Summary: We need to be seized once more by heavenly realities – just as Zechariah was. We need to experience something like a shock to our smug certainties that whittle God down to a manageable size and leave us underwhelmed by the mysteries of eternity.
Angels have fallen on hard times these days. Hardly anyone thinks about them anymore…except at Christmas, of course. But even at that, people don’t much believe in them. Although…I knew a woman – a member of this church at one time: She told me that she had actually seen an angel. She was just a girl when it happened, but in her mind there could be no mistake. It was an angel all right. Me? I’ve never seen one, though I’m sure if I did, it would be a frightening encounter – at least, at first.
Some years ago, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wind in the Door. It’s about a young girl named Meg and her brother Charles Wallace. One day, Charles Wallace tells Meg that he saw a drive of dragons in the broccoli patch. Meg goes with her brother to check it out, but all they find is a pile of odd-looking feathers. Later, Meg goes to the garden alone, and she has the terrifying experience of discovering that the feathers haven’t been left by a dragon at all. They belong to a cherub, of all things, an angel named Proginoskes. And there he is! Right in front of her. Now, this cherub is certainly no innocent looking, plump, little winged baby. Progo, as the children later come to call him, is huge, and he is all feathers and eyes and movement – frightening, unsettling even, in his appearance.
It is no wonder that, in the Bible, whenever an angel appears to someone, the first thing the angel has to say is, “Do not be afraid.” Those were the angel Gabriel’s very first words to Zechariah, weren’t they? Zechariah the old priest was going about his duties in the temple when “there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” And Luke tells us that, “when Zechariah saw him, he was terrified” – just like Meg in L’Engle’s novel was when she saw the angel. In fact, Luke says, “fear overwhelmed him.” But the angel said…what? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah….”
Still, as awe-struck as others may be by the appearance of angels, most moderns are unimpressed. And I think I know something of the reason why. Our lack of interest is symptomatic of something much larger. Not only do we fail to see the point with angels. For most people, there’s been a wholesale abandonment of anything that signals the celestial or the eternal. As Westerners, we have become skeptical of the supernatural. We just don’t see its practicality.
Now, this is a mindset, and it emerged full-force some three hundred years ago with a movement in Europe called the Enlightenment. You may have heard of some of the big names of that period, names like like John Locke, Voltaire, Rene Descartes, and others. No doubt, you have. They gave us many inestimable gifts. It is because of that era in the history of ideas that we have made so many great discoveries in nature. We have seen huge strides in science and technology. And we have come to value human rights and individuality.