December 27, 2009
Portraits of Christmas: Angels
Several weeks ago, when we began our Christmas series and Geoff Isley hung the advent banners for the first time in the front of the sanctuary, we could clearly see from these outstanding paintings the presence of angels in every one of these Christmas portraits.
The first Sunday of Advent we focused on the portraits of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the second Sunday, Joseph, followed by the Shepherds. Next week Karen will conclude the Advent Series with the Magi. Today we notice that angels are an integral part of each of these stories.
Angels and Christmas just seem to go together. Our Christmas music often makes reference to angels with favorites such as: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “The First Noel.”
How many of you have an angel at the top of your Christmas tree? Several weeks ago my husband and I were dinner guests and as we drove up to a home, in the darkness, there was a beautifully lit, nearly four foot high angel on their front lawn. It was impressive.
Have you watched the Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” this season? Maybe Clarence isn’t your idea of an angel, but this Christmas movie has certainly become a classic favorite. Or maybe you dug out the award winning children’s book, “The Littlest Angel,” made popular more than 50 years ago?
This fascination with angels doesn’t just surface at Christmastime. Over recent years the interest in angels has escalated. At Barnes and Noble bookstore last week I could have bought these angel books: Angels 101, Angel’s Guide, Angel Therapy, Angel Miracles, Simply Angels and Angel Medicine. People today are curious and hopeful that angels will help them. Everybody needs help, and maybe this is it.
“Highway to Heaven” with Michael Landon and the eight year running TV show, “Touched By an Angel” with Della Reese and Roma Downey, boasted huge audiences as people watched stories of those that claimed they were touched by an angel.
Did you notice the article in Parade Magazine this past Sunday on angels? I had this sermon all prepared to give on the very same day so, it was reassuring to see the writer Anne Rice come to the same conclusion about the current interest in angels. She is right. Angels are not a modern day invention. They come right out of the pages of the Bible.
There are more than 200 references to angels in the Bible. The word for angel in both Hebrew and Greek means “messenger.” Angels appear in Scripture as messengers of God, spiritual beings that do God’s will and often deliver messages from God. Throughout the Old Testament, we see angels doing just that.
Long before Advent, God told Job that angels were present at the creation of the earth and shouted for joy.
Genesis records that in the Garden of Eden, angels were there after our first parents, Adam and Eve, sinned and were driven from the garden. Angels were stationed at the entrance of the garden to guard the Tree of Life.
In Genesis 18, three angel messengers appeared to Abraham telling him that not only would he and Sarah have a son, but he would become the father of a great nation. Abraham was thrilled when angels suddenly showed up to rescue Isaac from the altar and provide an animal sacrifice instead.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a bush that didn’t burn when he was called to lead the children of Israel from Egypt into the promise land. God promises Moses angel protection in Exodus 23, “Now get yourselves ready. I’m sending my angel ahead of you to guard you in your travels.”
The prophet Daniel testifies to the presence of an angel in the lion’s den. “My God sent his angel, who closed the mouths of the lions so that they would not hurt me.”
All along the way, angels have been observing and assisting with the unfolding of God’s plan for mankind. So it is not hard to imagine that one very special day, angels were summoned before the throne of the Father God to hear the greatest and most joyous news. God announces the time is right for the Messiah to invade earth.
Just as there was great joy with the angels on the day of creation, it’s not hard to imagine the great joy with the angels in heaven when the announcement was made that God’s plan of salvation is finally about to take place after centuries of gloom, frustration and silence.
Might the conversation in heaven have gone something like this? “Gabriel, I want you to begin making the announcement to some special individuals I have selected. You are the angel messenger to them. We must tell Zechariah first. It will be his son, John, who will be the one to prepare the way for my son, Jesus. It will be fulfilled just as the prophet Isaiah described centuries before.
“And then Gabriel, go next to visit Mary. Be gentle with Mary. She is so young and could be quite fragile. As for Joseph, her husband to be, well, he is going to be an important person in this whole story; he must be convinced he is the right choice. He is from the line of David. You are going to have to give him clear directions all along the way so that all goes just as we have planned.”
