Friday, December 25, 2015

Gabriel's Message

Here is my Christmas Eve sermon.  The text was Luke 2:1-20:

I had a really hard time coming up with what I was going to say for this message.  Normally I have something roughly planned out for Christmas Eve by the time we hit Halloween, but this year nothing was coming to me and as we got closer and closer I finally did the smart thing and asked my wife what she thought I should preach on.  She asked what I had covered the past two years, see she’s not paying attention either, and I said two years ago I had talked about Joseph and the importance that people play in each other’s lives, and last year I had talked about the shepherds and the fact that they didn’t come up with excuses about why they couldn’t go see the baby, but instead followed God’s commands.  She said that it seemed like I had a little theme going, even if I hadn’t planned it, of covering the characters in the Christmas story and so she thought I should preach on Mary.  So following her advice, I decided to preach on the angels.  I don’t think I’m going to get a very good present this year.
Angels are a familiar part of the Christmas story.  There is the archangel Gabriel who makes first makes the announcement to Zechariah and Elizabeth about the coming birth of John the Baptist, and then makes the announcement to Mary that she will bear a child.  There are the angels who make the announcement to the shepherds in the fields, and we cannot forget angel second class, Clarence Odbody, in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  I think my favorite portrayal of an angel is not in a Christmas story, but instead was done by John Travolta who portrayed that archangel Michael, in the movie of the same name.  A smoking, hard drinking, hard living, slob, with a rather colorful vocabulary.  Someone no one would ever believe was an angel if it weren’t for the two wings growing out of his back.  And you know that John Travolta is a really good actor when he, a scientologist, can play the leading messenger for God.

We actually don’t know very much about angels from the Bible.  Most of what people think about them, or think they know about them, comes from extra-biblical sources, some of them quite modern, and we could talk about them but then we’d have to end up talking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pine.  But that is not to say that angels aren’t found in scripture because they are.  The first time we hear of an angel is after Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the entrance is guarded by cherubim who has a flaming sword, think of it as the world’s first light saber.  The cherubim are winged creatures who act sort of as guardians, and if you remember Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark correctly, they are the images formed onto the top of the ark of the covenant.  Later we will also hear about seraphim, who are winged creatures said to be found guarding God’s seat inside the Temple in the Holy of Holies.  If I remember correctly, it’s the cherubim that hang from the ceiling and the seraphim that come up from the floor, or maybe it’s reversed, I often get it wrong.  But while they are angelic like creatures, outside of the wings, these are not really angels as we typically understand them or think of them, or as they are found in the rest of scripture.

In Hebrew, the word used for angel is malak simply means messenger.  Angels in scripture not usually winged figures, but instead they are found in human form and they deliver God’s message to individuals or groups. In this sense, the angels can take on a much bigger characteristic than just heavenly creatures that come down from on high, because the word malak is also sometimes used to describe the prophets as well, since they are described as messengers of God.  That is an important piece for us to remember about who and what are angels. In Greek, the word is angelos, which is where we get the word angel directly, as well as Los Angeles, the city of angels, whose only angels I am aware of are the baseball team, who as a Yankees fan, I hardly find heavenly.  But there is one other word that comes into play in this passage from Luke which also applies to our lives, because what we hear in Greek is that the angelos come before the shepherds and say they are bringing good news of great joy.  The word translated as good news in Greek is euangelion.  You can see that it too contains the word angel, or messenger, it is also the word that you might also see from which we get the dreaded word evangelist.  And I know that some of you are now thinking, “it’s a little dark, I think we can still sneak out without being noticed,” or maybe nudging the person next to you and saying “I thought this was supposed to be about Christmas, and he’s talking about evangelism, what’s up with that?”

But the angels who appear to the shepherds, and notice that nowhere did the passage say the angel has wings, are the earliest evangelists for Christ, that is proclaimers of the good news, the gospel. They follow in the work of the angel Gabriel who makes the proclamation to Elizabeth and Mary and the angel who brings the message to the shepherds also brings with them the heavenly host appears with them because heaven cannot contain itself and they begin to sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven.”  That phrase became one of the earliest Christian hymns, one we sang tonight it in its Latin version, “Gloria in excelsis deo…”  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom He favors.”  But it’s also when the announcement is made to the shepherds that makes the message that the angels deliver significant, and that is that it is made at night.  The light of the glory of the Lord shatters the darkness that surrounds the shepherds, and that too is part of the good news that the messengers of God bring.

We like to think of Christmas as being holly, jolly and merry, after all, as the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year.  But we don’t have Christmas because everything is going great, it is not a celebration that the world is a lovely place and every gets along and we spend all our time singing Kumbaya.  We have Christmas because we don’t have those things.  We light the four candles of Advent, representing the four themes, of hope, peace, joy and love, not because we have those things already, but because we desire those things, we need those things in our world, we need those things in our lives.  We don’t actually know when Jesus was born, but one of the reasons why December 25th was chosen as the date on which the church celebrated his birth is because under the old Julian calendar, December 25th was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year.  And so every day that came after we welcomed Christ into the world would be a little longer, with a little more light, and the nights would get a little bit shorter, with just a little less darkness.  “Those who have walked in the land of darkness, on them a light has shined,” Isaiah says, because to us a child has been born.  Not a child born into the light, but a child born into the darkness, because it is the child that brings that light that pushes back at the darkness, that pushes the darkness away, that proclaims a new reality for the world, that the kingdom of God has come near, a child who brings the promise of  hope, peace, joy and love.

