Incredible Angels

       

 

One of the joys of sorting through my accumulated sermons during this recent Sabbatical was to discover what I have (and have not!) preached on in the past 35 years of ministry. With  35 Advent seasons of 4 weeks apiece behind me-- not to mention Christmas Eve services and subsequent Sundays during Christmas-tide -- I have logged some 140 sermons drawing upon the characters and events of the Nativity Story. Jesus's mother Mary and Papa Joseph  are explored from every angle; Aunt Elizabeth, the inn-keeper, even the donkey! I have also talked about Isaiah's prophecy, and about the Magi/wisemen, about the shepherds, and even nasty old King Herod.

 

     But I was astounded to discover that in 35 years I have never preached a sermon about "angles"!

 

     Such an omission might seem inexcusable, inasmuch as the Bible is full of stories about angelic messengers -- such as we heard about this morning, singing their Gloria in excelsis Deo's"  to the shepherds in the Bethlehem night sky. Each & every Sunday in Advent there has been one or another angel messenger  explaining what's going on. The Angel Gabriel first came to Elizabeth's husband (for example) -- to tell him that his wife was pregnant with John the Baptist.

 

       Six month later, Gabriel was back again… this time announcing Mary’s pregnancy -- with Jesus in utero! -- even though she was still a virgin. And then another angel visited Joseph in a dream, urging him to accept Mary’s pregnancy as a gift from God. In three weeks of Advent we’ve had three stories about angels. (!) Now, on this fourth Advent Sunday, we get a whole choir of “heavenly hosts”. Angels!

 

        It’s incredible!

 

     What do we do with these other-worldly -- mostly invisible, but occasionally obviously & actively present -- celestial intermediaries?

 

      Tomorrow night (during the Candlelight service of lessons and carols) we will sing about “angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold…” and “the first noel the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.” We’ll sing “Hark! (!) The herald angels sing” and “shepherds quake at the sight: glories stream from heaven afar… heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!” Those four Christmas carols take for granted the existence of angels. Incredible!

 

     As I began to do some research into the topic of “angels”, I found out that I am not alone in neglecting them. Back in 1950 (before I was born!), Herbert Lockyer, who wrote the book “All the Angels in the Bible”, told how his English Bishop in Kent (Anglican Bishop Hall) said:

               “The good Lord forgive me for that I have suffered much to forget …

                 the presence of God’s Holy Angels! It is, I confess, my greatest sin                     that I have filled mine eyes with other objects -- and have been slack in

                  returning praises to God, for the continual assistance of those blessed

                  and beneficent spirits. (!) Oh, that the dust and clay were washed out

                  of mine eyes, that I might behold… the presence, the numbers, the                        beauties and excellencies of those, my ever-present guardians.”[1]

 

         Seeing that the Scriptures speak in no uncertain terms about angels, my habitual disregard of them as “incredible” (unbelievable) -- unnecessary sideline “prompters” in the Gospel -- has short-changed you (in Alpena) as well as in all of my former five congregations (Zurich, Dowagiac, Long Beach, Torrance, and Los Altos).

 

           I think that part of my reluctance to preach about “angels” in Scripture is due to the many popular assumptions about angels in American culture.

 

          For example, the 1994 TV series “Angels: Messengers of God” took a broad look at both the historical perspective and the psycho social significance of angel “ideology” through the art and literature not only of Christianity, but of Islam and Judaism… as well as the mythologies, legends, and folk lore of Native American, Asian, and African cultures… along with early representatives of angels in Persia (Babylon), Egypt, and Greece. All of those ancient civilizations influenced how Bible writers told their stories, & how we understand them.

 

     According to the scholars who study “angel” phenomenon, it is truly a universal experience. Current American interest ranges from “guardian” angels, to arch-angels, angels of war (in which battles are influenced by legions of invisible warrior angels) and angels of Death.

 

       There are whole hierarchies of angels presumed in some churches; angelic languages in Pentecostal churches; and various forms and functions of angels both in the Bible and in popular media. Frankly, I have (personally) avoided all those speculative areas… (It’s all so much hog-wash and hyper-media in my humble opinion.)

 

     Sophy Burnham’s 1990 bestseller “A Book of Angels”[2] made the expectation of intervening angels a “new norm” in America. Her subtitle indicates: :Reflections on angels past and present, and true stories of how they touch our lives” Sophy Burnham’s exploration of para-normal experiences combined Angels with Ghosts, Angelic Doctors, Angels Unawares, the so-called “Sons of God”, the mythic Battle of Heaven & the Princes of Hell… as well as what she calls “black” angels and “friendly” spirits. Quite a set of characters!

