The Christmas season has almost become a symbol of the post-modern age. We are overwhelmed with visuals and information. What parts of the Christian story should we lift up? And what of the other players on the stage in the birth story?
I have known Gail Miller ever since she was a student at Pilgrim United Church. Over the years she has developed into a fine preacher. This sermon, preached at Fairfield United Church December 6, 2015, probes the importance of those often overlooked characters in the story of Christmas – angels.
How many of you have personal experience with angels?
How many of you have had an experience
with something, some spiritual being
but you don’t know what to call it
and can’t really explain it?
How many of you would never admit it in public
even if you have had one of these experiences?
Angels have become much more central
in my experience, in my life
just over the last few years.
Before that I never really
thought about them much
other than watching the movies:
City of Angels, Michael, Dogma, Fallen, Legion.
When we talk about angels
the room begins to take on a
different colour and frequency . . .
more intense, alive,
more potent somehow, and risky.
That is how it feels to be around angels.
Which is vastly different
than many of the cultural references to angels
or the fairy tale version of angels.
A number of years ago
the first Christmas after my mother died
I received a gift from the funeral home.
It was a little cherub made of white plaster.
Curly hair, pudgy cheeks, wearing a diaper.
On the back they had written her name.
I still have it.
Because there is a part of me that really
deeply appreciates the kindness of the gesture
and the goodness of the intention behind it.
The funeral home wanted us to know
that they remembered and would be thinking of us
at what would be a difficult time.
Their choice of symbol was interesting,
and a little troubling to me.
The little white plaster cherub
is symbolic of a commonly held sentiment
. . . that our dead become angels.
“Well God needed another angel in heaven.”
I am not okay with that.
And I am pretty sure my mother would be horrified!
After all this, this human life
the good, the bad,
the beautiful the ugly
after all this . . . we are going to spend eternity
flying around in a diaper?
But more to the point it is not biblical.
The sweet fat diaper wearing cherub
with fluffy white down wings and chubby cheeks
and all the other Christmas card depictions
of beautiful glowing women
with pale complexions
with golden curls and flowing white robes
just aren’t at all, in any way, consistent
with the biblical version of angels.
And the biblical witness to angels is stunning.
There are over 250 passages in the bible
that talk about angels.
But don’t read them right before you go to sleep
because the angels of the bible
are fearsome creatures.
And contrary to the funeral home’s theology
they are utterly unlike human beings.
250 references . . . and most of it will blow your mind.
I am not going to review all 250 passages
but some things need to be said.
Angels were created by God, for God, for God alone
meaning that their only purpose is
to do God’s will,
to carry out God’s work.
That’s what they do.
They don’t lay about playing harps
shooting arrows at people’s hearts
and eating Philadelphia cream cheese.
Nor do they strut their stuff
on the Victoria Secret
fashion runway every fall.
Angels were created before the dawn of this world
which means they have been around a long, long time
and will continue to be around . . .
because they don’t die . . .angels are forever.
There are lots them.
Jesus once said there are legions of angels.
A legion is 12,000.
Jesus said that he could call
twelve legions if he wanted to,
144,000 angels in one fell swoop should the need arise.
While they don’t and can’t become human
angels can appear in human form.
But they are very, very large.
They do not easily fit into this world.
When they appear in human form
they are big, noticeably, abnormally bigger than a human would be.
They don’t easily fit into a room, or a house.
They are huge and they are powerful.
They are fierce and awesome.
There are many kinds of angels:
the seraphim, large six winged angels
that stay always in God’s presence –
but they aren’t fat, or sweet
and they definitely don’t wear diapers.
They are covered in eyes,
hundreds and hundreds of eyes.
They watch . . . and they watch over.
They guard the domain of God
Some angels have four different faces on their heads.
So they look different depending
on which direction they are facing.
There are arch angels like Michael.
There is a messenger angel . . . Gabriel.
One of the most stunning references to angels
is a passage from Revelation that describes
Lucifer when he was first created, before he fell.
You don’t read that one without getting a few shivers.
The image is so beautiful it can move you to tears.
Beautiful, stunningly beautiful.
The most beautiful creation God ever came up with.
Isn’t that fascinating?
Lucifer, Satan, not ugly, no . . . beautiful
. . . beyond all imagining.
One last thing to say about angels?
They wear armour, battle armour.
And they carry swords, sometimes fiery swords.
They are warriors.
Gives an entirely new image
of the heavenly host of angels
filling the starry night sky, singing alleluia
the moment Jesus is born.
No wonder shepherds quake at the sight.
But it raises a really big question.
Why on earth, or in heaven
would an angel of the Lord need a sword?
Why are angels most accurately depicted as warriors?
What is going on in the spiritual realm?
Who or what are they battling?
More importantly do you really want to know?
We started out playing with a few angels.
Now it all comes roaring in.
The questions of light and darkness
angels and fallen angels
good and evil
spiritual battles, free will, judgement
powers and principalities . . .
It’s all here . . . loaded, all the theological heavy weights.
How do you reconcile warrior angels and the God of love?
The God of the cosmos
can’t be all wrapped up
in a logical package.
But once you get into this spiritual territory
You are confronted by things
that are politically incorrect
maybe even offensive,
definitely challenging to one’s belief system.
There are more questions than answers.
In this spiritual territory
the whole world becomes powerfully charged
and things that you would normally pass by
take on new meaning.
There is a back door that sounds something like this
The bible is an ancient oral tradition
that belonged to unenlightened peasants
who believed in a supernatural universe
and who used the imagery they were most familiar with
. . . that of legions, armies and battles.
