Sunday, September 29, 2013
War Arose in Heaven
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The text for today is Revelation 12:7-12.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, a day in which we commemorate the work of St. Michael and all the holy angels in service to God and man. And what a variety of service that is! In our Gospel, Jesus refers to what we sometimes call “guardian angels,” those who watch over the little ones and see the face of the Father. Our Psalm speaks of angels who “guard you” and “bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” In our Old Testament lesson, Michael, the archangel, comes to Daniel as a messenger sent by God, to help the prophet “understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days.”
But perhaps most startling, is St. John’s vision of Michael and his angels engaged in a war in heaven against Satan and his army. That’s the image portrayed in the picture to the right— “Archangel Michael Hurls the Rebellious Angels into the Abyss” by Luca Giordano—not exactly the kind of angels that you’re going to see in a Hallmark greeting card or made into one of those cherubic Precious Moments figurines, is it? But it is a much more realistic representation of angels than we will usually get from the myths propagated by pop culture or espoused in many versions of spirituality, including those calling themselves “Christian.”
Let’s address a couple of those myths before we go further. For one, angels are not good human beings who have died and gone to heaven. They are spiritual beings created before human beings. They don’t earn their wings. They are created with wings (or have no wings at all if the situation dictates, since they are spirits without physical bodies). And they aren’t cute and adorable like Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” On the contrary, real angels are imposing enough to strike fear and worship in those who see them. Not only are they holy messengers of God, they are fierce heavenly warriors, protectors of young and old alike.
John’s vision is unsettling. That there should be war before God’s presence in heaven would seem to be unthinkable, utterly out of place. St. Luke tells us the angels sang at the birth of Jesus, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth” (2:14). The pilgrims who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday sang a similar hymn of blessing: “In heaven peace and glory in the highest places” (19:38). Christ was born to bring peace to earth, and through His death and resurrection He would bring peace in heaven. But what does “peace” mean? And for that matter, what kind of war are we talking about here? For if there is anything worse than war, it is “peace at any cost.”
We all know that human warfare on earth includes physical struggles and bloodshed. But there is a more horrible battle being fought in the heavenly realm—one with higher stakes and more deadly enemies. St. Paul addresses this spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v 12). Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection established peace between God in heaven and humanity on earth, but that peace is now being contested by evil spiritual powers in heavenly realms.
John Kleinig describes this spiritual warfare in his book, Grace Upon Grace: “The battle between Christ and Satan is an unseen, invisible contest that we experience most acutely and accurately in our souls. But it cannot and must not be reduced to how we think or feel about ourselves and the world around us; it is not just a matter of religious psychology and spiritual self-understanding. The battle is not even an ideological one between human beings for the right vision of our future, the future of humanity. It is part of a real cosmic contest that involves the whole visible world, with all its people, and the whole of God’s invisible creation (Colossians 2:8-15)” (p. 226).
In our text and the verses preceding, St. John gives us, perhaps, our best resource for understanding what’s happening in spiritual warfare as we go through life and the Church goes on through world history. His vision is dramatic and nightmarish, cosmic in scope. High up in the sky, he sees a pregnant woman, looking like a queen, with the sun as her dress, twelve stars as her crown, and a moon under her feet. As she labors to give birth, a huge, red, seven-headed dragon waits to devour her child. Destined to rule the nations, that child threatens the ambition of the dragon who fancies himself ruler of the world. But the dragon is thwarted in his evil designs. The child is snatched up by God and enthroned with Him in the heavenly realm. And the woman escapes from the clutches of the dragon to the safe place that God has established for her in the wilderness.
War breaks out in heaven. An angelic army attacks the dragon and his army. They dislodge them from the heavenly realm, and then hurl them to earth. A loud voice calls on the heavens to rejoice and the earth to mourn because with his casting out of heaven the fury of the dragon has been unleashed on earth in a short, desperate last stand to retain his last piece of occupied territory:
“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. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:10-12).
Since the dragon cannot attack the royal woman’s son, he pursues her instead. But she escapes, using wings like those of an eagle, to flee from his reach to her safe place. When his further attack is frustrated, he, in his rage against the woman, wages war on her children instead.
The main players in this vision are quite easily identified. The woman personifies the Church, the mother of the faithful. Although she has heavenly status, she remains on earth after her son has been taken up into heaven. The red dragon is Satan; his troops the fallen angels. Opposing Satan is Michael, the captain of the heavenly army. The woman’s son is Jesus, whose enthronement as king brings about Satan’s eviction from God’s presence. The woman’s children are Christians, the brothers and sisters of Christ, including you and me.
Our enemy is depicted as a “dragon,” a power hungry monster of chaos that disorders the world God has made and tries to take it over from Him. He is “the ancient serpent” that led Adam and Eve into rebellion against God with the false promise that they would be their own gods. And he still leads their children astray with the same lie. He is “the devil,” which means “the slanderer.” He slanders God the Father by claiming that He is neither merciful to sinners nor just in dealing with sin. He slanders Jesus by denying that He is God’s Son and our advocate before the Father. And he slanders us by claiming that we are neither just nor holy before the Father, certainly not worthy to be called God’s children.
