When war broke out in heaven, Scripture tells us, “Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the world – he was thrown down to earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”[i]
But just because Satan, literally God’s adversary, was cast out of heaven and thrown down to earth, does not mean the war is over. Just that the front line has moved.
In the calendar of the church, we keep today the feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. Michael is the angel who led the battle against God’s adversary in heaven. Michael’s name is the war-cry of the angels in heaven. Michael’s name means, “Who is like God?” It’s a question; a rhetorical question. No one is like God. When Satan desired in pride to be like God, he faced Michael. The name makes clear that no one is like God but God.
It’s an ancient theme: The aspiration to be like God leads only to disappointment and misery. It began in the Garden. God created human beings to live in harmony with nature, in perfect union and relationship with God; but, the serpent enticed them away with the temptation to be like God.
The temptation to be like God is seductive. It can manifest itself in any number of ways: being right, is one;knowing what’s best, is another. One nagging thought that can emerge when faced with the temptation to be like God is, “Well, if I were in charge, I’d never do it that way!” (But I’m sure no one here ever thinks like that.)The temptation to be like God almost always alienates us from other people.
But it doesn’t just have to be about changing the world, or its people to suit ourselves. The temptation to be like God can also be directed back toward ourselves when we judge ourselves harshly, for example. When we tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough, or that we don’t have enough. When we try to twist and bend and exert ourselves to become the people WE think we ought to be. We are playing God. We are playing into the hands of God’s adversary, who has been thrown down to earth, perpetually assaulting us with messages that tempt us to be like God – with messages that tells us that we need to be different, that we need to change ourselves, to be more, to do more, and have more – messages that all place us in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction.
Jesus shows us another way. When Satan was thrown down to earth, God did not leave us defenseless. As we heard in the Revelation to John, the adversary was conquered in heaven by the blood of the Lamb (that’s the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross). As it is in heaven,so it shall be on earth.[ii]Jesus shows us another way on the cross, a way to overcome the temptation to be like God, and angels play a part in that.
In our Gospel reading today, Nathanael is impressed that Jesus knows all about him with knowing him, and proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel. Jesus replies, “You will see greater things than these…. [Y]ou will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”[iii]
When Nathanael proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus responds with humility: “You will see something greater,” he says,“You will see angels.” Angels reminds us who is like God with their war-cry, “Michael”. No one is like God, but God, and Jesus knows that, and Jesus wants us to know that.
No one is like God, but God. Recognizing this is the way of humility; it’s the way of the cross. It’s the way the battle is won between God, on the one hand, and the temptation to be like God, on the other. With Jesus leading the way, the heavens are opened and angels of God ascend and descend on the Son of Man, fighting on our behalf, with their war-cry, “Michael”, reminding us, “Who is like God?” No one is like God, but God.
This way of humility is not a way many of us have come to on our own. It goes against so much of what we have thought, heard, and been taught. I’d venture to guess that many of us here have tried the way of God’s adversary. We’ve tried to live by self-will; we’ve tried to live by self-determination; we’ve tried to arrange life to suit ourselves; to find peace and security by trying harder, doing better, and having more, and it didn’t work. We’ve been tempted (we are tempted) to be like God at times, and have found it leads only to disappointment and misery.
Jesus shows us another way. This way of humility. This way of remembering (it’s the remembering that’s key) that no one is like God but God – that I am definitely not God. It’s the way of remembering that, “I can’t change myself no matter how hard I try.” – Only God can do that. It’s the way of remembering that “I don’t know what’s best… for me, for you, or for this world.” “Who is like God?” No one.
Is this the way of passivity, weakness, and victim hood? No. Those of us who have walked this way, know the way of humility is a way of tremendous activity. It takes effort, and a will to lay down one’s life. It takes strength to face life as it is, without wishing it to be different; it takes courage to trust that God is in control; that we are OK just as we are, just where we are; that God knows what is best; does what is best, and gives us what we need each and every day to face whatever life throws at us.
It’s not easy – this way of humility – and we won’t follow it perfectly. Powerful forces are bent on tempting us to be like God each and every moment; God is equally bent on claiming us as His own. To be caught in the middle of this epic defines what it means to be human, and it will continue for our lifetime.
The war is not over. Only the front line has moved.The angels remind us with their war-cry, “Michael”, “Who is like God?”Absolutely no one!
[i] Revelation 12:7-9.
[ii] Revelation 12:10-12.
[iii] John 1:47-51.
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