Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sermon for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

St. Michael and All Angels
                                                                                    Rev 12:7-12

            In the 1946 movie and Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life” we meet Angel 2nd Class Clarence Odbody.  Clarence is a bumbling angel who is sent by the head angels Franklin and Joseph to earth in order to save George Bailey from his own disillusionment.  Clarence is given his mission, and knows that if he succeeds he will get his wings – he will become a full angel.
Clarence shows George how very different life would be if George had not been present to touch the lives of those around him.  And by the end of the movie Clarence succeeds. George Bailey comes to recognize the great blessings he has in life and as he rejoices with family and friends a bell on the Christmas tree rings, prompting his darling little girl Zuzu to say, “Look daddy, teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.’”
The depiction of Clarence and the statement about “an angel getting its wings” provide a good example of the sappy, sentimental nonsense that pervades our culture when it comes to angels.  Our world is fascinated by angels – usually for all of the wrong reasons.  People like to focus on angels because it provides a sort of spiritual window dressing that allows a person to avoid any real commitment or serious thought about Christianity.  Many times in the way people talk there is a rather bizarre cross over between people and angels.  Even Christians will talk about a person who has died “becoming an angel” or that “an angel has gained his wings.”
Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.  It is great that this feast falls on a Sunday this year, because it gives us a chance to reflect upon what God’s Word actually says about angels.  It provides a chance to set aside the nonsense and instead to see God’s servants, the angels, for what they really are.  This is important, because in doing so we gain greater insight into what we really are.  And most importantly, it leads us to an understanding of the cosmic significance of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Our text this morning is part of the book of Revelation that helps to explain what is happening on earth – that helps to explain why the Church currently experiences hardship and persecution.  The book of Revelation is … well, the book of Revelation.  It is a book in which God reveals to the apostle John deep spiritual truths about the world in which we live and the course of God’s saving work in Christ.  God does this through apocalyptic visions – John sees vivid and at times bizarre events that are filled with symbolic meaning.  Yet as we listen to these things it is important to understand that the visions themselves reflect conventions of apocalyptic literature that were common at that time.  In other words, what sounds utterly bizarre to us would have often had recognizable meaning to John.
Just before the start of our text, John has seen the sign in heaven of a pregnant woman. The woman is threatened by a dragon who wants to kill her child. Then John tells us, “She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.”  It soon becomes clear that the woman is the virgin Mary; that the child is Jesus the Messiah; and that the dragon is Satan.
John tells us that the child is taken up to the throne of God. And then in the first verses of our text we hear: “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.”
The birth of the child and his being taken up to the throne of God express in short hand form the saving ministry of Jesus Christ: he was born as the incarnate Son of God; he suffered and died on the cross; he rose from the dead; and he ascended into heaven as he has been exalted at the right hand of the Father.  And because he has done this we have forgiveness. As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sin from us.  Because of Jesus saving work, Satan can no longer accuse you before God.
In the Old Testament – in the books of Job and Zechariah - we learn that Satan was permitted to appear before God and raise accusations against God’s people.  He was able to do it, that is, until Christ made the single great sacrifice of himself for the forgiveness of sin.  Because of this, now as we live in repentance, there is no sin that Satan can accuse you of before God. He can no longer do this because as those who have shared in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through baptism you are forgiven.
John tells us that Satan was cast out of God’s presence in heaven – never again to appear before him and accuse God’s people.  John continues by saying, “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.’”
This casting down of Satan – this final banishment of Satan from God’s presence as a result of Christ’s victory – is described as a war in which Michael and the angels defeat Satan and his angels.  And in this event we learn three important truths about angels, ourselves and God’s saving work in Christ.
The first thing we learn is that angels are awesome and powerful spiritual beings.  Take the image of Clarence Odbody and throw it out of your mind. Take the picture of cute, plump cherubs and sissy looking angels, and get rid them.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Daniel encountered an angel in the Old Testament, and this is how he described the one he saw: “His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude.” When Daniel found himself in the presence of this angelic being the strength left him and he fell face down on the ground.  You would too.
When we consider the fact that God’s angels are awesome and powerful creatures, we should also encounter another fact.  Just as God’s servants are awesome and powerful, so also are Satan and his angels.  Our text sets before us the truth that there are spiritual forces of evil.  We need to hear this, because we find it all too easy to ignore and forget this fact.  The apostle Peter tells us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
More often than not we don’t take this seriously. We don’t think about our world and lives from the perspective of the spiritual warfare that is taking place. Yet at the end of our text, we hear, “But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”  And then at the end of the chapter John writes, “Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”  We need to repent of the attitude that ignores the spiritual battle that threatens us, and instead to cling all the more to Christ’s Means of Grace for only through them can we be preserved in the faith.
Clearly, we learn from our text that Michael and God’s angels are awesome and powerful creatures.  Yet the second thing we learn from God’s Word may surprise you.  Guess what?  In God’s eyes, you are more important than they are.  You rank above the angels. Human beings alone were created in the image of God – not the angels.  The Son of God took into himself a human nature in the incarnation, and then suffered, died and rose from the dead in order to redeem humanity – in order to redeem you.  He didn’t do that for the angels.  The writer to the Hebrews says abut angels, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” And the apostle Paul tells us that when the resurrection takes place we will judge angels.
The angels are God’s servants who support and protect his people. And this brings us to the third point we learn from God’s word. Everything the angels do is centered on Jesus’ Christ’s death and resurrection for you.  In our text John says, “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.’”  And then the voice goes on to say, “Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!”
More literally, the heavens and those who dwell in them – the angels – are told to rejoice “because of this.”  And the “this” – the reason that the angels are commanded to rejoice – is the fact that the accuser of the Christians has been thrown down.  It is because the Christians have conquered Satan by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony – their confession of Jesus Christ.
The angels are told to rejoice because Jesus Christ has saved you by his death and resurrection!  The angels and their ministry can never be thought of apart from the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God for you. The focus of God’s action in Christ and all of its spiritual and cosmic implications is you – not the angels.  And everything that the angels do is about helping you the redeemed child of God.
So on this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels we give thanks to God for his servants the angels – awesome and powerful spiritual beings who seek our good.  We recognize that God’s angels are one side of the spiritual warfare that exists in our world – a warfare that threatens us, especially if we choose to ignore that it exists.  Reflection on what God’s Word tells us about the angels leads us to the, perhaps surprising, yet inescapable conclusion that we rank above the angels.  We alone have been created in the image of God, and we alone have been redeemed in our humanity by the Son of God himself becoming human without ceasing to be God.  And therefore our thoughts about the angels always bring us back to the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.
So today, let us give thanks for St. Michael and the angels.  Let us give thanks with the angels, because our accuser has been cast down and he has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb.  Let us rejoice in the word of our testimony – the confession about Christ.  And let us join now with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven as we gather around the Lamb in his Sacrament of the Altar.

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