Most significantly, he is called “Satan,” our prosecutor, the one who accuses us of sin and damns us as sinners. Since Jesus’ ascension, Satan has lost his foothold in the heavenly realm. Now he can no longer prosecute the faithful in the heavenly court, as he did with Job and Joshua the high priest. He can no longer accuse us day and night before God the Judge. His place has been taken by Christ, our advocate, who intercedes for us and pleads our cause before the Father.
However, even though Satan has lost the spiritual high ground in heaven, where he can do the greatest damage to us, the war is not over. No, he cannot attack Christ, nor can he defeat Michael and his angelic warriors in the heavenly realm. So, enraged at his eviction, he engages in a last stand in his only remaining stronghold—here on earth, the last bit of territory where he still holds some power. Here he adopts a new line of attack, a strategy that is clever and yet simple. He concentrates on attacking two chief strongholds that are occupied by Christ here on earth. The first is the Church. Since Christ is present in the Church wherever it assembles on earth its prayers and praises undo the work of Satan. That makes the Church the main enemy of the evil one. But he cannot destroy it, for it has been given a safe place by God, where it remains out of his reach.
The second stronghold of Christ is the conscience of each Christian, the clear conscience of those who repent of their sin and receive the Father’s Word of pardon and cleansing. Each person with a good conscience is a stronghold of Christ in enemy territory, a place where Christ is present and active. Christians are lamps through which Christ’s light shines out and routs the powers of darkness.
Since Satan cannot destroy Christ or the Church, he sets out to destroy its Christians. His method of attack is this: First, he tempts the holy people of God to sin. Then, when they have sinned, he uses God’s Law to accuse them of sin. Since he can no longer accuse them before God, he works in their conscience by reminding them of what they have done.
Once his accusation has produced a guilty conscience, he chooses two different lines of attack, depending on the character of the person. If a person is careless and self-confident, he will use the Gospel to excuse the sin so that his victim will not admit the sin and repent of it. In this way he desensitizes and deadens the conscience. Then, faith gives way to pride and self-justification. His victim is trapped in impenitence (2 Timothy 2:25-26).
If a person is conscientious and low in self-esteem, he assumes the role of judge. Although he has no authority to pass judgment, he declares his victim guilty and uses God’s Law to threaten, demoralizing that guilt-stricken person and holding him or her captive by the fear of death and damnation. In both cases, he tries to dislodge believers from Christ and to undo their trust in Him and His Word.
Our text shows that we have two main weapons to combat this attack. With these seemingly insignificant weapons we use the authority and power of Christ Himself to overcome Satan; with them in our hands we win the victory on our personal front in this cosmic battle.
The first of the weapons we have against Satan is “the blood of the Lamb.” Jesus is the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. By His blood He atones for the sins of all people, just as the blood of the lamb offered as a daily sacrifice at the temple atoned for the sins of the Israelites. With His blood He purchased people from all nations on earth for God the Father as His royal priesthood. That blood cleanses us from the stain of sin and abuse and gives us a good conscience.
The most holy blood of Christ consecrates us as the royal priesthood of God the Father. When we drink the blood of the Lamb in Holy Communion, it does not just sprinkle our bodies, it sprinkles our hearts and our consciences so that we are holy through and through. It covers us with Christ’s righteousness and holiness. It is our holy spiritual armor, our sure protection against Satan and all the powers of darkness. He may kill our bodies, but he cannot kill our souls. By drinking Jesus’ blood and trusting in it for our deliverance and safety, we overcome Satan.
The second weapon against Satan is our “word of testimony” (Revelation 12:11). Our word of testimony is our confession of faith in Jesus as the Lamb of God. That Word is our chief weapon against Satan and all the powers of darkness. By our testimony and the blood of Jesus, Satan is undone, and our spiritual warfare is won on the home front.
St. John’s vision throws much light on why those who are faithful to Christ so often come under attack. It shows why at present the one holy catholic and apostolic Church is under such concerted attack all over the world. It shows why those congregations and denominations that trust in the Gospel of Christ and keep God’s Word are treated with such contempt by the world.
We who confess Christ do not need to go on a crusade against Satan and seek out his strongholds in our social environment. He seeks us out and relentlessly hunts us down. So every Christian congregation, every Christian school, every Christian home, and the conscience of every faithful Christian are the spiritual battlefields of the final battle for the cosmos.
Satan, that old serpent, knows his time is short. He has lost his place in heaven and soon there will be no place for him to do his dirty work on earth, either. He and his evil angels will be cast into hell for eternity. But wicked and prideful as he is, he tries to inflict as much damage as he can; he tries to take as many people with him as he can in the meanwhile. He will do his best to accuse and condemn, to push you to despair and unbelief. But remember: All this is his lies.
Dear saints, your Jesus, even at this very moment, stands before the Father pleading your case, pleading His blood, pleading His innocent suffering and death in your place. And the Father hears the prayers of His Son, and He looks upon you with compassion and grace and mercy. He puts away your sins. The devil is still overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the Word of our testimony, of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus Christ.
No, there is no room in heaven for the devil; but there is room for you. Jesus has promised that He has gone to make a place for you. By His death, by His blood, by the ministrations of the angels, by the war in heaven, by His means of grace, heaven is open to you. That is to say, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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