For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: 15th sunday after Pentecost 2011

St. Michael & All Angels is traditionally celebrated on September 29 (also known as Michaelmas), but in our parish we marked it today, on the 25th. This day is not set aside to worship the angels — heavens no! In Revelation 22:8-9, an angel speaks up and specifically dissuades St. John forcibly from worshipping him and giving him divine homage: “And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things.  9Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God.” Angels don’t want to be worshiped — the good ones don’t, anyway. The evil angels are only too happy to receive the misguided prayer and worship of foolish mortals – and it does go to them (i cor 10.20).

The purpose of this feast is for us to review and remember what God has revealed to us about the holy angels from the Bible. That’s a lot to cover — angels are mentioned constantly from Genesis through Revelation. Just this past week, as I was preparing for this Sunday, I noticed whenever angels were mentioned in my daily devotions. It was a lot! I ran across two mentions as I’m praying my way through the Psalms (Ps 103 & 104), and also in a reading from 1 Tim (5:21). They’re just mentioned a lot. Therefore it behooves us to make sure we know what the true teaching is regarding angels.  We give thanks for the angels, we appreciate all they do for us, but we never worship them or give them divine honor (Romanist doctrine and much current touchy-feely wrongheadedness to the contrary.) They’re servants, just like we are, and while they’ve been given powers and abilities far beyond ours, we have received grace that far exceeds theirs. Our Lord Christ never became an angel, but He did become man.

The doctrine this festival focuses on is all the more needed in a world that likes to draw on the idea of angels, but portrays angels in a way that’s inconsistent or just flat contradicts Scripture. Movies like Bedazzled or Adjustment Bureau, TV shows like Touched by an Angel, as well as a constant stream of books both popular and schlocky, make it all the more necessary that Christians have their heads screwed on straight when it comes to the doctrine of angels. If you run off the rails here, you end up worshiping demons. That’s bad news. I think you see the need for this festival even today. Many churches don’t celebrate this day, which is too bad. It’s a worthwhile thing to do. I can see the Reformed, especially, getting their hackles up at this day — “Why do we need to have a service all about angels? Don’t we worship God?” Such an attitude fundamentally misunderstands the day, and angels in general. Angels are not presented as beings to worship, but rather be thankful for — like celestial police or firefighters. Roman Catholics and other more traditionally minded groups usually have no problem with this day (the local Roman parish here in town is named St. Michael’s, for example.) Unfortunately some go too far the other way and start getting wrapped up in trying to define, explain, and describe the different kinds and ranks of angels, and many times they fall into outright worship and veneration of them. It’s a clue when those who want to describe and codify the different ranks of angels can’t produce lists that are the same. Everybody does it a little differently. This tells you that they’re relying on something other than Scripture for their information, or that Scripture is at best a starting point for them to spin their own fantasies. Several passages do speak of different ranks of angels, different kinds, etc, but nothing as definite as some people want to claim. These are wondrous creatures and our acquaintance with them is spotty at best, despite all they do for us.

As I was looking for pictures to decorate this post, I quickly found out that pictures of angels on the Internet fall into several different categories: kitschy, chubby cherubim; sci-fi looking people in bodysuit armor with wings (think X-Men like; actually, I think there is an X-Men character named Angel, come to think of it); more staid icons or more typical religious depictions, e.g. like in stained glass; and my least favorite, lascivious, scantily clad women with wings. What on earth (or not on earth…) would possess someone to draw a lewd picture of a woman and then add wings on the back and have it be a spiritual creature? I guess that shows you the perversity and depravity of the human heart. Disgusting. Be advised if you’re looking for pictures of angels…some are pretty gross.

This sermon contains verses that are parallel to other passages that I’ve preached on, and some verses that I’ve never preached on. I haven’t ever encountered that before. That helped make this sermon unique. In fact, the very second sermon I ever wrote (while still in seminary) was on a Gospel from Mark 10, which is parallel to this Gospel. It was neat to think back to what I said then and compare it to what I was graciously allowed to say now.

Jesus’ statement in v.10 that little children’s angels always see the face of the Father in heaven is the obvious reason that this text was appointed as the Gospel for St. Michael and All Angels. Even that one verse is worth just sitting and pondering. It’s hard to explain, but you get Jesus’ point: do not look down on My little ones! They are precious! We’re never told exactly how that can be that the angels see God’s face continually in heaven, either. (Guess we’ll just have to figure out when we get there.)

Once you look more closely at this Gospel, you begin to see other tie-ins with angels. For instance, the statement that Jesus makes — “Woe to the world because of things that cause sin” — sounds very similar to what is said in Revelation 12:12, part of the Second Lesson for St. Michael’s Day. The warning against pride is very much in place when you consider that pride seems to have been the devil’s first sin. (I delve more into that in the sermon.) There are others links, as well, and I invite you to read the sermon and see, or study Matthew 18:1-10 for yourself. This is part of why I love using the historic readings — newer selections haven’t been tested by time and thus are more callow or obvious, not as deep. The historic readings tie in with the other lesson and with the church year, and with the whole of Christian doctrine, on so many more levels. They form a much more cohesive, unified, and stronger whole.

Revelation 12:7-12 is the Second Lesson appointed for St. Michael & All Angels. I didn’t preach on it directly, but I’ve included it in this post after the Gospel because it’s good to read, and it helps fill in some of the background for angels in general. I also refer to it several times in the sermon so it’s there for reference.

As I studied for this sermon, I was struck by the fact that angels help and defend us not only narrowly in a spiritual context, but really in all of our lives. In the home, among the governments of the world, as well as with individual believers in spiritual and physical peril — they do a lot and they don’t get a lot of attention usually, and if they do it’s not always good. They extend God’s love and care over every area of our lives. How greatly He must love us, if He created the holy angels solely for our benefit and His praise!

May Jesus send His angels to watch over you and keep you safe. Amen.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

2 He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

7 “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” (matt 18.1-10 niv84)

“And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. 8 But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. 9The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Christ.
For the accuser of our brothers,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”” (rev 12.7-12 niv84)

Have you ever heard a question that you knew was more than an ordinary question? Parents know exactly what that’s like.  The mom hears an unusual amount of water running in the house, running feet, and then a child’s voice calls out: “Mom, do we have any extra towels?” “Why do you ask?” “Oh, no reason….” Or dad’s working in the basement and he hears some strange thumps, and then a child’s voice: “Hey, dad, do we have a ladder?” “Why, son?” “Oh, no reason…” In our gospel for today Jesus hears a question similar to those questions. The disciples are going to ask about something, but their question has a lot more behind it than even they realize. Jesus will uncover the thoughts of their hearts and teach them, and us, a lesson in humility and caring for others. Today we’re also celebrating St. Michael and All Angels, which is the day that the Christian church has traditionally set aside to think about the blessings God gives us through the holy angels. We’ll consider what God has done for us, and still does, through His angels. All the different elements of our gospel for today can be summed up with the old police slogan To Serve and Protect. We’ll see how God wants us to serve others. We’ll see how God protects us with His holy angels.

The disciples had a simple question for Jesus. It was one that they’d asked often, and here they are debating it again. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Right before this Jesus had miraculously provided for His and Peter’s temple tax, the tax that all the Israelites had to pay for the temple upkeep. He’d done this by instructing Peter to throw a line in the lake and pull out the first fish he caught, and in that fish’s mouth were the two coins for His and Peter’s tax that they had to pay. Also, not long before this Jesus had permitted Peter, James, and John to see Him as He was transfigured – something the other disciples did not get to see. Those things, which could be seen as special marks of favor, along with a discussion that Mark tells us the disciples had had while on the road to Peter’s house about who was the greatest, prompted them to ask this question. It probably seemed like an innocent question to the disciples. They probably could tell where they stood in the group, just like we can tell where we stand in a group of people – but they wanted to ask Jesus to be sure.

Jesus’ reaction must have caught them off guard, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had shamed them. Jesus called a little child to Him and had the child stand in the middle of the ring of apostles, and then He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Well, that certainly answered their question, but maybe a little more strongly than they’d anticipated. Jesus is in part rebuking them here. He saw that they were beginning to be puffed up, full of themselves, concerned only about themselves, and He wanted to squash that before it could take root in their hearts. His words seem almost severe or harsh to the disciples. He may have bruised their pride somewhat. He may have hurt their feelings. Nobody likes to hear that they’re wrong.

