The Unseen War
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s a common device in storytelling that there is a hidden reality, just below the surface of the everyday mundane world. Usually it’s more mysterious and wonderful, with higher stakes, than the ordinary world that most people experience. A young man is swept into a world of wizards and magic. An action hero is called into the demimonde of world-class warriors and assassins. A researcher discovers an ancient cult bent on world domination through dark global conspiracy. In all these stories, someone discovers that things are not as they first appear. Seemingly small events are actually connected to some bigger happenings, with unforeseen repercussions that will have larger than life effects on everyone.
This is common in stories because good stories often—and we might even say must—contain elements of the good story. And we know that the good story, the best story, certainly has its fair share of seen and unseen realities; what we call in the Creed, visible and invisible. With so much emphasis on faith in our confession—that is, the conviction of things not seen—we Christians of course believe in a reality just beneath the surface of the mundane and everyday, woven into it, part of the very fiber of creation. So it’s no surprise that we, the Church on earth, recognize the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, giving thanks to God for that unseen part of creation, those invisible servants of the Lord, the holy angels.
In the Old Testament reading appointed for this feast, we get a history lesson alongside the prophet Daniel, showing that those everyday events of the world very often have an unseen significance to them. A divine hand touches Daniel and sets him trembling on his hands and feet as the man greatly loved sees what is usually hidden from mortal eyes. “Fear not, Daniel,” the glorious man with a face like lightning and a voice like an army says, “The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the king of Persia.” What seemed like yet another battle between ancient kingdoms was in fact a spiritual war, the hosts of God carrying out the will of the Son of Man, coming to the aid of those people He loved and willed to protect, even through the most terrifying of troubles. The wars and empires and events of world history have indeed been directed through the ebbs and flows of time. But this was no shadowy conspiracy of mere mortals thinking they could direct the course of history. This was the Lord of Sabaoth directing one of His chief angels, Michael, to carry out the will of God, for the sake of the Lord’s people—and it had a very real effect in the everyday world of nations and empires. “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge over you people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”
We, who have been given this glimpse behind the curtain, believe that this still happens. Often events unfold that are proven to have a profound effect not only on the everyday mundane things, but on unnumbered souls. The World Wars changed the course of theology, again showing people the true depths of original sin and that we could place no permanent hope on an earthly utopia. Market collapses expose the glittering gods of cash and worldly goods. The threats of sudden death through terror attacks or the rise of plagues have been stark reminders of mortality and that we must recognize the reality of death, and most importantly, what lies beyond.
But for those of us giving thanks today for God’s almost-always unseen servants, the angels, we know this already. We’ve been given a heaven’s eye view of events in these gray and latter days through God’s Word, viewed through His eyes, spoken through His Spirit. In Revelation, also appointed for today, we heard a deeper and more profound explanation of the events we experience every day. The dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, has been thrown down to earth and even now thrashes in his death throes, knowing his time is short, but sowing destruction where and when he still can. Through all the various activities, struggles, surrenders, victories, and losses we see and experience, we learn that there’s more at work than the physical eye can know. There’s a deeper spiritual reality to the things we see and go through in this world.
And because there’s this deeper reality around us, revealed only by God Himself through His Word, we know that it must affect us too. Surely we’ve noticed this. The strain and weight of temptation. The echo of accusation ringing in our skulls when we fail. The peace that sweeps in like a legion of angels, the light of forgiveness and grace. It’s a war out there; it’s a war in here; even if it’s not splattered across the headlines and streaming on news outlets.
The 72 disciples sent out by Jesus in our Gospel reading had their eyes opened to that hidden reality too. Their Lord sent them to every town He was about to visit to proclaim that the kingdom of God was advancing, had arrived, to defeat the works of darkness there. And then, to the sick, those with everyday ailments and life-changing illness, they were to speak peace, forgiveness, and heal them. And when the 72 saw the results, when they saw the kingdom of God moving against the effects of sin and death in the everyday lives of people, they returned to Jesus with joy, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” The saw the deeper truth of what was happening when the Gospel of Christ goes out. The effects were not merely psychological or physical or psychosomatic. They were real—real battles, real advances of the kingdom of God.
Yet the disciples were not to be gloating warriors or self-assured sages. They were not to be aloof observers, savvy to something that all those commoners didn’t know. They weren’t just spectators who had been shown where to look to watch the wondrous battle. No, Jesus makes it personal for them again. This battle wasn’t just out there. This battle was also for them. “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
This is spoken to us too. The wisdom of our faith is more than just knowing the deep things of creation that are hidden from the eyes of others. It’s more than recognizing or deciphering the events of the world for the spiritual things that lie beneath. It’s more than arcane knowledge or wielding mysterious power. “Rejoice not in those things,” Jesus says to us, “Rejoice that your name is written in heaven.”
For this is a reality that concerns you. This is an unseen war that concerns you. And it will be a war. And you will enjoy some victories, by God’s grace. You will withstand temptations. You will overcome despair. You will have the wounds of your sins, and yes, even your death, washed away and healed. But you will also suffer defeats. You’ll fall. You’ll sin, again, even when you didn’t want to, even when you didn’t realize you were. You’ll do it personally; we’ll do it together as a people. So Jesus draws your eyes not to those individual moments, not to the times of troubles, and certainly not to your own strength and ability. Rejoice not in those things; despair not of those others. But rejoice that your name is written in heaven, in the book of life.
For that is the greatest victory of the kingdom of God. That’s the victory that all the angels and the Church on earth build our own victories upon. It’s the victory of Christ. When He cried out, “It is finished,” He really meant it. Satan is finished, fallen like lightning. His accusations are finished, broken against the wood of the cross and the iron of the nails. Your sins are finished, drowned in Christ’s blood. Your death is finished, rolled over and crushed by the stone at the empty tomb. That’s the victory the angels build upon. That’s the only victory that St. Michael will point you to. That’s the greatest reality of all: the reality of Christ’s forgiveness, life, and salvation that has written your name in heaven in His eternal blood. That’s the banner under which Michael and all the angels conquer. That’s how we conquer too. In the name of Jesus, the Lord of Sabaoth. Amen.