Angels and Evangelists
The following sermon was preached by Joan L. Beck, Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, September 29, 2010.
Dan. 10:10-14, 12:1-3; Rev. 12:7-12; Luke 10:17-20
Send your angels/messengers so that we hear the good news, organize our lives around it, and tell it. Amen.
If you have ever played a video game, viewed a summer thriller action movie, or read a science fiction fantasy, you are acquainted with an apocalyptic perspective reminiscent of the scripture readings today. The protagonists are larger than life; there is mortal danger and deadly combat, while good and evil, death and life hang in the balance, not just for the participants but for the world.
In Daniel, the survival of Jewish identity in faith and culture is at stake. In Revelation, it is the early Christian churches and their confession and way of life that are under threat. In the gospel, the disciples Jesus sent out discover that they are dealing with cosmic enemies of God. And we, I think, we often forget that what we do here, what we believe, and what we profess publicly is strong medicine indeed.
For no doubt, this world is contested. That’s the gist of what it means for me when Revelation says that “the great dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world,” no longer has any place in heaven, but woe to the earth and the sea, where confusion and illusion still reign.
Heaven is clear, yet the world (including ourselves) disputes with heaven:
- God is holy, holy, holy (as the burning seraphim cry out before the prophet Isaiah in the temple); God is both untouchably sovereign and yet inexplicably faithful to all God has made. Yet the world relates to God as if to a domesticated deity who is there to serve our needs and shore up our power. Ourselves included.
- God is the source of generous giving, the one from whom all blessings flow. Yet the world fears that there is not enough and never will be; that nothing is a gift, that it’s up to us to get ours, and I behave as if it’s up to me to get mine.
- God is the God who makes promises and fulfills them, and gives hope to sustain stressed people in dry seasons. Yet we and the rest of the world are pretty sure that you get what you deserve and that despair is a realistic response to what’s out there.
- God is clear that there should be neighborliness among people, a community sharing without fear. And yet there is selfishness and backstabbing and hoarding and fragmentation. Also in the church.
Today’s scriptures have “enormous realism. The power of evil which relentlessly seeks God’s defeat is resilient. There has not yet been complete defeat of the resilient power of evil. The governance of our future and of the world is at risk.” (Bruegggemann in work cited on page 3)
Certainly taking up arms against evil is one option.
All you can see of yourself in the frame before you are your hands, grasping your weapon, as you and your team from the “coalition” move through the dry hills of Afghanistan. You are in danger from Taliban snipers. Sometimes you come under fire. Sometimes your comrades are shot. Sometimes you are shot. But not if you can shoot your enemy first, which (needless to say) you are all trying to do.
You are playing the video game Medal of Honor, the latest offering in a series of “military shooters.” Military shooters are war-based video games. Many of them are set during actual conflicts from World War 2 to the present. “Medal of Honor does not aspire to capture the war in Afghanistan in a documentary sense, but like other shooters it creates a visceral sense of combat.” (All quotes and facts from Chris Suellentrop, “War Games,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 8, 2010; read on-line. A big budget mainstream video game like Medal of Honor now costs “north of $20 million” to produce. Copies retail at about $60, so manufacturers say they need to sell at least 3 million copies. Ironically, while nearly 80,000 Americans are deployed in Afghanistan, 2.2 million Americans played Modern Warfare 2 (a similar shooter) on XBox Live during a single day last fall. Something to ponder in a week when the reigning Gospel is about a man who neglects the poor beggar Lazarus lying at his gate.)
Certainly taking up arms against evil is one option. Yet a military shooter video game, or any other tale of righteous violence, is not the script or story we have been called into. There is a difference between the viewpoints of Medal of Honor and our scripture readings today. In Medal of Honor, you seem to take the weapons into your own hands and take shot at the enemy that you see impinging upon you. While in Daniel and Revelation, the human persons hear about victory that is won without their help, away from anything they could take credit for.
So Daniel has a vision in which a hand touches him and interrupts his fearful despair. The voice (possibly the angel Gabriel) calls him “greatly beloved” and tells him not to be afraid. It reassures him that far away in Persia the decisive battle is being won as they speak. Michael, thought of as the guardian angel of Israel, is fighting on behalf of Daniel’s people and will prevail—now in the 2nd century BC at the time of abominable king Antiochus, just as four centuries earlier at the time of the Exile, when the book of Daniel is set.
