God, and God’s servants, human and angelic, will defeat all the powers of evil. Just not in the way you might have thought.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The feast of St. Michael and All Angels
Text: Revelation 12:7-12
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal: surrounded by evil and bordered by death we appeal to you.”
These words open our Eucharistic prayer each week in October and November. As the Church Year draws to a close and our seasons in the north move toward dying and the end of growth, the lectionary focuses more on life in the end times, on evil and good and God’s place in that.
We’re starting this prayer a week earlier this year. Today, the 29th of September, the Church celebrates God’s angelic messengers, those spiritual beings who work for God’s good in a world surrounded by evil and bordered by death. It’s good to remember them as we approach the Table of God’s welcoming grace. And all year, at each Eucharist, in the Great Thanksgiving an invitation is sung to the faithful to join “all the choirs of angels” in singing praise to the thrice-holy and ever-living God.
You don’t have to believe in little devils clothed in red with pitchforks and horns to comprehend, even in our scientific age, that there are powers of evil at work that cause evil far greater than can be accounted for by just bad human decisions. Institutions have collective powers, mobs attain a collective mind and do horrifying things. Even a nation, as we’ve learned to our deep grief, can collectively become an agent of evil even if the majority are trying to do good and love neighbor.
So today we celebrate that the complexity and beauty of God’s creation includes spiritual powers who serve God, who work for good. You don’t have to believe in fat little half-naked cherubs with too-small wings to comprehend, even in our scientific age, the possibility of God’s grace in having spiritual servants to help God and to help humans in our need. To work for God against evil, and rejoice when the lost are found.
But listen carefully to how God’s servants, angelic and human, actually defeat evil.
The great war in heaven John speaks of in his Revelation today can evoke all sorts of blood-lust unseemly to those who follow the Prince of Peace. It’s a great temptation for Christians.
The disciples, despite Jesus’ warnings, weren’t prepared for the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah. That the Incarnate God-with-us would reveal the depths of God’s love for the creation by dying in humiliation, revealing what true love that heals all things looks like, isn’t just surprising to us. Jesus’ intimate followers also were shocked.
But their problem, and ours as well, is that after the resurrection, it’s tempting to view the cross as just a temporary setback, well put in our rear-view mirror. We didn’t see that coming, but we understand: the Messiah wouldn’t drive out Rome with armies. But now that he’s risen, surely we’re back in business. Surely now we can start dreaming of the time Christ will return and really clean house. Drive the devils out of heaven, wipe evil from the earth, rule over all things.
But that completely misses the point of the cross.
God’s dying and rising love is the only way God will heal all things. If Jesus wouldn’t use twelve legions of angels to defend himself in Gethsemane, he’s not saving those angelic armies for a future pitched battle with flaming swords against the powers of evil.
Just as the disciples were wrong when, after Easter, they asked Jesus if now he would restore Israel and drive out Rome, so, too, we are wrong if we think that God will change plans and now start using power and force to drive evil from this world. We need to stop expecting God, or the angels, to dramatically or powerfully or magically or militarily defeat evil for us.
It turns out, we need to see how John sees this ultimate victory in his Revelation. It’s not what you think you just heard. He talks today about a war between Michael and God’s angels and the great Rebel and his angels. But listen to what he actually says defeats the powers of evil forever:
John saw this future: God’s angels conquer Satan by the blood of the Lamb.
That’s the great war. God’s angels simply point to the blood of the Lamb of God. The sacrifice of God’s Son, the great outpouring of self-giving love by the Triune God on behalf of the creation.
The center of John’s Revelation is the Lamb who was killed and now lives and is adored, because the Lamb, the vulnerable and victorious Christ, is God’s ultimate and only plan. If evil is going to be defeated, John says, the only thing that will do it is the self-giving love of God at the cross. And that will end it for good.
John saw this future, too: it is the word of their testimony that conquers the powers of evil.
That’s how the armies of angels use the blood of the Lamb to defeat evil. They testify to it. They witness to the utter love of God for all things that caused the God of life and creation to offer everything, even the life of the Son of God, to win back the creation.
And it’s not just the testimony of the angels, but also that of the hosts robed in white around the throne John has already seen. Those faithful who witnessed by their lives to the love of God in Christ, who are gathered in heaven. The word of their testimony is critical to the defeat of evil, pointing to the blood of the Lamb as the end of all evil’s power.
And John saw this future: they win because they didn’t cling to life, even in the face of death, and evil could not stand against such trust.
Both angels and we who are mortal, we who are filled with Christ, who love as Christ, defeat evil when we don’t cling to life, even in the face of death. When we don’t worry about the cost of following but follow the heart of God that beats in us in our baptism, no matter the cost. When we don’t make decisions out of fear and anxiety over what might happen to us but out of the love the Spirit of God pours into our hearts. When we bear God’s vulnerable, sacrificial love in our own lives and words and bodies, and so witness to how God will defeat evil.
Rejoice today: God is working against the powers of evil, human and otherwise, that surround and assail us and all the world.
Just know that the battle isn’t what you thought it would be, and the victory has already begun at the cross. It’s a strange kind of victory, certainly unexpected.
But Jesus would have you focus less on demons being defeated, just as he says to the disciples today, and more on rejoicing that your name is written in heaven. Your life is bound up in God’s eternal love. Your hopes for the world to be free of evil and to be a place of hope and life for all God’s creatures and all God’s creation are found in this dying and rising love that not only writes your name in heaven but the names of every living thing.
Against such love – from the Triune God, from God’s angels, and now from you and all God’s children – what chance do any powers of evil have?
In the name of Jesus. Amen