A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 2022
Gravity is a morally neutral force. The devil was not asking Jesus to do anything brave or courageous or righteous when he tempted him to throw himself down from the tower, but on the contrary, to throw off his humanity for the sake of his own vainglory. If Jesus had done it, he would only have proven that he was not one of us after all; or else he would have fallen. But Jesus is with us, and for us.
The Archangel Michael, prince of all angels, is usually depicted in iconography soundly defeating the dragon, “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil, and Satan”, in the book of Revelation (Revelation 12:7). Then was heard a voice from heaven proclaiming, “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 comrades has been thrown down … Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe,” the voice continues, “woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:10-12)
The Book of Common Prayer, since its earliest editions, petitions St Michael and All Angels that those who worship in heaven might also help and defend us here on earth. The Archangel is implicated in the Roman Catholic rites of exorcism.
Michael is also the patron saint of Ukraine. An Eastern Orthodox Akathist, or hymn to the Archangel, concludes with a prayer that asks, in part,
“O holy and great Archangel of God Michael, first among the angels that stand before the inscrutable and transcendent Trinity, overseer and guardian of the human race, who with thine armies didst crush the head of the most-proud Morning Star in Heaven and dost ever put to shame his evil and cunning on earth, to thee do we flee with faith and to thee we pray with love; be thou an invincible shield and a firm bulwark of the Holy Church and our homeland, protecting them with thy lightning-bearing sword from all enemies, both visible and invisible. Be thou a guardian angel …”
When the devil decided to tempt Jesus in the desert, his use of scripture was cynical. The pinnacle of his efforts was straight out of the psalms: “If you trust God so much,” the devil said; “If you really think that God is with you, that God keeps promises, that God loves you, then throw yourself off the temple and let God send guardian angels to catch you.”
Much later, in the Garden, when Jesus asked his accusers, “Why have you come to me with clubs and swords. Don’t you know that I could call down a legion of angels to defend me from you if I wanted to?” (Matthew 26:52-56), I wonder if he was responding again to Satan whispering around the stressed edges of his mind, returned at an opportune time to test him. And still, in the moment of crisis, Jesus was far beyond that serpent’s reach.
I do not think it any accident that, after showing him all of the kingdoms of the earth in the second temptation, it was no Roman tower or pinnacle to which the devil took him to tempt him next. The idea that Jesus would willingly cast himself down from the temple, away from the presence of God, and expect angels to follow was both misguided and misleading. It would be nonsensical for the Word of God, to depart from the will of God, which was not that Jesus should avoid or cheat death and its snares, but soundly defeat it.
He did this not by employing his angels to shield him from the world, but by participating so fully in it that he took all of its injustice and its violence and its blasphemy upon his shoulders and carried them through the streets of Jerusalem, though he might stumble beneath their weight, to the site of crucifixion.
Even knowing that resurrection was at hand, he did not avoid our sorrow or suffering, but he shared fully and bodily in it.
So where does that leave us and our prayers of petition, or for protection? What is the difference between trusting God and testing God?[i]
If we expect God’s angels and archangels to fly us away, to help us flee from our responsibilities to repentance and restitution and reconciliation and relationship; if we turn away from the Cross and expect Jesus to follow us, then we are not trusting God, but testing God’s patience.
None of this undoes the good news that Jesus also told us, that if one lamb should go astray, our good shepherd will go after it, but at what cost, what risk to the life of the flock as a whole?
In the fuller version of the psalm that the devil quotes, there is a plague stalking the country. Tens of thousands are dying, maybe hundreds of thousands, let the reader hear. The psalmist prays that he is protected, like one who stands on the field of battle while all around him are falling, as though the angels have formed a shield around him, impermeable and impenetrable.
We are entering the third year of a plague that has killed nearly a million people in this country alone, and brought low many more. We are grateful for this present lull in the battle. Covid has no conscience; it is a morally neutral force. But defeating it has required and will continue to require a moral response of us, one based in love, self-sacrifice, wisdom, and care for the other, rather than bravado, selfishness, greed, or vainglory.
It makes me wonder, what if we are supposed to be the angels to one another, to catch those who are falling through the cracks; to catch them and cradle them?
The letter to the Hebrews quotes another psalm, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet” (Hebrews 2:6-8). For God did not provide this world to the angels, but to us (Hebrews 2:5).
What if we are called upon to lift one another over the obstacles that would crush our toes and cause someone to stumble? What if we are responsible for helping to carry the cross of Christ, to lift the burden of suffering from the Son of Man, to strive to remove the violence of war and the scourge of terror from among his children, to bear their burdens; to bring relief to those in need, without complaining of the cost? What if we are called to the way of truly sacrificial love, as the means to resurrection?
What if when we do these things, taking up spiritual arms against the onslaught of sin, the temptations of selfishness, fasting and praying and strengthening our spirits and training up our hearts to look to God in faith, and in trust; what if it is when we do these things that St Michael and her angels surround us and support us and sustain us, as the angels attended to Jesus in the wilderness after he resisted the wiles of the devil, according to Matthew (Matthew 4:11)?
Leave not without thy help and protection, O Archangel of God, also us who glorify thy holy name today; for behold, even though we be great sinners, nevertheless we desire not to perish in our iniquities, but rather to turn to the Lord and be quickened by Him unto good works. … Strengthen through the Grace of the Lord our weak will and feeble state, that, made firm in the law of the Lord, we may henceforth cease to be tossed to and fro by earthly thoughts …, foolishly forgetting the eternal and heavenly for the sake of the corruptible and earthly. Above all these things, do thou ask for us from on high a true spirit of repentance, unfeigned sorrow before God and contrition for our sins, that we may spend the number of days that remain to us of this transitory life not in gratifying our senses and in slavery to our passions, but in wiping out the evil things we have done by tears of faith and heartfelt contrition, by struggles of purity and holy deeds of mercy. And when the hour of our end … draweth nigh, O Archangel of God, leave us not defenseless against the spirits of evil in the upper air, who are accustomed to hinder the ascent of man’s soul on high, that guarded by thee we may attain without hindrance those most glorious dwelling-places of Paradise, where there is neither sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting, and be vouchsafed to behold the most radiant countenance of our all-beneficent Lord and Master, fall down with tears at His feet, in joy and compunction shouting aloud: Glory to Thee, our most dear Redeemer, Who, because of Thy great love for us unworthy ones, hast been pleased to send Thine angels in the service of our salvation! Amen.[ii]
[i] See The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume IV, 1048
[ii] Akathist to Archangel Michael, https://www.akathists.com/archangel-michael/akathist/
Image: Archangel Michael (Aleppo) Q104195342, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons