Luke 1:26-33, Matthew 24:36-44 – Angels
The first words out of the angels’ mouths every time it seems are, “Do not be afraid!”
It’s Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who first converses with an angel in Luke. He is in the temple – chosen by lot which was understood to be divine will to enter the holy place, the sanctuary, and he is still rather startled by what he finds – “an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense”. In fact, the text says, “Zechariah…was terrified and fear overwhelmed him.” But the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah…”
Next the angel Gabriel is sent to Mary. I don’t know if this is an indicator of her character or an anachronistic nod to girl power or whether the word ‘perplexed’ is a poor translation, but Mary’s response to the angel seems much more muted, but fear is still present, for again the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary…”
And later in Luke’s gospel, the angel of the Lord startles some shepherds, “living in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night”…but again adds the words, “Do not be afraid…”
In the gospel of Matthew, the angel delivers the “Do not be afraid,” message to Joseph as he sleeps. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid…” and the angel of the Lord must have been compelling for Joseph, the text says, when he awoke from sleep, “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”
The word ‘angel’ literally means messenger and yet the angels seem to take the role of comforter – or perhaps encourager – those who give courage – quite seriously as well. Or perhaps the message was never meant to be distilled down to, “Zechariah, you will have a son and name him John”; or “Mary, you will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus”; or, “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy”; but was always multi-layered; that the courage was always a part of it. That God is always telling us via the angels that we are called to be part of God’s work, but God will be with us all the way. It is always commissioning plus encouragement.
And as we look around our world today, we need that message of courage as much as ever.
This week in Canberra we have been blanketed in smoke from a fire of over 19,000 hectares burning in the North Black Range, and last weekend it was smoke and dust from other parts of New South Wales. Both fire and dusts storms feature in an Australian summer, but as climate change affects temperatures, dryness, wind speed, humidity and even fuel load, they are growing worse. This graph measures the mean temperature anomaly in Australia, the difference between the average temperature between 1961 and 1990 and the average temperature each year. As you can see above-average temperatures now occur most years.
The New Humanitarian, formerly a project of the Uniting Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called IRIN (which coincidentally is another name for angels, ‘those who are awake and watchful’ in Aramaic) reports that at this moment there are more than 40 conflicts taking place around the world. Many of these do not get the media or policy attention of the wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or the Ukraine, and will not have the same geopolitical or economic importance. But the toll of decades of conflict – in Colombia, the Ogaden, Kashmir and the Western Sahara – is just as devastating for those who live there.
And as a result of climate change and conflict, we are also witnessing the highest levels of people displacement on record. 70.8 million people have been forced from their homes and 25.9 million refugees forced to leave their counties, over half of whom are children or teenagers. Millions of people are without access to basic rights such as education, healthcare and employment.
And in cultural terms, some social critics speak of western society as living in its ‘twilight’, much like decaying Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries, evidenced by the growing social and economic inequalities, government dysfunction, anti-intellectualism and a turning away from the spiritual and ideological narratives that united us in the past. Or others argue that what we are experiencing is one of our every-500-year upheavals in “culture and worldview that will inevitably reshape our faith interpretations and institutions as surely as the great Schism of the eleventh century and the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century.” (Soul…
There is a lot of change taking place. And then there are the changes in our own lives.
But the messaging of the angels is that in the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us (Matthew 1:23); God has not left us or abandoned our earth and history and culture. Not even our own deep dislocation from God or from each other or from our planet can separate us from that loving care, for as the angel told Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
God is with us. “Do not be afraid.”
But sometimes it is the visit of the angel, the call of God on our lives that is itself the cause of fear. As Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor expresses it, “Whenever an angel says, ‘Be not afraid! You’d better start worrying, [because] a big assignment is on the way.”
The visits from angels I’ve described take place around the birth of Jesus, Jesus’ first coming, but today, on the first Sunday in Advent, we also hear from the writings of the early church about Jesus’ second coming, reminding us that the work of the first advent is not yet complete. That the big assignments are still on the way. And telling us that Jesus’ advent in our lives might feel less like the long-awaited arrival of a guest, and more like the unexpected and unwelcome visit of a thief!
The Community Garden was visited by a thief this week. A lemon tree in a large pot, established in memory of a gardener who has died, was removed as well as other plantings, and it was distressing and disturbing for the gardeners. There were the questions about how this could have happened, grief over what was lost and bigger questions about what kind of people would do this kind of thing.
And in the same way, in our Matthew reading the image of Jesus as thief is distressing and disturbing. And yet the message of the angels – even coming with the rider to not be afraid – is that things will have to have to be removed – things we cared about, things we were attached to, things we were sure we couldn’t live without – if we are to make room for God in our lives and our world. Things must shift. Things must change. If we are to heed the voice of the angels, we must also hold into the courage they offer.
Episcopal priest, therapist and author, Morton Kelsey, in his book, The Drama of Christmas writes, “Most of us think we might like to have an encounter with a friendly angel…. [however] the Holy not only gives humans an overwhelming sense of being loved but also makes demands on them just by appearing to them. I knew one man who started a practice of praying and keeping a journal and was making great progress, and then he stopped; he told me had had seen some light, and he didn’t like it.”
Angles figure prominently in the Christmas story. It is hard to know if they are real beings or literary creations that give voice to God’s promise to be with us and God’s call on our lives. And yet they are mentioned more than a hundred times in the Hebrew scriptures and more than 160 times in the New Testament and people still tell stories of being ‘visited by angels unawares’ today. I love the story Ella told us earlier this year of being up, singing praising God in the middle of the night, and then one night when she stopped – hearing the sound of a heavenly choir – as though the conductor forgot to say “Cut” continuing on for a moment.
And yet I think we all know, we have all had the experiences in our lives, when – although no angels have appeared – perhaps by intuition or in a dream or in a word of scripture or the words of a friend or an idea that will not go away, of even of an experience that we can’t entirely explain away, God has spoken to us, God has called us to love the world as God does and said to us, directly to us, “Do not be afraid…”
Martin Luther King, the American civil rights leader, was a person who demonstrated tremendous courage. He endured vilification, beatings, imprisonments, death threats, and as we all know, he eventually was assassinated.
But what kept him going was his sense of God’s call on his life. He was just 26 years old when he was appointed leader of the civil rights campaign in Montgomery, Alabama. Apart from terrifying threats from the Ku Klux Klan, he was also being harassed by the police. Arrested for driving 5 miles per hour over the speed limit he was given his first stint in jail, and the night after his release the phone rang. “Nigger”, said a menacing voice on the other end, “We are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”
King was terrified. He sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee. “And [as] I sat at that table” he says, he thought about his children, “…that [they] could be taken away from me at any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep…And I got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak…
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it…I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage…
And it seemed to me at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised…never to leave me alone.”
Three nights later the threat made in the phone call came true: a bomb was exploded on the front veranda of the King home. Thankfully no one was hurt. But King was able to get through it: “My religious experience a few nights before had given me strength to face it.” Time and again throughout his ministry Martin Luther King returned to that experience to strengthen him as he faced terrible difficulties.
As we go into this Advent, this time of adventus, of the coming of God into our world and lives, may religion again become real for us, may we again hear the call of God to not fear, but to love the world as God loves the world; may we again hear the call on our lives, and may we be reminded of those times when God has said to us “I will never you love, never leave you along. Never alone. No never alone” – may we hear the words again, “Do not be afraid…”