Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wonderful Order: A Sermon for Michaelmas

"Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven."  Revelation 12:7-8.

I heard all about the Hall of Fame inductions this weekend—the ones that people around here seem to really make a fuss over—as opposed to the one that makes so many leave town in July.  It’s homecoming weekend at the high school, which means the annual induction into the CCS Sports Hall of Fame.  Not being an alumnus myself, I wasn’t invited, but I expect it was quite a grand occasion.  There was a nice dinner, plenty of backslapping all round, stories of the glory days.  And when the names were announced and the plaques unveiled, of course, there were speeches.

And we all know what sorts of things were said.  But how does a great athlete explain himself or herself?  Who should be thanked for the accomplishments that are still remembered, so many years later? These questions aren’t as easy to answer as we sometimes assume.  God, of course should be thanked—for the natural talent, protection from harm.  But who else lies behind the success?  An attentive coach, most likely, but was it really the one who designed the flashy plays for the varsity team, or the one back in Little League who taught you how to swing?  Was it the teammate who sent all those sweet passes your way, or the one who shamed you into dropping the attitude and getting with the program?  Was it Mom, cheering from the sidelines at every game, or great-granddad, whose smooth hands somehow became yours, even though he never saw you catch a ball? 

Perhaps it was all of them, but that generalization doesn’t really make the question any easier to answer.  There is a kind of mystery that lurks behind the good things in our lives.  No one cause stands alone.  No one person deserves all the credit, it’s all so interconnected.

And so too, it is in the life of faith.  The grace of God is a many-splendored thing.  When we find ourselves setting a habitual sin to the side, or discovering a kind of fervor in the heart or using gifts we never expected, we often can’t say just why or how.  Did I know that to be a truth because I had studied it long before, or was the Spirit speaking it to me directly?  Was the healing a miracle or the careful work of a gifted doctor?  What grace comes to me through the sacraments and what through hearing the Word and what through the patient development of the virtues, and what through the prayers of a faithful old lady, who couldn’t quite remember what she meant to be praying about?  And today, of course, we are bound to ask ourselves, and what, in it all, might be the work of the angels?

 Angels are, of course, an integral part of the world described by the Bible, supernatural, immaterial creatures, used by God to accomplish His work.  More than one Biblical scholar, though, has resented angels on principle, and claimed them to be redundant.  Strictly speaking, God doesn’t need angels. He can shout clearly enough for us to hear him without sending ambassadors.  His providence could guide the affairs of men and nations without sending special invisible protectors to prowl about and alter things. 

Indeed, sometimes, the Biblical writers seem a bit confused about the whole subject themselves.  Were you as puzzled about that Epistle lesson as I was?  Who was really fighting the dragon in that scene from Revelation—one minute it’s Michael the Archangel and the next the company of heaven is singing about how the blood of the Lamb has conquered?  I read a commentary that tried to sort out the matter, but to be honest, I didn’t find the explanation very satisfying.  

Perhaps God employs the angels just to keep us guessing, to help us remember that His mercy is always beyond us, that he is always doing, as Saint Paul promised, more than we can ask or imagine. Our Collect describes God as He who has “ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and men.”  “A wonderful order.”  Before it was used to sell toothpaste and vacuum cleaners, people remembered that wonderful meant good in a way that was so good that we couldn’t quite get our heads around it.  A mysterious kind of good.  God has His order, His plan is clear, even though we can’t see it for now. 

And part of that plan, surely is that the angels are defending us from dangers we cannot now understand. God’s order for the angels may be mysterious, but the theologians have made many a valiant effort at describing it—nine orders, ranked in three choirs, with the Archangels at the head of it all, and Michael the great as chief among them.  And his role tells you something important about the order he commands.  He is not the chief courier or the comptroller or the human resources director—he’s a warrior, his sword wet with the blood of God’s enemies.  He is the defender of the faithful against the wiles of Satan and his hosts.

For the way of the faithful is perilous.  Cyril of Jerusalem warned his catechumens well: “Great is the Baptism that lies before you..a death of sin, a new birth to the soul…But there is a serpent by the wayside watching those who pass by: beware, lest he bite you with unbelief.  He sees so many receiving salvation, and is seeking whom he may devour.  You are coming in unto the Father of Spirits, but you are going past that serpent[1].” 

All Christians must walk past the serpent.  In the hearts of some he is seeking to sow doubt, in others it’s vanity or jealousy at the accomplishments of others.  The sins of the flesh are an opening for some, or perhaps it will be greed, a divisive spirit, a fear of being rejected.  Every person who has committed himself to Christ knows  that struggle.  Just as surely as you see the work of grace unfolding in your heart, you know the tugs the evil one has chosen, the weak places he quickly assaults in you.

The contest in every soul, is one tiny corner of that cosmic struggle painted so vividly in today’s Epistle text.  And though the fight will sometimes be fierce, and the opponent devious, we know the ultimate outcome.  The serpent will be cast down, conquered by the blood of the Lamb.  He may hiss with power, but he knows, as John’s vision promises, “that his days are short.” 

And in that struggle we never fight alone.  The holy angels are always alongside us, shielding us, rushing on ahead, adding force to our thrusts and salving our wounds.  We don’t see it for now, but someday when God’s wonderful order becomes clear, we will know how gracious He has been.   When the day of triumph comes, and we join them to sing the praises of the Lamb, the angels around us will not be strangers, but old comrades in the good fight of faith.

[1] Catechetical Lectures, Prologue

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