It is all like that, virgin births, angels,
rising from the dead . . .
It is story, myth,
with great meaning and insight for sure
but don’t take it too literally.
I wish I could go there.
But the biblical witness is so compelling
it just won’t let me go.
Though my head and my heart
would like to run for the exit
my spirit won’t let me slip out the back door.
If we are going to entertain angels at all . . .
if we are going to take them
at biblical face value
we have to admit some things.
There is a spiritual world
that underpins this physical one.
And while it may be, surely is, the domain of God
it is not all sweetness and light.
While we are physical beings
there is a spiritual dimension to life.
And our spiritual life is significant, important.
It matters, a lot, it would seem.
We share this universe with other beings
some of whom we can’t usually see
but whose presence impacts us.
We have to admit
that this cosmos God created
is wild, untamed and chaotic.
We are part of the equation.
But we are not in control.
And we are not alone.
In my pastoral practice
almost every person
I have ever talked to about this stuff,
has some kind of story,
an experience, a vision, a dream,
a visitation, a divine intervention
so powerful, so extraordinary they can’t shake it.
They usually can’t explain it,
but they are as sure of it as anything
It has taken me a long time
to find the courage to speak of my own experience.
Until now I have been afraid.
Afraid of what everyone would think of me.
Afraid for my reputation.
Mostly afraid of the look . . .
the look that conveys many things
but primarily . . . judgement.
But it is time for me to stop being scared.
and the truth is that if we can’t talk about this stuff
in the safety of a gathered community
surrounded by prayer and blessing
then where can we talk about it?
A number of years ago
I worked as an office temp.
What did I know about the place I was sent?
I was not at all invested in what was happening.
And didn’t really care.
Walk in . . . do the work . . . walk out.
That’s the game.
But this was the most toxic work environment
I had even been in,
before and since.
All sneer and gossip
sniping and betrayal.
It was like even the air whispered.
Somehow it was strong enough
and had gone on long enough
that it had attracted the attention of the darkness
called the demonic to it
so that now every unkind word
whether intended or not
had significant spiritual fire power.
The words became like swords
opening up the fabric of the universe
calling in ever more darkness.
Each day worse than the one before.
After a few days I could see the darkness
like ink in the atmosphere.
After a few more days
I began to see the darkness more clearly
. . . see it with my other eyes . . .
I began to hear the darkness
inside and outside my head
scratching, clicking, terrible frequencies
that laid waste to my heart.
I began to feel the darkness
grabbing at me.
I felt like I was losing my sanity
and every day
the demonic there bled me dry
took all of my hope.
I am not prone to depression
but I went to such a deep dark place
I thought about suicide.
I could not recover my balance.
And at its worst I forgot how to say God.
God was just the faint memory
of a bad idea I had once.
Every day I would go to work.
and every night I would
curl up on my kitchen floor
trying to remember why I existed.
A very wise and wonderful friend
walked with me through all of it.
She told me to protect my heart
if I could.
She told me not to participate
cause it was easy to start to hate
and blame the people there.
But that was just more of the same.
And it fed the demons.
My friend told me to call for help.
I am not good at asking for help.
I didn’t know how to ask for help.
So I said “help.”
No conviction . . . only surrender.
And in a millisecond . . . they came.
The host . . . like a light bomb
. . . and it was over.
The thought of God flooded back in to my mind.
I remembered hope.
This experience taught me
the most valuable thing I know about angels;
when and why they intervene.
Angels won’t do for us what we can do for ourselves.
They are for the things we cannot do ourselves.
They are for the battles we cannot possibly win
or even begin to fight, for that matter.
This world – this violence and terror
war and poverty
hatred and injustice
that we experience . . .
if it was all down to a spiritual battle
they would be here.
If all the work we could do was done
and the only thing continuing to hold us captive
was the demonic
that is a battle they could fight for us.
But that’s not really the way it is.
Our will, it would seem
is to let all this around us continue.
These are our choices, our sin.
We could change it . . . if we really wanted.
We could choose differently
. . . for our economies
. . . for our relationships
. . . for our lives.
If we put all of our energy
into righting our world . . . at any cost
then, in my experience, angels would be available.
Only when we have used
every single drop
of our own will
and our collective will
to align ourselves with the Light,
will they come.
to banish what is left of the darkness.
We are not alone, we do have help.
If only we will help ourselves.
This is why we need to be talking.
This is why we need to take what has been
so deeply, sacredly personal
and make it communal.
It is the only way we have a chance.
If we are going to entertain
the idea of angels at all
then we have to admit that everything . . .
all that we say, all that we do, all that we believe
all of it has spiritual significance.
There is no spiritually neutral circumstance.
You are never just making your bed
or doing your dishes
or making decision about
where to invest your RRSP contributions
or what job to take.
What does it mean to live
in a supernaturally charged world.
where God and God’s angels
can break in and radically change our lives?
What would it mean to pay attention
to dreams and visions and voices
to let them have some power in our lives?
The light is coming, very soon.
Maybe it is time
to let ourselves wake up again
to this world that is alive with mystery
and filled with visions, imagination, dreams,
and angelic beings
the half of which we know not.
Maybe as we wait for the light
to crack the visage of this world
and break in again as it once did
we can ready ourselves to see the world
and our place in it differently.
The world is alive
and the presence of God.
Our lives have meaning.
How we use our will is important.
What we do, what we choose
has spiritual significance.
I can think of no greater hope
or at any other moment of our lives.