October 1, 2017 – 17 Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32; Psalm 25:1-8; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
This morning’s readings from scripture touch on some of the most important themes of the Bible: repentance, God’s mercy and loving kindness, humility, living according to God’s ways and in God’s active service.
In our Old Testament reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel God speaks to the people of Israel and urges them to repent and return to God and God’s way of righteous living. The repentance God seeks is true and deep: “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” The promised reward is nothing less than life: “Turn, then, and live.”
Jesus underscores the importance of repentance when he speaks to the religious leaders about John the Baptist. Remember that John preached repentance and offered baptism as a sign of repentance and return to God. When Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” he means that they listened to John’s message. Their hearts were not hardened by self-righteousness, and they repented and returned to the Lord.
The psalmist reminds us that the hope of all who have transgressed – and who among us cannot resonate with the psalmist’s plea “Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions”? – our hope is God’s nature: compassionate, loving, good, and gracious. In our opening collect we prayed “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” For all of us who are creatures of God and have fallen short of the way of love and righteousness, God’s grace and mercy are our hope and the foundation of our trust and faith.
One certainly doesn’t need to be a Christian to understand the dangers of pride and self-righteousness or the value of humility. In this morning’s passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi what we find is a specifically Christian understanding of the importance of humility. Paul exhorts the members of the church to embrace humility because Christ embraced humility. Through his incarnation and his obedience to God, even to the point of death on the cross, Jesus showed people that God’s exaltation comes through humble obedience and concern for the needs of others, not through preoccupation with status or grasping at a higher place.
Obedience to God and concern for the needs of others must be put into practice. The short parable in our lesson from the gospel according to Matthew puts this very clearly. Which son did the will of his father –the one who said he wouldn’t work in the vineyard but did or the one who said he would work but didn’t? Certainly the one who obeyed his father’s command and actually worked was the one who did the will of his father. Empty promises do not equal obedience.
All of these themes from today’s scripture lessons are very important. We encounter the same messages often in our readings as we progress through the three year lectionary cycle. We will visit them again and again and, I hope, continue to learn and deepen our understanding and our faith.
Now I would like to turn to a topic we don’t often consider – angels. As you know if you read the parish newsletter, this past Friday, September 29th was the day in the church calendar when we celebrate St. Michael and All Angels. So I thought it would be fitting to explore the topic of angels this week.
First of all, what is an angel? The English word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos” and means, literally, a messenger; in religious contexts, a messenger from God. It is commonly believed that human beings can be messengers of God to one another. You may have had the experience of a person conveying a truth from God to you in some way. Some people believe that non-human creatures such as animals can also be God’s messengers to human beings. Again, you may have had such an experience. But this morning we are talking about spiritual creatures who serve as God’s messengers or interact on God’s behalf with humans in other healthful, protective ways.
What does an angel look like? We are most familiar with representations of angels who look like human beings with wings and often a halo. You or your children may have dressed up as angels for a Christmas pageant in white robes with wings and a halo hopefully well attached! In the Old Testament book of Genesis we find the story of Abraham who offered hospitality to three men who appeared at the door of his tent. It turns out these were not men but angels who looked like men; apparently they did not have wings or halos. Angels were also viewed in the Old Testament as fire. Consider the burning bush who conveyed God’s message to Moses. I have seen a painting of the Annunciation in which the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in the form of a column of bright light. In whatever way they appear, it is generally agreed that angels do not actually have bodies like ours; they are heavenly not earthly.
In the Bible two angels are named, Michael and Gabriel. In Jewish and Christian tradition Michael is the chief of the archangels. In the book of Revelation we find a description of a war in heaven in which Michael and his angels fought against and defeated the dragon – the Devil – and his angels. Michael is the head of the heavenly host which is the spiritual army of God. He is typically portrayed in military uniform with sword unsheathed, a dragon sometimes under his foot. We are most familiar with Gabriel, of course, because he announced the coming birth of John the Baptist to his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and especially because he announced the birth of Jesus to Mary.
Many Christians believe that we have guardian angels. This belief comes directly from words of Jesus recorded in the 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel (18:1-10). When his disciples asked Jesus who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus called a child to them and said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus went on to say “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” In Jewish tradition angels were viewed as guardians of human beings. So, though it is not absolutely clear from the words of Jesus that each person has one particular angel, that is how the saying became most commonly interpreted. We may find it difficult or impossible to believe that God, the creator of the entire Cosmos, is concerned with the particulars of the life of every human being. But we may believe that an angel, one of a vast host of God’s heavenly creatures, keeps watch and helps us during our lives. We may have experienced an angel, by sight or sound or touch or understanding. We may have felt the protection of an angel or come to realize that “someone” has been watching over us.
One final word about angels. The Archangel Michael is believed by some to deliver peace to God’s people at the end of this life’s mortal struggle. Some believe that the final task of a person’s guardian angel is to bring the person home to God at death. People are reported to see visions of angels as death approaches. Many prayers in word and song refer to angels at the time of death.
I recently re-discovered a 19th century American gospel song called “Angel Band” (sung by Anonymous 4 on their disc “American Angels”; text: Jefferson Haskell; tune: William Batchelder Bradbury). These are the words of the final verse and refrain:
I’ve almost gained my heav’nly home;
My spirit loudly sings;
The holy ones, behold they come!
I hear the noise of wings.
O come, angel band,
Come and around me stand;
O bear me away on your snowy wings,
To my immortal home,
O bear me away on your snowy wings,
To my immortal home.
Perhaps, as Shakespeare wrote, flights of angels will sing us to our rest. By the mercy of God. Amen.