Saint Matthew 18:1–11
Today is the one day in the Church Year that we take the time to consider angels, that is, beyond the occasional mention of them, such as at Christmas and Easter when they are present in the narrative to announce the good news of these salvation events. Today we pause to give thanks to God for these heavenly messengers and give a bit more thought than usual to what role they play in our lives.
Let’s start off with a bit of review about the nature of angels in general. Like you and me, angels are beings created by the Lord God Almighty. But unlike us, they are not of this physical world; they are not flesh and blood creatures. In the Nicene Creed we confess that God is the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” The angels are of God’s creation that is heavenly and invisible. God, however, from time to time, throughout the salvation history of the world, has sent His invisible servants to appear in the likeness of man, so as better to bring us the messages of His grace that He would have us receive.
Looking like us, however, is not the only way that angels have been seen by man. Isaiah and Ezekiel and Saint John were given to see visions of heaven in which the angels looked nothing like us. Isaiah says that the seraphim have six wings—two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet and two with which to fly. The cherubim or cherubs are not the pudgy baby-like creatures with little wings that we see on greeting cards, but are described as powerful heavenly beings with four faces and four wings. When Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden, the cherubim were placed on guard at its entrance with a flaming sword. And, as we heard this morning in the Second Reading from the Revelation, Saint Michael led a warrior army of angels to fight against Satan and his army of angels.
Which brings us to note that not all angels are good and in the service of God. There are also the evil angels like the devil and all his demon host. Now, once upon a time, however, they were not evil. God created all the angels, as He created all things, in His image, meaning good and holy and without sin. Lucifer, whom we know now as the devil, was, in the beginning, that way, too. In Ezekiel, the Lord God says to Satan, “You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.” How did sin and unrighteousness come to find its way into the heart of Lucifer, God’s #1, chief angel? Well, we don’t exactly know, for before Lucifer sinned and rebelled against God, leading many other angels also to rebel, there was no such thing as sin. There was, however, an aspect of the pure and holy nature of their creation, a quality also possessed by our first parents, which made sin possible. And that aspect of their creation was free will.
Free will, despite what you may hear from some, is a commodity that no longer exists. The good and holy angels who remained faithful are set unchangeably by God in their holy state, as are the devil and all the evil angels in their sin. The good angels now cannot fall, as Lucifer did, nor can the devil be redeemed from his sin and condemnation. As for mankind, once Adam and Eve heeded the devil’s temptation and also sinned against God, their will, and that of all their progeny to follow, became captive and bound to sin. Thus, when you were conceived and born, you did not come into this world in a neutral position, but rather with a hatred and enmity toward God. And it is only by the power and grace-filled working of God the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel, that you are now on God’s side and not the devil’s. You did not choose God; He chose you. It is by His will, and not your own, that you believe and are saved.
And you and I rejoice in our salvation. We praise God and give thanks to Him for this greatest of all gifts that we have through Jesus, God’s Son, our Saviour. Jesus rescued us from our sin and from the everlasting death that sin brings by paying for us the terrible price that God’s righteous Law demands. He paid it with His own innocent suffering and death on Calvary’s cross. He died for us, so that, as Luther teaches in the catechism, we may “be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness”—or, in other words, so that we can again be the people that God intended us to be in the beginning.
There’s a catch, though, a caveat that must be included in this great and wonderful truth of your salvation reminding you that you are not yet locked into the righteousness and holiness given to you in your baptism, like the good and holy angels are. One day you will be, when angels gently bear you to your heavenly home. Then you will forevermore be without sin, righteous and holy and forever God’s own beloved child. But in this mortal life now, your will is still bound, still a captive to sin and the devil is always at work to lead you away from Christ and His salvation.
But take heart, dear Christian friends! God, your loving heavenly Father, does not leave you to face this great danger and threat on your own. He knows well your limitations and your weakness to sin. When you came into this world, you were helpless to extract yourself from the strong grip of Satan, and you needed the Holy Spirit, through the Gospel, to bring you to Jesus and the salvation that He gives. Your Father in heaven knows that, because of the weakness of your flesh, you still need this saving help. The Holy Spirit, therefore, continues His work in you to make you holy and keep you holy. He opens your heart to receive Jesus who comes among us by His Word and Sacraments to forgive you your sins. And thus forgiven by Jesus, you are strengthened and kept in the saving faith.
All this divine help is here in this Sanctuary—this Sanctuary of Grace—for you to see and hear and taste. You can point to the font and be cheered by the knowledge that you are baptized; you are God’s own child. In this holy house, you can hear the very Word of Christ speak peace to your heart, by which all guilt and shame is banished. And before that altar, you can eat and drink the bread and wine, knowing that it is as Jesus says—trusting that it is His true Body and Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. But there is more. There is what you cannot see and hear and taste. There are God’s holy angels working unceasingly for your eternal good. They guard and protect you from the assaults of the old evil foe. In fact, you each have an angel watching over you. In today’s Holy Gospel, our Lord Jesus briefly mentions that angel as He speaks about the precious nature of the faith that your angel has been charged by God to help keep safe in you.
Saint Matthew tells us of a time when the disciples of Jesus were under the sway of temptation. Pride, which the Bible tells us was the cause for the devil’s fall into sin, was nipping away at them. They ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” each hoping that He will speak their name. Rather than say they were being like Satan in their pridefulness (which they were), Jesus gently reproves them by showing them the true nature of greatness. He calls to His side a little child who is nearby and says to the disciples, “Truly I say to you, unless you turn,” that is, unless you repent of your sinful pride, “and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
By and large, the little child is a wonderful picture of humility. There is no appreciable measure of vanity and pride in our little children, such as fills those who are older. It would never even enter into the little child’s thoughts to ask, as the disciples did, “who is the greatest?” Don’t mistake humility, though, with innocence. Their occasional attempts to boss mom and dad around show that their will, like yours, is held captive by sin. However, that has nothing to do with pride.
The humility that we see in the little child is indeed a good example for us in our lives of faith, but an even better example for you is to be found in Him who truly is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ. Saint Paul tells us, that “though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” None of us, dear friends, can ever truly understand humility until we look upon Christ crucified for us and for our salvation.
Our Lord’s willingness to humble Himself to the point of death for your sake—to endure everything, give up everything—comes from His sinless and perfect obedience to the will of His heavenly Father. Now, the will of God for you is what? It’s that you believe in Jesus Christ and be saved—that you do everything necessary to hold on to the salvation that Jesus purchased and won for you at so dear a cost. Our Lord’s comments about cutting off your hand or foot or tearing out your eye if those things cause you to sin are, therefore, not so outlandish or absurd when you consider them from the perspective of the cross and the sacrifice that Christ made for you. However, you need not go that far, but rather, in faith, truly repent of your sin, with God’s help turn away from it, and receive the forgiveness that Christ freely gives.
In Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says that, “there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” Your guardian angel, ever watching over you, surely, as Jesus says, rejoices to see you repent of your sin and receive forgiveness. And, as your angel “always sees the face of your Father in heaven,” reflecting the divine light of His holy countenance, that angelic joy for you indeed must have its roots in the heart of God. Truly the Father rejoices greatly when you, His dear child, turns to Him for His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, which He gives most wonderfully, most fully in His Son, our Saviour Jesus, to whom with your heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.