HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 24, 2016
Luke 1: 26-38—Angel appears to Mary
Matthew 1: 18-24—Angel appears to Joseph
Luke 2: 1-20—Angels appear to shepherds
We’ve spent the four Sundays of Advent exploring in depth each of the characters depicted in the Nativity scenes that fill our churches and homes at this time of year. The thing is, we often think of Nativity scenes as beautiful decorations, but each of those surrounding Christ at the time of his birth tells us something significant about how God was beginning a new work in the world through his Son. We began with a look at Mary, and then Joseph. Next, we thought about the animals, and then this past Sunday, the shepherds. Tonight, we come to the angels and tomorrow, on Christmas Day, we will look at Christ himself. Finally, next Sunday, we will finish with the Wise Men. When I planned this sermon series, I was certain that the animals would be the most difficult to preach about, but I found out this week that the angels are a much bigger challenge.
The thing about angels is that they come “in all shapes and sizes,” you might say. Even in the Bible, angels are sometimes human and sometimes creature. They are cherubim and seraphim; they are Gabriel and Michael. When people describe angels today; they might be referring to living people who are in some way particularly generous, self-giving, and Christ-like, or they might talk about sensing the presence of a guardian angel that kept them safe through a horrific accident or especially dangerous surgery. Still, I think we keep in our minds a picture of angels like those that fill our nativity scenes—white clothing, halos, wings, light. But then, look at the angel Clarence in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. He was about the most unconventional angel you might ever see. So what exactly is an angel, and what do these angels in the Christmas story tell us about God’s work to be carried out through this newborn baby?
Those are the questions I’m going to try and answer tonight as we consider the angels who appear in the Christmas story in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels. But first, we have to set aside our pre-conceived notions of what an angel looks like because (as in real life), that’s entirely irrelevant to the role of the angel. In the Bible, angels are considered to be a part of the heavenly court (you might think of it as the heavenly hosts), and they have two primary functions, both of which we see in the Christmas story. First, they are constantly worshipping and praising God—we see this in the Old Testament in prophecies like those of Isaiah, and we also see it in the New Testament, especially in Revelation. And the thing about this constant worship and praise of God is that it serves as a heavenly model of what our earthly praise and worship of God should be.
Another important role of the angel is divine messenger. The angel bridges the gap between earth and heaven to deliver a message from God himself. We see this happening in each part of the Christmas story; Mary receives the news from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to son who would be great, the Son of the Most High, the ruler of a Kingdom with no end. Then, in a dream, Joseph is visited by an angel who brings the message that he doesn’t need to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child she carries is the Savior. And finally, just after Jesus is born, an angel appears to some shepherds in the fields with the good news that on that very day Christ the Savior had been born in Bethlehem, and the sign this divine message was true was that they would find a baby swaddled and lying in a manger. Then, the one angel was surrounded by a whole host of angels who worshipped and praised God who was establishing a new kingdom on earth through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Now, here’s the thing about these angels in the Christmas story. Each of them brings the message that needs to be heard—by Mary, by Joseph, and by the shepherds. But the message of these three angels shared one common thread—within each, there is a petition to not be afraid. The message to the shepherds is “Don’t be afraid! I bring good news to you!” Joseph is told, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” And when Mary was confused by Gabriel’s appearance before her, she was told, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.”
I have never experienced such myself, but I would imagine the sudden appearance of an angel in your midst would be a startling if not frightening experience. But when the angels in the Christmas story say, “Do not be afraid.” I don’t think they’re simply referring to the momentary fear caused by their abrupt appearance. They certainly might be trying to calm the rushing heartbeats of Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, but I also think they were addressing something much larger than a single moment.
The truth of the matter is we humans are afraid of a lot, aren’t we? And there is a lot in this world that causes such fear in our lives. One of my colleagues once posted the question on Facebook, “What is the opposite of faith.” The answers were varied and fascinating, but I think the answer that resonated with me was, “fear.” Doubt means you’re questioning certain beliefs, but fear means that you don’t believe that whatever you are facing will turn out okay. We have fears for good reason, and I’m not trying to tell you that you can go through this life without experiencing fear because you can’t. But ultimately, our faith has to be stronger than our fear. And here’s the thing—I think this is the underlying message the angels are trying to convey—God is sending Christ into this world to show us that we do not have to be afraid. God is sending his Son into the world to prove that in the end, everything will be made right. In the birth of Emmanuel, God is sending a clear message that the worst thing is never the last thing; that a light is shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of the classic Treasure Island, was a sickly child. One night, his nurse found him with face pressed against a cold windowpane in the middle of a bitter winter. The nurse urged him to move away from the window, warning him that he would catch his death of cold, but he wouldn’t budge. Eventually, the nurse approached the window to see what held young Stevenson’s attention. The nurse looked out to a scene of utter blackness, save for one figure. On the cobbled streets below, a lamplighter slowly clicked down the streets on his stilts. Every so often, he would pause as he lit the next lamp. Together, Stevenson and his nurse watched the man do his work. After several moments, the young boy turned to his nurse and said, “See! He’s poking holes in the darkness!”
It’s dark out there. Jesus was born into a world of oppressive Roman rule, and his birth was announced to a crowd of lowly shepherds. For Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, there was much to fear. A lot has changed, but it’s still a dark world. We live under constant threat of nuclear war, we fear the next strike of the terrorists, we have watched in horror in recent weeks as innocent Syrians and South Sudanese have been massacred. We have reason to fear even still. But into the midst of our fears, into all the darkness of this world, God is sending his light; God is “poking holes in the dark.” That is the message of the angels in the Christmas story, and it is the core of our Christmas celebration. We can have faith.
In Christ, God gives us reason to celebrate—to worship and praise God the way the angels do. In Christ, God banishes the fears of our hearts and bolsters our faith. In Christ, God shows us that what he promises is true, that the worst thing is never the last thing, and that light always overcomes the dark. On this Christmas Eve, we gather to celebrate the fact that because Christ has come, we have nothing to fear!