As much as the disciples probably didn’t want to hear it at the time, of course Jesus is right here. He saw something going wrong in them that they didn’t see as wrong in themselves. What did Jesus see? He saw pride. Selfish pride is what made the disciples push and shove and argue and bicker about who was first. Sinful pride made each of them think, “You know what, I don’t know why he should get all the breaks and the special favors from Jesus. I’ve got just as much right to that as they do – maybe more. Why shouldn’t I be first?” So they argued and debated and each sought his own advantage over the others.

That’s why the humble example of the little child standing in their midst was so convicting to them. Little children don’t play politics or bicker over who should be in charge. They don’t worry about what other people think of them or if someone is trying to get ahead of them in a social group. They’re not suspicious of other peoples’ motives. That’s not even on their minds. Little children direct their attention outward and not at themselves. They listen to what you say (hopefully) and they trust that you’re telling them the truth, no matter what you tell them. If they’re Christian children, they trust in God the same way. God says it, so that makes it true. Little children are simple, in a good way, and uncomplicated and direct. Little children show love spontaneously and genuinely. They tend to be open and honest and trusting. Jesus tells us to be like little children because those are traits of faith: openness, a simpleness that takes everyone’s words and actions in the kindest possible way; a trustingness in God’s promises that has nothing to do with how smart you are intellectually.

Adults can tend to be the opposite of those things, because that’s how we’ve learned to be. Grownups can be closed-off, from God and from each other, argumentative, prideful, saying one thing out loud and thinking another thing in our hearts. Living in a sinful world with sinful flesh does that to a person. That’s not an excuse, but it still happens. We still act that way many times. The root of much of that negative grownup behavior (which even our children can display at times, unfortunately) is pride. Damnable pride – pride that puts myself first and refuses to yield. Pride that asks the disciples’ question and expects to hear, “Why, you, My child – of course!” We each want to be the special one, the head of the line. We want it to be that way all the time, and if we can’t have it that way, then forget you all, I’m not playing along. If you think Jesus is talking about somebody else when He says, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God” – if you think He’s talking about someone other than you, you’re wrong. That statement is meant for you, and for me.

Jesus warns us so sternly against pride because He’s seen what it can do. Look at what pride led the devil to do. He was originally one of God’s holy angels – they all started out holy. But he craved the power and honor that belonged to God alone, and his pride led him to say in his heart, “That should be me on the throne!” So he rebelled against God. We heard about it in our second lesson for today. He and the army of evil angels with him fought against the archangel Michael and the armies of good angels. It seems from Scripture that Michael is like one of the generals of heaven’s armies, and God is the supreme commander. That’s why God is called the Lord of hosts. You could almost translate that phrase as “the Lord of heaven’s armies.” So Satan and the evil angels fought against Michael and the good angels, and Satan and his side lost. He was thrown out of heaven. He lost his status as one of God’s special, powerful spiritual beings who serve Him.

Satan was cast down to the earth, and now he roams around like a roaring lion, looking for an opening to rip us apart. That’s why it says in our second lesson, “Woe to the earth and to the sea, because the devil has gone down to you.” He’s here now, and he and his evil angels want to rip and tear and destroy. He goes back and forth through this world, looking for someone to devour. He wants to murder us and drag us down to hell with him, and he is filled with fury because his time is short. Christ has already defeated him, and he knows he only has a short time left in which to hurt us. If he can attack us physically, he tries. Even worse, if he can do that spiritually, he prefers that, because it’s harder for us to be on guard against.

That is the real reason Jesus warns us against pride. Pride can be a tool of the devil. He’ll use whatever opening, whatever method he can to pull us away from God. If we let pride rule in our hearts, he can use that as a wedge between us and God. Jesus specifically warns us against one of the things pride can make us do: “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.” And He also says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

When Jesus speaks of little ones here, we naturally think of children.  The disciples would have too. They had a little child standing right in front of them. Jesus’ words certainly do apply to children. Children are looked down on when their parents can’t be bothered to bring the whole family to church regularly. They get looked down on when parents shirk their responsibility to teach their children Christian doctrine and true piety; when children grow up never praying or hearing God’s Word from their parents at home, whether in formal family devotions or just in time shared together; when children get the unspoken message from their parents that the Christian faith is a one-day-a-week, one-hour-a-week deal. God forgive us for the times our pride has led us to sin against our children without a second thought. God preserve us from such sins in the future.

