This is a sermon for the feast of Michael and All Angels. The Scripture it references is Revelation 12:7-12.
This picture* looks a bit like something out of Tolkien, doesn’t it? If, like me, you grew up reading The Hobbit long before you ever read the book of Revelation, you could be mistaken for thinking that this sort of imagery belongs to the world of fantasy, not of faith.
Dragons, cosmic war, mythic signs… what are we to make of all of that?
I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world. And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice. But on a day when we stop to think about the reality of angels, and what role they might play in the life of faith, to read from Revelation is actually very fitting.
You see, it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense. There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is a type of writing which is pretty much a dead art form. But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.” That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”
The idea behind this genre of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality. A parish like this one has something of a head start, perhaps, in being able to come to grips with this; and that’s because apocalyptic writing, in its use of symbols and images to convey deeper truth, is a lot like the language of liturgy. Just as, behind the symbol of shared bread, is the deeper truth of our belonging to one another in the church, just as behind the symbol of lit candles is the truth of the light that Christ brings into our lives, and so on – I could go on for ages – behind all of life, says apocalyptic writing, is deeper truth and deeper meaning.
And if we are unveiling layers of meaning, that implies that things are not entirely as they might seem. So let’s take a few minutes to look at what John says is really going on behind the veil of everyday life.
So this morning’s reading begins with “And war broke out in heaven…” This war is timeless. It began before the creation of the cosmos, and it continues to be one of the deepest truths of our reality, which shapes everything we experience.
Let me pause here and say that I know some of you won’t believe in a literal devil and demons. That some people see those as powerful imaginative ways to represent our experiences of evil and darkness. But certainly the New Testament authors did believe in those powers as being wielded by actual evil personalities; and whether we see them as personal or impersonal, we all know that human life is marred with that reality of genuine evil.
Anyway. So there’s a war; and we’re all caught up in it. The forces of good vs. the forces of evil; and what we’re given a glimpse of here is that evil is losing. In fact, evil has lost, and all that remains is something of a cosmic mopping-up operation.
This text, strange as it is, is telling us to hope. Yes, we experience bad things; evil wreaks havoc; there is oppression and abuse; human beings are hypocrites; and so on. But what John’s vision showed him is that that’s just the mess that needs cleaning up after the battle’s been won. It’s not the last word. It’s not forever. It’s purely temporary, and the powers of God – here represented by the angels – will throw down what evil remains and creation will be renewed. Our reading today finishes with “the time is short.” The time is short! This soon shall pass! We might be suffering right now, but we’re on the winning side.
You might have heard some more Pentecostal types of Christians talk about spiritual warfare; and while that can sound quite intimidating, really all that means is recognising the reality of this cosmic war, and deliberately aligning ourselves with the winning side. In that sense we engage in spiritual warfare every time we meet for worship. Every time we pray “your kingdom come.” Every time we choose hope over despair. We are saying that we recognise the deeper reality of good and evil, and we choose good.
But there’s something else we’re called to do in this mopping-up operation, and it’s hinted at in this reading too. John heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming… but he didn’t tell us whose voice it was. Remember that for John, heaven and earth are two interwoven dimensions of the same reality. What he sees in his vision tells us the deep truths of our lived reality. So when he says there’s a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, he’s also saying something about the very real fabric of our lives.
Proclaiming is our job. We’re given this vision, this insight; this peek behind the veil; not just so that we can know what’s going on, but so that we can share that knowledge with others. We’re given a message of hope, and we’re supposed to make that hope known to everyone who hasn’t heard it yet. It’s not just one voice in heaven; or more accurately, it’s one voice made up of the many voices who have seen the victory and who cry out to tell all creation that the forces of evil have been thrown down. That the power of God has won. That it’s time to rejoice!
It’s grand final weekend. The secular world has just shown us something of the rejoicing of those who win. And we’re called to lead the way in that rejoicing, on a cosmic scale! Michael the archangel might have led the fight; we get to kick off the party.
And this is the thing, really; an angel is, more than anything else, a messenger. This day where we remember angels, reminds us that actually, we’re all supposed to be messengers. We’re all supposed to carry with us wherever we go, a message of hope and joy and faith. Ours is the loud voice resounding through heaven and earth.
Is your megaphone at the ready?
Is that an intimidating question? If you’re unsure about being that loud voice, remember that you don’t do it alone. We need to find ways, together, to be messengers of hope and joy and faith. We need to find ways to make sure that our voice resounds, beyond our doors, down the street, and to all the surrounding area. That we announce whatever brings hope; whatever lets people know that they can trust that in the end, God wins; whatever lets people in on the infectious joy of knowing that the time of suffering is short; that’s our job.
So let’s build a megaphone.