St. Michael and All Angels, September 29, 2019
This message was given on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels when my grandchild was brought for baptism. We were worshipping at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. The texts for the day were Daniel 10:10-14, 12:1-3 (At that time, Michael will arise); Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22 (Bless the Lord all you his angels); Revelation 12:7-12 (War broke out in heaven); Luke 10:17-20 (I saw Satan falling like lightening).
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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.
Through the ears of this people
Finn, you don’t yet know what has happened to you this morning in the waters of this font. You don’t yet know what it means to be gathered into a community of people to sing the praise of God. You don’t yet know the mystery of the breaking of the bread, and the power of its sign that all creation shall be gathered to feast at one table. You don’t yet know the testimony of the scriptures to the faithfulness of God. You don’t yet know the hammer and the nails and the empty tomb. And you don’t yet know the significance of this day, this feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
You can’t yet know the significance of any of these things, but I’m going to speak to you this morning through the ears of this community – and I’m going to speak to them through your ears – for this is one of the deepest mysteries: we are one in Christ.
Paul writes to us about this in First Corinthians saying: “If one member suffers, all suffer together…if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” And what Paul said about the Christian community Jesus made sure we understood about the whole human community.
The children in the refugee camps are part of you and you are part of them. The refugees fleeing violence, the victims of injustice at home and throughout the world, those who suffer hunger and want, those who lack shelter, they are part of you and you are part of them.
And it is not just these. Those who dance and those who weep are part of you. Those who work high in these glass towers, and those stand guard at the doorway, and those who work in the tunnels beneath, are part of you and you of them. Those who plow fields and tend cattle, those who nurse children and teach in schools, those who pour steel and build homes and drive trains and crunch numbers and make books and serve congregations – they are all part of you and you of them.
And this is especially important to understand: those who plot war and spread fear and speak falsehoods are also a part of you. Those who march with torches and those who defend them are part of you. Those who are cruel or ignorant or cold of heart are part of you and you of them. We are a single human family.
Our brother, Jesus, spent his life trying to help us see this truth and was killed because of it. He used the word “neighbor” and said we are “neighbor” to all. He welcomed those that were considered “sinners” and outcasts. He treated all with grace and care. He said that as we did – or did not – do it to the least of these we did – or did not – do it to him. It is because we are one village, one people, one family that Jesus will tell us to love our enemies – to show faithfulness to those who would harm us, to see their humanity even though they themselves cannot see it in others. Even when Jesus is impaled upon the cross, he prays for God to forgive those who torture him.
It is not because of the resurrection that Jesus forgives Peter’s betrayal. We may disavow Jesus, but Jesus will never disavow us.
We are one village, one people, one human family.
And we who gather in this room are part of that great community to which you have been joined who are trying to breathe Jesus’ spirit, live by his words, follow his example, and bear witness in this world to what he told us.
So, Finn, let me speak to you through the ears of this assembly – and to this assembly through your ears, because we are one village, one people, one human family.
A heavenly army
This feast of St. Michael and All Angels is worthy of our celebration not because we are enamored with the idea of beautiful angels with long golden hair and flowing robes that decorate gift cards and sit atop Christmas trees. This day is full of significance because angels are the military arm of God. They are the chariots of fire in the Elijah story and the heavenly host that surrounds the village of Elisha to defend him against the army of Aram. My hunch is that the angels who encounter the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth are not singing Handel’s Messiah, but shouting “hoo-ah.” This day is about the spiritual battle taking place and the ultimate victory of God.
In a world as broken as ours, this message of the ultimate victory of God – the triumph of grace and mercy, justice and compassion, faithfulness and truth – this message is profoundly important. It is a word of hope and comfort that summons us anew to lives of faithfulness, courage, and joy.
Daniel, the beastly kingdoms, and “one like a son of man”
The words of our first reading for this day come from the book of Daniel. They are spoken to a people at a moment in time when the world around them has become exceptionally beastly. The vision earlier in Daniel of the succession of beastly kingdoms rising from the sea – rising from that remnant of the primordial chaos – each beast more terrible than the next, describes the succession of empires that ruled the ancient world in which Judea struggled for its existence.
Assyrians slaughtered and scattered its conquered peoples, destroying the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel.
Babylon overthrew Assyria, and as its armies eventually advanced upon Jerusalem. The people watched in growing dread as the signal fires of the surrounding towns were extinguished one by one. The famine inside the besieged city was more devastating than I dare tell. The assault brutal when the walls fell. The temple treasures were looted and the cedar beams set afire so that the whole building collapsed. The king was forced to watch the execution of all his sons and then his eyes were put out. The survivors of the city were taken into exile in chains.
