Billy Graham remarked once that he had never heard a sermon on angels. Think back. Have you ever heard one?
While we have not had much to say about angels in the churches, the world at large is getting quite interested in them. The philosopher, Mortimer Adler, announced “angels” as his subject at a gathering of intellectuals in Aspen, Colorado a few years ago and a crowd filled the auditorium! On the popular level, A Book of Angels, by Sophy Burnham was a recent best-seller. What do we make of all this?
Why have angels been ignored in the past in both our churches and in the wider society? Surely one explanation is the times we live in, influenced as they are by “the Enlightenment.” About 200 years ago, leading thinkers began to insist that we rely only on our reason and not the church’s teachings. Science and technology came to shape our thinking about how the world works. Before long, angels began to disappear from peoples’ consciousness.
Another reason for this loss of conviction about angels is the way they are regularly portrayed. “Cherubic” winged infants flitting about puts them in the category of fairies and fantasy. No wonder they seem unbelievable.
But things are changing. For one, we are not so sure anymore that science, technology and human reason can solve all our problems. The world seems to be in terrible shape in spite of all our enlightenment. Therefore, many who are disillusioned with a secular modern world are turning to the supernatural — and that includes an interest in angels. Hence Sophy Burnham’s book with its stories of presumed angel encounters. Indeed, New Age devotees sometimes speak of the angel of a tree or a flower and have long conversations with them!
As the limits of human reason begin to dawn upon us, however, we have to be careful not to go to the other extreme — irrationalism. Truth may be beyond the reach of reason — from revelation, not against reason.
To live by Scripture rather than the rationalism or irrationalism of the day, means that we have our own way of thinking about angels. The fact that we have neglected them, or been taken in by the movie, TV, greeting card or New Age version of them, tells us we had better get back to those basics.
I want you to suspend, for a bit, your skepticism and see if you can get into that “strange new world of the Bible,” as the great theologian Karl Barth called it. Here we can call, as well, upon C.S. Lewis as a good guide. One road into that new land is charted by our hymn book. It’s full of angels! Remember your own words as you sang “about the cherubim and seraphim falling down” before God. Or, in Spirit of God, Descend upon my Heart, how you asked God to “teach me to love thee as the angels love.” Well, how do the angels love?
For one, angels praise God! So we sing in our doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow … Praise God above ye heavenly hosts” The heavenly hosts are the angels. In the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, the reference to the cherubim and seraphim is from the 6th chapter of Isaiah:
In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon the throne… Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings…and one called to the other “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
These awesome figures do not sound much like the Hallmark card cherubs!
The first things the biblical angels do is praise God. As a pastor in Pennsylvania many years ago, one of the high points in worship was at communion time when, after the consecration of the elements in “the eucharistic prayer,” the congregation broke into song with “the seraphic hymn.” As the prayer concluded:
Thee mightily God…we magnify and praise, with apostles and martyrs…with the innumerable company of angels round about thy throne, the heaven of heavens and all the powers therein, we worship and adore thy glorious Name, joining in the song of the Cherubim and Seraphim
“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabbath, Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory…Hosanna in the highest!”
Who can say that the angels themselves are not teaching us, in these high moments, about the praise of God?
Angels have a second ministry in Scripture. They are there for news as well as praise. Indeed, the meaning of the Greek word for angel is “messenger of God.” So the momentous annunciation when the angel Gabriel says to Mary: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you … You have found favor with God … and you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will call his name Jesus …” (Matthew 1:28-31). This announcement of the coming Messiah has found its way into many paintings and, of course, into the “Ave Maria.”
And the Christmas angels declared to the shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy …”
Think about all the hymns with that news! “Angels we have heard on high …” “Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation …” and on and on.
Angels at every turn of the tale of Jesus Christ — at the end as well as at the beginning. So on Easter we sing, “Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away …” And in our passage from today’s reading, at the very end of time; “The Son of Man is to come with his angels …” (Matthew 16:27).
The latter passages also speak of a third purpose of angels in Scripture. They do guarding and ministering deeds for God. They save Lot and his family from destruction (Genesis 19:1-19), protect Daniel in the lions’ den (Daniel 6:23), care for Jesus after his temptations (Matthew 4:11) and strengthen him in the garden (Luke 22:43), and are generally identified as “ministering spirits,” (Hebrews 1:14).
Does that mean every human being has a “guardian angel”? If you put this question to the Bible, you come across only two passages that speak about an individual angel’s guardianship of an individual (in contrast to over three hundred that describe the other ministries we’ve been talking about) — Job 33:22 and Acts 12:15. And these do not tell us about a lifelong guardian angel. John Calvin is a good guide on this subject. He says: Yes, we do have guardian angels, but not just one each! As Scripture teaches, the “hosts of heaven” — whole legions of angels — watch over us. We cannot settle for less.
