The Readings for the day were as follows:
7 Then war broke out 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. 9 The 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 Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.
11 They triumphed over 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.”
47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,* you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
I wonder what you think of when you hear the word ‘angels’? Some people, upon hearing the word, may think of Robbie Williams’ song. Many more, though, I suspect, think of the angels of the nativity – white, gentle beings hovering beautifully above Bethlehem: “with peaceful wings unfurled; and still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world”.
The word itself – ‘angel’ – derives from the Greek ‘angelos’, meaning messenger. We have many examples of angelic messengers in the Bible. For example, Gabriel visits Zechariah and foretells the impending birth of John (the Baptist); two angels confirm for the women at Jesus’ tomb that “He is not here – he is risen!” And it is angels who, following Jesus’ ascension to heaven inform the disciples: “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Albrecht Dürer’s ‘Saint Michael Fighting the Dragon, from The Apocalypse’begins to inform our image of such angels . . .
I think that it is fair to say that angels of the Bible, like the angels in our reading from Revelation tonight, are very different from those celebrated in most Christmas carols. In the book of Genesis we read of cherubim with flaming swords who block the return of Adam and Eve to the Garden of Eden; in the New Testament Gabriel’s visit to Mary leaves her “much perplexed by his words.” As for the shepherds of the nativity: “An angel of the Lord appeared to them … and they were terrified.” As for the angels depicted in the Book of Revelation, they are mighty warriors – heaven’s army – with the Archangel Michael as their leader.
Critics believe that the book of Revelation was written around AD 95 to 96, probably by a Christian from Ephesus known as ‘John the Elder’, who may or may not have been the beloved apostle. Domitian was the Roman Emperor at the time and persecution of Christians was widespread and John had been exiled to Patmos, a Dodecanese island lying between Samos, Leros and Ikaria, close to the Turkish coasts, for preaching the gospel and making disciples. It is on Patmos that John “On the Lord’s Day … was in the Spirit” and receives a revelation: “I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see’ and send it …’ John is to share his revelation of the end times …
Today’s Revelation text is somewhat shocking as we read that “war broke out in heaven”; war – not something usually associated with heaven. On one side is Michael and God’s angels, and on the other the “dragon” who represents Satan and those angels who stood with him against God. And “when the dragon and his angels fought back …” it is a relief to know that “he was not strong enough … The great dragon was hurled down … Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.”
So much is said through these few lines. Ultimately, God chose His angel – Michael – to lead the heavenly army and defeat the dragon, otherwise known as Satan. Thus, God’s power and might is revealed through Michael. And the defeat of Satan in the Book of Revelation is an expression of the victory of good over evil won through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and subsequent resurrection: “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb”. Michael and God’s angels can defeat Satan in battle because Christ has defeated Satan on the cross. Alleluia!
Today is St Michael’s Feast Day – otherwise known as Michaelmas – which honours St. Michael the Archangel (and all God’s angels) for his role in the life and defence of God’s people throughout time. Just as Christmas means ‘Christ Mass’, Michaelmas means ‘Michael’s Mass’. Thus, it is an important day in the liturgical calendar.
Michael is one of only four angels named in the Bible and, along with Gabriel and Raphael, is designated an Archangel of heaven. Since the other angels do not have their own feast day, it is common to celebrate Michael and All Angels upon this day.
Michael is often depicted clad in armour, sword or weapon in hand with a defeated dragon at his feet. Less commonly, Michael is depicted as the enforcer of God’s laws, carrying not only a sword but scales of justice too – just like our altar window here at St Michael’s church . . .
In our Gospel reading Jesus promises Nathanael that he would see great things: “I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Nathanael was the one who, when told by Philip: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” replied “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? However, when asked to ‘come and see’ for himself, does just that and overcomes his scepticism, recognises Jesus for who He is and becomes his disciple, later witnessing Jesus’ Ascension and becoming a missionary.
I find his story so encouraging in that it tells us that it is okay to be sceptical – but it is also necessary to be open minded to enable God’s grace to work in and through us. And the message of Michaelmas is just that: it is a call to be open minded – it is a call to overcome scepticism and believe in the hope that is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ. Theologians, such as Arthur Piepkorn, have pointed out that “there is evil in the world, nipping at the heels of humanity…. leading to human pain and suffering, hunger, homelessness, loneliness, brokenness …” As we gather here this evening in this beautiful church in this ‘thin’ place where it feels as though earth and heaven meet, we remember that because we believe in Jesus Christ, the son God, no matter how dark life may seem at times, and it does seem so very dark at the moment, what with war raging in places such as Ukraine, Sudan, Syria, Yemen; with the World Food Programme commenting that over 800 million people go to bed hungry each night – so very many in Afghanistan and sub Saharan Africa; with media outlets constantly reporting crime increasing, we must not lose hope in a better tomorrow; darkness shall not overcome us.
Michaelmas, in earlier times, was one of the ‘Quarter Days’ in England. It marked the end of the agricultural year when the harvest was complete, accounts were settled and hiring of labourers for the next year took place. Michaelmas was a day where a dinner of carrots and roasted goose was enjoyed; it was sometimes referred to as ‘Goose Day’ since farmers often brought their fattened geese to market upon that day. Michaelmas was known as the last day which you could pick blackberries on and make blackberry tarts since, according to folklore, when Satan was expelled from heaven, he fell from heaven onto a blackberry bush and then spat on the blackberries!
It is also said that Michaelmas was the day upon which one should crack nuts, such as hazelnuts: food for free …
As for this Michaelmas: let us remember and give thanks for St Michael and God’s angels who stand for Christ, stand for us, protect us. St Michael, who is not only our patron saint here in Brentor, but is also the patron saint of Kyiv, police officers and, because he holds those scales in his hand, is also the patron saint of grocers, as well as mariners in certain parts of the world.
Finally, let this Michaelmas be a timely reminder to keep our eyes and hearts focused on those things which are above, those things which are often beyond our human abilities to fully understand. As the earth prepares to enter the time of darkening days and cooler nights, let us be, like Nathaniel, open to God’s grace in our lives, sharing the message and hope that is Christ in whatever ways we are able to. And let us, like Michael, stand for what is right and just in this world. Happy Michaelmas one and all!
A Prayer for Michaelmas
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle,
be our protection
Against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him we humbly pray;
and do thou,
O Prince of the Heavenly host,
by the power of God,
cast into hell Satan
and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls.