Sunday, December 22, 2013

ADVENT IV - Angels

This is a sermon modified from a service created by Ali Smith and I for a powerpoint presentation with Angel movie clips. Due to snow in 2013 I never gave the service, and re-worked it for this sermon....

Advent Four – Angels Among Us

Reading:         Matthew 1:18-25   The Angel Visits Joseph                          

            Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
            When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph,
            but before they lived together,
            she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
            Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man
            and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,
            planned to dismiss her quietly.

            But just when he had resolved to do this,
            an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream
            and said, ‘Joseph, son of David,
            do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,
             for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
            She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus,
            for he will save his people from their sins.’

            All this took place to fulfil
            what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
            ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
            and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
            which means, ‘God is with us.’

            When Joseph awoke from sleep,
            he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him;
            he took her as his wife,
            but had no marital relations with her
            until she had borne a son;
            and he named him Jesus.

Theme Introduction:

            When you picture an angel, what do you see?
            There is a pretty classic image: 
            the perfect human body,
            the white wings enfolded behind the shoulders,
            the halo...
            maybe they are carrying a sword,
            maybe they are brooding silently
            or flying through the air.

            And where do we find angels in our tradition?
            Angels guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden
            when we were kicked out;
            angels came and destroyed the cities that turned against God;
            angels came to speak to Mary and others about the birth of Jesus,
            they sing in a heavenly chorus
            and angels destroy the world in Revelations.

            It is a bit of a mixed bag -
            from warriors to choirs to messengers.
            But the actual word “angel” has a pretty specific meaning.
            If you trace it back, it comes from the Latin “angelus”
            which in turn traces back to the ancient Greek ἄγγελος (aggelos).
            In any case, it means messenger.

            So angels come to bring a message,
            they come on behalf of the divine,
            and they show us something that we otherwise would overlook.

            Angels exist in Christianity, in Judaism, and in Islam.
            And over the centuries there has been a lot written,
            a lot imagined,
            and a lot of traditions which have developed.

            Believe it or not,
            there are some dozen types of angels
            that we have come to believe in.
            The main divisions are listed in the back of your bulletin.  (Note:  At the end of this document.)
            From Guardian angels who protect us and keep us safe
            to the Cherubim and Seraphim
            that pop up around this time of year in some of our Christmas carols,
            known for their joy and beautiful singing abilities. 

            Who knew that this whole angel thing could be so complex!

            When we think of the stories, the movies,
            the ways in which Angels have been known in popular culture,
            angels are the ones who come to us and show us the way.

            Are they real?
            What exactly is an angel?
            Where do these beliefs in angels come from anyway?

            Join me today as we explore these mysterious creatures.
            Let's think together about who or what they are
            and how they might work in our lives today.


Reading:         Exodus 23:20-22         An Angel to Guard You

            I want to read you a couple of verses from Exodus
            that show us that the notion of angels is really quite an old one.
            Listen to what God promises to send to someone who needs help.

            I am going to send an angel in front of you,
            to guard you on the way
            and to bring you to the place
            that I have prepared.

            Be attentive to him
            and listen to his voice;
            do not rebel against him,
            for he will not pardon your transgression;
            for my name is in him.

            But if you listen attentively to his voice
            and do all that I say,
            then I will be an enemy to your enemies
            and a foe to your foes.

Reflection:      “The Stereotypical”

            When most of us think of angels,
            we do think of the Guardian Angel.
            Perhaps it was Michael Landon in Highway to Heaven,
            or maybe Touched by an Angel,
            or maybe It's a Wonderful Life,
            but when angels come to mind for most of us,
            it is this heavenly person sent from God
            to watch over our shoulder.

            This is not the Angel of classical paintings either -
            no wings or perfect bodies.
            Rather they look just like us.
            So ordinary, in fact, that you might never even notice them.

            But you can usually find someone
            who has had an encounter
            or thinks some invisible angel has helped them.
            Perhaps an invisible presence has warned them of a  storm
            or helped them out when their car broke down… or….
            well, you get the idea.

            The thing is,
            this understanding of an angel
            is not mentioned very much in the Bible.
            And it is not all that different
            than how we think of God -
            the voice that leads us,
            our conscience,
            those little voices that warn us of danger.

            This is not to say that this goes against the definition.
            An angel, after all, is a messenger of God.
            An Angel speaks for God.
            An Angel is the voice of God. 
            So this is where we start our journey -
            with angels as the voice of God, however we hear it -
            that still small voice,
            or that overwhelming feeling which changes everything.

