St Michael and All Angels - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

St Michael and All Angels

Revelation 12: 7-12

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And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

10 And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.

11 And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.

12 Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.

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I was once invited to lead a religious retreat for a community of nuns.  They issued the invitation over a year in advance, so I couldn't really decline it - and because it was so far in the future, I boldly asked them if they would like to choose the topic.  I immediately regretted having done so when their reply came back.  'Angels', they said.  'Can you lead a retreat for us on the subject of angels.' 

Angels?  What on earth was I going to do with a subject like that, in this day and age?  Supernatural winged creatures who, according to the Bible, have a habit of turning up unexpectedly and scaring the life out of people.  And yet it is inescapably the case that in Scripture and in Christian tradition, angels are absolutely everywhere.  They play a pivotal role in all kinds of Biblical stories.  So there was no escape.  But contrary to all my expectations, it turned out to be absolutely fascinating.  So, what are we to make of the tricky subject of angels?

The first thing to note is in the Bible that angels come in all kinds of shapes and forms.  Yes, you certainly do get the dazzling heavenly beings who have a habit of appearing without warning to deliver dramatic messages.  Look no further than St Luke's Gospel, where Zechariah, the Virgin Mary, and the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillsides receive angelic visitations in rapid succession.  And in the Book of Revelation we have St Michael and his angels doing cosmic battle with the dragon and the forces of darkness in a kind of theological version of Star Wars (which is the theme of our service today - and a subject to which I shall be returning).

But when I looked at the Biblical stories more closely, more often than not the function of an angel is simply to communicate a message: to alert somebody to something; and often simply to open their eyes to something that they would otherwise miss: hence, when in the book of Genesis Hagar and her baby son Ishmael are cast out in the wilderness to die of thirst, an angelic voice alerts Hagar to a well that is a short distance away, which is what saved Ishmael's life. 

Nor are angels always in quasi-human form.  The angel of the Lord who speaks to Moses comes in the form of fire, in a bush that is ablaze but not consumed by the flames.  Indeed, far from being universally clad in wings and dazzling robes, angels are sometimes absolutely indistinguishable from ordinary human beings: again in the Book of Genesis, Lot provides hospitality to two strangers, whom he later discovers to have been angels.  That is why the Epistle to the Hebrews describes how 'some have entertained angels unawares.'

But what I have found most fascinating, having now led sessions on this peculiar subject a number of times, are the extraordinary stories that thoroughly ordinary, rational and sensible people feel confident to share from their own personal experience.  Here are three little examples from people I know extremely well.

A former colleague of mine used to work in Jamaica.  One day he was driving down a dusty track, miles from the main road, when his car conked out.  He had a tool kit with him, and knew quite a lot about engines, but when he looked under the bonnet, he discovered that some crucial part had blown definitively.  He was in despair, wondering what on earth he was going to do, when on the horizon he saw a solitary figure walking towards him through the fields.  It was a man in shorts and a t-shirt bearing a small rucksack.  When the man arrived he looked into the open bonnet, saw the problem, and said to my friend.  'Ah!  You will be needing one of these.'  He opened his rucksack, produced from within the necessary replacement engine part, and without waiting for a thank you, continued on his way across the fields.  Now, what possible sense can one make of an incident like that?

