Richard Maxwell

Feast of St. Michael and All Angels
29 September 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As many of you know, a group of us has been discussing angels every Thursday evening for this past month.  We’ve been very ably led by parishioner Elizabeth Miel, and have covered a LOT of ground.  We’ve asked questions like:  First of all, are they real?  (As in, do we really believe in them?) Do they have genders . . . are they male and female?  Do they have free will?  Has anyone had an experience with an angel?  And what about Satan and HIS angels?  We’ve talked about the different kinds of spiritual beings: angels, archangels, principalities – powers, virtues, dominions – thrones, cherubim, and seraphim.  And guardian angels, where are they?  We’ve touched on other religious angelic traditions . . . Jewish, Muslim, Mormon . . . the Quakers and the Shakers.  And, of course, we looked at some of the stories of angels from our own Scriptures.

Needless to say, lately I’ve been thinking about angels a lot more than I usually do.  And, it turns out, I’m in good company . . . you might be surprised to know that there is a vast amount of serious theology that’s been written about angels:  It’s from Dionysius the Areopogite, for example, that we get all of those rankings of angels I mentioned earlier . . . angels, archangels, principalities and so on.  Thomas Aquinas, one of our greatest systematic theologians, continues this tradition and goes on and on about angels . . . he, too, talks about rankings and divisions, subsets and formulas. . . .  But much of what is written about angels goes far beyond what Scripture tells us, although angels certainly appear throughout the Bible.  The more I thought about all of this, the more I thought I’d stick with the Bible for now.

Looking at what the Bible says, you may find that there’s an evolution of sorts about how angels are described.  In our earliest stories . . . like that of Abraham and Sarah . . . it’s not quite clear who’s who.  In chapter 18 of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah receive mysterious guests, who are identified in the first verse as “God himself.”  But then they are also described as three men (v.2), and later in the story as two angels (19:1), and at yet another point as one speaker (18:10).  Clearly, God is close by, but mysteriously so.  Remember the story of Moses and the burning bush?  In the third chapter of Exodus, we’re told that “an angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] as a fire blazing out from a bush” (v.2).  But when Moses turns aside to see this, it is the Lord – not an angel – who speaks from the bush (v.4).  I could go on, but you get the picture:  In the earliest stories of the Bible, God is very close by . . . but exactly who’s doing what is a little murky.

In later Bible stories, perhaps when there is a weakening sense of the nearness of God . . . or perhaps, an increasing awareness of God’s transcendence . . . angels emerge more clearly as go-betweens between God and humanity.  In the book of Daniel, angels are the protectors of God’s people, and the archangel Michael is described as one of the chief princes, a great captain, the defender of the people in battle (Dan. 10:13-21; 12:1).  And, of course, we all know the stories of the archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce that she is to bear the messiah . . . and of the angels appearing to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus.  In these later stories, there’s a clearer separation between angels and God.  There’s less confusion about who’s doing what.  But details about angels themselves are still pretty sparse . . . perhaps because in our Scriptures they’re simply taken for granted.  In the stories of the Bible, angels are simply there . . . they’re simply known to exist.  And this was probably comforting to our ancestors . . . it’s probably comforting to many of us.

Despite our doctrine of the immanence of God . . . despite our belief in the Incarnation . . . despite our conviction that the light of Christ is enkindled in our souls in baptism . . . despite our understanding that we are members of the Body of Christ . . . despite ALL these things, God can seem very far away sometimes.  Today, when confronted with the enormity of the cosmos . . . when we are confronted with the fact that you and I are tiny beings on this enormous planet, which is itself a small particle in our galaxy, which in turn is but one in perhaps an infinity of galaxies . . . when we are confronted with the great mysteries of science today, and with our insignificance, the idea that there are spiritual beings acting as messengers and advocates on our behalf with the Almighty can be very comforting.

But I think we err when we think of angels as sweet little creatures, wholly concerned with our human needs and affairs.  The biblical message IS clear about this . . . yes, angels serve humanity . . . but this service is in the context of service to God.  Angels labor invisibly, throughout the cosmos, to further the final unity of all things – in heaven and on earth – in Christ . . . God incarnate.  THIS is their primary work.  And our Scriptures are clear that this labor of the angels, seeking the unity of creation, is not always easy and certainly not always gentle.  Think of the war in heaven described in the book of Revelation . . . the battle between Michael and his angels, and the dragon and HIS angels.  Wait a minute . . . you mean there are “BAD” angels?  Well, yes . . . our Scriptures tell of them, as well.

This battle in heaven, described in Revelation, reminds us of something very important . . . something that we usually choose not to confront head on.  It reminds us of the conflict between good and evil that pervades our existence . . . and in fact pervades, according to Revelation, the universe.  As the Methodist preacher, Leslie Griffiths, writes: the battle between St. Michael and the dragon paints “a picture of conflict at the heart of all that is, of an elemental struggle, cosmic in its proportions, between Good and Evil; a titanic battle for the soul of the universe.”[1]  According to Revelation, as close to God as its possible to get, evidence of this conflict between good and evil is found.  And, as the Rev. Griffiths continues:  if this conflict has “eaten its way this deeply into the very fiber of all that is, then we must not be surprised to find it in the everyday life we live.”

Good and Evil, Michael and Satan, light and darkness, hope and despair, order and chaos are locked in battle.  If we look with clear eyes and are honest, we will see the truth of this all around us.  This conflict between good and evil can be seen throughout the world . . . in Afghanistan and Syria, in Congo and in Kenya . . . in our own communities . . . right here in Parkville . . . and this conflict between good and evil can be found even within our own hearts.  Somehow, we must situate ourselves within this battle.  The way we live, what we stand for, every little bit we put back into life has a bearing, however small, on the overall conflict raging around us . . . and within us . . . between the forces of good and evil.  You see, we too, like the angels, are created to serve God, to glorify God, and to work for the unity of creation in Christ.  We, too, are MEANT to fight for a decent world, a fair world, a just world, a world united in Christ, illuminated by the mercy and love of God.  We too, like the angels, must choose on which side we fight.

A couple of weeks ago, I showed the group that was meeting on Thursday evenings a copy of an old New Yorker cover.  The drawing shows sweet, mild-mannered little man about to enter the almost war-like fray of New York City . . . he looks so calm and unaware, you wonder how he’s going to survive the turmoil and cacophony of the city.  But hovering over him, gently urging him on is a giant angel – perhaps his guardian angel – and you know that all will be well with this little men.  Yes, the battle between good and evil is all around us.  It is even within us.  But as we choose to battle for the good, remember we are not alone.  St. Michael and all his angels are ready to fight with us.



[1] “Saint Michael and Whose Angels?” by Leslie Griffiths, found on the website,

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