In all these roles, biblical angels are about God’s business. They are instruments of God in the struggle with sin, evil, error and death. Their praise, news and deeds, therefore, have nothing to do with our private agendas. Here we part company with many popular views of angels. Angels do not spend time looking after our personal interests, or furnish us with horoscopes about our future or give us directions on how to plant flowers correctly. Angel “sightings,” so to speak, always have a godly purpose and must be tested to see if they witness — as the angel Gabriel did — to something about Christ, or in conformity to Scripture’s teaching.
Here the rest of the passage in Matthew helps us to see what biblical angels are about. Do the angels strengthen us to “deny ourselves” and “take up the cross” (Matthew 16:24)? To lose our lives for Christ’s sake (Matthew 16:25)? Or, as in other texts, do the angels help us to “be not conformed to this world” but “be transformed” (Romans 12:2)? Do they teach us to obey God’s voice and keep God’s covenant (Exodus 19:5)? Neither the commercial angels of popular culture nor the New Age angels of the counterculture measure up to these standards.
Scripture teaches us also that angels are not just a now-and-then occurrence. The angel hosts are everywhere! They are present wherever the truth of God hits home — in reading the Bible, in hearing a sermon (let’s hope right this minute!), when our sin is forgiven by Christ’s word of mercy, when our life is changed.
But God’s business is not just conducted in church. It takes place in daily life. When we follow what we know is true and good, when we go against the crowd, when we “do the right thing,” the angels are present. In moments of consolation over the loss of a loved one, when healing happens, when truth is told, the angels have played their part. On the larger landscape, when our nation is saved from some foolish action by our leaders, when it does do “the right thing” instead of following a cowardly course, God is at work. But so are the angels! When a victim on a Jericho road is ministered to, when oppression is resisted and a deed of justice is done, the angel with the flaming sword has been at work.
I must admit that it takes a lot of imagination — biblical imagination — to think of things that way! We are so much part of our scientific era, trained to ignore or deny the transcendent realm. So we must say to the culture that shaped us: “You’ve taught us a lot and given us much. Thanks for telephones, airplanes, heart monitors, TVs and computers. But you don’t know everything. And the world you’ve passed on to us — depopulated of angels and often God — is in a big mess. We’re going to look at things with different eyes — with the eyes of the Bible. And we can see realities with those eyes that you can’t see.
For those who take this leap of faith into the biblical world, life does begin to look different. If the hosts of angels do surround us, why should we get up in the morning so worried about this or that? Who is afraid of the terrorists? Of tyrants? Of sickness? Of death? O, yes, they can do a lot of damage. But can they do us in? Can they finally defeat God? Overcome Christ? No, the hosts of the angels of the Lord will not allow it! They shall overcome. We shall overcome! The confidence that we march with the angel hosts gives us the courage to “resist the powers of evil” in our time, as one current Statement of Faith puts it.
To honor the angels, however, does not mean that we must crave the experience of an angel, or talk to angels, or be jealous of people who claim to have supernatural experiences of angels. St. Paul rarely mentioned them in his letters. Martin Luther prayed that he would not meet one. Whole stretches of the Bible have little or nothing to say about them. Indeed, in the last hymn, we sang these words: “I ask no dream, no prophet’s ecstasies … no angel visitant, no opening skies …”
Why this reserve? Well, if your experience of Christ and the Holy Spirit is so rich and full, there is no need for the angels to make themselves known. We don’t have to have angel sightings to make it through life. We have enough in our communion with Christ to last for a lifetime.
We get some good biblical advice for those who do not have mystical experiences of angels in Genesis 19:1-20. It’s the subject of some famous paintings and Eastern Orthodox icons, portrayed as three angels around a table. However, the story is not about three winged creatures with halos but about three strangers, human beings, that encountered Abraham. Only after the visit did Abraham conclude that these were heavenly rather than earthly figures. He “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
This story teaches us that angels are with us in very ordinary circumstances and people. In the common experiences of life when something good or true happens, and most of all when our faith in Jesus Christ comes alive, we can know — as Abraham did, after the fact — that we too have “entertained angels unawares.”
May the angels watch over you. May they strengthen you to resist conformity to this world, to be transformed by the renewing of your mind in Christ. And now and then, may you feel the brush of their wings and hear the strain of their harps as you ascend with them to the throne of God, exulting: Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones, raise the glad strain, Alleluia, Cry out dominions, princedoms powers, virtues, archangels, angel choirs, Alleluia!

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