Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, March 15, 2020
Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
For if the word spoken through angels was confirmed, and every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation, which having at first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard? (Heb. 2:2-3)
If you heard that phrase “the word spoken through angels,” what might you think of? What is the word spoken through angels? Most folks today might think about the angels who spoke to the shepherds announcing the birth of Jesus or perhaps the angel who spoke to the Virgin Mary or to Joseph her betrothed.
But how does that apply in this whole phrase, “the word spoken through angels was confirmed, and every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution”? What do those angelic messages have to do with transgressions and disobedience receiving a just retribution? They don’t, really.
What St. Paul is alluding to here when he speaks of “the word spoken through angels” is a tradition reflected in many places in both the Old and New Testament. What is that tradition? It is that the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai by means of angels.
In Deuteronomy 33:2, for instance, we read: “The Lord came from Sinai, and dawned on them from Seir; He shone forth from Mount Paran, and He came with ten thousands of saints; from His right hand came a fiery law for them.”
That word saints there when used in the Old Testament generally refers to angels. The same goes for holy ones. Both saint and holy one are a single word in most languages,
And in Psalm 68:17: “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of thousands; the Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the Holy Place.” And Acts 7:53 reads: “You received the law by decrees given by angels.” Similar language is found in Acts 7:38 and Galatians 3:19.
If you’ve ever seen The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, you see Moses alone on the mountainside, and a great swirling mini-tornado of flame inscribes the Ten Commandments directly into the rock.
But that’s not how the Bible depicts the scene. The Lord appears to Moses, and there are angels with Him. When God gives the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, it is in the company of angels and by means of angels. This is not a one-on-one experience for Moses. When he speaks to God at Sinai and receives the Law from Him, he is receiving it with angels both present and involved.
Why is it important to stress that angels were involved when God gave Moses the Law?
Well, first of all, it’s because it actually happened that way, and when we have misconceptions about how key moments happened, we may interpret them in a distorted way.
But perhaps more critically, we need to understand that, if by angels the Law came to mankind, then that means that what they speak and do is related to all of us.
I think our general cultural view of angels is that they are special messengers who speak to a few people at certain times in history, and those people need to heed them, but for most of us, well, we’re just not going to be touched by an angelic visit.
But that is not at all how the Scriptures depict angels. Angels are in fact everywhere, though they are usually not manifest. See them ministering to people all the time in the Bible, and they still do so. We see them giving the Law to Moses, and that Law is for all.
And each of us, when he is baptized, is assigned an angel by God to act as our guardian. That means that each baptized person who is hearing this sermon has an angel right next to him, with him throughout the day and night, praying for him and guarding him from harm. Our epistle reading today says that angels are sent forth by God “to minister for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” That’s all of us, not just certain saints or historical people.
Angels are also understood from the ancient world not just as guardians but as being part of what makes the universe “work,” so to speak, moving not just the sun and moon and stars and planets, but also deeply engaged everywhere in creation. Angels are not just God’s messengers but also His government, aiding Him in all that He does.
But there is also something important here for us to understand, not just so that we have a correct view of angels, but so that we have a correct view of ourselves and what our place is in God’s Kingdom. St. Paul asks this question at the end of our reading: “For if the word spoken through angels was confirmed, and every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation, which having at first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard?”
In other words, if the Law that came through angels was confirmed by God in that all transgressions and disobedience receive just retribution, then how will we escape such justice if we neglect the great salvation spoken by the Lord and confirmed by those who first received it?
Do you see the parallel here? God appears to Moses and gives him the Law in the presence of and by means of angels. And He again appears and gives the New Covenant in the presence of and by means of… whom? The Apostles. The Apostles are here identified in the same role as angels.
And what does this mean also for us? We are called to this great salvation, as well. We are called to be as the Apostles, as well. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that we are called to be “holy ones,” to be “saints” – these are the same words used in the Old Testament for the angels! And they are now used in the New Testament for Christians.
And what is more, we are called to be “sons of God.” And who are the “sons of God”? In the Old Testament, the sons of God are the highest rank of angels (Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7, etc.), and in the New Testament, it is said by the Lord Jesus that the saved “are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 24:36).
So what is our calling? We are called to become “sons of God,” to attain the place of the highest rank of angels. And that means that we are called to do all that the angels do—minister to the saved, be present and engaged in the handing over of the word of the Lord, intercede for and guard those who are in danger.
In our current moment, with disease and danger in our community, threatening especially vulnerable people, our task as angelic ministers is more needed more than ever. Do not look only after yourselves, please. Be mindful of those near you, your families first but not only. Look to your neighbors. Look to your fellow Christians in this congregation.
We are being wisely called by the authorities and by medical experts to maintain social distance to slow the spread of this disease and not overwhelm our hospitals, but that does not mean that we are called to be individualists, ignoring the needs of everyone but ourselves. If you hear of a need, meet it if you can. If you know of a vulnerable person, ask him how you can help him.
At the end of time, when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride forth, bringing famine, pestilence, war and death upon mankind, God will send forth His holy ones to match them and to overcome them. But even though this is not yet the end, He is even now sending us forth as His angelic ministers. Let us shine brightly in the midst of all darkness.
To Jesus Christ, the Holy One in the midst of His holy ones, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and power, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.