ALL THINGS VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE: A Sermon for St. Michael and All Angels

Note: One of my few claims to fame is as an angelologist. I wrote my PhD thesis on “Angels in the Qumran Texts” and later a biblical theology Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness: Thinking Biblically About Angels, Satan and Principalities (1999). Subsequently I got top billing with entries in several Bible commentaries and dictionaries brought to me by the letter “A”. I have also used the imagery of Revelation 4 and 5 to in “Rediscovering the Tapestry of Scripture.”

This sermon was preached in the Trinity School for Ministry Chapel on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, 30 September 1999. 

Today I take as my theme a short phrase from the Creed: all things visible and invisible. In fact, this phrase is not in the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is “Western” in origin. The phrase “all things visible and invisible” comes from the East, i.e., from Palestine and Syria, and from thence it was incorporated into the Nicene Creed. The difference between Western and Eastern Creeds, according to J.N.D. Kelly, who is a foremost authority on the subject, is that “in the Western creeds the center of interest is the primitive kerygma, whereas in Eastern creeds the cosmic setting of the drama obtrudes itself more obviously.” The Western creeds, we might say, are like a bare stage-set where our attention focuses on the actors, whereas the Eastern creeds provide a more elaborate backdrop for the action.

Visible and Invisible

Some early creeds were concerned to claim that God the Father was himself omnipotent and invisible, that is, that he was not to be compared with any known creature in heaven and earth. The phrase “Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible,” places the emphasis elsewhere. God, to be sure, is considered to be “the Almighty,” but he is also seen to be the Creator and Lord of “heaven,” an invisible realm. Not just unseen, but invisible. There are many things which I cannot see at this moment but which are visible at some time or place. This is not the sense of the word “invisible,” and our Prayer Book [i.e, 1979 BCP – the new ACNA Prayer Book restores “visible and invisible”] translation “seen and unseen” sacrifices clarity at this point. No, “invisible things” are real entities that can never be seen by our mere human senses. The first Soviet astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, followed shortly by the Anglican bishop John Robinson, thus made a major category mistake when he reported he did not see God up there. The American astronaut Buzz Aldrin, was much more perceptive when he read from orbit the first verses of Genesis. God made the visible heaven in the beginning and also the invisible heaven.

Let me give a simple example: numbers. Has anyone ever seen a number? You may have seen a notation signifying a number, but these all-important entities are in principle invisible, or if you wish metaphysical. The philosopher Plato argued that there existed a world of realities, of “ideas,” that stood behind material substances much the way numbers stand behind our calculations. These ideas or archetypes were in a sense “more real” than their external appearances. It has always struck me that some kind of metaphysics of this sort is necessary to understanding the totality of physical reality. This is why scientific naturalism is inadequate to form a holistic rational, not to mention Christian, worldview.

As you are probably aware, there is a debate raging now in the field of biology between orthodox Darwinians, who argue that the forms of the biological world evolved by a random series of mutations, and advocates of “intelligent design.” At the heart of the argument for intelligent design, as I understand it, is the conviction that every creature has a coherent identity, so that an eagle is an eagle, a cow a cow, and a man a man. They may have evolved into their present nature, but not randomly, and they possess a final perfect and beautiful design. Is it possible that our confession of “all things visible and invisible” commits us to the truth that God had every creature in his mind’s eye before he ever set a process of mutation and evolution in place?

But even if you do not wish to make a belief in the archetypes part of the Christian confession, it does seem to follow certainly that the Creed includes angels under the category “things invisible.” There was no question East or West that God had created a distinct species of creatures, who could not evolve because they were immortal by nature. The identity of the angels depended wholly on whether they turned to God in adoration or turned inward on themselves in rebellion. When we say we believe the Creed, we are, I think, committing ourselves to the reality of these beings.

Now the reason the creeds are unambiguous in their affirmation of angels is that the Bible is unambiguous. Angels can be found from Genesis to Revelation. They are witnesses to all the major doctrines of the faith from God as Creator, to Christ as Savior, to the Holy Spirit as advocate and guide. They are involved in the drama of temptation and sin, and they are helpers against the wiles of the Evil One. Their attention is very personal as when the angels rejoice over one sinner who repents; but their scope is also world-historical ushering in new regimes and the end of history.

Now one could, if he wish, write a whole book about angels in the Bible 😉. But I will focus on one passage in particular, Revelation 4-5. So let us view this comprehensive text with hearts especially attuned to understanding the “things invisible” of the heavenly realm.

