St Michael and All Angels - 'I believe in angels'

A sermon preached by Martin Carr in the United Benefice on 29 September 2013

O praise the Lord ye angels of his.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

We live in a world of angels. Or perhaps I should say a world fascinated by the possibility of angels. ‘I believe in angels’, sang Abba; ‘I’m loving angels instead’, sang Robbie Williams; ‘I’ll be your angel’ sang the Maltese diva Chiara in her valiant but unsuccessful bid for Eurovision glory; and, my personal favourite, ‘There must be an angel’ the 1985 number one by the Eurythmics. Angels are popular subjects in the visual arts too. On the cover of this week’s pew sheet I have printed William Blake’s interpretation of Jacob’s ladder, our first reading today. Who could fail to be moved by the power of Sir Jacob Epstein’s sculpture ‘Jacob and the Angel’, inspired by another story in the book of Genesis and exhibited in the Tate Gallery. And of course one of the most painted scenes in the history of art features an angel, Gabriel, as he announces to Mary that she will bear a son. So we sing about angels, we draw, paint and sculpt angels, we make films about angels – I’m sure many of you know the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life where a guardian angel, Clarence, helps a despairing businessman appreciate the value his life has for others. Our churches are decorated with carved and sculpted angels; we sing of angel voices, herald angels, and holy angels bright in our hymns; they dazzle us in myriad colours in stained glass. But who are these mysterious heavenly creatures, do they really have white robes and wings, and do they cast a hidden but benevolent gaze over human affairs?

Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, Michaelmas. So the question today is, for all the imagery of angels in our culture, both secular and religious, does the Church really believe in angels, and what might it mean for us if the answer to that question is yes.

And let us begin with Scripture. The word ‘angel’ comes to us from the Greek word ‘angelos’ which is a translation of the Hebrew ‘malak’. Both terms can be translated ‘messenger’, which is useful in understanding some, though not all, of the functions angels perform in the Bible. There isn’t enough time to look at all the references to angels in Scripture, if we did we’d be here all day, but I think we can broadly categorise the biblical tradition about angels as falling into three areas: angels as manifestations of God’s presence on earth, angels as God’s companions in heaven, and angels as distinct, occasionally named, beings with specific roles or functions to perform.

So firstly, angels as God’s presence. In chapter 18 of Genesis we read ‘The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.’ Abraham in fact encounters three men, to whom he offers hospitality, and they predict the birth of Isaac to Sarah. The text slips easily between identifying the strangers as men, the Lord, or angels. Similarly in chapter 32, Jacob encounters a man by night, they wrestle till daybreak, the man blesses Jacob, and Jacob recognises that he has wrestled with God. Though Epstein called his sculpture of this encounter ‘Jacob and the angel’, the text is ambiguous. Similarly in Exodus 3 as Moses is tending the flocks, a flame appears in a bush, identified as ‘the Angel of the Lord’. Is the angel distinct from God, or God’s own being? This same Angel of the Lord appears in the road in the book of Numbers to block the progress of Balaam’s donkey. In Judges the Angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, but it is the Lord himself who speaks with him.

Secondly, we encounter angels as heavenly beings. Just as a human king rules over a court, so God has a heavenly court of angels. ‘God has taken his place in the divine council’ begins Psalm 82. In Isaiah chapter 6 the prophet sees a vision of God on his throne, attended by the six-winged seraphim. ‘Holy, holy, holy’ they cry, a call repeated by the heavenly hosts who worship God in chapter 4 of the book of Revelation. At the opening of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet sees God carried on a chariot accompanied by four living creatures. These also make a reappearance in Revelation, with the faces of a lion, ox, eagle and human being. In Daniel, the last of the books of the Hebrew Bible to be written, a court of heavenly beings accompany God as the books of judgment are opened. At the beginning of the book of Job, God consults the heavenly court, one of whom is named as ‘the Satan’ and sent to earth to test Job’s piety. And when the Lord’s angel descends with news of the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds of Bethlehem, the heavenly host are again present, singing the great hymn ‘Gloria in Excelsis’.

So angels symbolise the presence and voice of God on earth. Angels, named as the heavenly host, living creatures, or a divine court, attend and worship God in heaven.

But what of the angels we know best of all, those with names. I specifically chose the first hymn today not only for its beauty but so that we could familiarise ourselves with the three best-known of the angels, the archangel Michael, the commander of the heavenly armies in the book of Revelation, after whom our festival today is named; Raphael, the healing angel who accompanies Tobias on his travels; and most celebrated of all, Gabriel, the heavenly messenger who comes to Daniel at the time of the evening sacrifice, and to Mary in Luke’s gospel with news of Jesus’ conception. These named angels appear only in the latest book of the Hebrew Bible, Daniel, in the Apocrypha, and in the New Testament. They represent a move towards a developed hierarchy of heavenly angels, distinct from God but sharing in his work. Raphael identifies himself as one of the seven angels who served in the presence of God, and soon a tradition of seven archangels, all with names, had developed on the basis of the biblical account. By the time Milton was writing his Paradise Lost, the miscellaneous data in the scriptural sources had been fully systematised into a complex hierarchy of angels. They are celebrated today perhaps best in the hymn, Ye watchers and ye holy ones, bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones. Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers, virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs.

This short survey of the role of angels has I hope whetted your appetite to find out more. Certainly I would want to stress the fact that if you take all the angels out of Scripture, you would be left with a book full of holes. If we depict angels in our churches and sing about them in our songs, it is time we talked about angels, what we might believe about them, and why. And I have two suggestions as to what the angels might teach us about the nature of God.

Firstly, God is not alone is heaven. The same God who created the Earth and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus also created the heavens, and dwells there in the company of the heavenly host. Secondly, God wants to communicate with us. Whatever we think about the depictions of angels in the Bible and elsewhere, they exist to enable human beings and God to relate: Gabriel brings a message of good news; Raphael guides a young man to heal his father; Michael leads the forces of good to defeat evil.

We exist on a tiny planet in a backwater of the Milky Way. In the vastness of the Universe, we are very little indeed. The angels allow us to glimpse that God’s creation and purposes are far beyond what we can ever know or grasp. Yet, that the angels care for human beings, and reveal God’s purposes to us, gives us hope that despite the tininess and brevity of our existence, God sends ministers to protect and guide us. I believe in angels because I believe that good can defeat evil, that we are loved and protected as children of God, and that love takes us beyond the gates of death and human frailty into the presence of God where we too, with the angels, will bow down in worship of our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice