Sunday, December 26, 2021

Let All the Welkin Ring!

Merry Christmas! Today's the second of those famed twelve days of Christmas, so we still get to say that. Next Sunday we can too, if we want. I hope you all had a pleasant first day of Christmas. I know I did, by and large. Last night, as perhaps the start of a new yearly tradition, my wife, mom, and I watched one of the classics of Christmas cinema together: It's a Wonderful Life. Came out in 1946, and yet, though I knew plenty about it, I'd never actually seen it until last night. Now, I'm curious, show of hands: how many of you here this morning have seen It's a Wonderful Life? What a movie. I just wish, though, that they'd given a little bit more screen time to the character of Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class. He, you see, was sent down from the heavens as George Bailey's guardian angel in the hour of need. And for all that you wouldn't want to get your theology from a Frank Capra movie, there's one point at which Clarence rings quite true to life.

And that's that, for all of Christian history, the Church has believed that there are guardian angels – not deceased men trying to earn wings, but immortal heavenly beings assigned by God to our help. And the Church believed it because she unpacked it from the Bible. The psalmist, after all, celebrates that God “will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). The author of Hebrews describes angels being “sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). In Acts, a young woman mistakes Peter for his angel,” the one assigned to him (Acts 12:15). And Jesus himself implied that the “little ones” all have guardian angels, for “in heaven, their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). And as the Christians of the first centuries studied these scriptures, they marveled that “the worth of souls is so great that, from birth, each one has an angel assigned to him for his protection,”1 “an angel that accompanies him, acting like a kind of... shepherd,”2 “to help in the life of each person,”3 so that “there is present to each one of us, even to the least who are in the church of God, a good angel, an angel of the Lord, who guides, warns, and governs – who, for the sake of correcting our actions and imploring mercy, daily sees the face of the Father who is in heaven.”4 And thus, as Jesus said, your guardian angel is among those who rejoice greatly over your repentance whenever you turn toward God (Luke 15:10).

What's more, the Church has also always believed that angels are in some way fellow-members of the church, and that when the church gathers to worship God, angels are worshipping God alongside us. After all, when the Apostle Paul demands that churches behave themselves appropriately in worship, he explains himself by simply saying, “because of the angels” (1 Corinthians 11:10).5 And more directly, the author of Hebrews announces, in our worship, we've joined “innumerable angels in festal gathering” (Hebrews 12:22). All of which suggests that the names on our membership roll, however we clean it, can never tell the true story of our membership. And why not? Because of the angels! Invisible to us, there's no way to count just how many angels are on hand to assist and share in the worship we're offering God today.6 But they may well be in the majority here.

So let's do something a little different this morning. We mortal members hear, what, fifty, fifty-one sermons a year directed at us, while the angels listen in? This morning, if you'll indulge it, I say we swap places for a bit. Feel free, by all means, to listen in – but the rest of this sermon, all but the end, goes out to the angels.

So, to the angels of this church, greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! You've certainly known about him a lot longer than we have, haven't you? For you knew him before ever he took on the name 'Jesus.' “In the beginning,” I've read, “was the Word – and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). From all eternity, the Word was all that God was, and was with God the Father in his heart. But then God spoke, and time began. And in that first instant of time, the Word from within the Father's heart was, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). And suddenly, there was light – and suddenly, there were you. It took the Word no time to give you being. He willed, and you obeyed and existed. You came forth fully formed, and in that instant, already you knew God, loved God, were inclined toward him as your natural good.

But then came a second instant – separated from the first by perhaps no more time than one of my heartbeats to the next. God spoke to you in his Eternal Word. This Word proposed to you a destiny beyond your nature, the outline of a plan for all things, a prospect for your role therein. The Word invited your free and open embrace of it. But some of your brothers refused. They rejected a destiny beyond nature that would take humility to receive it. So those angels, as it's written, “did not stay within their own domain, but left their proper dwelling” (Jude 1:6). But you remained. You were faithful. Humbling yourselves, you decided once and for all for God. And by that same Eternal Word, the Father's grace confirmed you in love, forever unable to fall, and forever destined you for glory as you were blessed in beholding his face.

After that, you surrounded God, rank on rank of the heavenly host – seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels7 – and you all sang for joy as God spoke things into being in heaven and on earth (Job 38:7). Didn't you “offer praise before him on account of all his works” in creation?8 You even watched with wonder as he breathed the breath of life into mud and moved it to be man. Angels, I've no doubt you wandered through the Paradise of God, watching the primeval parents of all our kith and kin. But did it surprise you, did it dismay you, when your fallen brother used the serpent and lured us to make the same prideful choice as him – to spurn grace and chase ruin? For then were we expelled from paradise, and some of your loftiest brethren, of the order of cherubim, stationed as guards to ward us away from the tree of life.

