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You asked for a Sermon on Angels

 

Mark 1:13         Judges 6:19-24     Luke 2:8-14           Luke 22:43-44      Hebrews 13:2

They were always an embarrassment when I was a youngster. How could any boy who aspired to be a red-blooded male believe in angels? Besides, what exactly was I supposed to believe in? ghosts who also happened to be do-gooders? Only hysterical people believed in ghosts, and only silly people had any use for do-gooders! For most of the year I could remain relatively unembarrassed since angles didn’t appear in church-life for most of the year. But Christmas and Easter were especially embarrassing because on these festivals angels were especially prominent. In my old age, however, embarrassment has given way to wonder and gratitude. I shouldn’t want to be without the angels now. How do you feel about them?

 

I: — The Hebrew and Greek words for angel (malak and aggelos) simply mean “messenger”. In some cases what is in a writer’s mind is God himself acting as his own messenger. The clue to this use of “angel” is the expression, “the angel of the Lord”; not “an angel”, not “angels” but “the angel of the Lord”. If we examine the incidents surrounding this expression we see a common pattern emerge. Someone wrestles with the angel (like Jacob at the riverbank), or argues with it, or flees from it, or shouts at it, or trembles before it; then this person discovers, a day or two later, that she had been contending all along with the living, lordly, sovereign God himself. At the time she didn’t know exactly what she was contending with; a day or two later she knows she has been engaged in the most energetic struggle with God himself.

Another feature of the common pattern is this: when the person who was wrestling, arguing, fleeing, shouting or trembling finally grasps that it was GOD she had collided with, her experience of God stamps itself upon her so profoundly, so indelibly that she will never be able to doubt or deny that it was GOD. She will never be able to doubt or deny that this encounter has rendered her life forever different. “The angel of the Lord” is a Hebrew way of saying “I was seized by the living God himself; I didn’t know it at the time, but later I knew it to be God; this awe-ful experience has left me unable to pretend anything else; it has also left me unable to go back to what I was before the experience”. “The angel of the Lord” is God himself acting as his own messenger, stamping himself so startlingly, so clearly upon someone that this person will bear the impress of his stamp ever after. This person will never confuse the Holy One himself with any God-substitute.

Let us make no mistake: God-substitutes abound. In ancient Israel one such substitute was the golden calf. The spiritually obtuse knelt down before the golden calf. But did they? As a matter of fact no Israelite, however spiritually obtuse, pointed to a hunk of metal and said, “That’s my god”. What the Israelite worshipped was what the golden calf represented. The hunk of metal represented much. It represented a deity which the people could control. It represented a deity made in their image. No longer did they understand themselves as made in God’s image, subject to God’s judgement because of the discrepancy between what they had been made and what they had become. Now that they had a deity made in their image the deity was docile, harmless; it could even be manipulated.

The golden calf also represented ethnic advantage. After all, the Hittites had their deity, the Amorites theirs, the Philistines theirs; each of these ethnic groups claimed that their own deity gave them extraordinary advantage. Plainly Israel was not to be left behind. Israel was only too happy to exchange the sovereign ruler of the entire creation for an ethnic booster; at least the latter would give them whatever advantage they needed over their neighbours.

What about us modern types? We say, “He worships his car; she worships her house”. But of course he and she do nothing of the sort. She doesn’t worship her house; she worships what the 11,000 square foot home represents. It represents social superiority; which is to say, human superiority. He doesn’t worship his $80,000 automobile. He worships what it represents. Why, only two generations ago his grandfather had cow-manure on his boots. Today the 32 year old grandson displays his automobile as a monument to his achievement. Just think, a self-made man at 32, for which no one else need be thanked, a tribute to himself. When I was a teenager my minister remarked to me, “Imagine, Victor; your grandfather was a bricklayer and your cousin is a urologist!” Is my cousin somehow godlier, holier, better in any sense than my grandfather-bricklayer for possessing expertise at the water-works? In becoming a clergyman have I stalled the Shepherd family’s social ascendancy? We love the gods of our own making. They represent what we give ourselves to and give to ourselves; they reward us with what we have always craved.