Jesus’ words also apply to those who are young in the faith, and to those who are lowly or unimportant-looking in the church. We dare not run roughshod over other people’s consciences in the church just because we think we should be the ones calling the shots. We shouldn’t act like we’re the only important ones and nobody else matters. We always have to keep in mind that they are loved by Christ just as we are. They have the same Savior that we do. The Lord Jesus Himself gave Himself for their sakes too. He died and rose for them too. He loves them just as dearly as He loves you and me. Jesus spilled His holy, precious blood on the cross to cover their sins as well as yours and mine, because He loves them greatly. He defeated the devil and destroyed his evil work when He died on the cross in our place. Jesus’ love spreads out His forgiveness over our foolish pride and our sometimes loveless actions. He loved each of us, even the littlest and the lowliest, enough to die for us.

That’s why He speaks so strongly – “if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”Of course Jesus is not speaking literally here. I always have to say that, because I don’t want someone to misunderstand and go home and fire up the bandsaw, and then I get my name in the paper. What Jesus means is He doesn’t want any of His children for whom He bled and died to be disrespected or dishonored in any way, and that happens as a result of sinful pride – so guard yourself and ruthlessly root out even the beginnings of pride in your heart.

Another aspect of Jesus’ love for even the littlest and lowliest is His gift of the angels to us. Not only did He give Himself for us, He also created powerful good spiritual beings to help us and protect us – the angels. Hebrews chapter 1 gives us a good definition of angels: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” We could say that He created the angels to serve and protect us. We probably will never know until we get to heaven how often God’s angels have helped us and what He has used them to deliver us from – but they do help us, all the time. One way they help us is spiritually. They fight against the evil angels and defend us from them. We saw a huge example of that in our second lesson for today. They still regularly defend us from evil and preserve our souls from attacks by the devil and the evil angels. The help angels give us isn’t only spiritual, though. They also help us in the family, as Jesus speaks of here with little children, and in matters of state with earthly governments, too. Look at our first lesson for today. The prophet Daniel hears about how Michael is sent as an emissary of God or a divine helper to do God’s will – with an earthly government! We don’t always know or remember that angels help us in those areas, too – at home and out in the world, not just with spiritual problems. Just as Satan and the evil angels want to destroy us and harm us by any means necessary, so also the good angels help and defend us wherever we need it.

Verse10 raises a common question for many people: Is there such a thing as guardian angels, one particular angel assigned to each person from their birth that watches over them for their whole lives? If we’re asking are there guardian angels like they’re portrayed in movies or on TV, that question requires more information than Scripture gives us. Scripture tells us that there are lots and lots of good angels – a number almost too high to count – and that they are all tasked with helping and protecting us, but much beyond that we cannot go. It’s saying a little more than Scripture says to say that each person has their own individual guardian angel watching over them. They all watch over all of us. That’s why they were created.

It’s better to focus on what we are told about angels. They’re very powerful, but not all powerful. They don’t have bodies but they can assume physical form if they need to for their mission. Their job in life is to protect God’s people, to frustrate the plans of the devil, and to praise God. They help us every day and watch over us. Now the good angels are confirmed in holiness. God has made it so that they cannot sin. That’s how they can see His face continually in heaven.

These powerful servants of God are our coworkers in caring for our children and those around us. This is who we’re working with when we seek to serve others. We’re really working together with the angels. We work visibly, they work invisibly many times (but not all) – and we all have the same purpose: to serve Christ by serving others. That’s why Jesus says, “Whoever will welcome a little child in My name is always welcoming Me.” Whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him. God grant that we may serve Him by serving and protecting, along with the holy angels, those youngest and most defenseless among us, until at last in heaven we join all the saints and hosts of heaven, just like we sing in the Communion service, to worship God forever and to gaze continually on His beautiful face forever. Amen.