Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3; Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 10:17-20.Today is the feast day of St. Michael and All Angels. It is a “Lesser Festival” always on September 29 and happens today to fall on a Sunday Lutherans typically don’t talk seriously about angels. But why not, and since today’s is convenient for it? Angels heavily populate popular culture; from Precious Moments figurines through myopic cupids, Christmas cards, and creches. There is serious and thoughtful talk about angels throughout almost all religions. And there is, of course, not so thoughtful talk. I personally am not easy with the old Amy Grant song that angels are “watching over me, every move I make.” But let that drippy popsicle simply accent that people everywhere are familiar with the language and the imagery of angels.
Of course, familiarity is one thing. Serious faith is quite another. After all, can you recall the last time, anytime, when you heard serious preaching or teaching about angels? In all my ministry, this is the first time I’ve tackled the subject. Why? Because I do not believe in non-earthly spiritual agencies? No; I do. But the way that we humans have co-opted angels and their imagery requires that I be critical of my motives when I do refer to them.
Angelology has never had a strong place in systematic Lutheran thought, even though both the Hebrew and New Testaments have ample stories and descriptions about angels. The key concern of the Reformation was to re-center Christians on Christ’s all sufficient life and meaning, whereas fascination with other supernatural figures has proven often to divert the believer from Christ. Lutheranism also protested any worship, doctrine, or prayer practice that could cause more personal anxiety about one’s salvation than trust in Christ’s sufficiency. Add to these pastoral concerns the fact that sophisticated heirs of the Enlightenment, well-cultured in the sciences, can find such beliefs as fantastical and beneath us.
Yet, we and atheists delight in Harry Potter. The idea that Archangel Michael will gut Satan like my dog Fiddich does with a new squeaker toy comforts us. The image of perfect goodness defeating the darkest evil for a final time “forever and ever amen” abides deep in the collective unconscious of every human being. Images of good over evil that signify powers that transcend us give life to those who rightly understand. They are also destructive for those who don’t.
One clue for right understanding is that the imagery of angels shows up in the Bible when something of cosmic positive significance for an entire people is about to happen. The background of today’s first lesson is that the Jews are being vilely oppressed by Antiochus Epiphanies IV around 167 BCE. The temple is desecrated. Horrible things are happening. Misery looks to be the future for Israel and there is nothing they can do about it. In a highly dramatized literary style, the story tells of 6th century BCE Daniel being told by an angel sent by God that St. Michael will defeat Babylon. This is code language, telling the reader of 167 BCE to have hope. God will forcefully free and save God’s people and the Archangel Michael—whose name means “like unto God”—will lead the saving forces. It is important to know that whenever God is about to make a big positive change, God will use all God’s power to do so. God’s love for God’s chosen people will prevail.
St. Michael reappears in the Book of Revelation. The early Christians were heavily persecuted by emperors from Nero to Domitian, the Caesar at the time of the book’s final form. It is an apocalyptic time in the consciousness of that world then. Only the most dramatic language can communicate God’s dramatic action on behalf of the people God loves. Michael—the five-star general of God’s army—kicks Satan and his army out from heaven to hell’s depths. It is a story form with a genealogy that goes back long before Judaism. The setting is timeless. It is told here to reassure Christians in real historic tribulation that no matter how unprecedented the oppressor is in his or her vanity and cruelty, God will win not just the day, but eternity.
So now the question that comes to every generation and to every person, the question that reveals the dangerous side of infatuation with angels as well as the upside of angel wings. The question is this. Are we again in an apocalyptic time when the language of angels and “spiritual warfare” should be normative? Should we talk this way in our daily interactions at the dog park, over dinner with friends, even in political debate? If you think I’m just being provocative, I assure you I’m not. A large swath of revisionist Christians has been playing the long game, using and “proving” as the odd literalists that they are that we are in a great supernatural battle, and that only by following a certain triumphalist and militaristic “dominionist” Christianity that controls all political levers will we and the nation be saved. The first part may be correct; the second definitely wrong. This movement is no trivial matter. Our Sunday Adult Forums beginning late October will focus on this topic. For now, I’ll note that it is massive and has turned otherwise wonderful evangelical Christianity into something toxic and wrong. It turns Christians who follow it into caricatures of adolescent “winners” strutting around quoting Bible verses out of context while singing Queen’s “We are the champions.”
And so to today’s Gospel text. I get it that the 70 Christ followers who just returned from their first internship assignment were giddy with their success. It was as if they were Rice University football players who just beat the snot out of the New England Patriots. See? Highly dramatic and unreasonable language is required for pastoral care in an apocalyptic time! Jesus’ apprentices are jazzed that by using his name they can do really cool things. This magic can take them far. This power can put them on top. They can have dominion by using the name of Jesus! And Jesus responds with the same language as John the Divine used in The Book of Revelation. He saw Satan fall like lightening. And his followers would be hurt by nothing. But if you don’t understand that as one should, say, like certain snake handlers in Kentucky, you’ll be surprised by the snakebite.
Here’s the deal. If in spiritual puberty we think now that with the name of Jesus we can do anything we want, even to waging violence like a Michael and the Angels, we forget that Jesus says there is a higher thing; that no one of us is a Michael or Gabriel or whatever; that angels are God’s further way of loving us, and that God already has done for us what we cannot secure for ourselves, which is God’s loving act of writing us into God’s Book of Life. The only holy response we can give is to love God back through the neighbor. Violence was and is never ours to call holy. Only God’s love warrants the manners by which God preserves all human life with all God’s beautiful creation. For us to trust God to wage God’s love and therefore for us not to distort God’s love again into sinful greed is precisely the point. In other words, in final words, if God needs to send angels to save me from myself, much more to save our nation and the world from ourselves, then let those angels be legion and let us again praise the name of Jesus!
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX September 29. 2019