Only a massive assault; only God’s own massive assault can shatter the gods of our own making, the delusions with which we delude ourselves. God’s own massive assault upon someone, leaving that person forever unable to doubt or deny — days later — that it was God; this is what scripture calls “the angel of the Lord”.

Professor Paul Vitz teaches psychology at New York University. As his work moved along, several years ago, he began to notice that psychology had ceased to be a description of how the human psyche functions; psychology had deified itself, elevated itself to the status of religion. Psychology had become a golden calf. People bowed down before it and did obeisance to what it represented. It put itself forward as the final judge of what is true and good; to probe one’s psyche was to engage ultimate reality; it had its own high priests, its own sacred vocabulary. Vitz — still an unbeliever at this point — was disturbed. He didn’t know yet precisely what, profoundly what it was that was disturbing him. A year or two later, as he came to faith in Jesus Christ (chiefly through reading C.S. Lewis), he knew what had been disturbing him all along: the angel of the Lord. His life has been different from that point and will be different forever. (When next you are looking for something to read pick up a copy of his book, Psychology as Religion.)

One of my friends grew up more or less agnostic. As a teenager he became aware that a cloud of unreality surrounded what most people regarded as substantial. As he came upon item after item of seeming substance riddled with unreality he set it aside. He set more and more aside until he was face-to-face with the one thing that he thought to be more substantial than it even appeared: evil, sheer evil, utter evil. He couldn’t doubt this; unable to doubt this alone, he found himself living in a world virtually unendurable. He languished in a dark night which he thought would never end. (After all, to be convinced only of the presence and pervasiveness of evil is to live in a very bleak world; to be convinced of this as a teenager when all of one’s adult life is still in front of oneself is that much worse.) Finally his languishing gave way to an encounter with the God who has triumphed over evil in his Son. All along — particularly in the bleak days when my friend thought he was contending with nothing more than evil — he was wrestling with the angel of the Lord. He came to see this, know it unshakably, and find himself altered by it forever.

 

II: — Now that you have a firm grasp of what is meant by “the angel of the Lord” — namely, not an angel at all but God himself forging himself upon us — let me tell you that this use of “angel” is not the more common use in scripture. More commonly throughout scripture “angel” means angel. More commonly “angel” means not God but rather a creature of God; not God himself but someone distinct from God.

One thing we notice right away in the bible’s portrayal of the angels is how many of them there are: there are swarms of angels. “Heavenly host” is how the description reads; “heavenly host” suggests innumerable angels, myriads.

Another feature of the angels: they are creatures of pure spirit; they do not have bodies of flesh like us. Like us they are creatures, not divine; unlike us they are not fleshly. Another thing we notice: their function is to witness to God by being servants of God. Because they unfailingly serve God they invariably witness to God.

What are you and I to make of all this? It is obvious, isn’t it, that in view of the heavenly host God’s creation is rich, richer than we have always thought. It’s obvious too that the creation is profoundly spiritual, pervasively spiritual, finally spiritual.

Most people think not. Most people insist that the material is real. To be sure, Christians would never deny that the material is actual. Trees and mountains, buildings and bridges are not imaginary. Nonetheless, Christians would also insist that there is a spiritual dimension to the creation much deeper than trees and mountains. Some people would argue that the realm of aesthetics is more real than the real of the material. Mozart’s music, Robert Frost’s poetry, Tom Thomson’s painting, Veronica Tennent’s dancing: all of this is oceans deeper than sticks and stones. Oceans deeper that it may be, it is yet not deep enough: the really deep depths everywhere in the creation are not finally aesthetic; they are finally spiritual.

