Angel-Voices, Ever Singing…

You may know the hymn from which my title is taken. You may even know that this year’s St Matthew’s Christmas Tree Festival is taking that as its theme. Angels, it seems, are everywhere: one of the most popular songs in recent times is ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams. You’ll find angels in the movies, including the Christmas classic, ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ in which Clarence, a second-class angel, gets his wings. Angels are popular in art, from icons and stained glass, to statues and tattoos, and from architecture to children’s nativity plays.

We get our word ‘angel’ from the Greek ‘angelos‘ which means ‘messenger’. In the bible, angels are messengers, communicating between God and humanity. Sometimes, particularly in the earlier parts of the Old Testament, the ‘Angel of the Lord‘ is almost indistinguishable from God. The angel that appears to Abraham or to Moses is God’s representative. Since God is far beyond human imagination, the angel bridges the gap. And when Jacob wrestles with a strange figure, usually considered to be an angel, he is said to have “striven with God”. Jacob also has a vision of a stairway to heaven: he sees a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down. When Jacob wakes he says:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)

In the New Testament, when Jesus meets Nathaniel, he tells him that he will see

“heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51)

It’s an odd picture; not one I’ve ever seen in stained glass, but Jesus is God’s ‘ladder’, God’s ‘stairway to heaven’. Jesus is the ‘place’ where God is made known, the place where earth connects with heaven. Jesus is the mediator, the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity connect.

If your picture of an angel is overly influenced by children’s nativity plays, in which the angels are played by little girls in tinsel tiaras and fairy wings, then you should note that the only biblical angels we know by name are male: Michael and Gabriel. (There’s also Raphael if you count the apocryphal book of Tobit.) Not only are they male, they are tough, warlike characters. In the book of Daniel, Michael turns up as defender of God’s people, Israel, and, in the New Testament book of Revelation, when war breaks out in heaven, Michael and his angels take on the dragon and his evil forces.

In the Old Testament, Gabriel helps Daniel to understand the strange vision God has given him. When Gabriel appears, Daniel is so terrified that he falls to the ground. If you are still not convinced that meeting an angel would be a terrifying encounter, then let me point out that, in most cases in the biblical story when an angel appears, the first thing they say is, “Do not be afraid!”

Gabriel also turns up in the New Testament. He appears to the priest Zechariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive, will give birth to a son, to be called John. (We will know him as John the Baptist.) The angel Gabriel is then “sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth”, to a virgin called Mary (Luke 1:26-38). If the news given to Zechariah is strange, this news blows that out of the water. Mary will bear a son, call him Jesus, and he will be called ‘Son of God’.

In Matthew’s account, an unnamed angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and reassures him that Mary’s unplanned pregnancy is God’s doing – “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”; he is “‘Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us’.” (Matthew 1:18-25). An angel of the Lord, accompanied by “a multitude of the heavenly host” then appear to the shepherds to tell them to hurry down to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place (Luke 2:8-20). If a single angel is a terrifying sight, then imagine the prospect of seeing “a multitude of the heavenly host”! A whole army of angels filling the sky!

Angels reappear at a number of key points in the Gospels and in the rest of the New Testament, at moments when heaven breaks open to earthly view and when God speaks. I don’t know that I have ever seen an angel – but the bible warns me not to rush to judgement since, some have “entertained angels unaware” (Hebrews 13:2). But as we approach Advent and our Christmas Tree Festival, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to be open to the possibility of God sending us a message of encouragement and hope through an angel or two. And as we prepare to celebrate the Christmas message, in which God and humanity are brought together by the one who is far superior to angels (Hebrews 1:1-14) let’s be open to the fact that we might have an angelic mission to others as messengers of that good news.

Alan Jewell

Christmas 2015

These days, television shows which use hidden cameras are commonplace. Back in the day, there was Candid Camera. Members of the public were put in bizarre situations and their reactions secretly filmed. And hilarity ensued.

My favourite stunt is from the American version of the show (1974). Children were interviewed and asked a hypothetical question. Imagine you could meet a legendary sportsman, like the boxer, Muhammad Ali. What would you say to him and what would you do? Muhammad Ali probably still is the most famous sportsman of the modern era. What would it be like to meet such an iconic figure, a legendary almost mythical character? What would it be like to meet Muhammad Ali, face-to-face?

The children have a variety of responses; questions they would ask, things they would say if they could meet the legend. Of course, while they are answering the hypothetical question, Muhammad Ali himself, in person, walks into the room, behind the child. While they are still talking, Ali taps them on the shoulder. They turn their heads and find themselves looking up into the face of the legendary, mythical figure. At that point they stop talking. Their mouth falls open and they are silent, for a moment at least. What had been a hypothetical question about a mythical figure is now a face-to-face encounter with a person who has entered the room.

And that’s what the Christmas story is about. The figure of myth and speculation has entered the room. We can speculate about God – whether God exists, what God might be like – but the Christmas story says that God has walked into the room and is not a concept to be debated, but a person to be encountered.

It’s time to stop talking about God. It’s time to meet God. We find ourselves looking into the face of God in – of all places – a manger, an animal’s feed trough. The last place on earth you’d go looking for God!

The trouble is, the God of our imagination doesn’t look like this: that most helpless of creatures, a new-born human baby. A weak, vulnerable child that needs a mother’s milk to survive; a baby that needs to be changed and cleaned by human parents. And don’t give me any of that ‘Away in a Manger’ nonsense about the little Lord Jesus – “no crying he makes”! Of course he cried, when he was hungry, cold, uncomfortable or dirty. Like any one of us.

The adult Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem because it didn’t know the way to find peace. It seems highly unlikely that he didn’t cry as baby!

‘Once In Royal David’s City’ gets closer to the truth:

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;

He was little, weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.

The bible says, that’s what God is like: little, weak and helpless. The child in the manger, because there was “no room at the inn”, discovers there’s no room in the world. The earthly life that begins in a wooden manger, will end on a wooden cross. Mary’s child will be nailed to a beam and publicly exposed to humiliation. A baby in a manger or a man nailed to a cross is hardly in a position of power! But then, this man shows what real power looks like when he wraps himself in a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus shows us a God who chooses the role of a servant, not the boss.

Not the God you want? Other gods are available! The gods of power, wealth, fame, comfort, religion… But I’m sticking with this one! The one who, as ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us – offers to share our lives with us.

Of course, one day we will have to give an account to God of what we did with the life he gave us. That’s a terrifying prospect! But the bible says we can face it with confidence because of what that child in the manger has done for us: he has broken the barrier between us and God through his death on the cross. At the Lord’s Table we are invited to take bread and wine in remembrance of him; the God who makes himself known as the babe in the manger, the foot-washing servant, the man on the cross and in the everyday ordinariness of bread and wine.

Happy Christmas!