Angels

St Michael & All Angels Oct 2nd 2022 Colwall

Genesis 28: 10-17; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51

To listen to the recording of the sermon:

When my youngest daughter was in her early years at Primary School, she was given the coveted part of Mary in the end of term nativity play. All went well until the dress rehearsal. It was then that she discovered that her best friend, who was one of the angels, would be wearing a flowing white costume, with tinsel in her hair, and— the icing on this particular cake—fairy wings.

I remain full of admiration for the long-suffering teacher who had to deal with the ensuing tears and tantrum.

I don’t know about you—but when I think about angels, it’s very hard to shake those images in my mind which have accrued from years of watching nativity plays and viewing medieval art, which depict angels as ethereal winged creatures. And I think that’s in part because the church and theologians generally have tended to be a bit reluctant to advance much teaching about angels.

And yet they are everywhere in the bible! The collect, which we prayed earlier, reminds us that God has ordained and constituted the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order. And the psalmist in Psalm 8 affirms that God has made human beings a little lower than the angels. Angels, then, dwell in the nearer presence of God, and much of our hymnody, especially at Christmas, visualises them gathered around God, singing praises to their creator. Human worship of God tends to be much more sporadic, but whenever we pray the Eucharistic prayer, we join our songs of praise with those of the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.

The primary task of angels may be to maintain a continuous paean of praise around God’s throne, but their duties also include carrying messages from God to mortals. As God’s messengers they can travel freely between the heights of heaven and earth—perhaps that’s why artists depicted them with wings, even though they often seem to appear in human form.

And so, in the bible many of God’s people encounter angels at key moments of their life. We read of them offering protection, sustenance, encouragement and guiding. We also read of them warning, rebuking and intervening in danger.

In the Old Testament we have the stories of Hagar and Ishmael who were left to perish in the desert, but rescued by an angel.

Elijah was fed by the angels and encouraged on his onward journey when he fled into the desert from Jezebel.

There was Balaam who set out on a mission in opposition to God’s will, whose donkey was the first to see the angel barring his way. And Daniel was rescued by an angel from the lions’ den as were his friends, Shadrach, Mishach and Abednego from the burning fiery furnace.

Angels tend to get really busy when God is doing something new, and so, in the New Testament, the Christmas story abounds with angelic activity. They have messages for Zechariah, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. Later they minister to Jesus in the desert and again in the Garden of Gethsemane, and they are at the tomb on resurrection morning to reassure and tell the women that Jesus is risen.

As the early church comes into being amidst opposition and persecution, the angels are there to enable Peter’s release from prison; they confirm for him that God really intends Gentiles as well as Jews to be part of his new community; and they are responsible for rescuing Paul and the sailors with him from a storm at sea.

If you’ve forgotten some of these stories, maybe it’s a good idea to dig out the Bible and refresh your memory for them. They are powerful reading.

When we reach the final book of the Bible, Revelation, there is an abundance of angelic activity. It’s not an easy book to read—rather than take it literally, it’s been said we should treat it as poetry or a walk through a picture gallery where the focus of the paintings is on the great conflict between the forces of good and of evil.

Now the angels are responsible for marking out the servants of God who must not be harmed; it is they who blow the trumpets which unleash destruction upon the faithless earth. At the same time they proclaim God’s message of salvation and of judgement and Michael, the principal angel, whom we celebrate today, seizes the devil, who is pictured as a dragon, and throws him out of heaven. Finally, they show the author of the visions ‘the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God’.

Angels are a fearful force, fatal to God’s enemies, but strong and reassuring to God’s faithful followers.

Angels are everywhere in the bible. But not everyone has eyes to see them. Their mission is to a particular person, at a particular moment of need, to bring a message from God, whether of warning, encouragement or guidance.

That was the case for Jacob in our Old Testament reading. You remember that he was running away from his family, after cheating his brother Esau out of his father Isaac’s blessing and inheritance. There is nothing to suggest that he was looking for God. Yet God met with him through the angels, because he needed Jacob to know that God was with him, that the promises God had made to Abraham and Isaac still stood. Jacob in his dream sees the invisible ladder between heaven and earth and the angels going about their business. He knows he has been standing on holy ground.
Surely God is in this place and I did not know it.
Jacob continues his journey renewed in the knowledge of God’s protection and presence with him.

There are echoes of this promise when Nathanael meets Jesus for the first time and discovers that he is already known. Jesus tells him ‘You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

Jesus fulfils in his own being, his very self as the meeting place for God and humankind. In Jesus is the very presence of God.

In the end that’s the message the angels carry—that God is and always will be intimately involved in the lives of God’s beloved people and the assurance of God’s presence with them.

Angels are everywhere in the bible for those who have the eyes to see them. They are no less everywhere in our world today for those who have the eyes to see them, though they mostly don’t have wings. They are the ones who give us courage when we need it most, who offer solace and compassion, who steer us away from evil and wrongdoing. They make known the presence of God with us.

Today’s festival of Michael and all the angels is a celebration of the myriad ways, in which God’s love and protection is made known to us in our daily lives and the assurance that, through the cross and resurrection evil, has ultimately been defeated. As Epstein’s sculpture on the wall of Coventry Cathedral depicts so powerfully: Satan has been bound and defeated. Evil does not have the last word.

That is the hope in which we live, and which gives us cause to join with the angels in their songs of praise. May our eyes never be closed to God’s glory, made known to us through the heavenly company of angels.