Focus reading Revelation 12.7-12a

As I priest I’m occasionally asked whether or not I believe in angels, and of course the answer is always ‘yes!’, followed by a less than certain musing about what and who angels might be and which ones I decidedly don’t believe in - the fluffy tame ones we see on Christmas cards - and which ones I’d rather not meet - the ones in the Book of Ezekiel that the prophet describes as six-winged flying serpents. And I also suggest that angels are the mysterious almost-seen pointers in our lives to the invisible reality of God’s presence which means that they are all around us most of the time but it depends on whether we are paying attention.
Theologians who are particular killjoys are fond of pointing out that angels were a feature of the Zoroastrian religion of the ancient Persian Empire, and suggest that the Jewish people brought angels back with them along with other Persian cultural imports when they returned from their long Babylonian exile in 538 BC. And that references to angels in the earliest texts of the Hebrew scriptures were added later as part of a round of post-exilic editing - as the ancient remembered religion got a make-over in the light of who the Jewish people had now become. And killjoy theologians might also point to the fact that the fiercely monotheistic religion of Yahweh that grew up in the shadow of the Exodus was particularly hostile to the idea of a heavenly pantheon and especially of heavenly beings with a tendency to challenge God for supremacy. But the religion of Israel also had a history of syncretism - of absorbing - not seamlessly or without conflict - new ideas and and of recognising new truths in relation to new circumstances - and above all of recognising that the living God revealed Godself in new ways to new generations. So angels we have, ambiguous and wonderful, both frightening and reassuring, messengers who speak the words of God and even sometimes appear to human beings as God.
The archangel Michael first appears in the Bible in the book of Daniel, in chapter ten where he is referred to as a sort of spiritual counterpart or personification of Israel itself - and in chapter 12 where in Daniel’s vision he learns that Michael will appear ‘at the time of the end’. He is given a decidedly military character which is scarily on display in this morning’s reading from Revelation. In medieval iconography Michael is depicted as the leader of the Army of God against the powers of hell. Michael is also venerated in midrashic Judaism as the defender of the patriarchs and in Islam as the ‘enemy of disbelievers’. In one story from Sunni Islam Michael is ordered to fetch God a handful of earth - but the earth has been misused by its human inhabitants and can yield only the dry sand of the desert. Here Michael becomes a defender of the natural order and an enemy to those who misuse God’s creation. Not a bad image to cap off our Sustainable September reflections!!`
I am most struck, however, by the powerful image of St Michael in our reading from the Book of Revelation today, in John of Patmos’s dreadful vision of war in the heart of heaven itself. ‘And there was war in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon’.
Even as we read this and are aware that it is part of the vision of John of Patmos, aware that it is symbolic, even mythological language - it is still shocking! The vision is of war in heaven, war in the very presence of God! In all the visions of heaven that we hold onto as a hope, that we comfort one another with at times of trouble, both the Christian and the Muslim images of heaven, the breath of heaven that sustains and nourishes our lives would seem for most of us to be the very antithesis of war – the nearer we are to God the more remote all our earthly troubles like competitiveness and conflict, suspicion and violence become. We desperately want to believe that heaven is the home of peace.
But to be honest, it is precisely in the heavens of our religious imaginations that wars all too often ignite. Because the visions of heaven that men and women construct all too often become the promise of our own reward based on the exclusion of others. Just look for example at the war that breaks out when the fundamentalist religious fantasies of Muslim and Christian heavens collide. Or look at the secular heavens we dream for ourselves, the capitalist heaven of middle-class consumption in wealthy nations that condemns the two-thirds developing world to poverty, the greed for minerals and energy and medical breakthroughs and gadgets. The ideological heavens of communism or humanism or postmodernism that hollow out the lives of men and women of meaning and dignity. The heavens we human beings make out of narrow visions and universes that ultimately revolve around ourselves – and that inevitably fall prey to the worm of self-absorption and distrust. What if in our fascination with the heavens of our own imagination, our fantasy worlds with rules for keeping us in and other people out, what if we’ve forgotten that the hospitality of heaven is God’s prerogative alone? On a Sunday dedicated to St Michael the defender perhaps we need to be particularly aware of the dangers of making heaven in our own image.
And so, jumping from the very end of the Bible to the very beginning, I am reminded of another powerful image where an unnamed angel with a flaming sword is involved in an earlier eviction. If, as Bible scholars suggest, the dragon of Revelation is loosely modelled on the serpent of Genesis, here’s the shock, because in Revelation it’s the serpent that gets shown the door, but in Genesis it’s us – or at least our archetypal ancestors who embody pretty accurately the timeless human propensity of secretly believing and acting as though we’re in control, not God. If the dragon of Revelation stands for the arrogance of reconstructing heaven in our own image, the angelic eviction in Genesis reminds us of our failure to nurture and protect the goodness of God’s creation, or to live in right relationship with God and one another. And so, as the story from Sunni Islam puts it, the Earth which fails to yield its goodness finds itself contending against the angel of God. Like scary bookends, angels with sharp objects at either end of the Bible stand as a permanent reminder of the presumption that needs to be banished from us before we can be ready to live in community as God intends us to.
Equally pyrotechnic, white and bright and wonderful, is the angel Gabriel who not only in St Luke’s gospel but also in the Holy Quran announces the birth of our Lord. This angel is sheer gift, the hospitality of God who as the Fourth Gospel puts it, chooses to pitch a tent among us. This is the angel of over the top generosity, as despite our inability to live in peace with one another or with God, God chooses to live among us, to learn our language and our ways – a feast of sheer delight that changes forever our relationship to God and to one another - but that comes at a terrible cost.
But there are many other, less flashy but richly psychological, images of angels in the Bible. The name itself, malachim, means simply ‘messenger’, one who bears the burden of God’s word to us; and the encounter with God’s malachim typically takes place as God’s people struggle to understand what it means to be fully human. In the Old Testament we see the encounter with God’s angels coinciding with the struggle for personal integrity – for example in the near sacrifice of Isaac, or Jacob’s night-time wrestling match with himself as he prepares to cross the river to ask his brother’s forgiveness; or with humour and the offering of costly hospitality, as for example in the story of Abraham who hears and believes the unlikely promises of God from the lips of three strangers who have just polished off his best fatted calf. The encounter with angels wounds us and transforms us - and opens us to new possibilities so long as we are prepared to be open and vulnerable to God and to one another.
So what is it with angels, and what might it mean for us to practice the spirituality of the angels in our own lives? First and foremost, I think, it means a commitment to believing in angels as the unbidden brushes with divine grace that fill our lives with possibilities for transformation and forgiveness. A commitment to accepting the discipline of limitation, as well as the wonder of new experiences of God’s goodness. A commitment to living humbly and vulnerably with one another, open to the angelic in the familiar as well as in the unfamiliar, ready to take the risk of welcoming and being welcomed by strangers. A commitment to recognising the hospitality of heaven in the middle of the everyday.
Amen.