An address given at Templederry, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 27th September,
St Michael & All Angels, transferred
St Michael & All Angels, transferred
How do we talk about what we know but cannot see, what we perceive but cannot touch?
Today’s readings use the language and metaphor of angels and demons to talk about good and evil. Good and evil are spiritual concepts. We can’t see or touch them, but we know all about them, and we can distinguish between them, because each of us has the capability called conscience. I think this is what it means to say God has made us in his image.
Many people these days are embarrassed to talk about angels and demons. We’re modern people, they say - these are just old, unscientific, superstitious ways of talking. But hold on a moment. Scientists also talk about what they cannot see or touch. To talk about the nature of space and matter and energy, they coin strange, new words and concepts, like quarks and gluons, inflation and dark energy – with no embarrassment at all.
Others may be turned off by the highly sentimental depictions of angels we find in popular culture, and the ‘mind & spirit’ shelves of bookshops. But there is nothing sentimental about angels and demons in the Bible.
I suggest the biblical language of angels and demons is actually a fruitful way for us to talk about those very real but spiritual concepts of good and evil, and our relationship with God. Have you ever read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis? The letters are written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his younger and less experienced nephew Wormwood, to show him how to be a better tempter. If you haven’t read the book, you should – it’s very funny, but also full of insight into how we can be persuaded to make bad choices. I recommend it as a confirmation present, and for young people of all ages.
Let’s begin by looking at what we mean by an angel.
The word ‘angel’ is derived from the Greek word ‘angelos’, meaning simply ‘messenger’, any sort of messenger. Today we usually think of an angel as a spiritual messenger from God. People often suddenly realise what the right thing is to do in a particular situation, and make a life-changing decision - say to choose a caring vocation, or to make a stand against evil, or to decide this is my life’s partner. Sometimes this is so vivid an experience that it’s as if a voice calls them to make the right choice. That voice is the voice of an angel passing on a message from God.
The ancient Hebrews struggled to understand their relationship with God. In today’s 1st reading (Genesis 28:10-17) we heard how Jacob in a dream suddenly realised something really important - that it is the very nature of God to care for his people. In his dream he sees God’s messengers – the angels of God - ascending and descending a ladder reaching from Earth to Heaven. Then in his dream, in the voices of the angels I like to think, he hears God make that great promise to the Hebrew people which we call the Covenant: ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’. As Christians we believe this applies to us as much as the Hebrews.
When Jacob wakes up from his dream he says, ‘This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. He makes an altar out of the stone he used as a pillow, and he names the place Bethel, meaning House of God.
Jesus knew his Hebrew scriptures very well, of course.
In today’s 3rd reading (John 1:47-51), he is surely thinking of Jacob’s dream when he says to Nathanael, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’.
He says this in a joking tone, I think. But the underlying message is completely serious. Jesus is identifying himself, the Son of Man, with Bethel, Jacob’s House of God. And without saying so directly he tells Nathanael that he, Jesus, is the Gate of Heaven.
Why does Jesus not say this more clearly? Perhaps the time is not yet right for Jesus to reveal his significance publicly. But he does so later in John’s Gospel in the seven familiar ‘I am’ sayings: ‘I am …the bread of life … the light of the world … the gate to salvation … the resurrection and the life … the way and the truth and the life … the true vine’.
Not all angels in the Bible are good, however, as we heard in the 2nd reading (Revelation 12: 7-12).
We heard about a great war in heaven: on the good side, Archangel Michael and his angels; and on the bad side, ‘the great dragon …that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world’, and his angels. Yes, there are bad angels as well as good ones – we call them demons! Michael and his good angels triumph, and the Devil and his bad angels are thrown down from heaven to the earth. What is this about?
We all know how weak we are, don’t we? Even though my conscience allows me to distinguish right from wrong, all too often I can convince myself that what is wrong is right, perhaps because I desire it, or because I am afraid of what will happen or what others will think of me if I do the right thing, or simply because it is more convenient. It is part of the human condition, it is what is called original sin. Sometimes it is as if I hear persuasive voices in my head, arguing bad is good, lies are true, ugliness is beauty, or hate is love. These are the voices of the bad angels that have been thrown out of heaven, messengers from the Devil.
It’s tricky, isn’t it? If I hear the voice of an angel, how do I know the message is from God? How do I know it is not from ‘the deceiver of the whole world’? So often we hear competing voices and struggle to decide which is right - echoing that war in heaven in which, thank God, good triumphs.
These words from Matthew’s Gospel (7:15-20) give us a clue, a test we can use: ‘You will know them by their fruits’, says Jesus, ‘Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit’. In other words, we must use our God-given reason to look at the consequences of any decision we make, and if our God-given conscience tells us they are bad, we can be sure the voice we hear is that of a bad angel, a demon.
It is hard work to discern what is truly right from what is truly wrong. That work is the spiritual work which we call prayer. We would all do well to do more of it. Of course many unbelievers, if they are of good will, also work hard to make the right choices – they would not call it prayer, but that I think is what it really is.
Let me finish with a prayer for discernment:
we pray that the voices of your holy angels
may help us to discern your will in all we do,
and to disregard the deceiving voices
which do not come from you;
May we share in the victory
of Michael and all your holy angels
as we work for the coming of your Kingdom.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen