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Worth Celebrating‽

9/29/13

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See the punctuation mark at the end of the sermon title? That's the interrobang, a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point. It was invented in 1962. It's not considered standard punctuation, but it expresses what we all feel at times: a simultaneous question and exclamation. Today is the festival of St. Michael and All Angels. Is it worth celebrating? Or it's worth celebrating! Or is it both'

It's a fair question. Is it worth having a whole day in celebration of St. Michael and all angels? The festival is ancient in origin dating to the 5th century. The Collect we used was recorded in the 6th. In the 16th century the Anglicans added the "and all angels" part (Reed, 566). Luther was in favor of keeping the festival on the Lutheran Church calendar.

Still there is a danger of making too much of angels. Colossians 2:18 says some did worship angels. It must be relatively easy to do. St. John was so caught up with their power and beauty that he was rebuked for falling down in worship before one in Revelation. Angel worship must have been a tendency in the early church because through the time of St. Gregory in the 6th century the adoring of angels was forbidden (Lutheran Cyclopedia, 33). But we would never do that, would we? No? Look how amazed we are at athletes, artists, actors who have skills, talents, looks that are above normal. Some worship these. Worshipping superhuman angels would be even easier.

So is it wise to have a festival, a holy day, a holiday dedicated to angels whom fallen men are prone to worship and to separate from Christ? You know what an angel apart from Christ is? A devil, a demon, an unclean spirit. I started having a yearly celebration of St. Michael's in the early 90's in part because of the public fascination with angels at the time. "Touched by an Angel" was a popular TV show then. There was a news documentary "In Search of angels." Always the angels were depicted apart from Christ. Angels apart from Him are demons, and as we see in the Great Temptation demonic angels want to be worshipped.

Is St. Michael and All Angels worth celebrating when there is danger of making too much of angels, of separating them from Christ, and of speculation? Although no one can find where a medieval theologian actually debated how many angels could dance on the head of pin, they did speculate how many could fit in this or that space. By 500 A.D. angels had been divided into 27 ranks (Lutheran Cyclopedia, 33). But it's not just scholars. Everyone has heard angel stories. Many have their own. There is danger in getting caught up in our thoughts about angels, whether scholarly speculations or subjective stories, rather than in what Scripture actually says about them.

Is it worth celebrating is a fair question to ask in regard to St. Michael and All Angels, but I think it's a better exclamation point. It's worth celebrating! But why was this festival ever called Saint Michael? Why is an angel called a saint? Angels aren't humans. In fact Hebrews 1:14 says angels serve us who inherit salvation, and I Corinthians 6:3 says we will judge angels. So why do we call him Saint Michael? Because a saint is a holy person; angels are personal beings and the Bible calls them holy. In Mark 8:38 Jesus says He will come in His Father's glory "with the holy angels."

You and I are holy, are saints, because our sins are forgiven for Jesus' sake. Good angels are holy by nature. All angels were created holy like Adam and Eve; some angels fell and became devils. The good angels that didn't fall are confirmed in their holiness. There's no danger of them ever falling. We know this because Jesus says in Matthew 18:10 that the angels in heaven always behold His Father's face. As a child will physically look to his parents to see if something is okay, the good angels never stop looking to the Father for their marching orders. Furthermore, Jesus says the good angels march between heaven and earth on Him, the holy Son of God and Son of Man. Good angels never take their eyes off the Father and never lose contact with the Son as they do God's bidding in our lives.

We can celebrate the ministry of the good angels because they are holy. They can't do wrong by us, harm us, fail us. Our Lutheran Confessions even say that angels pray for us. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession we say, "Besides, we also grant that the angels pray for us" (XXI, 8). Angels praying for us is a fitting thing to celebrate, and so is the fact we can pray for their protection. From early on we teach our children to pray not to angels but to God for the protection of angels. "Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe have no power over me," we teach them to pray.

Sure there is a danger of worshipping angels, but it is trumped by the fact that angels worship with us. In a hymn we call out to the "watchers and ye holy ones, / Bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones," to "Raise the glad strain." And we call upon the "dominions, princedoms, powers, / Virtues, archangels, angels' choirs," to cry out "alleluia" with us. In the Proper Preface before Communion we remember that we "laud and magnify" God's glorious name with "angels and archangels." The fact that with the few of us gathered here there's a whole host of angels is worth celebrating.

