Summary: A look at the angels in Luke's account of the Christmas story.
The Characters of Christmas: The Angels
Let’s talk about angels. The prominence of angels in the Christmas story is obvious, from the Christmas card we send, to the decorations on our trees, to the adornment of our yards, we’re surrounded by angels. We even have an angel hanging in our front yard here at FUMC in the Nativity scene. Hollywood gets in on the angel action, too. No, I’m not talking about John Travolta as Michael the archangel, though Gabriel does figure prominently in the Christmas story. You might also be thinking of a coarse, street-wise angel named Cash as played by Don Cheadle in the 2000 film entitled The Family Man. Then, there’s Roma Downey and Della Reese who were the stars of the TV series Touched by an Angel. Of course, my favorite Christmas angel is Clarence Odbody from Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Clarence is the AS2 (that’s Angel 2nd Class) sent from heaven to save poor George Bailey. Nowhere, though, are angels more prominent at Christmas than in our music—the songs we sing. The UM Hymnal contains 19 songs that feature tales of angels in some fashion. From obscure songs we know little of like Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light, to songs we know by heart—Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.
So? What’s with all the angels? Why don’t we see angels anymore, especially since they figure so prominently in the Christmas story? Seriously, though, if we were to see an angel, our response would be much like the poor draw bridge operator in It’s a Wonderful Life when Clarence Odbody shows up to save George from jumping off the bridge. We’d literally fall out of our chair in stunned surprise. That’s exactly how all the people to whom the angels came reacted at first—with shock and fear. That shock and fear was soon transformed into hope and expectation, and it’s there I think we discover what we can learn from these characters of Christmas. It would probably take a series of sermons to address all the questions we have surrounding angels. I certainly can’t answer them in a single sermon, but a great clue concerning the important question of what we learn is found in a little phrase from the well-known song, O Little Town of Bethlehem. In the first verse, we find this phrase, “the hopes and fears of all the years, are met in Thee tonight.” I believe God sent the angels to dispel the fear of the events and announce the hope found lying in a manger in Bethlehem.
Angels are messengers. That’s what the word means, and angels are mentioned in 34 of the 66 books of the Bible. The angels in the Christmas story came to bring a message to others from God. Interestingly enough, the messages were all quite similar, and each contained the phrase, “Don’t be afraid.”
The first encounter with the angel Gabriel comes in Luke 1. There, Gabriel appears to Mary. We pick up the story in verse 26: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.28 And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you’.” I like what the New Living Translation says about Mary next. In verse 29, it says: “Confused and disturbed (NO KIDDING!), Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.”
Mary is probably thinking, “Sure, the Lord is with me. I’m a good Jewish girl from a good Jewish home.” No, that’s probably not what she was thinking at all. She was probably thinking, “Who are you and why are you here?”
The angel Gabriel speaks to her again, and says, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
“Do not be afraid,” Gabriel said. Mary wasn’t afraid because the angel was there. Persons in the 1st century were much more open to sights of the supernatural than perhaps we are these days. No, the words were preparing Mary for what was to follow—the announcement that God was calling her to do something that was completely out of the ordinary, something that would de-rail her life, possibly create a scandal, and leave her homeless and destitute. There fear wasn’t the presence of the angel. The fear lay in the dreams of a life about to be shattered by the call of God.