Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

A heavenly host around us

Message preached December 21, 2014
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 1:26-38 (etc.)

Order of Worship

In the moment, I laid aside the sermon below and preached another message - call it "Interrupted by Angels"

             There is a continuing fascination with angels in pop culture. At the end of the last century, these heavenly beings were more often portrayed as kind and benevolent. Remember “Touched by an Angel,” or “Angels in the Outfield.” Movies, television shows, and books in this new millennium have tended to give them darker, sometimes more sinister side. Either way, this points to a real hunger in our society for that which is beyond what we can see, feel, and touch. Angels point to a deeper, higher, broader reality.

             I remember, as a kid, lying in bed wondering if anyone was watching over me. Like, was Grandpa able to see me, now that he was dead and gone to heaven? Was there an angel always around? I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. There were things in my life I didn’t want anyone to see. As I grew older and more sophisticated, such thoughts were pushed aside. Yes, I believed in God and Jesus, and prayed with the assurance that the Holy Spirit was always near, but the idea of angels seemed to be some of the “kid-stuff” to be left behind as I became an adult, along with the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, and even Santa Claus.

             If we ignore the heavenly host material in the Bible, however, we’re tossing out quite a bit. Let’s face it, angels are a significant part of scripture. Now, we’ve read these stories over and over, especially at this time of year. The angelic elements, though, may pass over the heads of some of us, by accident or design. I, for instance, have been a bit suspicious of the “Cecil B. Demille” school of Biblical interpretation, which overplays the grandiose and miraculous, often missing the subtle and hidden. Angels can be like a theatrical element which gives just the right spiritual touch to a mediocre performance.

             For all the talk of angels in contemporary culture, positive or negative, not all that passes for truth out there is. Part of this angel fad is a blatant act of commercialism, which trivializes the heavenly realm. If you, for instance, believe that angels are only cute little munchkins with wings, the reality portrayed in the Bible might shock you. On the other hand, other material verges on the demonic, leading in directions about which scripture says “warning: this can be hazardous to your spiritual health.”

             Still, there is truth to some of this talk of angels. Nineteenth century English churchman, John Henry Newman, once wrote, “There have been ages of the world in which men have thought too much of angels, and paid them excessive honor; honored them so perversely as to forget the supreme worship due Almighty God. This is the sin of a dark age. But the sin of what is called the educated age, such as our own, is just the reverse; to account slightly of them, or not at all; to ascribe all we see around us, not to their agency, but to certain assumed laws of nature.”

             “Why is it,” asks comedian Lily Tomlin, “that when we speak to God we are said to be praying, but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” Think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, or of those dumbfounded shepherds out in the field. Do we consider them as mentally unbalanced because they encountered angels? Or is this only “mythical” material with heavenly highlights to get us to buy the book?

             The nativity story, as we have received it in scripture, is chock full of angels, who represent and speak for God. They are God’s messengers. Think of Zechariah, the father-to-be of John the Baptist, who was visited by the angel Gabriel. When Zechariah couldn’t quite believe that his elderly, barren wife would finally give birth, the angel closed his mouth until the moment it came true. Nine months of silence on Zechariah’s part then burst open in praise.

             Think also of Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, who was hurt by the news of her pregnancy before their wedding. Because of what he perceived as her infidelity, he wondered how he might quietly end their relationship. In a dream, an angel appeared to him and opened the door to God’s possibilities. Was it an angel who warned the wise men, also in a dream, not to return home by way of King Herod? Scripture doesn’t say. It does say, however that an angel did come and warn Joseph to take his young family into hiding in Egypt when Herod sought to kill the child. Likewise, an angel communicated safety to Joseph once Herod was dead and it was all right to come home. According to Matthew’s gospel, which differs from Luke’s account, yet another dream (with or without an angel, it doesn’t say) led Joseph to Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem.

             In all, the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke contain six definite accounts of angel visitations, with a couple more we wonder about. Of course, we may have our doubts about all of this. And even if it did happen as the gospel-writers said, this sort of thing doesn’t take place today. Or does it? … Now, I can’t speak from personal experience in this area, but I’ve heard enough stories from people I trust that I can’t discount the possibilities. Furthermore, the Bible assumes this reality - and because of that we need to take it seriously. After all, is God limited by our expectations of how he will act in this world? If God chooses to speak or act through angels, who are we to say otherwise?

