Sunday, 29 September 2019

Angels all around: St Michael and All Angels

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, the day when we think about and celebrate those
Raphael's depiction of the Archangel Michael
shows him making short work of a demon.
Louvre: Paris
strangest of biblical creatures, who weave mysteriously in and out of many of the stories of the Bible. Some of you may remember that last Advent, I wrote a series of daily reflections on angelic stories from the Bible, a separate one for each day – I have reprinted a few copies of the booklet in case anyone missed them, or you can find them on the church blog. I chose that theme because angels often feature in the imagery we see around Christmas time, and in the stories we tell, but it seemed to me that angels weren’t just for Christmas, and I thought it was worth looking to see where else in the Bible they cropped up. It turned out that they were almost everywhere . My challenge was how to choose just 24 stories.

The angels in those stories came in many forms. They rarely had wings. The angels in today’s Old Testament reading needed a ladder to climb between heaven and earth – if they’d had wings, presumably they would have flown! Often in the Bible they looked so ordinary that it was only afterwards that the people who’d met them realized that they were angels at all.

Angels perform many different functions in the Bible too.
Sometimes angels are described as part of the community of heaven, singing God’s praises in the heavenly courts, attending him like the courtiers of an earthly king. Jesus describes them as rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents, just as a shepherd might rejoice when he finds his lost sheep, or a woman when she finds a lost coin.

Sometimes they’re the heavenly army, ferocious warriors who defend God’s people, like the archangel Michael himself, who led the armies of God in today’s New Testament reading . Or there’s the wonderful Old Testament story about the prophet Elisha. The king of Aram wants to get rid of Elisha because he thinks – quite  correctly - that Elisha is tipping the king of Israel off about his battle plans. So the Aramite king’s army surrounds Elisha’s home during the night. Elisha’s servant boy wakes him in the morning, terrified at the sight of all these troops, but Elisha seems ridiculously calm.  “There are more with us than there are with them,” he says, dismissively, and sends the boy out to look again. Sure enough, when the boy lifts his eyes above the soldiers in front of him, he sees the angelic soldiers of God’s heavenly host  arrayed in the hills all around, far more powerful than any earthly force.

There are guardian angels in the bible too, angels who care for people in trouble like Hagar, the slave woman with whom Abraham had fathered a son, at the instigation of Sarah his wife. When her own child is born, Sarah and Abraham drive Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert where they would certainly have died, if an angel hadn’t pointed them to water. Angels feed the prophet Elijah in the desert too, and minister to Jesus after his temptations there.

And finally there are the herald angels, like Gabriel, the angel who appears to Mary, and to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside, telling them about Jesus, or  the resurrection angels who tell the women who come to anoint Jesus that he has been raised from death.  

Whatever they’re doing, though, the Bible is clear that angels act on behalf of God. In fact, sometimes it’s not quite clear whether we are meeting an angel or God himself. When Moses stumbles across a bush burning in the desert, the voice that calls to him out of it is first identified as the voice of the “angel of the Lord”, but later on it’s clear that it is God himself who is speaking. Jacob wrestles with an angel as he tries to cross the ford of the Jabbok, but the mysterious figure eventually tells him that he has “striven with God and has prevailed”.  It might confuse us a bit, but it probably wouldn’t have bothered those who first read the Bible. In their culture, messengers of important people weren’t just postmen, neutral delivers of the messages of others, they represented the person who had entrusted the message to them.  

Angels throng the pages of the Bible, so it’s not surprising that our hymns and prayers are also full of them. In the Eucharistic prayer we pray “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” They’re all over the place in our architecture too. I had a quick look around this church earlier this week and I counted 64 angels in the stained glass – yes, you heard that right, 64 – you can count them for yourselves after the service – and 9 carved angels to spot too.
Two of our stained glass angels, announcing the resurrection.

