Saturday, September 29, 2012
St. Michael and all Angels Sept. 29
Rev. 12:7-12 * Matt. 18:1-10
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon…
The fact of spiritual warfare is often neglected. Many churches give the impression that the Christian life is a vacation luxury cruise ship instead of a battle ship, with battle stations. But, we see in the New Testament, and other writings of the early Church, metaphorical use of military terminology. Saint Paul, for example, tells the Ephesian Christians to put on the whole armor of God in order to stand against principalities and powers, rulers of the present darkness of this world, and wicked spirits in heavenly places. He tells them to stand, that is, to hold their ground. Our Lord Jesus did not tell us to hold a party until He comes, but to occupy until he comes.
It is fitting on this, the Feast of Saint Michael and all Angels, to remember who the angels of God are. They are our fellow servants spoken of in the Books of the Kings by the prophet Elisha. When the Syrians came to capture the prophet, his servant and disciple, a young “son of the prophets,” was afraid; so Elisha prayed that God would open his eyes to see the hills filled with chariots of fire and horsemen. “There are more that be with us than with them.” And, centuries later the prophet Daniel, after several days of fasting, saw the angel Gabriel who spoke to him mysterious words, that he would have arrived sooner had not the prince of Persia withstood him. He then spoke of Michael as the prince who stands for the people of Israel. The implication is, all of the nations of fallen mankind are under the evil force that Saint Paul calls “Principalities and powers,” but that Israel was under the protection of a holy angel, the warrior Michael.
The Church has always lived with the realization that all around us are unseen beings of intelligence and power locked in a war about the human race. We are not spectators; we are engaged in this war. The image of angels as effeminate or as cute little babies with wings, is as ridiculous and insulting as would be a “Precious Moments” picture of the Marine Corps.
The mystery of iniquity, spoken of in scripture, begins with the mystery of how a majestic creature, an angel called the “anointed cherub who covers” became the devil, and the mystery of his domain of fallen angels and sinful humanity. But, the fact that it is a mystery does not erase the obvious evidence set before our eyes, namely that a mad hatred of mankind is coupled with a mad hatred for God, and a rebellion that existed prior to all recorded history. People may not know how to see through the mystery to what evil is, and what motivates and energizes it. Nonetheless, everyone sees that it exists.
The scriptures make clear, as well, that evil has already lost in the ultimate sense, that when our Lord Jesus was crucified the devil was, in the Lord’s words, “cast out.” The serpent’s head was crushed when he bruised the heel of the Man Who was the seed of the woman, that is the One born of the Virgin. And, when He rose from the dead Christ made an open show of the devil’s defeat by leading a Triumph.
Therefore, the ongoing battle has nothing to do with ultimate victory. Never has there been the slightest possibility that a mere creature (no matter how powerful in our estimation) would even threaten, let alone defeat, God. Rather, the ongoing battle has everything to do with evil that is not superhuman, but rather subhuman, base and completely mad. The ongoing battle is all about unreasoning hatred for mankind in a battle for individual human souls, and about a proud rebellion against God, the war of a rebel without a cause, but with a grudge. This is the war that we see reflected in the lies and violence of the modern world. It does not appear to be sane, because it is not sane.
In the Gospel reading for this feast, we have been told of the need to humble ourselves as the little child. We are not told that children are an example to follow, as some wrongly interpret it, with muddle-headed sentimentality. Rather, our Lord told us to humble ourselves as the little child; that is, as he put it in another discussion at a dinner where men chose places of honor for themselves, that we should take the lowest place. We should assume no place of honor for ourselves, but rather give place to others. But, he did not say that children were examples for us to follow. Rather, He spoke clearly about their need to be protected, especially, their need to be protected from the influences that would corrupt them, deprive them of their innocence and rob the children of childhood.
In this context we learn more about angels. We learn that even as they are engaged in the war for individual souls, they are, at the same time, beholding the face of the Father. The Church has always taken this to mean that the holy angels contemplate God. Clearly, they intercede in prayer, prayer that is in their own tongues and on the level of their own understanding. And, this passage, speaking of the angel of each child, is the passage that has always been taken to mean that God has appointed for each person a guardian angel. But, in this Gospel text we must see the warning of judgment.
