Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Michael, Michael': A Michaelmas Sermon

This was the sermon I preached today, the feast of St Michael and All Angels. 

If you pop round to my house, you’ll see a chubby little stone cherub welcoming you at the door in a posture of serene repose. Today is, of course, a celebration of Michael, the ‘Captain of the Lord’s hosts’, the mighty archangel. This last week in their school assembly, the children of the local school re-enacted the battle we’ve just heard about between St Michael and the angels of God, and the devil and his angels. Swords and wings everywhere!   

Of course, if you know anything about St Michael, you’ll know that Michael is nothing like the cute sleepy little cherub at my door. St Michael is described Revelation as a fierce, sword-wielding, dragon slaying warrior.  Michael also plays a crucial role in the prophetic visions of Daniel; it is in Daniel that we hear that Michael is ‘the great prince who protects your people.’  The rabbis around the time of Christ believed that Michael had been protecting God’s people all the way through their history; the rabbis taught that it was Michael with whom Jacob had wrestled through the night before being re-named Israel, it was Michael who had prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac by drawing his attention to the ram caught in the thicket, it was Michael who had watched over the people of Israel in the great Exodus by acting as advocate for them in the heavenly places.

Now, we can’t say for sure whether the rabbis are right or wrong in this – we read in the Old Testament that Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man who turned out to be an angel, and that angels surrounded God’s people as they journeyed to the promised land. We aren’t told what the angels’ names are, most of the time. But the rabbis’ teachings about Michael give us a glimpse into just how important Michael was, in the early decades of faith in Jesus, a faith which started out very much as a Jewish faith. 

The rather strange letter of Jude describes Michael as an archangel who even dares to take on the devil, and, as we’ve read, Revelation describes a ‘war in heaven’ in which Michael and his angels eventually overcome the dragon, ‘the Devil, and Satan, who deceives the whole world.’

As protectors of the people go, Michael is quite formidable. Not so much a chubby cherub but more of a cross between a heavenly prizefighter and a heavenly bodyguard. Maybe not quite what we think of when we picture angels. Gregory the Great, the medieval pope, said this about Michael; ‘whenever some act of wondrous power is to be performed, Michael is sent.’  

In other words, sending Michael is bringing out the big guns.

Now all of this might sound rather arcane, like beliefs that belong either to a bygone era or to the more esoteric spirituality of those who might be more likely to search for spiritual meaning in new age shops than in church. But angels, and their equally heavenly but unholy counterparts, demons, are very much affirmed by the Christian faith. Just look around you in this beautiful church. There are artistic impressions of angels everywhere; if you haven’t done so in a while, have a good look at the stained glass window of St Michael before you go home.

And if we think about it a bit more, we realise that the story which the children have been re-enacting, the battle between the forces of good and evil, is real, and is something that is very deeply felt and intuited by people in all cultures and times. If this battle between the force of good and evil were not so compelling because of its truthfulness, then the plotlines of stories from Harry Potter to Star Wars would be devoid of meaning.

Revelation is a mysterious book, but one thing is does make clear among the complex and half-hidden messages it holds, is that Michael wins. The forces of good will overcome the forces of evil. A popular Christian writer, Rob Bell, wrote a book recently called ‘Love Wins.’ And that, I believe, is the true message of the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Love wins. Yes, we live in a murky world in which the push and pull of good and evil are evident – but love will win, eventually. And in the meantime, although angels are never ours to command, they are among us, slipping in and out quietly. George Eliot, the great novelist, said that we only realise who angels are once they’ve left us.   

The people who first heard Revelation read to them lived in a murky world, too, in which the push and pull of good and evil were evident. They had escaped the terrible persecution of the earlier generation of Christians, or had not been born yet, they were protected to a degree by the Pax Romana, the peace that the Roman Empire afforded them, as long as they toed the imperial line.  What they needed, John the Revelator was convinced, was to hear what this peace looked like from the vantage point of heaven. They needed to see, as he had, that although peace of a sort prevailed on earth, there was war in heaven as the angels fought for justice and peace over everything that would stop true justice and peace on earth.

Maybe we don’t live in such different times. I’m going to finish by reading a wonderful poem by G. K. Chesterton which touches on just this; it’s called St Michael in Time of Peace.’ There’s a lot in it. If you’d like a copy, do ask me.     

St. Michael in Time of Peace, by G.K. Chesterton
Michael, Michael: Michael of the Morning,
Michael of the Army of the Lord,
Stiffen thou the hand upon the still sword, Michael,
Folded and shut upon the sheathed sword, Michael,
Under the fullness of the white robes falling,
Gird us with the secret of the sword.

When the world cracked because of a sneer in heaven,
Leaving out for all time a scar upon the sky,
Thou didst rise up against the Horror in the highest,
Dragging down the highest that looked down on the Most High:
Rending from the seventh heaven the hell of exaltation
Down the seven heavens till the dark seas burn:
Thou that in thunder threwest down the Dragon
Knowest in what silence the Serpent can return.

Down through the universe the vast night falling
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Morning!)
Far down the universe the deep calms calling
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Sword!)
Bid us not forget in the baths of all forgetfulness,
In the sigh long drawn from the frenzy and the fretfulness
In the huge holy sempiternal silence
In the beginning was the Word.

When from the deeps of dying God astounded
Angels and devils who do all but die
Seeing Him fallen where thou couldst not follow,
Seeing Him mounted where thou couldst not fly,
Hand on the hilt, thou hast halted all thy legions
Waiting the Tetelestai and the acclaim,
Swords that salute Him dead and everlasting
God beyond God and greater than His Name.

Round us and over us the cold thoughts creeping
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the battle-cry!)
Round us and under us the thronged world sleeping
(Michael, Michael: Michael of the Charge!)
Guard us the Word; the trysting and the trusting
Edge upon the honour and the blade unrusting
Fine as the hair and tauter than the harpstring
Ready as when it rang upon the targe.

He that giveth peace unto us; not as the world giveth:
He that giveth law unto us; not as the scribes:
Shall he be softened for the softening of the cities
Patient in usury; delicate in bribes?
They that come to quiet us, saying the sword is broken,
Break man with famine, fetter them with gold,
Sell them as sheep; and He shall know the selling
For He was more than murdered. He was sold.

Michael, Michael: Michael of the Mustering,
Michael of the marching on the mountains of the Lord,
Marshal the world and purge of rot and riot
Rule through the world till all the world be quiet:
Only establish when the world is broken
What is unbroken is the word.

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