Hebrews 12:18-24, John 1:47-51
The Michael of our parish church rejoices in various different titles throughout the Bible. Perhaps most famously we think of him as an angel – a heavenly being from God, responsible for bearing a message. And as an archangel he’s one of the chief angels. If you don’t like the idea of a hierarchy of angels, then just think of an archangel as one charged with bringing the most important messages. Like Gabriel to Mary bringing news of the annunciation, so Michael brings news that Satan and evil in the guise of the dragon don’t have the last word. They’ve been overpowered by Christ, and so can be overpowered by Christians. That’s Michael’s message. He’s a messenger.
In the Old Testament Book of Daniel chapter 10 he’s called a prince. A little bit like in Revelation, Daniel in the Old Testament is given insight into that ongoing drama between those protecting God’s people, and those bent on their destruction. Princes here are guardians or patrons of God’s people, with Michael given particular charge of the Jewish people. In this sense he’s a protector, something of a pastor maybe.
Those are some titles, a job title maybe, if you were looking to hire someone for this post today. But what then of what Michael the archangel actually does? I think the most important thing about angels from our Christian understanding is that they do things. So what do we learn of the next bit of the job advert, the role description?
Well, the very short Letter of Jude, the penultimate Book of the Bible, helps us a bit more. Here we’ve got some indication of his tasks. He’s to contend with the devil, he disputes with him; and ultimately, Michael has God’s authority to rebuke evil, which we see later so graphically in that pictorial battle against the dragon in Revelation. It’s starting to sound like quite a challenging set of interviewing qualities to fulfil!
Of course, all of these titles and functions give a really rich basis for different traditions over the centuries to build on. I was interested to read that the Orthodox regard Michael as something of a strategist, a Chief Commander. More Roman Catholic thinking has him in one role as someone at the time of death offering the chance to redeem each soul, weighing things up at the Last Day on a pair of scales. I have to confess that this view doesn’t sit very easily with me – I’m much happier to leave any judgment up to God, as verse 23 of our reading from Hebrews tells us. Perhaps more to the point, and I suspect more Protestant, if we can say with conviction that we’re justified through faith in Christ, then the scales are already tipped in our favour. Malcolm Guite, the contemporary poet-priest, says these scales represent “truth, discernment, the light and energy of intellect, to cut through tangles and confusion, to set us free to discern and choose.”  Take a look at Michael in the window at the west end behind you at some point this morning, and see how that picture of the scales works for you.
This scales imagery might provoke some discussion and thought. But I want to hang onto it for a moment longer. Because those scales, very traditional and simple in their construction, with a set of weights at either end, are scales of balance. Balance scales.
People sometimes say that they need to get things back in balance. At its biggest and most profound, that might be one’s own ‘life’. Or a reordering of priorities perhaps – find a better balance there. Then there’s a balance to be struck between home life and life beyond the home. Because we do recognise when things go out of balance, and we need to pull them back in the other direction.
But when I speak of this and balance, I’m not speaking about some really rather flimsy karmic balance, or a need to rebalance a sense of yin and yang, where we feel it’s up to us to control things. No, I’m talking about fundamental gospel truths. We need alternatives to fear and anxiety, and alternatives to the thought that things will only ever get fully done in our own strength.
And it seems to me that when we think about Michael, we have a figure who sets the scene for a reminder of what is truly important. First up, Jesus loves us, each and every one of us, just as we are. In that reading from John’s Gospel this morning, Nathanael asks Jesus, “Where did you come to know me?” Jesus replies, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” We don’t know much about Nathanael, and probably nor did anyone else in Galilee at the time. But it doesn’t matter. Jesus has spotted him. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” I can see you; I’m looking out for you. It’s as if, to paraphrase the prophet Isaiah, he’s saying, “I have called you by name, Nathanael, you are mine.” “You are loved, Nathanael.” Like Michael’s message, the message that Jesus loves us is one we need to hear again and again.
And another fundamental truth: Jesus saves. Daniel in the Old Testament had a hint of what Michael was going to do when he is later seen to defeat the dragon in Revelation. The dragon of evil, of sin and disobedience that can be defeated for all time because Jesus through his death and resurrection has already dealt with it. The dragon’s attack might be fierce but his time is ultimately short. God’s people in Christ – the church – are at all times and everywhere under his princely protection. That’s the offer open to us.
Michael has given his name to our parish church. As ‘St Michael’s’ this name in turn describes a much wider geographical area, a parish, a community with homes and schools and places of activity and work on the western side of St Albans. And think of all the places or organisations locally which use this name. It has wider familiarity, too. Only on Thursday I was speaking to someone on the phone who, on explaining where I lived, asked, “Oh, is that near St Michael’s?” (Cue wonderful entrée to talking about church!)
But in the
end we don’t worship Michael. Instead Michael points to something else. In
Hebrew, Michael means, ‘Who is like God?’ The answer to that is Jesus. And so as
he points to those scales to ensure that the balance is right between us and
God, he points us as messenger, protector, rebuker of evil, to Jesus. Amen.