This warning has everything to do with the reality of our spiritual warfare, and of how that warfare applies to the little child Jesus spoke of. Anyone who leads one such child into sin, who robs a child of innocence, who destroys the protection and sacredness of childhood, who despises the frailty of the weak instead of defending it, would be better off to have had a millstone tied about his neck and drowned in the depths of the sea. For, to lead children into sin brings about a judgment that is terrifying. Only of the traitor Judas are similar words spoken: “Better for that man had he not been born.”
What does this have to do with war in heaven, the vigilance of Saint Michael and the holy angles against the dragon, and therefore of our stand against principalities and powers, rulers of the present darkness of this age, and wicked spirits in heavenly places? I will answer first by posing a question: In the New Testament, what is the source of false doctrines about God? The phrases used by the writers of the various Epistles, Saints Paul, Peter and John, all agree. “Doctrines of demons, seducing spirits, the spirit of error, the spirit of Antichrist…” These are the phrases used when speaking of false teaching itself, those lies that amount to deception about God, about salvation, and about the commandments of the law "called moral." Light cannot have fellowship with darkness.
One of the main problems with a church that presents a confusing message of moral license is the harm done to the children. The world does not aim its deception and temptations simply at adults, but at children, and constantly at younger and younger ages. The advertisements and entertainment aimed at their young minds should anger and shock us. Children ought to be allowed those early years of innocence, not presented with what some call “adult themes.” The should be protected; their parents should resist the spirit of the times- real spirits of deception. And, the Church should help parents teach simple right from wrong while, at the same time not destroying innocence.
When the Lord Jesus was obedient even to the death of the cross, the serpent’s head was crushed. When He rose from the dead He showed that He was triumphant over the powers of darkness and had defeated sin and death. As we occupy this ground until He comes, warring for our souls and the souls of others, we are joined in the battle by Saint Michael and the holy Angels. There are more that be with us than with them.
September 29th is the feast of St Michael and all Angels. Angels are our fellow servants of God. Like us they are created beings, and do not share the uncreated nature of God. But, they are spirits, and their existence is both known to us and yet mysterious to us.
I have never understood the readiness some clergymen have had to proclaim themselves sophisticated by stating that they do not believe in angels. I once heard an Episcopal priest stand in the pulpit of a church, and make this very statement- but this same priest was also a devotee of H.L. Mencken. So, it should not surprise me that his idea of sophistication was sophomoric. He did not deny the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection of our Lord, but one had to wonder, what else will he dismiss as beneath his own brilliance of mind, simply because it is too glorious and transcendental even for honest skepticism? He thought his unbelief a thing impressive, as if it were a badge of wisdom.
I recall some years ago that Archbishop Peter Akinola, Anglican Primate of Nigeria no less, was visiting the United States, and was approached by members of the "Gay" advocacy group in the Episcopal Church. This, of course, was a waste of time with any African Anglican Primate. Without hesitation, the archbishop began to command the demons in them to be silent, and spoke commands of exorcism. Word of this got to John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey, who attempted to make light of the African bishop’s lack of sophistication. He dismissed Archbishop Akinola's belief in exorcism itself in a derisive manner.
Surely, that idea held by many Americans and other westerners is backwards. The ones who lack sophistication are the Western modern elitists, such as Mr. Spong. They cannot conceive of the supernatural world. Their ability to understand is limited not by reason and knowledge, but by foolishness and bigotry (the “benevolent” bigotry of "liberals" in this case). How easily they show contempt for African bishops who are not only their spiritual superiors, but who are also their superiors in scholarship and in theology. Mr. Spong no doubt thinks that he is the enlightened and educated one compared to the Anglicans of Africa, which only indicates that some of the people we are calling "liberals" these days are racists.
Indeed, to understand that a whole world exists that is invisible to us, inhabited by beings of a nature higher than our own- as every nature is supernatural to the natures below it- requires not so much the faith of a child, but the intelligence of minds which have been lifted to the great height of humility, raised to lowliness, able to see that even the science that we do know reveals a magnificence and intricacy of design which, with each new discovery, opens more questions concerning the things that we do not know.
