Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Cast of Christmas: Angels

It was a dangerous day for the man of God. For some time now, Elisha had been thwarting the plans of the Syrian king – learning through a prophetic gift what Syria's tactical maneuvers would be, and reporting them to Israel's king. One day, the Syrians had had enough. By night they came and surrounded Dothan, where Elisha was living. In the morning, Elisha's servant rose to see them and was terrified – Syrian warriors on every side, with no way out. Elisha, however, was not alarmed. He assured his servant, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). And when the veil was torn from the servant's eyes, “he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17) – a heavy security detail if ever I heard of one! The Syrians, in fact, were outnumbered that day by a greater army, one they couldn't see but which blazed with celestial fire behind the scenes.

What sort of army was it that defended Elisha that day? The same kind that came to retrieve Elisha's prophetic mentor Elijah, whisking him away “by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). This mysterious military unit of the LORD, who “makes his angels winds and his servants a flaming fire” (Psalm 104:4), is not one I would want to tangle with. So often, when we think of angels, we see them as our paintings picture them: effeminate men in white robes, with soft and delicate features, if not actually baby-like. Saccharine-sweet and harmless. All of which has very little to do with how the Bible actually depicts angels.

Setting aside the cherubim and seraphim – very specific sorts of heavenly created beings – one of the first times we really meet angels in Scripture, it's at Sodom. The angels came to rescue Abraham's nephew Lot, and when the crowd turned hostile, the angels “struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house, both small and great” (Genesis 19:11). As Lot hesitated to leave town, the angels grabbed him and hauled him and his family past the city limits by force (Genesis 19:16). Soon after, fire and brimstone rained down and wiped Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim (Genesis 19:24) – and these angels had plenty to do with it. “We are about to destroy this place … The LORD has sent us to destroy it” (Genesis 19:13).

Later, we read about a mysterious “Destroyer” through whom death came to the Egyptian firstborn as the tenth plague (Exodus 12:23). In the desert, we read of how a pagan sorcerer, hoping to profit by coming to curse the people of God, found an invisible presence in his path – and when his eyes were opened, “he saw the angel of the LORD standing in his way, with his drawn sword in his hand,” prepared to kill Balaam (Numbers 22:23). In the days of King David, who had given in to a devilish temptation, “God sent the angel to Jerusalem to destroy it … And David lifted his eyes and saw the angel of the LORD standing between earth and heaven, and in his hand a drawn sword stretched out over Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 21:15-16). Many years later, after Elisha and his servant had a fiery army of angels for their bodyguards, we read that Jerusalem was threatened by Assyrian soldiers, but Isaiah promised David's descendant Hezekiah that God would save them. “And that night,” we read, “the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185 thousands in the camp of the Assyrians” (2 Kings 19:35), resulting in an Assyrian retreat (2 Kings 19:36).

All this to say, angels – whatever heavenly beings God is using as messengers – tend not to be neat, picturesque, harp-strumming figures we imagine in our sweet little songs. They come armed and dangerous, ready for war – which we know they fight, or fought, against the devil's forces – including, at times, the humans who do his bidding. And so, one otherwise silent night in the fields around Bethlehem, one can understand why a sudden invasion of heaven's army would be cause for alarm. Everything was quiet and normal, until an angel showed up, and when he'd said his piece, “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13). That's Bible-talk for a whole army regiment, sent from heaven. What the shepherds beheld that night was no innocent choir, but a powerful army, armed to the teeth, appearing seemly from nowhere.

But this heavenly army regiment sang a song, chanted a chant, on their march. And the end of their song should strike you. “On earth peace among men well-pleasing” (Luke 2:14b). We mention it in so many of our carols, this declaration of 'peace on earth.' We look around us, we look within us, and what we see looks like a war zone. People are getting hurt out there. Disease and fire run rampant. People scheme and betray each other. They fight in secret, they fight openly, with words, with fists, with blades and bombs and bullets. You know the lyrics: “In despair I bowed my head; / 'there is no peace on earth,' I said, / for hate is strong and mocks the song / of peace on earth, good will to men.” In the middle of a war zone, there is little news that would be better than peace on earth – everything fitting back together seamlessly, harmoniously.

The truth is, ever since a far-away garden we read of long ago, there's been a rebellion going on. We've refused so often to just listen to our King and submit to his wisdom. Sometimes, in his own name, we've gone out and done great damage. Ask any twenty randomly selected young folks today what sort of things people have done in God's name – you'll hear more than you bargained for. And just as often, people have set themselves up in opposition to the King. We wanted to be 'as gods,' able to decide for ourselves what's good and what's evil. In every act of sin, that's what we do: declare our own definition to supersede the heavenly one. We incessantly declare war on heaven, on earth, on each other, on our own selves.

And in the context of that kind of rebellion, it's striking, isn't it, to have heaven's army finally march down to earth as one, crowd into a single field, all lined up in battle array... only what they've come to proclaim is peace. A ceasefire. A treaty. To rebel fighters, to enemies, here comes heaven's army offering terms of peace, to all those who are well-pleasing – those who lay down the fight and return to heaven's cause. Aren't we tired of all the fighting? Aren't we tired of all the lies, all the strife, all the anger and the chaos, all the destruction and all the carnage? Heaven's army has come to offer terms of peace, with total amnesty on the table. What more can we really ask for? What more do we want but the possibility to rebuild after we've seen our fight go so wrong?

But how can we have this peace on earth? How can heaven's peace be ours here? It seems like that harmony is so easily disturbed, so easily tipped out of balance and damaged or destroyed. We're good at that, after all. But the angel army explains. The first half of their song tells the how: “Glory to God in the highest” (Luke 2:14a). In biblical tradition, one key meaning of the word for 'glory' is for something to be heavy – for it to have real heft, real weight to it, real significance and importance. Think about the sun, which not only glows brightly, but exerts a gravitational pull on all the planets in our solar system – because it's so massive, or, in biblical terms, so glorious.

