Revelation 12:7-12

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, [8] but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. [9] The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world--he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. [10] Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. [11] But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. [12] Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!"

Many years ago when I was in Infants' School, I remember our teacher asking us whether any of us had ever seen an angel. Two children had. One child saw her angel sitting on the gate. The other saw his angel draped around the chimney pot on the roof. But it was clear to me, even at the age of seven, that our teacher had serious doubts about these claims. At the time I was unable to understand the basis of her doubts. How could she possibly know whether or not the children had seen angels?

Now that I'm grown up I can understand our teacher's scepticism, for I have never seen an angel to this day. Yet at the end of this month (29th September) is the feast of Michaelmas, when we celebrate the archangel Michael and all angels.

Michael doesn't have a very big press in the Bible itself. Apart from today's reading from Revelation where he and his angels have a battle in heaven against Satan, Michael appears only fleetingly, in the book of Daniel (Daniel 10:13, 21; 12:1).

There was a huge growth of belief in angels in Judaism in the period between the testaments, when Christianity was just beginning. It was a time subject to considerable Greek influence, when through the myths and legends of Ancient Greece, the pagan world was accepted as being people by various gods and goddesses. Perhaps this background accounts for the increase in belief in angels in Judaism, which was quite strongly influenced by Hellenistic culture. But the belief in angels wasn't new, for the Old Testament is dotted by angels from earliest times.

Until the book of Daniel was written, angels were anonymous, but in Daniel we read for the first time of a hierarchy of angels. Six archangels are mentioned, and one of them is Michael.

Michael grew to prominence in very early Christian literature, where he's seen along with Gabriel, as standing before God's throne, interceding for human beings. Michael is seen as the archangel par excellence, the angel above all other angels. Indeed, the early Christian writer Hermas, who wrote at around the end of the first century (when John's gospel was written), regards Michael as so venerable, so holy and so glorious that he identifies Michael as the son of God himself.

With the spread of Christianity, the belief in angels continued unquestioned throughout the world. In the Middle Ages, one of the most pressing and serious of theological arguments amongst scholars was debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin! But life today is very different from the Middle Ages, so where do Christians stand today on the subject of angels?

Perhaps our perception of angels is coloured by medieval and Renaissance art, which depicts angels as blond, with a long flowing white robe, wings and a halo. But as some more recent television entertainment has picked up, perhaps that's not the whole story. A common theme throughout the Old Testament is that of angels in disguise. An angel was a messenger from God, and those who received the message often mistook the messenger for ordinary men until after they had gone. Thus Abraham's wife Sarah laughed when angels told her she would have a baby (Genesis 18:1-15), and Jacob wrestled all night with a "man" who dislocated his hip (Genesis 32:24-32).

Even in the New Testament, when the women went to the tomb on the first Easter morning they encountered young men sitting in the tomb (Mark 16:5). It's only later, in the light of the resurrection, that we're led to understand that these young men were angels.

Angels often bring unwelcome messages from God. The angels in the tomb sent the women to the disciples to tell them that Jesus was alive. Predictably, the women were laughed to scorn. And the message unmarried Mary received from Gabriel - that she was to be the mother of God's son - must have caused her to take a few deep breaths! Nonetheless, after the initial reaction of horror, all these message from God bring great joy when once they're acted upon.

Human beings continue to receive messages from God today, although again, the messenger may be in disguise. But perhaps the Age of Enlightenment is passing, for there is a notable increase in interest in angels. There are books and websites devoted to angels (Angels Online). There are angel cards, angel lapel pins, angel ornaments. Guardian angels are invoked for protection and angels are consulted over decisions which have to be made.

But perhaps we have to remember that as well as using angels to our benefit, any encounter with a message or messenger from God brings its own responsibility. God often calls us to step out on a limb, to take risks, to leave behind the comfort zone.

And so I wonder. as we come at the end of the month to the season of Michaelmas, are you ready for St Michael and all angels?

Rev’d Canon Stuart Ansell




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