Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Language of Heaven - St. Michael and All Angels - Sept. 29, 2008

Texts: Gen. 28.10-17 and Revelation 12.7-12.

When John and I were planning this service I asked him if he wanted it to include a sermon. He said, “Well, if you preach, it probably won’t be too tedious.” With encouragement like that, how could I not preach?

Actually, I was hoping that John would want me to preach this evening, both because it gives me an opportunity to say something about him, his extraordinary musical gifts, and his service to St. Alban’s, and also to say something about music.

However, tonight’s lessons are not about music and musicians but about angels. The collect tells us that God has “ordained and constituted in wonderful order the ministries of mortals and angels” and their function is to “serve and worship” God in heaven and to “help and defend” us on earth. The Old Testament reading is the marvelous and mysterious story of Jacob’s vision of the heavenly escalator upon which angels go to and from heaven and earth. And the New Testament reading is the even more enigmatic story from the Book of Revelation about the archangel Michael defeating Satan.

We know little about angels but from tonight’s collect and reading and also from other Biblical sources we know that angels are first and foremost messengers. Both the Hebrew malach and the Greek angellos mean “messenger” but we translate them as “angel.” Most of the time that angels appear in the Bible they are bearing messages: three angels appear to Abraham to tell him once again that he and Sarah will be the parents of a multitude. And of course, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she will give birth to Jesus.

Apparently, an important function of angels is also to be in some sense God’s “swat team,” leading the fight against evil and defending God’s people.

However, the single most important function of angels is to praise and worship God. Why, we might wonder, does God need or want the constant praise of angelic beings? But that, I think, is the wrong question. I think, rather, that angels, being by their very nature closer to God than we are, cannot help but praise God. Think of our reaction to the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains. How beautiful and majestic we think as we see the sunset pour brilliant colors over the Grand Canyon or the mist that hides the peaks of the Rockies. How much more, then, must angels be overcome by the glory of God?

That, I believe, is why angels are so often portrayed holding and playing musical instruments. Praise invariably involves music because words fail us in the face of beauty of the highest order. Music can convey thoughts and feelings for which we have no words and music can give words power beyond their meaning.

Karl Barth, probably the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, was fascinated by both angels and music. A great fan of Mozart, Barth famously wrote that the angels sing Bach when they praise God but they play Mozart when they are playing for their own amusement. It is also said that toward the end of his life, Barth had his one and only mystical experience when he was attending a performance of some of Mozart’s music and saw the composer sitting on the stage and looking at him. Barth also made the enigmatic remark that Mozart must have been angel.

Why not? If angels are musicians, why can’t musicians be angels? Angels bring us God’s messages for our lives; so do musicians. How often as we listen to music have we felt that it was telling us something, that it communicated something about the majesty of God, about our own need for God, that it told us of the glory and wonder of life on earth, or that it moved us to tears with a message for which not only had no words but no coherent thoughts?

Remember, too, that angels quite often deliver messages that frighten. I think the choir would agree that John frequently delivers messages of that sort!

I don’t want to overstress the connection between angels and musicians, but I believe there is one. One of John Donne’s most famous prayers says that in heaven there is “neither noise nor silence but one equal music.” My personal opinion is that music is the language of heaven because music both orders and enhances our words and thoughts. Music also takes us out of ourselves and binds us together in community. That is obviously the case when we sing together, but I believe it is also the case when we listen to music. An audience or congregation listening to music are caught up together in a common experience.

The prayer for church musicians and artists in the Prayer Book tells us that it is the function of church musicians to “perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and beseeches God grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled.”

Tonight we give thanks not only for the ministries of angels but also for the ministry of John King Carter who has perfected our praises and given us glimpses of divine beauty. May you continue that ministry in your new parish, John.