And yet I’ve heard some fantastic stories. Like the doctor who was called out in the middle of the night by a young girl to help a family in need—only there was no young girl. Or the missionaries protected by an army of men who prevented their house from getting burned down—only there was no army of men. Or the woman in a car accident comforted by a stranger until the ambulance could get there—only there was no stranger there with her.
Those most directly involved in such stories say the young girl, the army of men, and the stranger must have been angels, because they insisted they saw them even though no one else did. I wonder, could they really have been angels? After all, the book of Hebrews says,
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
Angels show up a number of times in the Christmas story, and the way people respond to them tells us what not to do when you see an angel—just in case you ever do—and they also tell us what to do when we’re scared or worried or anxious.
Whether it’s worry about exams, or getting a job, worry about your family or your health, about your faith or physical safety, or just about getting ready for Christmas, worry has become so common, that it’s been called the disease of the twenty-first century in the western world. So besides “What (not) to do when you see an angel,” I might well call this sermon, “What to do when you start to worry.”
In the Christmas story, an angel first appears to Zechariah when it was his turn to burn the incense in the temple.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. (Luke 1:11)
In Scripture, angels appear more than 250 times, in just over half of the books of the Bible. Isaiah 6:2 describes angels with six wings: “With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” Revelation 10:1 describes a “mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars.” At Jesus’ empty tomb in Matthew 28:3, the angel of the Lord appeared “like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.”
From such brief descriptions, it’s impossible to tell exactly what angels look like, but in the Bible, they certainly don’t appear as cute, chubby babies. They could be brilliant and imposing creatures. Whatever Zechariah’s angel looked like, it was enough for him to feel afraid.
When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
But the angel said to him,
Do not be afraid. . . .
That’s the first thing not to do when you see an angel—do not be afraid. The angel, whose name was Gabriel, continued:
Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (Luke 1:13-14)
That’s when Zechariah did the second thing you should never do when you see an angel–Zechariah didn’t believe.
As a result, Zechariah loses his ability to talk and gets it back only after everything the angel said to him comes true. His wife Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she gives birth to a son, and wants to call him John. “There is no one among your relatives who has that name,” people said to her. Zechariah, who still wasn’t able to speak, wrote on a tablet, “His name is John,” and only then did he finally recover his voice. (Luke 1:57-66)
Instead of being afraid, Zechariah waited until everything the angel said came true.
The next angel messenger in the Christmas story appears to Mary. Again it’s Gabriel, and Mary is troubled by the angel’s visit.
But the angel said to her,
Do not be afraid,
Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. (Luke 1:30-32)
When the angel leaves, Mary hurries to visit Elizabeth who is her older relative, and Mary prays one of the most beautiful and powerful prayers of the New Testament:
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. . . .
Instead of being afraid, Mary poured out her hopes and fears to God in prayer.
Meanwhile, Joseph was wondering what to do about Mary. They were pledged to one another as husband and wife, but they hadn’t done anything yet. They’d never even been alone together. But she was pregnant, and he thought the best thing would be to divorce her quietly. Then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and began his message:
Joseph, son of David,
Do not be afraid
to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:20-21)
When Joseph woke up from his dream, he did exactly as the angel told him. Mary became his wife, and when her son was born, they called him Jesus.
Instead of being afraid, Joseph acted on the word of God that he heard from the angel.
At the birth of Jesus, angels also appeared to shepherds out in the fields taking care of their flocks. The shepherds were terrified, and as we might guess by now, the angel began by saying:
Do not be afraid.
I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:10-14)
After the angels left them, the shepherds hurried to find the Saviour, and when they had seen the Christ Child, they returned, glorifying and praising God.
Instead of being afraid, the shepherds gave glory to God.
So in each case where angels appear in the Christmas story, their message starts out the same. What not to do when you see an angel? Do not be afraid.
Today, what do we do when we’re afraid and terrified?
We might not exactly see an angel, but there are other things and circumstances that may make us afraid, worried, or anxious. A couple of weeks ago, author Grace Fox spoke to the Fraser Valley Christian Writers group, and she told story after story from her own life of saying yes to God and moving ahead through her fears to follow God’s leading. Her stories and her fears were mainly focused on her writing experience, but her point applies more generally to all of life. She says, “I’m blown away at what God does when we say yes and do it afraid.”
After hearing Grace speak, I want to rephrase this “instead of being afraid”—it’s more true to life to say “even when we are afraid” there are some other ways that we can respond at the same time. Like Zechariah we can wait even when are afraid.
When fears come, when there is crisis, some of us are all ready – set – go! But one of the values of this Advent season is learning to wait. It’s not Christmas yet. The fullness of God’s kingdom is not yet.
As blogger Sarah Bessey writes:
The weary world is still waiting in so many ways, in so many hearts, in so many places, for the fullness of the Kingdom of God to come…. Advent is the Church’s way of observing and remembering, of marking the truth we believe that God came to be with us once, and God is still with us, and God is coming again to set all things right…. God is redeeming all that is broken in us and curing all that is sick in us and bringing all that is dead in us to life….
God seeks us out when we are in exile and when we are suffering, when we are callous and cowardly, when we are more concerned with common sense than faithfulness, when we are fearful and arrogant, when we are lost and broken, when we feel forgotten and bored and insignificant and tired, when we are wounded and when we are the ones who are wounding.
Oh, yes, in these days, God is seeking us out on that path and in that wilderness.
Even though we may be afraid, we wait.
We can also pray.
Last Saturday morning about 20 of us met in the fireside room for a precious time of anointing and prayer with __________, who each face cancer and are at various stages of treatment. We gathered in a circle in the fireside room, we read a litany acknowledging God’s presence and healing, we heard a psalm. I said a few words about anointing and prayer—that it’s not a magic cure-all, but a time of caring, prayer, and trusting God for healing in body, mind, and spirit. Each shared their heart with us, and some of those gathered offered Scripture and other words of affirmation. Then we all stood in a circle around each one, laying on hands, anointing each one with oil and praying for them, and God used our tears and embrace to bring healing for __________ and for all of us.
That’s just one example of praying in the face of fear. We pray also as a body on Sunday mornings, we pray on our own at home, we pray with the words of Scripture as Mary did, we can pray any time we feel afraid.
In response to fear, we can also act on God’s Word.
Today we wrestle with many questions. Why is there suffering? Why does one person who tries to take care of themselves get cancer, and someone else who abuses their body does not? Why can’t countries solve the problems of war and terrorism, famine and food shortages, lack of clean water and medical care? We may not know how to answer these big questions in a satisfying way, but we can act on the part of God’s word that we do know.
As individuals and as a mid-size church, we can’t solve the refugee crisis in the world today, but we do know that God calls us to love and compassion, so we’re working together to sponsor __________. We can’t single-handedly bring Truth and Reconciliation as we relate with Indigenous people, but we do know that God calls us to peace and justice, so on a personal basis we can learn to treat others as we would like to be treated, and we can work at systemic issues of race and discrimination. Instead of doing nothing because we don’t know what to do, instead of being overwhelmed by fear, we can act on what we do know of God’s word.
The shepherds end their part in the Christmas story by giving glory to God, and this too is another way forward through fear.
This week I heard some news out of Liberty University, which is the largest private Christian university in the United States with over 100,000 students online and in residence. It was disturbing news to hear how the president of Liberty University responded to the tragic shooting and death of 14 people in San Bernardino, California. He said, “If more good people had conceal carry permits, then we can end those Muslims.” Those words are so painfully disturbing that I hardly want to repeat them.
In response, Shaine Claiborne, a best-selling author and the founder of The Simple Way, writes,
The Jesus I worship didn’t carry a gun. He carried a cross.
Instead of putting our faith in more guns, instead of blaming all Muslims, instead of ending anyone however misguided, we give glory to God who sent Jesus to save us, to show us a better way, and to empower us to live with faith, hope, and love.
That’s the Jesus we wait for this Christmas, in whose name we pray, in whose steps we follow, and give glory to God.
L: The angel said to Zechariah, “do not be afraid.”
P: Like Zechariah, we wait for the Lord.
L: The angel said to Mary, “do not be afraid.”
P: Like Mary, we pour out our hopes and fears in prayer.
L: The angel said to Joseph, “do not be afraid.”
P: Like Joseph, we seek to act on God’s word in our lives.
L: The angel said to the shepherds, “do not be afraid.”
P: Like the shepherds, we give glory to God!
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and with personal names omitted.
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