Since this is the case, then everything we deal with every day has profound spiritual significance; everything has profound spiritual significance just because the heavenly host, the angels, surround everything at all times. Take the matter of hospitality. The unknown writer of the epistle to the Hebrews states, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. With our shallower understanding we tend to think that hospitality — feeding someone in our home on Saturday evening — is to meet a physical need (for food), as well as a social need (for company), as well as a psychological need (for interchange with other minds). But if the universe is pervasively spiritual, profoundly spiritual (this is what the notion of angels means) then hospitality is fraught with spiritual significance. Our hospitality, after all, is an act which unfolds before God; it has to do with people who are creatures of God, people whom God longs to know and bless as they in turn know him. Therefore our hospitality has sacramental significance; our hospitality is used of God in ways not known to us as God secretly infiltrates the lives of those who sit at our dinner table. The mystery of God’s secret infiltration is something we cannot control, something we cannot measure, something we cannot even see immediately. But according to the apostles hospitality is the occasion of God’s secret infiltration as few other things are. Remember, to speak of the angels is to confess that the universe is ultimately spiritual.

Think about conflict. The marxist maintains that human conflict, at bottom, is the result of economic forces as the “haves” and the “have-nots” wage war. I should never want to deny the economic dimension to human conflict. The psychoanalyst maintains that human conflict, at bottom, is the result of primal intrapsychic drives which render our unconscious minds a battleground. I should never want to deny the psychoanalytic dimension to human conflict. The existentialist philosopher maintains that human conflict, at bottom, is the collision of competing wills as each person’s will is a will-to-power, a will-to-domination. I should never want to deny this dimension to human conflict.

All of these approaches have a measure of truth and therefore a measure of depth; but none goes deep enough, none is ultimately true. Human conflict, ultimately, is a spiritual problem, including the conflict within one’s self, the conflict with one’s self.

You must have noticed that Jesus is sustained by angels on two occasions of terrible conflict: when he was tried in the wilderness and when he was abandoned in Gethsemane. Conflict rages within him on these two occasions; and the conflict isn’t economic or psychoanalytic or philosophical: it is nakedly spiritual. In the wilderness he is tempted to undermine the kingdom of God; he is tempted to act on the seduction that there is a shortcut to the kingdom of God when in fact there is none; that his Father’s triumph can be won painlessly when in fact it cannot. What was at stake in his temptations? The salvation of every last one of us was at stake. Had he succumbed, you and I are lost eternally.

His temptation to avoid the cross and the dereliction is temptation to second-guess his Father. (This is outright unbelief.) It is temptation to secure first and last his own comfort and ease. (This is outright disobedience.) It is temptation to forsake us, the very people he has said he came for. (This is outright betrayal.) In Gethsemane his disciples sleep because they think that nothing is going on, when in fact spiritual conflict is raging. It rages so fiercely that our Lord needs additional resources, unusual assistance, to survive it — as he did in the wilderness three years earlier. When the gospel-writers tell us that he is assisted by angels they are telling us that his conflict is ultimately spiritual and unimaginably intense. If you and I think that our conflicts are anything other or anything less then we are shallow.

I have already spoken of the angels in connection with the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God occurs wherever God’s will is done perfectly. Every Sunday we repeat together, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s will is done, done perfectly, in heaven right now. Scripture speaks of the heavenly host which bears witness to God’s kingdom. In other words, God has innumerable witnesses in heaven before he has so much as one witness on earth. The kingdom of God has come to earth, we know, in the person of Jesus Christ, for in him God’s will is done perfectly. The kingdom which he brings to earth with him is witnessed to by the myriad of angels. This means that God will always have innumerable witnesses on earth even if earth-born witnesses like you and me are sadly lacking in quality and quantity. I find immense comfort in what scripture says about the angels. However much I may fail my Lord in serving and attesting that kingdom he brings with him, there are other creatures whose service and witness never fail. And therefore the kingdom of God will eventually superimpose itself upon and subdue the kingdoms of this world.

