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!
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.”
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” 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!”
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