On Angels

Scene from 'Wings of Desire' (1987). Directed by Wim Wenders.

Here is my first Christmas Eve sermon at my new congregation in Boonville, NY.  The text is Luke 2:1-20.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

What is the first thing you say when you meet an angel?

(Screams loudly)

Most of us are used to what I call the “Hallmark” version of angels: chubby babies with little wings.  These “angels” can be found all over cartoons and greeting cards during this time of year.  Most people are probably also familiar with the lithe and glowing figures that float on clouds and play harps.  This is where we probably get our idea of the word “angelic” from.

But did you notice the first words out of the angel’s mouth in tonight’s gospel reading?  “Do not be afraid”!  In fact, this is the third time an angel shows up in Luke’s gospel and each time, the angel says to a human, “Do not be afraid”.  Why is that?

I think it would make more sense if we understood what an “angel” was to ancient Jews.  When angels appear in the Bible, they’re anything but cute.  In fact, they’re quite fearsome.  They’re described as huge creatures with multiple sets of wings.  They have faces like lions and eagles and oxen and humans.  Lightning flashes around them.  Sometimes they carry massive swords.  Some of them are on fire.  When you think about it like that, it’s easier to understand why the shepherds in tonight’s reading felt more than a little intimidated!

But these angels haven’t come to dole out wrath and judgment.  They have a message to deliver.  In fact, that’s what the word “angel” literally means: “Messenger”.  In verse 10, we read that this particular messenger has come to announce “good news of great joy for all the people”.  And, of course, the angel is talking about the birth of the baby Jesus, who, for Christians, is more than just our favorite philosopher/action hero.  For us, Jesus is “Immanuel”, which means, “God with us”.

Christians believe that God became present to us through Jesus in a unique way.  We don’t claim to know how this happened.  We can’t explain it logically.  All we can do is experience the mystery and try our best to share our experience with others.

That’s what faith is.  Faith is not a dogmatic arrogance that claims to have the answer to life, the universe, and everything.  Faith simply means keeping an open mind toward our experience of the mystery of God’s presence with us.  As a messenger, the angel in tonight’s reading is pointing the shepherds (and us) toward that mystery.

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an actual angel for certain.  I’ve never seen those fearsome, flaming creatures lighting up the heavens with the brilliance of their song: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!  Glory to God in the highest!”  I believe they exist, but I’ve never seen one.  However, I have seen other “messengers” that point me toward the mystery of the divine presence in my life.

I think of creation itself as a kind of messenger (“angel”) that points us toward faith.  Over our heads every night is another kind of “heavenly host” (I’m thinking of the stars themselves).  If we listen with the ears of our hearts, we can hear their song just as clearly as the shepherds heard the angels’ song on the first Christmas Eve.  Psalm 19 tells us:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament* proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice* goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.”

One of the Jewish prophets tells us that, not only the stars, but the Earth itself sings a hymn of praise.  This prophet wrote, “the mountains and the hills… shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  When we look at the splendor of creation around us, we can choose to see it as a random collection of atoms and electrochemical reactions or we can choose to see it as the holy handiwork of a loving being who has given it depth and meaning.  Then, I think, we will begin to hear the song of the Earth and the cosmos, singing us back toward the divine mystery that we call God.

Another place where I sometimes think I see messengers (“angels”) is in the people I meet.  God seems to take special delight at getting humans involved in the process of making this world a better place.  I can’t even think of how many times, when I’ve felt down, some friend came along with a word or gesture of affection and support that gave me the strength to keep going through a difficult time.  That’s an experience that most of us have had at some point or another.  In that moment, I think those people can be messengers (“angels”) to us, pointing us back toward faith, hope, and love.  The author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament  advises us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

I remember one such encounter that happened when I was in college.  I was on my way to class one morning when I crossed paths with a young woman on the sidewalk.  We both looked up at the same time and I said, “Good morning”, intending to walk on.  But to my surprise, she stopped and began talking to me!  She told me all about how excited she was to get a letter from a child she sponsored in Latin America.  She was so nice, our short conversation made my day.  A little while later, I remembered that verse from Hebrews, “some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  I had never seen her around campus before.  Could that have been…?  Maybe!

As it turns out, I bumped into her again a few months later and we became friends.  Her name is Cathy and she is very much a human being.  However, our brief meeting on the sidewalk that morning left my mind just a little bit more open to the ways in which God might surprise me in the midst of my everyday life.  To this day, I jokingly refer to Cathy as my “guardian angel”.

As we gather together in this church tonight, we are celebrating the mystery of the divine presence in song, in story, and in candlelight.  These rituals are good because they can help us to sense the presence of this mystery in a concentrated form.  But the real power of Christmas lies in what we take with us into the rest of our year.  As you go out into this Christmas season, I want to invite you to keep an open mind about God.  Pay attention to the love of the people in your life and the beauty of the world around you.  Try to see these things as messengers, angels leading you to embrace the presence of that divine mystery in your life.  As you do so, I pray that you will be able to hear and join in the song of the angels, the saints, the heavens, and the earth: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!  Glory to God in the highest!”

One thought on “On Angels

  1. dust castle builder

    Well, I haven’t seen an angel with multiple eyes and arms and wings, but one of my friends has. Actually, I’ve never seen an angel’s wings, but I have seen a number of angels. Perhaps the way they appear is symbolic, as are their names. God tries to send us messages in every way possible–he doesn’t waste anything! He is very intentional. I wonder if the reason why they were so fearsome at that time is that people worshipped fearsome looking idols. Just a thought. Anyway, I have heard them sing before, and they’re very good singers.

    Nice parallel between stars and heavenly host.

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