September 26, 2021 - Proper 21 (18th Sunday after Pentecost) / St. Michael's Day (transferred)
I wanted to start today with this story:
Jesus and Satan were having an on-going argument about who was better on the computer. They had been going at it for days, and frankly God was tired of hearing all the bickering. Finally fed up, God said, “That’s it. I have had enough. I am going to set up a test that will run for two hours, and from those results, I will judge who does the better job.”
So Satan and Jesus sat down at the keyboards and typed away. They moused. They faxed. They e-mailed. They e-mailed with attachments. They downloaded, did spreadsheets, wrote reports, created labels, cards, charts and graphs, even some genealogy reports. They did every job known to man. Jesus worked with heavenly efficiency and Satan was faster than hell. Then, 10 minutes before their time was up, lightning suddenly flashed across the sky, thunder rolled, rain poured, and, of course, the power went off.
Satan stared at his blank screen and screamed every curse word known in the underworld. Jesus just sighed. Finally, the electricity came back on and each of them restarted their computers. Satan started searching, frantically screaming: It’s gone. It’s all gone. I lost everything when the power went out. Meanwhile, Jesus quietly started printing out all of his files from the past two hours of work. Satan observed this and became irate. “Wait,” he screamed, “That’s not fair! He cheated! How come he has all his work and I don’t have any?” God just shrugged and said, “JESUS SAVES.”
Today, as we celebrate the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, sometimes called Michaelmas, most of us would agree that not only are we in need of saving in our lives, but indeed the whole world is in need of saving. Today’s three readings provide the complete trilogy, a trinity of answers to the conflict between good and evil, the meaning of struggle, and the interaction of divinity with humanity through the angels of our days.
In the Bible, when angels show up, they’re never the focus. They signal that God is about to show up. God is about to pronounce or fulfill a promise. God is acting to set people free.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we begin with Jacob. Jacob’s life is blessed with many angels. The well-known story of Jacob’s struggle with the angel, who leaves his hip dislocated but restores his spirit is preceded by today’s dream as Jacob moves towards Haran. It is interesting to note that Jacob moves the opposite from the journey that Abraham took from Haran to the Promised Land to Beersheba. Jacob, rather, moves from Beersheba to Haran and eventually flees for his life from the Promised Land. In the very place where Abraham, his grandfather, had built an altar to the Lord, Jacob will find a stone for his pillow. It is here that he is given a blessing and the promise of land and offspring. Abraham received this promise when he first came to the land, but Jacob receives it when he is about to leave. God promises Jacob to be with him throughout his journeys. Although Abraham and Jacob travelled in opposite directions, this is a parallel to the ascendance and descendance of angels that we see throughout Biblical history.
Angels appear throughout the stories of the Bible. They first appear in the Book of Genesis following the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and they continue to interact as God’s messengers, protectors, advisors and predictors of the Divine plan that is unfolding in the human march toward oneness with God. The angels open to us the incredible unity between heaven and earth – a constant interaction and journeying to grace.
Angels are also sent to admonish. Gabriel silences Zechariah until his son John is born for doubting the power of God to make all things possible, even pregnancy in old age.
When Lazarus, the poor man, died, he was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom. The angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary and declared her Blessed but also consoled her in her fear and confusion and promised not just the birth of the Son of God, but a place for her in his eternal kingdom. The angels declare many times, “Nothing is impossible with God!”
Angels first announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the field and a multitude of heavenly hosts sang with great joy the birth of the Messiah. In a dream, Joseph is later warned by an angel to take his wife and his young son and flee into Egypt and wait there until he receives word that Herod no longer seeks to destroy him. Jesus himself is ministered to by angels after his 40 days of temptation in the desert. The Acts of the Apostles recount the works of angels in freeing Paul and the other apostles by opening the prison doors.
But there are also times of conflict between the angels; today’s passage from Revelation, for example, dramatically describes the battle between Michael and his angels and Satan and the fallen ones. But it is the “blood of the lamb” that will destroy evil and it is Nathanael in today’s Gospel who recognizes Jesus as his Savior and sees those angels ascending and descending from heaven and recreating life anew.
We are not the only ones in the choir. There is a spiritual force beside, in front of, and behind us that continues to lead, warn, admonish, strengthen and enable us to participate in the life that is eternally there between our world and that of all divine creation. Those are his angels.
In his work The Invisible War, Chip Ingram recounts a story that is worth repeating:
A missionary was serving as a medic in Africa and periodically he had to travel by bicycle through the jungle to a nearby city for supplies. It was a two day trip so he would camp in the jungle overnight. He had always made the trip without incident but one day when he arrived in the city, he saw two men fighting. One was seriously hurt, so he treated the man, shared Christ with him, and went on his way. The next time the missionary traveled to the city, the man he had treated approached him. ‘I know you carry money and medicine, the man said to the missionary. “Some friends and I followed you into the jungle that night after you treated me, knowing you had to sleep in the jungle alone. We waited for you to go to sleep, planning to kill you and take your money and drugs. As we started to move into the campsite, we saw twenty-six armed guards surrounding you. There were only six of us, so we knew we couldn’t possibly get near, and we left.”
When he heard this, the missionary laughed. “That’s impossible, I assure you. I was alone in the campsite.” But the young man pressed the point, “No sir. I wasn’t the only one who saw the guards. My friends saw them too and we all counted them.” Later as the missionary went home to his church in Michigan and told his story, someone in the church stopped him and told the following: “On that night in Africa it was morning here. I stopped by the church to get some materials for a ministry trip. But as I was putting my bags in my trunk, I felt the Lord leading me to pray for you. It was an extremely strong urge, so I got on the phone and gathered some other men to come to church and pray for you. Then the man turned to the rest of the congregation. Will all of those men who prayed with me that day stand up right now?” And one by one they stood up—all twenty-six of them.
I know that each one of us can recount a time when a near traffic accident, an almost certain fall, a missed appointment, a missed airline flight, or a broken elevator was a divine intervention, an angel stepping in front of danger, a larger plan playing out, a saving experience not so much deserved but gratefully accepted. Our sacred history is overlaid with hundreds of stories about angelic intervention - those spirits ascending or descending to meet us wherever we are to bring us closer to the divine, in whose image we are created. The angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who behold the glory of God’s presence and offer unceasing praise are with us, next to us, behind us, ahead of us, and all around us because indeed Jesus DOES save.