Music videos can be pretty bizarre, and the music video for Amy Grant’s 1984 hit single “Angels” is no exception. Sure, the lyrics are pleasant enough, inspirational even:
Angels watching over me,
every move I make.
Angels watching over me,
every step I take.
But pair those same lyrics with images of Amy sitting on a bench in front of a darkened window with several disembodied hands reaching through… or a pair of mysterious people wearing masks… and suddenly inspirational turns into unsettling and even creepy. To be clear, these are actual scenes from the music video. You can look it up on YouTube. It’s a real treat, I promise you that.
Angels are mysterious beings though, aren’t they? We think of guardian angels… or those cute Precious Moments ceramics or other figurines on the shelves of Hallmark stores… or the kindly Della Reese or Roma Downey in the popular ‘90s TV series Touched by an Angel. We might imagine heavenly beings clothed in white robes with feathered wings and sparkling halos, playing gentle harp music. Or Sunday School kids dressed in acolyte robes with slightly misshapen, gold-colored pipe cleaners for halos, as they cutely stumble through their lines for the Christmas pageant.
Our Bible is full of stories of angels. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as “angel” mean, simply, “messenger.” Angels are messengers of God sent to do God’s work and carry messages to God’s people. In the Old Testament, an angel appears at the last minute to stop Abraham from sacrificing his only son Isaac, and an angel later defends the Israelite slaves against their Egyptian pursuers as they cross the Red Sea into freedom. An angel protects Hagar and Ishmael on their journey after Abraham and Sarah abruptly send them away, and still another angel feeds and sustains the prophet Elijah in the wilderness.
Moving into the New Testament, we first encounter angels who announce the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah and the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph and ultimately the shepherds. Angels again appear to attend to the adult Jesus in the wilderness after his temptation by the devil, and in Matthew’s gospel, it is an angel who rolls the stone away from the tomb.
Angels permeate our scriptures and our imaginations. But have you ever noticed how a lot of our biblical stories featuring angels include the line “Do not be afraid”? Can you imagine having to preface any conversation you have with someone with the reassurance “Do not be afraid”? What could these angels possibly look like that our first instinct is to be afraid? Maybe Amy Grant’s music video was on to something…
Maybe angels look more like Michael, the archangel. Michael is one of only two angels to be named in the Bible – the other is Gabriel. In Christian artwork, Michael is often depicted dressed in armor, with a sword or spear in his hand, slaying a dragon. More like a scene out of Game of Thrones than Touched by an Angel! In the Bible, Michael appears by name three times, most prominently in the scene we encounter in our reading from Revelation today. It’s a scene of cosmic war – an epic battle between good and evil that plays out in heaven. Michael and his angels lead the charge against the dragon and his angels, the one called the serpent, adversary, deceiver.
The scene of war in heaven comes in the middle of the book of Revelation – one of the books of the Bible known as apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature often dramatized real-life circumstances in mythic or “fairy tale”-like stories in order to reveal its point. Apocalyptic literature in the Bible was meant to give hope to the early Christian community in the midst of persecution, when their worlds were collapsing around them, when life as they knew it was falling apart. Apocalyptic literature, like Revelation, testified to God’s ultimate victory over evil. No matter how bleak things got, God would triumph still.
So Michael and his angels defeat the dragon, but this is the only the beginning of Revelation’s climax. In the chapters to come, the battle continues on earth, but with a renewed sense of incredible hope. Because this dragon has been defeated in the heavenly war, it is already losing the earthly war. Or as Luther writes in that great hymn “A Mighty Fortress”:
Though hordes of devils fill the land…
we tremble not, unmoved we stand;
they cannot overpow’r us…
The battle against evil continues, and we know our own adversaries well: war in our world, violence on our city streets, divisions between people. Even the adversaries and evils closer to home: addiction, depression, anxiety, grief, life-threatening illness.
This summer at Unity, many of us read Rachel Held Evans’s book Inspired that re-tells biblical stories in new ways. In her chapter on apocalyptic literature, called “Resistance Stories,” she writes: “It might not look like it now, but the Resistance is winning. Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.”
Dragons can be defeated. That’s the core of our hope as the people of God. Michael defeats the dragon, and a loud voice in heaven proclaims the victory song: Salvation and power and God’s kingdom have come! We have conquered by the blood of the Lamb – Christ crucified and raised to life! The Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. This is the feast of victory!
So often, it can be difficult to perceive that victory, living in-between evil and good, despair and hope, death and life. Where do we hear the song of victory?
This feast day of Michael and All Angels, we recall the stories of biblical angels, the protectors of God’s people, the messengers of good news, who show up time and again in times of distress or crisis. These angels point us again and again to “God’s abiding with us amid the changes and challenges of life” (Brad Froslee).
In the midst of brokenness, we gather as a community that clings to a certain hope. In broken bread and outpoured wine, we are nourished and sustained. We are sent forth even as angels ourselves, messengers of God to bear good news and hope to others. To proclaim the ultimate triumph of the victory of our God, that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death. With angels and archangels, bright seraphs and cherubim, we raise the glad strain: Alleluia, alleluia!