(Susanna 31-44)+Psalm 34:1-9+Titus 3:4-7+Matthew 1:18-25
What do you think of when you hear the word “angel?” What images does that word conjure for you?
I imagine for a lot of people, it’s a cute and chubby little baby-looking agent of Cupid with wings and a bow and arrow, just waiting to cause love to blossom.
Or maybe it’s the Angel Gabriel from Renaissance paintings, a white-robed young man with wings greeting the girl Mary.
If you’re into apocalyptic stuff, the Archangel Michael’s battle against Satan in the 12th chapter of Revelation might generate a picture of a warrior angel.
But what we imagine to be a biblical understanding of what angels are may not be quite accurate.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the word we translate as “angel” simply means messenger, and it may mean either a human messenger, like the ones during the wars between David and Saul who carried updates from the battlefield to the camps, or a divine messenger, like the three who met Abraham under the oaks of Mamre and told him that Sarah would become pregnant.
There is nothing in the Hebrew scriptures or the Christian scriptures that says that angels have wings. The ones with wings are cherubim and seraphim, and they are in a whole category of their own, the seraphim flying about with their six wings and the cherubim guarding the tabernacle in the temple with four wings and four faces. They are distinctively not angels. Luke tells us the heavenly host, the angels, appeared to the shepherds and then departed from them into heaven (Luke 2:9-15). Did they have wings? It just doesn’t say.
(I will interrupt myself here to say that there is something akin to guardian angels in the early rabbinic writings, the Talmud, where it speaks of ministering angels (כְּמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת) who fly from one end of the world to the other. (Chagigah 16a) I have Rabbi Rob Scheinberg and the Thursday morning Pirkei Avot class to thank for that part!)
So, what is an angel and why am I going on about them? Well, because there are several angelic appearances in the readings today and throughout the Christmas story, and it’s worth considering. I mean, who actually believes in angels these days? Sure, we may talk about a guardian angel, but is that someone flitting around with wings? And are we afraid of them as those in scripture seem to be?
Well, let’s see.
This morning, Joseph is the one with an angelic visit. He discovers that his betrothed is pregnant. There is a marriage contract that has not yet been completed or consummated, and the fact that Mary is pregnant is cause for her to be accused of adultery. Under Mosaic law, that means she can be stoned to death. Now, just because there are no instances of anyone actually being stoned to death for adultery in the bible does not mean that it couldn’t happen. Joseph is a good guy, a mensch, and so he decides to dismiss her without making a fuss. Just break the contract and let her and her family deal with whatever the consequences might be. But here’s where the angel comes and tells him to marry her anyway. We don’t know what this angel looked like, just that it appeared in a dream and, one is to assume, the message it brings is from God. That’s how Joseph interprets it, and that is what he does.
With all the talk of biblical manhood and womanhood these days, I’d like to point folks to Joseph who set aside his rights and submitted himself in humility to his wife’s calling. I mean, if a woman can give birth to God in the flesh, surely she can get in a pulpit and talk about it.
Joseph will have another dream later on after the birth of Jesus when Herod is enraged and planning to slaughter the children of Bethlehem. In this dream, the messenger tells him to take his family and flee to Egypt, and that is what he does.
The magi have a dream, too, not to return to Herod with the infant’s whereabouts but to go home by a different way.
Mary, on the other hand, gets an actual visit, at least in Luke. The angel Gabriel comes to her to tell her that she has been chosen to be the bearer of God. The image on the cover of this week’s bulletin is striking in that Gabriel, save for the wings, looks like a normal human and Mary is just a young schoolgirl reading the Isaiah prophecy about the birth of the Messiah. Just a normal image of daily life, interrupted by a divine messenger. An angel.
I am beginning to think that we dismiss the idea of angels and angelic visits too hastily. No, I don’t think they are chubby little winged creatures, but I believe angels might just be all around us.
When a friend listens carefully and knows just the thing to say to help you gain clarity.
When a complete stranger does or says something completely unexpected but absolutely needed.
If an angel is a messenger, surely they are all around us, showing up just in time. Maybe they come from God and maybe they are simply human visitors, but they guide us on our way, strengthening us when we have need, encouraging us, inviting us to who knows where.
We encounter one more angel this morning in our psalm. “The messenger of She Who Saves encompasses those who revere her, and she will deliver them” (34:7) or in the more familiar version from the Book of Common Prayer Psalter, “The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, and he will deliver them.”
The saving messenger. The one who wrestled with Jacob and blessed him with a name. The one who paved the way for Jesus to be born and to survive.
Angels walk among us, but we are so focused on wings and mythic imagery that I am not sure we can even see them. I have been helped by countless messengers in my journey through life. Some I am convinced came from God, whether they knew that or not.
As this Advent season of waiting and watching draws to a close, I pray that we can all look for those angels who invite us to come, see what God has waiting for you.