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)
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks some “hard words” about peace, conflict, and division.
They are words that we don’t expect from one who is known as “The Prince of Peace.”
“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?”—Jesus asks.
“Not peace, I tell you, but division!
“I have come to kindle a fire on the earth.
“From now on, the members of a household will be divided:
“Father against son, and son against father;
“Mother against daughter, and daughter against mother.”
Wouldn’t you like to have been a “fly on the wall”—(or at least on a nearby palm tree)—when Jesus spoke those words?
The crowd’s reaction must have been confusion and consternation.
Their response would have been anything but peaceful!
People—then and now—never respond well when Jesus contradicts our assumptions—and disappoints our expectations!
“Peace” is a key concept in the Bible.
The word is used over 300 times in Holy Scripture—and referred to indirectly hundreds of other times.
In the Old Testament, “peace” is a translation of the Hebrew word “shalom.”
“Shalom” is more than the mere cessation of hostilities.
It implies harmony, tranquility, and well-being.
“Shalom” is both internal and external—a condition of peace within a person—as well as peace between persons.
God himself is referred to in the Scriptures as “The God of Shalom”—“The God of Peace.”
“Shalom” is what the New Testament calls “the peace that passes all understanding.”
It is the same “peace on earth, good will towards men”—that the Angels proclaimed at Christ’s birth.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught this “Shalom”—and showed us by his own example how to live it.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall be called Children of God.”
At the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples: “Shalom I leave with you—my own peace I give to you.”
And when he saw them again after the Resurrection, he repeated the word:
“Shalom”—“Peace be with you.”
Finally, just before his Ascension, Jesus sent the disciples out—to all nations and all peoples—“to proclaim the Good News of peace:”
“Shalom to those who are far-off, and Shalom to those who are near.”
The legacy of “Shalom” that Jesus gave us is still proclaimed today in the Baptismal Covenant—in which we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people;”
And in the Holy Eucharist—during which we exchange “The Peace of the Lord.”
All this is to say that Christians are people who are committed to Peace.
Our Lord—and our Baptism—call us to be “Peace-makers”—Disciples who are actively involved in pursuing “Shalom.”
Doing this is not an easy task!
The world we live in is full of conflict and violence.
Not only nations and peoples—but races and families—are divided.
In a divided world, even religion has become a source of conflict—setting the members of one Faith against another.
Into this world, the Disciples of Christ are called to go—and be Peace-makers!
Here is an interesting and ironic fact that I discovered:
If you conduct an Internet search using the word “peace-maker”—most of the references that pop up have to do with weapons and warfare.
The implication is that peace-making requires the use of weapons of war!
This approach is not only self-contradictory—it is fraught with danger.
History and experience show that resorting to warfare does not resolve conflict—nor do weapons achieve lasting Peace.
Peace is not something that can be imposed by force—nor can it be kept by threat of violence.
What we don’t seem to understand is that violence only begets more violence!
One of the key issues in our current presidential election is how to defeat terrorism—both at home and abroad—and how to bring Peace to the Middle East.
Equally important is the interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution—and the difficult question of preventing “gun violence.”
Perhaps both candidates—and the electorate as well—need to re-visit the words of Jesus—and re-acquaint themselves with the biblical teachings about “Shalom.”
Jesus once used the phrase “Physician, heal thyself!”
It means that if there is to be any healing—any peace-making—it must begin at home:
Right here--within ourselves and among ourselves:
In our own communities—our own churches—our own families—our own lives.
Peace begins with “Shalom”—“the Peace of God”—and that is available only by God’s Grace.
As Saint Paul says: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Only when “the Peace of God, which passes all understanding” is firmly established within our hearts and minds--only then will we have the ability to become “Peace-makers” in the world.
There are also a few basic principles that Peace-makers need to remember.
We all know that Jesus said we must be prepared to “turn the other cheek.”
We all know we must not “return evil for evil”—but “love our enemies”—and even “pray for them.”
We should also remember that—at the moment of his arrest—Jesus observed that “those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.”
Ultimately--guns and fighting will not bring Peace—only more destruction.
At the very least—we need to understand that being a “Peace-maker” means rejecting the tactics of cruelty, intimidation, and terror.
It has taken humanity a long time to learn this lesson--and some of us have not learned it yet.
Experience should have taught us that we can never bring Peace by torturing, humiliating, or cutting off the heads of our enemies.
And we ought to have the sense to know that it is impossible to do such things in the Name of God.
If we wish to be “Peace-makers”—we need to begin with the recognition that God is the source of all Peace.
If there is to be any real Peace—it must be rooted in the God of Peace.
If we know God—and walk in his ways—then “the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Only those who know “Shalom” have the ability to make “Shalom.”
