Stable Snapshots: The Angels
(These sermons during the Christmas season are designed to focus our attention not so much upon the principal players in the drama of the First Christmas, but upon the supporting cast, those whose roles in the story are limited, but whose presence add depth and meaning to the story as a whole… Today we begin by looking at the angels…)
In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the central character, Christian, encounters a man who looks only downward. Hovering above the head of this man is an angel offering to the man a golden crown. But the man forgets the angel—he never looks up—he just keeps working with his muckrake, gathering sticks and stones. Because he misses the angel, he misses the crown.
Of all the participants in the story of the First Christmas, the angels are the ones most frequently forgotten or ignored. When we portray the nativity scene in paintings or in real life, the angels are always there, but it is almost as if they were inserted as an afterthought. They hover about, but no one quite seems to know what to do with them. Yet their role in the First Christmas, while limited to just a few verses of Scripture, has a profound message for us this Christmas. The Scriptures say: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.”1 Today, then, I invite you to think with me of the angels…
The first thing I want to acknowledge is this: it is not easy to think about the angels.
It is not easy to think about them because they are so different from us. They are minds without bodies. Oh, I know, when they are described to us in Scripture, they are described in terms of the human appearance which they take upon themselves when they appear to humans. But the Holy Books of all three religions which believe in angels—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all declare that angels are in fact pure spirit. They are not physical beings. They are minds without bodies.
Of course, whenever our artists or our poets have tried to depict angels, they have been shown in human terms. Usually, they are depicted as men because in the days in which the Scriptures were written, men were the dominant power in society. Usually, they are shown with wings because the principal function of an angel is to carry the messages of God. Usually, they are portrayed with a bright light, an aura, a halo around them to show that they come from a heaven which is beyond this universe. Now all of these depictions are to one degree or another inappropriate. The most inappropriate of all, of course, are the pictures of chubby little cherubs gathered around the baby Jesus and His mother. There is no description which comes anywhere close to that on the pages of Scripture.
All that we are told in Scripture is that angels exist. Augustine reminds us that in Genesis 1:1, we are told that God created the heavens and the earth. Now the heavens referred to there are not the heavens we see above us, not the firmament. That was created on another day in the first week of creation. What we call the heavens and the heavenly bodies—the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars—are not referred to in Genesis 1:1. Augustine says that the first verse refers to that which is beyond our universe, beyond this cosmos. And when God created the heavens, says Augustine, he created the heavenly hosts, the angels who occupied that sphere, that realm to which we go upon our death. In addition to the fact that angels exist, the Scriptures tell us that there are eight different kinds of angels: The seraphim, the cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, principalities, archangels, and angels. Some theologians have gone so far as to try to arrange these in levels of authority, but that is a fruitless exercise.
So the Bible does not give us a clue as to what angels are or what angels look like. However, the Bible does tell us what angels do. They do two things. They speak to God. The Scriptures record for us some of their words—words like “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory.” And the angels speak for God. They carry His message to us, to guide us and warn us and protect us.
Of course, there are lots of questions we might ask about angels. How do they travel? How do they speak if they are just spirits? Is it some kind of telepathic communication? Are there such things as guardian angels? There are so many questions and so few answers. That’s why it is not easy for us to think about the angels.
But the next thing I want to acknowledge is this: it’s not easy to understand the song the angels sing.
When the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace…” they were announcing the perfect will of God. You see, the angels know what peace really is, for they come from that place where peace is flawless and concord is complete—that place where God’s law is joyfully obeyed not because of the coercing power of God, but because there is in everyone of the heavenly creatures a desire to be obedient to God. Oh yes, the angels know what peace is.
When they sang of peace that first Christmas, they were not singing of some pollyanna notion about the perfectibility of humankind. The angels would never have echoed Shakespeare when he wrote: “What a piece of work is man, how like an angel, how like a god.” The angels know that we are not angels and we are not like God. No angel would say that. They would be more inclined to agree with Pascal who said: “What a chimera is man, the pride and the refuse of the universe, neither angel nor brute.” This song has nothing to do with some simplistic idea of the perfectibility of humankind. That is not the peace of which the angels sing. And they do not sing of a peace which is, well, the Christmas spirit which we experience at this time of the year. You know what I mean—thoughts of home, the remembrance of warm hands and their loving touch, packs of children running through the house, toys that you can’t possibly assemble according to the instructions, Christmas trees so tall that when you take them into the parlor, the top scrapes across the ceiling all the say, crisp nights where stars snap in the heavens like diamonds, soft carols sung by happy voices, love-red poinsettias, and a night and a day and a night when all of the world becomes still and quiet as if life somehow once each year has to stop and catch its breath. There is a kind of Christmasy peace. But that is not the peace of which the angels sang. And they were not referring to some kind of inner calm, some poise that belongs to Christians down inside, some great centering which belongs especially to the children of God. When Jesus said to His disciples.