 

     Very few of her stories connect with the Bible! They are mostly popular American imaginings -- media angels, not the gospel.

 

     Do you remember Roma Downing’s TV series “Touched by an Angel”? (!) It preceded this year’s “God Friended Me” in which God uses social media texting to intervene in peoples’ lives. Before that (if you are as old as I am) there was Michael Landon’s “Highway to Heaven”. In each of those popular TV series, angels on earth helped God (against all odds) to get good things to happen. (Happy endings!)

       The fact that this “story-line” keeps being repeated in various forms, means that it’s a great Hollywood gimmick, popular with the masses. (!) In my opinion, the risk of hyping angelic “intervention” is that people will be led to replace their trust in God with faith in angels.

         I mean, who needs God if your have Clarence -- the guardian angel of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” -- or Roma Downing, or Michael Landon, at your side at all times?

 

             In 1993, Eileen Elias Freeman (who edits The “Angel Watch” Journal) wrote another national bestseller “Touched by Angels” in which she publishes “true cases of close encounters of the celestial kind” (her words, not mine). In her book, we meet “an angel on a train” in Ann Arbor, “an angel of healing” in Washington State, an angel in “stormy weather” in Roanoke, Virginia, and (chapter 7) from Phoenix, Arizona: “The angel who saved my marriage!”[3]

 

            With so much popular interest in angels, what needs to be made clear (I think) is that “angels” are not divine intercessors. (!) What I mean is: they are not “gods”. They are God’s “agents” at most; God’s “Messengers”. In the Bible, angels are given very limited abilities in order to complete specific assignments, and always at God’s direction.

 

            I like what Billy Graham put in his sub-title about Angels: he calls them “God’s Secret Agents.” That was back in 1954, when I was just one-year old. Billy Graham wrote:

                                 “When I decided to preach a sermon on angels, I found

                                 practically nothing in my library. … I soon discovered that

                                  little had been written on the subject in this century.”

 

         As a strong Calvinist, Billy Graham went to his source: Calvin! In Volume 1 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote that “Angels are the dispensers and administrators of the Divine Beneficence toward us. [Angels] regard our safety, undertake our defense our ways, and exercise a constant solicitude that no evil befall us."[I’m not a Calvinist by any means, but I like that!]

       Billy Graham went on to say: “[Angels] guide, comfort, and provide for the people of God in the midst of suffering and persecution. Martin Luther once said in ‘Table Talk’: “An angel is a spiritual creature without a body created by God for the service of Christendom and the Church.”[4]

 

     Clearly the idea of “angels” has been of great comfort and inspiration to Christian believers (like Billy Graham, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, and maybe you, too)… and to non-Christians alike.

 

      Billy Graham also pointed out in his book’s Introduction that “Angels have a much more important place in the Bible than the Devil and his demons.” To which I say, “Amen, Billy! Angels do have a far greater influence on people in the stories in our Bible (Old Testament and New) than does Satan, the so-called Devil.” So Billy asks: “Why does the Devil get so much more attention from writers than angels [do]? Some people seem to put the Devil on a par with God! Actually (writes Billy Graham), Satan is a fallen angel.”[5]

 

     Now, I don’t want to get into a debate with the late, great Rev. Graham, but his assertion that Satan is also an angel complicates the discussion of angels as portrayed in the Christian Gospels. I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t go there in this sermon about angels.

     One last story from a popular writer -- if I may be permitted… -- which captures (in part) some of America’s fascination with angels. This is from Jerry B. Jenkins -- the co-author of the wildly popular “Left Behind” series of books -- in a story that was published by Guideposts in 1995: “All Night, All Day: Angels Watching Over Me.” The book’s editor writes:

                                Jerry Jenkins is one of those people who was brought up

                        being told that he had a “guardian angel”. But since he’d never

                        seen one, or knew anybody who had, he could only accept it by

                         faith. He’s still never seen one, so far as he knows, but over the

                         years he’s become a firm believer in their existence. It started…

                        with an incident that occurred during the morning years of his life. It

                        scared and bewildered him at the time, so much so that for a long

                        while he could not bring himself to tell anybody about it. He didn’t

                         want to be thought of as “kooky”.[6]

 

                        Here’s how he tells it: As a child, one of the highlights of my week

                        was playing tag in the parking lot after church on Sunday nights.

                         We kids would burst from the sanctuary of the Oakwood Bible

                        Church in Kalamazoo… and race among the cars in the parking lot.

                         … My brothers and I waited for the last verses of the last hymn so

                         we could run to the dark parking lot filled with Chevys and Fords

                         for our wild game of tag.

