Michael and All Angels - A Blessing for the Battle


A sermon on Revelation 12:7-12

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

During my first year in seminary my husband, Tyler, joined an intramural flag football team at the seminary with a rather unusual name: they called themselves the Seraphim.

Now, at the time, my only association with that name was the phrase “cherubin and seraphim,” which is I my response to the name was to say: “Oh. Cute!”

The guys on the football team hastened to correct me.

You see, they hadn’t names themselves for the adorable, chubby, baby angels I was thinking of (that would have been a little weird). They were named for the imposing, six-winged angels described in prophetic visions of God’s throne room, which share a name with fiery serpents.

I share this story because it highlights one of the challenges that I think the contemporary church faces in celebrating a feast day like Michael and All Angels. The way our culture usually talks about angels is, if not “cute”, at least un-imposing. We talk about guardian angels watching over us, or picture Roma Downey with a kind, gentle smile.

But that’s not the kind of angels we get in today’s readings… Today, we get the archangel Michael and his hosts violently battling with evil powers in the cosmic realm.

I don’t know about you, but violent angels make me a little uncomfortable. One of the things I cherish about the faith that Jesus taught is its non-violence. I don’t particularly want my angels waving swords.

However, I was reminded this week that my language, at least, is not always so non-violent. Because I do resonate with the idea of battling in the context of things that cause pain and suffering:

We battle cancer, and diabetes, and heart disease.

We battle addiction, in its many visible and hidden forms.

We battle mental illness and all the ways it saps the joy and balance from our lives.

We battle injustices, and systemic inequalities, and climate destruction, and all the things that undermine health and wholeness in our world and our lives.

And in all these battles I WANT victory. I want the best minds, and science, and needed resources and, ultimately, I want Divine power fighting to win these battles! Like the seventy-two disciples in our reading from Luke. I want our human efforts to be supported on the cosmic level. Because I know we humans need the help. On our own, we are more likely to fight amongst ourselves about who is to blame than to defeat the many forces of destruction that threaten our lives and our societies.

So, I guess what I’m saying is: maybe I don’t mind my angels wielding swords.

But, of course, the visions of angels in today’s readings aren’t mine to command. They have a particular battle they are fighting. And the people of God are called to participate in that battle in a particular way.

Moreover, as far as it may feel from the personal battles in our lives, the cosmic battle really is the most essential battle that we face – because it is the battle for our souls that shapes how we experience and respond to every other battle. The angelic battle described in our texts is a battle against the forces of power at work in our world that seek to set themselves in the place of God and to demand the allegiance and worship of God’s people… an allegiance that would cut us off from God.

Now, to recognize this battle, we need to understand some of the cultural context that would have been familiar to the original Christian audience:

The vision described in the Book of Revelation (especially in the six verses that lead up to today’s reading) uses mythic language familiar to the audience from the deity stories of Greco-Roman culture.[1] In the myth of the sun-god, Apollo, a dragon seeks to destroy the son of Zeus as he is born, but his mother escapes to give birth to Apollo on an island. Apollo, once grown, returns and destroys the dragon to establish a golden age of peace and prosperity.

It’s a classic myth of the struggle between good and evil, that captures – in the character of the dragon – the fear and uncertainty the humanity experiences, but offers assurance that Good has the victory.

The Roman empire appropriated this myth with the characters recast: the mother is the goddess Roma, and her son is the Emperor – the new Apollo who establishes the new golden age that banishes the dragon of chaos and darkness.

This myth was relevant to John’s audience, because all subjects of the Roman empire were required to worship the emperor as a god who assures their continued protection. Obviously – this requirement, and the myth that goes with it, is a problem for Christians who are called to worship the One True God, and none other.

So, when John writes about a dragon, in the 12th chapter of Revelation (and when that dragon, in verses 1-6 seeks to devour the child of a woman in labor) his readers would have recognized the myth.

But with a number of twists:

The dragon is now not only the cosmic Evil one, but also Rome itself – the manifestation of threat both to the Divine child (Jesus, whom Rome killed) and to the fellow-heirs of Christ in the church.

