Monday, September 30, 2013

St. Michael and All Angels (Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3)

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there will be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon on this festival of St. Michael and All Angels comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth and twelfth chapters of the prophet Daniel. Dear friends in Christ, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, may angels watch me through the night, and keep me till the morning light, Amen.” “Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me, Amen.” Angels have a prominent place in our prayers, especially the prayers that we say at night; the idea of a guardian angel is a popular one, and we heard of them from Jesus’ own lips in our Gospel lesson: “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.”

But do we really believe in guardian angels, or any kind of angels for that matter? Living in a modern, scientific world, angels are a bit embarrassing, to say the least. Those around us will more readily believe in some sort of God than they will believe in an entire unseen realm of good and evil, acting for or against us. God we can keep up in heaven, but the angels are supposed to be right with us, as we teach the children to pray, and people will think that you are a bit crazy if you claim to have an angel following you around. And so the angels become only the subject of beautiful, sentimental stories and artwork. We give them wings, even though most angels in Scripture are not described with wings, we make them women or little children, forgetting that angels, being spirits, have no gender, but are often described as men in the Bible. We even claim that we will become angels, even though Scripture certainly says no such thing. I think, and this is only a theory, that the reason why we sentimentalize angels is because we are embarrassed by them, and deep down, we have trouble believing that they exist.

We humans, especially we modern humans, are much better at dealing with those things that we can see. And what we can see is the fulfillment of what Christ said to Daniel. “And there shall be a time of trouble, such has never been since there was a nation till our time.” Jesus is speaking to Daniel about the latter days, the time that we are living in right now, between Christ’s first coming and His second. We know the truth of what the Son of God is saying: these are truly troubled times. It seems as if we cannot go very long without another shooting, another terror attack, another natural disaster. The entire planet seems to be writhing in pain, and our fellow Christians certainly are suffering terribly. The gunmen at the mall in Nairobi killed immediately all who professed the name of Christ, and just last week a bomb killed almost a hundred Christians outside of a church in Pakistan. Closer to home, we deal with cancer and other diseases, we are in car accidents, we are surrounded by death. Relationships are torn apart by words and actions; we fear for our children, threatened by bullies and predators. It’s a scary world out there!

But there is more going on here than meets the eyes. In fact, if we simply rely on our eyes to tell us about this time of trouble, we are missing the point, and we are unaware of the real danger. The Scriptures show us the reality; in our text, Jesus pulls back the veil to teach us who is truly at work in all the troubles of this troubled world. He explains His delay in coming to Daniel by telling the prophet He was fighting a battle. “The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me for twenty-one days.” This is no earthly prince; this is a demon, a servant of Satan, operating in the unseen realm to thwart the purposes of God. What we see with our eyes is terror, rampart immorality, and trouble on every side. What we don’t see is the one who is working behind the scenes, in the invisible realm, working toward his own purposes. Satan is active behind every terror attack and natural disaster; he is a liar and a murderer from the beginning, and he delights in human suffering.

Satan is after our faith; he wants to isolate us, to divide us from our God, dragging us to hell with him. The biggest threat of this troubled world is not against our body or life, but against our soul. St. Paul teaches us in Ephesians: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Satan enjoys watching Christians suffer and even die, but if they die in faith, all is lost. He would rather see us live comfortable lives in unbelief than troubled lives in faith. The main attack is not what you can see, it is what is unseen, and that unseen assault makes all the difference, for behind the veil, you are dealing with issues of heaven and hell.

An invisible attack can only be countered by an invisible defense. This is where St. Michael and All Angels come in. Jesus tells Daniel: “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.” St. Michael leads the angels in defense of the saints; they fight for us against all the forces of evil arrayed around us. When we think of a guardian angel, we usually think of a stoic, kind face, watching us peacefully. The popular conception is that these watchful angels spring into action when we are threatened by physical danger, like a car accident or fire. But the picture that Scripture gives us is much different. While God and His angels are certainly concerned with physical danger, much more important are the spiritual threats. Jesus teaches this in Matthew chapter ten: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Our picture of these angels then needs to be adjusted as well; these creatures, servants of God most high, do worship God in the peace and glory of heaven, but in this troubled world, they are made for combat, combat against Satan and for us; we should see a face of steel, a face of terror to his foes, and a drawn sword.

These warrior angels have only one goal, and it is the goal of God Himself: our salvation. “At that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” The angels are to protect us in this world of trouble from every attack of our demonic enemies, guarding Christ’s little flock until they reach the eternal green pastures. They go to war for us with only one goal: our salvation. “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

God pulls back the veil for us in the book of Revelation; we see what is really happening behind the scenes in the invisible realm, namely victory, the victory of St. Michael and all angels against the dragon and all of our foes. But their victory in the invisible realm, behind the veil, is only won because of what happens in the visible realm. The picture of triumphant victory in heaven is simply the result of what happened on earth, upon a cross, on a Friday we call good. This victory isn’t won by St. Michael’s might, but by Jesus’ suffering. “And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’” It is Christ’s victory in visible suffering that gives the angels victory in an invisible war.

St. Michael and all angels are simply enacting in heaven what was accomplished on earth: Christ’s death on your behalf, conquering Satan once and for all. He can no longer accuse you before your Father in heaven, he can no longer condemn you to hell; even death itself is robbed of its power, it has no hold on God’s saints. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of sky above, and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” On the Last Day, we won’t become angels, but truly human, resurrected to live bodily forever, joining the angels in praise to our God for eternity. The distinction between the invisible and visible realms will be no more, the veil will be torn, forever.

St. Michael’s name means “Who is like God?” and you can imagine his mighty voice shouting that question as his battle cry as he drove Satan from the holy environs of heaven. Who is like God, the creator of the universe? Who is like God, who in loving mercy promised redemption after the world was plunged into sin? Who is like God, who hung upon the cross for the salvation of all? Who is like God, who sends His holy ones to protect His people, and then, on the Last Day, will raise them all up to live with Him forever? Who is like God? No one. So don’t get rid of your angel statues and artwork; the angels are worthy of celebration and honor, but remember why: they are dread warriors of God most high, who engage your enemies on your behalf, defending you from spiritual attack. They bear not a harp in this troubled world, but a mighty sword; their face is not peace, but terror to their foes. And they go to war for you with confidence in ultimate victory, not by their own strength, but only because of Christ. Their victory in heaven’s war was only possible by the shed blood of the Lamb; they can only triumph in their combat in these latter days because they fight an enemy who is already defeated, whose days are numbered. Who is like God, who sends us the angels, to protect us, to fight for us, to worship with us, now and forever? In the name of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain to give the angels victory, to give us victory, now and forever, Amen.

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