Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on St Michael and All Angels 2014
29 September 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The 17th-century Puritan poet and polemicist John Milton begins his great poem Paradise Lost with an image of the so-called Bearer of Light, Lucifer. One of the highest of the archangels, Lucifer has always enjoyed the nearest presence of God. But this has not been enough for him. He has become jealous of God's almighty power. He has sought that power for himself and has set out to challenge God, to rival God. So, in the poem, war has broken out in heaven, before the Creation of the Universe, and the great Bearer of Light, Lucifer is cast down to hell.
'Is this the Region [Satan says]
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?
Farewell happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor.'
The reason for the war between the archangel Michael and Lucifer and their respective angels is the Devil's overweening ambition, his pride, his hubris.
In the poem, Satan says,
'in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.'
Satan's hubris has led to nemesis his inevitable fall. But better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. So he thinks.
Satan is not alone. As we look around the world, we see pride and ambition leading people to forge mayhem and murder around them, creating a hell on earth. We only need to look at what has been happening in recent times in Syria and the horrifyingly destructive and brutal evil that has broken out in Iraq that threatens the Middle East: that threatens indeed the whole world.
Our prayers and thoughts are strongly with the Jews, Christians and Muslims who are suffering or threatened as a result of the wretched cruelty of the so-called Islamic State. Our prayers and thoughts are strongly too with the forces of the Crown and of the international coalition seeking to inhibit and degrade the terrorist forces and to establish peace, justice and freedom in those lands, which are the cradle of our civilisation.
A hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War, the power of evil and the forces of destruction are as strong as ever they were. The history of war in the Middle East, even in the past 25 years, might also lead us to reflect how difficult it is to defeat the force of arms with arms, terror with terror, destruction with destruction. Evil, we might well conclude, can only be overcome by good.
Honest self-examination also demands that we recognise in ourselves the motivation of pride and self-serving. We cannot always know or understand why or how we come to do and to think and to say what we know to be destructive and indeed wicked. For most of us some of the time, for some of us most of the time, we too see it as better to reign, even in a Hell of our own making, than serve in Heav'n. There is a war between good and evil in ourselves, just as there is in the Creation.
From where does all this evil come? Our Lord Jesus Christ said, 'It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'
But Jesus also recognised the power of demonic forces. In the Gospels we read the account of the man called Legion possessed by an unclean spirit. 'He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.' Jesus casts out the demons and we learn that people 'came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.'
So, we must take responsibility for our own actions but we can also see that there are forces both of good and of evil working within and beyond the world, which are invisible but not undetectable. They work within us and within the interstices, in the connections between people, in movements and currents of change. What seems at first sight to be good and useful can so easily be perverted and twisted into a force of destruction and wickedness.
Take the impersonal power of money. Writing in the Times on Saturday, Bishop Peter Selby quoted Pope Francis' words in his letter Evangelii Gaudium, "The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose." Idolatry is the worship of something that is not God, precisely the worship in Paradise Lost for which Satan and his angels fought to acquire for themselves.
Some of us may consider language about the devil and demons to be old-fashioned, quaint, from the old story books, not to be taken seriously. But there are undeniably forces of evil within us and beyond us. And they are beyond our controlling. St Paul says it for us all, 'I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.'
We are reflecting on the power of evil. But we are celebrating on this feast of St Michael and All Angels, the power of good at work in the world and in ourselves, the power of God, the power of love. That power works within ourselves and it works beyond ourselves. But this power of God, the power of love, is no impersonal, mysterious force. Rather it is the gracious gift of the God who is love, who reveals himself in our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the heart of the Christian message is this wonderful truth: by the victory our Lord won over sin and death on Calvary's tree, the power of the destructive forces of evil and hatred, of murder and mayhem, of death and destruction have been broken. Though we see and suffer the effects of evil, the power of evil can never in the end defeat God's all-powerful love, revealed to us in the resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus our Lord.