What to Say to an Angel
A two-character drama sits at the center of this Advent narrative.
The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, commends her life and frightens her all at the same time.
Do not be afraid, the angel says.
The angel promises Mary she will deliver a child, and that child will be the greatest of all time, the son of God, the son of David, the redeemer of the world. But Mary first responds with an ancient version of, I don’t think so! After further exchange and explanation, she finally says, OK. Let it happen. Or in the old version: May it be unto me according to your word.
What would you say to an angel?
What would you say if God sent a messenger to your home and told you some astounding thing?
What have you said when God touched your heart, stirred your soul, filled your imagination, and called you to be something or do something? What did you say?
Open your heart and soul today to God. Open your ears to the voice of God. Open your life to the messenger of God, the angel of God. Maybe you will hear something you need to hear in order to be the person God wants you to be.
Maybe our church needs to hear something. Maybe we need an angel, a messenger of God, sent from the throne of God, to give us the message we need to hear.
May it happen today.
Luke tells this gospel story, the annunciation, we call it.
This is a difficult narrative for many of us. It is difficult because of what it ignited: namely, the adoration of Mary and the elevation of Mary to larger-than-life status.
On the way to church today I passed the Immaculate Conception church. That refers to the Catholic dogma that Mary was, from the moment of her conception, free of original and actual sin. They believe she lived her entire life as a virgin and was assumed body and soul into heaven at the time of her death.
The elevation of this simple peasant woman almost to the status as co-redeemer of the universe is astounding, and beyond credible. She is adored by hundreds of millions of people. And the prayer lifted in her name is one of the three most repeated phrases in the history of human culture: Hail Mary, full of grace. The lord is with you.
What do you do with that?
I have problems with all of it. But others whom I respect don’t.
I have a friend who renewed her faith in Jesus Christ and converted to Catholicism by reciting the rosery, which includes the Hail Mary and the Our Father.
And then I heard the song Holy Mother.
It was written by Eric Clapton on the occasion of his redemption, his transformation, his conversion in 1988.
The version I heard was sung by the East London Gospel Choir. It was a benefit concert for Bosnia, in 1996. Singing with the choir was Eric Clapton himself and late, great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.
I encourage you to find it on YouTube and watch it and listen to it. Perhaps your reaction will be like mine: I wanted to get saved all over again. It helped me understand the appeal of Mary the mother of Jesus as an avenue to Jesus Christ, as a highway to heaven, as a path to wholeness and holiness, as a gateway to grace and glory.
The song was a messenger of God to me. It was angelic in its impact. It inspired me. It warmed my heart toward Mary, and Jesus, and Roman Catholics, and people everywhere who find in this story and this song a gateway to the grace of God.
Years later, Eric Clapton, widely considered among the greatest guitarist in the world, described the night he wrote the song, in 1988.
“In the ‘80’s, I was out on the road in a massive downward spiral with drink and drugs. I saw Purple Rain in a cinema in Canada. I had no idea who Prince was. It was like a bolt of lightning!
In the middle of my depression, and the dreadful state of the music culture at that time it gave me hope. He was like a light in the darkness.
I went back to my hotel and surrounded by empty beer cans, wrote ‘Holy Mother’.”
Purple Rain was a song, album, and later a movie by Prince. It was first released in 1984. The movie is the story of Prince’s own troubled life. He was a musical genius but also a man deep religious faith, of profound Christian faith.
Prince came like an angel to Eric Clapton.
“I was in complete despair,” Clapton wrote. “In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. From that day until this I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and most of all, for my sobriety.”
“Holy Mother, where are you? Tonight, I feel broken in two
I’ve seen the stars fall from the sky. Holy Mother, can’t keep from crying.
Oh I need your help this time. Get me through this lonely night.
Tell me please which way to turn, To find myself again.
I am touched by this story, by this music, and by the mystery of Mary the mother of Jesus. I love this story, this woman Mary, and this testimony to a life redeemed.
But it is the angel that intrigues me most. And troubles me.
Women I know a little about. Not much, but some. Angels, not so much.
Women I see all the time, in this sanctuary and in my home, on the street and in the apartments next to me and above me.
But Angels: I have never seen an angel. I don’t know what to think.
Mary was in the same situation. She was caught off guard. It wasn’t as if talking with angels was a common thing, not then, not now. She was frightened. She was startled. “Confused and disturbed” are the words in this translation. She was troubled, the old King James puts it.
“You would be too if it happened to you,” to quote the old rock and roll song.
