The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, Year A, 2014 – Genesis 28:10-17; Psalm 103:19-22; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death,” (Revelation 12:11).
I speak to you this morning in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s New Testament reading is a particularly challenging one for folks like us to hear for two reasons. On the one hand, it comes from Revelation or, the Apocalypse, which if contemporary Christians think about at all we are likely to think of it as one of the more peculiar, if not bizarre, books of the Bible. Dragons and whores, you say? On the other hand, today’s reading deals with angels. Angels—personified in pop culture by lingerie clad super-models, purveyors of Philadelphia cream cheese and, God help us, Roma Downey. At first glance then, a reading like this is one we might prefer to avoid.
Yet, despite this, we encounter the Apocalypse regularly in our Christian worship: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of pow’r and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory,” we sing at Communion. This is the same song sung by seraphim in Isaiah 6 and by heavenly creatures in Revelation 4. Thus, as friend of St. Matthew’s, Dr. Joe Mangina says, in singing this and other such hymns, and in participating in the liturgy, “Christians are formed by the Apocalypse without realizing that it is the Apocalypse.”
Two more introductory points, one visual and one temporal. Visually, it is tempting to be carried off by the fantastic imagery in Revelation. But we must keep in mind that the primary content of God’s apocalypse is none other than the Son of Man himself. In the New Testament all apocalyptic reflection and hope points to the reality that God has acted critically, decisively, and finally all the peoples of the earth and the entire cosmos in Christ Jesus. And thus, in Christ we see God’s purposes for all creation “critically, decisively, and finally” revealed and made effective in Jesus’ own life, death, resurrection, and coming again. Temporally, upon seeing all of this imagery we may be tempted to wonder when all of this will take place. Is it past, present, or future? To this question I would simply note that Revelation names God as, “him who is who was and who is to come,” (1:4). It would be surprising then if it did not have something to say about the past, present, and future alike. That is to say, in Revelation, “the question of time is secondary to the question of God.”
Turning to this morning’s reading we cast our collective gaze up with John: “And war broke out in heaven.” Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels who fought back but were defeated and subsequently cast down from heaven to earth for, “there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” This feast day is, as Catherine put it, “explosive and gritty”, cutting to the heart of what is real: “It does not offer escape. It offers blood and sweat and tears, the great struggle for all that is good against the dark desire to destroy it. And it offers the sure and certain hope of victory. This is the feast of the battle won.”
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” That is to say, this is the victory of the Lamb over all that which would oppose him. This battle scene is inserted into the middle of another scene in Revelation 12, one in which a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” is in the midst of the agony of childbirth and there in front of her stands the dragon, “so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.” And this firstborn child we are told is a son, “who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” This language hearkens back to one of the great messianic Psalms (Psalm 2), and this child is Jesus, the great shepherd of his people. And yet, here he is, vulnerable, the dragon waiting to consume him. Lest we think that good and evil confront one another as equals the tension is resolved almost immediately as the baby is taken up to the throne of God. There is an element of risk here, but this child is the Son of God and as such is sovereign over every enemy. The dragon’s jaws snap shut, and come up with nothing but air as Christ is taken up to the right hand of power.
This sheds further light on the child’s birth: If Christ ascends to God’s right hand, when does this take place? Not at his birth, but at his ascension. That is to say, the birth in this story is a metaphor for Jesus’ death, “his entry into the only true life, the life of God.” This is the mystery of Christ—life in death.
Satan seeks to devour Christ, and thinks that in the cross he has succeeded, “but the cross is a ladder whose end touches heaven, and the body of Christ the Way on which the world may walk back to God.”
“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says to Nathaniel, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” (John 1:51).
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb.” That is to say, this is a battle that Christians are called to participate in. Just because the Lamb has conquered, those who have been washed in the blood too can conquer. Just because the woman’s firstborn has conquered, so too, “the rest of her children,” (12:17) may conquer. Indeed, some interpreters see in Michael and his angels a figure for Christ and his followers. And if the Lamb conquered his enemies not by the shedding of their blood but by the shedding of his own blood, then we can expect a similarly paradoxical conquering for those who are marked by the Lamb (14:1). Here we see also the way in which the victory of the Lamb bursts through temporal boundaries. For the one conquering of Christ is revealed in three stages, if you will: he conquered in his death and resurrection (3:21; 5:5); his followers conquer in the time between his ascension and return (12:11; 15:2); and he will conquer fully and finally at his coming again (17:14). Christ crucified is the decisive and victorious blow, but the followers of Christ are called to continue the battle in the present, while the victory will finally and fully be established in the future.
And so Christians are not passive spectators but are actually involved in the defeat of Satan. “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.”
As followers of Jesus we participate in his once-for-all-decisive victory over the powers of sin and death by bearing witness to the Lamb that was slain—bearing witness even unto death.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot this summer about our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria who are being exiled, raped, and beheaded by ISIS for their faith in Christ. My thinking and praying became concentrated this week as I prepared this sermon, in particular as I meditated on this very verse. The word here translated ‘testimony’ is the Greek word from which we get ‘martyr’. That is, martyrs testify/bear witness to Christ, and in this way martyrdom, though it appears to be a defeat, is in fact a victory for it is a sharing in the victory of the Lamb who was slain.
And so I think of our brothers and sisters in northern Iraq, and while it looks like a staggering defeat be not fooled, theirs is the victory: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian. Towards the end of John’s Apocalypse the dragon is bound and thrown into a pit and then this which rings eerily close to present earthly realities: “I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony (martyria) to Jesus and for the word of God…They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years…This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him a thousand years,” (Revelation 20:4-6). The beast can kill them, but he cannot suppress their witness to the truth. Their endurance and faithfulness even in the face of death is not a ‘passive resistance’, it is just as active as any physical warfare. Resist! But by witness and martyrdom, not by violence.
‘To conquer’ does not simply mean to die as a martyr, of course, though it certainly includes death. Christians conquer the beast by their faithful witness to the truth of God up to and including death. For Christians, this starts in baptism for it is here that we are confronted by Jesus Christ the true witness, the one who tells us the truth about ourselves by claiming us as God’s own. And so in baptism we follow Christ into his death that we might follow him into the very life of the triune God. And we bear faithful witness when we gather around the table and eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood. And we bear faithful witness when we sing “holy, holy, holy.” And when we pray, “thy kingdom come”. And when we confront our neighbours with the peace of Christ. And when we give ourselves in sacrificial love to one another. Believe not the lies of that conquered devil, the ancient serpent, the original bearer of false witness, who spreads the false rumour that the Christian life and witness mean nothing to God, that a life devoted to God is a life wasted. For this is how Christians conquer—loving God and loving neighbour, even enemy—by taking the humble road of self-giving, the giving of our whole life as an offering unto God in Christ. This is how Christians conquer because this is how Christ conquered—and we in him—for the life of the world.
Bless the LORD, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul. Amen. Joseph Mangina, Revelation, Brazos Theological Commentary, 20.
 Mangina, 29.
 Catherine Sider-Hamilton, http://feastfastferia.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/st-michael-and-all-angels/
 Mangina, 152.
 Richard Bauckham, The Theology of The Book of Revelation, 70.
 Bauckham, 92.