St Michael & All Angels, Maidstone
Sunday 30 September 2001
I believe in GodÖ Maker of all things, seen and unseen
"Seeing is believing" as the old saying goes.
However, just because something is old we shouldn't automatically assume that for that reason it's a reliable guide to the truth: that applies not only to old sayings, but old men and old women as well. There are such things, remember, as Old Wives Tales, and, lest you accuse me of being sexist, let me freely admit that there are Old Husbandís Tales as well, to whose number I no doubt contribute from time to time.
The Angels, whom God created, and whose festival we celebrate today, come into the category of "Things Unseen" (at least as a rule, they arenít). So let's look a little more closely at that proposition Ė seeing is believing and ask ourselves why we should believe in them if we canít see them.
Letís begin with a simple example of something we can see, but don't believe in: the case of an illusionist performing a conjuring trick. Every good trick, whether itís sawing someone in half or pulling a rabbit out of a hat, is something seen by the onlookers. It wouldnít be the same if the illusionist just said "I can produce a rabbit out of a hat" and left it at that. In order to give his spectators their moneyís worth he has to do something which they can see for themselves, even though none of them believes in it. So thereís an example of something seen-but-not-believed-in.
Then consider the opposite case: something believed in without being seen. Take the case of the planet Neptune. Itís invisible to the naked eye, and although its existence was indeed suggested by Herschel in the 1790s and in 1834 was "proved" mathematically by an amateur astronomer clergyman, Mr Hussey, that it must be there because of the apparently irregular movements of the next closest planet, Uranus, it was only in 1846 that anyone had a telescope powerful enough to see it. But few of us, I guess, would nowadays have the temerity to say that Neptune doesnít exist on the grounds that we have never seen it. So Neptuneís an example of something believed-in-but-not seen.
Now, letís look at a third example which is rather closer to the subject of Angels which we are considering this morning. If I take my glasses off and then put them on again, most of us would say that this was a very simple process. Two actions which leave things very much as they were before. However, I am assured by those who know how the human body and mind work that these two apparently simple actions involve something in the region of ten thousand separate parts of the body, muscles, cells, brain tissue, nerves, electric discharges amongst them for their successful performance. Now you and I were only aware of we would call a "simple" action, the net result of which was zero. Glasses off/glasses on. However, in reality what was happening was something infinitely more complex, invisible, unperceived and yet undoubtedly true.
Now, these three examples can be summed up very simply in the two propositions: the first proposition says that we are prepared to believe in some things which we canít see, and, contrariwise, disbelieve in some things that we can see; the second proposition states that some apparently simple events may in reality be extraordinarily complex.
Once we've agreed with these two propositions then weíre more than half-way to saying that the existence of angels (who are beings, normally invisible, but who are created by God to "act behind the scenes") becomes a distinct possibility, verging on the probable.
For God, in revealing to us what he is like, has made it clear that he often prefers to act by using agents. The agents we know best, of course, are ourselves and our fellow human beings. "God", as the philosopher Descartes once said, "pays us the unspeakable compliment of making us his agents".
What this means is that there are times and places and circumstances, far mor frequent than most people realise, when God deliberately chooses to make the performance of his will on earth depend, at least in part, upon the obedience and co-operation of beings like ourselves. In many instances we shall never, and perhaps we can never, know what Godís reason for doing so lies behind it all.. Indeed, in many cases when God's plan involves manís obedience and co-operation, the whole plan seems to go pear-shaped precisely because that obedience and co-operation is wilfully withheld by you and me. But in a great many other cases, and invariably in the case of our Lord Jesus Christ, manís willing obedience is forthcoming.
We can go even further than this. Sometimes it looks very much as though the thing that God is really interested in Ė the thing that really does the job, so to speak Ė is the obedient disposition of our wills, rather than the actual doing of the job itself. As the writer to Hebrews tells us, the obedience of Christ to his Fatherís, when he says "Lo, I come to do your will O God" actually replaced the sacrifices and burnt offerings in which God was not nearly as interested as people had thusto supposed. As the author says "He takes away the one [burnt offerings] in order that he may establish the other [the sacrifice of willing obedience].
Now the really interesting thing is the fact that in the Gospels, whenever something of really crucial importance takes place in Godís plan, especially those things involving a submission of the human will, an angel seems to have had a part to play. This is particularly true of whenever one or more of the persons involved in the unfolding drama of the Incarnation are faced with some critical decision upon which the whole of God's plan for our salvation would turn. Whenever there is a moment of uncertainty or indecision, an angel seems to be mentioned as having a visible part to play in helping the decider make up his or her mind.
Here are some examples: the angel who appeared to Zacharias the father of John the Baptist; the angel Gabriel who appeared at the Annunciation when our Lady chose to say "Yes"; the angel who told St Joseph not to put Mary away from him; the angels who were present with the shepherds at the Nativity; the one who warned Joseph to flee from Herod to Egypt after the Epiphany; the Temptation in the Wilderness when angels "ministered to him"; in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an angel from heaven appeared to strengthen him; at the Resurrection when the women first came to the tomb; and at the Ascension when the Apostles were uncertain what they should do next.
Now if it is true that such beings are allowed to appear in a visible form at what might be called the crunch-points of our salvation, then let me put it to you that itís highly likely that they are ceaselessly at work, behind the scenes, the rest of the time. Think again of the case of our human body. Every moment behind the scenes its members are ceaselessly working together for our benefit and we generally only become aware of this when one or more of them stops functioning properly.
If you are inclined to wonder why God doesnít let the angels become visible more often, the answer is, of course, that we donít know. However, it is possible to suggest two possible reasons based on human experience, especially that of ourselves.
If angels were allowed to come on stage too frequently then they would almost certainly become objects both of curiosity and worship by us human beings. That wouldnít be good for us or probably for them. It would distract men from the worship of God and, for all we know, might give the angels "ideas above their proper station." There are such things as fallen angels, remember.
Furthermore, if the angels were to appeared too frequently, it would almost certainly deter God-fearing people from doing, or thinking, or deciding anything for themselves. Everyone would be saying "we must wait till the next angel appears to tell us what to do", when what they should be doing is only too painfully obvious given a little thought and prayer.
But perhaps the most telling reason why we donít see angels more often than we do is that Godís purpose in creating them was not, for the most part, to appear on earth, but to be part of the heavenly host, contributing to the ceaseless act of worship which has been taking place since that day of creation "when the morning stars sang together and all the Sons of God shouted for joy". The angels have more than enough to do straightening our all the wrinkles and potholes in our worship on earth in order that it may blend seamlessly with theirs.
That is one of the activities in which we humans are regularly invited participate. In a few minutes time, with angels and archangels and with the whole company of heaven, we shall be praising God and saying "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts: heaven and earth are full of our glory; glory be to you, O Lord most high."
May our voices be one with theirs! Blessed be god in his Angels and in his Saints! Amen
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