Of course there is a danger of being enamored, overawed at these celestial beings with supernatural powers, but the greater danger is to ignore them and their powers. The powers that the Greeks and Romans claimed for Hercules, the powers the generation before me claimed for Superman, the powers my generation claimed for Batman, the powers the generation below me claimed for Power Rangers, and the powers the present generation claims for Pokemon and Transformers, angels really have. There is nothing wrong with make believe superheroes, but kids need to be told there are real beings that actually have these powers and that God for Jesus' sakes puts them in service of us.

It is worth celebrating that one angel killed 185,000 Assyrians to save God's people from certain slaughter. It is worth celebrating that God sent an angel into the lion's den with Daniel to shut the hungry lions' mouths. It is worth celebrating that God sent an angel to bring Peter out of prison so that the Gospel might go forward. It is worth celebrating that an angel was sent to assure Paul in the midst of a storm tossed sea that he and his shipmates would all be saved. It is worth celebrating that Daniel reveals that angels work on behalf of God's people at the highest levels of government. It is worth celebrating that by God's appointment angels don't just "help and defend" but "succor and defend."

Our Collect was originally translated from Latin with "succor and defend" but our TLH changed it to "help and defend." Succor can mean "help" but it can mean much more. It comes from a Latin word meaning "to run to the rescue, to bring aid, to furnish relief." And it is worth celebrating that angels were sent to succor Daniel in Babylon, Elijah in the wilderness, and Jesus in Gethsemane. Angels ran to their aid so they could go on.

Now we come to the question mark that is so big it can eclipse our exclamation point, but in the end this question can bring forth an even bigger exclamation. The question is if we have the ministry of supernatural angels why do Christians suffer at all? Why are they maimed or die in war, in accident, in tragedy, in disaster?

The ministry of angels on our behalf came about because the holy angels stood by and did nothing in a tragedy. We sing about this on Palm Sunday. We sing of angel armies looking down from heaven with "sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching sacrifice." We see angels doing nothing in the savage wilderness where Jesus is tempted for 40 days and nights. The angels only show up to minister to Him after Satan has fled. In 1 Peter we see the angels bent at the waist, stooping over to see the wonder of the Gospel worked out in flesh and blood.

Apart from the bloody, painful, horrible sacrifice of the innocent Jesus on the cross, all the angels could do for us is bar the way back into Eden. Unless the angels allowed Jesus to stand up to Satan's temptation as a Man without any supernatural aid, Jesus wouldn't be standing up in our place. Unless the angels stood by and did nothing as Jesus hungered and thirsted, He couldn't have suffered these punishments that we deserve. If the angels had lifted a finger, a feather, to lighten the beating, the whipping, the bleeding, the crying, the dying that Jesus did on the cross, God's wrath would not be completely satisfied against your sins. If the angels had helped Jesus as He suffered and died in our place, there would still be some wrath to suffer, some hell to pay in your life or at your death.

We know the angels didn't intervene. They stood idly by while Jesus drained the last drop of the cup of God's wrath. They did nothing as Jesus paid for every single sin you can think of, the hundreds you can't and the half-dozen you don't want to. They did nothing as Jesus removed every reason God had to be angry, upset, or disappointed in you by scrubbing each and every one away by His blood, sweat, and tears. So when Christians suffer it can't be because God is still angry at them and is looking for His pound of flesh. He already got that in the perfect flesh of Jesus. Jesus' resurrection from the dead proves God has put away the sins of the world and with its sins His wrath.

When tragedy, accident, death, illness come into the Christian's life, it's true angels haven't intervened; they have stood idly by with folded hands and wings. But the angels' failure to act is not because there is not enough of them to go around, not because your guardian angel is dumb, not because he wasn't strong enough to help. The angels stand looking with sad and wondering eyes because sometimes to interfere with the Christian's tragedy, accident, dying, or suffering is to interfere with his salvation.

It's not strange that we who've been saved by a cross of shame and suffering should have such crosses on the path of our salvation. It's not strange that we can't understand the bumps, twists, hills, and holes on our path to heaven. These are questions marks for angels too, but they don't dim their exclamation of praise; they add to it. Much as the point of the exclamation is added to by the question mark in the interrobang. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris, Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas, St. Micahel and All Angels (20130929)