Angels

angel unawaresWe have come once more to hear the story of Jesus’ birth. We have come to remember the turning point, when God came to rule his world, to make right what has gone wrong. We gather in darkness, listening for promise, the slightest whisper of hope.

The story begins with Mary’s Song, “God scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He puts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts those of low degree. He fills the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends away empty.” God is about to turn the world upside down.

The story continues with humble mothers and fathers turned away by the inn keepers of the world, poor shepherds jerked about by the economic policies of emperors, intellectual wise men beguiled by the promises of politicians, children of common people slaughtered by the secret police of paranoid kings.

We know this story too well, expendable nonpersons being used and cast aside, violent rule and economic tragedy. That world remains, asserting itself more than ever in our time.

The story ends with a baby laid in a manger. Perhaps there was a time when images of babies and children were enough to give promise and hope. Our images include crack babies, rejected babies, aborted babies. Our images include children starving, a child blown away, children carrying gigantic automatic assault weapons, children jerked about by the schedules adults create for them, children drunk and drugged.

We gather in darkness to hear the story again, listening for promise, the slightest whisper of hope. We come to hear the song of angels. The story is filled with angels. Angels announce the birth to the humble Mary. Angels counsel marriage for the embarrassed Joseph. Angels send shepherds to Bethlehem. Angels advise wise men to avoid Herod. Angels warn Joseph to flee for Egypt.

Not many of us modern people know what to do with angels. We wonder if they are simply first century literary devices, like halos in ancient paintings.

I am a good example. I surround myself with pictures of Jesus and pictures of angels, medieval and renaissance paintings, Greek and Russian icons. I experience Jesus’ existence as much as I experience my wife’s, but I do not even believe a whit in the existence of angels. Yet, when I am overwhelmed by what I hear and see, which is many times a day, I look at my pictures of Jesus and my pictures of angels, and I receive promise and hope. I am no longer afraid.

The Bible is not so concerned with who or what angels are, but rather in what they say and do. Angels speak for God, act for God. Biblical angels are not dainty, fragile young girls who appear to shepherds in Christmas pageants, not sure if they are heavenly hosts or centerfolds. Biblical angels are majestic creatures, awesome and invincible. They represent God and get done what he wants done.

Biblical angels come to evil people with judgment. “Be afraid. Be very afraid,” they warn them. Angels come to humble people with promise and hope, “Do not be afraid, Mary. You are one of God’s favorites.” “Do not be afraid to marry, Joseph. The child is God’s work.” “Do not be afraid, shepherds. We bring good news to your kind of people.”

Angels give Mary the trust to follow God’s will, Joseph the security to thumb his nose at Jerusalem’s gossip, wise men the wisdom to laugh at Herod’s threats, shepherds the courage to say “Get off our backs” to Roman emperors.

We gather in darkness to hear this promise, this hope. Part of the continuing Christmas story frightens us. Our appetites contribute to the starvation of the babies. Our security puts guns in the hands of children. One side of us fights fiercely against God’s attempt to rule our world. It means radical change. That frightens us.

Our other side reaches out for this promise, runs to this hope. That side yearns to help God’s rule, to make right what has gone wrong, to take risks for others. It means abandoning certain privileged positions though, and that frightens us as well.

I finished this sermon this morning, sitting in the silent beauty of the nave. As I meditated, in great fear that I would fail once again, the door opened. A member entered, knelt for prayer, finished, and reverently left. I sat in silence. The door opened again. Twelve children from child care entered singing “Silent Night.” They placed a figure of Jesus in the manger, figures of a kneeling Mary and a kneeling Joseph before the child. The air was filled with “Let’s sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Jesus,” “Can I hold Jesus?” “Let’s say a prayer.” “Can we sing, ‘Away in the Manger’ as we go back?” As they left, one turned, looked directly at me, and called out, “ Merry Christmas, Pastor.” The door closed. I was back in silence. I had been visited by angels.

Jesus came to turn the world upside down. Some of our voices call out, “Let’s do it.” Others ask, “Can we? But can we?” Another voice from outside ourselves answers, “Yes, you can. Do not be afraid.”

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