Yet the sorrow of our fall, though pitting us so often against you, was no end to your mission for our ungrateful brood. For surely God revealed to you then, if not before, his plan to save the prodigal earthlings lost from the garden. And for that, he called on you. He declared you as “ministering spirits sent out to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). And I wonder – though there must be billions of angels beyond our comprehension – just how each of you present with us today has been serving through the ages. Patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob met angels (Genesis 18; 32:1) – were any of you among them? We hear over and over that it was through angels that God delivered the Law to Moses (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2) – were you there on the mountain, were you the thick cloud, did you see? When Elisha prayed his fearful servant's eyes be opened, and he beheld the hills suddenly “full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17), was that you? Or when Daniel testified God had “sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths” (Daniel 6:22), did one of you do that? Moses, David, the prophets – were you there, involved?

Whether you did or didn't, between those scenes and besides your missions here and there, first and foremost you've always remained fixed on God the Holy Trinity, the source and summit of all your love and life. What do you do more than worship? Nothing! Don't you say, again and again, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8)? Don't you chant, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11)? “The cherubim fall before him and bless him. As they arise, the quiet voice of God is heard, followed by a tumult of joyous praise” – your praise!9 “They tell of his royal splendor as they truly know it, and exalt his glory in all the heavens of his rule. They sing wonderful psalms according to their insight throughout the highest heaven, and declare the surpassing glory of the King of divinities in the stations of their habitation.”10 Isn't that what you've been doing since time immemorial: worshipping like priests in heaven to “present to the Lord a pleasing aroma” where “praises of God are offered eternally”?11 And in all this, as the “bread of angels,” the Eternal Word was your constant sustenance (Psalm 78:25).

But then it happened. You'd been helping God to shepherd all the peoples in the world as they labored under sin and temptation. You'd been eager to know more of God's plan, the things not even angels can see apart from revelation. But did it take you by surprise? Were any of you here lurking unseen in the streets of Nazareth, eavesdropping as your brother Gabriel spoke to Mary? And when Mary gave her beautiful yes, her humble and queenly yes, were your fiery eyes able to see the infinite Word stretch down to meet her? Or, as some thought in early years, did the Word disguise himself as one like yourselves and so slip past you in stealth?12 I suppose it wasn't so, and that you saw the moment the Word came. Did any of you here watch in perplexity as this Word – the Word that spoke you into being, the Word that spoke your grace, the Word that spoke your glory, the Word you've heeded in ardent love long before we were – suddenly seized on our human nature, joining it to his divine person? Did you watch the Word create a human soul, not for yet another of your wards, but for himself? And through the next nine months, did you marvel to notice the Word knitting himself in Mary's womb a body of heavy matter, of flesh, blood, and bone? What was it to you angels as the heart of God beat soft and small?

For we're told, and we can believe it, that human nature is ranked naturally lower, in the great chain of being, than seraph or cherub, archangel, or even the lowliest angel in your ranks, on account (among other things) of our susceptibility to death (Hebrews 2:7). And so, in some profound way, the Word by which you live and move and have your being suddenly lowered himself beneath you, even as his divinity remained above you. “Jesus himself, the transcendent Cause of [you] beings which live beyond the world, came to take on human form, without in any way changing his own essential nature.”13 Immortal as God, he was mortal as man. Infinite as God, he was finite as man – and not merely as man, but at first as a single cell, beyond the power of our eyes unaided to see. Then over days and weeks the cells multiplied – a blastocyst, an embryo, a fetus he became, taking form in accordance with this human soul heretofore unknown fused to the Word always known by you.

I know, angels, how it's written that the apostles and evangelists were privileged to announce “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:22). For “not all the mysteries are open to you.”14 But you itch to know and see, to love and sing. Yet you cannot taste for yourselves what it's like to have God literally become what you are, with the intent of infusing your natures with divinity itself. So how shocking was it to witness this done for us?

Nine months went by, watching in wonder. But then came the night, the fateful night when the Word of God would reveal his tiny human face to the world. And more than any other mystery you might unfold, given leave, I want to know about that night – that night when the heavenly liturgy of worship was on earthly display, and the veil was torn away in a field outside that little town of Bethlehem, otherwise so still and silent. To be sure, I don't know, O angels of ours here, whether you were in Nazareth at the annunciation. Perhaps you were in heaven, attending nothing but God in his realm. Or perhaps you were elsewhere in our world, on assignment of one sort or another. But then came that night. I read in the Gospel that “a multitude of heavenly host” then appeared. What percentage of angels were there? Was it only a fraction, with you here having been left out? But I turn to another page and read, “When [God] brings his Firstborn into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him!'” (Hebrews 1:6). All? All! Every angel in existence, crowding densely to chant the gospel song, “that famous song of jubilation!”15

