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"Behold, an Angel of the Lord appeared..."

A Sermon based upon Matthew 2;1-15

Last week I admitted to having never preached a sermon on “angels” in all 35 years of my ministry. Frankly, I was surprised to discover such a glaring omission, since I take the Bible so seriously and there is no question that angels appear very frequently in the stories from the Book of Genesis (in the beginning) all the way through to the Book of the Revelation (at the very end).

In today’s text, for example, after the wisemen had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod – so they departed to their own country by another way – we are told: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And [so] [Joseph] rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”

We didn’t read any further this morning, but if we had done so, we would have heard the following: “When Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ And [so], [Joseph] rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.” (Matthew 2:19-21)

It is thanks to this “insider information” from an angel in a dream that Jesus escaped the slaughter of innocents in Bethlehem.

It is also due to that return visit by the angel to Joseph in another dream that the Holy Family left their “refugee asylum” in Egypt and moved to Nazareth, in northern Israel (in the Galilee), where Jesus grew up.

These “visits” from anonymous angels in Matthew’s Gospel highlight the basic Jewish understanding of who angels are and what they do. They are not “named” messengers, such as the angel “Gabriel” who appears twice in Luke’s Gospel – once to the old priest Zechariah and once to the young Virgin Mary. No, the angels in Matthew’s Gospel, like all angels who appear in the Hebrew Old Testament, are simply designated “an angel of the Lord.” (No names.)

Herbert Lockyer’s book “All the Angels in the Bible” traces the unfolding biblical drama of angels from the time Adam & Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden -- and “cherubim” were placed at the entrance with a flaming sword “to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24) -- to the final chapter of the Book of the Revelation where the way to the tree of life has been re-opened (Hallelujah!).

The final words in our Bible from the lips of the Cosmic Christ -- the One who calls himself “The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13) -- speak of an angel. (Did you know that?) Verse 16 of Revelation Chapter 22: “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches: I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright and morning star!”

So… between those opening stories in Genesis to the rip-roaring conclusion in Revelation, angels -- the cherubim, the seraphim, arch-angels Michael and Gabriel, and a whole slew of unnamed spiritual messengers and servants -- engage people and nations on God’s behalf in 34 of the 66 books of our Bible (half). They are everywhere!

In these 20 minutes of a sermon, I cannot tell all the stories in which angels appear, but I can highlight their primary function.

In Hebrew, the word “mal’akh” denotes an angel -- yes -- but it actually means “messenger”. It is the context alone that determines how the translator chooses to use the word. For example, when Caesar makes a decree to enroll all the world in a census, the royal announcer is a “mal’akh” – a herald “angelos” in Greek. In fact, the Hebrew word for “king” (“mel’ek”) is directly related to “mal’akh”, his royal messenger, whose words are to be treated as authoritative. In other words, the mel’ek dispatches a mal’akh to get things done! That’s how “angels” work, too -- as official envoys, ambassadors, empowered representatives -- agents of the Lord God.

According to Herbert Lockyer, angels are “employed in number-less ways as the messengers of God to needy [humans]. The faithful angels are pure spirits and assume corporeal forms only on particular occasions.”[1] Altogether there are 305 times the word “angel” appears in Scripture, but only two of these celestial messengers are ever named.

In Daniel (Chapters 8:16 & 9:21) and in Luke’s Gospel (Chapter 1:19 & 26), we meet the angel “Gabriel” -- whose name means “the strength of God”. Also in Daniel (Chapters 10:13, 21 & 12:1) and in the letter from Jude (verse 9) and in the Book of the Revelation, we meet the archangel “Michael” -- whose name means “like unto God” (who was played in the movie of that name by John Travolta. Of course, as you might expect, Hollywood’s Michael was a chain-smoking womanizer!)

By contrast, Daniel referred to as “one of the chief princes” of the Persian kingdom, who “supported” him and “protected the people” during their Exile captivity in Babylon. Michael is the angel who fights against the dragon when there is war in heaven (in Revelation 12:7). All other angels are anonymous – unnamed servants of the Lord God.

As for the seraphim & cherubim – “seraph” signifies “fiery” or “burning”, like the one in Isaiah 6:6-7: who plucks a live coal from off of the altar and touches the prophet’s lips with it, to purge him of sin. Only Isaiah ever mentions the six-winged seraphim (Isa. 6:2 & 6:6).

“Cherubim” on the other hand are mentioned 73 times in the Bible! They have only four wings, not six; and they were first depicted in two statues made from hammered gold on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. One cherub on one end, and the second on the other end, facing each other, with their heads bowed down, looking at the cover of the Ark; with their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover of the box, in which the Torah Tablets were stored and carried.[2]

When the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the Tabernacle, these two cherubim served as the “mercy seat” for God, who (in Psalm 80:1) is said to “sit enthroned between the cherubim.” It is from this seat where the Lord God promised to commune with Moses (Exodus 25:23). When Solomon built a magnificent Temple dedicated to God in Jerusalem, the pair of angel cherubs from the box-top now became four, and they were of colossal size, made of solid gold![3]

The Hebrew word “cherub” means to plow, or to till the ground, and it is expressive of hard work and diligent service. The “cherubim” were sent by the Lord God to do specific tasks, not necessarily to bring messages like other angels did. Cherubim blocked the way to the Garden of Eden, for example. Ezekiel saw cherubim in ceaseless motion.[4]

In the Book of the Revelation, cherubim are referred to as “living creatures” in heaven, and (like in Ezekiel) each one had four faces: a lion, an ox, and eagle, and a human.[5]

To sum it up: messenger angels (like Gabriel & Michael) -- as well as Isaiah’s “seraphim” and Moses’ “cherubim” -- play active roles in numerous Bible stories as well as appear in several Psalms. For example, the devil suggests to Jesus[6] that if he were to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple:

“It is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ That’s a direct quote from Psalm 91 (verses 11-12).

