11-24-19 — Angels: In Praise of God — Psalm 103:1-5, 19-22; Revelation 5:11-14 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch
Today we conclude a three-part series of sermons about angels. The first time we talked about angels we saw how they serve as messengers of God, informing human beings of the marvelous things that God is doing. Our last sermon looked at angels as God’s agents, one way that God is actively involved in the world around us. Today we’re going to talk about the third and perhaps most important function of angels in the Bible – their praise of God.
These spiritual beings without physical bodies are mysterious creatures. Even though they are mentioned often in the Bible, the scriptures don’t tell us much about angels. Much of what you read about angels in popular books are conjectures that people have made over the centuries, some based on the Bible, some taken from folklore and other religions, some straight from the imagination of the author. I suspect that the Bible doesn’t tell us much about angels so we won’t be distracted from God, whose messengers and agents the angels are.
For all that angels do in the Bible, from rescuing apostles from jail to slaying Assyrian armies, their encounters with human beings are spotty and extraordinary. When the Bible portrays angels going about their routine business, it’s not roaming the earth looking for people to help or lives to save. Angels spend most of their time doing something that may strike us as not terribly pragmatic or functional or utilitarian. Angels spend most of their time worshiping God.
When the shepherds got a glimpse of heaven on the night that Jesus was born, they saw the heavenly host praising God and singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” When Isaiah was in the temple and beheld the grandeur of God in its fullest, he saw a type of angel called seraphim surrounding the throne praising God. Psalms like the one from which we read this morning tell of angels continually praising God. And the book of Revelation, which in symbolic language describes what it will be like when history reaches its goal, tells of angels and all kinds of creatures surrounding God and giving praise.
There’s a lot we don’t know about angels, but what the Bible tells us about them it tells us for our benefit. Every once in a while we get a glimpse of how the angels spend their time so that we will know the most important thing that we can do. There are lots of important things that we do. We help other, we provide for our families, we work to make the world a better place to live, but those aren’t the most important things we do. The most important thing we do as human beings is doing what the angels do: worshiping and praising God.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a little book of questions and answers that for generations was the basic Sunday school curriculum used by Presbyterian children. It’s part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of our confessions of faith, along with The Apostles’ Creed and eight others, that we use to interpret the Bible. The very first question that the catechism asks is “What is the chief end of human beings?” and the answer is “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Our chief end isn’t to make the world a better place or to win the world for Christ. It’s to glorify and enjoy God. Of course, when we do that, all other good things follow. We naturally help others and show God’s love to all we meet and find the spiritual resources to be good parents, true friends, and faithful children. But before we can do anything else in a way that pleases God, we must first worship.
The angels in the Bible help us see what that means. As they gather around God and sing praise, they are totally focused on God. You see, it is only in God that we get the kind of purpose and focus for our lives that makes them worthwhile. Eugene Peterson says that people who do not worship “live in a vast shopping mall where they go from shop to shop, expending enormous sums of energy and making endless trips to meet first this need and then that appetite, this whim and that fancy. Life lurches from one partial satisfaction to another, interrupted by ditches of disappointment.” So many things claim to offer us meaning and purpose, there is so much to do and so much to acquire that promises to make life better, so much that it often seems we don’t have the time to worship because we’re so busy doing important things.
What makes worship so powerful is that it takes us out of ourselves. When I’m worshiping God, I’m no longer the center of my universe. Worship brings us into the spiritual presence of God, where we realize that there is nothing other than God that is big enough to sustain the human spirit. Worship puts us in touch with the only one who is capable of giving our life purpose, who can strengthen us to be the kind of people we long to be.
The images of worship in the Bible are the most glorious pictures that the biblical writers could paint with words. They describe the abode of the angels as a place with streets of gold, buildings of jewels, and music of harps. Did you hear about the older couple who died and went to heaven? They were amazed by the beauty of the place. It was more spectacular than they could have ever imagined during their life. As they stood there marveling, the husband turned to the wife and said, “You see, if you hadn’t made us eat all that high fiber, low fat food, we’d have gotten here sooner.”
When worship really works for us, when we’ve been graced by an encounter with the Holy Spirit that’s lifted our spirits right into the presence of God, we walk away feeling centered and whole, uplifted and reassured, confident and focused. Every faded tint, every wavering line of resolve is restored to original sharpness and hue. If just for a brief time, we have become part of a cosmic reality, a reality that’s taking place on a plane that’s different from the one where we exist in this world. This sanctuary isn’t a place where we come to escape reality. It’s where we enter into a reality that’s more real than the places we live the rest of the week. We practice doing what it is we’re made to do, not scurrying after things that fade and pass away, but standing in the timeless presence of God. When we’ve beheld the peace, power, and joy of the one who made life and defeated death, there’s nothing in our lives that can overwhelm us.
Angels may be enough alike that they all worship the same way, but we human beings carry out our praise in as many different ways as there are human beings. Frankly, the thought of floating on a cloud playing a harp for eternity doesn’t sound all that appealing to me, but it’s been used as an image to get at the peace and fulfillment that comes with being close to God. Some of us worship best when we can be relaxed and informal. Some of us are more open to God’s Spirit in a grand and majestic setting. The Bible doesn’t describe one form of worship that is exactly right for all people all the time. What it describes is the glory and majesty of praising God.
The variety of what makes for meaningful worship is best illustrated in our reactions to hymns. There’s something about music that moves us toward God in a way that nothing else can do. That’s why the biblical descriptions of angels praising God so often have them singing. Hymns have a way of unlocking storage bins of memory in us that bring back encounters we have had with God and help us meet God again. But our experiences are different, and our beloved hymns are varied. On more than one occasion after a worship service I have had someone speak to me and say, “Thank you for choosing my very favorite hymn of all time,” only to have someone later say, about the same hymn, “Where did you find that? I hate new hymns like that.” At its best, music helps us reclaim life-changing encounters we have had with God in the past and leads us to new ways of praising God that expand our understanding of who God is.
Of all the things angels do in the
Bible, there’s none more important than their praise of God. That tells us
something. The hours we spend here in church, the minutes we spend each day in
prayer and worship don’t earn us a living or further our career. It’s time we
could spend doing for others, helping our children or serving the community.
All of those are important things, things we need to do. But the time we spend
when we’ve placed ourselves in the presence of God is time that we spend
experiencing what it truly means to be alive so that when we depart, we live
life to its fullest, as God desires. We have seen God in God’s glory so we can
see God everywhere.
 Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1991, p. 60.