This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at Evensong on the 30th September 2018. Readings: Daniel 10:4-end, Revelation 5.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Those of you who were here last week will remember vividly the entertainment which Tony provided for us by wholeheartedly reenacting the classic schoolyard game of ‘hopscotch’; jumping and singing his way down between the choir stalls. This was another of his sermons on ‘games people play’. Well, ever since it was first decided that we would swap in order for me to speak tonight on Angels one of the games I’ve taken great delight in playing has been pointing out Angel references to Tony, scoring points with each exasperated groan which inevitably follows!
There was a passing comment by Jesus in a recent gospel reading. At morning and evening prayer we read through the psalms doing a verse each. Somehow, as if by divine providence, every angel reference in the psalms (of which there aren’t actually that many) has occurred in Tony’s turn to read a verse. At John’s installation service on Thursday, Bishop Alan slipped in a reference to Angels near the end of his sermon. And when Tony played his game of hopscotch last week, he did so surrounded by angels, both here by the high altar, up on the windows!
Angels, it would appear, are seemingly inescapable. That’s certainly how it has felt for me during this last year. As you may know, while training for ordination I was doing an MA and for that my dissertation has been on the references to Angels within the Liturgies of the Church of England. It could be tempting for a young curate to get swept up in his research and attempt to present it all here for you, rather than to preach. However, there’s a couple of points I’ve discovered which I believe are both important and may help to enrich your experience of the liturgies here in church.
One of the main parts of the liturgy I’ve been studying has been a part of the eucharistic prayers. It’s the part near the beginning which says something like: Therefore with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name for ever praising you and saying: Holy Holy Holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and Earth are Full of your Glory. Hosanna in the Highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the Highest.
I say ‘something like’ on purpose, because this is simply the most commonly used variation. The Holy Holy Holy, and so on, is called the Sanctus. But it turns out that there are 33 different variations for the introduction to the Sanctus. Here’s another:
The joy of the resurrection fills the universe
And so we join with Angels and archangels
And with all your faithful people
Evermore praising you and saying:
Or there’s my favourite one which goes like this:
Through him with angels and archangels
And all the company of heaven
We come before you Father, by the Holy Spirit,
For ever praising you and saying:
These words all introduce the Sanctus.
The Sanctus is interesting because it’s one of the earliest prayers which the early church used in their Eucharist services. In fact, it was common for the early priests to pray their own eucharistic prayer and then the people would join in to say the Sanctus together.
The Sanctus comes, originally, from a vision of Isaiah who saw the throne of God in heaven surrounded by angels who sang ‘Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty’. Ezekiel seems to have seen something very similar when he saw a vision of the throne of God, and our reading tonight from revelation chapter 5 shows us a similar vision of a throne in heaven surrounded by angels who sing praises to the lamb who was slain, Jesus. In our reading, it ended with words which are also very familiar to us from the eucharistic prayers: Blessing and honour and glory and power be yours forever and ever. Amen. In Revelation these words are the words of the all of creation, which includes us!, joining in with the heavenly, angelic, worship of God.
This means that when we come to Church for the Eucharist, the priest who is praying the Eucharist prays that our act of worship, our remembering the death and resurrection of Christ, our eating the bread and the wine, will be included within the eternal worship of God which is always happening in heaven. These angels here by the high alter remind us that we’re not just having a private moment of remembering what we personally believe, we are taking part in an act of worship which the church has been doing ever since around the time that Paul was writing his letters.
This is awesome stuff. Literally, awe-inspiring and I think that a healthy understanding of Angels can, along with other aspects of theology, add some colour to the canvass of belief.
In painting art though it is important that we use colour carefully. Too much and the scene will seem unreal, too little and it’s lacking something. CS Lewis famously wrote at the start of his Screwtape letters that there are two equal and opposite problems people run into with demons. Either they become obsessed and see them behind every misfortune, or they ignore the issue altogether. Angels are not demons, but I think that the warning holds true.
