St. Michael and All Angels
September 27, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
September 29 is set aside by the Church as a day to remember and thank God for the holy angels. Because angels in popular culture depart significantly from how they are depicted in the Bible, it’s good to have this yearly mediation at the end of September on the place of angels in the kingdom of heaven. So today we are transferring the festival.
On the day of the angels, however, we don’t actually begin with angels, but with a child. In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Then who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And He called a child to Himself and stood him in the midst of them. And He said, “Amen, I am saying to you, unless you turn and become as children, you will certainly not enter into the kingdom of heaven. So he who humbles himself as this child, that one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in My name, he receives Me (vv 1-5).
It’s a sweet picture to our contemporary Western ears—Jesus using a little child as an object lesson—but in the ancient world this was a radical thought. An article recently published in The Week called, “How Christianity Invented Children,” by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, argues that the idea of childhood is something that would not exist without Christianity and its antecedent faith in the Old Testament. “Today, it is simply taken for granted,” the author writes, “that the innocence and vulnerability of children brings them beings of particular value, and entitled to particular care.” But that has not always been the case. In fact, more often in history, cultures devalued children because of their weakness and inability to provide for themselves.
Set against that pagan backdrop, the Scripture’s view of children is that much starker. Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward (Ps 127:3 NKJV). This Psalm of Solomon summarizes the Scripture’s—and therefore God’s—appreciation of children.
But it’s not because kids are cute, and cuddly, make good pictures. And it’s certainly not because they’re little angels. In fact, boys and girls, you regularly push your way to the other end of the angelic spectrum. Because the same book of Psalms that treasures children as a heritage from the Lord also says in two different Psalms, There is none who does good, No, not one (Ps 14:3; 53:3 NKJV), and again in another, Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me (Ps 51:5).
The innocence of children is merely an outward, civil innocence. They haven’t yet acquired the strength, ability, or position to act on their sinful inclinations. But they’re there. From the beginning. And God doesn’t just expect outward, civil obedience, He also expects a purity of heart. And in this respect, children are far from the angels.
So why does Jesus stand that little child in the midst of His disciples? It’s not to show us a quality of children, but it’s to show us something about Himself and His kingdom.
When Jesus made His advent on earth, He didn’t descend in great power and glory and with a host of angels in His train to set up a kingdom that would conquer the world’s kingdoms. He could if He were that sort of king, just as He said to Pontius Pilate. Instead, He sent one angelic messenger by the name of Gabriel to a completely unknown virgin who otherwise would have been forgotten by history to tell her that she had been chosen to be the bearer of the eternal Word. Most graciously, Mary believed the Word of the angel and magnified the Lord, who at that moment became a tiny human fetus in her womb.
In nine months’ time, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven was revealed to the world as the least. Small, weak, unable to survive on His own without a mother’s loving care. It was when Jesus was a child that the host of angels appeared and glorified God—to shepherds of all people.
The weakness with which Jesus entered the world also shows us something about His kingdom. The mighty ones are not the greatest in God’s kingdom, but rather the little ones. And unless you turn, that is, repent, and become like a child—weak, helpless, despised by the world—you cannot even enter the kingdom of heaven.
But if someone would cause one of these little ones who trusts in Me to sin, Jesus continues, it is better for him that a millstone be hung on his neck and he be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the causes of sin, for it is necessary for causes to sin to come, but woe to the man through whom the cause of sin comes. If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away from you—is it good for you to enter into life deformed or lame, or having two hands and two feet to be cast into the eternal fire? And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away from you—is it good for you to enter into life one-eyed, or having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna of fire? (vv 6-10).
At first read, this feels like an incredibly awkward segue from children to the causes of sin and eternal hellfire. Jesus warns persons who cause a little child to stumble—literally, who scandalize a child—of their great offense. Then He switches to impersonal causes of sin—hands and feet and eyeballs—that cause you to sin. But there is a connection, and it’s in that last phrase. Most modern translations render it something like “hellfire,” but it is a very precise word. Gehenna is the name of a valley outside of Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom, where previously Israel had adopted the worship of the false God Molech. And this worship was to burn child sacrifices to please this false God. You can read of King Ahaz offering his own son in 2 Kings 16:3. Again in Jeremiah 7:32; 19:4-6, the prophet foretells the judgment that will come upon Israel for their false worship and abominable sacrifices.
It reveals the demonic powers behind false gods. They are not gods that simply arise out of human imagination, but are images of the hatred and mockery of the true God, who promised to deliver man from sin by the Seed of the woman, who would sacrifice His own eternally-begotten Son to redeem the world. The demonic Molech worship in the fires of Gehenna is a pagan un-faith, a mockery of faith.
So when Jesus says that it’s better to enter life deformed, lame, or blind, than to be whole and enter into the fire, He’s talking about a very specific practice in the history of Israel in connection with children. At least in Israelite, a sacrifice couldn’t be lame or maimed; it had to be without blemish. The perfect was sacrificed for the imperfect. It is better, says Jesus, to be passed over than to be the sacrifice.
There is a gross irony that as our culture has grown more secular, it’s reverting to ancient paganism. The god of Molech has been renamed Choice, and the Valley of Hinnom is now named Planned Parenthood. The old pagan un-faith is alive and well and still offers children up to the incinerator.
It is tempting for us Christians to only consider abortion in terms of morals and ethics, that it’s only about making the right choices. But we cannot allow the opposition to define the issue by its false god. We Christians cannot ever forget the demonic forces that are at work behind this practice. When Gretal and I were at our adoption meeting a few weeks ago, what struck me most were the birth mothers who told their stories, and each one of them said that they had felt pressure from boyfriends, family, and society to have an abortion. That’s the ugly lie, that it’s actually a choice for women.
Jesus concludes, however, with a verse of comfort that gives hope for all, including little children who never had the opportunity to live outside their mother’s womb. See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I am saying to you that their angels in heaven see the face of My Father in heaven through everything (v 10). The Christian faith is different from pagan un-faith. We do not despise the little ones, but treasure them precisely because our God is the God who became a Little One. We treasure life from conception because Jesus was conceived, just as we confess each week in the Creed.
And this is the job of the angels. Not just angels in general. Their angels. The angels belong to the children, and to all who turn and become as children, born anew in Holy Baptism. Their angels are your angels.
They see the face of the Father in heaven. Now, this could be a figure of speech called an anthropomorphism, which speaks of God, who is spirit, in human terms. The Father doesn’t have a face any more than He has hands or feet. But if Jesus is just saying that the angels are in the presence of God, that doesn’t really have a whole lot of meaning in this context.
But, if this is not simply a figure of speech, then the face of God the Father must be the Son. To see the face of Jesus is to see the face of God. It’s to see the face of the One who was conceived, who was born in weakness, who humbled Himself to the point of death on a cross, who became the perfect sacrifice in order that God would pass over our former sins.
God calls His spiritual servants angels, which means, messengers. They not only see His face, but they also proclaim the scars that testify that it was once crowned with thorns. The message of the angels is the message of Christ crucified. And if there is any hope for children—even children in the womb—it is this message. It’s the message of the angels.
The Angels of God See His Face, and Show His Face
In the name of + Jesus.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard