Unusually for me, a text to begin with – not from the Bible, but from the Creed.
I believe in God the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth
and of all things seen and unseen.
But, as with all the best TV cookery programmes, I’m going to put that on one side and come back to it later.
Angels – have you seen or met one? A former Archbishop of Canterbury said he had seen one – his wife!
Rabbi Lionel Blue said that he had been walking down a street of very hi fashion shops in Rome, and some beautiful leather shoes in a shop window had caught his eye. Oh, if only I could afford a pair of shoes like that, he thought. Then a voice whispered in his ear, Lionel, why can’t you just enjoy looking at those shoes in the window, why do you need to possess them?
And another story about Guardian Angels from my own experience – I was standing on the kerb of a street in Notting Hill, and as I put one foot on the road to cross it something said ‘Stop’. I jumped back on to the pavement just in time to avoid been hit by a car swerving in to the kerb where I was, at terrible speed. I would have been killed if I hadn’t got out of the way in time.
I was delighted when Ruth White spoke so impressively on Thursday evening about not despising our Guardian Angels. How we need them!
And then messages.
The angel of the Resurrection. In Mark’s gospel an angel like being tells the disciples to go and announce the wonderful message – ‘He is Risen!’ But out of fear and bewilderment they do nothing. It is only in the later gospels that they seem to have overcome their paralysis and got the message to the others. But what they hear is a message from the angels who come to announce important events to them.
I am Gabriel who stand in the presence of God.
Just imagine for a moment what that must have been like for Zechariah. And for Elizabeth his wife later that day when he couldn’t explain what had happened. One minute there he was going about his every day work in temple. Then suddenly he hears something, and hears this portentous voice. You’d never forget it would you? And the message itself, that against all the odds, in that very unpromising situation, they were going to have a child. A child who would proclaim the coming of the Christ.
Hail, you who are highly favoured.
And Mary’s amazed, uncomprehending reaction to this life changing, world changing announcement. Can this really be a message for me? Can I do it? Yes, through the power of God’s Spirit.
Go to Straight Street, and visit a man called Saul.
Do you remember that one? Old Ananias the Jewish priest, converted to Christianity, who was told to go and visit a man who he knew was an official of the Jewish authorities charged with a programme of ethnic cleansing against Christians, first in Jerusalem and now in Damascus. Saul – wasn’t he the chap who looked after the overcoats of the thugs who stoned Stephen the first Christian martyr? “You can’t be serious” is his response.
Then he heard what the late Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, when her formidable will was opposed by some junior official at the Whitehouse, he heard the dreaded word “NEVERTHELESS!”
And the old man went off, trembling no doubt, to anoint the man he thought was his enemy, and initiate in so doing Paul’s missionary journeys and his writings.
We will perhaps hear the voice of an angelic messenger in our own life times. At most, it will happen to each of us once, in all probability. But when the message comes, will we be there to receive it or will we be, so to speak, out to lunch?
The Son of man will send his angels and they will gather
out of his kingdom all causes of sin and evildoers..
God will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call,
and they will gather his elect from the four winds from
one end of heaven to the other.
These verses from Matthew remind us uncomfortably that angels are also agents of God’s judgement.
I don’t like the idea of judgement. And when I hear words like this, I am tempted to visualise the angels getting the files down form the shelf and looking at my notes: or perhaps these days angels have computers…
Either way, I don’t much like what I see, and I either go into a display of grovelling pseudo-humility or I come out fighting. A military chaplain who had to hear the confession of a dying airman shot down in World War 2 told me “He knew he was dying; but he fought hard for every sin!”
Perhaps judgement is really about helping me to accept that I am no worse, and certainly no better, than anyone else. The peace of mind that comes with that recognition is worth having – but it’s hard won.
More important is the way judgement, the judgement of the angels, comes in political situations.
Take Burma, where together with heroic women like Aung Sang Suu Kyi the main opposition to the appalling government there comes not from an opposing, military force but from the Buddhist monks.
They played a key role in gaining independence for Burma – from Britain – in 1948. They were a powerful force in 1988, when a repressive regime was brought down. In 1990, they were involved in mass protests against the Junta in its refusal to concede political power to the National League for Democracy headed of course by Aung San Suu Kyi.
And now, once again, the fight for freedom and democracy and the end of ethnic cleansing is being taken on by people speaking in the name of spiritual beliefs. Here too, we hear the message of God’s judgement winged to the world through the angels, a message of condemnation of those whose thirst for power has led to inhumanity on a massive scale.
Holy Guardian Angels, divine messengers, agents of God’s righteous judgement.
Yes, but what about the quotation with which I began this address, far too long ago?
Maker of all things seen and unseen, visible and invisible.
I want to dare to suggest that the real theme of today is precisely to be found within that quotation from the creed.
We are living in an age of materialism that has never been more powerful or more destructive in the whole of human history. At a meeting earlier in the week, one vicar said that in the search for human success, parents in his congregation now dread the possibility of one of their children getting a B in their exams rather than an A. If they ‘fail’ in that way, how are they going to be able to earn enough money to be able to afford the ever-rising cost of a first time buyers’ mortgage? We can laugh at the foolishness of this – but for them it is real.
In all of this, we can forget so easily that what really counts in life is not the ability to afford all the good things that we have been taught to want. What really counts is the recognition that the creed puts before us that it is the unseen values, the invisible side of life that God made as well as the material, that really establish our humanity at its noblest and most God like.
And the invisibility of the angels might just help us to recapture the power, the glory, and the majesty of that truth.
Chaplain, Ham Common