So you were there, weren't you, angels? Each of you – my guardian angel, his, hers – you were on the scene the silent and holy night when Christ was born! What did it look like for you, I want to know? With blazing vision, did you see the Word-made-Flesh brought into the open, pressed forth from virgin womb to violent world in the presence of ox and donkey? Did you stand at attention as the umbilical cord was cut, and could you already see the chains of death and hell severed with the stroke? Did you hear God's cry as air filled his infant human lungs – and did it sound to you like a shout of revelation? Did you appreciate the miracle to end all miracles, and how this was the salvation of a shattered creation? Because it was. It was. So what was the joy within your light, O holy winds, as you beheld the dawn in the midnight hour? How excited were you by the unfolding of all you'd yearned for, and to enter the next phase of a mission long as time had run?

Then you went to the shepherds, who not so far away were “out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). But why did you go to the shepherds, angels? Were they in the same field where that boy David once grazed his father's sheep when he was a shepherd like them? Did you go because they were so like David? Did you go because they were the poor and downtrodden, the outcast and overworked? Or did you go because they were so still and quiet, purifying and refining their souls? When you went, what were they doing as you invisibly drew near? Were they idling away the hours in talk of family struggles and bills? Did they talk of their hopes and fears? Were they bored and in silence? Or were they watching and praying?

Then one of your brother angels made himself visible, wrapped up in the Lord's own glory carried with you. So I've read that these lonely shepherds were utterly terrified by the sight (Luke 2:9)! What was the look on their faces, angels? You saw them in that moment – you know! It's no second-hand story to you; it's a memory undimmed by the march of time. When the shepherds saw the light all around, how fast did their hearts beat? How near were they to passing out?

You were there, watching, listening, as your brother angel reassured them – told them not to fear, said it was “good news of great joy” he'd come to deliver, a message handed down by the Father through the ranks and now revealed to the unkempt and uncredited. But not for them alone. It was a reason for all humans, high or low or in between, to rejoice in a new-found dignity and deliverance (Luke 2:10). It was for such as these shepherds, your fellow said, and for all of the human race, that in David's city had just been born a Savior who was the long-awaited Messiah, and more than that, was heaven's Lord (Luke 2:11). They knew, these shepherds did, that Rome called it 'good news,' 'gospel,' when the emperor's birthday came around, for Caesar claimed to be the savior and lord who brought a new age of peace to the earth. But what Caesar apes, Christ brings. This day, not the birthday of Augustus, was the true good news. Yet the shepherds would find their true Emperor, not in an inaccessible palace or a far-off land, but back in town, in their neighborhood, on their street. They'd find their Hope wrapped up and dressed in the same way the shepherds' parents had once wrapped and dressed them, and how they'd since wrapped up their own sons and own daughters. They'd find him in a feed-trough for the livestock of peasants and paupers (Luke 2:12). When your brother angel told them that, what did it mean to them? Did their eyes grow wide as they heard tell of Messiah? Did their mouths gape in awe at their salvation?

Then, suddenly, you tore the veil away. You let them see you – not just one angel, but all of you. You filled the welkin – the clouds, the air, the heavens – on every side. Your voices rang out and shook the earth by your exuberance. Unseen by them, unheard by them, you'd already been at worship, already been offering your liturgy of praise to the Father of spirits. But now these shepherds were witnesses to it. Your song went forth, the song you'd been singing all along, the triumph of the skies (Luke 2:13).

Glory to God in the highest!” you sang (Luke 2:14a). To God be all the credit, to God be all the praise, to God be all importance, to God be all the starry-eyed wonder of those with stars for eyes. You'd once sung songs inspired by creation, you sang as witnesses to judgment, you were awed into outpoured praise day and night by the holiness, holiness, holiness of your Lord. But now, caught up in the denouement of the drama of the divine dawn, you sang all the higher, all the clearer, all the greater. With all the gusto of a supernova, you belted out your Gloria that no gravity could pull down short of highest heaven. Handing the call one to the next up your column of light, your chant compounded its way from Bethlehem's fields to the Holy of Holies above.

And on earth, peace among people with whom God is pleased!” (Luke 2:14b). Who finds peace in the Savior? All the earth can, if they live toward God's pleasure like a flower bending to unfold its petals to the sunlight. Is that what you were saying? That if we live toward God's pleasure as the Messiah lives to please his Father, then we'll find the peace Rome couldn't give, no power can give, not even you can give? For if we follow the Word toward the lowest of the low, if we humble ourselves to graze like ox and donkey from the grace in our manger, if we become his little hands and his little feet in the world, then even on earth, the peace that counts – the peace with you, the peace with God – is already for us, for we stand in God's favor and relay it outward in good will. And from that favor and good will and peace, we glorify God alongside you, returning to life “glorifying and praising God for all we've heard and seen” and tasted and found (Luke 2:20).