“My peace I give to you,” He wasn’t giving them the ability to control themselves, the power to avoid all the hurt and the ugliness in life. No, the peace Jesus gave them and the peace of which the angels sang, is the power to change the way people live and love, the power to make enemies into friends, the power to win people into joyous obedience to God’s law and joyous acceptance of God’s promises. It’s the power which enables women and men to become peacemakers. The angels were not singing about people who are peaceful or people who are peacekeepers. They were singing about people who are peacemakers.
What the angels were saying to the shepherds was this: “Go and find the Prince of Peace, the one just born, and then be about building the kingdom of peace over which the Prince will reign.” The shepherds responded immediately. In the Greek the word is very urgent. They dashed off to see this thing which had come to pass. They may not have understood all that it meant, but they knew it was important. It’s not easy—it never has been—to understand the song the angels sang.
But now thirdly I want to acknowledge this: it is not easy to apply the message the angels delivers.
Peace, you see, is one of the central themes of the Bible. It’s the lesson humanity has never learned, but never quite forgotten. Today, two great superpowers face each other on this plundered planet we call our home. And they have at their disposal powerful weapons. We started out with rocks, then clubs, then bows and arrows, then iron blades, then armor, then gunpowder, then machine guns, then bombs. Now the weapons are nuclear. Do you know that more people have died in twentieth century wars than in all of the centuries which had preceded this one? In the First World War 30 million died—the Second World War 56 million died—but that is nothing compared to what would happen in a nuclear war. The experts agree that 100 million Europeans would die, 113 million Russians, and 140 million Americans—350 million all told. And God says “Enough!”
I would not wish to try to portray President Reagan as something more than he is. But I’ll tell you what I believe. I believe that whether he knows it or not and whether he likes it or not, when it comes to finding a way to bring peace to the world, he is in the grip of God. I believe—and I believe that ultimately history will confirm—that that day in Reykjavik, Iceland when President Reagan, against the counsel of his advisors and to the shock of the Soviet leaders and to the dismay of many national leaders—when President Reagan challenged Mr. Gorbachev to join him in abolishing all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth, he was singing the song of the Christmas angels. Mr. Gorbachev angrily walked away. But this is not America’s cause and it’s not Russia’s cause—it’s God’s cause. And God will not be stopped. And that is why now the two great superpowers are taking a giant step on the road to peace.
The angels sing: “Go and see the Prince of Peace, then sing ‘Glory to God’ and begin to build the Prince’s kingdom.” That is our commission if we are to be servants of the King. That means that whatever our sphere of influence, be it large or small, as tiny as our own home, as wide as our neighborhood or our city or our state or our nation or even our world—wherever we can have influence, there and then we are called by the angels of God to be a maker of peace. I will not presume to tell you in which form you should labor. That is for you in your own heart and conscience to decide. But in the name and in the echo of the angels I say to you that peace must be our first priority. For if we do not win this one, there won’t be any others to win. I know that some of you wish I would not speak of such things. You come here to get away from the problems of the world and to think about Christmas angels. But, you see, this is what the angels were singing about—building the kingdom of the Prince of Peace.
William Muehl, a professor at Yale Divinity School, tells about going to a children’s nativity play. It had all the usual characteristics of such plays—a sagging curtain, dim blue floodlights, a box of straw, a baby-doll Jesus. There were 20 little girls who played the angels and the boys were dressed up in bathrobes and carried big sticks like shepherds. But suddenly this particular play became most unusual. You see, in order for the angels and shepherds to know where they were to stand on stage, the teacher put a circle on the floor where the angels were to stand and a cross on the floor where the shepherds were to stand. In rehearsal, it was easy for the youngsters to find their mark, because they were wearing their school clothes, short skirts and blue jeans. But the night of the production, the angels came on stage with their flowing white gowns and covered up all the marks. When the shepherds processed onto the stage they couldn’t find their marks, so with their crooks they began to push the angels aside. Finally at the height of the conflict, one little four-year-old shepherd walked out to the footlights, put his hands on his hips, looked down into the front row at the teacher who was already in a state of collapse, and said for all to hear: “These dang angels are messing up the show. They’ve hidden all the crosses.”
Is that what we want? Do we want the angels to hide the crosses? I can’t give you that. You see, Bethlehem and Calvary are only eight miles apart. You can’t have one without the other. Christmas is where we hear the promise of peace, yes, but Christmas is also where we are called to take up our crosses and be about the making of peace. For if we take up the Christmas cross, if we pray and work to make peace in this world, then we shall know what it is to be ministered to by angels. Do you remember how in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was caught in His greatest struggle and His greatest suffering, the Scriptures say: “There appeared an angel unto Him from heaven strengthening Him.” So the angels strengthen all the children of God when they take up their crosses and seek to make peace in the world. That’s what it means to be on the side of the angels.
I end where I began. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian meets a man who always looks downward. Above his head, there is a hovering angel extending to him a crown of gold. But he never looks up. Instead, with his muckrake, he gathers sticks and stones. And because he forgets the angel, he misses the crown…