Only those who know God—and walk in his ways—can create “Peace on Earth, Good Will towards all!”
Now let us pray.
Almighty and Eternal God,
Kindle, we pray, in our hearts—and in every heart—the true love of Peace.
Guide with your Wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the Earth.
Grant that—in tranquility and harmony—your Dominion shall increase.
Let the Earth is filled with the knowledge of your Love—as the waters cover the sea!
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord,
Proper 14C, August 7, 2016
I once saw a full-page advertisement that a certain church placed in the newspaper.
It was so interesting—and different—that I actually saved a copy of it.
It has a picture of a coffee mug—with steam rising from it—and the caption reads:
“Cappuccino and Christ.
“Sleep a little later this Sunday.
“Throw on some jeans.
“Have a hot cup of java.
“Listen to some great music.
“And get together for some wonderful fellowship.
“Trinity United Methodist Church invites you to join us for a unique service that offers an alternative:
“No pressures, no commitments, no hassles.
“All we ask is 45 minutes of your Sunday!”
Welcome to the “user-friendly church”—where religion is easy and readily-accessible:
Christianity without risk or commitment.
No pressure, no demands, no hassles.
Just instant spiritual gratification!
The reason for such an approach is presumably to attract a younger, “hipper” audience—and I’m sure it is appealing to some.
But what young people really need is a Faith that will challenge them—a Way of Life that will lift them out of themselves.
And that is exactly what Jesus offers:
“Those who want to be my disciples” (he says) “must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
That is the Way that is presented in today’s Gospel:
“Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor,” Jesus says.
“Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven—where no thief breaks in, and no moth destroys.
“For where your treasure is—there will your heart be also.
“Be dressed for action—and have your lamps lit—like servants waiting for their Master to return—for He is coming at an unexpected hour.”
According to this view—being a Christian is not easy.
It requires vigilance, perseverance, sacrifice, and determination.
Our Lord requires us to reject materialistic values and the love of money.
He calls us to practice generosity and self-giving.
We are to live a life of vigilance—waiting for our Lord to return—keeping ourselves ready to meet him and to serve him at all times.
Most importantly, we are to live a life of “trusting obedience toward God.”
That is what the Bible calls Faith:
“Trusting obedience toward God.”
Or you can put it the other way around:
“Obedient trust toward God”
Either way, it’s the same thing:
“Trust and Obey”—as an old Gospel hymn puts it.
That is how we are called to live.
Today’s reading from Hebrews has this to say about Faith:
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Faith means believing in God—even though we can’t see him.
It means trusting God’s promises—even though we can’t see them being fulfilled.
It means obeying God’s commands—even though we receive no immediate reward.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This definition of Faith means trusting God for the “long haul”—knowing that in the end he will reward those who believe.
“For without Faith” (Scripture says) “it is impossible to please God.”
Abraham—from the Old Testament—is held up as an example of what it means to have Faith.
Abraham trusted God’s promise—and obeyed God’s commands—even though he didn’t see how God’s promise could possibly be fulfilled.
God credited this Faith to Abraham as righteousness—and in the end, his Faith was rewarded.
That same kind of Faith is what is required of us.
Like Abraham—and his wife Sarah—we must trust God’s promises—and obey his commands—even though the world tries to convince us otherwise.
We must hold on to our hopes—and stand by our convictions—even though trials and tribulations come our way.
“For without (such) Faith, it is impossible to please God.”
The former governor of Mississippi tells a story about his father—who is 85 years old.
Recently his father planted a thousand trees on their family farm.
The trees will take about 40 years to mature.
Of course, he will never live to see it happen.
But still, he planted them!
Planting those trees was an act of Faith.
It meant investing in the “long haul”—rather than going for the “quick fix.”
It meant laying out time and energy for a “pay-off” in the still-distant future—rather than settling for immediate gratification.
That is what real Faith is like!
“Fear not, little flock,” Jesus says.
“It is the Fathers good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
That is the Good News in today’s Gospel!
For us as Christians—the future is ultimately secure:
The Kingdom is ours!
Not because of anything we have done—but because of God’s gracious gift in Jesus Christ.
It is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom!
But that gift requires “trusting obedience” on our part.
To be faithful to God will not always be easy.
It will demand vigilance, perseverance, sacrifice and determination.
There is no “quick fix”—for our lives—for the world—or for the church.
But there is God’s promise to be with us for the “long haul”—and to reward us in the end.
“Fear not, little flock,” Jesus says.
“It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”
Now let us pray.
Thank you for giving us your Kingdom.
Give us also the Grace to live by Faith.
Help us to trust you in all things.
Strengthen us to obey your commands.
And grant that we may be found awake and ready at the Day of your Coming.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,