TBT: Wiest Sermon for Michaelmas
The Feast of Michaelmas
From the inimitable Fr. Stephen Wiest, of blessed memory, published in Gottesdienst Michaelmas 1997. This sermon was preached at University Lutheran Chapel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 29 September 1996.
Daniel 10.1-21; 12.1-3; Revelation 12:7-12;
Blessed Angel of the LORD, who is the LORD, go before me and prepare my way.
MICHAEL AND HIS ANGELS FLING SATAN AND HIS ANGELS FROM HEAVEN WHEN CHRIST AND HIS MESSENGERS PREACH THE GOSPEL IN THE CHURCH
The Prophet Daniel and his people, the men of Judah and the dwellers of Jerusalem, had been languishing in captivity in Babylon for three score and ten years, the length of the years of a man’s life. Daniel himself was perhaps a dozen years or fifteen older than the captivity into which he had fallen as a youth under the cruel hand of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. Daniel knew from the prophecies of Jeremiah in the generation before his own that there were seventy years appointed by God for Judah’s exile in Babylon and that the time of the fulfillment was coming due (Jer 25.11-12, 29.10). So Daniel began to pray to God on behalf of his exiled people, seeking Him with supplications made in fasting and sackcloth and ashes. Daniel confessed to God all the unfaithfulness of Judah that had brought this long-lasting disaster upon her with words such as these: “To thee, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us confusion of face . . . because we have sinned against thee” (Dan 9.7-9). Daniel implored the mercy of God upon his people in this way: “O my God, incline thy ear and hear; open thy eyes and behold our desolations . . . O LORD, hear; O LORD, forgive: O LORD, give heed and act; delay not, for thy own sake, O my God, because thy city and thy people are called by thy name” (Dan 9.18-19 RSV).
This prayer of Daniel to God was answered by a visitation of the man Gabriel (really an angel) who carried to the Prophet by means of swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifices the Word of the LORD. The Word concerned seventy weeks of years in a hard-to-fathom vision of the End, replete with a mysterious mention of a murdered Messiah in the midst of its dark prophecy (Dan 9.24-27). Not long afterward, the Prophet Daniel entered again into a state of profound self-mortification, mourning and fervent prayer for his imprisoned people with three weeks of fasting. By now they “had done their time” of the full seventy years of exile (Dan 10). Again the man Gabriel came to Daniel in order to impart a divine vision of the final conflict. But the glorious appearance of Gabriel was such that no strength was left in Daniel. All his comeliness was turned to corruption. The Prophet fell flat on his face, stricken unconscious at the sound of Gabriel’s words. Gabriel’s touch revived Daniel and Gabriel’s speech assured Daniel of God’s good will to His greatly beloved Prophet. But even Gabriel, whose demeanor was that of a man of might most terrible, had to admit that it had taken him fully twenty-one days to reach Daniel’s side from the time that God had first heard his prayers. Why was this swift-flighted angel impeded for three full weeks? Because the prince of the kingdom of Persia had withstood Gabriel, not wanting him to reach Daniel with the Word of the LORD concerning Daniel’s captive people. But lo and behold, then came the First of the chief princes (reading __À as an ordinal number, Dan 10.13) Michael, to rescue mighty Gabriel from the “double-teamed” resistance by the kings of Persia so that his beleaguered angelic comrade might break on through to the Prophet Daniel.
What was here described in Daniel 10 is nothing less than an angelic conflict between the supernatural spirit-patrons of nations. Evil angels standing over Persia run interference on Gabriel as he seeks to reach Daniel, Prophet of the Jewish exiles now being held in Persian hands since the recent seizure of Babylon by the Medo-Persians. But it takes Michael, the angelic Prince of Daniel’s people, to thwart the angels over Persia and enable an “out-gunned” Gabriel to do his courier’s duty (Dan 10.21). Now if Gabriel has a face like lightning, eyes like flaming torches, and a voice like the sound of a multitude (Dan 10.6), then what must that Michael be like who is so much greater than Gabriel? It seems to be an almost-almighty Michael who will take his stand over Daniel’s poor people to protect them during a time of tribulation, the like of which has never before been seen since the beginning of their nation. Every one of Daniel’s people found enrolled in the book of truth (Dan 10.21; 12.1) shall be delivered by this Michael, saved to the uttermost by the awesome Angel in bodily resurrection from the dead (Dan 12.2). “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Dan 12.2-3 RSV). Those like Daniel who trust in this promise of God and inculcate it in others shall shine like the stars of heaven, that is, like the angelic sons of God (cf. Job 38.7).