Listen to Karl Barth, the pre-eminent theologian of our century, a thinker of the same stature as Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. Barth writes, “Because of the angelic witness to God’s kingdom we can never find intolerable or hopeless the apparently or genuinely troubled state of things on earth”. He wrote this a few years after World War II. Just before war had broken out Barth had been apprehended at his Saturday morning lecture in the University of Bonn, Germany. He had been deported immediately from Germany to his native Switzerland. As soon as hostilities with Germany had ceased the cold war with the Soviet Union had begun. While there was no war, hot or cold, in Switzerland, Barth never pretended that the Swiss were uncommonly virtuous; he readily admitted that his own country funded itself by harbouring the ill-gotten gains (the infamous unnamed accounts in the Swiss banks) of the most despicable criminals throughout the world. Nevertheless, “because of the angelic witness to God’s kingdom we can never find intolerable or hopeless the…troubled state of things on earth”.

While we are speaking of the kingdom of God in the midst of a troubled earth you must have noticed that the two most angel-saturated developments spoken of in the New Testament are Christmas and Easter, the incarnation and the resurrection. Of course! The incarnation is God’s incursion of that world which he loves profligately yet which resists him defiantly. To see how much it resists him we need only look at Herod, who will go to murderous lengths in order to undo the beachhead God has established as he invades his world in his Son in order to reclaim it. So intense is the resistance that all of heaven’s resources must be mobilized to secure the beachhead and bear witness to it. At the resurrection of our Lord the angelic hosts appear again inasmuch as the victory God has won in raising his Son triumphant over the powers of death must be made known, witnessed to, throughout the cosmos. In view of the beachhead invasion which, once secured, is never retreated from; in view of the victory which, once won, is never undone on this troubled earth; in view of all this I think once more of Barth’s ringing declaration: “Because of the angelic witness to God’s kingdom we can never find intolerable or hopeless the apparently or genuinely troubled state of things on earth”. Isn’t it worth learning about the angels just to go home this morning with our hearts full of that?

In conclusion I want to make three brief statements which I do not have time to develop.

 

ONE Because the heavenly host reminds that in everything, everywhere in life we have to do with the spiritual, the single most important thing any of us can do is pray. Because we are dealing with the spiritual whenever we deal with any aspect or dimension of life, the quintessential human act is prayer.

 

TWO Because the angels bear witness to God, always pointing away from themselves to him whom they serve, the most angelic character the world has seen is John the Baptist. John lived only to point away from himself to Jesus Christ. John neither wanted nor expected an honourary degree nor a civic reception nor public recognition nor a special fuss made of him. He wanted only to direct everyone’s attention away from himself to his Lord, saying, “He must increase and I must decrease”.

 

THREE Because the angels magnify the glory of God on earth, therefore the earth, the world, human history are never ultimately bleak. Evil-ridden, yes; pain-ridden, yes; incapable of saving themselves, yes. Nevertheless because “our great God and Saviour” (to quote Paul) cherishes his creation, and because the angels magnify God’s glory on earth, God’s glory in our world, God’s glory in the midst of our history, our situation is never finally bleak. For that glory which the angels find everywhere we are given eyes to see here and there, and one day we too shall see it everywhere as the kingdom of God, hidden now, is made manifest to all.

When next you come upon the word “angel” you will know that either it refers to “the angel of the Lord”, God himself acting as his own messenger, stamping himself unmistakably upon us and altering us forever after; or the word “angel” refers to that spirit-creature whose witness to God is unambiguous just because its service of God is unrelenting. Then you must think of the heavenly host, myriads of angels which surround us especially during those episodes when our own resources are slender and only the resources of him who sustained his Son will do for us. And then you must remember that wherever we struggle in life, our struggle is finally spiritual, and will be until that day when the earth is no longer troubled and the kingdom of God has eclipsed the kingdoms of this world for ever and ever.

F I N I S

Victor A. Shepherd

April 1993