Everlasting God, by your appointment the holy angels help and defend us here on earth.
May we ever be open and alert to the messages they bring us. AMEN.
Today we are going to consider something that is not often addressed in sermons:
The question of angels.
And I begin with this disclaimer:
We don’t become angels when we die.
(That’s the first thing I want you to remember from today’s sermon!) (repeat)
The idea is a popular one—believed by many—but it isn’t true.
Generations of parents have (perhaps unwittingly) perpetrated the myth.
Some of us were even told that the reason our shoulder blades stick out on our backs
is provide a place to (eventually) hold our angel wings!
Hollywood has also done its part—with movies like “It’s A Wonderful Life”—in which a former insurance salesman named
Clarence “earns his wings” by rescuing George Bailey.
The movie is one of my favorites—but the myth it perpetuates is not scriptural—and not true!
Some of you may be disappointed to hear that.
But the larger question is: Should we
believe in angels at all—or is the whole notion only make-believe?
Scripture takes it for granted that angels are real—from beginning to end—from Genesis to Revelation.
We are told that God made angels before He made human beings—and that a countless “host” of angels witnessed the creation of the physical universe.
(That word “host,” by the way, means “army”—so a countless army of angels witnessed the creation.)
Angels are present at practically every important event in the Bible.
For example, an angel promised
Abraham and Sarah a son—and an angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing that son, Isaac.
An Angel slew the firstborn sons
of Egypt on the eve of the Exodus—and “passed over” the houses of the Israelites.
(Thus the name Passover for that event.)
Angels ministered to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness.
Angels protected the three young Israelites—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—in the fiery furnace.
Angels kept Daniel unharmed in the Lions’ den.
And angels protected the Israelites on many other occasions—acting as God’s Army to defeat their enemies.
Angels are particularly prominent in the life and ministry of Jesus:
Announcing his conception and birth;
Supporting him during his temptation in the wilderness;
Comforting him during his agony in the garden of Gethsemane;
Standing ready to defend him when he is arrested;
And rolling away the stone and proclaiming his resurrection on Easter morning.
Their work with him is not yet finished—for at the Second Coming of Christ, the angels will pour out God’s judgment on the earth—and accompany Our Lord on his return in glory.
To understand “Why angels?”—we have to consider their purpose.
Angels function as intermediaries between God and mankind.
They act as God’s messengers and servants.
And in fact—that is why they were created.
The very word “angel” means “messenger” in Greek.
Angels are God’s messengers.
Angels may appear (at times) in human form--but they are not human.
Unlike humans—angels are immortal beings who are pure spirit.
They have no physical form or bodies.
Rather—angels may assume whatever form is necessary to carry out their mission.
(There is even an incident in the Old Testament where an angel appears to the prophet Balaam as a donkey!)
The artistic depiction we are familiar with—of angels as “winged women” or “winged babies”—has no basis at all in Scripture—nor in Christian theology.
Angels are actually “androgynous”—having no gender—and no need to procreate.
And when they do appear in visible form, their appearance is typically terrifying to human beings.
As C.S. Lewis observed, “In scripture, the visitation of an angel is always alarming.
“It always has to begin with the statement ‘Fear not!’
“In contrast,” (Lewis notes) “the angel in Victorian art always looks as if it were going to say ‘There, there.’”
Scripture gives us lots of “angel encounters”—but little insight into the personal life of angels—although it is clear that they are personal beings.
They have names—such as Gabriel and Michael—and they also have free will.
It is suggested in Scripture that some
angels have used their free will to rebel against God.
These are the fallen angels—or demons—and their leader is Lucifer—or Satan.
Angels, then—like human beings—can fall from grace—and be “lost”.
But—unlike human beings—we are given no indication that angels can be “saved”—or that God has made any provision for their salvation.
In fact—Jesus said that it was for the “fallen angels” that Hell was created!
Having said all of this, it becomes necessary to address one more question—one that many of you must be asking:
“If angels are real, then why haven’t I seen one?”
The answer to that question may surprise you!
Some of you—some of you sitting in this very congregation--I would be willing to bet—have seen angels!
In every parish I have served—I have known people who are convinced that they have seen an angel—and that an angel helped them at a crucial time in their lives.
Some of the stories I have been told are quite amazing—and I would say unbelievable—except that they were told by people who were sensible, sane, down-to-earth, and in every way “normal.”
Often those who told me these stories—in confidence—had never shared them with anyone else—for fear of being considered “crazy.”
The conclusion I have drawn is that angelic visitations do still take place—far more frequently than most of us assume—and
that many of us have benefited—wittingly or unwittingly—from their ministries.
The extent to which this is true will
(perhaps) only be revealed to us in heaven.
While some of us have seen angels, others of us may not have been aware—or
have only dimly suspected that we were in the presence of angels—because unless there is a reason to do so, angels do not draw attention to themselves as they go about their work.
They carry out their mission unrecognized and unseen.
My personal favorite angel story was told by Elizabeth’s grandmother Wilson—whom I knew only briefly before she went on to her heavenly reward—(as a redeemed soul, by the way—and not an angel!)
As Elizabeth tells it—Mrs. Wilson was a sober and plainspoken woman—not given to exaggeration.
As Charles Dickens said of Scrooge, she had “as little of what is called fancy about her as any person on the planet.”
As a young wife and mother during the Great Depression, she lived on a dirt road in rural Laurens County, SC—with no electricity and no phone.
Her nearest neighbor was a few miles away. One dark and stormy night, her husband was away working in town, and staying with his relatives.
As she was preparing the children—including Elizabeth’s father—for bed, there was a knock at the door.
In the light of her oil lamp, she saw a young man standing in the pouring rain.
He was seeking shelter from the storm. Evaluating her situation, she told the man she was “very sorry”—but she could not help him.
However, if he proceeded down the road, he would come to the Bobo house.
And she knew Mr. Bobo was at home.
“Thank you,” he said—and left.
Later on Mrs. Wilson asked Mrs. Bobo about the stranger—but no one had stopped at their house.
Elizabeth says: “My grandmother worried about that young man for the rest of her life.
“For as she told me many times, he was a beautiful young man—with a bright, warm glow in his eyes—and a tender smile.
“She always wondered if he had been an angel—sent by God with a special message for her!
“For (as she also reminded me whenever she told this story) the Bible tells us plainly
that ‘by showing hospitality to strangers, some have entertained angels without knowing it.’”
That verse—about “entertaining angels without knowing it”—is found in today’s reading from Hebrews.
And that’s my favorite angel story!
Maybe you know someone who has seen an angel too.
Or maybe--just maybe—you have your own angel story to tell.
If you do—I would love to hear it!
Now, let us pray.
(BCP p. 244—St. Michael and All Angels)