Monday, December 22, 2008

We Have Heard Angels Come from the High Realms of Glory

Matthew 1: 18-25

Advent 4

Why is it that you only really see images of angels at Christmas? Yes, it is true that some people believe in guardian angels, or use angel cards to help them focus their positive energy each morning, but for the most part, we see the images of angels really come out at Christmas. How many people have angels on their Christmas tree? How many have them at the top?

So, I got curious. I've never really thought about it, but angels are everywhere in scripture. I've always just taken them for granted. But think about it--what are the three guys that Abraham entertains in his tent? Angels. What are the two who go to Lot, and are set upon by the mob in Sodom? Angels. Who comes to try to kill Moses at one bizarre point in Exodus? Angels. Who does God make his bet with over Job? An angel. Who does Jacob wrestle with? Could be an angel, though scripture isn't clear.

Who is it that frees Paul and the other apostles from prison? An Angel. When the devil (who is himself an angel in some accounts, though probably not the ha-Satan from Job) comes to tempt Jesus, he tempts Jesus to call upon the powers of heaven to protect him, saying the angels will not let him dash his foot against a stone. Who are the guys in the tomb, telling Mary and everyone else who goes in what has happened? Angels.

They're everywhere in scripture, I just kind of read right past them. There are a lot of people who have studied them, however. The Catholic Church has a ranking of angels that is four levels high. When you hear the term "Heavenly Host", they are referring to the multitude of angels in heaven, almost like they are an army. Outside of the Protestant Canon, there are stories in the Bible that claim angelic help in the reclaiming of Israel from the Greeks.

If you are to believe scripture on this point, the evidence is clear that there's a whole other world behind out senses, one closer to God, we assume, and that there are these inhabitants of that world that can do things we can't, and their job, as far as it applies to us, is to bring messages to us from God. They are heavenly messengers. When Scripture peeks into that world, in Ezekiel, and Revelation, and Daniel, they are everywhere. They circle the throne of God, praising him constantly. The come to earth in great armies, called hosts, to save Israel from its enemies.

The role of Angels in the story of the birth of Jesus, though, is where we think of them the most.

When you think of the story of the birth of Jesus, whichever story you want to look at either from Luke and Matthew (John and Mark do not have birth stories), both versions have angels. In Luke, an angel appears to Zechariah, announcing to him that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child, and that their child would "make ready the paths of the Lord". Six months later, that same angel, Gabriel, goes to Mary and tells her that she is going to bear a son, and his name will be Jesus, and he will reign over the house of Jacob (in other words, Israel) forever. Also in Luke, an angel appears to the shepherds, telling them of the birth of the child in Bethlehem. Following that, a great choir of Angels appears, and they sing Glory to God, in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." Well, that's the NRSV Bible version. Anyone who has sung in choirs has probably sung at some point Handel's Messiah, and because of that, this particular line only sounds right when it's sung:

Glory to God!
Glory to God!
Glory to God in the highest!
and peace, on earth.

If you look at Matthew's version, and angel appears to Joseph in a dream and convinces him not to divorce Mary because she's pregnant. Instead, he is to take Mary as wife and raise the boy as if he is his own. After Jesus is born, an angel tells Joseph to run away to Egypt, to protect Jesus against Herod. An angel then tells Joseph when to go back, after Herod dies.

Angels are everywhere. The Bible dictionary I used for this sermon has an entry on angels that is 6 full pages long, plus parts of two others. They are mentioned in the Bible a lot.

They are everywhere doing the will of God. They are members of the world that God inhabits, and so we think of them as special beings, somehow a little better than us. In Hebrews, Jesus is said to have been made "a little lower than the angels" for a little while.

So, why am I doing this lecture on the proofs of angels on the fourth Sunday of Advent, three days before Christmas? In the great tradition of preaching professors everywhere, how am I going to answer the question of "So What?"

The four Sundays of Advent represent four Sundays of Preparation. We speak of John the Baptist as the announcer of the coming of Christ. We talked about how Jesus would change from divine being to human being. We talked about Mary's acceptance of the role God has given her, and who Jesus was coming for and through. Angels are God's messengers. When matters of great import are coming, it is angels who bring the word.

Do angels bring ordinary human beings messages today, messages that are perhaps not as important as "greetings favored one?" Do they come down and, as I read once in a Readers' Digest, save people from accidents? I don't know. There is a rather large body of evidence that would suggest that it is so. We sing of angels from the realms of glory, we sing of angels we can hear, even though they are on high, sweetly singing over the plains.

From what study I've done this week on angels, however one thing is clear. If one shows up and tells you that something is going to happen, you can sure trust that it is true, and you can also trust that it is a VERY BIG DEAL. Angels are the messengers of God. If one shows up, pay attention.

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