Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Today we are celebrating St Michael and all Angels; and so it is appropriate for us to reflect upon the subject of angels – not only on who or what they are or may be, but also on their purpose and their relevance for us today. Faith may be under challenge in the broader society; but it seems angels may befaring better. A poll reported in the Advertiser on Wednesday this week identified that forty percent of Australians believe ‘that angels and demons roam the world’ [p12] and the idea of guardian angels is deeply embedded in our language and thinking.

Angels, as we tend to know them, are probably more shaped in our imagination by renaissance art than Biblical description. We imagine them as having large wings, long locks and looking luminous and generally divine. How does the Bible portray them? Mostly it doesn’t; however, there are some  descriptions such as in Revelation 4 where four Cherubim are described as having six wings and being covered in eyes all around, even under their wings.  And then there is a particularlyoff-putting description in Ezekiel 10 (following a more extensive one in the first chapter of that book which was read this morning):

Their entire bodies, including their backs, their hands and their wings, were completely full of eyes. [Ezek 10:12].

I don’t know how you react to such imagery, but I am glad the casting directors for such programs as ‘Touched by an Angel’ did not follow this description in filling the role of angels. The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’ but I, for one, would find it very off-putting to receive a message from a being with eye balls in its armpits.

The earliest recorded references to angels  come from Zoroastrianism. In this ancient faith, which still has adherents today, there are Yazatas which the Encyclopedia Britannica refers to as:

an order of angels created by Ahura Mazda (the Zoroastrian god) to help maintain the flow of world order and the forces of Ahriman (whom we would consider Satan) and his demons. They gather the light of the Sun and pour it on the Earth.

Judaism has a well-developed concept of angels including a hierarchy, each level of which serves particular purposes. Maimonides, in his commentary on the Torah, wrote of ten orders of angels  including Chayot Ha Kodesh, the beings referred to in Ezekiel, to Cherubim, (replicated in Christianity in Revelation 4) and messenger angels such as the Seraphim of Isaiah 6 and the more humble Malakim that Hagar, Abraham, Lot and Jacob encountered as described in Genesis.

Rabbinical commentary on the Torah contained opinions about the character of angels. The Judaic commentator, Rashi, wrote that they were ‘commonplace’ to Abraham and his household who seemed used to the coming and going of angels; but not so to Lot, who was ‘overawed by them’ [Gen 19:1], or Balaam (in Numbers 22:31) who had covered his eyes in fright at the sight of one.

Maimonides, also known as the Ramban, gave an explanation for the image of angels ascending and descending the ladder in Jacob’s dream, writing:

The angels … God’s agents in carrying out God’s guidance of earthly affairs, constantly go up to Heaven to receive His commands and then come back to earth to carry them out.

There was also a sense in which the angels themselves may have emotions. Rabbi Eliezer wrote about those angels who were witness to Abraham’s impending sacrifice of his son Isaac saying that they:

Wept and their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes (and they cried out pleading for mercy, as Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his son) ‘Master of the Universe … How long will you wait? [commentary on Gen 22:9]

Angels occur in Islam as well. In the Hadith of Gabriel it is written that the faithful are to:

Believe in God and His Angels and His Books and His Messengers and the Hereafter and the good and evil fate.

In describing them, it has been written about angels in Islam that they are:

… celestial beings … unlike humans … not endowed with ability to make decisions and instead perform different tasks of God.

Which makes them sound a little like angelic drones and relatively insignificant. However, the C14 Islamic scholar, Ibn Kaldùn, possibly the first sociologist in the modern conception of the word and author of a seminal work the Muqaddimah wrote:

(Prophets) move toward the angelic, sloughing off humanity at will … and once among the highest group (of angels), learn all that may there be learned. They then bring what they have learned back down to the level of the powers of human perception, as this is the way in which it can be transmitted to humans. At times this may happen in the form of a noise which the prophet hears … At other times, the angel appears … in the form of a man who talks to him, and the prophet comprehends what he says  …  [p78]

As for angels in Christianity, when they are not disconcertingly apocalyptic, they may serve the purpose of messengers of amazing news – such as given to Zachariah (about the forthcoming birth of John [Luke 1:5-20]),  to Mary (first announcing the conception of Jesus [Luke 1:26-31]and later, his resurrection [Matt 28: 1-6]) and to Joseph (explaining the inexplicable [Matt 1:1-20;2:12-21]). In one instance an angel even seems to have physical powers when the waters of Bethsaida are disturbed [John 5:1-4]. Jesus himself receives the support of angels – first in the physical wilderness [Matt 4] and then in the final stages of his incarnation [Luke 22:39-43].

In total, there are forty references to angels in the New Testament. In one of them, there is a sense of angels having a greater depth of being than simply to be means of conveying messages or to be doers of tasks. Hebrews 13:2 has this significant indication of such depth of being:

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels unawares.

In this reference, angels seem endowed with a capacity to appreciate, not simply to be insensate automatons.

