Summary: Written for St. Michael and All Angels Sunday, this sermon explores the biblical purpose and role of angels. It does not highlight one particular text, but uses a broad biblical overview to confront the popular notion of a fluffy, harp-playing angel in fl
Today we celebrate the festival of St. Michael and all
angels, known in some other countries and traditions as
Michaelmas. Michael, the archangel, is mentioned in the books of Daniel, Jude, and Revelation, as well as other Bible-time writings that we do not consider to be part of our Bible. This feast day was originally assigned solely for St. Michael, but in Reformation times, was expanded to include a commemoration of all the angels. The lessons illustrate the biblical understanding of St. Michael as the captain of the heavenly armies, who leads us into victory on behalf of Christ. Today, let’s take some time to look at the biblical function and appearance of angels.
Angels are depicted in many different ways in art, sculpture, poetry, prose, and movies. Most of these popular images are completely unbiblical. C.S. Lewis wrote: “In the plastic arts these symbols [of angels] have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of Heaven. Later came the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish, and consolatory angels of nineteenth century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity - the frigid houris of a tea table paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying "Fear not." The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, "There, there." –from the preface to The Screwtape Letters (quoted by Bruce Booher on ecunet meeting Gospel Notes For Next Sunday).
And even more recently, television shows and movies seem
to have a fascination with depictions of angels. Perhaps some of you watch Touched By An Angel. Or the popular television show “Angel”, which has nothing to do with angels; on the contrary, it tells the story of a vampire who battles demons and other evil powers. Charlie’s Angels, the TV series and movie, had absolutely nothing to do with angels at all, unless you think that angels are just good looking women. In City of Angels (Nic
Cage, Meg Ryan), an angel falls in love with a woman and angels can decide to be human under certain circumstances. Michael (with John Travolta), written about our commemorated angel, portrays an overweight, crabby, chain-smoking, beer-drinking being that can do miracles. In Dogma, two angels who have been banished to Wisconsin try to escape to New Jersey in hopes of finding a loophole that will let them back into heaven. The Preacher’s Wife (a remake of the earlier Bishop’s Wife) features an angel who comes as the answer to a preacher’s desperate prayer. It’s A Wonderful Life first introduced us to Clarence, that loveable, chubby angel who informed us “Whenever a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”. But none of these images really reflects the biblical witness about angels, so let’s look at the
biblical responsibilities of angels. What do angels do?
Firstly, angels bring messages from God. The very word
used for angel in Greek and Hebrew means “messenger”. Angels announce God’s judgment, declare the promise of numerous babies-to-be, and proclaim good news to the people of God. An angel called to Abraham as he was about to sacrifice his only son Isaac, telling him to stop and let the boy live. An angel informed Zechariah that his old, barren wife Elizabeth would have a child. An angel appeared to Mary announcing the upcoming birth of Jesus. An angel told Joseph not to leave Mary, because her child was from the Holy Spirit. On the first Christmas night, angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth to mere shepherds out in the fields. An angel sent Peter and Cornelius to one another, so that Peter would accept Gentiles and Cornelius would be saved. An angel sent Ananias to Saul upon his conversion, to proclaim the good news to him. An angel gave the revelation to John on the island of Patmos. While we humans can bear God’s message, we will never be angels in the same sense as these heavenly beings who deliver messages directly from God’s mouth.
Secondly, angels carry out God’s work on earth,
including justice and comfort. In the Old Testament, this work often takes on a morbid tone. 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles describe an angel putting to death 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. The Psalms describe an angel of the Lord driving enemies away or chasing after them (35:5,6). Angels minister to Elijah while he’s in the wilderness for forty days and nights. Angels also minister to Jesus as he’s in the wilderness for forty days after his baptism and testing by the devil. An angel rolled the stone away effortlessly on Resurrection Day morning. In Acts, Herod did not give praise to God, so the angel of the Lord struck him down (12:23). Angels carry out God’s earthly work, whether it be judgment or comfort.