Wouldn’t you like to have an angel step into your life every once in a while? Have there been times when you’ve been in a predicament like Peter’s, maybe not chained in a jail cell, but in a hopeless situation with no way out, and you could have used an angel to spirit you away from your problems? Or have you been headed in a foolhardy direction, like Balaam on his way to Balak, and wish, now that you look back in hindsight, that an angel had stood in your path, waved a sword in front of you, and warned you in that convincing way that only angels can, that you had better rethink what you’re doing? That’s one reason angels have such appeal: They offer the possibility that we may not have to rely on our own wits to survive and prosper. They present the possibility that we’re not bound by the laws of nature, the actions of others, and the consequences of our own misguided decisions. Last Sunday we talked about angels as messengers of God. Today I want to talk about angels as agents of God, beings who do things, who make good things happen and prevent bad things from taking place.
But for all the popularity of angels, many people have trouble with them. They see them as relics of an obsolete world view, one that attributed illness to demons instead of viruses and saw the earth as the flat center of a three-tiered universe. The idea of angels turns off those who have an aversion to overly large doses of sweetness and light. The popular image of heaven which the Victorian era, adorned with frills and flourishes, looks more like something from Better Homes and Gardens magazine than anything from the Bible, so that instead of declaring bone-rattling pronouncements like angels utter in scripture – sonorous words like “fear not!” – modern angels look like they are going to pat you on the knee and mutter “There, there.” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Intro.) Someone once observed that angels are so popular because people think that God is too preoccupied with more important things to be concerned about the details of our lives. So it’s reassuring to think that an angel can “make the tow truck come when you have a flat tire.” (Nora Ephron quoted in The New York Times, April 6, 1997, p. 41.) Angels who deliver tow trucks would be nice, but there’s nothing in the Bible that indicates they’re the celestial equivalent of AAA. But angels are mentioned too frequently in the Bible, and too many people I know have told me about encounters they have had with angels that I can’t dismiss them as figments of the imagination.
Bible stories about angels tell us something about God. When we read the Bible, the most important thing we learn about God is that God acts. God isn’t a philosophical notion, a first principle, a distant ideal. God is involved in the lives of women and men, of boys and girls. God didn’t make the universe and set it in motion then step back to watch it work as in the classic image of God as a watchmaker. God is active in the world, and when God acts, God acts in love. Love isn’t something that can be coerced. God made us so we can share love with him and with others. But God gives us freedom to accept his love or reject it. There are times when we choose to do things that go against God’s purpose for us and distance us from God. And there are times when other people do things to us that aren’t in God’s loving purpose, when they hurt us and make us suffer. And there are times when things just happen, like miscarriages and strokes, that can’t be the will of God but which take place because we live in a still imperfect world. Love, at least when human beings are involved, isn’t always neat or predictable. Lots of times it’s complicated and messy.
The Bible tells us that God is involved in this messy world, and there are times when God intervenes in extraordinary ways. The foremost example of God’s intervention in the course of history is Jesus Christ. God took on a human body in Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, taught throughout Galilee and Judea and the surrounding country, was put to death on Calvary and was raised from the dead on Easter. In Jesus God changed the whole course of human history. In him God showed us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even death.
Jesus is God’s supreme intervention in the course of the world, but the Bible tells of other extraordinary interventions. There are miracles, like those that took place during the Passover and Exodus. God sent plagues on Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, plagues of blood and frogs and gnats and even death. God parted the Red Sea so God’s people could escape the Egyptian army. God sent manna and quails to feed the people in the desert during their long forty-year journey. Theologians and biblical scholar debate just how those miracles happened. Did God bend the laws of nature, or did God work within the laws of nature which we haven’t yet discovered, or were the miracles ordinary natural occurrences that happened to take place at just the right time, or did the miracles only take place in the perceptions of people of faith? Those are questions for other sermons, but the Bible is clear that sometimes God intervenes in the world through miracles.
The Bible relates other ways that God intervenes in the world. Sometimes it’s through politics, as when God sent the Babylonians to punish Israel, then after forty years in exile God raised up Cyrus, the king of Persia, who wasn’t even aware that God was using him, to deliver them back home. Sometimes God has intervened through romance, as when Ruth and Boaz fell in love and were married and began the lineage that would lead to King David and then to Jesus. Sometimes God has intervened through dreams, as when Daniel interpreted visions for kings. And sometimes God has intervened through angels.
Whenever angels appear in the Bible, they’re not like the fairy godmother in Cinderella. They don’t show up to grant wishes. Angels show up to carry out God’s plan for humanity. When Peter was freed from jail, it was so he could proclaim the gospel of Christ and establish the church of Christ on earth. When the angel stopped Balaam in his tracks, it was so he would do God’s work and bless Israel as they entered the Promised Land that God had promised to Moses. Angels don’t appear in the Bible in order to make dreams come true. They’re not sent as rewards for being especially good or faithful. Those whose lives are touched by an angel don’t boast about it, usually because they’re humbled that God has given them such a key spot in human history and they are awed at such a direct encounter with the Almighty.