                              In 1960, when I was ten, I was the youngest and smallest of the

                          Sunday night regular tag players – boys and girls, ages 10 to 14.

                           … I had a knack for being the first down the back steps, through

                          the foyer; the first to step foot onto the sidewalk. And once I was

                          outside, I ran. The game had begun.

                              One particular fall night, I had maneuvered myself a seat at the

                           end of the pew, closest to the door. At the crack of dismissal, I

                           leapt out the aisle, down the stairs, and out into the pitch-dark

                           night. Yes! I made it. No one was even close behind me.

                              By habit I took a hard left, along a sidewalk close to the

                           building, and sprinted with all my might toward the parking

                           lot.

                               Just past the edge of the building, where the sidewalk ended –

                           wham! An arm as firm as oak caught me in the stomach. My

                           hands & feet flew out ahead of me, but the arm held me upright

                           until I could stand again. Dazed, with my breath slowly coming

                           back, I looked down at a sight I could hardly believe: I was

                           standing, teetering, at the edge of a huge, deep crater!

                                I staggered back. Then I remembered. The parking lot had

                          been excavated that week. I myself had watched the bulldozer                                dig the foundation for a new sanctuary. I’d played “sidewalk

                           supervisor” as Dad and others had slid a truckload of cinder

                           blocks down a wooden ramp and made piles of them in that                                     hole.                   

                                …For a long time I just stood, thinking about what might have

                            happened. I would have fallen in, would have hit those cinder                                  blocks, been knocked out cold. The night was so dark, no one

                           would have found me until morning. By then it would have  been

                           too late. … I pictured the headlines: Jenkins Boy Found   

                          Dead.

                             But the arm that saved my life? Whose arm was it? … The truth

                          was I’d been saved by something I couldn’t see. By someone I

                           couldn’t see. I couldn’t explain the mystery and it scared me. … I

                           did tell my mother, at least part of the story. “After church I almost

                           fell in the hole,” I said. But I couldn’t tell her about being caught

                           up short by an invisible arm – that was too spooky to admit.

                          Only as the years went by did I begin to connect that arm at my                              waist with the guardian angel I had always wondered about.[7]

 

          The stories about “angel-encounters” (such as his) are many. They are moving; they are memorable. I call them “incredible” with all the ambiguity such a word entails. Incredible because they are “not credible”, not believable; & incredible because they are astonishing!

 

        In a skeptical age such as ours, it is very easy to express disbelief in things that are “out of the ordinary”. When things are entirely unexpected, totally surprising, we are amazed, perhaps even frightened. (!) When something is implausible -- let alone when it is invisible! -- it’s hard to find words to express what’s happening.

 

        I get that! And so when Zechariah expressed doubt to the angel Gabriel that his aging-wife would become pregnant, and Mary (too) wondered at the angel’s message regarding her own pregnancy, I can understand their incredulity. I can understand their fear & anxiety.

 

      And when, in the middle of the night, a messenger from God awakens the shepherds to announce the birth of the baby Messiah in Bethlehem… that the first words would be “Fear not!” I can imagine it would be frightening to be startled awake by invisible voices, regardless of the message they came to deliver. Spooky stuff!

 

     The subsequent host of heavenly angels singing a “Hallelujah” chorus -- which (I suspect) was intended to augment and to affirm the initial announcement strains credulity all the more. (!) Skeptics and disbelievers who dismiss accounts of “angels” would simply double-down their denials. Like “science fiction” or “fantasy”, it’s too incredible to be acceptable in their “common-sense” world-view.

 

        Those incredible angels! My-oh-my! So… what do you do with them? (!) Do these stories about angels help to convince and inspire your faith? Or do they get in the way?

 

     Well… my 20 minutes are up. We’ll just have to come back to this topic next Sunday. Imagine that: after 35 years of not preaching any sermon about angels ever, can you believe that I’ll be doing two in a row? Now, that’s incredible!

                                                                                                         Amen

 

.[1] Lockyer, Herbert, “All the Angels in the Bible”, Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, MA, © 1995, Introduction, page xiii

[2] Burnham, Sophy, “A Book of Angels”, Ballantine Books, NY, 1990

[3] Freeman, Eileen Elias, “Touched By Angels”, Warner Books, NY, 1993

[4] Graham, Billy, “Angels: God’s Secret Agents”, Guideposts Associates, Carmel: NY, 1975, page x

[5] Ibid., ix

.[6] “All Night, All Day: Angels Watching Over Me”, an original Guideposts book, edited by Evelyn Bence, Carmel, NY, 1995, page 23

[7] Ibid, pages 25-28

 

 

 

 

 

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