Angels seem to be everywhere, if not the real heavenly beings, then depictions of them. Someone gave me a terra cotta angel that is perched on top of a bookcase in my study at home. You can find angels on jewelry, on coffee mugs, on greeting cards. Some of the most popular TV shows are about heavenly beings. The Good Place is about the hereafter that may or may not be so good. God Friended Me tells the adventures of a man who encounters God on his smartphone. Angels show up in movies. Even the Fonz, Henry Winkler, played an angel once, a full-loving spirit named Michael who is just one of the guys at heart.
Our interest in angels is notable considering how little the Bible tells us about them. There’s a lot we could say about angels, but most of it comes from those books called the Apocrypha which were written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, or from the imagination of medieval artists, or from New Age fads. When we go to the Bible, our final authority in spiritual matters, we’re left with more questions about angels than answers.
One thing you notice about angels in the Bible, and I think this gives us a clue to their popularity in modern times, is that they often appear in times of distress and despair when God seems very distant. When Jacob was fleeing Esau, having tricked his brother and deceived his father, escaping certain death and running toward and uncertain future, he saw angels going up and down a ladder at Bethel. When Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, and her son Ishmael were expelled from Abraham’s household by the jealous wife Sarah and left to die in the desert, it was an angel who guided them to water and delivered them to safety. The biblical books with the most angels, Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New Testament, were written at times when God’s people were being persecuted violently and the faithful were in danger of giving up hope that God cared about them at all. When Jesus was alone in the wilderness and tempted by the devil, he was ministered to by angels, and as he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, angels cared for him.
Maybe angels are so popular today because we are in such desperate need for reminders that God is involved in the world around us. When you read about so many mass shootings, when it seems that civility and morality in public life are plummeting to ever newer lows, when drug abuse plagues even the most respectable neighborhoods, we can use some reminders that God really is involved and not looking on aloofly from the heavens.
The Bible is more concerned with what angels do than it is concerned about who they are. In scripture angels have three functions. They communicate messages from God to human beings, they intercede with God’s people to rescue them from danger, and they offer praises to God in heaven. This morning I would like to talk about angels in general and their first function as messengers from on high. Next week I would like to discuss how they function as helpers, and on November 24 we will see how they carry out their work of praise.
When we try to describe angels as we know them from the Bible, it’s like trying to describe a tree as you’re looking at it through a small third story window. When you look at a tree through a window, you’re going to see some branches coming into view from this way and some from that way. If you were standing out in the yard and could see the whole tree, you would see how all the branches fit together to make up a whole tree, but through a window all you can see are pieces that, from your limited perspective, look disconnected. It also makes a difference when you look at that tree. If you describe the tree in the spring, you might describe it as covered with beautiful flowers. If somebody else tells about the tree they see in the summer they’ll describe it as luscious green. In the fall it will be cloaked inflaming orange, and in the winter it will be bare and gray.
The Bible is like our window on angels. Sometimes we see them portrayed as completely other-worldly in appearance, like the shining angel chorus that appeared to the shepherds in the sky over Bethlehem’s plain when Jesus was born. Sometimes they appear as human beings, like the three angels who appeared to Abraham and told him that he would have a son in their old age. Sometimes they are strange looking creatures that are hard to describe such as the six-winged seraphs that Isaiah saw in the temple in Jerusalem. Often there is no description at all of what they look like, as in the story we read this morning which says merely that Jacob saw a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it.
Our popular conception of angels says as much about us as it does about angels. C.S. Lewis, that wonderfully witty writer, says that we portray angels as looking like human beings because humans are the most rational and perceptive form of life we’ve ever seen. We imagine angels as having wings as a way of symbolizing that their movement is not constrained by physical limitations the way ours is. We give angels the wings of birds and devils the wings of bats because most people like birds better than bats.
Sometimes the Bible portrays angels as a concentration of God in one place so that when you meet an angel, you’re actually meeting God. When the angel of God appeared to Moses in the burning bush, it was God himself who was talking to Moses. Sometimes the Bible describes angels who have unique personalities of their own, distinct from God. In the book of Daniel the angel Michael fights the forces of evil on behalf of God’s people. The angel Gabriel, who also appears in Daniel, shows up again in Luke’s gospel to tell Mary that she had been chosen to be the mother of Jesus.
However angels are portrayed in the Bible, they are of a different nature from the human beings to whom they appear. They are not the disembodied souls of the dead, like dear old Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, who had died back in the 19th century and was still trying to earn his wings in Bedford Falls in the 1940s. Angels are a separate order of creatures, made by God. You and I are beings of flesh who can’t separate our identity from our fleshly bodies. Angels, on the other hand, are purely spiritual, creatures made by God who have no fleshly bodies and never did.