As humanity has sought to understand angels, divine beings different from the namelessness of Yahweh, the “I am who I am”, tradition has often named them.  A good friend, Pierre Magar, a deacon of the Coptic church St Mary and Anba Bishoy at Cowandilla, gave me the list of the names cited by Copts according to their liturgy:

Michael is the first, Gabriel is the second, Raphael is the third, a symbol of the Trinity. Suriel, Sedakiel, Sarathiel and Ananiel, the great and holy luminaries, entreating (God) for the creation

There then follow the unnamed ‘cherubim and the seraphim, the thrones dominions and powers, the four incorporeal creatures, carrying the throne of God.’

In Anglicanism, our tradition only seems to have named the four archangels – Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Apparently their names, respectively, mean ‘Who is like God’, ‘God is my champion’, ‘God heals’ and ‘God is my light’.

Let me return to basics. Do angels exist? There are some who have contended that angels were mere literary devices employed by the authors of sacred texts. Others have suggested that the title ‘angel’ was a consolation prize given to demoted gods as believers moved from polytheism to monotheism.  It is in this way that Walter Wink, in his book ‘Unmasking the Powers: the invisible forces that determine human existence’ treats with such Biblical texts as Deuteronomy 4:19:

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

Here was a passage instructing the people of God, the Israelites, to be monotheistic themselves and yet giving some divine imprimatur to the polytheism of others. Wink writes:

As a hedge against the worship of the gods of the nations, it occurred to later Jewish writers to designate them simply as angels. Philo represents the high-water mark of Jewish openness toward the existence of the gods. By identifying the Greek gods (daimones) as angels (not ‘demons’), he made possible a positive evaluation of Greek culture by means of allegory. [p111]

Whether or not there is theological force to Wink’s contention, elsewhere in his book he raises a matter that demands our attention and which was the focus of our reading from Revelation this morning; and it all centres around one line:

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write …

Why to an angel? Why not to the parish council of Laodicea? Wink puts forward a thought-provoking answer. To explain his answer, I should first remind us that it has been some centuries since English differentiated a singular ‘you’ from its plural form – it used to be that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were the singular forms of ‘ye’ and ‘yow’, but these became simplified into the one word ‘you’. Because of this simplification we have lost a significant point from the letters to the churches. If you let me use the Ulster Scots ‘yous’ as a plural and ‘you’ as a singular, I want to point out that, according to the original Greek, our reading this morning does not read:

Yous are neither hot nor cold. I wish yous were either one or the other.

The point that Winks draws from this is:

Why does John address each angel as a single entity, responsible for the church in its care, and yet pass no warning in the body of the letters to exhorting the whole congregation or specific individuals within the church? [p70]

So our reading this morning intentionally goes:

You (singular) are neither hot nor cold. I wish you (singular) were either one or the other.

Wink proposes an answer to the apparent conundrum:

It would appear that the angel is not something separate from the congregation, but must somehow represent it as a totality. Through the angel, the community seems to step forth as a single collective entity … [p70]

The conclusion is that the letter to Laodicea is addressed to the whole congregation as a single entity, acknowledging that there is a singular spirit to be found from amongst a mass of disparate individuals.  Perhaps the use of the word ‘angel’ in English is not the best translation of the Greek angelos, which literally means messenger. Perhaps, in these opening chapters of Revelation, the ascended Jesus is saying to John that he hears the ‘messenger’ of each  of the seven churches speaking the collective heart and spirit of their congregations.

How different this is from the hyper-individualism of the modern age, reflected in the words of the late Maggie Thatcher:

There’s such thing as society; there are (only) individual men and women …

Even though I am a Port supporter, I was so hoping that today we would be hearing a massed choir of messengers returning from the East gustily singing ‘We are the pride of South Australia, we’re the mighty Adelaide Crows.’ Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. But what can never be taken away was the amazing camaraderie that pervaded South Australia this past week right up to the siren at the MCG. I don’t know if you felt it, but I was feeling energised by the collective spirit of ‘Carn the Crows’ that swept across the state. A Crows scarf or beanie could open up a conversation between strangers as if they were life-long friends.

If this was the secular messenger, or angel, of South Australia speaking for all of us from this state, might there not also be a spiritual messengers from our churches that speaks on our behalf? And if so, which of the seven churches would our angel be most like?

Our second reading from Revelation this morning is one of the letters to seven early churches. The grammatical form of each is the same, but I asked for the one addressed to the church at Laodicea to be read this morning. I did this because, in our post-modern world, the message to the angel of Laodicea seems most pertinent; for so often our church messenger or angel seems to lack the power of massed choirs of angels being instead tepid, lukewarm voices from loosely gathered individuals.

Near the end of our reading from Revelation comes the offer of Jesus if we but would not be tepid in our faith:

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you … [v20]

Our gospel reading this morning finishes with what Jesus really offers for our church communities, if we move from being a tepid gathering to a koinonia, a rich fellowship of brothers and sisters in Christ:

I tell you the truth you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. [v51]


Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The invisible forces that determine human existence, Fortress Press, 1986

Ibn Khaldùn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Princeton, 1967

The Chumash of the Torah