A Little Lower than the Angels

St. Michael & All Angels

Luke 10:17-20

We’ve got angels.  Boy, how we got angels! There are angels of the month, birthstone angels, dashboard angels that say, “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly,” bumper stickers that proclaim, “Angels on board.” There are gardening angels, Mother’s Day angels, angels modeling lingerie, and Hallmark angels holding everything from Thanksgiving turkeys to St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks.

We’ve got chubby babies with wings who cavort on every possible knick-knack.  We’ve got wispy angels, swathed in Victorian chintz drapery, looking a little too waif-like to cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty!”  Greeting cards, wallpaper, candy bars, a baseball team, movies, and plays— feathered wings joined human foibles just about everywhere these days!

And then there’s this from our hymn: They shine with light and heavenly grace And constantly behold Thy face; They heed Thy voice, they know it well, In godly wisdom they excel.  They never rest nor sleep as we; Their whole delight is but to be With Thee, Lord Jesus, and to keep Thy little flock, Thy lambs and sheep.

Set that picture side by side with the post-modern depiction of angels as a pleasant remnant of myth, made in our image, bent to our will, filling desire for spirituality and crass marketing all at once—and the Scriptural image is so very different…this vanguard of the army of heaven, the praises of God in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, a choir in battle formation, with captains and princes, standards and banners arrayed around the throne of the Lord of Light.

Singers with shields, messengers of the divine Word, some appointed to ceaseless praise, some appointed as guardians for us on earth: these, and not the commercial imitations, are the angels of the Lord.

The cosmology of the ancient world is not ours today—or so we usually think.  We no longer see angels behind every physical force of nature, angels behind every unexplained scientific phenomenon.  Except for the Left Behind crowd or those who tend to see the world like a Star Wars movie—most Christians, and certainly we Lutherans, don’t often describe our reality with reference to a cosmic battle between the evenly-matched forces of good and evil…where sometimes good prevails, sometimes evil.

We already know which battle standard the host of heaven carry, what emblem is blazoned on every shield and breastplate of St. Michael’s legions.  We know the sign by which they conquer.

Whether our modern sensibilities accept it or not, the holy angels are not superfluous, are not incidental to, or independent of, the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ.  In the might of Christ and under the banner of His cross, the host of heaven continue to do God’s will, despite the death throes of the ancient dragon.  That war in Revelation 12 is over.  Satan is already finished.  Cast down like lightning from heaven.  Yet still he fights, mortally wounded, all the angrier for his defeat, knowing that his time is short.

And that, in the imagery of the Book of Revelation, is where we live.  Now and not yet.  Satan defeated now, but not yet destroyed.  We live in the time where St. Paul can claim that our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  It is the reality where Satan accuses our brothers—us—day and night, and assails the Church of Christ at every opportunity.  We can smell the dragon’s scaly odor in Christian denominations, in Christian congregations, in Christian schools, colleges, and seminaries—and in the homes where God’s people dwell.  The devil dogs us in the work God has set our hands to, in all of our various callings.  Sin deadens our witness.  Unbelief runs rampant.  Apostasy increases.

“As he of old deceived the world And into sin and death has hurled, So now he subtly lies in wait To undermine both Church and State.  A roaring lion, round he goes, No halt nor rest he ever knows; He seeks the Christians to devour And slay them by his dreadful power.”

How long, O Lord?  How long will our cry mingle with that of the saints and angels?  Many of us come here Sunday after Sunday, wounded and angry, sick in body and spirit, weary of putting our hand to the plowshare of faith, desperate to look back for something else.  Some of us are tired of taking up the cross, sick to death of the command to follow Jesus.  We are exhausted by being last with no glimmer of hope in being first; suspicious that the word “servant” entails a lot more dying than we first thought.  Others of us come Sunday by Sunday hoping to find a few moments to rejoice with brothers and sisters who share the faith that is so easily and quickly ridiculed out there.

But for all of us, in the middle of the scornful wonder of the world, in the laments of the saints and angels who join our night of weeping, the namesake of this day, St. Michael, whose name sounds forth with all that we need to know.  The name Michael means, Who is like God?

Who is like God?  Not me! Not you!  Not even the archangels, whose names whisper of distant, ceaseless prayer: Gabriel, whose name means, God is my strength. Raphael, whose name means, God is my healer. And Michael, Who is like God?  Not even the archangels are like God.  It is the Lamb alone who conquers, gives strength, brings healing. Only Jesus.

So who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?  Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God who indeed is interceding for us.  He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, and was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

And that is our starting point….so much lower than the angels!  Our foundation.  That we have been bought with a price, redeemed from hell.  And the One who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.

You are promised that nothing will hurt you.  This might better be translated “in nothing will He hurt you.”  Clearly, you and I can be wounded, beaten down, despairing.  You and I can feel as though life has ripped out our heart!  Clearly we bear in our own bodies the effects of sin. Our whole life is marked by dying and failing.

But God, through the cross, has defeated the power of the unholy trinity: sin, death, and devil. God continues to guard and protect you, not through the sentimentalized and commercialized angelic spirits, but through the muscular power of the cross—the hiddenness of life coming from death, of the slain Lamb victorious.  And He will give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways…in all His ways.  He forgives you all your sins and heals all your infirmities, and causes you to stand, upheld by His righteous, omnipotent hand.

And at the last, there will be one more angel for you. Not with sword or shield or choir book—but with the white robe of resurrection and the trumpet blast and the archangel’s cry, calling you out of sleep in the dust on that great Today, for God has redeemed your life from the grave, crowned you with mercy and lovingkindness. He makes you shine like the brightness of the stars forever.

And on that day, what was proclaimed from the beginning will be fulfilled: “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come.” And we shall sing. What else will be left for us but singing?

For this, now and in days to be, Our praise shall rise, O Lord, to Thee, Whom all the angel hosts adore With grateful songs forevermore.