A Revelation

After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! (4:1) Did it ever occur to you that the Book of Revelation is the only New Testament book that claims to come directly from God, like the Law and the Prophets in the Old Testament? At the beginning of the whole book, John claims it is a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” and now at the beginning of this vision he makes clear that knowledge of heaven is a gift of God (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). He immediately finds himself “in the Spirit.” This also is significant, for the realm of the Spirit is by definition “invisible.” You don’t know where the Spirit comes from or goes, Jesus told Nicodemus. So also the lampstands of the Spirit waft the incense of invisibility and mystery over the throne room in John’s vision. Only those born of the Spirit will have eyes to see and grasp this realm.

As John lifts his spiritual eyes, he sees first a throne and then on the throne a man seated. John does not say “man,” but who else can sit on a throne? Furthermore, all John’s prototypes in the Old Testament make the daring claim that God has the appearance of a man (Ezekiel 1:26 – “adam”). But God is no human male. In the apocalyptic code, men often stand for angels, and animals for humans. So the man seated on the throne has an “angelic” persona. More accurately, he is a denizen of the heavenly world along with the angels. To make clear that does not possess an angel nature, John speaks of his divine properties, in terms of precious stones – jasper, carnelian, and emerald – which belong to him alone.

Around him are standing 24 elders. This is the only reference in the whole Bible to this group, and the only place where angels wear crowns. What are we to make of this entourage? In my opinion, these elders symbolize God’s government of heaven. Unnecessary as it may seem, God governs by the principle of subsidiarity or delegation, much as the temple state of Israel was governed by priestly elders. But what do the elders actually do? They rule by worship, praising God for all his wonderful works. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that God’s kingdom comes and his will is done perfectly in heaven. The elders are an apt image of this government. Perhaps they are the unfallen principalities and powers (cf. Jude 6).

The next group we meet are the four animals. If the elders represent God’s heavenly government, the animals represent life on earth. These animals are the pure types of their species. Their eyes inside and out suggest that they are wholesome through and through. They need no psychoanalyst. Like the best Armstrong floor tile you could cut through them and the design would remain the same. The lion stands for the wild animals; the cow for the domestic beasts; the ape with a human face stands for mankind; and the eagle for all birds. Interesting, isn’t it, that we humans do not rank pride of place as either first or last of the animals. John seems to list them vertically by height rather than by intelligence.

The heavenly elders and the earthly animals are equally placed “around the throne,” a hint perhaps of the equal access that will occur when the dwelling of God is with men and when all creation attains the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:21). Indeed the two groups of angelic courtiers enter into an antiphonal chorus of song, in which the earthly animals praise the Holiness of God and the elders worship him as Creator of all things in heaven and on earth.

There is a sense in which chapter 4 could stand by itself as a kind of cycle of divine praise, echoing repetitively through heaven like the Orthodox Liturgy (the Essenes at Qumran seemed to imagine such an Angelic Sabbath Liturgy). One would be excused in saying, “It is well that we are here!” and returning again to verse 1. However, the last verse of chapter 4 reminds us of a world that exists in time. It is to this world that we turn in chapter 5.

The World in Time

This is the world of salvation history, of the Gospel. One reason that I wanted to present this passage in place of the normal Gospel reading was to highlight its character as Good News. Our patterns of reading tend to suggest that the Epistles and Revelation are commentaries on the story of Jesus, somewhat like Jews regard the prophets as commentary on the Torah. But that is really not true, especially in this case. Although it is in visionary form, chapters 4 and 5 are a dramatic telling out of the story of salvation through Jesus Christ (so also Revelation 12).

The movement from creation to history is signified by the scroll in the hand of Enthroned One. It is the book of history and it is sealed by seven seals. History viewed from below is, as one wag put it, one damned thing after another. Not that history is meaningless, but it is incomprehensible. The Preacher put it well: “God has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). When one looks back at what people expected at the turn of this 20th century, their expectations are almost laughable. Some, for instance, proclaimed that it would be “the Christian century” in the West, with Christianity and peace and progress advancing hand in hand. The Gospel has advanced in many lands, but hardly those where it had been apparently established and not through progressive politics but by a new outpouring of the blood of martyrs. What do we expect for the coming century, or even decade? The scroll is sealed, my friends, if you are trying to be a pundit.

The key to the meaning of history is summed up in the term “worthy.” “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (verse 3). “Worthiness” is not a matter of purity: the angels may be holy, but they are not qualified. I sense a kind of Anselmic argument here. Anselm argued that only God was qualified to make atonement for sin, and only man ought to offer such atonement, and that therefore it is necessary that the God-Man make this atonement.

