Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In the Bible, angels appear right from the early chapters of Genesis. It’s fiery cherubim who guard the way back into Eden once Adam and Eve have been expelled. A bit later on, three angels appear to Abraham and turn his world upside down as they tell him that his wife Sarah, in her old age, will have a son. Jacob wrestles with an angel, and in another restless night, sees angels ascending and descending upon a ladder between heaven and earth. They are messengers of God, those sent to do his will and reveal his purpose to the human race.
And it’s in times of fear and confusion and threat that angels become particularly prominent. The archangels whose feast we celebrate today acquired their names around the sixth century BC, when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, and their identity as the people of God was threatened by the pressures and temptations of idolatry and conformity to the world around them.
And given what the names of the archangels mean, we can see how these messengers and servants of God helped the people to hold fast to the promise of God’s faithfulness and their restoration. And as fear and confusion threaten our times too, the archangels have a message for us as well.
Michael means ‘Who is like God?’ And the immediate answer, of course, is no one. No one is like God. God is absolutely and completely other and transcendent; he is not a bigger thing among a universe of things, or an accumulated projection of our better virtues. God is God, and that means that all the other things we often allow to take his place are not God. Whether that’s the gods of the Babylonians in the sixth century BC or the gods of nation or religion or family or celebrity or power or wealth that so often end up being the things we ascribe worth, or worship, to, this feast especially recalls us to the truth that no one is like God.
Except the one that Nathanael sees from under the fig tree. Jesus is like God, for Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father. Jesus shows us what God is like. And extraordinarily he shows us what God is like by becoming one of us. And as you get this wonderful image of ascent and descent in the gospel reading, with angels tripping up and down a heavenly ladder, so they help us to see the same movement Jesus makes: he descends in order to take on flesh and live and die as one of us, and he ascends, from death and into heaven, raising our humanity with him. So here, paradoxically, we have a very different answer to the meaning of Michael’s name. Who is like God? Jesus is. And because Jesus is, I am, and you are, and so is every human being made in the divine image.
And that includes the poor, the neglected, the ignored and the marginalised. Gabriel is famous for announcing the good news of salvation in a backwater village far from the centre of imperial power, to a young girl whose age and gender and social status made her a nobody. Just as before that he’d announced to Zechariah that his wife would conceive in her old age: annunciations that parallel the angel’s words to Gideon in the book of Judges, when he says, ‘the Lord is with you, mighty warrior.’ This is at a point when none of God’s promises seem to have come to pass, when the people are being oppressed by neighbouring tribes, and where the outlook for the Israelites seems pretty gloomy. And that’s what Gideon tells the angel: look, if the Lord is with us, why on earth is all this bad stuff happening? Where are all those wonderful deeds our ancestors told us about? (Judges 6.11ff).
Gabriel means ‘God is my strength’. And what we learn from these angelic encounters is that this is a hard thing to believe, sometimes. Mary says ‘how can this be?’; Zechariah is rendered speechless because of his disbelief; Gideon, when told that God will deliver Israel through his leadership, reminds the angel that he’s from the puniest and most insignificant tribe of the Israelites, and he’s the weakest in his family. He is unpromising material for victory.
God is my strength. Gabriel reminds us that we’re not in this on our own; that when we feel bewildered and helpless about the world’s problems, and entirely unconvinced about our own capacity to meet them, God is our strength, too. And that strength may not show itself through political clout or the influence wealth buys; in fact it will probably not look like strength as the world perceives it. It will look more like the courage and commitment it takes for a victim of sexual assault to tell her story; like a 16 year old girl ranked against the leaders of the world at the UN; like the patient work of love when we feel like we’re at the end of our tether… God is our strength, aiding us by the ministry of the angels, sustaining us in the struggle for truth and justice and goodness and love because God in Christ has already won the victory.
And that means that, whether we are contending against evil with Michael, or announcing good news with Gabriel, what we are engaged in is a shared task with the angels: we are participating in God’s reconciliation of the world, indeed the whole cosmos, to himself. Raphael means ‘God is my healer’, and he reminds us that our vocation is to be agents of God’s healing and reconciliation in the world. We don’t have to look far to find brokenness – whether we look within or without. God’s action in redemption is to draw back to himself a creation estranged through sin, lost and broken and hurting when it moves away from the love and purpose for which it was made. We can see so clearly at the moment how much the world needs God’s gifts of reconciliation and healing; how important it is to be reminded that we are all made to bear the divine image, and how necessary to seek out that image in others – especially those with whom we disagree, and those whose humanity is diminished or dishonoured.
As individuals we need to let God’s grace do its work in us, seeking out the parts of our lives that are broken or bruised or lost, or where we’ve given up hope that things might ever be different. For these are the places in which we will taste a freedom and healing that we know to be pure gift, and which we cannot then help but share with others. In an increasingly divided and fragmented society, churches have the potential to be communities of reconciliation, drawing people together, offering hope and redemption to those who have been denied it, and so being a sign of the kingdom that has come in Christ. It matters that churches should be communities that bring together people across all the divisions we tend to set up: again and again in the New Testament the church is described as a new humanity in Christ, where we are one in him, and where our identity in Christ is more fundamental than anything else. It matters that our church community should be diverse, because it’s supposed to be a sign of the kingdom, where all humanity is reconciled in Christ. And that means more than feeling good about inclusion, or enjoying the fact that we get to worship alongside people of different ages. It means building relationships, bearing one another’s burdens, sharing one another’s joys and sorrows – and so showing, in the midst of so much heated division, that community is possible, that how we voted on Brexit does not determine our identity or salvation, that we are made to be gifts to one another, and to the world.
Who is like God? No one is, and yet we are, showing, often imperfectly, that God is our strength and our healer as with Michael we contend against evil and all that thwarts God’s purposes, with Gabriel we announce the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ, and with Raphael we bear witness to the healing and reconciliation of God that will not cease until the whole creation is swept up, with angels and archangels and all the heavenly host, in the worship of the One who made it.