Angels are one of the more strange parts of many bible stories. Why is it important for God to tells us about these terrifying messengers? Preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, October 3, 2021.
What’s the first thing angels often say in the bible? “Do not be afraid.” When Isaac is born, and Hagar flees with her son Ishmael, the Lord sends an angel and she trembles with fear but the angel says “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 21:14-19). Again When Michael the angel came to Daniel the prophet in a vision to tell him of the rise and fall of empires he caused Daniel to tremble, and said do not be afraid (chapters 10-11). This is said to young Mary at the annunication(Luke 1:26-38), to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (Matthew 28:5-7), to Zechariah worshipping in the temple when he hears of John the Baptists’ birth(Luke 1:13). These are only some examples. Angels cause mortals to tremble with fear, they are greater than us, yet to those upon whom the Lord’s favour rests, they call us out of fear and into attentive hearing. They are the messengers of our King.
One thing angels make clear about God is his might. He is the Lord God of Sabboath, of angel armies, by his strength in them he delivers and liberates, he casts down evil, he declares his reign and purpose. He sends the angel of death over Egypt that Israel may be set free from bondage (Exodus 12:23). In the Acts reading(Acts 12:1-17) today we see an image of this power of liberation. Following the martyrdom of James by Herod and the arrest of Peter the church in Jerusalem must have felt especially weak and vulnerable without two of its leaders. To them came an angel of the Lord who shook the earth, bore forth a great light of spectacle to the city and appeared in prison next to an unprepared Peter. The angel commanded Peter to get dressed. He burst chains, he burst open doors, and Peter walked to freedom and to encourage the discouraged brothers. God is strong, strong to set his people free.
Another major thing angels reveal about God is the spiritual nature of the struggle of Christians. Stephen Reynolds, the liberal high-church theologian from Toronto put it this way: “Many good and faithful Christians find it difficult to accept the existence of angels; for them, angels have no more reality in fact than unicorns, griffins, or the phoenix. It may be true that the existence of angels is not one of the things in which Christians must believe if they want to be saved. Yet whenever Christians say the Nicene Creed, they confess that God has created “all that is, seen and unseen.” Entertaining the possibility of angels may be one way of acknowledging the sheer diversity of life, visible and invisible, that God has ordained.”
Our world now has become materialist or less-than materialist. We are told that the struggle between good and evil is a struggle between capitalists and workers. We are told the struggle between good and evil is between white straight male oppressors and intersectional victomhood. We are told the struggle between good and evil is between the always prejudiced assumptions of our ignorant ancestors and the enlightened compassion of today. Scripture reveals what we see will be true if we sit silently and look into our own feelings for even two minutes – the line between good and evil runs through the deep twisting crevices of every heart. The struggle is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual forces that call us to fear, to hate, to indulge, to collapse into worthlessness, to deny the dignified image imprinted upon is.
In the reading from Revelation (12:7-12) we see an image of Jesus’s ascension, an image of the spiritual warfare angels are waging. Michael and his army of angels do battle with the “Dragon” or the “Accuser” that is the devil and his rebellious angels or demons. We are told that the Accuser stood before God constantly reminding him of human unworthiness, that people do not deserve the mercy or favour of God, that we can not keep his will, that we are frail weak and deserve judgment and punishment. When Jesus ascends into heaven the Devil is replaced, Jesus takes the Devil’s job from him, and the angels of God cast the Devil out of heaven. Where before humanity is constantly accused before God, one clothed in human flesh, who has taken our humanity and made it worthy to be in God’s presence, stands before God interceeding for us, pleading for mercy for us, calling and empowering us to move up higher.
This is the spiritual warfare being lived out in you. There is a power and principality who wants you to fail, wants you to be cut off from the Love of God, wants you to be driven by fear and appetites and pride, wants you to be a slave and to be destroyed. There is a kingdom into which you are being pulled, for which you are being shaped and burned and remade. Will you fall or be raised up? It is the power of God alone that you can lean on to be lifted up by his holy angels. Why else do you pray so often and so fervently to be prevented and protected.
We see this in the Gospel lesson(Matthew 18:1-10), this week Matthew’s version of the story we heard from Mark last week. Here we hear a mystery, this is where the belief in guardian angels comes from. Those of us who are more reformed don’t always sit well with this idea, but its here, in holy writ. Angels in the presence of living God, fierce spiritual soldiers, are charged with guarding the faithful. I know that my faith needs all the help it can get, and that it is my most treasured possession. One last parting thought on angels though, from this passage. The angels from the Old Testament fly around with wings covering their eyes that they may not see the face of God and perish. But these angels that Jesus speaks of after his coming to live among us, flying and protecting those that have been received by him, fly now with open eyes and behold the face of God without fear. I do not know what to do with this mystery, but I know that it is wonderful.