The In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A roaring lion, round he goes, No halt nor rest he ever knows;
He seeks the Christians to devour / And slay them by his dreadful pow’r.
But watchful is the angel band / That follows Christ on ev’ry hand
To guard His people where they go / And break the counsel of the foe.
These two stanzas of Philipp Melanchthon’s hymn on angels—or rather, Percy Dearmer’s paraphrase of Melanchthon’s hymn—“Lord God, to Thee We Give All Praise,” describe the ongoing battle between “the ancient dragon,” that self-deceived, fallen angel known as the devil and Satan, and the heavenly, holy angels of God. The works of the devil, oh, they do seem so familiar to us, don’t they? Turn on any news program, read an online news feed, or pick up a newspaper or magazine, and the world sure seems full of the works of the devil and his angels. In our Epistle for today, from the 12th chapter of the Revelation to St. John, the blessed Apostle and Evangelist calls this wicked creature “the great dragon … that ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9). These names or titles signify his “life’s work” and ambition, as it were. For devil means “accuser” or “slanderer,” and Satan means “adversary.” He is indeed dreadful and powerful, and highly intelligent, someone with whom we cannot contend, nor should we ever try.
In popular culture, a battle with this “prince of darkness” is sometimes depicted as a match in which the human actually has a chance of winning. For example, in Stephen Vincent Benét’s short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” a New Hampshire farmer sells his soul to the devil (as if that were even possible), and then is defended by the famed 19th-century statesman and orator Daniel Webster. The devil-chosen, all-American judge and jury from hell, find in favor of the farmer, saying, “even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.” In the hit 1979 bluegrass song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band, the Devil is behind on his soul-collecting, so he wages with a fiddle-playin’ young man that he’ll give him a gold fiddle if the boy can out-fiddle him; otherwise, the Devil gets the boy’s soul.
The boy said my name’s Johnny / and it might be a sin
but I’ll take your bet / and you’re gonna regret
’cause I’m the best there’s ever been.
Johnny out-fiddles the devil, the devil lays the gold fiddle at his feet, and Johnny tells the devil, basically, come back if you want a rematch, but “I’m the best that’s ever been.” For us to accept the devil’s wager, the devil’s temptation, is a sin.
Holy Scripture warns us instead that the devil and his evil angels are not creatures against whom we can fight by our own wits, skills, reason, or strength. St. Jude sets before us the humble example of the holy archangel: “But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you’ ” (Jude 9). And Jude’s brother, St. James of Jerusalem, reminds us that Scripture says, “ ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you” (Jas 4:6b–8a). Though John sees Michael and “his angels,” the holy angels of God, warring against the devil and his angels and defeating them, nevertheless, the Archangel humbly rebuked the devil with the same weapon available to us for rebuking the enemy, the holy Name and Word of God. While the names devil and Satan declare his self-centered, self-sought status as the enemy and accuser of God and of God’s people, the name Michael means “who is like God?”—a humble question, for which the humble answer must be, “No one is like Him!” God alone is King; angels are His ministers and servants; even the evil angels must ultimately serve His will. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the devil defiantly declares against God, “Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” The father of lies has it wrong (so Milton gets him right); he doesn’t rule in hell, God does. For as Moses (Dt 4:24; 9:3) and the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:29) and the Lord Jesus (Mt 9:48; 18:8) declare, “The LORD [our] God is a consuming fire,” an eternal fire, unquenchable. Yes, the angels are mighty; but, God alone is almighty. The angels are speedy; God alone is omnipresent. The angels know much; God alone knows all things.
In today’s Gospel (Mt 18:1), the disciples come up to Jesus and ask Him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” As the Brits would say, “Well, that’s rather cheeky!” It’s hardly a humble question; in truth, it’s rather arrogant on the part of us disciples. Yes, us disciples. Looking to make comparisons and seeking status did not stop with the Twelve; we continue that same fine tradition to this day, because, like the disciples of old, we are all conceived and born sinners, full of self-love. It comes quite naturally to us fallen human creatures, the “Old Adam.” The question is literally, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens?” Now these disciples know, as do we, that the Old Testament tells of these mighty heavenly creatures, angels and cherubim and seraphim and so on. Jesus could well have replied, “You guys do know that myriads of My Father’s holy angels fill the heavens, don’t you? And they are great, every one of them. They serve Him ceaselessly, tirelessly, day and night, doing His bidding, humbly obeying His every word, His every command. How do you stack up against that?” We must confess that we don’t measure up to the holy angels. Consider the first three petitions of the Our Father: “Hallowed be Thy name (on earth as it is in heaven); Thy kingdom come (on earth as it is in heaven); Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” How is God’s name kept holy in heaven? How does His kingdom come in heaven? How is His will done in heaven? Fully and perfectly—and humbly!—by His holy angels. They let not their egos get in the way; they simply serve, so that God may be glorified and His people be protected and saved and ushered into eternal life.
Jesus explained greatness in the kingdom of the heavens not with the example of a holy angel, but with a child. “Amen I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Angels are humble, truly humble, yet God has also given them great might. A child, on the other hand, has no great might, nor generally anything great to offer the kingdom of God. In this, Christ is perhaps also pointing to Himself as The Child, The Example of humility and non-might, of true greatness. For though He is the Almighty God, God the Son, begotten of His Father from eternity and coequal with the Father, yet He humbled Himself, becoming a child, a tiny embryo smaller than can be seen with the naked eye, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And as the meek “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” He was baptized for us—a humble acceptance of our sin upon Himself—and He submitted to His death on the cross, that instrument of shame, to bear our sin and be our Savior. For this humility of God’s own dear Child, Jesus Christ, a loud angelic voice declared, and all the heavenly host ever sing:
“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the Word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev 12:10–11).
This Word is God’s holy Word, given to you by the Holy Spirit for your testimony of what God has done for you in Christ, and the blood of the Lamb is the very blood that He shed on the cross for you, that He gives here in His Holy Supper for you for the forgiveness of all your sins, His blood that still pleads for you before the throne of God. This Word, this Lamb, this Blood, this Christ, the holy angels rejoice to declare to the sons of men when they are sent to do so by God. They rejoice to be ministers, serving us, the heirs of salvation, heirs of God in Christ (Heb 1:14; Gal 4:7)! The angels of God are “winds and … flames of fire” (Heb 1:7), creatures of spirit, sealed in their holiness. Yet Christ became man, became one of us, to save us men from sin, and He gives us men His Holy Spirit to dwell in us. Not so the angels. And still they humbly accept their roles and duties, and direct us to do as they do, to give all the glory and honor and worship and praise and prayer and thanks to the God who alone is worthy, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, in whose holy name we are baptized. Let us give thanks to Him for the blessing and protection of His holy angels, and let us serve as they do, loving others as the visiting angels they just might be (Heb 13:2), in the name of the God who first serves us.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.