The laboring mother doesn’t escape to an island. Rather, the baby is snatched up to God… in this version of both the myth, Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection are collapsed into one moment.

And thus, it is not the survival of the baby, but rather Christ’s passage through death to resurrection that defeats the dragon. The victory song that is sung after the dragon’s defeat declares: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11).

The myth that was being used to establish the power and moral authority of the emperor is recast to issue a very different call to loyalty: a call of loyalty to the Lamb who was slain… but who is nevertheless guaranteed victory.

Now, if this scene still fails to connect with your lived experience, I get it. The scene is described in unfamiliar mythic terms, using apocalyptic language that – ironically – obscures more than it reveals to us.

But here’s the insight that Revelation offers us that is absent from every other telling of the myth… and it’s an insight that resonates powerfully with our real experience: The victory is assured, but the golden age isn’t here yet.

In the Greek and Roman versions of the myth, Apollo or the Emperor had won, the dragon was defeated, and peace and prosperity were established. Except, that’s just not real life. There is still struggle. There is still evil and fear active in the world. There is still the chaos of health crises, and kid-napped children, and opioid addiction, and broken relationships, and on, and on, and on.

The dragon doesn’t feel very defeated.

And the vision in Revelation doesn’t pretend otherwise. The blood of the Lamb has gained the victory, and Michael and the Angels have cast the dragon out of heaven, “but oh! The horror for the earth and sea! The devil has come down to you with great rage, for he knows that he only has a short time.” (Rev. 12:12). We experience the truth of that rage in all the thousands of ways that our world and our lives are broken. And, unfortunately, the time doesn’t feel that short for us.

Now, if all we got from this vision were a description of reality with which we can resonate, we probably wouldn’t find that very helpful. After all, we want the angels with the swords fighting OUR battles with us, right, not just fighting in heaven?

But there is one other aspect to this story that lies at the center of the whole message of Revelation… we heard it just a few minutes ago: “they have conquered (the enemy) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11).

The central call of the book of Revelation is a call to lives of active witness. A call, not for the angels to come and fight with us, but for us to join their defense of the Lordship of Jesus.

n our context, of course, we aren’t facing the prospect of Roman persecution if we fail to proclaim the divinity of the Emperor, but that doesn’t mean this call is irrelevant for us, or for the battles we face in our lives. There are other, more subtle, bids for our loyalty, our allegiance, our worship, that pull us away from our trust in God. Pulls to financial gods, or political ones, or even to relationships in which we put our trust. And those pulls weaken our ability to cope with our daily battles.

Because they tell us that our help does not come from God.

And they tell us to be always afraid, always running after an illusory protection from the pain, and loss, and death that are an inevitable part of life.

And in doing so, they build habits of anxiety that undermine our basic hope: the hope that these daily battles are not all there is, and that the final battle is already won.

And we need that hope – not only for our own wholeness, but because we have a job to do, just as John’s readers did. As Brian Blount explained in our Summer book club read, Can I Get a Witness, the significance of the myth in Rev. 12 is “not just that Jesus is the true Lord; those who witness to Jesus’ lordship, by doing so, help make that lordship occur. Their historical testimony has cosmic significance…. By their faithfulness to God, they are helping to defeat the powers of evil.”[2]

In other words: we are part of this cosmic battle. Michael and the angels are on our side, and that’s great news, but it doesn’t get us off the hook. It is our testimony, our willingness to reject all other powers that seek our loyalty and our worship, and to say “God is in charge and I will not be afraid” – it is this witness that actually changes the world.

If you’re anything like me, that probably still sounds a little overwhelming. So, I would like to leave you with a blessing from the Franciscan tradition. A blessing that calls us to the hard work of engaging the battles of this world with holy hope. Hear these words of blessing:

May God Bless you with anger

at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,

so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears,

to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,

so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness

to believe that you can make a difference in the world,

so that you can do what others claim cannot be done

to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

Amen

[1] This interpretation of Revelation draws heavily from the commentary on Revelation by M. Eugene Boring (Interpretation: Revelation, Louisville, John Knox Press, 1989).

[2] Brian Blount, Can I Get a Witness:Reading Revelation through African American Culture, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, p.61)

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