Angels, Dragons, And That Spiritual Monster Truck Rally At The End Of The Opera
War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in 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,
who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But 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
(sermon preached October 1st, 2023 at St John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Denver)
The video and sound are a little out of sync but if you’d like to have a look, sermon starts at :19
St Michael and All Angels
There was a little confusion on my end about what the readings were for today. I worked for several days on the epistle assigned for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost which is this passage from Philippians: If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love.
But apparently we are celebrating St Michael and All Angels and instead the epistle is this: War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. …And The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world..
It’s like buying a ticket for Barbie and getting stuck with Oppenheimer
And the book of Revelation is tricky to say the least. Also it being the last book of the New Testament has always felt to me like someone put a spiritual monster truck rally at the end of an opera.
Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s hard to stand up for a part of the Bible that is just so heavily favored by cult leaders and serial killers.
Even so – I promise you there are many, many things to love about Revelation.
Like, for instance, that amazing list of Satan’s titles and job descriptions we just heard in our reading for today; Starting with the Dragon, then the Great Dragon, the Ancient Serpent, the Accuser, Satan, the Devil, and the Great Deceiver of the Whole World. But one really kept jumping out at me. You’d think it was the dragon because when do you get to preach on dragons, but no - the thing that got me was the title: The Deceiver of the Whole World. The one who argues against the power of God’s promises. The one who smears blame all over us. Who twists truth until it sounds like lies and lies until they sound like truth.
Because at first I was like, man…that’s really helpful – people have TOTALLY been deceived – you know -all those people who are just wrong about stuff, and don’t tip their delivery drivers – all the racists and bullies and tyrants and people who are mean and just bad. They are clearly deceived.
But then I went back read it again and the thing that stood out was the “whole world” part of the deceiver of the whole world and I kind of liked it a little less because if it’s the whole world then I guess that means me too. So reluctantly, I started to wonder what might I have been deceived about.
Well, to start, I have been deceived into believing I am superior by accident of birth, and as a 54 year-old woman I have been deceived into believing that looking my age – or as I like to say, looking as if I have lived each day consecutively since my birth is actually some kind of failure. I have been deceived into believing that my value is only in my productivity. I have been deceived into believing that since I currently have a life of health and comfort and safety I must deserve it.
It's pretty likely that we all have been deceived. Deceived into believing that deep fake videos are news, and endless economic growth is the highest good no matter the cost and that ultra-processed food is actually … food.
And friends, this week I started to think maybe we are also deceived in this society into thinking we are on the side of good while living in a wealthy empire that is continually feeding our first fruits to the beast of shareholder profits while huge swaths of our country are a single cancer diagnosis away from the bank taking their homes away.
So, thinking about how easy it is to be deceived, I had this disturbing question in my head about the battle between Michael and his good angels and Satan and his bad angels, and that question just would not go away.
Here it is: did the bad angels like, know they were bad?
This is what tripped me up all week about this reading: Thomas Merton claims that the devil makes most of his true disciples by not by his preaching in favor of sin but by preaching against it hoping they will then spend the rest of their lives meditating on the intense sinfulness of other men.
So hear me out - if Satan is the great deceiver, then I can imagine convincing a few angels that his cause was the righteous one couldn’t have been too hard for the guy.
Good and Bad
Merton claims that the devil doesn't always turn people conspicuously sinister, sometimes he just turns us blindingly righteous, which frankly is more effective and also more dangerous.
It’s a sneaky, twisted little business this whole battle between good and evil thing. Because the fact is, atrocities are more often perpetuated by those who are dazzlingly certain of their cause’s righteousness than by like, Bond villains who just love evil and want to see it spread. Maybe we are all at much higher risk of harming ourselves and other people when we are certain we are acting out of our virtues than we ever are when we are for sure acting out our vices. I mean, you know how the police station has a vice squad? I’m like, where’s the virtue squad?
Don’t mistake me, I’m not being an abject relativist here – I do believe that pure good and pure evil exist, I just don't believe that humans are as good at knowing the difference as we think we are.
What I am trying to say is that if I want to stand on the side of righteousness, if I want to stand against evil maybe the best way to do that is to remain sufficiently suspicious of my virtues.
Because, as I wrote in a recent essay about Christian stridency - the opposite of fundamentalism – be it religious, or political - isn’t atheism or a-politicism…the opposite of fundamentalism is humility.
Humility is the only spiritually reliable place to land and so rarely the first place I go. But on that ground we do not stand alone. Jesus Christ, stands there too.
Because he is whatever the opposite is of the deceiver of the world is (by the way I asked ChatGPT “what is the opposite of a deceiver?” and it was like, someone who is truthful but The Someone-Who-Is-Truthful Of The Whole World is pretty clunky so, I’m going to go with; Savior).
Well, The Savior Of The Whole World, the one who said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free, he doesn’t so much go in for lies.
In fact, he exposed and defied the beast at every turn. To those who were deceived he dared to say Snap out of it. The things you think matter, really don’t. Your ranking systems are meaningless. Your petty concerns for the apparent sinfulness of others don’t matter. And, believe it or not, Rome itself isn’t going to matter for long. As a matter of fact Pontius Pilate - who you think is so scary and powerful, guess what - 2,000 years from now the only reason anyone will know that guy’s name is as a footnote to a carpenter from Nazareth.
And here’s the thing: all these Gospel truths stand while every lie that comes from the mouth of Satan crumbles, AND they are exactly what the book of Revelation was saying in a coded way to those who were living under the thumb of the Roman empire. The book of Revelation tells us that dominant powers are not ultimate powers and that God’s terrible mercy will triumph over all deception. And that if evil seems to rage on Earth it is only because it knows it has already lost and it lost to the man of sorrows, the friend of sinners, the one who wouldn’t lift a finger to condemn those who hung him on a cross. I’ve been reminded all week of that old Gospel hymn we used to sing He Could Have Called 10,000 Angels. Yes. At Calvary he could have called 10,000 angels to battle, but that would have perpetuated a system of domination he was here to dismantle.
Jesus’ Apocalyptic Dinner Party
By the way, Jesus left us with a way to glimpse the world where God’s kingdom reigns, where domination is done with and all lies have ceased. And he gave us this on the night he was betrayed when he gathered around a table with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom.
And that table is long. In fact, it stretches through time to fit all who have ever gathered for his kingdom meal. The Lord’s table has always extended to gather all who hunger ever since the night he instituted this meal of edible, drinkable Jesus forgiveness…this table has extended to include those I wish to accuse and those who wish to accuse me. This table crosses borders and razor wire and occupied land. It defies all protocols of empire. Here, at his table the deceiver’s claims to a merit-based, race-based, gender-based, income-based seating chart are eternally invalidated. All the vain things that charm us most are deemed meaningless to the one who was who is and who is to come. So I hope you bring all of who you are today. Because here is a foretaste of the kingdom where all dragons have been slain – all accusations have been silenced and all enemies have been loved. Thanks be to God. Oh, and Happy Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
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