We have no indication that the aged Prophet Daniel ever lived to see the release of his people from exile and their restoration to Juda and Jerusalem by the decree of Cyrus, the Medo-Persian king of Babylon at the time of Daniel’s last vision. What Daniel did see, however, during his long life was plenty of trouble. Daniel saw, at a young age, Jerusalem capitulate to Nebuchadnezzar, and the cream of her aristocracy get deported to Babylon in 606 B.C., himself taken among them. Daniel saw himself made into a professional courtier and administrator for his Babylonian captor, probably at cost of being made into a eunuch (as says Josephus). In 586, Daniel saw Judah go down completely and Jerusalem fall to the ground as Nebuchadnezzar finished what he had begun by trashing the temple and deporting everyone of any account. Daniel saw three of his friends thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to commit idolatry before Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. Daniel saw the sacred vessels stolen from the Jerusalem temple desecrated by a playboy king and his concubines on the night that Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians. Daniel saw the grim interior of a den of lions due to the jealousy of the Persian satraps over whom he was promoted by their own leader, Darius.
Throughout his long life, Daniel saw stark and fearsome visions from the LORD that appalled and mystified him time and again. Yet in, with, and under all the trouble of the Babylonian captivity, Daniel saw the Word of the LORD hold fast and stand firm, but this he saw by faith, not sight. Daniel saw the hungry lions’ mouths stopped up for him by the Angel of God (Dan 6.22). Daniel saw the inferno of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace quenched for his three friends by One strolling on the coals who was like the Son of God (Dan 3.25). Daniel saw the very hand of God weigh Babylon in the balance, find her wanting, and judge her in just one hour (Dan 5.17-31). And last and most important of all, Daniel heard from the Angel Gabriel that Michael, First of the chief princes, was Daniel’s Prince and the Prince of Daniel’s people. This Michael was He who had stood up to defend Daniel’s people before and would stand up for them yet again, according to the Word of the LORD.
Michael stands up for his people, the people of God, in the terrible time of the End of our reading from Revelations 12. Michael and his angels (for he is the Archangel, according to Jude 9) wage war in Heaven against the dragon and his angels. The dragon cannot prevail, though, and there is no place found for him and his angels in heaven any longer. The great dragon, the ancient serpent, the one called devil and Satan who leads astray the whole inhabited world, gets thrown down, all the way down to earth, and his angels get thrown down with him. Now the verbs for this deposing of the devil and all his crew are all in the passive voice and do not specify their subjects—those who are doing the throwing down. Very often in Scriptures, this way of speaking, called the “theological passive,” is employed to show that God is acting and in order to avoid mentioning God’s Name outright. Here, God is throwing down Satan and his demonic minions by means of the Archangel Michael and Michael’s good angels. That the Archangel Michael is God’s Agent for winning this victory for God becomes clear in Revelation 20.1-3: “And I saw an angel descending from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he seized the dragon, the ancient serpent who is the devil and Satan and he bound him for a thousand years and he threw him into the abyss and closed up and sealed it above him so that he would not again mislead the nations until the thousand years was completed . . . “ (author’s transl.; cf. also Rev 10.1-11 in the light of Ezek 1.26-3.2).
How is it, though, that Michael is able to do all this to the dread Satan, the Old Evil Foe? If it’s simply a matter of one created angel—the good archangel—going up against another created angel—the bad rebel—then it should be “even money” as to which angelic brawler will best the other in the bout. The “smart money,” indeed, would bet on the devil, the master of a thousand arts with all his wiles and might! There’s something deeper, though, going on here in that the devil-binding angel of Revelation 20 has the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. At the beginning of the Apocalypse, it is our Lord Jesus Christ who has the keys of Death and Hades (Rev 1.18); it is Christ who has the key of David so that He is the One who opens and no one can close and closes and no one can open (Rev 3.7)—not even the Devil himself! The Angel coming down from heaven of Revelation 20, he who manhandles Satan and locks him up in the Abyss with same short work of the Archangel Michael as he flings down the Devil in Revelation 12, begins to look suspiciously like the Lord Christ Himself!
