A series of sermons on angels was always going to include a talk on fallen angels, not least because they seem to generate far more interest than well-behaved and socially compliant angels. There are plenty of traditions that grew around scripture, depicting war in heaven and angels falling after a disastrous battle. Jesus himself claimed to have witnessed Satan falling from heaven like lightning. But this evening I thought it might be better to look at what fallen angels get up to in Scripture. There are several popular stories and myths about the various behavioural habits of these former angels – and no shortage of tales about how they ended up engaging in amorous activity with attractive females. Sometimes those females have babies…
But the oldest of those popular tales is probably the one we heard from Genesis when the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were attractive – and went into them, which is not the most subtle euphemism in Hebrew literature. The Sons of God here clearly refer to some kind of angels. The product of their union with mortal women was a race of giant, heroic, warriors – known as the Nephilim. The root of the word is the Hebrew verb to fall, made into a plural noun. The Nephilim were not angels themselves, nor fallen angels – but they were the fallen ones.
It does not mean however, that they were fallen from heaven because they were never there in the first place. They were giants, but they were mortals. And they were fallen, because they had all fallen in battle and consigned to Sheol, in the bowels of the earth – the place where everyone in the Old Testament went after they died. It wasn’t only in Hebrew literature that the race of Giants was overthrown - the Giants of Greek mythology were similarly defeated and imprisoned in the depths of the earth. Some traditions concluded that there was consent to these mortal-angelic unions on the woman’s part, because it was a means of ensuring that their children would become great heroes with long lives a superhuman powers.
If there is a point to the Biblical story, it seems to be that sexual relations between angels and mortals is frowned upon. Frowned upon because although the desire to produce strong, healthy, attractive offspring is a healthy, evolutionary desire – the desire to produce semi-divine offspring is probably a step too far. It might be regarded as a short-cut to greatness – though of course, there is the small matter of giving birth to a giant, which could prove a little uncomfortable for a mortal. But God did not approve – probably because mating with angels seemed to have offered a shortcut to greatness.
In fact, it was deemed a major causal factor in the flood, because God decreed that humans should remain mortal and that their days should be numbered. So part of the purpose of the flood, it seems, was to kill off the Nephilim.
It’s difficult to know just what to do with a story like this in the Bible. Naturally I turned to Melvyn Brag for answers, and he even read the text from Genesis to his guests on his Radio 4 programme. All they did was laugh, and move swiftly on. However, there is an interpretive tradition of the New Testament declaring that the Nephilim are the reason why women should wear hats in church! In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he instructed the women to cover their heads in church, ‘because of the angels’ who might be lurking to see if they find any of them attractive. So, if you want to protect yourself from cold, from rain, or from supernatural sexual predators, some kind of hat is required.
I suppose one way of interpreting this is to look at how the Nephilim were regarded in Old Testament tradition. They were great heroes, men of renown, and power, and long life. And the reason God did not approve of humans trying to gain semi-divine status was not that he felt threatened – but that it went against the very fibre of the created order that humans inhabit.
Of course, hero worship is everywhere. Whether you were watching the Royal Wedding or the FA Cup final, it is difficult to escape the adoration of heroes, of the so called cult of celebrity. But God’s gripe with the Nephilim was not simply their celebrity status – so much as the fact that striving to gain semi-divine power and authority turns out to be dehumanising.
Today is Pentecost – when above all the Christian Church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus of Nazareth had laid out an example of what it meant to be human, what it meant to be with or without power, and above all he demonstrated how Yahweh’s power is manifested above all in radical, human, humility. The Son of God was not born as a giant, or a king, or a warrior. He was born to a peasant family struggling to exist in some far flung province of an empire that wielded real, obvious, undeniable, omnipotent power. So it was only natural that the imperial machinery should put Jesus to death.
But in Christian theology, the resurrection is a vindication of the kind of power Jesus wielded. The power that looked like failure – that was not obvious, fireworks and all canons blazing, but the power quiet and hidden behind the closed door of a tomb. And after the ascension, the church itself becomes the channel through which the power of Israel’s God is to be exerted. And so, at Pentecost – the Holy Spirit, the presence of God himself, comes upon the church. This is why Paul tells the Church in Corinth that they are a Temple – the gathered community is a Temple in which God wells by his Spirit. There was no need to produce Christian heroes when the Holy Spirit is present to the Church.
But there was plenty of hero worship in Corinth. I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas – and Paul says forget that. There can be no boasting about great men, when the Spirit of God himself is what makes the church who it is.
The Church doesn’t need great people, or celebrity endorsements, or a strong media presence. It just needs to be open to the Holy Spirit. That is the message of Pentecost – and it is the very antithesis to those who aspire to produce Nephilim.
Before the flood, seeking shortcuts to greatness produced a world of wickedness, heroes produced a world of violence and warriors produced an era of radical insecurity.
After Pentecost, greatness had been redefined,
After Pentecost, the Spirit of the Israel’s humble God rested amidst of bunch of humble people.
After Pentecost, it becomes possible for the humblest people to have the greatest impact on the world.