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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Who is like God? A sermon for Michaelmas

Yesterday was Michaelmas Day.  It is a prince among seasons. I love it not just for the light and colour of autumn or because of my Christian name but because of the symbolic power of its themes. I was first a vicar in the parish of Alnwick where the whole town, not only the church, is under the protection of St Michael the Archangel.  At this festival the beautiful medieval church would overflow with Michaelmas daisies.  I left there to go to Coventry Cathedral, another hill-top church dedicated to St Michael, and persuaded the flower guild to do the same.  They were a bit sniffy at first and said that Michaelmas daisies were no better than weeds.  But in time they succumbed. After that I went to Sheffield Cathedral where I missed St Michael and his daisies, so the flower guild took pity on me and always put a vase of them on my office table for Michaelmas.  I have yet to work on Durham.

Who is Michael the mighty archangel?   That name asks a question in Hebrew: ‘Who is like God?’  It is a question, not a statement.  Angels are the Bible’s great questioners.  When an angel appears to Daniel and strengthens him, it is with a question: ‘do you know why I have come?  When the mysterious shadowy figure wrestles with Jacob in the dark, he asks him his name.  An angel in the book of Zechariah pesters the prophet with a full-scale catechism: ‘what do you see?’, ‘do you know what this is?’, ‘do you not know what these are?’  It’s as if God sends angels to tease us mortals with questions that are bigger than they seem. 

Who is like God?  The Book of Genesis says that we are made ‘like God’, in his image.  Early on, the Hebrews thought this measnt that human beings looked physically like him.  Later, the image of God came to mean being aware, knowing right and wrong, being male and female, recognising beauty, or being capable of thought and speech. But I think from the way Genesis tells the story, that the image of God is most closely linked to the idea of authority and dominion.  ‘God said, “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over all the wild animals of the earth.”’  To be a man or a woman, in the Old Testament, means the care and responsibility for the world.  One of the psalms says: ‘the heavens are the Lord’s, but the earth he has given to the children of men.’  And if ever we needed to take seriously the thought that we are stewards of this good earth, it’s now.  The threat of climate change has made it all to clear how fragile our planet is and how easily the human race could wreck the delicate fabric of the life it sustains, including our own.  

We are called then to hold dominion responsibly, on God’s behalf.  In the Book of Revelation, there is a passage that speaks of the archangel Michael as the mighty warrior who ‘takes dominion’ against evil.  He stands for salvation, truth and justice against all that is evil and false, all that comes from the adversary Satan, ‘the deceiver of the whole world’.  By throwing the dragon out of heaven, Michael re-enacts the creation battle of ancient myth where sea-monsters are defeated and the world comes into being.  So there is a new creation: the universe is saved from chaos and destruction, and restored to the order and goodness it had at first.  By the one who is like God, what was lost in the fall is won back, put right. 

So much for what is going on in heaven.  But now come down to earth.  This question ‘who is like God?’ looks beyond the archangel, for Michael is not alone in taking the victor’s crown.  In that same passage from Revelation, the victor’s crown also belongs to ‘our comrades’ whom Satan had accused night and day before God.  It is they ‘who 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’.  It’s a beautifully drawn contrast between the huge apocayptic events taking place in the sky, and the human scale of what is happening on earth. The vast canvas on which the angelic conflict is fought out is mirrored in the personal victories won by individual people, the martyrs of Christ.  We can imagine how this picture of evil defeated in dimensions unseen would strengthen those facing persecution at that time. So the question ‘Who is like God?’ is answered in those who follow Jesus in the fiery ordeals of passion and death, who ‘bear witness’ at the cost of their lives.  Their suffering shows the true meaning of dominion.  ‘This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith’. 

Discipleship, said Jesus, is to be so free within yourself, so given up to God, so focused on the kingdom of heaven that you can contemplate losing your life in order to find it.  And whatever the way of the cross holds, it means having the inner soul of a martyr which is what a ‘witness’ literally is. I believe the New Testament sees the disciple as a potential martyr: to be baptised is to be ready to bear witness to Christ wherever it leads, whatever it costs. It’s a hard truth for us to hear, and I find it as tough as you do, wondering how on earth I have got myself into this, not only as a Christian but as a priest, a public representative of this way of living.  What else might we have done with our lives if we had not chosen this way of crucifixion that commits us to live courageously for truth and righteousness, to reject worldly power and success, to disown human glory? 

In the early church, when persecution subsided, many chose what came to be called ‘white’ martyrdom, by entering monasteries as a way of dying to the world.  Perhaps baptism is a kind of white martyrdom, where being a Christian is unusual, eccentric, bizarre, an offence against the lazy tolerance that does not like the idea that truth is something you might not only live for but die for. There are many who have and they inspire us to this day: St Francis embracing Lady Poverty and kissing the leper; St Martin giving his cloak to the beggar; St Cuthbert turning his back on what comforts he knew to live alone on the Inner Farne and fight evil through his prayers; St Therese, the ‘Little Flower’, full of simplicity and purity, a young girl’s life offered to God’s love; Mother Maria Pilenko stepping into the queue to go into the gas chamber in the place of a frightened old woman.  It is stories like these that make me realise that Christianity is true. 

I am nowhere near it, though on my better days I do want to be, I do want to live a life that has this single focus of loving God with all my heart and being.  You become like the gods you worship, said a Roman philosopher.  The issue is, whom do we worship, what do we put first in our lives?  So this question, ‘who is like God?’ must be the question for all of us who want be serious about Christianity.  How do we live up to our name and bear faithful witness to Jesus so that our dominion reflects his own everlasting reign?  For if the demons that stalk this world are to be conquered, and the storms that threaten to overwhelm it are to be stilled: if people are to feel after God and find him, so much turns on how we live out our discipleship.  I ask myself the question, if you were up in court on a charge of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? 

Jesus calls us to lay aside everything that stops us giving ourselves to this great project of the Christian life.  For God walks the earth and looks for those who will bring in the just and gentle rule of Christ.  He asks us the archangel’s question Mi-cha-el, who is like God, who will take the dominion of Jesus and bear God’s grace and truth to our world?  He waits for our answer, and only God knows what it will be. 

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