Nowhere in the biblical text are angels cuddly things, warm and fuzzy friends that smooth our anxieties and warm our hearts.
No, they are strange creatures, out of the ordinary. Often their first words are Do Not Fear. Isn’t that what the angel said when they first appeared to the shepherds out in the field watching their flocks at night?
I think you would be afraid if an angel appeared to you!
In the gun culture of our country, many people would simply pull out a pistol and shoot the angel dead. That is the way too many people respond to things that trouble them or frighten them or startle them. Shoot first and ask questions later.
I’m glad Mary didn’t have a gun. I’m grateful she had the grit to face that angel and ask a penetrating question…and I paraphrase:
“You want me to have a baby that will rule the world? Is that what you are saying to me? How in the world can that happen?”
There was a time, not like ours, when women did not get pregnant and men did not impregnate women until they were in love and legally married. Not so today, but that is another sermon, another series of sermons!!
Today I have all I can handle with this story of an angel.
Have you ever seen an angel?
Yes, I know we use angel language when somebody comes to our rescue. Two years ago General Colin Powell was on his way to Walter Reed Hospital near Washington DC when the tire on his car blew out. He stopped, retrieved his tools, and went to work. Soon, another car pulled up and a man with a prosthetic leg got out, took the tools and finished the job. General Powell did not get the name of the man but discovered enough to know that he had lost his leg in Afghanistan. “God sent an angel to help me that day,” is the sort of thing we might say.
We make angels a metaphor for any Good Samaritan who suddenly appears to help us in our time of need. Like when a best friend shows up to help clean the house just before it is swarmed with company. “You’re an angel,” is one way to say thank you.
Sometimes angels are helpers. An angel rescued Simon Peter from jail and guided him to the assembly of believers.
Sometimes angels are warriors. An army of angels camped on the hillsides surrounding Elisha protecting them from an enemy.
But mostly angels are messengers from God. They leave the presence of God and bring us a word: of judgment, or redemption, or bad news or good news.
The Hebrew is Malik. It is translated messenger or angel.
When you add the vowel on the end to get My Messenger you end up with the name Malichi; and Malachi is the name of a prophet whose writings and preachings ended up in the Hebrew Bible.
Sometimes these messengers look like ordinary people. Two messengers appeared at the tent of Abraham and warned him of disaster to befall the region where his nephew lived. Two messengers—two men, the text says, in shinning garments—stood by the empty tomb and said to the perplexed women: Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!
Angels appear in your life to give you a message, to give you direction, to point the way forward, to warn of danger ahead, to speak of word of hope, and yes, to sing for joy.
I need an angel today, do you?
On Thursday morning my landlord called and said, I am selling the place. On Saturday morning my landlord sent a text and said I sold the place. January 10th is the day. I need an angel to tell me what to do!!
But here is the rub.
If an angel were to appear to me, shining garments, white wings, or ordinary street clothes, it is very likely I wouldn’t listen or obey. I’d be like that first Mary who said to that holy messenger, Really? I don’t think so! How is that going to happen? I am a virgin. need some confirmation! I want a second opinion.
It wouldn’t be the first time I ignored the word of God when it came to me. How about you?
It wouldn’t be the first time I listened to a messenger from God and dismissed it. How about you?
It would be the first time I closed my ears and turned my face from the way forward. How about you?
Many people heard Jesus teach and saw him heal and were stirred by his invitation; but refused to take up their cross and follow Jesus.
How many times did Saul of tarsus, devout reader of the Bible, hear the testimony of Christians, listened to the message of God sent through those first angel martyrs and turned a deaf ear. He thought he knew what he needed to know until he was stricken blind on that road to Damascus?
How many men in Ur of the Chaldees did God speak to before one man, Abram, listened and packed up his tent and headed for the promise land.
How many women heard the promise of God in the temple of ancient Israel and discarded it until Hannah prayed and heard and behaved like a disciple and dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord?
How many people have spent hours in houses of worship listening to music and prayers and sermons and testimonies and left unphased, unchanged, unconverted?
How many times did the Lord try to get the attention of Eric Clapton before an angel named Prince appeared to him in a movie and spoke the words, sang the words, he needed to hear?
How many young women in Nazareth or Capernaum or Bethlehem or Jerusalem were visited by the angel Gabriel before he appeared to Mary?
How many visits to the people of Judah did it take before Gabriel found a woman who would say, I am the servant of the Lord. May it happen even as you say.
How many times did the angel of the lord, the messenger of the lord speak to you before you said, Here am I, send me. Before you responded, I believe Lord. Help my unbelief.