The “cherubim” would be the “worker-bee” angels God would use to do physical intervention tasks such as that. A cherub was sent to block the path where Balaam was riding his donkey in Numbers 22. God did this to get Balaam’s attention, but it was Balaam’s donkey who actually saw the angel roadblock and delivered the message.[7]

So, whether the story derives from the Greek “angelos” or the Hebrew “mal’akh”, when angels speak a message from God, or carry out a specific mission assigned by God, they do so as God’s “agent” – God’s envoys, basically God’s “errand boys”. Whether that errand is to warn Joseph about King Herod’s plans (as in today’s text), or to bring a message in another particular situation, or to carry out a task assigned by God at a particular time… all angels in the Bible are “ministering spirits” sent to serve God’s people at God’s behest.[8]

Angels obey God’s command. They influence people’s hearts and minds, and (in many people’s experience) seem to have a hand in events surrounding us. Last Sunday (for example) I told Jerry Jenkins’ story about the strong arm that saved him as a child from falling into an excavation hole in his church’s parking lot. Jerry Jenkins believes in “guardian” angels, not just messenger angels.

In the Bible, angels know all kinds of “secret details” about God’s activity and God’s plans for the world. That’s why angels can advise Joseph in his dreams, first, to marry Mary and to accept the child Jesus as his own; and then to get out of town before trouble comes!

There is one more story of a New Testament angel that deserves to be told before I conclude: In Acts Chapter 12, after King Herod killed the Apostle James (the brother of John), Peter was arrested

and put into prison. As he was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison… Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying: “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands.

And the angel said to Peter: “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And the angel said to him: “Wrap your mantle around you and follow me.” And Peter went out and followed him. He did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.

When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened to them of its own accord, and they went out and passed on through one street; and immediately the angel left him.

And Peter came to himself, and said: “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod…” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John (whose other name was Mark), where many were gathered together and were praying. And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a maid named Rhoda came to answer.

Recognizing Peter’s voice, in her joy she did not open the gate, but ran in and told that Peter was standing at the gate! They said to her: “You are mad.” But she insisted that it was so. They said: “It is his angel!”

But Peter continued knocking; and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said: “Tell this to James and to the brethren.” Then he departed and went to another place.[9] (unquote)

Did you notice how the angel got Peter out of prison – first, waking him with a slap, and then telling him how to get dressed…

This is the kind of “angel” intervention that people pray for! I mean, if it could happen to St. Peter, maybe it could happen for us. (!)

Did you also notice that when Peter went to John-Mark’s home, where believers were gathered in prayer, some of them concluded that what Rhoda engaged at the door was not Peter, but his “angel”. His angel. That story brings us up-close and personal to the notion of a “guardian angel”, like Jerry B. Jenkins (and many others) believe in.

There is a Greek proverb which states: “There stands an angel by every man as soon as he is born to guide him through the mysteries of life.” It’s a comforting thought, even though it is not from the Bible… and these faithful people praying for Peter’s release in Jerusalem must have held a notion much like that popular saying. To say that it was not Peter, but his “angel”, standing at the door leads us to infer that God assigns a spiritual helper to each of us, like the angel Clarence was for Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

Jesus, too, hints at the same thing when he says (in Matthew 18:10) that we should not look down on children, “for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.” I believe there are many angels who look over children’s lives, as well as whatever else God assigns to them.

The letter to the Hebrews (12:22) says that there are thousands upon thousands of angels. The Book of the Revelation (5:11) sets the number at 10,000 times 10,000. Multiple trillions!

So, I don’t think we need to worry whether or not “our beat is covered” by one of them. I think we can safely assume that there are enough angels to go around, even if there isn’t one with an assigned seat on our shoulder.

I would like to conclude by saying that we can call on angels and ask them to protect us and our loved ones in each and every circumstance. But, frankly (from what I read in Scripture), angels don’t listen to us! They listen to God. Angels do God’s bidding, not ours.

So, it’s enough for me to trust them to “do their part” in God’s ongoing work, just as we trust gravity to do its thing -- and electricity and magnetism, and all those other invisible but very real & powerful forces of nature -- in God’s creation, even if we don’t fully understand how it all works. I’m just glad it does! And God is the author of it all.

Angels will always remain a bit mysterious to us because we don’t see them, and we don’t control them. For some, “believing in” angels may seem like believing in fairies or the boogey-man or Santa. But since both the Old Testament and the New take it for granted that angels exist, and Jesus himself refers to them as real, we may do well to believe it, too.

In the coming New Year, may we feel free to sing with the angels the glorious good news that Jesus Christ is born! And even more importantly: he lives in us, his followers! Amen.

[1] Lockyer, Herbert, Jr., “All the Angels of the Bible”, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 1995, pages 28-29

[2] Exodus 25:18-20

[3] First Kings 6:23-29

[4] Ezekiel 1:10 & 10:12

[5] Revelation 4:7

[6] Matthew 4:6

[7] Numbers 22:22-35

[8] Hebrews 1:14

[9] Acts 12:1-17

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