Another story.  A clergyman who was a great mentor of mine, and for whom I have great love and respect, was rushed into hospital for surgery.  One evening a new drip was inserted in his arm, which felt quite uncomfortable, and as the night wore on the pain increased until the whole of his arm was throbbing.  My friend is very much of the 'stiff upper-lip' brigade, so was resolved not to make a fuss about it, and just resigned himself to a long sleepless vigil until dawn.  Although in the dimly lit ward his distress would not have been visible to anyone else, one of the night nursing staff appeared at his bedside, and seemed to have sensed his distress.  'You are hurting', she said, in an accent that sounded northern European - German or Scandinavian perhaps.  'Your right arm will be all bruised tomorrow.  I'll put the drip in the other arm - it will be much more comfortable.'  This she did, with great care and gentleness.  My friend slept soundly through the night until morning, when he was awoken by the staff nurse, who had noticed the bruising on his right arm, from wrist to elbow.  'Yes, it did hurt', my friend told her - 'but that blonde night nurse sorted it out.'  'We don't have any blonde night staff', the woman replied.  'Yes you do, the one with the Scandinavian accent.'  'Much puzzlement ensued.  My friend's arm was comprehensively bruised.  The drip sat comfortably in his other arm, but there was no record of it having been done, and nobody knew anything about any blonde nurses with foreign accents.

And a third story, told to me by a member of our congregation here.  Some years ago, her regular employment suddenly ceased, so she needed to set up her own private teaching practice as a means of earning a living.  The problem with setting out on your own in that line of business is getting started, because those kinds of teaching practices tend to grow organically, by word of mouth and personal contact, rather than through advertising.  Anyway, she was very anxious and not at all sure how to begin when, out of the blue she received a phone call.  It was an American woman, who said that she had heard she was setting up a teaching practice, and she had a good friend who had two children who would be interested.  This one contact proved to be the launch pad for her whole teaching practice, because on the back of teaching those two children, she picked up their friends, and fellow pupils, and the thing took off.

Some months later she spoke to the woman whose children she had first taken on saying, 'I am so grateful to your American friend - without her none of this would have been possible.'  And by now you will, I'm sure be able to predict the mother's response: 'What American friend?  I don't know any Americans here.'

It is, of course, entirely possible that there is a perfectly rational explanation for all three of these rather odd incidents.  But the interesting thing is that these kinds of inexplicable phenomena seem to happen surprisingly often, once you invite people to share their own stories.  You may or may not wish to see the hand of God at work in them; you may or may not feel comfortable using the language of angels in relation to them.  But I have to say, the longer I am in ministry, and the more that I encounter them myself, the less sceptical I become.  I certainly suspect that we do indeed entertain angels unawares - sometimes more often than we realise.

But what about the knotty problem of St Michael and his angels doing cosmic battle with dragons.  What on earth are we to make of that?  I once knew a health-care worker who specialised in working with homeless and destitute people on the streets.  She would seek them out in doorways and alley ways, and do what she could for them - not only health care, but also helping them find somewhere to live and to access benefits.  It was pretty challenging work, partly because her clients were often very lost, very disturbed, and very damaged - but also because she could put vast amounts of time into trying to help them off the street, only to find they were back there within a fortnight, sometimes because they simply couldn't cope with any kind of organised existence; she no longer expected gratitude from her clients, and sometimes it could be soul-destroying.  I used to wonder how she kept going in her work - until one day I heard her preach on today's theme.  She said this:

Strangely enough, it was at precisely the times when her work feels most frustrating and pointless that she took comfort from the story of St Michael and All angels.  Because she found the image of the cosmic battle as a very helpful framework in which to locate what she did.  Because she knew that there are some battles that are never going to be won or fully resolved in this earthly life.  There are certain people who are never going to allow themselves to be helped.  Such 'lost souls' will be redeemed eventually, though probably not within the bounds of this world.  But nevertheless she firmly believed that, in the meantime, every little task that she does for them, and on their behalf, contributes in some small - and perhaps unseen way - to the battle that is being carried out in the cosmic arena.  She is doing her little bit towards that struggle.  And even if she cannot always see the direct results of what she does, she is confident that no action that tries to kindle a flicker of hope in darkness is ever wasted.

At the end of the Book of Revelation, the angel describes himself to St John the Divine as a 'fellow servant' and 'co-worker' with him, and with all who worship God.

Perhaps we need to strive to play our own small part in that battle.  And also be alert to those times when, just possibly, we may find ourselves entertaining angels unawares.

Amen.

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