Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Michael and All Angels - 10/02/2016

Today we venture into the realm of angels which is territory into which Lutherans don’t often go because things can get a little weird when you start trying to talk about angels. As far as I know, there’s no definitive theological understanding concerning angels but it seems that everybody likes angels or likes the idea of them anyway, some people collect angel figurines or wear angel jewelry, UPHHH has an angel as part of its logo; everyone understands angels as agents and messengers of good.

Angels do show up throughout the Bible, just an unquestioned part of the created order, neither human nor god but something in between, serving as God’s messengers, and of course they’re central to both the Christmas story and the Easter story. Especially at Christmas we perhaps think of cute little kids dressed up as angels and there are lots of hymns that celebrate the message of the angels and the praise of the angels, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Angels we have heard on high, Angels from the realms of glory. In our communion liturgy every week with angels and archangels we join their unending hymn singing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…”

Still, as much as angels are part of the Bible and part of worship and while images of angels are quite common and familiar and much loved by people inside and outside of the church, I don’t think you would find too many Lutheran churches that have a large stained glass window of the Archangel Michael and/or a pastor who spent a week writing an icon of the Archangel Michael. But here we are today, kind of pushing the boundaries of traditional Lutheranism.

We’re not pushing the boundaries of Christianity though. In the Eastern Church, the Orthodox Church, a feast honoring Michael and other angels was established in the early 300’s following the decision of an early council that condemned the worship of angels but affirmed their proper veneration. The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels doesn’t go back quite as far in the Western church out of which we come, but it does date to the 500’s making it one of the oldest annual celebrations on the church calendar. In the Lutheran church these days it is listed as a Lesser Festival, one which might be noticed and celebrated if September 29th fell on a Sunday, but other than that, it’s more likely that it would pass by unnoticed. September 29th was actually last Thursday so we’re bending the rules a little bit in celebrating Michael and All Angels today, but…we have a window to dedicate.

Biblically there isn’t a whole lot about Michael; other than today’s readings from Daniel and Revelation, the only other place Michael is mentioned is in the ninth verse of the short and rather obscure book of Jude. In the book of Daniel, Michael is part of Daniel’s vision, viewed as the “great prince, the protector of your people.” In Revelation, there is the heavenly war between Michael and his angels against the dragon and his angels. “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 earth and his angels were thrown down with him.” In Jude there is reference to Michael’s dispute with the devil over the body of Moses, a dispute mentioned in a lost Jewish work called the Testament of Moses. What these references all have in common though, is that all of them have Michael pitted against Satan or other evil forces.

My guess would be that if any of these biblical verses are familiar to you it’s the Revelation passage, Michael and his angels vs. the dragon, Satan, and his angels. It’s possible though, that some of what you think you know about these verses is actually from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, first published in 1667. It’s in Paradise Lost that Satan and his angels, in a time before time, were attempting a coup against the throne of God only to be defeated and hurled headlong and flaming from heaven by the Almighty Power. In Paradise Lost though, there is no mention of Michael as part of this. In Revelation there is a battle but no mention of a coup and importantly, the battle in Revelation, unlike the one in Paradise Lost, is not intended to tell a story of long ago before history started.

In Revelation the author, John of Patmos is concerned with the defeat of evil, similar to Paradise Lost. For him though, the key to understanding this scene comes in the announcement from heaven in verses 10 to 12. The defeat of Satan is celebrated as the arrival of God’s salvation, power, and kingdom along with the authority of the Messiah but it didn’t happen in a heavenly battle long, long ago and it’s also not a prediction of a future battle at the end of time. In Revelation, the defeat took place on the cross in the death of Jesus. Satan was conquered by the blood of the Lamb as it says in verse 11. Jesus has provided the victory! That’s the good news! Revelation says that the powers of evil have been destroyed, that the final battle has been won, the outcome is decided, even if in the present evil is still out there. Evil does persist, but in the vision of Revelation, present evil represents the last gasps of a dying Satan.

If the battle was won by Jesus on the cross though, what’s the point of Revelation’s contest between Michael and the dragon? I talked a little bit last week about apocalyptic writing and another part of the apocalyptic worldview is that earthly realities have heavenly counterparts. So in Daniel the struggles between Israel and their enemies on earth were told in terms of battles between Michael, the patron angel of Israel and the angels of other nations. In Revelation, Michael’s defeat of the dragon is the heavenly and symbolic counterpart of the earthly reality of the cross. The central meaning of both stories is the same.

From these stories you have the image of Michael as a warrior, the commander of the heavenly host. That’s what you see in Dan’s window. Michael is holding a sword, the sword with which he defeated Satan and the sword he continues to wield as he is dressed for battle, ready to challenge evil as he defends God’s people against the forces that are still out there. In some images, Satan as the dragon or serpent of Revelation is under the feet of Michael.

In the window you also see that Michael is holding a balance or a scale in his left hand. Tradition has it that another role of Michael is to meet the departed at the gates of heaven to weigh their souls. What Michael is said to be looking for in these departed souls is mercy, as the capacity for mercy and love is thought of as what it most means to be in the image and likeness of God. As the defender and champion of the people, Michael will tip the scales in favor of mercy.

The icon of Archangel Michael that I did, which follows the pattern of one done in the year 1414 by Andrei Rublev, one of the most famous Russian iconographers, is quite different. Here Michael is not depicted as a warrior but instead appears with quiet dignity holding a staff and an orb. This emphasizes his role as a messenger and as a guide blessed with moral and spiritual insight. The orb contains the letters chi and rho, Greek letters that represent Christ, so the orb represents the kingdom of Christ, the enthroned, divine king, the kingdom over which Michael keeps watch. The red of his garment indicates that his work is primarily on earth, red being an earthly color, the blue of his inner wings indicates that as an angel, he also has a heavenly existence, blue being a heavenly color.

Hopefully all of this is of some interest, maybe some things you didn’t know, but what are we to make of it all? Is the stuff about Michael as well as other angels just reflective of an ancient worldview that doesn’t have much to do with anything anymore? Or, do you believe in angels, that they are God’s messengers, that they do continue to guide and protect us and fight against evil? Or, are they just a convenient way to think about the forces of good that exist in the world, forces that work against persistent evil?

You know me better than to think I’m going to give you a definitive answer in part because there really isn’t one. What I do know though, is that I and probably many of you have had experiences for which angelic intervention and assistance is as good an explanation as any. The skeptical would call it coincidence, but I think it’s more than that.

I’ll end with a quote by Frederick Buechner, an American author and theologian. About angels he writes, “Sleight of hand magic is based on the demonstrable fact that as a rule people see only what they expect to see. Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads its glittering wings over us and we say things like, ‘It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive,’ or, ‘I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right,’ or ‘I don’t know where I ever found the courage.’”

I invite you turn now to page 9 of your bulletin for the Litany for St. Michael and All Angels.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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