Now, that’s hard for us to conceive. Nothing in the world as we know it allows for other kinds of beings to inhabit the universe with us as purely spiritual creatures. No one can give you any scientific proof that angels exist. But, you know, the more we learn about science, the humbler we become about what we know and don’t know. There was a time when we saw the world through the eyes of Isaac Newton – it was a giant machine that was well ordered and completely rational that could be explained by a finite set of laws. But now that we know about black holes and quarks and how the speed of light bends time and a universe that is ever expanding out to who knows where, we’re a lot humbler about what we assume is possible and what is not. The more science teaches us about the complexities of our universe, the more open we should be to what the Bible has taught us all along: that God can do things and create beings that are beyond our human ability to comprehend.
The Bible is clear that angels and human beings are different orders of creation, and the story of God as told in scripture is the story of God working among human beings. The Christian faith is not a prescription for us to become something other than what God made us to be. From beginning to end, the Bible tells us that God values this physical world in which we exist. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that when God created the world, God proclaimed it good. Instead of trying to spirit us away from the afflictions that come with living in human bodies, God took on a human body in the person of Jesus Christ who was not an angel but a human being. In Christ the sufferings of our bodies are often what lead us to rely on Jesus whose physical suffering on the cross brought us eternal life. In the resurrection we still have bodies, it’s just that they’re bodies that have been changed. They’re resurrection bodies, like Christ’s body after he was raised. We can’t say exactly what they’ll be like because we don’t have them yet.
Yet there are stories in the Bible of these spiritual creatures called angels appearing to men and women. Their appearances aren’t predictable or controlled. Sometimes they appear to good, upright people in places you might expect an angel, the way an angel appeared to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah when he was making a sacrifice to God in the temple. Just as often they appear to unlikely people in unlikely places. Jacob, whose angel ladder we read about today, was a scoundrel who had stolen his twin brother’s birthright. The place where the angels appeared was a site that was known as a center for worshiping the pagan god Baal. One thing almost all the angel appearances have in common is that they cause fear in the person who sees them. The reaction of those who see angels isn’t like the reaction of seeing an old friend who brings relief. It’s terror that comes from being before something that’s far more powerful than you are.
One question that bothers us is that if angels are so powerful and so effective in getting people to do what God wants them to do, then why doesn’t God use them more often? Whey doesn’t God create a corps of angels, like Monica in that series from the 1990s Touched by an Angel, who will spread out across the world and completely change the course of history?
God’s purpose isn’t to astound us or force us into believing. Some years ago a writer did an article on angels and discovered that most people who have had encounters with angels were reluctant to talk to him about them because they knew that people are more interested in hearing about the angel than about the one who sent the angel. The Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 12 tells about an experience he had where he was caught up into what he calls the third heaven, a deeply spiritual experience, which he was reluctant to talk about and about which he said very little.
Intensely spiritual experiences and encounters with angels are wonderful gifts, but God’s purposes aren’t to overwhelm us. What God desires in God’s dealings with us is to lead us into a relationship with him. Too much reliance on angels or flashy miracles would distract us from the one who sent them. After all, the word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger, and the messenger is far less important than the one who sends the message.
The more common ways that God communicates with us are through prayer and Bible study and the sacraments. Sometimes we encounter someone who may not be an angel but through whom God speaks to us if we are able to hear. Have you ever had the experience of a chance encounter or an offhand remark that changed your life? That’s how lots of people come to know God, through an undramatic invitation by a friend to return to church or a close encounter with danger that reminds them of their mortality and reframes their focus on life. Those aren’t angels speaking in those situations, but God’s Holy Spirit giving the discernment to see beyond the surface to a deeper level of meaning. God can use angels to communicate with us, but more often God works in the warp and woof of our lives to become part of our everyday experience.
So yes, encounters with real angels are rare, and if we do see them, most of wouldn’t recognize them. But those little statues watching innocently from the corner of our living room or those cherubs adorning the mugs from which we drink our morning coffee can remind us that God does communicate with us and is not removed from our lives. Angels are meant to point us to the one from God who is always with us and who isn’t confined to experiences of supernatural glory and splendor, the one who through the power of the Holy Spirit speaks to our spirits and transforms us, body and soul, into Godly people. Angels point us to the one who is far above them in honor and in glory, to Jesus Christ, the son of God, who is with us always.