A Sermon preached on December 25th (Christmas Day) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20
Perhaps things have improved, but for a while in the religious/spiritual section of bookstores there seemed to be more books on angels than on Christianity! I’m not quite certain why their rather complicated and esoteric theology, or angelology, which includes lots of different orders of angels is or was so proved popular. Perhaps because each person had one or more personal angels and people preferred having a spiritual being all to themselves, rather than having to share as we do!
But angels are biblical of course and in fact the main Gospel of this year’s lectionary, Luke, contains more accounts of angelic revelation than any of the other Gospels: angels reveal to Zechariah that John will be born, an angel tells Mary that Jesus will be born, angels appear –as we just heard – to the shepherds to reveal not only that Jesus has been born, but who this Jesus is. Angels, described as two men in dazzling clothes, appear outside the empty tomb at the end of the Gospel and this theme of angelic revelation continues into Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, with angelic appearances to both Peter and Paul.
These angels are however, while spiritual beings, not sent to accompany and protect or enlighten individuals. They are simply messengers from God. That is all the Greek word angelos means: messenger. And the word angelos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew term, mal’ākh, which again just means "messenger." And so the Old Testament prophet named Malachi, whose book is the last one in our version of the Old Testament, is simply just that, the Messenger.
One of Luke’s central themes is that of the importance of the messengers who point us to who Jesus really is. These supernatural beings proclaim the message of God’s intervention in the world and the coming of salvation for which the people have longed. But it would be a mistake to assume that Luke believed that only angels could be messengers of God. On the contrary each appearance points to the importance of human messengers and in fact each time a human messenger is appointed to pick up the baton and to carry the message on.
Zechariah – once he gets his voice back – tells us in the Canticle that bears his name that his son John will go before the Lord and to prepare his way and “to give his people knowledge of salvation.” In the song we call the Magnificat, Mary tells us that God “has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.” And as we heard this morning the shepherds took on the message of the angels, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:20)
So Luke’s stories of angels are not intended to make us passive recipients of God’s supernatural message, but active participants in its proclamation. The message is a message of salvation: both spiritual and physical. Isaiah looks forward, as we heard, to a kingdom of justice, righteousness and peace, a kingdom the child who will be called – and I almost want to sing this - Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – will establish. And we celebrate the establishment of this kingdom every Christmas – even if not all aspects of it are yet visible everywhere or in everyone. Paul tells Titus that the same child, who he simply calls the grace of God, God’s gift to us, has already brought salvation to all and will, if we let him, educate and train us “in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.” Again – that’s still work in progress, at least for me!
There’s a lovely German poem by Rudolf Otto Wiemer called „Es müssen nicht Männer mit Flügeln sein, die Engel, “ that is “Angels don’t just have to be men with wings” that we used last year at the Christmas Eve service at the Teestube, the day centre for the homeless that we support as one of our outreach projects.
One verse that I particularly like is:
Sie haben kein Schwert, kein weißes Gewand, die Engel. Vielleicht ist einer, der gibt dir die Hand, oder er wohnt neben dir, Wand an Wand, der Engel. Dem Hungernden hat er das Brot gebracht, der Engel. Dem Kranken hat er das Bett gemacht, und hört, wenn du ihn rufst, in der Nacht, der Engel.
They don’t have a sword or white robes, the angels. Perhaps it’s someone who takes you by the hand, or lives right next door to you. Who gives the hungry bread, who for the sick makes their bed, and who hears you, when you call in the night, the angel.
I really and truly believe in angels, but not the esoteric kind. You see, when I look out into this church I see a whole room full of angels, you! I want you to be angels like the ones we just heard about in the poem. I want you to be messengers of God. The message you can bring, by word and by deed, is a message of salvation. We need to be saved from our self-imposed alienation and isolation – both from one another and from God. Christ came at Christmas to tell us that we are not alone, that God came to be with us – that’s one of the names he is given, Emmanuel, God with us. I want you all to be impassioned messengers of God and to bring this “good news of great joy to all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
We share this one God and this one Saviour with everyone, just as we share our one humanity with everyone. That is Good News that can change us and change the world. Like the shepherds you have come and found Mary and Joseph, and the child here today – and I don’t just mean in our wonderful crèche or nativity scene. And so just like the shepherds I hope you will go out of this place, glorifying and praising God for all you have heard and seen, as it has been told to you, and that you will tell and show others about the love of God that is the Good News of Christmas. Amen.