When Satan is flung from heaven in Revelation 12, a great voice declares: “Now comes to pass the salvation and the power and the Kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ, because the Accuser of our brothers is flung down, the one who accuses them before our God day and night. And these conquered him on account of the blood of the Lamb and the Word of their testimony, and they did not love their life unto death” (Rev 12.10-11, author’s transl.). Things are getting more and more curious, for now the text says that Michael and his angels have won their victory over Satan by means of the blood of the Lamb, by means of the Word of their testimony, by means of their not having loved their own lives unto death. This doesn’t sound at all like an aerial victory won by some high-flying ace archangel and his deathless brethren aloft high in heaven; it sounds like a bloody victory won by the crucified Christ and His martyred Apostles right down here on earth! This is just what our Gospel reading shows us. When the seventy men sent out by Christ as His representatives report back to Him how even the demons submit to them in His Name, it is clear that Satan and his angels have been taking a proper beating. Jesus says to His men just returned from a triumphant tour of preaching in His Name, “I was watching Satan plummet from heaven like lightning” (Luke 10.18).
To these earthy angels of His, the Seventy, Christ declares, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10.16 RSV). To these messengers whom He commissions to march barefoot through the dust (Luke 10.4,11) Jesus says, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10.19 RSV). The reported results of the preaching of the Seventy coupled with Christ’s own testimony concerning Satan’s concomitant fall prove that these men are the angels of Michael the Archangel—they who with their Prince and in His Name throw down the devil and all his crew.
It should come as no surprise, really, that the Archangel Michael and His heavenly angels as described in Revelation 12 are, in fact, the Lord Christ and His messenger-men as described in Luke 10. Blessed Martin Luther, writing about the Apocalypse in his Prefaces to the New Testament, reminds us that from the early chapters of Revelation “we learn that the word angel is to be understood later on, in other images or visions, to mean bishops and teachers in Christendom—some good, such as the holy fathers and bishops, some bad, such as the heretics and false bishops. And in this book there are more of the bad than of the good.” Luther refers here to the fact that Revelation 2-3 consists of seven letters to seven churches, each one addressed to the angel of a particular congregation. As the heavenly Angel Gabriel was depicted as a man in Daniel 9-12, so in Revelation 2-3 the human messengers of Christ in the seven churches are depicted as angels. This is a standard device of symbolic transformation in apocalyptic literature such as the books of Daniel and Revelation. There is yet another such clue near the end of Apocalypse as well. When an angel measures the dimensions of the New Jerusalem in human cubits, his measure is said to by “by a man’s measure, that is, an angel’s” (Rev 21.17 RSV).
So then, Michael and his angels in Revelation 12 are symbolic representations of men, namely, the Man Christ Jesus and His messengers, as we read in the Gospel. And this “Michael,” by the way, must be the Lord Christ, for the heavenly angels of Revelation 12 are said to be his. The holy angels, however, belong to God alone, just as the unholy angels, Satan’s, belong to their god alone, the devil. Now the only way that Michael’s angels can belong to God alone is if the Archangel Michael is Himself God, God visible in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. The name Michael means “Who is like God?” The answer to the question embedded within this name lies hidden in Him whose name it is. Of all visible beings only the Lord Christ is like God, for only the Lord Christ is God among all visible beings!
Does not Revelation 12 say, though, that the battle between Michael and his angels and the devil and his angels transpires in heaven? How can this statement then refer to conflict in the Church on earth? We read in the very next chapter of the Apocalypse, Revelation 13, that the beast is allowed to open his mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming God’s Name and His dwelling, namely, those who dwell in heaven. This blaspheming against those who dwell in heaven takes place as the beast makes war upon the saints on earth and is allowed, temporally speaking, to conquer them (Rev 13.5-8). In this symbol-laden Apocalypse, just as earthly men are represented by heavenly angels, so the Church on earth is represented by heaven. According to the 1544 Michaelmas sermon of Blessed Martin Luther, the heavenly battle transpiring in Revelation 12 is a battle that’s really going on in the earthly Church. Wherever the Church is, there is the Lord Christ, and wherever the Lord Christ is, there is heaven. Luther says that the angels of Michael who prevail by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony to Him, these are the sort of flesh-and-blood angels in the seven churches to whom the Apocalypse is addressed. As these human angels of Christ, His messengers in the Church, fight with the Word of God against false doctrine and wrong practice—both of which belie the Gospel with human hands and tongues wielded by the devil—they fight against Satan and his angels. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6.12), declares the Apostle Paul.