From the story in Luke, we know that Gabriel carries out his angel assignment well. Zechariah receives his visit in the temple while carrying out his priestly duties. Regarding Zechariah’s reaction to an angel visit, he is stunned, paralyzed in fear. Often the Bible portrays people as afraid when angels appear.
“Don’t be afraid, Zechariah and Elizabeth, this baby is going to be a joy and delight.” How overjoyed Gabriel must have been to deliver good news to this elderly couple that the wait is soon over. The Messiah is about to come.
Scarcely six months later, Gabriel goes on to his next assignment, not to the temple, but to a home in the village of Nazareth. This time the message is not to a man but a very young woman, a teenager whose name is Mary.
Gabriel speaks admiringly. “Greetings, you are highly favored” and the reaction of fright is the same. She is greatly troubled Peterson’s translation, in The Message, describes her as “thoroughly shaken”. But the angel assures her, “Mary you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you.” The angel gently explains how all this will happen and after telling her that “nothing is impossible with God,” the angel departs. Gabriel has now delivered his second message.
The third angelic appearance takes place with Joseph, the man chosen to become the earthly father of Jesus. While in the Bible, the angel’s name is not revealed, we might have a hunch it is also Gabriel. Joseph receives careful instructions. This is a most extraordinary message.
“Don’t hesitate to get married, Joseph. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived.” The angel must be sure Joseph will know what to do. He doesn’t want anything to go wrong. At that moment, the redemption of the whole world hangs on their understanding and cooperation. It’s not hard to imagine that Gabriel returns to heaven ecstatic with joy. The plan he delivered is right on time. The mother to be feels honored to be chosen. The key figures in the drama of heaven have agreed. Now it is a matter of waiting again, but only for nine months.
It is easy to understand that on a hillside outside Bethlehem, the angel says to the shepherds, “I bring you news of great joy.” And sure enough, just as before when angels show up, the recipients are terrified. Angels seem to have a way of doing that to people!
And then suddenly a heavenly host of angels can no longer keep silent either. While one angel has delivered the announcement, hundreds if not thousands of them arrive from the four corners of the earth to share the obvious joy of the announcement they have anticipated for so long! They break out into a chorus of praise to God. “Glory to God in the heavenly heights. Peace to all men and women on earth who please Him.” A gift has been given from God the Father to the world.
What brings the angels such joy? Why do they have trouble containing their joy? Why should we be joyful? First, the waiting is over. The promise made has finally been fulfilled.
Have you waited and waited for something that you desired for a long time? So long that you became more and more impatient waiting for an answer, wondering if it would ever happen? Perhaps in a small way you can identify with the waiting.
Here at the Grantham Church we have been in waiting mode. For the past six months we have been waiting for the arrival of a senior pastor. For some of you, it has seemed like a long time. Can you imagine if the church had to wait six years, or 60 years, or 600 hundred years? Suppose you had to say to your children or your grandchildren, “I know Grantham Church will get a new pastor, but it likely will not happen in my lifetime. It might not even happen in your lifetime.” You might even secretly doubt that it will ever happen.
So for the angels, when the waiting is over, there is great relief. No wonder they shout for joy. It is also reason for us to be joyful. We are not still waiting for the promised Messiah.
Second, these angels saw first hand what sin has done to the human race, how it had destroyed joy. Angels witnessed that first breakdown in the Garden of Eden. The perfect relationship between God and men, and between men and women was broken.
As the years passed, they also witnessed despair increase as well as the longing and anticipation of Noah and Abraham, of Moses, and the prophets ? those who hoped to see the fulfillment of the promise. It all seemed so bleak.
Now everything is about to change. God is giving heaven’s best. He is giving the world a valuable, priceless gift, His one and only Son. God is coming to the rescue. He is giving His best.
Over the past few days we have surely experienced Christmas as a time of giving. We work hard to select the perfect gift for that special someone. God did that for us. He has given to us. As the Scripture says, if we, as imperfect human parents and loved ones know how to give good gifts to those we care deeply about, just imagine how much more God has desired to give a good gift, the gift of His Son and His Holy Spirit to us.
