Text: Luke 1: 5-13, 18-20; 26-38
Throughout the fall, we have been reading some of the key, formative stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and if you were paying attention this morning, you may have noticed that we have finally made it to the New Testament.
As we come to the New Testament, it is very helpful to have some familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures, because for the early church, for those who wrote the New Testament, the Hebrew scriptures were their entire Bible. The Old Testament is the Bible of Mary and Joseph and Jesus and Peter and John and Paul. And as we read the New Testament, there are all kinds of quotes and references and allusions to people and events that took place in the Old Testament. You can’t really understand the New Testament without some familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures.
The prophets spoke of a coming messiah. Isaiah spoke of the one who would come as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and the church has seen in Jesus the fulfillment of that prophecy.
As we look ahead to Christ’s birth, we will be taking a look at two groups of characters that we find in the Christmas story. In a Christmas pageant, at the bare minimum you’ve got Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. (Now I will say that since we now two new babies in the church and one more due before Christmas, I think we should do a little re-write on the script and have Mary give birth to triplets. Nobody else seems to like that idea, but I do think it is worth considering.)
Anyway, traditionally there are Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. You’ve got some sheep and possibly other animals around the manger. You’ve got the Wise Men who show up after Jesus is born, but right around the time of birth, there are two important groups of characters. There are angels and there are shepherds. We will be thinking together about shepherds in a couple of weeks; this morning we are going to think about the angels.
As I was contemplating angels this week, I thought about going to Evansville White Sox games when I was 7 or 8 years old. The White Sox were a minor league team of the Chicago White Sox. I remember my friend Monty and I bringing our gloves to the game, hoping to catch a foul ball. I remember eating salted in the shell peanuts, only Monty and I would sometimes eat them shell and all because they were so salty and good. And I can remember exactly one player: Angel Bravo. He went on to have a journeyman kind of career in the big leagues, but he had that awesome name. Angel Bravo. He seemed to epitomize what angels were supposed to be: a kind of larger than life hero.
Our thinking about angels is influenced by popular culture – or maybe popular culture reflects what we think about angels. There was Charlie’s Angels, that 70’s TV cop show with Farrah Fawcett. Angels in the Outfield, a movie in which angels are sent to fulfill the wish of a child that required getting the California Angels to win the pennant. This was followed up by Angels in the End Zone and Angels in the Infield and no, I didn’t see any of these movies. Of course, there is A Wonderful Life with Clarence the Angel and the line “Every time a bells rings, an angels gets its wings.” You’ve also got the movie “Michael” in which John Travolta plays a chain-smoking angel.
There are TV shows: Touched By An Angel, where three angels have been dispatched from heaven to help people facing crossroads in their lives, and Highway to Heaven with Michael Landon, where a probationary angel teams up with a cop to help people. And I just saw an ad this week for a new TV show called Angel from Hell with Jane Lynch playing a really messed up guardian angel.
And then there is popular music. Pretty Little Angel Eyes, Earth Angel, Angel of the Morning, 7 Spanish Angels by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson, Angel of Harlem, Angel from Montgomery, on and on. From popular culture, we might think that angels are beautiful women, brilliant but troubled souls who died too young, social workers on heavenly steroids, or heavenly beings with their own insecurities and issues trying to redeem themselves by helping others.
When the Bible speaks of angels, however, the picture is very different. Out of curiosity, I did a search and the word “angel” appears in scripture over 300 times, spread over the Old New Testaments as well as the Apocrypha, writings between the time period of the Old Testament and New Testament.
Angels would go ahead of and behind the camp of the Israelites as they made their way through the wilderness. An angel would often go ahead of the Israelite army into battle. In the Old Testament in particular, when angels showed up it was more often than not bad news. Angels told Lot to high-tail it out of Sodom because God was going to destroy the city, and Lot and his family just made it out alive. The angels warned them not to, but Lot’s wife looked back at the city anyway and turned into a pillar of salt.
When Pharaoh refused to allow the Israelites to go, God sent plagues on Egypt, the worst of which was the death of Egyptian first-born brought about by a destroying angel. The angel passed over Israelite households, and this is where Passover comes from.
In 2 Kings chapter 19 we read, “the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies.” The prophet Isaiah makes reference to this same incident.
I could go on. In scripture, angels bring messages and act on behalf of God. And often it is really, really scary. With that background, we come to the Christmas story. Angels show up and they say, “Fear not.” They keep saying it. “Do not be afraid.” There was a reason they keep saying this. Seeing an angel was a reason to be very afraid.
In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream on two occasions. The first time, Joseph has learned that Mary is with child and has decided to divorce her quietly, which would actually be a merciful thing to do. But an angel tells him in a dream that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
And then after Jesus is born, an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to flee with his family to Egypt because Herod wants to kill the child. Because of an angel’s warning, Jesus becomes a refugee.
