a sermon for the festival of Michael and All Angels
Luke 10:17-20 and Revelation 12:7-12
My wife and I took our middle child this weekend to Staunton, Virginia, for a visit to their huge Harry Potter festival. Called “Queen City Mischief and Magic,” the street festival is a very family-friendly event that their downtown area has hosted over the past few Septembers. There are booths for playing games, winning prizes, painting faces, that kind of thing. There are some entertainers, many of the merchants open their shops to sell homemade Potter souvenirs and trinkets, and Mary Baldwin College even hosts some academic lectures on the fantasy genre for the more literary guests.
It’s a lot like a regular street fair, except that loads of people dress up like characters from the series, so there are all kinds of mystical and magical creatures walking around, some friendly, some menacing. We saw dragons, elves, witches, wizards, and even mermaids. And He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named is actually He-Who-Doesn’t-Mind-Having-His-Picture-Taken. I got a photo op with Voldemort!
I actually never finished the Harry Potter series and I’ve only seen one of the movies, but I have to admire the imagination and detail that has gone into the world that British author J.K. Rowling created. I can see its enduring appeal and widespread fascination. I was once a bit suspicious of Harry Potter, but I see it as really no different from the kind of entertainment that Walt Disney or Marvel Comics offers up. It can be fun to imagine the existence of outlandish creatures, characters that take the sides of good and evil, that fight epic battles against demons and spirits which determine the fate of the universe.
We might be surprised that every so often even Holy Scripture sounds like something out of Harry Potter. Look at the selection of today’s readings: angels, demons, mysteriously disembodied hands…there’s even a dragon on our bulletin art this morning! It’s like Harry Potter’s world got hold of our worship! Or, as is more likely the case, our scriptures got a hold of Harry Potter! In fact, each of this morning’s appointed Scripture texts mentions some kind of cosmic warfare, and it gets pretty graphic. For many people, things like angels and demons don’t factor into daily faith very often. Most of us, in fact, usually leave that stuff up to the theme parks and Hollywood. For whatever reason, it often doesn’t suit our worldview to allow for beings that are invisible.
Yet we know that our reality is governed by things that can’t be seen, by forces no human can touch. We know the earth spins because we notice it in the sun and seasons, but none of can put our hands or our eyes on its axis. We know are feet are practically glued to this planet and that all the other planets are kept from hitting one another by this thing called gravity, and it’s super-strong, but no eye can see it. We are pulled with a force towards our families and friends and fellow citizens that is sometimes so fierce it causes us to sacrifice our own lives, but none of us has ever seen love. And while science and technology have enabled us to see and perceive many things that were mysteries to people who came before us, we must admit there are plenty of questions worth asking that science and technology can never answer, nor do they particularly want to. The point is, when we claim in the Nicene Creed that we believe God is the maker of all things, seen and unseen, we are acknowledging that there are parts of creation not visible to mortals, parts of creation we haven’t fully explained and may never explain.
That is probably where angels fall. Scripture speaks of angels on several occasions, although they never really become central to God’s story. They are beings that show up every once in a while like when God promises to send Michael to protect God’s people in a time of great turmoil; or God needs to send a message of hope in a dark time to a young virgin woman in the town of Nazareth. In several other places they are described as constantly gazing on the face of God, doing his bidding night and day.
In the Revelation text today, the archangel Michael throws the dragon and his angels out of heaven. That may sound completely fanciful to you and me—like, what do we do with that?!—but you and I are relatively powerful and comfortable in the grand scheme of things. We have to remember Revelation was written when followers of Christ were under intense persecution. Describing sin and threatening forces as a dragon or a terrible beast is totally logical to people who are suffering oppression at the hands of evil that is so abominable and so out of control that no human can put a dent in it. This ugliness reaches way beyond them.
It’s like that final, most difficult character you encounter in the original Super Mario Brothers—Bowser is his name, I think. I never could beat that guy. Ever. I could get all the way to the end most times, but Bowser would always crush me. I always had hand the controller to my cousin Tim to get him to do it for me. If you’re a Christian in the early centuries and the emperor is throwing people like you to the lions, you want some assurance that the Empire won’t have the final say. If you’re a person of color in the 1700s, then a slave-based economy probably seems like a unbeatable Bowser to you. If you’re a Jew in Europe in the mid 20th century, the Nazi regime probably feels like an awful, terrible beast that can’t be brought down.
