Texts: Daniel 10:10-14, 12.1-3; Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 10:17-20
While we Protestants may not be very versed in the ways of angelology, we are familiar with the concept of the guardian angel. Michael is the original guardian angel. Jews envisioned him as the patron angel of the Jewish people and their divine champion, which is the role in which he features in our reading from Daniel. Roman Catholics still identify him as the patron of protectors like doctors, police and firefighters.
However, this is not a holiday that celebrates the obscure inanities of angelology. It is a holiday that deals directly with one of the deepest and most pressing questions of human existence: the question of the origin and power of evil in the world.
Michael, as I mentioned, was believed to be the divine protector of Israel and, later, the Christian Church. According to legend and extra-canonical biblical writings, he is the one who strove with Satan, casting him from heaven. The feast-day celebrating Michael may have arisen as a way of celebrating God’s work in supporting our struggle against evil. One thing that has not changed in five millennia is the way in which people see both good and evil at work in the world every day, and the way we wonder and question how an all-loving and all-powerful God could possibly allow evil to exist in God’s good creation.
In Biblical literature, as well as a great amount of pop and folk culture, the personification of evil is Satan. Satan supposedly began as an angel. He desired equality with God, and so led an uprising against God. In other words, he didn’t like how God administered the created world and figured he could do better. His rebellion left him cast out of heaven, consigned to either earth or to Hell, depending on the story. That’s the story which both John’s Revelation and Luke’s gospel reference.
“Satan” is a Hebrew word that means “accuser.” John’s gospel also calls him the “father of lies.” This personification of evil is seen as the one who deceives people into believing that we know better than God, that we can resist God’s will and go against God’s good and gracious will for creation without suffering the consequences. And when we do, it is that same evil that accuses us, that convicts us of our wrongdoing, that makes us feel like there is nothing about us or the world we live in that is worth saving. This evil denies God’s desire and God’s ability to redeem and save all of creation.
We see this evil rear its ugly head in many ways. It is the evil that whispers in our ear that some people are not safe, or not good enough or smart enough to be of value, or that there is nothing of value in them. It is the evil that causes us to doubt our own self worth, and so to lash out at others who threaten that worth. It is the evil that tempts us to use threat and violence and fear to get our way. Whether or not you believe in an anthropomorphized entity with horns and hooves and pitchfork, its characterization as “satan” makes a lot of sense.
This evil seems to have free reign on earth. Wars, famine, violence, global warming, political corruption, xenophobia, authoritarian rule… all of it has its roots in evil. The human response to such evil is to fight, to match might with might. However, our might seems so little compared to the vast power of evil. And when we do manage to make progress, so often our efforts only spawn more wars, more corruption, more authoritarianism. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Evil becomes, then, the snake that eats its own tail: it is both the threat and the solution to all the world’s problems, which leaves us in a hopeless position.
We need more than a champion to fight on our side. In Hebrew, Michael’s name means “Who is like God?” It’s almost a kind of pun that the name of our champion in the cosmic war against evil is a reminder that only God can save us. We need more than a champion who is stronger than Satan; we need a paradigm shift.
For St. John and his readers, the image of a cosmic war was a bit too on the nose. As residents of the Roman Empire, they had seen the power of military conquest and the propaganda of victory. In his vision, John sees the ultimate end of violence is violence; fighting evil with evil only leads to destruction.
As he paints his vivid account of the great tribulation and the cosmic battle between good and evil, he subtly changes the narrative. Even as Michael defeats Satan, the voice from heaven recalls the central and centering vision of Revelation: the victory of the Lamb. “They have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by their word of testimony,” he writes, and we are reminded that the Lamb is victorious not by taking life, but by giving it.
The Lamb is victorious not in spite of having been killed, but because it has been killed—because it has given its own life for love of its people. For this reason, the Lamb is worthy to open the scroll and reveal God’s salvation of the world when no one else, not even the great and powerful Caesar himself, is worthy. What makes him worthy is his self-giving love that bears witness to the will of God for all of creation. The question of Michael’s name, “Who is like God?” is answered in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The good, valiant, honorable people of the world will finally conquer evil by means of their faithful testimony to this truth: the Lamb conquers with his blood; God is victorious not by killing God’s enemies, but by saving them from the evil that has deceived and accused them.
Both Daniel and Luke remind us of this truth. As incredible as it is to be able to cast out demons, as reassuring as it is to have the archangel Michael fighting on your side, the true power lies in God’s final act of saving and bringing life. Though they each imagined that act of salvation with a different scope, they each point to that act as the true victory.
Today as we join with generations and generations of Christians in giving thanks to God for aiding us in our struggle against evil, we do so knowing that although Michael may represent our “guardian angel,” evil is not defeated by strength or cunning or power or violence—neither ours nor God’s. Instead, evil is overcome by the self-giving love of God, love that is made flesh in Christ.
Although that evil is strong now, that is because it has already been defeated, and it now thrashes about with its last, desperate, dying strength. The Lamb who was slain has conquered, and we conquer by his blood—blood that we drink at this table today, bearing testimony to the truth of his eternal life shared with the world. As we eat and drink today, we are reminded that God is victorious not in crushing evil, but in redeeming it and transforming its death into our life. “Now have come the salvation and the power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.”