Paul in his writings calls it an indescribable gift of His Son. It is the perfect gift, exactly what God has picked out and one we are all desperately in need of, a Savior who can restore us.
Third, the angels are joyful because this savior, the Messiah, who has come, is for all people. The Savior is not just for the Jewish people to whom He came first. This message is for everyone world-wide, no exceptions, us included.
Isaiah said it this way: “The Messiah will be good news for the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, for all who mourn, those in need of beauty instead of ashes, one who would turn mourning into gladness and despair into praise.”
Angels had reason to celebrate on that day and so do we. The waiting is over. The Savior of the world is not for just a few. He is for all people of all time. No exceptions.
If this is such a wonderful message of joy, that first invaded our planet nearly 2000 years ago, how can it be that today joy seems so elusive in our homes, in our communities, in our world?
Like Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, one might ask, “What is there to be joyful about? The economy is bad, my job is in jeopardy, my kids are ungrateful, and my health isn’t all that great either.” Joy somehow seems to be linked to what we have or don’t have. So then we go on a quest, using all sorts of measures and making all sorts of attempts to find joy or happiness.
Think for a moment about our entertainment industry. We buy the creativity of others to entertain us and hopefully bring a little joy into our living rooms. Unfortunately the end result is so short-lived. The effects may last a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days at the most. Then, try as we might, joy trickles away. Then especially in the midst of difficult circumstances of life, we come to the realization that we cannot make ourselves joyful. Inner joy and peace cannot be purchased or commanded.
I recall on the morning of one our church members’ most recent brain surgery, as we were waiting for the doctor to arrive, I was reading one of his favorite scriptures. He so calmly affirmed his faith and his joy in Christ as he talked about Jesus in the midst of a lot of unknowns. There was joy in the Lord’s goodness and peace in the midst of obstacles.
Joyful people aren’t those without problems or difficulties. In fact have you noticed that sometimes the most joyful people have even more problems? They’ve somehow learned some secret or have pulled out some reserve. How does that happen?
While the presence and comfort of angels may be reassuring to many people, God has given us even better news of great joy and he invites us to be His messengers to a world that desperately needs to know how to face life and its dilemmas.
Paul wraps up the secret to joy in a nutshell in 2 Corinthians. The Message translation states that “God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives, God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.”
Did you catch that? God has first given us forgiveness of sins, and then he has commissioned us to be his messengers, his representatives of reconciliation; to point the way to reconciliation with God and with each other. God invites us, not just angels, to become his messengers in a world of people that desperately need to know how to face life and its difficulties. He invites us to share our joy with others.
Isaiah had it right. Great joy will come when we respond to the needs of the poor, comfort the brokenhearted, visit the prisoner, and support those who mourn. Unselfish living and serving others will bring gladness and joy in the midst of horrific conditions.
Two weeks ago, as I spoke about peace in the world, I made reference to the city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and the story carried by the Associated Press, referencing this as the most violent city in the world (outside of war zone), overrun with drug gangs and fighting, that has resulted in 2500 deaths so far this year. Did you see this city was mentioned again in the news this past week with four police officers killed last Friday?
On the Monday after the service, I got a phone call from a man named Brian. He visited our church the previous Sunday with his son, a student at Messiah College. He called to talk more about Ciudad Juarez. He said, “As you were speaking, not five minutes before you mentioned it, I was thinking about what I do every year to contribute to peace. I have gone on two mission trips and I plan to go back again this coming summer.”
And then he said, “I couldn’t believe it. When you mentioned Ciudad Juarez that is the very city I go to. I go there with my church.” His phone call to me was wonderful affirmation that God has his messengers, could I say, his angels like Brian, at work even in the darkest of places.
Are you looking for joy? Share the news that the waiting is over. Are you looking for joy? Share the news that the Savior has come. Are you looking for joy? Celebrate that the good news of reconciliation is for everyone, no exceptions. What a great message! Joy to the world the Lord has come!