Perspectives: In the company of angels
Parts of the Christmas story are really very earthy: the embarrassment of an unmarried pregnant girl, the harsh Roman world that would make that same woman take a long journey to register for a census, and the nativity of hills and caves and Caesar Augustus kings and shepherds that watched their flocks by night.
And then parts of the story are just bizarre and wildly supernatural. It was to Zechariah, Mary, Joseph and shepherds on a lonely hillside that that the angels gave great news. When I was first a follower of Jesus, there was for me this extraordinary revelation that Jesus was real. And then it followed that in this new reality, angels were somehow part of the package! I remember saying once in a prayer, “Angels? You have got to be kidding me!”
There is huge interest around angels. Even the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s wife has written a book on them. The Bible is surprisingly forthright on the subject. Unlike the Trinity, angels have not always existed; they are part of the universe that God created. Ezra wrote, “You are the Lord, you alone have made the heaven of heavens with all their angels.”
The Apostle Paul tells us that God created all things visible and invisible. And there are lots of angels. Ten thousand are said to have accompanied God at Mount Sinai. The Bible speaks of “the chariots of God” as “tens of thousands and thousands of thousands.” John talks about myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels.
What do angels do all day? The short answer is, as God’s servants, whatever God asks them to do. It would seem that they are sent by God to guard and protect, and to bring God’s word to people. From time to time, angels take on a bodily form to appear to various people. (We see this in the Bible.)
The Bible also gives us some angelic health warnings. We are not to worship or pray to angels. An angel speaking to the Apostle John warned him, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” (Revelation 19:10).
Two parallel but unequal kingdoms simultaneously occur: the kingdom of God and the kingdom that is this broken world. One night, in the cold, in the dark, among the wrinkled hills of Bethlehem, these two worlds came together at a dramatic point of intersection. Jesus’ birth is really a story of invasion — the kingdom of God breaking into the kingdom of the world.
When the kingdom of God breaks in it is the most wonderful thing. His kingdom of hope breaks into the kingdom of despair. His kingdom of light breaks into the kingdom of darkness. His eternal kingdom breaks into our finite kingdom and the miraculous breaks into the mundane.
I have a good friend in the United Kingdom who is now the dean of my former seminary. As a student, she worked at a summer camp situated on the coastline of North Devon. She vividly recalls a runaway tractor careening across the camp field and headed over the cliffs, with a group of young people on the beach below. She and many others watched a man run across the field and jump into the moving vehicle. With the tractor brakes broken, he managed to pull the tractor around and make a dramatic stop at the very edge of the cliff top. She and the others ran to thank the hero of the hour, only to find no one inside the cab of the tractor.
Another good friend was a missionary in a downtown part of Sydney, Australia. Returning home late one night and all alone, she took a shortcut through a dark underpass. In the middle of the tunnel, she was threatened by a gang who demanded her money or her life. But the gang fled when a large man appeared behind her. Shaken, she turned to thank the stranger but found herself completely alone.
You might ask, why does this stuff not happen to me? If we are committed to the idea that all of this angel stuff is nonsense, then I suspect we won’t see it, even if it is right in front of us. Faith is a gift. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)
But faith is, at the same time, a choice. Your part is to choose to accept the gift. Faith is, therefore, trust. Of that night in Sydney, my friend wrote, “As I look back to my time in Australia, I know that during that year of my life, I had to choose to rely upon God in a whole new way. I remember that this increased my prayer life dramatically. This in turn increased my expectancy that God would act. I became more aware of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom compared to any other time in my life.”
In the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing the cross was before him, Jesus was confronted by “a great crowd with swords and clubs” who had come to seize him on behalf of the chief priests and elders. A disciple drew a sword, but Jesus rebuked him. “Put your sword back into its place … Do you think I cannot call on my father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Why didn’t Jesus call on the angelic guard? He made this choice because our eternal destiny was at stake. All of us who were “careening toward the cliff,” separated from God, were about to be rescued. The company of angels serve God in the continued in-breaking of his kingdom, in the continuing story of our rescue.
There is a world out there that is seen and unseen — visible and invisible — and God sees it all. So if in God’s estimation, I am in need of rescue, then I humbly accept his lifeline. If in God’s estimation, I need some angelic backup, then bring it on. Personally, I would not be without Jesus and I am grateful to be living in the knowledge of the company of angels.
The Rev. Drew Williams is the senior pastor of Trinity Church.