Where Angels Fear to Tread
"Where angels fear to tread" comes from the 18th century work "An Essay on Criticism" by Alexander Pope. It's been used as a book title, movie title, and song title. Many of you know it is the second of a two part adage. The first part is where we'll end up.
Angels don't and do fear to tread on Jesus. In the first days of His ministry Jesus marks who He is and what He came to do by pointing out that the angels of God ascend and descend on Him as a sort of cosmic ladder. The angels don't zip back and forth between heaven and earth in some random, erratic pattern. No, they are tethered to Jesus where they tread back and forth on Him.
The evil angels, the demons, they don't tread on Jesus. When confronted by God the Son even clothed in flesh and blood, even in His humiliation, they know that He is the Son of the Most High; they know He has the absolute power to send them back to Hell. So they don't tread on Jesus. They beg for His mercy.
But sometimes it seemed that the evil angels did walk all over Jesus. Satan in the Great Temptation apparently led Him around by the nose wherever he pleased from the top of the temple to the top of a mountain. Satan showed up in Peter in last week's Gospel and he shows up in Holy Week in Judas. On the night He is betrayed Jesus says that the hour belongs to the powers of darkness.
Does that perplex you? Does it cause you concern if not consternation? It did the angels too. 1 Peter 1:12 says, "Even angels long to look into such things." The Greek pictures them bent over in heaven, hands on their knees, staring in wonder as Jesus goes about His work of keeping the Law in place of fallen mankind and paying for their having broken it. Isaiah shows us Jesus in heaven. There the six-winged seraphim use two of their wings to cover their faces. Both good angels and bad angels showed awe, respect, and wonder at who Jesus is and what He came to do. How about you?
Yes, what about you? Well neither angels nor demons tread on you. "Don't Tread on Me" is a motto that goes back to Revolutionary War times and forward through various military units and political parities. The idea is that they won't be walked over. It's bigger and grander to say that angels don't tread on me.
The good angels don't go between heaven and earth on you. They're not focused on you. Matthew 18 says that they do always behold the face of the Father in heaven. Yes, morning and evening we pray, "Let Your holy angel be with me that the evil foe may have no power over me." But they aren't all about you or me. They are all about Jesus. The two times the angels are said to rejoice are when God the Son, without whom not one thing was created, brought the universe into being. Job 38 says, "They shouted for joy." And at recreation; when one sinner repents, Luke 15 says they angels in heaven rejoice. An angel announces the incarnation; angels announce His birth, resurrection, and Ascension, and return with Him on the Last Day.
You think that's cool? You ain't seen nothing yet. Jesus says to the first 72 pastors, "Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you." This imagery is from Psalm 91:13 where the emphatic for "tread," we'd say trample, is used in the Septuagint. And what is trampled there is the dra-kon-ta the dragon which we find in the Epistle reading today being cast out of heaven. Jesus says they have authority to tread on serpents and scorpions that is over all the power of the enemy.
Is this true of only pastors? No, James tells all Christians, "Resist the Devil and he will flee from you." John promises us all, "Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world." Some baptismal liturgies even in the Reformation had exorcisms in them to show that Baptism has the power to drive out the devil and his angels. These liturgies showed what we sing in "A Mighty Fortress." One little Word in any Christian's mouth can bring the old evil foe down in defeat.
Hear what Jesus says in all its shocking, startlingly over the top-ness. He begins with the word "behold" which lets you know that this is something amazing, important, astonishing. "I have given you" is a Greek perfect. That means the authority to tread down all the power of the evil one is yours forever. As if all this was not emphatic enough, Jesus concludes the sentence with "and nothing shall hurt you." Greek doubles negatives when it wants to be very emphatic. "Nothing you not no way shall hurt."
He's got to be kidding, right? Christians with guardian angels die every single day. Of the apostles only John won't die a tortured death. "Nothing shall hurt you" has got to be a joke, got to be hyperbole, or got to be something very far different from what I think. Even though Scripture tells us we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness, we think what can hurt flesh and blood is our biggest danger. Even though Paul warns against the "fiery darts of the devil" and not a word about cancer, heart disease, tragic or accidental death, what do we think of, focus on, want to be delivered from?
