome is this place! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven. Of course we want to be natural while we’re in here. We don’t want to go around on tiptoe and speak in hushed whispers. It’s perfectly alright to have coffee at the back of the church and concerts and exhibitions here and so on, but let’s remember, at least every now and then, that this is the house of God and that it is awesome that he is here.
Up and down the country there are many Jacob’s Ladders: it’s a name given to almost any significant flight of steps, like, for example, that winding up to St Mary’s Church at Whitby. And it always makes me think of the west front at Bath Abbey, with its wonderful sculptured pair of stone ladders flanking the huge window and with half a dozen angels either going up or coming down each one.
It was only a dream of course, but it’s a vivid image of the connection, instituted by God, between himself and us – angels like the old telegraph boys bringing God’s messages to us and carrying our prayers to him.
In the Bible there are over 200 references to angels, most of them in the New Testament, and several of those connected with important occasions in Jesus’ life, and of course before it. It was Gabriel, one of the archangels, a bit like archbishops I suppose, Gabriel who delivered God’s plan to Mary. It was an angel who told Joseph to go ahead with his marriage to Mary. At the time of his temptation in the wilderness it was angels who waited upon Jesus and brought him comfort. And of course they were much in evidence at his resurrection. And they figure in Jesus’ teaching. “Never despise one of these little ones,” he said. “They have their guardian angels in heaven, who look continually on the face of my heavenly Father.”
In the Acts of the Apostles, often the apostles and others are told where God wants them to go and what he wants them to do by angels. And there’s one incident in Acts that I’d like to read to you. Acts 12: 5-10.
The question is my mind is, was that really an angel, or was it a sympathizer who had access to the keys and knew some of the guards? There are many happenings and words attributed to angels which I think could have been done or spoken by ordinary people, prompted to do so no doubt by God.
Angels, I think, are not airy-fairy, ghostly beings flapping around on feathery wings. That’s putting it a bit unfairly, I know, but they have been pictured in that sort of way. No, they are people, directed consciously or unconsciously by God to deliver his messages or do his errands, sometimes the sort of people who deserve other people saying of them, “What an angel!”
I believe that in biblical times if something angelic, seemingly miraculous, happened, and someone who witnessed it did not recognize the one who did it, and if he believed in angels, than it’s highly likely that he’d say it was an angel.
And today, inside or outside the church, those who really care for others, who love their neighbours in practical, often sacrificial, ways, such people are angels. They are messengers of God’s love.
Actually, it’s not surprising that people in the past believed in angels. Heaven, they thought, was an actual place up there where God lived, corresponding to earth down here where we live. So you needed a means of connecting the two, like angels.
Now what about Michael? No Michaelmas daisy he: he was the archangel of war, and his archenemy was Satan, the Devil, the ancient serpent, the dragon. It’s the stuff of films, the war in heaven, typical of the Book of Revelation which is full of angels of all sorts. Now when people took all this literally it had a terrific, terrifying, impression on their lives. They were really fearful of a real hell, even though they almost seemed to enjoy picturing it luridly in church sculpture and paintings and stained glass. And St Michael could help them. They believed he could assist the dying, bring their souls to be purged in purgatory, and finally present them to God at the heavenly gates.
No wonder he and his feast were so popular. And many churches were dedicated to him. It occurred to me to count just how many there are in our Diocese of Hereford alone, and it’s an astonishing 50, five-O, dedicated to St Michael or St Michael and All Angels.
There are many wonderful depictions of Michael defeating the Devil. But the first one that comes into my mind is Jacob Epstein’s huge bronze by the door of Coventry Cathedral, St Michael’s Cathedral it is. And how fitting that it should be there, for Coventry’s Cathedral is a powerful example of just what it is that St Michael represents, the victory of good over evil.
In 1940 the 14th century Gothic cathedral was destroyed by German bombs. The Provost had the words “Father Forgive” inscribed on the wall behind the bare altar. The stone mason bound together two charred beams in the shape of a cross, and that now stands on the old altar. A cross of nails from the ruined cathedral sits now on the altar of the new and has become a world-wide symbol of peace and reconciliation. Evil has been overcome by goodness.
That’s our message for today: God and his goodness will prevail, and we can be his angels taking that message to those around us.