A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, December 10th 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube
When you hear the word “angel” what do you think of, or what do you envisage? Maybe you think of figures in white robes. Perhaps you see halos. Maybe it’s the flutter of wings that come to mind. Perhaps the Angel of the North comes to mind. It certainly has wings, though they are unlikely to do much fluttering.
During last week we had visitors here in church: sixty Year 3 pupils from King Edward’s Primary School here in North Shields. As part of their education they were visiting a place of worship. They were here to learn why the Bible might be important to us, about the meaning of Advent, and its relationship to Christmas. They also came to talk about angels, and their part in the Christmas story. That included their bringing along the angels they had made – you can see them on the shelves over there.
I don’t know if they were angels, but they were certainly well-behaved. They were full of curiosity, including about the books in the chairs, being much more fascinated than the average congregation to look inside to see what they might discover. They were also full of questions about everything to do with the church.
If you asked these children what angels were about, though, the most common answer was that angels have to do with death. That caught me by surprise I must admit – the idea that angels are mostly to do with death. When I asked, “what do you know about angels?” the first answer I received was, “My mam says that here sister is an angel now.” Other answers and comments about angels from the children revealed how it quite common to explain death to a child in terms of someone having become an angel. (There was another school of thought that informed children that those who die turn into stars in the sky … but that’s for another day.)
Now I think that there is a good thought behind telling a child that someone who has died has become an angel. It’s a pictorial way of expressing a hope or belief that death is not the end but is the necessary step towards being with God, and enjoying a new and better stage of existence. I’m not convinced its sustainable, though, if you don’t have a faith in the existence of the God with whom angels are said to dwell.
There are other aspects of angels in the popular imagination that don’t bear too much scrutiny, lest they come apart under the weight of the examination; that angels are dressed in clean white robes; that angels have halos; that they are models of good behaviour. What do we mean by describing a child (or anyone else) as “a little angel.”
John the Baptist didn’t look like that sort of angel – no wings, an animal hair coat rather than a white gown, and distinct lack of halo. And yet …
John was a messenger. He was a messenger in line of messengers who went by the collective term, “prophets.” These included the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, and the Gospel writer, Mark, made the connection between a prophet like Isaiah and the wild-looking, wild-acting Baptist: As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.”’ (Mark 1:2-3)
You see, an angel might have wings, or not, a white gown, or not, a halo, or not. But what angels had to have, what an angel has to have … is a message. Because that’s what an angel is – a messenger from God with a message about God.
Think about some of the Bible events that we hear about in the coming days. Angels feature heavily, and what characterises angels is that they bring a message about what God is up to.
Luke chapter one: the angel Gabriel is sent to Mary as a messenger to inform her that she will give birth to a child who will be named Jesus. (1:26-35) In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph hears that Mary is pregnant but, we’re told, just as he had resolved to call off the wedding, ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream’ (1:20) with a message (from God) that he was not to be afraid to get married to Mary.
Back in Luke’s Gospel, when the child was born angels appear to shepherds near Bethlehem, not to terrify them but to inform them: ‘Do not be afraid for see – I am bringing you good news’: a message! (2:10) And then, back to Matthew’s Gospel just one more time, when the life of the child, Jesus, is threatened by King Herod, once again Joseph has a dream involving an angelic messenger: ‘Get up, and take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.’ (2:13)
Angels are messengers. Inasmuch as they bring a message from God then also the prophets, such as John the Baptist, are being angelic. So it’s worth listening to their message. Time and time again the message of the prophets is that God is at work to bring people freedom. The message of John the Baptist is that God is at work to bring freedom and life to everyone through one person: Jesus Christ. No wonder that the theme for this week’s Advent candle is “joy”! God is making things turn out right through the birth of Jesus Christ.
That’s a great message that every one of us can share, which means, of course, then that each and every one of us is or can be an angel. So, go and be joyful; go and be angelic!