It is not just these ancient empires that show themselves as beastly kingdoms. We know of Stalin and Pol Pot and, if we have the courage, there is beastliness to see in the history of every nation, including our own.
The Persians overthrew Babylon and Alexander overthrew Persia. The world of Alexander was divided between his generals and the successor states in Syria and Egypt fought over Jerusalem.
In the year 167 bce our author writes of a vision given to Daniel in which every beastly dominion is judged and cast down by God. Then a figure comes, not from the chaos of the sea but with the clouds of heaven – the clouds being a sign of God’s presence – and authority is given to what the text says is “one like a son of man.” That phrase “son of man” means a human being, a child of humanity. This final kingdom is not beastly; it is human. It is a dominion that, like the first humans, bears the perfect image of God. It is a world governed by the breath and life of God.
Jesus takes up this phrase “Son of Man” to refer to himself. In his words and deeds that final “humane” kingdom is dawning in our midst. Jesus brings what scripture calls “the kingdom of God,” and he summons us to show allegiance to this reign of grace and life.
The final chapters of Daniel, from which our reading comes, speak of the horrors of the imperial reign of Antiochus Epiphanes – He is the beastly king who named himself the manifestation of God on earth. Like so many tyrants he claimed that he alone could fix the world. Enraged by a defeat in Egypt, and angered by the recalcitrance of the Judean people, Antiochus attacked Jerusalem and loosed his soldiers on the city. Josephus reports they killed 40,000 men, women and children hiding in their homes and sold another 40,000 into slavery. Antiochus looted the temple and tried to tear down the ancient faith of Israel – the faith born of the Exodus and Sinai and a God who commanded a community of fidelity and mercy. Antiochus’ ordered the erection of a statue of Zeus in the temple square and commands sacrifices be offered to him as the supreme God: a god of power rather than a god of justice. In response to Judean resistance, Antiochus sent his army and there was more slaughter.
In this brutal moment in time, the prophet who assembled this book of Daniel declares that the angel Michael, the heavenly representative of the earthly people of Judea, is warring against these beastly empires, and the ultimate victory of God is near. The world of hate and division, sorrow and tears, shall not stand.
Revelation and the defeat of Satan
The prophet of the Book of Revelation takes up this same message. In an age that fears the return of Nero, when hostility surrounds the faithful, the prophet sings of the war in heaven and the ultimate fall of the Devil, “the deceiver of the whole world.” Though he is thrown down from heaven and stomps around the earth in rage, he will fall. Hate will not endure.
Heralds of a new king
This triumph of the reign of God is also the subject of the mission of the seventy in the Gospel reading this morning. Jesus began his ministry announcing that the reign of God was dawning. He has sent his twelve throughout Judea, and now sends seventy others to everywhere that he himself is about to go. He sends seventy because there are seventy nations numbered in the table of nations in Genesis. He sends seventy because there are seventy elders filled with the Spirit on Sinai. These seventy are heralds of the new king, the new dominion that is come.
And what is the image at work here? In the ancient world, when a new king ascends the throne – or a rival to the throne arises – he sends emissaries to every city as he draws near. The heralds announce the coming of this new reign and invite the city to show allegiance. Each city must choose whether they will stand with the new king or the old king. Those emissaries come with gifts to win the affection of the city and show the value of siding with the new king.
And what do the emissaries of Jesus do? What gifts do they bring? They heal. They speak peace. They bear witness to a world governed by the Spirit of God.
The passage we read this morning are the words of Jesus when these emissaries return. They are full of joy because false and destructive spirits could not stand against them, and Jesus declares that as these witnesses went from town to town, he was watching Satan falling. In our ministry, in our witness, in our daily lives of compassion and faithfulness, the realm of evil crumbles and the reign of mercy dawns.
Children of hope and joy
My dear Finn, today you have been joined to Christ Jesus and united with us in this community whose trust and allegiance is to this reign of God. You are part of our witness to heaven’s triumph over every bitterness and division, every violence and corruption, every lie and deceit. You are part of our witness that the consummation of all things is a world gathered to one table. You are part of this witness that we are one people, one human community, one family, destined for perfect faithfulness to one another. And you are part of this community seeking to live now the reign of God’s Spirit that is to come.
In these waters you have become, with us, a child of hope and joy – hope and joy founded on the open arms of Jesus and the witness of the empty tomb.
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© David K Bonde, 2019, All rights reserved.
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2155_-_Byzantine_Museum,_Athens_-_St._Michael_(14th_century)_-_Photo_by_Giovanni_Dall%27Orto,_Nov_12_2009.jpg G.dallorto [Attribution]