We speak of angels in many different ways. Often we speak of those who are abnormally kind and helpful as angels: nurses, for example.
But there are, of course, those other parts of God’s creative order that we do not see. Well, not all of us. In the parish where I did my first curacy, the sacristan was able to describe to me the angels that she could see. I remember, one day, as the two of us shared in the midweek, evening Eucharist, she winced as I walked around the altar to administer the bread and the cup to her. Later, when I asked her what the problem was, I had, apparently, stepped through, or nearly done, an angel that was kneeling at the alter worshipping with us.
I have to confess that my initial thought was that, if I could not see the angel, it was likely that I would be able to pass through with neither I nor the angel being harmed. I also have to confess that I was, and still am, a little sceptical of the presence of angels. I have, however, learned that there are things that I do not understand or see, but they are a reality. I keep my options open.
When I asked her to describe the angel she did so. It was, if I remember correctly, of masculine and statuesque proportions, fit to fight. I can’t remember, however, whether she described wings or not. But, my impression at the time was, if this was a guardian angel, I was seriously pleased he was on our side.
Some people seem to speak of angels as some kind of divine being, a new-age, really old-age, spirituality: Angel Guides. The reading from Hebrews, this morning, compares Jesus to angels, not necessarily in appearance, but in the hierarchy of things. Angels aren’t gods, they are subject to God and servants of both God and humans.
The name, or word, which we translate as ‘angel’ is a much more simple understanding of the nature of these creatures of God. ‘Angelos’, ‘angel’, literally means ‘messenger’ or ‘message bearer’. ‘Euangellion’, means ‘good message’ or ‘good news’. There are examples of angels in both offensive and defensive roles to physically protect God and humans, but most commonly in the bible, bearing messages from God is the role of those who are described as angels.
In the story of Abraham three angels, in the appearance of men, come to Abraham with the message that Sarah would have a child in her old age. The confusion surrounding their identity, as angels and then as Lord, is, I think, because their message is the Lord’s message.
In Jacob’s dream is the image is of a ladder or stairway between earth and heaven, with the Lord at the top, speaking, and angels are ascending and descending the ladder.
In Daniel, when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, are thrown into the furnace, king Nebuchadnezzar identifies an angel, as a fourth figure in the furnace with them. The three young men come from the furnace unburnt and unharmed and the king declares that no other god can save like the God of Daniel. An interesting question is whether Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego saw the angel in the furnace with them. Clearly, however, the presence assures them that God is always with them and their faithfulness to God will enable them to endure and survive persecution.
During, perhaps at the end, of Jesus 40 days in the wilderness having his faith tested by the devil, we are told, that angels not only ministered to, that is, cared for, Jesus, but he was reminded that angels would also protect him from injury if he was faithful to God.
In the Christmas story, however, we seem to have an intensity of activity of angels. In Matthew there is again this confusion between the Lord and an angel speaking. In Joseph’s dream he is told to take Mary as his wife and that the child she is carrying is of the Holy Spirit.
Again, in a dream, Joseph is told by an angel to take Mary and Jesus and escape to Egypt. It is, again, an angel that instructs them to return from Egypt after the death of Herod.
In Luke, it is an angel who informs Zechariah of the birth of John, who became the Baptiser, the one who would point out Jesus when he came. In this case, we are told the name of the angel, Gabriel.
Gabriel is also the angel God sends to Mary to instruct her about the events that are to take place, which led to her hymn of praise we call the Magnificat.
Then, at the birth of Jesus, it is an angel who gives the message to the shepherds. Their initial response is fear, and not surprisingly, because the one angel turns into a host, literally an army, of angels.
If we have any idea that, when we die, we become one of the angels in heaven, it is not to an idyllic life of rest, but to an eternity of work as a messenger of God. The angels are heaven’s telegraph boys to humans.
It is, I suspect, this role as a messenger that has led to a misconception of new-age spirituality, to speak of angel guides. This makes a mistake in putting too much on angels. We must remember that there are angels that are on the side of the Archangel, who we call Satan, who rebelled against God. (Mt 25.41) Angels, themselves, have no idea of the large picture scheme of things, they are creations of God like you and I, and are, therefore not capable of directing our decision making. Any angel that compels us to trust in them, is not an angel of God. To put our trust in angels as guides is nothing more than idolatry for Christians, and any other monotheistic religion with God who Jesus calls Father. If an angel does speak to us and guide us, the message they convey is from God, and compels us to place our trust in God.
I suspect this is what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is talking about in the reading from his letter this morning. Beware any kind of devotion, at least, or worship, at worst, of angels. Christ is superior to the angels. God did not say, or promise, anything to the angels that he promised to his Son Jesus the Christ. The angels do Jesus’ bidding, not the other way around.
Angels have many forms. By definition, a human person who brings God’s message to us can correctly be described as an angel, but whatever they speak are the words that God wants to say to us. Therefore, it is right, as the Bible stories often display, that we may feel a little confusion regarding whether it was angel or the Lord who spoke. It is also right that we should be stirred and encouraged, or deeply challenged and moved when we receive a message from an angel that is from God.
The angels of God are primarily God’s message bearers to us.