So also with history, only God can know the purpose of history, but only man can act out its critical events. So there is a need for a Mediator who is both God and man. Angels will not do. The angels know they are clueless as to the deepest mysteries, and so one of them points John to another scroll: the book of Old Testament Scripture. John already has this book in his possession, and God has already revealed his will for the world. “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

John learns not only to look to the Scriptures as the source of the saving promise, but also to look at them through a particular messianic lens. As he ponders the messianic promises, he sees a remarkable figure, “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” The Lamb sums up a number of complex Old Testament prefigurations. He is the Passover Lamb of the Exodus deliverance; He is the Suffering Servant, the Lamb led to the slaughter for the sake of others; and He is Daniel’s Son of Man, receiving kingship from the Ancient of Days. This is not John’s original creative reading of prophecy. It is derived from the earthly Jesus himself,  who taught his disciples that “the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The Purest Sacrifice

It seems a bit incongruous that at this climax point, Jesus Christ is introduced as an animal. But again this is consistent with the apocalyptic code. He is NOT an angel in man-like drag. He is fully human, one of the animals, indeed the purest of sacrificial animals. Yet he is also one with God, sharing in the perfection of power and wisdom (seven horns and seven eyes) and becoming the giver of the Spirit to the creatures of earth.

It is not so much the appearance of the Lamb but the action of the Lamb that calls forth a heavenly chorus of praise. He advances to the throne and takes the scroll from God’s right hand. We recognize this as the completion of the “Christ-event,” the death, resurrection, ascension and enthronement of our Lord Jesus Christ. The event itself unseals the central mystery of creation and redemption: from now on the seals will fall inevitably one by one by the force of the Lamb’s achievement until all is finished.

There is a sense in which heaven itself is transformed by the appearance of the Ascended Christ. It was not given the angels to foresee his descent before it happened, or his re-appearance in glory. The early Christian apocalypse called the Ascension of Isaiah describes the Risen Lord ascending through the seven heavens, and at each heaven the angels ask: “How did our Lord remain hidden from us as he descended, and we did not notice?”

The depth of the mystery, St. Paul claims, is given especially to the eyes of faith, i.e., to Jesus’ human brothers and sisters, as he prays

… that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:17-23)

Heaven erupts in a crescendo of praise. First, the angelic elders, who have heard the prayers for deliverance from countless generations, break out in a new song (new because it comes only after the climax of history), as they cry out “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”

Then suddenly, as on Christmas Eve, “there appears “a  multitude of the heavenly host,” the entire angelic world echoing: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

And then a corresponding cry from the world below, as every creature in the sky and on earth, and in the sea, joins in the doxology: “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!”

Those who know Handel’s Messiah cannot but think at this point of the great resounding chorus “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” But this apparent finale is followed by a much more intimate coda. “And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.” Karl Barth was intrigued by this ending to the scene. He writes:

There is something sobering in the thought … that the harmony of the universe in the praise of God and the Lamb is not the last word. This harmony refuses to be equated with the wild shout of joy in the 9th symphony of Beethoven. The last word is the short anticlimax with which we are brought back to the beginning to the extent that the narrowest sphere of heaven is seen. The Amen and the final act of adoration are the last thing the divine sees and hears of the ministry of angels at the conclusion of this great introduction to the book.

Glorious as the vision is, it remains a mystery, not a possession, and we remain astounded and trembling humbly like Jacob when he awoke from his dream and confessed: “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).

Angelic Liturgy

Now, my brothers and sisters, we are invited this morning not only to confess the invisible world but to join with it. One of the wonderful gifts of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was the retention of the angelic dimension in the Anglican liturgy. Moments from now, when we say, “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven…” we are not simply making a pious or artistic flourish, we are stating our participation, our communion by faith in the invisible world referred to in the Creed and in the book of Revelation. We often attempt in our hymns during and after Communion to continue that sense of being lifted up into this heavenly realm. But above all, the taking of the sacrament itself signifies to us this action of exaltation. As John Calvin noted: “Christ is not brought down to us; we are lifted up to him.”

So when we come to the Table this day, let us not only discern the Body of our Lord in the elements but acknowledge the great privilege we have in standing in the invisible anteroom of heaven where angels and archangels chant without ceasing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!”

Cover Art: Matthias Gerung (16th c.) “John’s Vision of Heaven” (Wikimedia)