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.
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.
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.
Thursday was Halloween. It’s a hard holiday to ignore. Halloween has evolved into the second biggest commercial holiday of the year, with only Christmas making a bigger contribution to the economy. Most of us consider it a time for kids and for candy, a time for parties and good-natured fun. But if we look behind the masks and the costumes, we can see something primal and serious. Halloween originated as a way to cope with one of the most powerful forces in the human soul, our fear of death.
Its origins are in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pron. Sow-in). This was the day that marked the end of summer with its bounty of the life sustaining harvest and the arrival of the dark cold days of winter that were associated with death. The Celts believed that on this night the boundary between the living and the dead was blurred. The spirits of the dead were thought to be released from their graves to play tricks on the living and try to find a home – a haunt. For those ancient people there was something cathartic about confronting their deepest fear for a night, then waking the next morning safe and secure. Over the centuries Halloween has developed into a way to confront death in a lighthearted way. It lets us laugh at ghosts and goblins, skeletons and monsters. We jeer at death, play with it, pretend with it, and then we wake up on November 1 and say, “Whew!” We’ve confronted our fears and we’ve survived.
Halloween is the night we taunt death, but jeering at our mortal enemy is just a way to cope. It doesn’t change anything. Do you remember the movie Dead Poets Society? It’s about a teacher in a boys’ prep school. On the first day of the term he takes his students to the school’s trophy case. He has the class crowd around the pictures of the school’s sports teams from 100 years ago, yellowing photographs displayed alongside tarnishing trophies and aging footballs. The teacher says, “Look at them very carefully, boys. They’re just like you. Their hair is cut the same way, they’re full of vigor and ambition and hormones. They went on to be doctors and lawyers and bankers, just like you will. The world was their oyster. And do you know where they are now, boys? They’re all dead, every one of them, fertilizing daffodils.”
It was hard for those 17-year-old boys to conceive that life wouldn’t always be a limitless vista, offering them the possibility of anything they wanted to do. Death wasn’t something that ever troubled their minds. And yet, no matter how young or strong or healthy we are, one day, maybe tomorrow, maybe many years from now, we’re going to die. No matter how well you treat your body, it’s eventually going to return to the earth from which it was formed. Psalm 90 speaks the truth when it says, “[we] are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”
It’s not so much the fact that we die that makes death so hard to take. If you think about it rationally and objectively, we need death. Where would all the people who have ever been born fit if we didn’t die? The earth couldn’t accommodate every human body that has ever been born. One generation has to make way for the next. What makes death so hard is the way it reminds us of our weaknesses, the way it puts a limit to our loves, our passions, our dreams. Death cuts us loose from those things that define us, the relationships that sustain us, from those things in which we find security and comfort and fulfillment.
The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden explains why we fear death. It tells us where death got its sting. In the Garden of Eden God gave Adam and Eve everything they needed. They had food. They had companionship, so intimate and guileless they could stand before each other naked and not be ashamed. They had a purpose in life. Their vocation was to be stewards of all the good things God created. The only limit on them was that they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They were to trust God’s promise that God would provide for them. To eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge evil was to try to be like God. But you remember the story. They reached for the forbidden fruit, grasping for life on their terms, not God’s. Instead of trusting God, they tried to be God. They tried to find wisdom in their limited knowledge. They tried to find peace in their conflicted souls. They tried to find immortality in their dying bodies.
Whether you believe the story to be literally true doesn’t matter. You can’t deny that what it says about humankind – what it says about you and me – is true. Like Adam and Eve we desire to be like God, but we always fall short. The Psalmist says it for us: “Our precious lives, so important to us, are but fleeting shadows to you and they are so full of trouble and conflict, so marked by sin and failure…” (Psalms Now)
That’s what makes our physical death so fearsome. It marks the end of our efforts to find meaning and purpose. It reminds us of our weakness and our limitations. But that fear of death can also be what saves us. When we realize how limited we are, when it hits us that we are mortal and that one day we will die, that very fear can propel us back to God. When it dawns on us that we can’t do it on our own, that left to our own devices there’s no hope for us, we might realize that we’re lost. And we might notice that God is calling us home.
Robert Frost said, “Home is that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Home is that place where you belong. Eastminster is partnering with other churches to build a Habitat for Humanity home. Many of the churches I’ve served have helped build Habitat homes. One of those homes belonged to Doris Fitch. Ms. Fitch was the mother of 8 and the grandmother of 24. At the dedication ceremony where she took possession of the house, she spoke of how hard it had been for her to raise a family without a home. Just as they got settled in one place, they had to pick up and move. Ms. Fitch got a new start in life when she moved into her Habitat for Humanity home, a home that she helped build, as do all Habitat clients. She testified how important it was to her family to have a place they finally call home. It was a place where her grandchildren could feel safe and comfortable, a place where they could grow and prosper.
Home is that place where what we’ve done counts for something, the place where we’re accepted for who we are. Several years ago I returned to my family’s old home place in Robeson County, North Carolina. It was my father’s 80th birthday, and my aunt who still lived on the farm where Dad grew up summoned the entire family – 54 people from 8 states. I hadn’t seen some of those cousins since we were children, when we played baseball in the front yard and didn’t have to worry about cars whizzing by at 60 miles per hour when we ran across the road after fly balls because the road wasn’t paved. One of those cousins wasn’t there. Laurie died of a brain tumor the previous winter, the first of my generation to go. It happened just months after she reached her life-long dream of becoming an elementary school principal. We’d all taken different paths over the years, but shared memories and our common bond held us together. After lunch we were all milling around the front yard while different permutations of family groupings were captured for posterity in photographs. I was standing near my cousin Don whom I overheard telling his 7 year old son about how we would spend Thanksgivings together. Don is a real outdoorsman. He teaches industrial arts in high school, but he lives for deer season. He told his son how we would go out in the yard after dinner and pick up pecans that fell from the trees our grandfather had planted when he moved there as a newly-wed in 1913. I looked up at the tree under which we were standing. I didn’t see any nuts forming on the branches. Trying to show that I’m still in touch with the land, I observed sagely, “Looks like there won’t be any pecans this year.” Don laughed and said, “Steve, that’s a white oak. The pecan trees are over there.” I blush every time I think about Don sitting in his deer stand telling his buddies about his cousin from the city who was looking for pecans on a white oak tree. But home is like that. They know who you are but they accept you anyway.
We’ll never all be together like that again, but for that afternoon we were home. Each of us, as different as we were, fit in. We weren’t defined by our failures or our shortcomings. We belonged because we were home.
In Jesus Christ God calls us home. God is our dwelling place in all generations. God is the place we began and the destination to which we’re headed. Our home is God who created the heavens and the earth, the God to whom a thousand years are as but a passing night. God, and God alone, is the one who blesses and prospers our efforts. God is the one who graciously takes who we are and what we do and gives it meaning and purpose. We still die, but death has lost its sting. We die to all those things that keep us from our eternal home. We die to everything false that claims to save us, and we take that final step toward home. God is our eternal home, and Jesus has prepared a place for us there. Forever.