In another message of Christmas comes to us from the poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, who wrote a poem that begins “I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols plays, and wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.”  Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1863.  His wife had recently died, and the country was in the depths of the Civil War with Longfellow’s own son having recently returned from the war critically wounded.  So when he heard the bells ringing on that Christmas Day it wasn’t joy and peace that filled his heart, but instead pain and sorrow and despair, as his poem tells of the canons which boom over the cries of peace on earth.  “And 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!"  Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to all.  That could certainly be a cry of our day as well, and it is the reason we need Christmas, and to be reminded of Christmas every year, and the need to live into Christmas and to begin to push back the darkness, to be the light in the darkness.

On Christmas night we will have the first full moon to fall on Christmas since 1977.  That means that Christmas won’t be as dark  this year as it has been in Christmas past.  There is also one other coinciding event between this year and 1977, and that is that the original Star Wars also came out in 1977, and Star Wars is the perfect movie to come out at Christmas because it tells the eternal story and struggle between goodness and evil, between light and darkness, between kindness and hate, between love and fear, and the struggle that all of us have in choosing which way we are going to go.  Are we going to be lights to the world and push back at the darkness or are we going to allow the darkness to overwhelm us.

Which brings us back to that understanding of an angel being a messenger of God whether it’s a heavenly being, whatever that might be, or whether it’s a human who is bringing God’s message to the world, who is proclaiming the good news, the euangelion, to the world, not hate and war and distrust and animosity of us and them, insider and outsider, who is welcome and who is not, but instead proclaiming the good news of peace and hope and joy and love, and not just proclaiming it, but actually bringing it about.  It’s about pushing back the darkness just a little bit and being a light to the world.  It’s about hearing and living into Jesus’ message that we are to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.  It’s about forgiving people, not just once, but seven times seventy times.  It’s about turning the other cheek, it’s about loving your neighbor as yourself, it’s about not judging others, and it’s about seeking the kingdom of God here and now.  The story of the angels, and message of the angels, is that we too are messengers of God.  We too are called to proclaim the good news and to begin to push back at the darkness and to bring light to the world.

Roddie Edmonds was a master sergeant in the army during world war II, and during the Battle of the Bulge, he and 1000 soldiers were taken prisoners and sent to a POW camp.  When they arrived, Edmonds was ordered to separate out the Jewish soldiers in the unit.  Knowing that if he did so they would probably be killed, Edmonds told the camp commander that they were all Jews.  The commander pulled out his gun and pointed it in Edmonds face and told him he was lying and ordered him again to tell him which soldiers were Jewish.  Edmonds again told him that all 1000 soldiers were Jewish and that if he shot him, he would also have to kill all the rest of the soldiers and then after the war he would be prosecuted for war crimes.  As a result of his actions, the 200 Jewish soldiers in the unit remained with their comrades and survived the war.  For his efforts, Edmonds was just added to the Holocaust Memorial in Israel dedicated to those who helped saved Jews from certain death.  He is the only American soldier to be so honored.  Edmonds was pushing back against the darkness.

How have we pushed back the darkness today? This week? This month? This year? Have we been an angel, a messenger of God’s love? Have we proclaimed the good news to the world? And the amazing thing about light in the darkness is that it doesn’t take a lot of it to make a difference, and when we light our candles and turn out the lights in the sanctuary to sing Silent Night, we’ll be reminded that lights actual shine brightest in the darkness.  One of the reasons we put up Christmas light is as a reminder of overcoming the darkness.  In this congregation in the past year we have served more than 1200 families through our food pantries, not including the other food pantries and homeless ministries we have also supported.  We donated 262 stuffed animals to the fire station next door for them to give to children they encounter when they are out on a call to give them some safety and security during a time of crisis.  We have raised enough money to provide two schools in Kenya with systems to provide clean running water, which is on top of the four schools we had already supported. We have people volunteering at the hospital, and going into classrooms and reading with kids, and doing the same things in nursing homes, we have people visiting shut-ins and taking meals to people in need.  And that’s just a start.  I say that not to brag on what we are doing, but to say that there are lots of ways to push back at the darkness, ways both big and small, ways that we can proclaim the good news, ways that we can be angels of God to a world that is hurting to say that the world is actually a good place, that darkness does not rule, and that there are people who love them.

Maryrose Kristopik is a music teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, and was teaching a class of 9 and 10 year olds three years ago when the shooting started.  She moved all her students, 20 of them, into the only place readily accessible, which was a closet much too small for 20 students and a teacher.  But she got them in and closed and locked the door and stood against the door to act as a human shield.  She said the students were scared and some were crying and so she tried to quiet them down.  Not knowing what was going to happen, she said she did not want images and thoughts and violence and hate to be the last thing they saw, and so she held the kids hands, and hugged them, and she looked the children and told them, I love you, know that I love you, I love you.  A messenger of God pushing back against the darkness.

That is the story of Christmas given to us, why? Because God so loved the world. Christmas comes because of the darkness, but it is not about the darkness.  Christmas is about the light.  Christmas is about hope.  Christmas is about peace. Christmas is about joy. And Christmas is about love. After his moment of despair, feeling that hate would rule, Longfellow concludes by saying: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men."

And in the fields were abiding shepherds watching their flocks when suddenly their night was broken when an angel appeared and the glory of the Lord surrounded them, and the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  The message of good news is not a message from a long time ago that has ceased to be important, the message is just as important for us here and now, that we too are called to be angels, messengers of God, to go out and to proclaim Jesus Christ the light of the world, to be the light to the world, to push back at the darkness and to say to the world once again that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” May we be the angels who push at the darkness by offering the light this year.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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