Sermon 9/29/19: Angels Aren't Cute

Pr. Craig Mueller

Michael and All Angels

September 29, 2019

Angels Aren’t Cute

Picture an angel in your mind. What do you see? An overweight cherub on a cloud? A kid dressed in an angel costume for a Christmas pageant? A blond-haired Barbie doll with wings? A Precious Moments figurine on a mantle?

If we can say one thing about angels in the Bible, it is that they aren’t cute. Despite a whole industry of sweet, angelic tchotchkes. It would be better to say that angels are terrifying. I don’t know what I believe about angels, but I believe in what angels point to. And I love this feast of Saint Michael and all Angels.

In the Bible there are angels, angels, angels everywhere. Angels stand on guard in the garden of Eden. Jacob’s ladder is a stream of angels descending and ascending. The angel of death passes over the Israelites before they are led to freedom. Angels show up to do God’s bidding—like Gabriel who announces to Mary that she will bear a divine son. There are fallen angels, such as Lucifier. And the fallen angels are demons. Whoa! We are set for a battle between good and evil.

You may think of guardian angels or the show “Touched by an Angel.” The most popular beliefs about angels aren’t even in the Bible at all! But what is most certain is that angels are part of the heavenly liturgy. Along with incense. How fun! In Revelation, the smoke of incense, with the prayers of the saints, rises before God from the hand of an angel!

Before we conclude this brief ride through angelology, a few more fun facts. First, who are the four archangels with names? Gabriel, Michael—and less famous, Raphael and Uriel. And now, so you really have something to take home with you today, do you know how many ranks of angels there are in the angelic hierarchy? Nine! A bunch of these angel types were in our first hymn, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” though we didn’t even realize it. Here they are: angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim. Who knew?

We better give a little attention to Michael the archangel since it is his feast day. And since Michael is my middle name. Michaelmas, as this day is known in some places, takes place near the autumnal equinox when there seems to be a war going on between day and night. And night is winning as the days keep getting shorter.

Michael has been a bit of a rock star for many Christians through the ages. Churches are named for him. He was originally known for healing, but eventually Michael the warrior won out in iconography. See the bulletin cover and note the cool angel leggings that Beau really liked. Michael is usually pictured slaying the dragon, the devil. It’s from Revelation. It’s part of the cosmic battle between good and evil.

And battle means war. There’s war in heaven which is parallel to the all-too-often reality of violence and war on earth. These days we don’t like such graphic war imagery in church. In fact, hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross” aren’t even in our hymnal anymore. Now to be fair, there is battle going on inside each one of us, St. Paul writes, as we confront the power of sin. And as we work for justice, we join in the battle to defeat evil and oppression.

We started hearing about the culture wars in the 1990s. In two articles alone, I read of the impeachment war, information and media wars, the battle against the Swamp, political enemies, combatting climate change, using communication methods as weapons. Both sides of the partisan war seem to be fighting a battle of cosmic proportions. Yet by using this kind of language, we end up not only fighting certain positions, but demonizing the actual people on the other side. I know I do that. Especially when I read that the children and teens marching for climate change last weekend, or the Parkland students working for gun control are portrayed as enemies. The battle lines keep getting more stringent.

And we’re a long way from cute angels, aren’t we? Shall we remove the icon of Michael slaying the dragon? Does it scare children or turn us into warmongers? Again, it’s a matter of interpretation. In today’s gospel Jesus tells the disciples that he watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. Chicken Little’s cry that the sky is falling is nothing compared to this cosmic drama. But then Jesus gives his followers the power to trample on the enemy, and to share in Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation.

So who or what is the enemy, then? What would you say? Sin inhibits us from realizing our full human potential. And one prime example is when we dehumanize others. We talk about dismantling the structures of racism. Think of Michael’s spear as a dismantling sword. Power systems need to be dismantled as we seek the common good, not only for the human family, but for our very planetary home.

In Revelation, Jesus is the nonviolent Lamb whose victory is marked by suffering love. The Satanic power of violence is cast out of heaven in the cosmic war. It may be angel day at church, but everything points to the cross of Christ and the victory of Easter.

Hindu Mahatma Ghandi revived this way of power through nonviolence. Ghandi was the model for the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Ghandi became an example for many followers of Jesus to stand in contrast to other so-called Christians duped by the Satanic ways of violence. In baptism, we renounce the power of evil and join in the mission of Jesus, identifying not with worldly might but with those on the margins—those hated because of the color of their skin, their country of origin, or the multitude other ways we demonize people.

And in such a terrifying world, we need angels to direct us to the praise of God. As one writer puts it, angels turn our minds to the vastness of creation even as science opens us to more distant horizons. Any humanistic creed that makes human beings the measure of all things seems narrow and parochial.

So angels crowd in around us at this table. Every Lord’s Day we join with angels and archangels and the host of heaven to offer praise and thanks. Even when the sky seems to be falling. Even when the battle lines in and around us fill us with fear and terror. Even when justice seems a distant dream. Even when our hearts are breaking. We sing. We sing of the One who has won the victory. We sing with the angels.