This sermon was preached on the 16th Sunday of Trinity at St Mary’s, Diss – September 27th 2020.
The readings were: Hebrews 1, Psalm 136, Luke 12:16-30 .
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I think it’s a fundamentally human quality to have favourites of things, isn’t it? Your favourite place to go on holiday, that pub you would normally go to for lunch to eat your favourite meal. We might be happy with anything on the menu, but you can’t go wrong with a nice medium-rare 12oz ribeye steak can you? Though perhaps you would prefer the Pork Belly, or, like my sister, would opt for Tofu with Pasta?
We have preferences on almost every topic imaginable, and things pertaining to our faith and worship are no exception – we have preferences on everything from where we sit to which tunes we think certain hymns should be sung to. For some of us, the highlight of the Christian year is Christmas – and even at Christmas people prefer different services, whether it be the Carols by Candlelight, the Midnight Mass, a Crib Service with all the children or a Eucharist on Christmas morning itself.
For others, Remembrance Sunday and honouring the sacrifices made for our freedom is the key part of the year, while some may find that the opportunities to remember loved ones at All Souls is particularly precious.
This year has been hard for us all as we were unable to celebrate Easter in our usual manner, something which felt peculiar and unsettling – and rightly so.
Even today’s service has become something of a balancing act between two competing preferences. We’re celebrating Harvest, but can’t bring our offerings in the usual way or even decorate the Church so wonderfully as we enjoy. And in two days time it is the feast to which Tony alluded last week when he claimed that I would be speaking on my favourite subject; that is, St Michael and All Angels.
This is why our new testament reading and the psalm which Tony chanted for us focused on Angels, even as our Gospel reading is one chosen for Harvest.
And it’s true, I am rather fond of the topic of Angels and I enjoy teasing the Rector by reminding him of a quote by one of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century, Karl Barth, who says: “To deny Angels is to deny God.” This is because God in all his heavenly glory is forever and always worshiped by angels singing: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Power and Might, Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory. Hosanna in the Highest.
Words of worship which we shall join in with in a short while.
Where God is present, where God is at work, his Angels follow him faithfully even if we do not discern their presence much as the servant of Elisha was unaware that they were surrounded by the heavenly hosts until Elisha prayed that their eyes would be opened, and he saw them on the surrounding hills.
The Gospels begin with angels. Gabriel appears first to Zechariah and tells him that, old though he and his wife are, they will have a son, and they will call him John. Again, Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” And yet again, an Angel appears to Joseph in a dream saying: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit… you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Later, after the agony of Christ’s passion and death upon the cross and his burial in the tomb, angels are present. They ‘appear like lightning, and his clothing was white as snow’ as they sat upon the stone which had been rolled away, much as we see in our own stained glass window above the altar.
In a sense then, angels are inescapable for where God is and where God is at work, they are present as his faithful servants.
As wonderful and exciting as angels are, there has always been a real risk of preferring to look at the angels rather than the God whom they accompany. This is a very old danger, which extends right back to the earliest days of the Church and is the topic of our reading in Hebrews. You see, a good number of people, in their very human way of having favourites, favoured the idea that Jesus himself was an angel of God; just any angel, but an archangel. Some people even in recent times have wondered if he were the same as the Archangel Michael.
Our reading from Hebrews, along with many other scriptures, makes it quite clear that this is not the case.
Hebrews opens by saying that Jesus is ‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being… when he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.’
In other words, Jesus is not an angel.
To ram this point home, the author writes a series of rhetorical questions which ask whether God’s promises of his Son were ever made to angels?
No, no they were not.
No angel is the promised one of God, rather they are ‘spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.’
Who are those who are to inherit salvation?
That, my friends, is both you and I, and all who make up the Church here on earth.
It is a scriptural truth that on this point even God has favourites; and it is not the immortal angels he has made as winds and flames of fire to achieve his purposes that he favours. No, it is the mortals that he cares for, it is human beings of which he is mindful.
Jesus makes this point our harvest themed Gospel reading:
“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! … Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!”
Do you ever put yourself down, thinking to yourself “I don’t matter to anyone?” Have you felt during the recent lockdown that you’re unimportant, and unnoticed? That when you die, no one will really notice and the world will keep on turning just fine without you?
I’ve certainly had times like that, where I assumed that I were simply an insignificant speck in lost within all the wide world, and the whole span of the universe.
Yet this is not the message of God.
It is the temptation of sin trying to stifle what little faith we have with the lie: you are nothing.
The message of God is this: you are my favourite. In all of creation filled with fields of beautiful flowers and birds of every shape and size with the music of their birdsong; in a creation filled with dazzling angels and far flung stars in the night sky, you sons of Adam, you mortal human beings are precious in my sight.
This is the message of God from the beginning when he created the world, this is the message of God as far back as Deuteronomy where he says to Moses: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul in order that you may live… and the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors…’
This is the message of God in Isaiah: Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.
And it is here that we touch upon my favourite topic of all, which is not angels; but the significance of who Jesus is.
We’ve heard in Hebrews that Jesus is not an angel, but that he is the imprint of the glory of God’s own being. Yet he is more than just the appearance of God, the entire point of the Gospels is to demonstrate that Jesus is a human being – just like us. That’s the reason behind his birth to the Virgin Mary, that’s why so much is made of his crucifixion, his suffering, and his death. Even beyond the resurrection, the Gospels intentionally draw our attention to the disciples’ opportunity to touch him, to examine his wounds, and even to stress the detail that he ate fish on the beach with them. This was no ghostly apparition, but a real human being living beyond death. When we hear the Gospels and we see the face of Jesus amongst the crowd and the disciples, we see the face of God in our midst. In Jesus, in God’s becoming and remaining forever a human being like us, God declares that we truly are his beloved.
Hebrews goes on to say:
It was fitting that God,for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation [Jesus Christ] perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
Sometimes we say that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, but we are also brothers and sisters with Christ Jesus. Afterall, it is this which enables us to pray with him the Lord’s Prayer.
And so it seems it’s a fundamentally human thing for us to express preferences between options, to have favourites of things. But let us not mistakenly become enamoured with angels such that we forget the God who has fundamentally and decisively chosen us as his favourites. Because not only would that be to risk losing sight of God, but to lose sight of all God’s other favourite humans who do not yet join us here in his Church. Just as God has called us by name, so are we to be his voice in the world calling others by name to share in his love and become our brothers and sisters.
For as Jesus famously said:
The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.