This sermon was written for the good folks of Osage (Iowa) United Church of Christ where I was scheduled to preach on Sunday, December 18, until a Winter Storm Warning and a Wind Chill Warning changed our plans.
How many of you have played an angel in a Christmas pageant – maybe when you were children? In my experience, churches always want every child to have a part in the pageant, so the kids who aren’t playing the major roles get assigned to be shepherds if they are boys, and to be angels if they are girls. And it always feels a little bit like being chosen last for a team at school recess.
Well cheer up, angel alumnae! Angels are not incidental in the Nativity stories we hear in the gospels of Mark and Luke. Angels are, by definition, messengers of God, and their messages are at the heart of the stories we cherish at Christmastime.
Luke the Evangelist begins his narrative with the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Zechariah, a priest in the temple. Gabriel announced that Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and bear a child – a child we will come to know as John the Baptist.
Gabriel makes a second appearance a few verses later when he goes to Nazareth to tell Mary that God has chosen her to bear a child who will be called “the Son of the Most High.” Mary’s response to this surprising news is the lovely song we call “The Magnificat” because it begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
The Christmas angels we know best are the ones who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds by singing in the skies over the fields where they were watching their sheep. The Angel of the Lord is surrounded by the “heavenly host,” an army of angels praising God and singing.
Matthew’s telling of the nativity story depends upon angels in quite a different way. We just heard about the first instance [Matthew 1:18-25]: When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant, he was planning to “dismiss her quietly,” that is, divorce her. But an angel appeared to him in a dream and reassured him to go forward with the marriage.
Joseph had two more dream visitations by angels, in parts of the story that we read much less often in church. The first was a warning to take Mary and the baby to Egypt because Herod was searching for the child and wanted to destroy him. Some years later another angel in another dream tells Joseph to return to Israel, and the family settles in Nazareth.
Most of the messages that these angels brought began with some reassurance: Fear Not! Do not be Afraid! But with the exception of the dream warning to Joseph to take his family to Egypt, nothing that the angels had to say was obviously frightening.
But the key word here is “obviously.” Because the news that these divine messengers brought was so startling in such a dramatic and luminous way that it might well have been frightening to those who heard it first.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were, as the text in Luke so delicately puts it, “getting on it years,” and they had no children. The announcement by Gabriel that they would have a son took Zechariah so much by surprise that he didn’t believe it and questioned the angel. In that moment he lost his voice, which he did not regain until eight days after the baby was born. The angel brought this couple news that was thrilling and frightening at the same time – not only that they would have a son, but that this son would be great in the sight of the Lord and would have a vocation of turning the hearts of the people towards God.
The messenger’s words to Mary were no less startling and no less thrilling and alarming. She, too, would have a child, and this son would be known as the “Son of the Most High” and “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” [Luke 1:32] I can’t help noticing that this young woman from Nazareth did not question these words (as Zechariah had); her response was simple: “..let it be with me according to your word.” [Luke 1:38] If she was frightened by these words or cowed by the presence of the divine messenger, she did not say so to Gabriel.
For a dramatic and thrilling message, probably nothing can surpass the angel choir over the fields near Bethlehem. Their very appearance was a stunning surprise – the more so because the shepherds were among the poorest and least respected persons in that ancient land. The shepherds, not surprisingly, were “sore afraid” (as the King James Version put it); they were terrified.
All of these messengers, whether in dreams or in the night sky, brought the news that the world was about to be a different place. I am convinced that the words “Fear Not” and “Do not be afraid” are not reassurances about the angels or their appearance, but reassurances about the new world that they had come to proclaim. The angels are really NOT scary themselves, but they know that their message may be hard for us to hear.
It is no secret that change can be difficult for humans and for human communities. If you have tried to persuade a family member to move off the farm and into town, or a teenager to take school more seriously, or a business to change its signature product, or even a church to sing new hymns, then you know that change is easy to describe and advocate, but challenging to persist in and achieve. No wonder that change often seems frightening and risky.
When the angels proclaim, “Fear Not,” they are not minimizing the risk and effort that it takes to change – whether it is our personal habits or the morale of our country or the peace of our world. What they are doing is reminding us that whatever it is that we need to do – whatever actions we need to take, whatever sacrifices we may need to make, whatever habits we may have to break and replace with new ones – whatever we need to do, it will be done better out of love and hope than out of fear.
Fear, sadly, often brings out the worst in us. Fear makes us suspicious and anxious. Fear makes us cautious and hyper-sensitive to slights, insults, and the mistakes of others. Fear steals our sense of perspective and our sense of humor; it undermines our experience of God’s grace and providence. Fear makes us believe that safety is more important than justice, more important than peace, more important than compassion or reconciliation. Fear lies to us about what we need to be happy, and it lies to us about other people’s motives, worries, and aspirations. Fear focuses our attention on problems, differences, disappointments, and failures, and it diverts our attention from solutions, compromises, happy surprises, and successes.
The angels of the nativity stories present two alternatives to fear: “Hear the Good News!” and “Get Going!”
It was “Good News” that Elizabeth and Zechariah were to have a child after all. Better yet, it would be a child who would bring them happiness, and who would also do important work for God.
It was “Good News” that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that she would give birth to the Son of the Holy One.
It was “Good News” that the child had been born in Bethlehem and that the shepherds were the first to hear about it.
On the other hand, when Joseph was considering whether to marry Mary after he discovered she was pregnant, the answer in his dream was “Get going!”
When it became dangerous to stay in Judea because Herod was determined to murder any child who might threaten his power, another angel in another dream said it again: “Get going!”
And when the danger was finally past, and it was safe for the Holy Family to return to Judea, the third angel in the third dream chimed in: “Get going.”
Our fears and anxieties and worries are different from those of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary. And the angels who come to speak to us may not be as embodied as Gabriel and the singing heavenly host, or speak as clearly in our dreams as the ones who spoke to Joseph. But the chances are still good that the instructions we will get from whatever angels come into our lives will be these same ones: “Hear the Good News!” and “Get Going.”
Probably most of we adults will not have another chance to be in a Christmas Pageant. We former angels will not dress up again in white smocks with itchy halos and droopy wings. But we can remember our lines and recite them now in real life instead of on the chancel of the church: Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.