I wonder, angels, how long the veil was down. I wonder how long the shepherds were privy to your liturgy of worship, how long they heard your ceaseless hymn of joy, how long they lifted up their sheep-bitten hands toward their God and yours, with all their fear banished and all their dullness quenched by the unconquerable light defying the night. But eventually, you left them to take their next step, from sight to faith. You “went away from them into heaven” (Luke 2:15), restitching (as you went) the veil between earthly sense and spiritual substance. You declared joyfully before the Father's face in heaven what you'd said and done, and you glorified him. For you knew your song had become the shepherds' song, and would become the church's song. Down through the years, you've shepherded the shepherds, you've assisted and strengthened people just like them – just like us – not with an eye to earning anything, but simply to please the God you will to love.

And now, here we all are – angel and human together, invisible and visible side by side, with our attentions aimed toward the same Holy Flame on high. We humans gathered here now were not there that night – but you angels were. And it's as real to you now as it was then, for you do not forget. Could you help it, then, be real again to us? Would you remind us here why it's such glad tidings? Would you help us taste peace on earth? You evangelized the shepherds then – evangelize us too, because you can't spell 'evangelize' without 'angel.' Whisper good thoughts to our minds, angels. Stir up our slothful hearts, angels. Tell us of the King of Glory!

But now I turn again from you, angels, to you, fellow sons of Adam, daughters of Eve. You see, our friends the angels need no Savior. “It is not angels that he helps,” Scripture announces to us (Hebrews 2:16). But he came to help us. God helps us, God saves us, by his Word becoming one of us, in our own flesh, sharing our softness and weakness, our fragility and our helplessness.

So here we are again to hear again – to hear the gospel begin, to catch the strains of angel song ringing the welkin – and the song is meant for us to catch. We're here to join our earthly worship to the heavenly liturgy that's been going on and has no end. We begin there in the field, approaching the manger, where angels watch in wonder. But it will continue in solemn awe around the cross. For in Jesus our Savior, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and, through him, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). And we're here to face the awesome wonder that our risen Savior – fully God but also now fully human – has been exalted, as our brother, “with angels, principalities, and powers,” even seraphim and cherubim, “having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22). Our nature is on the throne. In Christ, we have “tasted... the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). And not even the mightiest angel has power enough “to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). That's assurance that, if we persevere in faith, then in the resurrection to come, we who believe will be, as Jesus himself promised us, “equal to angels, and sons of God” (Luke 20:36).

We could never be lifted so high, had God the Word, God the Son, not lowered himself so low, into our dirt and grime. This is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his holy ones” (Colossians 1:26), “so that, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the powers and principalities in heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10). Worthy is the Word-made-Flesh, worthy is our Emmanuel, worthy is our Savior who is Christ the Lord, “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12)! With this mystery, let the welkin ring and ring and ring! For, from this very hour at Bethlehem, he's given a more than wonderful life to us all. Amen.

1  Jerome of Stridon, Commentary on Matthew 18:10 (early fifth century)

2  Basil of Caesarea, Against Eunomius 3.1 (mid-fourth century, around 364)

3  Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses 45 (late fourth century)

4  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Numbers 20.3.6 (early or mid-third century)

5  See discussion in, e.g., Kevin P. Sullivan, Wrestling with Angels: A Study of the Relationship Between Angels and Humans in Ancient Jewish Literature and the New Testament (Brill, 2004), 171: “Paul and the Corinthian community saw the liturgical space as one where angels and humans could and did interact.”

6  John Chrysostom, On the Priesthood 6.4 (late fourth century)

7  On the ranks of the angels, see especially Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogic Catecheses 5.6 (mid-fourth century); Ambrose of Milan, Defense of David 5.20 (late fourth century); and Pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy 6.2 (late fifth century).

8  Jubilees 2:3 (second century BC)

9  From the Dead Sea Scrolls' Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: 4Q405 21 (second or first century BC)

10  From the Dead Sea Scrolls' Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: 4Q400 2 (second or first century BC)

11  Testament of Levi 3:5-8 (second century BC)

12  For this opinion, see Ascension of Isaiah 10:20-27 (possibly late first century); Epistula Apostolorum 13 (mid-second century).

13  Pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy 4.4 = 181C (late fifth century)

14  1 Enoch 16:3 (second century BC). See also 2 Enoch 24:3: “Not even to my angels have I explained my secrets...”

15  Pseudo-Dionysius, Celestial Hierarchy 4.4 = 181B (late fifth century)

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