            I love It’s a Wonderful Life.
            I think we have all been there:
            feeling like nothing we do works out
            or makes a difference.
            And we really do need reminders
            of who we are
            and how much we matter.

            Perhaps that is where these stories come from.
            They come from times when we have somehow been connected
            to the Divine enough
            to hear the way it is at work in our lives.

            The idea of the Guardian Angel comes from
            the feeling that God is speaking to us
            and usually that God is warning us.

            The other thing about this way of seeing God at work amongst us
            is that the end result is up to us.
            The angel comes and speaks to us
            but we are the ones who have to make the choice
            whether to listen or not.

Reading:         Revelation 12:7-9      Michael Defeats the Dragon

            Sometimes certain angels are mentioned by name.
            At Christmas time,
            we hear an awful lot about
            the Angel Gabriel, for instance.
            And then there's Michael,
            an archangel who features at the very end of the Bible
            in the Book of Revelation.
            His claim to fame is described in this way:

            And war broke out in heaven;
            Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.
            The dragon and his angels fought back,
            but they were defeated,
            and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.

            The great dragon was thrown down,
            that ancient serpent,
            who is called the Devil and Satan,
            the deceiver of the whole world—
            he was thrown down to the earth,
            and his angels were thrown down with him.

Reflection:      “The Unexpected”

            So, angels are messengers from God
            but they are not always what we expect.
            In fact, you might say when God interacts with the world,
            it is almost never what anyone expects.
            Jesus born as a baby in order to save the world?
            Not what the people were really hoping for.

            What is it that we are expecting of angels?
            What is it we are hoping for?

            I loved the movie Michael when it came out,
            because it so highlighted the idea
            that this was an angel who was not what anyone expected.
            And it reminds us that what we have in mind,
            really is our own projection.

            The same could be said about our conception of God, right?
            And this is why this is so important.
            The angel is the stand in for God.
            When we imagine angels,
            we are imagining them
            speaking or acting for God.
            And the thing is,
            God is almost never acting the way we want.

            It's like when we talk to someone on the phone for a while,
            or write emails back and forth,
            and then finally meet the person.
            The voice led us to imagine they look a certain way,
            and they do not.

            The Archangels like Michael are not what we expect
            an angel to be.
            In fact, they might just be the opposite of what we expect.
            The image of Christmas angels
            fills our heads with white flowing robes,
            soft angel wings, and harps –
            the very picture of peace on earth.
            But according to legends,
            archangels were the shock troops of God.

            And when you look at the biblical stories about them alone,
            they give us cause to worry.
            These are the soldiers who swoop down from heaven
            and kill every first born child.
            These are the ones who wipe out whole cities.
            They guard the Garden of Eden with flaming swords.

            Now, I mention this not to say
            that our God is a violent, vengeful God
            who sends fully-armed messengers to earth,
            but to make the point that God shows up
            in unexpected places
            and in unexpected ways.
            There is no simple way of understanding God.

            So keep your eyes peeled for God's messengers
            in all kinds of places.
            God may be trying to speak to you
            through the lovely older lady
            who speaks gentle words of wisdom
            but God also might speak through
            the young inexperienced tattooed man too.
            God might try to speak to us
            through the confident preacher on a hillside
            or through the inaudible cries of a tiny baby.

Reading:         Matthew 28:1-7          The Angel in the Garden

            It is interesting that the two events
            that anchor our Christian faith
            rely heavenly on angels.
            We've already talked about Christmas angels,
            and now I'd like to read you about an Easter angel
            from Matthew's Gospel.

            After the sabbath,
            as the first day of the week was dawning,
            Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
            went to see the tomb.

            And suddenly there was a great earthquake;
            for an angel of the Lord,
            descending from heaven,
            came and rolled back the stone
            and sat on it.

            His appearance was like lightning,
            and his clothing white as snow.
            For fear of him,
            the guards shook
            and became like dead men.

            But the angel said to the women, ‘
            Do not be afraid;
            I know that you are looking for Jesus
            who was crucified.
            He is not here;
            for he has been raised,
            as he said.
            Come, see the place where he lay.
            Then go quickly and tell his disciples,
            “He has been raised from the dead,
            and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee;
            there you will see him.”
            This is my message for you.’

Reflection:      “The Comforter”

            Angels can be guardians and angels can be warriors
            but here is another way to understand angels – as comforters. 