Biblical stories of angels are usually extraordinary, historical events, which raises the question that many of us have: Are there such things as guardian angels who occupy themselves with watching over each of us individually? Do you and I have our own angel who protects us from harm and guides us in our decisions? In favor of guardian angels are a few oblique references, such as Matthew 18:10 where Jesus tells his disciples that the angels of little ones continually see the face of his Father in heaven. After the angel leaves Peter in the story we read this morning, Peter appears to his friends who think that they’re not seeing Peter but his “angel.” But you can make strong arguments from the Bible that there aren’t guardian angels. When angels appear in the Bible, it’s for a brief time. They do their work then disappear, the way the angel did in our reading from Acts. There are no accounts in scripture of angels taking up residence with someone, continually guiding a person or looking over her shoulder. People of faith in the Bible are always aware of God’s presence with them, but only rarely does that presence take the form of an angel. I’m with that great Protestant reformer John Calvin on the question of guardian angels. He said that he just didn’t know if there are guardian angels or not.
Angels are wonderful examples of God in action, but for some thoughtful people, their irregular appearances create more problems than hope. It’s like a sign that was on a small church in Texas. The sign read, “Come into this church to sit, to think, to look at the beauty within, to pray. It’s never too late to talk to God.” And there was a small sign below that read, “Hours 9 a.m. to Noon.” If God does sometimes intervene in the world through angels, why doesn’t God do it more often?
For instance, Peter was rescued from prison by an angel, but why wasn’t James? I know of a person who felt an angel rescue him from death, but why do other people get cancer and die? Those are some of the most difficult questions that the human mind can come up with, and angels aren’t adequate to address them. The only one who can address hard questions like that is Jesus Christ. He could have called down legions of angels to fight off his enemies and rescue him from the cross, but he died there, suffering for us, making his death the way to eternal life. On the cross Jesus overcame the power of suffering by submitting to it.
You see, angel visits are acts of God’s grace, and grace isn’t something we can predict or demand. Once we expect something as our right or our entitlement, it’s no longer grace. It’s more like a stipend. We know that God is good to us, that God is with us even in our suffering, that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and angels remind us of that.
We can’t expect God to send us angels the way one came to Peter in prison, but we can expect God to send us surprises, surprises of grace that astound us as much as that angel astounded Peter. Barbara Brown Taylor tells about growing up in a small town and going to the movie theater on Saturday afternoons in the summer. All the kids tried to get to the matinee early so they could be at the front of the line. They wanted to be right there when the theater owner opened the doors and the fresh cool air from the dark theater rushed out over their hot sweaty faces. They wanted to claim the best seats, right down front, and be first in line for popcorn. And if it was an especially popular movie, they wanted to be in the front so they could be sure to get a seat. There were days when the kids in the back of the line didn’t get in at all.
But what would it be like if one day, the day that the movie that had just won the Academy Award was opening, and the line was so long that you had to get there an hour early to make sure you got a seat in the theater? What if that day you were the last kid in line and for no reason at all other than he felt kindly toward you, the theater owner slipped out the door, walked all the way down the line to the very rear, and said to you and your friends, “You come in first today.” (“Beginning at the End,” in A Chorus of Witnesses, ed. Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.) That’s what grace is. It wouldn’t be grace if you expected it. It wouldn’t be grace if you thought it just might happen and took a chance of standing at the end of the line. That would be gambling. Grace is something as startling as Peter standing out in the open air and realizing that he wasn’t dreaming after all. It’s as improbable as having a donkey look up at you and tell you how to save your life.
God intervenes in our lives in many different ways. Angels remind us of that. But they aren’t the only way God works, nor even the most common. When we profess our faith in Jesus Christ, we trust that God is intimately involved in our lives. Sometimes we get discouraged because we don’t see much evidence of God involved with us. The Psalms are full of cries asking God where in the world he is. That can be a danger of angel stories; they get our hopes up, then when we don’t see an angel, we get disillusioned. But it takes practice to recognize God’s grace when it’s staring us right in the face. It’s like other things that we work on so we recognize what we see right in front of us. If you don’t know anything about basketball, you can’t recognize a brilliant play when you see one. It looks like a bunch of people running aimlessly around a hardwood floor. But if you’ve taken the time to learn something about the game and watched it enough, you’ll recognize a pick and roll when you see one, you’ll anticipate an alley-oop on the way.
We learn to recognize God working among us when we practice looking for God. The way to do that is to develop a discipline of daily prayer and Bible study and worship. Sometimes people think that religion is boring, but that’s often because they haven’t practiced it enough to see the excitement. So much of the time we’re like Balaam kicking and cursing his donkey while God is standing right in front of us trying to get our attention. We look high and low for angels when God is already involved and we don’t even know it.