This sermon was delivered at St Mary’s Diss during the 8am Eucharist on the 29th September 2019.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is much which could be said of our Gospel passage today, delving into the calling and supernatural knowledge of Nathanael by Christ or reflecting on the parallels between Christ’s description of himself as the Son of Man upon whom the angels of God ascend and descend. However, as you likely anticipate, today we’re going to focus on the great war of the angels from Revelation 12.
It’s the archetypal battle between Good and Evil. We see St Michael the Archangel with all the Angels of Heaven squaring off against the Great Dragon and his angels. The war breaks out and the Dragon and his angels are defeated – there was no longer any place for them in heaven and so they were cast down.
This is often thought of as happening at the end of time – that this battle between St Michael and the Great Dragon is a prophetic vision of the future climax of the battle between the forces of good and evil. The book of Revelations is a confusing and overwhelming text which often seems to be looking to the future. However, it’s not outright a book of prophecies. It’s the writings of the Revelations of John. The ancient tradition goes that he was celebrating the Eucharist when these visions occurred, as if time itself stood still while God revealed to him many things – amongst which we find this great heavenly war.
Augustine held that this was a revelation of the beginning; that this battle between Michael and the Great Dragon Satan, was the moment when God separated the light from the darkness in Genesis 1:4.
Yet following the vision of Satan being thrown down from heaven – a scene which, you may remember, Jesus himself mentions in Luke 10, saying: “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” – following this scene, John hears 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. 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.”
Did the battle happen at the beginning, as Augustine thought? By the blood of the Lamb, which we understand to be Christ, Jesus the Messiah?
Trying to date this revealed scene to an historic moment, at the beginning, in the middle or still to come at the end, is misguided. The revelation of this heavenly battle is a revelation of the context within which we live our lives. If all the world’s a stage and men and women merely players then the stage upon which men and women play out their lives is always, inescapably, in the context of the great heavenly battle between Good and Evil.
That is that we live our lives of faith as lives of war; war against sin, the world and the devil. This should not be a surprise to us. This is the battle prayer which is prayed over us at our baptism, that we shall fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil until our life’s end.
Perhaps war is not how we generally approach our lives. We live happily enough for the most part, we have our ups and downs, our difficulties and our worries but we feel that we shouldn’t complain too much. After all, things aren’t that bad really. Besides, Angels and demons and all of that are mainly mythical illustrations of themes of struggle and so on aren’t they?
There’s a balancing act here. One which has been coined so effectively by CS Lewis in the introduction to his Screwtape letters that it’s worth drawing on again – there are two equal and opposite errors which are made about the demonic; the first is that we see them everywhere and behind every little thing that goes wrong, the second is that we are inclined to think that they don’t exist at all. This self same principle is at play with the angels and with spiritual warfare.
Angels, the living spiritual ministers of the Lord are real and are really engaged in battle with those nefarious spirits of the Devil. This is the context, the backdrop, the stage of the spiritual reality in which all humanity lives – knowingly or unknowingly.
If this is so, what then are we to do?
First, it seems to me, we are to be honest. Radically so. We have to admit to the reality of the presence of sin within our lives. Jude describes this sin as having almost a tangible stain which affects our clothing and our possessions. Sin as a pervasive evil force against God’s divine holiness not only offends God but permeates every aspect of our lives by disorientating us away from the God who is the source of our life and being. At every juncture, sin strives to adjust our pilgrim trajectory away from God and towards death and destruction.
Being honest about sin means recognising its presence within our lives.
Sometimes when we hear that we are sinners we are inclined to resist the accusation. We want to protest “I’m not THAT bad..” However all of humanity wrestles with the reality of sin decaying our lives from living up to their full potential in line with the way in which we were created. To deny that we are sinful is to say that we don’t want the solution which saves us from sin. The Apostle John says, if any man says he is without sin he makes God to be a liar and the truth is not in him.
This is why we have this morning made our confession to Almighty God, acknowledging that we have sinned against him and against one another in thought, word and deed, through negligence, weakness and through our own intentional choices.
This is crucial. “God knows that sin is a terrible thing and the devil knows it, too.’ A preacher called Tozer once had this to say: “So he [the Devil] follows us around and as long as we will permit it, he will taunt us about our past sins… I have learned to talk back to him on this score. “Yes, Devil, sin is terrible – but remind you that I got it from you! And I remind you, Devil, that everything good – forgiveness and cleansing and blessing – everything that is good I have freely received from Jesus Christ!”
We must be honest about our sinfulness, our imperfections and our need to continue to pursue holiness because it is only by accepting and then confessing our sins that we can join with the angels in conquering by the blood of the Lamb and by giving testimony to the great things God has done; namely our salvation which has been won for us by God himself became one of us, living as one of us, dying for us as one of us upon the cross and then, with all the power of an abundant and never ending love which cannot and will not be constrained by sin and death, the Father raised his son Jesus to an eternal life; a living promise which shall endure forever. This, incidentally, is why the confession and absolution is followed by the Gloria in Excelsis Deo; united by the Spirit with the Son of God we receive forgiveness and are able to praise him with clean, undefiled lips.
It is here that we find our rightful place within the great heavenly war.
That is, we are to worship the Triune God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Worship is warfare.
We do this not alone, but in communion with the whole Church, through all the ages, and with the Angels in Heaven.
This is why in the Eucharistic prayer we say the Sanctus together, the eternal hymn of praise, and it’s introduced by saying “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name…”
To simplify the theology, in the Eucharist we encounter the presence of God and where we encounter the presence of God, angels are never far away. And our post communion prayer today will confess this most explicitly – “in this eucharist, you have brought us near to an innumerable company of angels.”
If we are to fight valiantly as disciples of Christ, we are to do so by confessing our sins and worshipping him through the Eucharist. By so doing we, with the spirit of Christ, shrug of the nefarious webs of sin which try to entangle us and restrain us from holiness. And we are reminded that we cannot fight in our own strength or passion. Our act of war is to receive and eat the bread which is for us Christ’s body. Our victory, conquering sin, is to drink the wine which is for us Christ’s blood of the covenant forged by his cross and resurrection.
In this, the great dragon which stalks our lives and tempts us to sin is cast down. And we hear, with St John, a loud voice in heaven proclaiming:
Now have come the salvation and the power, and the kingdom of 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. 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.
Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them!
May we rejoice, and wage our pilgrim warfare by worshipping our God and King alongside St Michael and all angels as we come and celebrate the Eucharist.