Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

Sermon: The Greater Things of Revelation

Members of St. Hilda's House have the opportunity to preach at Christ Church throughout the year, and this Sunday Ed Watson preached at the 8 and 9:00am services.  His sermon is an attempt to understand the importance of the Feast of St Michael and All Angels in the context of what the story of Jesus meeting Nathanael suggests we should read the Book Revelation.

'Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.'

Ed sub-deaconing.

Ed sub-deaconing.

Today we celebrate the feast of St Michael and all Angels.  Now, as saints go, Michael is one of the more obviously impressive: he's an angel of awesome power who seems to come as close as any being other than God can to defeating evil once and for all.  He's always depicted resplendent in armour, standing over a dragon, never anything other than victorious.  For all this impressiveness, however, I always wonder: what precisely is it that we are celebrating on this feast day, and why? This sermon is an attempt to give an answer to that question: one which suggests itself from today's Gospel reading.  

Now, the story of Jesus and Nathanael is relatively well known.  It's strangeness, however, is worth emphasising.  Firstly, Nathanael is referred to as one 'without deceit'; high praise indeed from the Son of God, and close to unique I'd imagine.  This is especially in the context of the reading from Revelation, where the devil is referred to as the 'deceiver': taking these two statements together, it seems as though Nathanael is not in any way influenced by satan.  

Second, we have Nathanael declaring Jesus to be the Son of God on the basis of a claim to have seen him under a fig tree without actually being there. This really is quite strange: I mean, Jesus' claim Is pretty extraordinary if we take it at face value, but there's a significant leap between pretty extraordinary and 'you are the Son of God'.

What is most strange, however, is Christ's response.  Now, it's worth remembering Christ's reaction to Peter's confession at Caesera Phillipi: there the emphasis is very much on Peter's being the foundation of the Church.  Nathanael, however, has just confessed the very same thing, and the reaction he gets is one of almost disparagement.  'Do you believe because I saw you under the fig tree?  You will see greater things than these.'  It's as if someone said they believed Shakespeare to be the greatest playwright of all time, but had only ever seen Two Gentlemen of Verona: what we want to say is 'kid, you ain't seen nothing yet.'

Now, how is this relevant to our celebration St. Michael and all his angels?  Well, it isn't yet, not directly.  But it is highly relevant to the ways in which we understand John's account of Michael's exploits in Revelation, and this understanding is highly relevant to how we conceive of our role in the battle which Michael flew forth to fight.

To see this relevance, we must first re-emphasise that Nathanael was a man without deceit: he was totally honest, and he clearly saw the truth.  He also believes, as we all must.  For all this, however, it seems to me that he does not see the full truth: he believes too easily.  Just as we would not understand what we were saying if we were to say that Shakespeare was the greatest playwright ever if we hadn't seen Hamlet, Macbeth, or The Merchant of Venice Gentlemen, so Nathanael doesn't know what he is saying when he says that Christ is the Son of God.   To know this, he must see the angels ascending and descending: for to see the Son of God as the Son of God is to experience something far greater than being seen under a fig tree from afar.  

This is not, however, a fault of Nathanael's: he is, after all (at the risk of repeating myself), a man without deceit.  It is instead because, in the words of Karl Barth, there is a riddle in the fact itself.  Even if we see the incarnation truly, we cannot as yet see its truth entirely: the whole picture is beyond our capabilities.  Despite this, however, we must still believe in a truth we cannot wholly know.

Which brings us to Revelation.  The book of Revelation is a dangerous book: it is dangerous not just in virtue of its actual content, but in virtue of the fact that it seeks to represent that which is beyond human representation.  It is dangerous because the most divinely inspired evangelist will not be able to communicate the truth of this cosmic battle between good and evil in a way which does not allow for a dangerous distortion of that truth.  Our pictures and our language are inadequate for it.

It is still, however, an important book; it is important because it reminds us that there are some truths which, though they may be beyond our comprehension, must play a determining role in our lives.  Like Nathanael, we may not believe or understand the whole truth about Jesus' divinity: but still this truth must still be the centre around which our lives are set.  The author of Revelation, meanwhile, has not communicated the whole truth of Michael's victory: how could they have with the resources at hand?  And yet still this victory points to a truth.  It points to a truth that we cannot comprehend or represent, but which we must still communicate to each other, the same truth pointed to by our Te Deum window.  It points to the truth that evil has been vanquished, and that we have been redeemed. This is a truth which we might not wholly understand: but, like Nathanael, even though we do not understand, still we must believe.

The Te Deum Window at Christ Church (St. Michael is at the bottom)

The Te Deum Window at Christ Church (St. Michael is at the bottom)

This, then, is why I think we should celebrate the feast of St. Michael.  It reminds us that there are truths of God's mission which we cannot comprehend.  As such they are sometimes communicated to us through beings whose natures we cannot comprehend, such as Michael and all his angels.  Secondly, and more importantly, we celebrate this feast because it reminds us that God is victorious.  It reminds us that the words we say as we celebrate the Eucharist are not hollow words.  It reminds us that when we leave this church, we do not need to fight God's war because that war is already won.   

And so this feast reminds us, above all, that what matters is not whether we can see, communicate, or understand the whole truth of Christ's divinity- what matters instead is that we believe, and that we then try to communicate as much of this good news as best we can, in thought, and word, and deed.  For "now have come the salvation and the power, and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah.'

Amen.


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