Here on earth, our lives orbit many things. We are constantly caught between the gravitational attraction of this and that celebrity, this and that cause, this and that job, this and that hobby, this and that person or place or thing – we're always finding something to glorify, something to deem as having real gravity to hold us in place and give us meaning. But the problem is, that's not how things were meant to be. We were meant to glorify God in the highest – to place him at the center of our lives, with everything else in orbit around him, caught in God's gravitational pull. Only when God is glorified, made central with his gravitational pull submitted to, do we at last find a stable course in which to move. When God is glorified, then everything else can share one center, and instead of crashing into each other or veering far apart into the cold and dark reaches of space, we can orbit in order. And only when orbiting in order around the real source of light and warmth can we finally taste peace.

The problem is that, when it comes to God, we seem to have a bad case of anti-gravity. Something within us actively seeks to repel him, to repel each other. And we've drifted so far. With no way of propelling ourselves through space to reach him, how could we ever get back and find our place in his orbit again? We can only find real peace (the kind offered by heaven's armies) by giving ultimate glory to God, but how can that be possible for rogue planets drifting in outer darkness?

And that's where the rest of the angelic message comes in. What the angels came to say was that there is just such a way. Our aversion to God's glory has to be cured, and we have to be propelled back into his orbit. We have no ability to do that ourselves – no power to rewrite the laws of fallen physics in our fallen nature, nor to learn to resonate with God in our hearts, nor to chart a course back to him under our own steam. But this is what we need to hear: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The long-awaited Messiah had finally come. He didn't descend from the clouds, fully-grown and robed in white, like his armies did. No, he was a newborn, meant to grow up on the same earth as one of us, to cure us from the inside-out. He came to be where we are, to be our healing, our rewriter, our propulsion, bending space and time to lead us back to the divine brightness we fled so long ago.

And so Christ the Lord came to be our Savior. He stills the chaos within our souls. He ends the war between heaven and earth – for how can heaven's armies besiege the city where their King dwells? He anchors the adrift and carries the lost and lone. When we were adrift in the darkest night, he came like a holy graviton to renew the inviting, welcoming force of God on our lives. This Savior mediates the gravity of God in person. He turns us back toward the light and tugs us toward the beauty and warmth of holy love.

No more need we drift aimlessly. No more need we orbit the dwarf stars of our idols. No more need we crash, splinter, fracture in the empty voids of mere existence. We are called back to the glory of God – to life, to health, to peace, to completeness – to where we belonged all along. Because to us is born a Savior, who can rescue us when we can do nothing to rescue ourselves. It may not be a smooth ride back to the warmth of God's glory – after all, as we move through space toward his pull, we may well find ourselves pelted by the meteorites of opposition and the asteroids of hardship and tragedy, or as Jesus himself said, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34) – but in the long term, peace is where we'll be when he's through with us.

No wonder, then, the angelic spokesman for heaven's army calls this “good tidings of great joy” (Luke 2:10). A return to our original orbit, a restoration of balance and harmony, a ceasefire with superior forces, a healing for our wounded hearts, a hope of light and life – that's pretty joyful! That's the activity of God through the Savior he sent out to our far reaches. And to announce it, to announce peace on earth for all those who accept the favor of this rescue mission to those of us lost in space – well, that's some greeting! Those are some good tidings as far as I'm concerned. That's good news. That's gospel, right there, a gospel of great joy.

What the angelic spokesman literally says here is, “I evangelize you.” Yes – the angel is an evangelist. He may seem scary, unsettling, unnerving, discombobulating, but he's got a gospel to tell, good news to proclaim, with great joy in its wake. It's no wonder the angel's evangelism is experienced as so disconcerting – after all, his message is accompanied by the glory of God, a lurching shift of gravity for the unwitting shepherds who saw and heard (Luke 2:9). But the same evangelistic message can set people free from the feeble gravity of dim and degenerate stars, free from the coldness and emptiness, free from chaos and rebellion, free from the inevitable atrophy and aimlessness of perfunctory existence and meaningless drudgery. The angel's evangelism points to a Savior who rescues us from all these ills, and through whom we experience the light and life of God afresh. And the joy-giving entrance of that Savior into our forlorn and war-torn world is just what Christmas is, after all, all about.

We may not, like Elisha's servant, catch a glimpse of horses and chariots of fire on the mountain. We may not, like Hezekiah, survey Assyrian carnage in a destroying angel's path. And we may not, like the shepherds, hear the armies of heaven chant their ceasefire before our eyes – though we may well, like Abraham, Gideon, Manoah, and many saints, “entertain angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). But there remains plenty we can learn from this celestial invasion.

If we yield beneath the pull of our Savior's nail-scarred-but-freshly-living hands, we will fall more and more under the pull of God's glory. Other centers of gravity will lose their attraction. And as we look more and more to the gravity of God, become drawn to him, become warmed with his glow and transfigured with his beauty, we will find that things fall into place. Yes, the petty rocks that cross our path may pockmark us with craters, may throw up plenty of irritating dust in our lives. But for all that, we will find our peace in God's orderly orbit, all through our Savior's work. The time for drifting lost in space is done; the time to be found is now. And, like the angel, we are called to evangelize, to communicate this good news in real and practical ways, in word and in deed, to bring great joy. We are called to share a Savior's guidance with those still lost, to minister a Savior's touch to those adrift or fracturing apart, to reflect God's glory out into the darkness, and to announce and illustrate the joy and peace in God's orbit. Don't be afraid. Ever since the ceasefire at the Savior's birth, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:17). Thanks be to God. Amen.

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