Scientists who learn new facts make us all less knowledgeable as a result, poetically speaking, because the more we learn the less we know in proportion to any measure of a complete understanding. We gain ground only to lose more ground in our quest for knowledge. For, whereas before questions could be few, we have now more questions; for the increase of knowledge shows that the percentage of it that we have is less than we thought. Every discovery of fact opens more questions than we had been asking before. So, a truly learned and intelligent person becomes humble, for all his knowledge can only tell him how ignorant he is.
Not so those who misunderstand the progress of science, and think that we now know just about everything, and that we can understand every phenomenon with what they sophomorically call "a scientific explanation". But, they do not have the courage to face real science, and its unsettling affect on human pride.
They think that their limited knowledge should rule out what they characterize as things "simple" and "childish." How simple and childish of them. The spiritual side of this is the statement of our Lord, that only the one who humbles himself as a little child 1 is great in the Kingdom of Heaven. While Western Rationalist clergymen, such as Mr. Spong and the Mencken enthusiast, applaud their own sophistication, truly wise men are worshiping God with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. Those who are humble enough to receive the wisdom that comes from God have no time to waste trying to look clever by the low standard of Western Rationalism.
The reading we have from the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation tells us why. It tells of spiritual warfare. It speaks of the battle St. Michael and the armies of God are fighting against the devil and his angels. We see it all around us, unless our delusion of sophistication blinds us to the war. Is it not obvious to us that the world around us is hostile to God, to everything that is true and good? For example, every time a new discovery of medical science brings home just how depraved and viscous it is to murder children in the womb by abortion, that discovery is ignored by the major press. When the discovery is invoked as yet more evidence for life, it meets with a hostile attempt at censorship, as though the most obscene thing in the world is to speak the truth. And, indeed, it is, by the standard of this world and its prince. This would be a great mystery to me if I did not know about spiritual warfare. But, as one who knows of it, I have been prepared to recognize the war for what it is.
The war is very real; I have had the very Biblical experience of performing genuine exorcism and of seeing a human being released quite suddenly from the grip of demon possession. I do not know fully what demon possession is, for it is still a mystery; I cannot put it under a microscope. But, I know enough to have been ready to act when a person was in need, and to do what Jesus said to do. The results were quite wonderful.
"Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against rulers of the spiritual darkness of this world, and against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places." So says St. Paul;2 and he tells us to put on the whole armor of God in order to stand in the evil day. We do not know when the evil days are gong to be. We have all had an evil day of weather, with enough warning that people should have been ready for winds and flood. So it is with days of spiritual warfare, evil days. We must be prepared by wearing the whole armor of God, as explained in the sixth chapter of Ephesians. Otherwise our minds and hearts will be exposed to whatever is in the air. We must also be ready through the regular practice of prayer and of fasting. This should be part of our routine, just as the whole armor of God should be part of our daily life. Unless we live on a war footing, we are not prepared.
We know, or should know, that the angels are messengers. The words in Hebrew and Greek translated "angel" in our English Bible, mean messenger. In fact, John the Baptist was the greatest born of women, for though he was a man he is registered in the company of angels. He was the Messenger of the Covenant (H’ Melech H’ Br’it).
We know that when God sent important words to man, especially when the Word was made flesh, it was done by the Message of an Angel. For Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she would be the mother of our Lord, that indeed not simply despite her virginity, but because of her virginity, she would bear and bring forth God in the flesh. Who but an angel could bring this word as a message which causes the event to happen? A word with the creative power of God Himself, put in the mouth of God’s own messenger as God’s own words.
And in addition to their being messengers, we see them as warriors. The scriptures speak this way, especially in Joshua and in Daniel, and of course in the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation. This ought to comfort us in all our tribulation. For we are not alone. There are more with us than with them, angels fellow servants of God.
1. See Matthew 18:4, which happens to be part of the Gospel reading for this feast. I will say more about this in the sermon to follow.
2. See Ephesians 6:10f