So how are we best to look at and think about ‘those fluffy winged things’, to quote a certain rector?
Well, first by pointing out that they are perhaps neither fluffy nor winged. Think of the intimidating Captain of the Angel Armies who appears to Joshua – a fearsome warrior, hardly a renaissance style cherub. John Chrysostom was one of the best preachers of the early church. His sermons were so good that they called him “Goldenmouth”. When asked about Angel’s wings he said:
“They represent their sublime nature. That is why Gabriel is represented with wings. Not that angels have wings, but that you may know that they leave the heights and the most elevated dwelling to approach human nature. Accordingly, the wings attributed to these powers have no other meaning than to indicate their sublime nature.”
A priest friend of mine (Fr. SJM-C+) put it like this: The angelic saints differ from others, they are not aspirational figures, we cannot become like them. Their names ‘who is like God’, ‘God is my strength’ and ‘God heals’ point out the true nature of their divine creator’.
The wings may be symbolic, but their presence in scripture is not. They are spiritual messengers and servants of God, and their purpose is to make God known.
St. Augustine says: “Angels are mighty ones who do God’s word, hearkening to the voice of his word.”
Personally, when I read the scriptures and listen to the stories where angels appear I find that I am convinced that they are truly present in some form. Think of the reading we heard from Daniel. He writes that a ‘great trembling’ fell upon everyone who was there. Daniel himself had to be encouraged to stand and the angel says “Do not fear”.
This is a common theme when angels turn up in scripture. In Acts Paul says that an Angel told him “do not fear”. What does Gabriel say to Mary? Do not be afraid. What are the first words to the shepherds? “Do not fear!” Often their presence is startling. I’m reminded of the servant of Elisha in 2 Kings 6 who has his eyes opened to see the surrounding armies of angels protecting Israel, or of King Nebekenezer when he realises that Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, having been thrown into the fiery furnace, have been joined by a fourth who looked ‘like a god’, and, as with Daniel and the Lions, kept them safe.
Their presence has an undeniable effect upon the people they encounter. So much so that scripture has to makes it clear that we are not to worship angels, but to worship God.
The letter to the Hebrews starts by explaining that Jesus himself is not an angel, and then says:
“Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation? Therefore, we must pay most careful attention to what we have heard. This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”
Indeed John, in Revelations, writes later on:
I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed me these things. But he said to me, “Do not do that I am a fellow servant of yours and of your brethren the prophets and of those who heed the words of this book. Worship God.”
We may be tempted to treat angels as a relic of a pre-modern world given to flights of fancy, but given the reactions which people had to them and indeed their significance as a witness to the resurrection, I think that their reality has to be taken seriously.
Angels, therefore, occupy a peculiar place in both scripture and our faith. We can see glimpses of them in scripture, and there seems to be an understanding in Hebrews that Angels minister to all who inherit salvation. Jesus himself makes reference to angels watching over children even as they stand in the presence of God. However, they are not our saviours. In fact when it comes to the question of “What should Angels mean to us?” Jesus himself provides the key.
In using the parables of the wandering sheep and the lost coin, he says to us:
“I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!”
In this simple, yet incredible, observation Jesus tells us a couple of things.
There are angels in heaven.
They are interested in our lives,
And they are interested in our lives because they delight in glorifying God
and because of this, they rejoice when we repent of our sins and turn to God.
That means that for us to have a healthy understanding of angels we must set them in their proper place. They are not divine beings, but spirits who serve the divine. We cannot interact with them themselves, nor should we try to. Instead, we find that when we pursue God, repenting of our sins and turning to him in worship, there are angels in heaven who join in alongside us in that worship.
And now we rejoice and glorify your name
that we, too, have seen your salvation
and join with angels and archangels
in their unending hymn of praise, saying:
Holy Holy Holy Lord
God of Power and Might
Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the Highest.