Angels are all around us, and yet my guess is that most of us don’t really think much about them. They don’t often feature much in our understanding of our faith. Perhaps we are a bit embarrassed to talk about them. They are a bit non-rational, new age, great for children to dress up as at Christmas, fine as a decoration on a card or etched on a gravestone, but not really to be taken seriously, even as an idea or a metaphor.

That’s a pity, because it seems to me that something that was so important to those who wrote the Bible, shouldn’t just be ignored. The word angel comes from the Greek angellos, and it means messenger. It was the word used of any sort of messenger, human or divine. The Hebrew equivalent used in the Old Testament, malak, means the same. Whatever else these creatures are, they speak of God, meant to speak to us of God, to tell us something which we might not learn by other means.

The angelic stories in the Bible were signs that God was at work.  “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it”, says Jacob in surprise. They might be fleeting, appearing and disappearing, glimpsed out of a corner of your eye, but they told people that they weren’t alone, not forsaken, not abandoned.

The book of Revelation was written by an anonymous Christian leader on the dry, dusty island of Patmos, where he had either been exiled, or had fled during a time of persecution. The world looked grim. He and those in his community faced turmoil and suffering. Was it all over for them? His vision told him that it wasn’t. The final outcome of this time of struggle wasn’t in doubt no matter what it looked like. There was no contest. God is stronger than death and hatred and chaos. Love will win, says this story. Just like Elisha’s servant boy, if you lifted up your eyes you would see that “those who are with us” – the mighty forces of God – “are more than those who are with them” – the forces of hatred, envy, deceit, and chaos. It can be very hard to hold onto that belief when everything seems to be falling apart, which is why we need to learn to look for those glimpses of God, maybe just the rustle of an angels wing, or the whispered notes of their songs. The small things are the big things when you’re in trouble; a hug from a friend, a word from the Bible, a unexpected momentary feeling of peace may be all we need to tell us , like Jacob, that “God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

It’s a message that is marvellously underlined by Jesus when he meets Nathanael, in our Gospel reading today. He takes the story of Jacob and tells Nathanael that he is the place where the angels of God will now ascend and descend, where heaven and earth meet, in his flesh and blood. That’s a surprise to Nathanael. If we’d read the beginning of his story we’d have discovered than when Philip initially called him to come and see Jesus he had exclaimed, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Whatever he expected the Messiah to look like, it wasn’t this! And while we may take for granted that it ought to have been obvious that Jesus was a good guy, we forget that he didn’t actually have a halo, and that an uneducated carpenter, who sits light to the rules and argues with the religious experts wouldn’t have looked like ideal Messiah material. A man who died the shameful death of a rebel, a man who has, at the end, only a handful of rather flaky followers, really wouldn’t have looked like ideal Messiah material. And yet his followers discovered that God was in that place, the place of failure, shame and disgrace, even in that place, especially in that place.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what we think of angels, whether we think they are fact or myth or metaphor, history or mystery. What matters is that we hear the message they proclaim. It’s the message that matters, not the messengers. But angelic stories can be good reminders that our God is a God of surprises. He doesn’t necessarily show up in the way we expect him to, but he always shows up.  Angelic stories remind us that heaven and earth are not as far apart as we might imagine because nowhere, and no one, is God-forsaken, a place where God cannot be, and where God is, there is heaven. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that that we should not “neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares”. (Hebrews 13.2) In a time like this, when we are seeing huge polarisation of opinion, on Brexit and on many other things as well, when people are digging themselves into entrenched positions, demonising others, retreating into fear and prejudice, it is especially important we remember that message, and learn to look for God in the places and people we might be inclined to write off. 

On this feast of Michael and All Angels, then, and in these troubled times, I pray that we will have the grace to open our ears to the message of the angels – not just the 64 in our stained glass but  the ones who can be found wherever we are, if we have eyes and ears to perceive them - angels who proclaim God’s words afresh to us,  “Do not be afraid. God is stronger than death and hatred and chaos. Love wins.”  I pray that, hearing that, we’ll discover that God is in this place, our place, too.   

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