Angels Among Us
Have YOU ever seen an angel? Have you ever heard an angel? Spoken with an angel or been touched by an angel?
I know, we modern, intellectual early 21st century types have little use for angels. Sure, we put them on our Christmas trees and enjoy the once a year emphasis on angels that usually accompanies our traditional celebrations of Christmas. But, do we really believe in angels? Or, perhaps the real question is - do angels have any relevance in our post-modern society?
I confess - believe in angels! Not only that, but I think angels have relevance in contemporary Christianity and in contemporary society; not only that, while I've never seen a being wearing a white robe and flying with wings, I believe that I have seen angels, I have heard and spoken with angels and I have been touched by them - and, I believe you have too.
So allow me start with a couple popular misconceptions about angels: First, angels do not have to earn their wings. In fact angels very often do not have wings. Most of the important stories with angels in the bible do not include wingéd angels (including the Christmas story!) Rather angels can take a variety of forms – mostly they come to us looking like ordinary men and women. The best example is perhaps the story of the three visitors/messengers/angels whom Abraham welcomed into his tent in Genesis 18 and who brought the news of the impending birth of Isaac. So, very often angels do not look like what we expect them to look like.
Second, people do not become angels when they die. I am not sure how this popular view got started because there is nothing in the bible that even remotely suggests that people, or children will become angels after death. And the idea that God would actually take the life of a child or an adult because God needs more angels in heaven runs against everything we believe about God’s love and grace. Instead, the Gospel tells us that God and the angels weep with parents and those who mourn the death of a beloved child or adult and that that beloved one will live with God forever.
So then what is an angel? The bible contains lots of stories about angels: Jacob in a dream sees angels on a ladder or a ramp ascending and descending; Jacob wrestles with an angel in yet another dream; the angels refresh Elisha when his spirit was in torment. And of course there are lots of references to angels in the end times writings of books such as Daniel and the Book of Revelation. In them God's angels are pictured as a great army fighting and destroying the powers of evil. But the common thread that runs through most of these stories is that the angels are servants - they do the bidding of God - only. In fact the word itself - angel or, in Greek, angelos, literally means messenger. So an angel is a messenger of God. And what kind of messages do angels bear? They bring the message of life into the midst of death - or light in the midst of darkness - of hope in the midst of hopelessness.
Consider, the first several chapters of the Gospel of St. Luke. Mary, a teenage peasant girl, betrothed to marry an older man, Joseph. They live in what used to be the nation of Israel, but at this time is under domination by the mighty Roman Empire, who rules with an iron fist. This is a land filled with much despair and anger and fear. Into the midst of all of this, a young woman hears the words of an angel: Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Into the darkness of oppression and despair come words of salvation, words of hope, words of love and grace.
And in the very next chapter after we follow Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem to the cave where Mary must give birth because there is no room for them in the inn. We read about angels appearing in the midst of the darkness to a group of unlikely shepherds in order to sing the praise of God and to announce, to bring the message: Do not be afraid; for behold -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Into the midst of darkness and pain, of poverty and hopelessness the angels bring words of light and life and hope.
And then finally, at the conclusion of the Gospels, after Jesus, God's Son, had been arrested and crucified and buried. We read that early in the morning the women come to the tomb to anoint the body and there they did not find the body, but rather they encountered an angel, in the form of a young man in white garments who proclaims: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. In the midst of hopeless defeat, of weakness, of hopelessness, of despair, of anger the voice of the angel rings out loud and clear: Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
And we still hear this word spoken to us today, even in the 21st century, by the angels whom we encounter. No, we probably won't be seeing any white robes or wings and the chances are slim that we'll hear much harp music. But you can expect to hear the proclamation of the angels that even in the face of death, the celebration over death can now begin. You can expect them to be always popping up when things are at their worst, and when trusting in any solution seems beyond imagining. The angels have and will continue to bring the message of life and light, of hope and grace when teenage children get in trouble, or when sadistic rulers and governments are brutalizing people, or when people are lonely and forlorn, mourning and despairing, and when trusting that God could be nearby seems next to impossible.
I believe in angels, and I am also convinced that I have heard the fluttering of angel's wings and have faintly heard the music the angels sing when I have been in despair or when a friend reaches out to speak a word of comfort. And you, too, probably have read the handwriting of an angel when you most needed a letter of support and expected it the least. You may have even seen an angel's gown whisk around the corner of your hospital room when someone brought you flowers or when you were feeling a sense of abandonment. And those of us who gather here on this Saturday evening/Sunday morning: didn't it seem that we were escorted by an angel to stand before the altar of the Lord. I'm not sure who these angels are or really even what they look like, but I know that I have seen their footprints, smelled their breath, wiped off their kisses and heard their beautiful voices in song.
John Ylvisaker has written a beautiful song called Pass My Love Around -
I have no hands but your hands, do the loving deed;
I have no feet but your feet, feel the need.
You are my eyes to see their pain, you are my heartbeat,
do it in my name respond right from the start.
Pass my love around, you're my hands, my eyes,
I gave you ears to hear their cries.
Pass my love around you're an angel in disguise.
My love will make them come alive, my love will make them come alive.
Painting by the Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo - 1617-1682