            We have all been in those low places,
            those times of our lives when the tears fall too easily,
            or when we cannot possibly imagine what to do next.
            We have all had times where so much seems
            to have fallen apart that we really do not know where to go.

            Picture Mary Magdalene on Good Friday.
            Jesus has been crucified and buried.
            Everything she believed in has been turned upside down
            and if she could wish for one concrete thing,
            it would be for someone to come
            and tell her everything is going to be all right...
            maybe even tell her exactly what to do.
            And that is who she encounters in the garden.

            In those moments when we do not know what to do,
            we hear the voice of God
            or the whisper of the cosmos in our ear
            and it sets us in the right direction.

            We could be talking about conscience,
            we could be talking about a dream,
            we could be talking about someone else
            who is communicating possibilities -
            for those are all ways
            that God speaks to us.
            And so all of these examples
            could be seen as angels of comfort.

            And I see that as another way
            that we are connected to God.

Prayers of the People:

            In this most holy season,
            we have gathered, God,
            to celebrate the birth of Jesus,
            to join our voices with the choirs of angels,
            to come with shepherds to the stable
            and wonder at this Christmas miracle.
            With us,
            we bring the hopes and hurt of the world.

            In this season of abundance,
            we remember those who have little.
            We remember neighbours who are unemployed,
            those whose futures have been frustrated.

            In this season of carols,
            we remember those who have little to sing about -
            all who are lonely, anxious, or sick.

            In this season of festivity,
            we remember those who face
            the harsh reality of oppression and violence.

            Yet through the shadows of our world
            shines the light of your promise.
            The angels' heavenly music
            floats over all the weary world.

            For ourselves,
            we ask strength and purpose,
            to live the love of Christmas Emmanuel,
            in whose way we now pray:
Reading:         Genesis 32:22-31        Jacob Wrestles with an Angel 

            There is a funny little story way back in the book of Genesis
            about Jacob struggling with an angel.
            It is funny in the visual image that pops into your head
            when you think of a grown man in a wrestling match
            with a stereotypical white winged angel.
            It's not so strange though
            when we consider
            how we metaphorically “wrestle” with God
            all the time.
            So, listen to these words
            and see if you can find yourself in them.

            The same night he got up
            and took his two wives,
            his two maids,
            and his eleven children,
            and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
            He took them and sent them across the stream,
            and likewise everything that he had.

            Jacob was left alone;
            and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
            When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob,
            he struck him on the hip socket;
            and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

            Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’
            But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
            So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’
            And he said, ‘Jacob.’
            Then the man said,
            ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,
            for you have striven with God and with humans,
            and have prevailed.’
            Then Jacob asked him,
            'Please tell me your name.’
            But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’
            And there he blessed him.

            So Jacob called the place Peniel,
            saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face,
            and yet my life is preserved.’

            The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel,
            limping because of his hip.

Reflection:      “The Challenger”

            How do we hear the voice of God when it comes to us?
            We have been exploring different ways
            through which the voice comes to us,
            but I want to turn it around for a second
            and put the focus back on us.
            What do we hear?
            How do we hear it?
            Do we always hear it?

            I really think that answer to the last question is no.
            We do not always listen to the wisdom of God;
            in fact, we often get so caught up
            in ourselves or our problems or our despair
            that we need to be challenged
            to see life from a different perspective.

            Sometimes the challenge comes through our acceptance of pain
            and how life is worth living even in the face of that pain.

            At other times,
            it is about being honest with who we are,
            as we see in our reading about Jacob at the Ford in Jabbok.
            Here is a man who has not made peace with his past,
            a man who is feeling a lot of pain.
            And he wrestles with it through the night
            in order to make peace with it.
            He is wrestling with the angel of the Lord,
            according to the story.

            Angels challenge us.
            Angels come and bring with them a wisdom,
            a way of seeing us that we perhaps do not have
            and thus we grow.

            In all of our stories about angels,
            we are looking at the ways we hear the voice of God
            and how it helps us out.
            But there is one step more:
            we need to hear that voice,
            we need to believe that voice,
            and we need to act.

            Look out for the angels,
            for just as they could be heard
            singing in the fields of Bethlehem
            when Jesus was born,
            you can find them in your life too.

            I can't tell you exactly
            how they might appear
            or how you might experience such a presence,
            but I can say that if you open yourself up,
            you will surely hear God speaking to you.

            How will you respond?

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