Yes, we think nothing of being delivered from a heart that condemns us by God who is greater than our hearts and puts us in Jesus where there is no condemnation. We think little of having the forgiveness of all our sins on our bodies in Baptism, in our ears in Absolution, in our mouths in Communion. We want these physical bodies delivered from pain, promised gain, and our youth regained. And when our bodies do suffer, we think Jesus has not kept His promise here. Paul acknowledges that there is suffering in this world but calls it "light and momentary." He recognizes that it is through many tribulations that we enter heaven but says they're not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us.
I can see I'm unconvincing. I told you we would end with the first part of the adage. "Where angels fear to tread" is the second part. "Fools rush in" is the first, and before you get upset with me for calling you a fool my goal is to bring you to the same place Abraham was in Genesis 17 where he fell down laughing finally getting how God was working in his life. He fell down laughing thinking of all the foolish worries, fears, even tears he had put himself through for the last 25 years.
As I said this adage "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread" is from an Alexander Pope essay on criticism. He points out how easy it is to criticize others, and how often the critic doesn't know as much as the criticized. How much more so this must be the case with God and Man? When the apostles were arrested and beaten in Acts, I would have rushed in claiming that Jesus had not kept His promise. The apostles didn't; they prayed, praised and gave thanks. When James is killed by the sword in Acts 12, I would have gotten on my self-righteous high horse and ridden into heaven itself claiming foul. The Church in Acts didn't. They instead prayed for the release of Peter.
All of Scripture is filled with instances where physical maladies befell God's people and angels didn't step in. O sure, angels came to the physical rescue of Elisha at Dothan, Daniel in the lions' den, and Peter in prison. But Joseph was imprisoned for years. Jeremiah went from prison, to pit, to prisoner in Egypt. Stephen is stoned while Jesus looks down from heaven, and though Stephen's face looked angelic no angel lifted a finger to help.
"Nothing shall hurt you" can't mean no sticks or stones, but Sin, Death, and the Devil. These are whom Jesus came into the world to do battle with. And angels stood by while He did. They don't come to minister to Jesus till after He withstood the Great Temptation as a Man in your place. An angel does come to strengthen Him in Gethsemane, but that is so He can make it to the cross to suffer the full punishment for all your sins. It's the equivalent of getting the death row inmate well enough to execute him. No angel comforted Him when God forsook Him on the cross and no angel brought Him drink when thirsty. They watched with folded wings and sad eyes.
Only fools would walk here where no angel dared. Peter shows us them bending over longing to understand how their God is willing to suffer in place of His fallen creation. They cover their eyes at things their eyes aren't capable of taking in. They look away to the Father's face when they can't understand what is going on, on the face of the earth. But not fools like me.
Even though 1 Peter 1 says, "Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps," I don't look with wonder but disgust at physical suffering. And I think even though I'm no angel I ought to be able to understand all that my eyes see so I look and look at things too wonderful for me. And rather than look away to the Father's face in Word and Sacrament when distressed by what I see, I look inward to the poverty of my own thoughts and the darkness of my own mind.
But I'm not the only fool here. I have 72 compatriots in this text. After making that great promise that nothing ultimately shall hurt them because they have power to tread all over all the power of the evil one, Jesus takes the wind out of their souls. He says, "Stop rejoicing in this that the spirits are subject to you, but do rejoice that your names are forever written in heaven." This too is a perfect. This too is forever. Rather than foolishly rejoicing in what you have in this life in Jesus' name walk about rejoicing that your names are forever inscribed in heaven.
I don't care what you go through here physically, how much suffering, how much sickness, how much pain, grief, loss, or tragedy, none of it can erase or even fade your name written in heaven. Why? Because it's written in the very Blood of God. And angels and demons too fear to tread on God's blood. But fools like me drink it for forgiveness, for life, and for salvation. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Michael and All Angels (20140928); Luke 10: 17-20