In Revelation, John of Patmos has a vision. It is in the first century at the time of oppression by another empire du jour, Rome. In this vision war breaks out in heaven, but John does not lift his hand or take out his own sword. He only watches as “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.” Without human help, “the great dragon is thrown down.” (Rev. 12:7-8)
This reminds me of something—Daniel and John, these men of God, who are present to hear about a great event and decisive victory, yet with no role except to witness the power of God to deliver and rescue and save and protect—and then to praise and thank and organize their lives around the victory of God!
It reminds me of Moses’ speaking to Israel when they were trapped between the impassable Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s avenging armies behind them. “…Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’” (Ex 14:13-14) And you know what happened next—the people of Israel walked through the water on dry land, while Pharaoh’s soldiers and all their chariots and horses were drowned.
The Exodus is the template of this saving way of God, and the death and resurrection of Jesus are the fulfillment of it. God’s victory over sin, death, and devil occurs before we can lift a hand, before we are born, outside our knowing. God’s power intervenes while we are yet sinners, and God’s hand makes the impossible, possible. The Lord fights for us, and we are delivered. Christ dies for us, and we are forgiven and freed. Christ is raised from death, and his Spirit breathes life into the dead bones of our community.
It is said that the name of the great Michael is a war cry, meaning “Who is like God?” “Who is like God?” It turns out that the proper answer to that is, “No one is like God!” There is no one like God—except for Jesus, the Lamb who was slain. For when God raises a hand of power—is it not the hand nailed to the cross? And when God lifts a sword, is it not the sword of the Word, a sword of naming and knowing and calling to account, not a sword of slaying? And when God unseats the evil one, the accuser who deceives the whole world, is it not through the truth that God became vulnerable in this world God so loved, and suffered and died in Jesus Christ? “In Jesus Christ, God has overcome the power, threat, and attraction of the power of death.”
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the pattern of the drama of salvation—and of evangelism—this way (Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism [Abingdon, 1993]):
First, something decisive happens somewhere else: God’s victory. God creating out of chaos, God trumping Egypt’s gods through Exodus, God bringing Exile to an end, God raising Jesus-crucified on the third day. God’s victory happens.
Then, somebody is needed to tell what God has done. The announcer, the proclaimer, the witness gives testimony about the outcome of the battle. This is often the role of angels. They seem to have their roles in Scenes 1 and 2, as defenders, protectors, and as proclaimers. “Angel” means “messenger,” and the angel’s quintessential message is, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall b e for all the people.” After which multitudes of angels break into the night sky to shout, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth!”
Third, it is up to those who hear the message to make an appropriate response to the new situation, letting the newly announced reality shape life in new ways. This is what we are engaged in here and what communities of Christ are about.
Our role is not to win the battle between good and evil. That has already happened. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Until he comes, our roles are in Scenes Two and Three. Our roles are to proclaim God’s victory and to organize our lives around it. Not to be distracted by the thrashings of evil and its deception, but to stay clear that the suffering love of God rules the day. When the demons submit, we don’t think that it is to us, but to Jesus Christ, whom with the angels we worship and adore. Christ Jesus has written our names in his book, so that we have reason to rejoice, life to organize, neighbors to serve & love.
I offer another image for how we might live our lives in this contested world (I heard it from William T. Cavanaugh). Not as in the video games, taking weapons in our hands to silence the enemies out there; but as in an opera by Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos. At a summer gathering at the home of “the richest man in Vienna,” an opera company is prepared to present the tragic tale of Ariadne. Ariadne is ready to die on the island of Naxos because her love has been taken from her. A burlesque troupe of clowns and a saucy singer has also been invited to the party to amuse the guests.
Then the Major Domo tells both performing troupes that because the fireworks are scheduled for a certain hour, both the opera and the farce will have to be performed simultaneously on the same stage. After initial grumbling, the players go about it. At first there is the lament of the opera on one side of the stage and the frivolity of the clowns on the other. But as Ariadne weeps and wails for her loss, the burlesque troupe improvises and tries to cheer her up. Eventually Ariadne decides that rather than die, she might like to find another love, and in the end she is belting out a duet with a newcomer.
Perhaps all of the plots of the world are being played on the same stage. The stories jostle up alongside each other—tales of grief and greed and rage and revenge alongside stories of generous giving and genuine neighborliness. Perhaps those of us who follow Jesus are invited to let Christ’s divine comedy bump up against the storylines around and among us. Even to intervene in the grimmer tales, to insert the declarative love songs of the angels telling us mortals not to fear: For apart from our efforts, God is alive, the devil is out of luck, and love triumphs. We have only to organize our lives around this message and keep belting it out.