…this is our sword

Revelation 12:7-12 (Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3, Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22, Luke 10:17-20)

The Isenheim Altarpiece portrays Jesu in complete agony, covered in the most horrendous sores and wounds, and nailed to the cross. It is grotesque; especially when compared with romanticized depictions of the crucifixion with which most of us are accustomed. And yet, when Matthias Grünewald painted the altarpiece (1512–1516), it was intended – and indeed served as – a great source of comfort to those who saw it.

 

You see, the altar was located at the Monastery of St. Anthony, in Isenheim. The monastery served as a hospital treating plague victims and those suffering from the dreaded skin disease known as St. Anthony’s Fire (ergotism). As sufferers looked upon their savior, they saw on him the plague-like sores that covered their own bodies. They were connected to Jesus’ suffering through their own unimaginable suffering. The painting wasn’t grotesque after all – it was hope-filled.

 

First-Century Christians knew what it meant to face persecution – not as noble concept, but as a reality. Beginning in the year 64 AD with Nero (following the Great Fire of Rome), through the Diocletianic or Great Persecution which finally ended in 313 AD, Christians suffered.
 
In the three readings assigned for the feast of Michael and All Angels, Daniel, John and Jesus offer images of hope in the midst of suffering. Daniel is fasting when he receives his vision, and words of comfort: Daniel is beloved (vs.11) having humbled himself before God (vs. 12) and is told what lies ahead for his people (Daniel 11:2-45). The message is clear: God will save. The evil ruler (“the prince of the kingdom of Persia”) will be defeated by Michael. The image of Daniel Chapter 7 in which God sits upon the throne surrounded by all the angels, is the visual equivalent of the words spoken by angels throughout scripture: do not be afraid.
 
In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples are clearly excited by their ability to cast out demons. Boy, are they pumped! Yet Jesus – in a version of, ‘yes, I know it’s exciting, but this is more important’ – points them to salvation and eternal life in him. This, not their powers of exorcism, is to be their hope.
 

When John of Patmos wrote down his revelation, it was a message of hope. In a world of suffering, and in the face of tangible evil, hope rests in the God who defeated that evil once before, in a heavenly war – and it will be defeated again in this realm too. To those deathly afraid of evil, to hear that it is not invincible is hope-filled. True, Michael and the angels are front-and-center in this message, but as one scholar points out, they “may be the much-appreciated fruit on the tree, but the tree is Christ.” For, it is by the blood of the Lamb that they are victorious (Revelation 12:11).

So, Daniel, John and Jesus speak words of hope, light and life to those suffering greatly in the face of evil, suffering and darkness. And, they speak to us and ask questions of us, at this point where past and future meet. As one preacher powerfully put it:

What are the dragons of injustice and evil that need to be named and slain in our own day? Who are the messengers who keep speaking words of hate and oppression on behalf of today’s dragons? What is this dragon that feels like it is breathing hot fire down our necks, and why does it have so many willing messengers? Michael the archangel is usually depicted with a sword because he goes to battle against evil… How does the church follow Jesus, the king of peace who refused the sword for his own defense, in battling the injustices and struggles of our world? The crucified Lord and the word that proclaims him, and the water and bread and wine that give him to all—this is our sword. The church is called not to fear, but to faith and action that move forward the story of God’s kingdom (Michael Coffey).

 

Shalom,

 

Pastor Ken+