(Part V of V in the Advent and Christmas Sermon Series: "Glimpses in the Beginning: Moments in the Seasons of Life")
Christmas Eve, 2002 - 11:00 p.m.
Re. Timothy Ahrens and Rev. Ronald Botts
I don't know if you're like me, but I've always had difficulty trying to make sense of angels. The Bible speaks of them at any number of places. They seem to be rather human in form, yet-- at the same time-- they're not like us. They're often used as the vehicle for heavenly messages, as in our familiar scripture reading for tonight. Art depicts them in various forms, but almost always with wings of some kind. Of course no angel actually posed for any painter, so even here our imagery is formed largely out of human imagination.
Books and films also give us a picture of angels, though not necessarily in keeping with the more traditional view. Do you remember the opening scene of It's a Wonderful Life? It lays the framework for the story of George Bailey, the main character, who comes to the conclusion that the world would be better off if he had never lived. Actually he's got good reason for feeling that way and it takes heavenly intervention to finally show him his life has value.
As the movie begins we hear various voices praying, though we don't see any of these people until sometime later as the story unfolds. Mr. Gower, the druggist, is typical of those pleas being raised. "I owe everything to George Bailey, "he says. "Help him, dear Father."
The camera quickly pans up from a nighttime snow gently falling on the town of Bedford Falls toward a firmament full of stars. Now the two voices we hear are ethereal ones.
Hello, Joseph, trouble?
Looks like we'll have to send someone down-- a lot of people are asking for help for a man named George Bailey.
George Bailey. Yes, tonight's his crucial night. You're right, we'll have to send someone down immediately. Whose turn is it?
That's why I came to see you, sir. It's that clock-maker's turn again.
Oh-- Clarence. Hasn't got his wings yet, has he? We've passed him up right along.
Because, you know, sir, he's got the I.Q. of a rabbit.
Yes, but he's got the faith of a child .
Well, Clarence it is. He gets the assignment of helping George Bailey in his time of need even though he has waited two hundred years for his opportunity.
Clarence certainly doesn't look like any of the depictions by the Old Masters. He's short, rather rotund, a bit old fashioned in dress, gray-haired, and simple of speech. Yet, there's a distinct kindliness to his face and he is genuinely concerned about George. Of course he has no wings, but then that's the goal for him to earn them.
I like Clarence and, if that's what an angel is, I would say that's just fine with me. But then I also like Dudley in The Bishop's Wife. In fact, Cary Grant cuts an exceedingly good figure as an angel who is likewise sent to earth to help someone who is discouraged and tempted to compromise his principles. Dudley always sees the needs of the inner heart and makes everyone feel better about themselves and about life in general. Again, no wings-- which does make it harder for him to convince the bishop that he is who he is. Yet, after a while, we stop looking for them and like David Niven's cleric, we simply come to take Dudley at his word. Denzel Washington plays the angel in the more recent adaptation of this story in The Preacher's Wife. I like Dudley, so if that's what an angel is, that's likewise fine with me.
Picture for a moment Clarence coming upon the scene of tonight's story and see him as the figure who appeared to the shepherds. Hear him say:
Don't be afraid. See, I've got good news for you. It's going to bring great joy for everyone, everyplace. The Messiah, the Lord, is born this very day in what they call the city of David. And this will be what will show it to you: you'll find a baby all lovingly wrapped up and lying there in a manger.
Well, Clarence would definitely have surprised me if I had seen him appear on that Judean hillside. I, too, would have needed some strong reassurance not to take off running without stopping to look back. But, just perhaps, I might have finally responded like the shepherds and come to believe him, at least enough to go and see for myself as they did.
If angels, whatever creatures they are, can do the things that are ascribed to them, then they must have a vantage point to see human life far different from our own. They are definitely not God, but they have some of God's omniscient qualities. They see what we cannot see. They understand what we can't comprehend.
I wonder what their eyes showed them as they
looked down on Bethlehem of long ago? They must
have seen the chaos and confusion of a small town grown
three times its size as people flooded into Bethlehem to be registered for the census. Ironically, all those who gathered from across the region were
related to Jesus! For they, like he, came from the genealogical line of David! I am sure few of the people were happy to have traveled so far
simply to meet the demands of the Roman Empire. The angels must have seen a small town overflowing with humanity.
As the angels of glory look down on Bethlehem this night they see a sight not unlike the one of yesteryear. Palestinians - Christian and Muslim - stuffed into the West Bank town facing the weapons of Israel's rule. Tanks and missile launchers stand in place of catapults and handheld weapons of Roman rule. But, still the city is occupied. The conflict is thick in the air. Into this scene, the messengers still come to say, "God' peace will prevail! Unto you is born hope." The city of David needs angelic messengers more than ever. The Messiah must come into the midst of this chaotic and hateful time.
I guess with all we have to think of this Christmas, it doesn't really matters how you regard angels-- what they look like, how they talk, the manner in which they move. Who says God can't be manifest in whatever form that God chooses? After all, God selected to be born in the form of a baby on a long ago night in a remote village. If there could be a Miracle on 34th Street, and that only involved Santa, why can't the Lord surprise us all and be present in Bethlehem then or even on Broad Street today?
To tell you the truth, if you really want to see an angel, I'd say look into the eyes of children. Unlike us, they have come much more recently from God and have the innocence of heaven still clearly within them. Watch them closely and you can learn a great deal about the wonder of life and the true joy of living.
If you really want to hear the Good News that the heavenly host proclaimed that holy night, then maybe these are the voices you should hear it in:
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!
(A small bell rings out of view)
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