Sermon for Michaelmas at St Michael and All Angels 2015
“There was war in heaven”.
C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters in 1942 while a scholar of Oxford University. Lewis was already a household name because of his series of BBC radio talks entitled Mere Christianity. So when C.S. Lewis’ sardonic book of letters from a senior, accomplished devil, named Screwtape, to his enthusiastic but slightly dim junior demon nephew, named Wormwood, were published, they were an instant hit. The focus of the correspondence is a newly converted Christian who, it is hoped, will be led astray by the wiles of the devil. It’s fun to read although at times one does need to remind oneself that in this instance the ‘enemy’ is God and the desired direction for the human life and spiritual journey is down not up. “There was war in heaven”.
In the extraordinarily popular Harry Potter series the adversarial relationship between young Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort is also subtle and sinister. Again the great object of desire for Voldemort is power. One of Harry’s strengths is his humility.
In Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the first major character introduced is Satan. Formerly called Lucifer, he is the most beautiful of the angels and a tragic figure that sums up his lot with the statement, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”. Satan is deeply arrogant and charismatic. Despising servanthood, he attempts a rebellion and when that fails, he gathers up the fallen angels to be his army in hell. Setting up an alternative kingdom, Milton’s Satan oversees a third of the angelic population. Scholars suggest that Milton’s vision of a civil war against the King of Heaven, is a parallel universe to the English people deposing and beheading King Charles 1. Integral to the poem is the thought that while the fall of humanity is the direct result of Satan’s rebellion; it is not outside the plan of God. The Fall of Adam and Eve lead to the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. The Fall of Creation is necessary for the New Creation to be born.
One of the big questions about the war in heaven in theology is whether the angels battle it out prior to the Fall, or at the end of time just before the second coming of Christ. In other words, is the war in heaven how we got into this mess or how it will all end? However it is clear that God will triumph. The victory of God of a given. It is how it is accomplished that is the surprise.
Paintings and sculpture about the war is heaven and the battle between Michael and Satan usually highlight the violence that is described in Revelation: “the great dragon was thrown down” but it is important to recognise that violence is not the whole picture. Revelation 12.11, reads “The Lamb has won the victory”. It is not raw power but humility and sacrifice that are awarded the ultimate triumph. “The lamb has won the victory”. Humility is the desire that others flourish. It is the way of love we read about in 1 Corinthians 13.
As we gather here tonight we know full well there is violence and war raging in many nations of the earth. There is the immediate urgent refugee crisis in Europe. There is the reality of climate change in the Pacific. There are any number of battles begging to be fought. Yet beside that invitation to enter into battle is the declaration, “the Lamb has won the victory”. You and I are neither angels nor are we Christ the lamb yet we are created in the image and likeness of God and it Christ whom we follow. Hence may we remember that it is humility and sacrifice that mark the way and life of Christ.