             The point is, there is so much more to reality than what appears on the surface. The hymn we sang earlier (“Let all mortal flesh keep silence”) opens the door to a broader universe of which most of us take little notice. For instance, do you believe that we are alone in this room? Or are we surrounded by a heavenly host? Do you suppose when we sing, there is a larger gathering out there which we join, a celestial chorus far more spectacular than any earthly choir? While I am cautious not to slide into the “Cecil B. Demille” school of interpretation, I believe more is at work among us than what is being spoken from the pulpit or pondered in our hearts just now. Whether angels are watching over us, or the Holy Spirit is blowing through us, or both, worship is much more than a personal affair. It involves more than just us.

             I like that verse from Matthew’s gospel (18:10) which speaks of the angels of “little ones” who continually see God’s face in heaven. God loves each and every child that much. “Because I believe in angels,” a friend once said, “I can send my kids off to school on the bus every day, knowing they face dangers and pressures, but still not have an anxiety attack.” The next few verses in Matthew 18 speak of the one lost sheep sought, at all costs, by the shepherd. When found, he rejoices over it more than over the 99 who did not go astray. “So,” Jesus concludes (according to Matthew), “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Luke records a slightly different spin, having Jesus say, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who need no repentance (15:7). The angels see God’s face, and on it is joy. Hallelujah!

             These scriptures are not just about children. They’re about us. The “little ones” of which Jesus speaks, are disciples. You and me. This whole chapter, yes, encourages us to take our relationships with one another very seriously. It says: don’t despise your brother or sister, or put stumbling blocks before them which cause them to fall. Seek to restore them when they do stumble. We are God’s earthly Messengers to each other. Still, there are other Messengers, angels, who take our efforts many steps further, both in caring for us, and in worshiping God.

             These heavenly agents of the Almighty work very subtly in our world. By the way, they are not our servants, available at our beck and call. They are servants of God. Jesus, you might remember, was tempted by the devil to call upon them by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple and having them rescue him in front of everyone, thus beginning a holy war (Mt. 4:5-7, Lk. 4:9-12). He, instead, chose God’s way. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane, he told his disciples to put away their swords when he was arrested, saying, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:53)

             In that same garden, Jesus came to his point of decision in relation to cross. “Not my will, but thine be done.” In many ways, this is the ultimate response to every angel visitation in the Bible. Mary came to her own “let it be with me according to your word,” even though Gabriel did not list everything that her “yes” to God would involve. He spoke only the good news. Another messenger, an earthly one in the form of Simeon, a priest in the Temple when Joseph and Mary later dedicated their newborn son, shared the bad news. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed‑‑ and a sword will pierce your own soul too.(Lk. 2:34‑35)

             Joseph, after his angel dream, placed his trust in God’s plan by continuing his wedding preparations and later accepting Jesus as his own son... Zechariah, of course, took more than nine months to get around to his own “let it be,” in relation to his son, John. But when he finally did, you could hardly shut him up... Those nameless shepherds let their feet do the talking, by going and being the first witnesses to this great event. It’s funny that God would choose such nobodies to invite to this birthday party. But, then, when you rent a garage instead of a big hall for such an affair, something different is happening. As I said, God works in subtle ways, something we need to remember when the “Cecil B. DeMille” in each of us begins to crank out our expectations for spiritual experiences.

             Of all the angelic visitation stories in the Bible, as well as the ones that still happen, they often go unseen by most everyone else. More often than not, our own awareness of the presence of God’s heavenly host around us is little more than the fluttering of wings. My prayer for you, this Sunday before Christmas, is that amid all that is happening this week, you will become more open to this fluttering. God’s messengers, both earthly and heavenly, surround us. They continue to bring “Good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day a Savior(Lk. 2:10-11). “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High ... He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end(Lk. 1:32-33). “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors(Lk. 2:14). May we, each in our own way, respond to the message of this heavenly around us with our own “let it be.”   

©2014 (revised from 1996) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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