When you and your people are being dehumanized, when your daily existence is always in question, when it seems evil is so large it reaches right up to the face of God you want word in no uncertain terms that God and heaven are good and are on your side. You find hope knowing that God is ultimately victorious, that someone powerful has thrown the dragon down and heaven doesn’t have evil in it anymore.
To get too specific about angels and what they are like probably misses their point. Overall they are protectors, they are messengers, and they are worshippers, and we give thanks on this day that God’s imagination and God’s creativity is far beyond J.K. Rowling’s, and yours or mine. We give thanks that God protects us from evil in ways beyond our understanding, that God sends us messengers of hope and peace, often when we least expect them, and that we, too, get to worship God and one day will see God’s face.
In fact, we know that one day Jesus sends his own disciples out as angels. He appoints seventy of them and they go into the neighboring towns and villages as protectors, messengers, and worshipers of the one God. They heal people who are sick, they bring tidings of peace and joy to the people they encounter, and they even have power over demons. They come back to Jesus pretty enthralled with their abilities, in fact. They were really able to defeat the little Bowsers they encountered.
I hear people of faith talk like this all the time. Our Stephen Ministers, for example, share stories about how just listening to someone who is suffering and praying with them drives out demons of shame and confusion. The people who deliver altar flowers each week talk about how they feel like they’ve defeated demons of loneliness and despair just by showing up in a hospital room or nursing home for a conversation. I hear folks share about how Kevin Barger and his corps of musicians have helped them experience the divine in the way they lead our worship and provide music.
And there’s a reason why our youngest children’s choir is named after cherubs, one of the ranks of angels mentioned in Scripture. In their youthfulness and in their desire to sing loudly without embarrassment they connect with us on a deeply joyful level. From where I sit up front I can see your faces when the Cherub Choir sings, and I’ve always said I don’t who has the better view—the people who are watching the children sing or the people who get to watch the people who are watching the children sing.
Jesus rejoices that day when the disciples return to him with these stories. Jesus is excited for them, for they are experiencing the triumph of good over evil in God’s creation. But then he says they should rejoice even more that their names are written in heaven.
The other day when Joseph and Sarah got word that their baby was going to arrive, Joseph had to rush to the hospital and leave his children in the care of me. I was excited to do that for them, and we had done that before when Samuel was born about 4 years ago. So I went and picked up Samuel from pre-school and brought him home in our car. We came back and had a little snack, and then walked to Lucia’s bus stop where I was to get her off the bus. In the Henrico County Public School system, kindergartners are only allowed to get off the bus with approved guardians, and Sarah and Joseph had made sure that I was on that list of approved guardians earlier in the day. As we walked to the bus stop, Samuel told me that to get her off the bus I was going to have to hold up my “hold-up thingy,” by which he meant my photo ID.
But, unfortunately, as the bus doors opened, we learned my name was not on the list. The bus driver asked who I was and how I knew Joseph and I thought, Well, I said, I’m his colleague… and his friend…and his neighbor…and his old camp counselor…and I’ve known him almost his whole life…please give me Lucia! But she was a steady protector. She flipped through the sheets of paper and there was no Phillip Martin listed there. So Lucia had to go take her seat again—she was very brave—and be driven all the way back to school where I then had to go pick her up.
As it turns out, it was a mistake by the transportation department. They had received the message from Joseph, but they had not updated their book of approved names that morning.
Jesus says to his disciples—to us—your name is approved. It’s on the list. And then he shows us that when God comes to fight the presence of evil in the world, when God rolls up his sleeves to fight the big Bowser that resides in you and in me, God sends someone not with a sword or magic wand but someone with a cross.
God sends Jesus who turns his life over to all the destructive and deadly forces of this world so that he can show them what a dead-end they really are. God proves that his goodness is in control of all things by raising Jesus up on the third day. God shows the ultimate power of humility and love, the authority of forgiveness in a world lacerated by revenge.
And all the angels do, all that any good messenger does, is hand over that message and testify to the glory of the cross of Jesus. That was, in fact, the power that Michael displayed when he overthrew the dragon: he conquered Satan with just the word of Jesus’ sacrifice. So let us hand over that message today to someone who may need to hear it, and sing like angels with the voice that has been given us:
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah who reigns forever and ever.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr