For the past several Sundays I have preached on feasts and lesser festivals rather than stick to the appointed texts for those Sundays. Feasts and festivals transfer to Sundays when they fall in the middle of the week, so St. Michael and All Angels moves from 9/29 to 9/25. When feast and festivals are moved to Sundays generally readings change to those that are specific to that feast or festival’s theme.
And as much as it pains me to say so, often angels seem more popular to people than Jesus. Angels are almost as popular as the Beatles, low gas prices, the iPhone 7, and applewood smoked bacon. And believe me, here in the Carolinas, amidst threat of a gas shortage, in pork country, and with the iPhone 7 being aggressively marketed on TV and radio—I can attest to the popularity of such things.
So—it seems proper, given the obsession with angels, that we should take a look at the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
As I tell anyone who asks, “What’ll you be preaching this Sunday,” just take a look at the Prayer of the Day (Collect) then you will know. And in the Ev. Lutheran Church in America the “Collect” for this feast day from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) is this:
Everlasting God, you have wonderfully established the ministries of angels and mortals. Mercifully grant that as Michael and the angels contend against the cosmic forces of evil, so by your direction they may help and defend us here on earth, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God whom we worship and praise with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, now and forever. Amen.
See anywhere in that prayer any part about relatives becoming angels when they die?
See anywhere in that prayer any part about praying to angels?
See anywhere in that prayer any part about angels being equal to the Triune God?
All three of these aforementioned notions are false. None of that is mentioned in the prayer because none of it is in the Bible. None of those ideas are true. A far more accurate view of the role of Michael and of angels is seen here in Revelation 12:7-12:
7War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, 8but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9The 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.
10Then 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.
11But 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.
12Rejoice 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!” (NRSV)
See anywhere in that text any part about relatives becoming angels when they die?
See anywhere in that text any part about praying to angels?
See anywhere in that text any part about angels being equal to the Triune God?
It seems apparent that, apart from “the kingdom of our God” and “the authority of his Messiah,” the angels in and of themselves are nothing. Further it seems that any conquest that should come about results “by the blood of the Lamb.” Truly any respect due the angels is a result of the Lamb.
People do not turn into angels upon death. People do not pray to angels. Angels are not equal to the Triune God.
So what are they?
For starters—they are created beings. Only God is uncreated. All other beings are created—-this includes angels.
The work of angels is often unseen.
But sometimes it is visible:
- Archangel Gabriel announces to Elizabeth and Zechariah that John will be conceived.
- Archangel Gabriel announces to Mary that Jesus will be conceived.
- An angel comes to Joseph to adjure him not to divorce Mary.
- Angels proclaim the birth of Jesus to shepherds.
- Angels come to Gethsemane to minister to Jesus shortly before his crucifixion.
- Angels declare the resurrection.
- And angels are present at Jesus’ ascension.
Angels certainly can be visible, but sometimes we become aware of unseen angelic presence. We can only speculate how or why this seems to be the case. Sometimes this seeming awareness moves us close to worshipping the angel(s) that we perceive to be present. Again, angels are nothing in and of themselves. Their value, just as the value of every other created being, rests in the Triune God.
In John’s Apocalypse, Revelation, an attempt at angel worship is made. John begins to worship, and in that instant, the angel redirects him accordingly. Revelation 22:8-9 gives the account:
8I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; 9but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (NRSV)
Humans are “comrades” of angels. Angels join us and we join them in performing the faithful purpose of God. We join them in service to God, and during worship we join them in song. If you are in the liturgical churches, i.e, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, Orthodox, etc., you will hear this song generally during “Communion,” the Sanctus, the “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The angel song is lifted up in Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8, Psalm 118:26, and Matthew 21:9.
The Sanctus, also known as the Trisagion, or the tersanctus marks the presence of the heavenly company who join their “comrades” in praise and adoration of the Triune One. In liturgical churches it is almost specifically sung during Eucharist. It acknowledges that we are among the angels who surround God, for God in Jesus Christ is among us, meeting us in Bread and Wine, Christ’s own Body and Blood. Hebrews 12:22-24 says:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (NRSV)
Angels beyond number surround their God. So when God meets God’s people in the Meal angels are there. Many congregations totally understand this reality and thus deck out the altars, chancels, naves, even home altars, etc., with angels. All these angels are not statues to be worshipped, but are symbols of manner in which the “Holy One” comes as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. Some of our hymns capture this reality. My favorite hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” bears this understanding, and particularly in verses 3 and 4. That old hymn, a part of the ancient liturgy of St. James, correctly shows movement of God towards people (not the other way around) and angels accompanying and adoring God in the process along God’s way. And before someone barks, “Where’s that in the Bible,” start your search by reading Habakkuk 2:20.
I cannot help but wonder if this is what “radical hospitality” really looks like—the holy coming to the not-so-holy and rather than blowing it all to hell, embracing it all in the Meal. No wonder all the earth is compelled to be silent before God in God’s holy temple. Silent, reverential, worshipful awe seems the appropriate response for humans and angels alike.
Vanguards and guardians, our comrades, these angels—yet apart from the Triune God, nothing in and of themselves.
They watch over us and guard us against evil as Psalm 91:11-12 offers:
For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
In his Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, Martin Luther spoke of not being alone, rather being in the company of Christ and the angels, saying:
“When I am all alone, therefore, I am still not alone. Because I have the Word of God, I have Christ with me, together with all the dear angels and all the saints since the beginning of the world. Actually there is a bigger crowd and a more glorious procession surrounding me than there could be in the whole world now. Only I cannot see it with my eyes…”.
Perhaps this why in Luther’s Small Catechism Christians are taught to pray, “Let your holy angel be with me that the evil foe may have no power over me.” Perhaps we acknowledge the holy that is always around us.
So—angels are our comrades; joining us, guarding us, accomplishing God’s purpose with us, worshipping God with us, being present with us as we are gathered around God’s Holy Word and God’s Body and Blood in the Meal. That’s mighty fine. That might even be better than the Beatles, low gas prices, the iPhone 7, and applewood smoked bacon.