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Festival of Michael and All Angels [OR ☩ May God’s Holy Angels Watch Over You][1] Luke 10:17-20 and Revelation 12:7-12

**sermon art:  Lily Yeh, 1994, Paint, A Mural of Contemporary Angels, Interweave exhibition, Jamaica Arts Centre, New York: Artasiaamerical.org/works/256

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, September 29, 2019

Festival of Michael and All Angels [OR ☩ May God’s Holy Angels Watch Over You][1]

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Luke 10:17-20   The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19 See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Revelation 12:7-12  War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
11 But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
12 Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”

[sermon begins]

Holy Communion is an open table here at Augustana. It’s Christ’s meal, not ours. This means that during communion, Pastor Ann and I extend the open invitation to everyone here as well as the invitation to those who’d like to come forward but, for reasons of their own, would rather receive a blessing instead of receiving communion.  The blessing that I most often say to children and adults alike is, “The body and blood of Jesus Christ ☩ is given for you; and may God’s holy angels watch over you.”  It sums up a lot of scripture in a short blessing:  Jesus comes first; the self-sacrifice of Jesus is given in love for you; and angels are powerful, heavenly beings, created by God and busy on God’s and your behalf.

Angels seem to hold cultural appeal if their appearance in books, movies, music, and art is any indication.  But their appearance in scripture and sermon is bound to put some of us on edge.  Artwork is fine…harmless even.  But for many of us, angels are in the category of aliens and UFOs – not saying they don’t exist, but the personal experience with them is zero to none.[2]  When it comes to scripture, though, angels are hard to avoid. In the Bible, they turn up often – 234 times, and even more than that if you include all the verses about heavenly hosts.  In the Old Testament, “angels comforted Hagar in the desert, delivered Lot from Sodom, guided Israel through the wilderness, fed Elijah under the juniper tree, surrounded Elisha with chariots of fire, saved Hezekiah from Assyria’s onslaught, led Isaiah to spiritual commitment, and directed Ezekial into ministry.”[3]  Angels show up in human form or sometimes in supernatural shimmer-lights; sometimes angels have wings and sometimes they don’t.[4]  Regardless of form, they appear in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation.

Angel presence intensifies around the birth of Jesus.  The angel Gabriel from heaven came to a woman named Mary and announced that she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus; an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds, keeping watch over their flock by night, “the good news of great joy for all people.” That angel was joined in song and praise by a multitude of heavenly host.  From there, angels are involved in Jesus life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.[5]  Angels abound.  So why don’t we get any of those stories for the festival of Michael and All Angels?

In our readings today, those stories are nowhere to be seen.  In some ways, those are easier and oddly more accessible stories.  Even though angels seem to startle people when they appear.  Angels’ opening remarks are often some form of, “Do not be afraid.”  Why would they have to say this but for the reason that the human in the story is probably very afraid?  (Maybe a “Keep Calm and Carry On” angel t-shirt would have helped?)  Just like in the communion blessing in which Jesus comes first, angels begin their work after God instigates the work to be done.  Angels are not rogue creatures acting of their own accord.  They are God’s creatures – messengers of God’s will.

Today’s readings have to do with the archangel Michael.  In the reading from Revelation, Michael and his angels have thrown down the dragon (a.k.a the devil a.k.a Satan a.k.a. the deceiver of the whole world) from heaven to earth by “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their own testimony.” It’s easy to get caught up in the imagery and, frankly, to start arguing about the book of Revelation in general.  Much of it is thought to be written in code for Jesus followers living and dying by 1st century Roman persecution.  The writings inspire faithfulness during an outbreak of violence against the early Christians.  Cracking the code of Revelation has been attempted many times to mixed results.  The worst of which is probably 19th century rapture theology.[6]

At the level of story, though, this snippet about the archangel Michael tells a cosmic tale of evil in its death throes at the beginning of time – an act of desperation on the part of the deceiver because he knows that his time is short.  How do Michael and his angels defeat the deceiver?  Verse 11 says that “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”  It’s the classic children’s sermon answer that fits almost any question.  In this case the question is…how do Michael and the angels throw down the deceiver?  Answer: Jesus.  While we’re preparing for communion, we sing about “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and we ask to be granted peace.  The Lamb of God is one of Jesus’ many epithets (and maybe not quite as popular as a children’s sermon answer).  Lamb of God means the One whose self-sacrifice on the cross closes the gap, what we often call sin, between God and us.  So Michael and his angels are able to overcome the deceiver by the blood of the Lamb of God, by the blood of Jesus.

Meanwhile, the disciples in the gospel reading from Luke returned from their long walk through many towns.[7]  The seventy “returned with joy” from making demons submit to them in Jesus’ name.  Jesus does what Jesus often does when his disciples go off the rails by refocusing them, rejoicing that their “names are written in heaven.”  This is relevant because, for Jews, there is a destination called the End of Days. Biblical prophets including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, and Hosea repeatedly point to the End of Days messianic era marked by world peace with no wars or famine, and enough for everyone to live on.[8] Rabbi Dubov writes that “even in his darkest hour, [the Jew] hopes and prays for a brighter future – a world of peace and spirituality.”[9]  Jesus and his disciples understood this.

There’s another problem with the cosmic battle imagery of rapture theology. Some people see themselves as earthly extensions of a cosmic battle yet to be finished. “Some people” include neighbors, friends, politicians, and more. Hollywood has picked up rapture theology quite successfully and made millions. But there’s a significant, scriptural problem with the violence that is glorified in final battle imagery. Christian scripture argues that the final battle is already won by Jesus on the cross. Being told that the final battle is already won is confusing for people itching for a fight.  Even more problematic for people who want a smack down in the name of Jesus is that Jesus is the one who was smacked down by violence. One of the things the cross reveals is that violent human solutions are a dead end.

Jesus died on the cross in non-violence – putting violence to death and bringing death to life.  The end is known.  The angels know it too, so we celebrate with them and their message today. Whatever cosmic battle we think we’re participating in, think again.  From an earthly perspective, evil can seem unstoppable.  Evil rages not because it is powerful, but because it is vulnerable.[10]  It’s “time is short.”[11] Christ has already won the victory.  The deceiver and all his empty promises are exposed when we proclaim this good news with the angels.

The body and blood of Jesus Christ ☩ are given for you; and may God’s holy angels watch over you.  Amen.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Sermon artwork: Lily Yeh, 1994, Paint, A Mural of Contemporary Angels, Interweave exhibition, Jamaica Arts Centre, New York: Artasiaamerical.org/works/256

[2] Inga Oyan Longbrake, Pastor, Messiah Community Church (ELCA), Denver. Michael and All Angles sermon, September 2013.

[3] Ibid.  I’m grateful on so many levels that that Pastor Inga preached this sermon ahead of my own so that you all can benefit from her study and proclamation.  Her sermon echoes throughout mine.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Barbara R. Rossing. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 178-181.  Rapture theology is a 19th century construct, a recent biblical interpretation.

[7] The mission of the seventy is described in Luke 10:1-12.

[8] Rabbi Nissan D. Dubov, Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Wimbledon, UK. “What is the ‘End of Days’?” for Chabad.org. http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/108400/jewish/The-End-of-Days.htm

[9] Dubov, ibid.

[10] Craig R. Koester, Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN. Revelation and the End of All Things (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001).

[11] Revelation 12:12