Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Eve
24 December 2017
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
I have never been into angels.
Now, you may say that I say this because I am a guy. And maybe that is true because men have different outlets.
We did have an angel once, other than the happy angels that hang from the branches of our Christmas tree at home, or the one at the top of the tree that still needs installing.
When we left my first parish in Winnipeg where we had been for eight years a young family gave us a guardian angel sun visor clip that was to keep us safe on our drive to the coast. Of course, they did not think that the visor clip would keep us safe but it represented their prayers for which we were profoundly grateful. We kept it for as long as we had the car, which was another 14 years and always remembered our friends in Winnipeg.
But other than that I am usually a bit dismissive of angels, though if you invited me to your home and happened to have a lot of angels pictures and statues, I would not offer a theological critique of your home decor.
I am not too interested in angels because I think they are ‘religion light’. If you’re not sure what to make of religious narratives, angels are a safe bet. They generally bless, seem non-threatening and benign. Though, I am not sure if that is always true. In fact the story of the birth of Jesus suggests that angels do demand a lot of those they appear to.
I had an easy Sunday last week. The Sunday School was doing their Christmas pageant and I did not have to preach. And from where I sat in the choir I had an excellent view of the angel Gabriel and Mary, the angel and Joseph, and the angel and the shepherds.
If you go back a bit further, there is the angel and Elizabeth, the angel and Zechariah (the parents of John the Baptizer), and the angel and the Magi (warning them not to return to King Herod), and the angel who tells the Holy Family to seek asylum in Egypt.
But even with the shorter version of the story, the core of the story, so to speak, I realized what an important role angels play and the facial expressions of our Sunday School angel last week made this very clear.
Our word angel comes from the Greek word for messenger, and while angels seem to appear at unexpected times there is actually nothing that suggests that angels are winged creatures that spend their days sitting on a cloud, playing the harp, and eating cream cheese. I mean, maybe some of them do all these things but that does not seem to be the most important thing about them, because that’s not in any of the Biblical stories in which angels appear.
Maybe messenger sounds too plain. I mean, you could almost think of the Purolator guy, or my friend Jeff who works for FedEx. They too appear at important moments for no one would pay for their service if the items to be delivered were of no importance.
The thing that makes messengers important is the message they bring, and who the message is from. Messages are not always good, they may be alarming. There is a reason we say, “don’t shoot the messenger.”
In the biblical story, messengers are always from God. They speak for God and tell us things God wants us to hear. It is not wings, or harps, or halos that makes them important. It is that they bring God with them.
As I watched the Christmas pageant I thought of the important role of Gabriel. What if Gabriel had been less persuasive? What if Mary had said ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’? What if Joseph had not paid attention to Gabriel and had left Mary? What if the shepherds had continued to live in fear, because that was their place in society as they were people on the lowest rung of the ladder?
But miraculously they all paid attention.
Mary said to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And then she went on to say a whole lot more about a world in which the lowly are blessed and in which the mighty are cast from their thrones.
Joseph did not say much at all because he was not the talkative type but he provided for the family, was faithful to Mary, and – we presume – taught Jesus his trade.
The shepherds agreed that they should no longer be kept down and banned to the edge of civilization and they marched right into town and were the first to worship Jesus, the messiah. And their life would never be the same.
All this because they paid attention to the messenger.
There is a lot to be said for agency, and for human agency.
Jesus tells a story in the Gospel of Luke about a rich man completely oblivious to the poor at his door step. The rich man dies and goes to Hades.
As the story unfolds the rich man who now finds himself in torment pleads with Abraham to send someone to warn the man’s brothers. Abraham only says that they have Moses and the prophets – as he had the poor man at his doorstep.
Moses and the prophets don’t have wings, and I am not sure about halos. In fact, they could be difficult, just like some of the relatives we are going to meet over the holidays.
But Moses and the prophets were God’s messengers. You don’t have to have wings to be a messenger. Rather, the appearance of angels in this story is yet another way in which we can appreciate that the Word became flesh, that God came to dwell with us, that God moved into our neighbourhood. God came to find us where we are. That is what the story wants us to learn.
The story of Christmas may seem like a story from a long time ago, and the way we sometimes tell it with winged creatures and a baby that does not cry, may make it seem quite distant. But as sure as it is that Jesus cried, as sure it is that God has come to dwell with us, to be with us, and to bless our lives with one another.
God comes to us not only through the heavenly host in the sky but also through one another and the whole thing about the angels really is about agency, and human agency, and about what the church calls the incarnation – God becoming one of us.
God makes the common holy. And so we believe that our lives matter, that all life matters, that our time together matters, even our time with the relatives we only see at Christmas.
You see Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were changed this night. They were not only visited by God’s messengers but they became God’s messengers. May the same be true for us.