St Michael & All Angels Great Torrington
2nd October 1995
SERMON AT PATRONAL FESTIVAL
"The truth is [angels] are all spirits whose work is service, sent to help those who will be the heirs of salvation"
If you read the New Testament carefully you will discover that angels "show up" at those moments which we might call the "turning points" or the "crisis points" of God's invasion plan for this world, when he sent his Son to be born of a virgin and to die upon the cross and on the third day to rise from the dead.
At the Annunciation there was an angel; at the Nativity there were a great many angels; in the wilderness during the first Lent there were angels "ministering unto Jesus"; during his hours of agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus was strengthened, once again, by an angel. At the Resurrection one or more angels spoke to Mary of Magdala and the other women as they looked in vain for the body of Jesus; and at the Ascension, two angels appeared to the Apostles as they stood there, not certain what to do next, and told them to return to Jerusalem to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
And so on. Right through Acts to Revelation: Peter, Paul, John were all ministered to by angeles at the time of their greatest need.
Now you and I are living at a time when people have a strong antipathy against believing that such beings as angels exist at all.
This is not, I believe, because people find the idea of such supernatural beings (whatever form they may take) difficult to grasp; but rather because they find the whole idea of the supernatural threatening.
Threatening because it puts paid to the idea of nature being one single, self-sufficient, interlocking scheme of things in which every cause has a natural effect and vice versa. If you once concede the general possibility of the supernatural intervening in this world, (for example, by the ministry of an angel) be it never so seldom, or even only once, then you open the door wide to, literally, God knows what: and because God does "know what" about each of us, then the way out of this unpalatable belief is simply to deny that angels and the supernatural exist at all; or to say that, if they do exist, their influence upon the course of this world is negligible.
However, a moment's thought will tell us that this case for disbelieving in the supernatural is a very fragile one indeed. Fragile, because it only needs one instance of supernatural intervention having actually taken place and the whole case of the anti-supernaturalist lies in ruins. He has to believe that every single reported instance of the supernatural must be due to "coincidence", "mass hypnotism", "hysteria", or "a trick of the light"; whereas, by contrast, the person who believes in the supernatural is not in any way bound to accept each and every reported instance of it as being what people claim it to be. In fact the supernaturalist will be rather glad when some allegedly "supernatural event" turns out to be nothing of the kind, or at least that the evidence in most cases is not strong enough to make such a claim.
In most cases, but not in all. Fore every now and then it would seem God does decide to intervene in the natural process, often doing nothing more than speeding up what nature would have done anyway by giving the component parts a very very small nudge in the right direction.
But there is another problem with "simple" explanations. They are much too simple.
What appears to the scientifically ignorant to be a "simple action" is really nothing of the kind. Ask any scientist, neurologist, biologist, nuclear physicist or even the most humble trainee nurse or doctor and they will tell you that what is going on "behind the scenes" in any "simple" action is anything but "simple". In this respect scientists are amongst the most formidable allies of our beliefs.
Consider this example. I take off my glasses; and put them on again. Simple, isn't it? But ask any doctor or nurse who knows the first thing about physiology and they will tell you that in this one "simple action" several million brain cells, muscles and nerve endings were all playing their part.
Not only that. A geologist will tell you that when I took my glasses off that action had an effect, albeit an infinitesimal, immeasurable one, on the earth itself. As Newton put it "to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". That taking off an putting on of my glasses was, literally, an earth-shaking event.
Since this is the case with such everyday "simple" actions, it seems not only possible but distinctly probable that the will of God is performed with the help, or through the agency of, a whole myriad of unseen beings who are called "angels".
Angels prefer, and God seems to prefer that they should, for the most part, work "behind the scenes" unseen and unheard.
There are two good reasons for this decision.
One is, that if we could normally see them at work our curiosity might easily distract us (and them) from doing what God wants us to do. Think for a moment what it would be like if we could see everybody's muscles and bodily organs at work all the time. It would be just so fascinating to watch that we might never get any real work done at all.
The second reason is that, if you think of it, stage hands who work "behind the scenes" in a theatre try, as a rule, not to be seen by the audience. Although the "off-stage staff" the scene-shifters, the prompter, the lighting crew are every bit as important as the actors, their duty is to work without being "visible" to the audience. They are there, but they are neither seen nor heard.
So let us think of the angels as God's invisible host of stage managers, constantly at work behind the scenes making sure that the whole production of God's masterpiece from Creation through Incarnation to the Last Judgement and the General Resurrection, runs smoothly.
As we worship here this morning there are angels hard at work around us, fine-tuning our imperfect efforts into something without spot or blemish to present to God. If you are praying for someone, the odds are that there is an angel straightening out what you you and I have said with our lips so that it corresponds more closely with what we meant to say from our hearts.
Every now and then, of course, the veil is lifted very slightly, in the same way that sometimes it is necessary for a stage-hand or the prompter to make his presence felt either by what he says or what he does on the stage. But the test of a good prompter or stage-hand is just how little the audience is aware of what they are doing.
Most of us will have had the experience of being struck by a particular idea that we ought to go and visit one of our friends that we haven's seen for a while. We do so, and find either that the other party has been struck by precisely the same thought, or that our visit, for whatever reason, was particularly well-timed.
The probability is in such cases that the angels have been hard at work behind the scenes trying to produce the right conditions under which one, or both of us, would think that particular thought.
God's angels work unseen. but once a year, round about the end of September, we show our appreciation for all that they do for us, rather in the way that every theatre programme has an acknowledgement of appreciation for the large number of people who work "behind the scenes" on a production, whose job is precisely not to be seen during the performance.
"Angels", says the author to the Hebrews "are all spirits whose work is service, sent to help those who will be the heirs of salvation.
That very fact that angels are meant to be our servants (not our masters) is in itself a humbling thought. That we, who so often behave like spoilt children in the house of our heavenly Father should continue to be served, night and day, silently and unquestioningly by the hosts of God, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, should make us all the more determined to behave in the way the angels do, in a way which resembles more closely the benevolence of God and the joy of serving him in the creation of which he has go generously made us the heirs.
The Prayer Book collect for this festival sums it all up. It starts by telling us that angels and men are all part of a single, wonderful order, in God's plan for this world. An order in which each one of us has his part to play, whether visible or invisible to our fellow men; the angels for the most part being bidden to work invisibly and inaudibly behind the scenes.
It continues by praying to God that as the angels constantly do his will in the heavenly places, so he will continue to appoint them to work with and for us on earth: guarding, encouraging, correcting and, above all, perfecting the efforts which we ourselves make to be, like the angels, obedient to God's will.
Let me remind you of the collect again:
O Everlasting God, who hast ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order: Mercifully grant that as thy holy Angels alway do thee service in heaven, so by thy appointment they may succour and defend us on earth. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.