Our scripture this morning includes two readings from the Gospel of Luke. They mark the beginning of the Christmas story. Zechariah is a priest, married to a woman named Elizabeth. They are advanced in years. They have led a good and righteous life but they have no children, which in that culture was an embarrassment, if not a disgrace. When Zechariah is chosen to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him. Zechariah is terrified. He knows very well what the appearance of an angel can mean.
But it is good news! God has heard their prayers, and Elizabeth will have a son. This is so unbelievable that Zechariah has doubts about it. Because he doubted Gabriel’s word, Zechariah is made mute, unable to speak until the child is born. The boy is named John. He is known to us as John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus.
A few months later, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary. Right away, he tries to assure her that this visit is not a reason for fear or panic. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” Mary seems confused and troubled by this, and he continues, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. The announcement that he has for Mary is that she will bear a Son and name him Jesus. He shall be Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.
This is pretty heady stuff, not the sort of thing Mary heard just every day. Angels generally appeared and brought messages from God at the most crucial moments. When an angel appeared, it was deadly serious. But these were not message about death; these were messages of life. Good news. Great news. Amazing news.
There is another appearance of angels in the Christmas story. In Luke chapter 2, angels appear to the shepherds, announcing the birth of Jesus. “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Again, the shepherds know enough to be terrified by angels, but they are told not to be afraid and given good news.
Angels have fingerprints all over the Christmas story, but we usually focus more on their message and on the people to whom they speak than we do the angels themselves. Part of this is because we are not entirely sure what to make of angels. With the mystery and the mythology surrounding angels - some in the Bible and a great deal of it not in the Bible – as well as all of the pop culture fascination and ideas about angels, we may not know what to think about them.
The Bible actually has different things in mind when it speaks of angels. Revelation speaks of seven churches and an angel of each church, which represent the spirit of the church. There are angels surrounding the throne of God. The book of Revelation is filled with apocalyptic imagery involving angels, which may fall under the more symbolic category, as John is watching a great spiritual drama unfold.
People in the Bible were not always sure that what they were dealing with was an angel. Jacob wrestled with a man, and in the end it is unclear if this was really an angel or the Lord. Three men visit Abraham and turn out to be angels. There is a humorous incident in which Balaam’s donkey recognizes an angel while Balaam himself does not. And then in Hebrews we are told to extend hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, many have entertained angels unaware.
So here is the deal. I’m not completely sure what I believe about angels today, but then the whole point of angels is not to point to themselves anyway. The bigger issue is that God has ways of getting our attention. God has ways of accomplishing God’s purposes. There are spiritual forces at work in this world, and God is still in the business of speaking to us.
Angels are messengers from God. And maybe the question for us today is: are we open to hear what God has to say? Are we open to receiving God’s message? And are we open to those messengers God may send our way?
In the Bible, people are almost always surprised or caught off guard when angels show up, and I suspect it is that way for us – when God speaks to us, we are not necessarily expecting it.
How does this work? Who are the angels, the messengers, that speak to us today? God’s message may come to us in all kinds of ways. Through help provided by a stranger, through something we read, through a song, maybe through a dream, through a friend who speaks truth to us, maybe with a sudden realization that hits us like a ton of bricks of what it is God has been trying to say to us.
The great preacher Fred Craddock told a story that happened when he was a young preacher in a small town in Tennessee. There was a little girl who attended church faithfully. Her parents sent her to church but never came with her. They would pull in the church’s circle drive, drop her off, and go out for Sunday breakfast. The father was an executive for a big chemical company, very ambitious, upwardly mobile.
The whole town knew about their Saturday night parties, given not so much for entertainment or out of friendship, but as a part of his career advancement program. The whole town knew about the wild things that went on at those parties. But every Sunday morning, there was the little girl.
One Sunday Craddock looked out at his congregation and there she was. He thought, “There she is with a couple of adult friends.” Later, he realized that it was mom and dad sitting with her. When the invitation was given at the end of the service, mom and dad came down front to join the church.
After the service, Craddock, the young pastor, asked them what had prompted this. “Do you know about our parties?,” they asked. “Yeah, I’ve heard of your parties.”
“Well, we had one last night. It got a bit loud, kind of rough, lots of drinking. It woke up our daughter, who was asleep upstairs. She came down the stairs and was on about the third step. And she saw the eating and drinking and said, “Oh, can I have the blessing? “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Goodnight, everybody.” And she went back up the stairs.
Things quieted down quickly. People began to say, “It’s getting late, we really need to be going, thanks for a great evening,” and within two minutes the whole place was empty.
Mom and dad started to pick up the crumpled napkins and half-eaten sandwiches and spilled peanuts, and then they looked at each other. And he said what they both were thinking: “Where do we think we’re going?”
God had spoken to them. It wasn’t the angel Gabriel who delivered the message. It was their little girl.
You can say what you want, but it seems to me that they were touched by an angel. And if we pay attention, we may be too. Amen.