A wonderful order.
A Sermon for Michaelmas
Sunday, October 1 at Holy Communion
“O everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order.“ In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
When I was a teenager, I was very taken by Christian philosophy books which discussed why it was reasonable to believe in God. There, I read many versions of the “watchmaker argument,” which goes something like this: even if you didn’t know what a pocket watch was, if you were walking along the beach and found one you would assume that someone had designed it and that it was not a random product of nature, because it displays order and purpose and fulfills a complex and meaningful function. So when we see things in the natural world which display complex beings capable of life, and motion, and thought—the whale, the human being—we should assume that these natural things have a designer, God.
That argument is alright as far as it goes, but it is in fact only a shadow of an older perspective which believed that the universe displays order and purpose as single whole. The universe itself if a marvellous order, not just the individual things in it.
We have already prayed, in our Collect, to the “everlasting God” who has “ordained and constituted the services of Angels and men in a wonderful order.” The key word is the smallest one: “a” wonderful order, that is, a single wonderful order. Our Collect invites us to see everything, from the most ordinary aspects of human life all the way up to the seraphim, who unceasingly sing “Holy, holy, holy” before the throne of God, as parts of a single connected whole.
Our modern assumption is that we are individuals first, and members of groups and societies second. But that is not the biblical view. We are created in the middle of a web of relationships. No one comes into the world alone, but we are immediately surrounded by parents, perhaps brothers and sisters, a community and a society. We are born into roles and expectations both natural and social, and born into a relationship to the natural world on which we depend and towards which we have responsibilities of tending and keeping. There is no such thing as a true, isolated individual.
This web of relationships, this universal order, is a fact, but what is its purpose? Why was it designed the way it was?
This is where the angels come in. Today we celebrate the holy angels, the invisible powers of God’s goodness which surround the throne of God on high and which come among us to tend, guard, and guide. You can imagine the whole created world, visible and invisible, as a great circular dance around God’s throne, and the angels are eternally at the centre, gazing with wonder into the mystery of the God who exceeds all knowledge. They are the highest created beings, more rational than any human mind, more full of life than the most vigorous body, so full of existence and solidity that next to them a human being is breath of air. The angels are invisible to us not because they are less real than we are, but because they are more.
The angels, circling around God at the centre of this cosmic dance, show us the purpose of the whole network of creatures. They pull us along with them, bridging the gap between us and God, acting as the moving spirit of the whole organism.
And their purpose is praise. God sends forth his light and all things are created, first of all the angels in radiance and strength, who do nothing but cry “Holy, holy, holy.” All things were created for thanksgiving, created to give exuberant praise to the source of life and being. The angels embrace this vocation without ceasing.
Our Gradual Psalm celebrates this cosmic act of praise. It says,
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights.
Praise him, all you angels of his;
praise him, all his host.
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, heaven of heavens,
and you waters above the heavens.
Let them praise the Name of the Lord;
for he commanded, and they were created.
He made them stand fast for ever and ever;
he gave them a law which shall not pass away. (Psalm 148:1–5)
Likewise, in just a moment, we will sing,
Ye watchers and ye holy ones,
bright seraphs, cherubim, and thrones,
raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers,
virtues, archangels, angels' choirs:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
We join our praises with the invisible choirs in their ranks and distinctions. This is how we become part of the “wonderful order” which extends from the throne of God down to the birds and the bees and the fishes in the seas. All things praise their Maker, each in his own way, and so should we.
And yet at the same time we do need to talk about “becoming” part of the order; we need to remind ourselves that we “should” praise God, because there is a possibility that we would not. The tragedy and struggle of human life is that our greatest gift, our freedom, also creates the possibility for us to go our own way if we choose. We can separate ourselves from the order of the world; we can set up ourselves as the kings of our own little cosmos, taking the place of God; we can withdraw from relationship and responsibility.
This is why we have heard today in the readings about the devil, a free and resplendent angel who would rather rule a kingdom of darkness and emptiness than be an honoured and trusted servant in the order God created. He was cast out and the order was preserved, but he was no longer part of it.
Let’s not make the same mistake by ingratitude, sourness, and withdrawal. God rules a kingdom of light, a realm of unending song, and our citizenship is there.
In practical terms, this means that your place in the web of nature and society is yours to make holy. God has surrounded you with people who depend on you and people on whom you depend. You have been given freedom so that you can love. You have been given intelligence so that you can understand, communicate, and care. Our place in the world may not be high, but it is ours. It is precisely where we are that we can best participate in the song of heaven. May gracious words be on our lips, gentleness in our hearts, and always the song, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty.”