Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Michaelmas 2011
29 September 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The Bible is full of stories about angels. Some of them we have heard this evening.
Sometimes in these stories we catch a glimpse of heaven, of the angels joyful in the presence of God, full of love for God, worshipping him constantly.
Sometimes, we catch a glimpse of heaven being brought to earth, when someone has a dream, as Jacob did, that seemed to open heaven to him, to catch him up to heaven.
Sometimes, we learn of holy guardian angels watching over us, as when Jesus said, ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.’ [Matthew 18: 10]
Sometimes, more directly, we see the ways of God, the ways of heaven, explained to men and women, as when the angel Gabriel appears and brings a direct message to Zechariah about Elizabeth his wife bearing a son who will be called John and will be the forerunner of the Messiah. And, most famously of all, we see Gabriel appearing to the young Mary and telling her God would like her to bear his Son.
In these accounts, the angels bring heaven to earth and earth to heaven. They connect us on earth to the joy and glory of heaven. They give us an encouraging moment when we can see the reality at the heart of things, when we see it all clearly. They bridge the gap.
But these accounts also offer us a dilemma. We see the angels in Christian iconography. There they are in Renaissance paintings and in stained glass windows: the great and beautiful angels with iridescent wings; the fat little cherubs, flying around in the sky; the mighty seraphs with six wings; the warrior angels with spears and battle-axes, waging war against evil. We are surrounded by them in this Abbey church. There is a great window in the Lady Chapel, a memorial window to those who fought and lost their lives, the fighter pilots and their crews, in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War. The images of the squadrons of the Royal Air Force and of the flying men who lost their lives are surmounted by images of squadrons of flying angels.
The dilemma is this. I dare say that most of us have seen nothing that would remind us of an angel in our daily lives and again most of us are not expecting to see an angel, certainly in this life. Does this mean that there are no angels, or simply that we have failed to see them?
The dilemma is not new. There is a marvellous account of the prophet Elisha during a war between the people of Israel and the Arameans. The king of Aram is disturbed because the Israelites seem to know in advance his strategy for the war. His advisers tell him that no one is betraying him but that Elisha the man of God is telling the king of Israel even the words he speaks in his bedchamber. The king resolves to capture Elisha and sends chariots and horses. Elisha’s servant in the morning looks at the hills surrounding the city and sees the alarming sight of the Aramean forces drawn up for attack.
‘Alas, master! What shall we do?’ He replied, ‘Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. [2 Kings 6: 15-17]
The angels of God were protecting his prophet.
In truth, many of us have as great a problem hearing as we do seeing. We hear the words of scripture and we profess that they are the word of the Lord, that, to put it another way, the Lord is speaking to us through them. We might expect to hear through the human voice of the preacher or of a spiritual counsellor or of a soul friend some word from the Lord. But for most of us most of the time, our spiritual ears are too little attuned to hearing a word direct from the Lord. Would we trust it if we heard it? Do we indeed expect the Lord God almighty to have any direct interest in us personally, to be intimately involved in our lives?
This dilemma too is not new. You know the story of the call of Samuel. Three times he hears the voice of the Lord calling him and runs to Eli, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Finally Eli understands that it was the Lord who called. The author explains that the ‘word of the Lord was rare in those days.’ [I Samuel 3]
But the Lord, who has spoken decisively in his Son, still speaks directly to us through the agency of the angels, messages of love and encouragement.
Does God really care so much for each of us? Can God really be interested in what I do minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day?
The Pope, who came here a year ago this month, visited Germany last weekend. He spoke to Evangelical Church leaders in Erfurt, the very place where Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation, had been a Catholic monk before his decisive break with Rome in 1517. Reflecting on Luther’s life and teaching, Pope Benedict said the question that had concerned Luther above all was, “How do I receive the grace of God?” He said, "The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives?" He went on, "Most people today, even Christians, set out from the pre-supposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings.
Our personal sins, our small failings, do matter and together contribute mightily to the sad state of life in the world today, where people live so much for ourselves and do so little in practical terms to love and serve God and our neighbours. Perhaps at root is a sense that, in this mighty universe with its apparently inexorable scientific laws and its almost infinite magnitude, each individual counts for very little. As an individual, I might say to myself, there is not much good that I can do; nor is there much harm.
That is surely wrong. Remember the words of Jesus, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ [Matthew 10: 29-31]
On this feast of St Michael and All Angels, let us each pray that we might come to see more clearly the great and personal love of God for us and that we might come to hear more clearly his voice calling us. And may our holy guardian angel watch over us.