Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 103:1-5; 20-22; Hebrews 1:1-9
According to recent surveys of religious beliefs in America, 73% of us believe in angels. Many people also think that when we die, we go to heaven and become angels ourselves. TV shows and movies galore are based on this premise, and so was one of the ghastliest rock-‘n-roll songs ever written, “Teen Angel”—“That fateful night, the car was stalled upon the railroad tracks…” Google it if you are too young to remember.
But according to the Bible, it just isn’t so. Human beings and angels are and always will be two distinct species. As one theologian quipped a while back, you and I will never be angels. The good news is that we won’t ever be cockroaches either.
It’s very sweet that every Christmas since 1946 Jimmy Stewart has discovered anew that it’s a wonderful life as he is saved from despair by Clarence, an angel trainee trying to earn his wings. But it turns out that Clarence is wasting his efforts. Angels do not earn wings. With the famous exception of the six-winged seraphs we sing about in our hymns, angels in the Bible don’t have wings. (No one seems to have told this to artists down through the ages, however. There’s hardly a depiction of an angel anywhere that doesn’t include wings.)
Angels in scripture also have more important things to do than fish despondent Savings and Loans managers out of the drink. According to the Bible, it is not a major angelic function to snatch human beings’ personal chestnuts out of the fire. Neither do angels lurk about disguised as nice people who punctuate our anxious days with kindly coincidences. You are more likely to be slammed to the ground by an angel than sweetly touched by one. Just ask the biblical patriarch who once wrestled with one—you know, the guy with the limp.
Angels in the Bible tend to be on the rather impressive side. The angel who left Jacob in need of a hip replacement could eat the cute cast of “Angels in the Outfield” for lunch. It’s not for nothing that in many instances the first thing angels say to people is, “Fear not!”
In the first lesson, Isaiah sees God surrounded by those six-winged seraphs. Their booming voices shake up the temple. Plaster is falling, smoke is rising, and the prophet is terrified. He immediately accepts two basic facts: God is holy, and he is not. He’s preparing to drop dead when one of the seraphim zooms toward him wielding tongs. The angel drops a red-hot coal on his mouth. Thus it is God distracts Isaiah from fruitlessly contemplating his own unworthiness and frees him up to hear and accept God’s call.
Angels are intelligent, spiritual entities who exist to do God’s bidding. Because that bidding often entails delivering messages to mortals, occasionally angels take human form, as three of them did when Abraham “welcomed angels without knowing it” under the oaks of Mamre.
But angels are normally invisible, part of the world beyond the thin veil that we refer to when we say, “I believe in God…maker of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen.”
Although people pray to angels in some parts of the Christian family (all Roman Catholics have “guardian angels” assigned to them), the biblical record does not show us any angels interceding for us with God, or otherwise facilitating our salvation. They are creatures, not demi-gods, mini-gods, or intermediaries between us and God.
This is the point that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is trying to make in the second lesson. He is addressing first-century Christians who seem to have been infected with angelmania, much like people in America at the end of the 20th century when Raphael’s two pudgy-armed cherubs were merchandised to death. The author of Hebrews is trying to persuade his community that angels cannot hold a candle to Christ, in whose name alone that they can confidently expect grace and favor from God. “To which angel,” he asks dismissively, “did God ever say, ‘You are my son?’”
Like human beings, angels have free will, and that means that they can choose, and that means that at some point they could have chosen wrong. There is, for example, Christian midrash about a big angelic revolt against God after they had all gotten wind of the divine plan for a future Incarnation. Some of the purest ones flew into high dudgeon about the insult to God’s dignity such a plan entailed—they were hell-bent on saving God from God’s own folly. They were literally hell-bent when Michael, a loyal archangel, conquered their leader (another archangel named Lucifer), put down the revolt, and bounced him and all his minions out of paradise and down into hell, created especially for the occasion. From that time on, they have been called “devils.” So, the next time you bend over a baby carriage and coo, “What an angel!”, remember to specify what kind of angel you mean. You wouldn’t want to imply that the munchkin in the carriage is the spawn of Satan.
God’s angels are a lot like us—busy, busy, busy. They commute long distances to work. They multi-task. They ascend and descend Jacob’s ladder (which is one reason we know they don’t all have wings. Why climb if you can fly?). They travel at the head of the Israelite column across the wilderness. They announce a couple of unplanned pregnancies to a couple of startled women. They guard the ark of the covenant and they stand with flaming swords at the locked gates of Paradise. They rejoice over the repentance of a single sinner. They minister to Jesus in the desert and in the Garden, and they announce his resurrection to the women at the tomb. And that’s just the short list of what angels get up to in the Bible.
There are also countless ranks of stay-at-home angels who surround God’s throne night and day, behold God’s face, and incessantly cry out, “Holy!” and “Glory!” Apparently they do not get tired of doing this sort of thing. It turns out that angels are primarily worshippers. They are praise for God’s glory. Contrary to our assumptions about this angelic worship, however, the Bible never actually says that they sing. It does say that they play musical instruments—the psalms speak effusively of a veritable heavenly orchestra.
Too numerous to count, angels are a sabaoth, a host, and when push comes to shove—and the Bible says it surely will—they are an army. In the lurid Book of Revelation we are presented again with the angels’ general, Michael, the great Warrior Prince of Heaven. It is he, we are told, who will lead the angelic troops in the final apocalyptic struggle between God’s forces and Lucifer, the great star-sweeping Dragon. It will not surprise you to learn, therefore, that Michael is the patron saint of paratroopers. (He is also, inexplicably, the patron saint of green grocers.)
Jews seem to have a happy tolerance for differences of opinion about just about everything, and so naturally they also disagree about whether belief in angels is a necessary element of Judaism. Observant Muslims, on the other hand, hold to a strict belief in angels as a basic tenet of faith. They especially honor Gabriel, who taught the 114 surahs of the Holy Qur’an to Muhammed (pbuh)—and yes, that’s the same Gabriel who told Mary to expect the baby Jesus and gave Daniel the gift of pre-Jungian dream interpretation.
Concerning belief in angels, Christians divide into the same camps we divide into about belief in a lot of other things. Christians to the ‘right’ tend to think that because angels are part of the biblical worldview, they absolutely must be part of ours too. Christians to the ‘left’ are more likely to think of belief in angels on a par with Elvis sightings and UFOs. Christians in the ‘middle’ usually can take ‘em or leave ‘em. They don’t think much about angels, except maybe at Christmas, or if they have some sort of odd experience that defies rational explanation, and the metaphor of ‘angel encounter’ seems as good a metaphor for what happened as any.
As for me, I know that belief in angels will not put me right with God or save my soul. But just because something isn’t necessary for salvation, or even for faithful discipleship, doesn’t mean it can’t do me some good. And one good thing that the Christian tradition about angels does for me is enliven my imagination.
Imagine with me, then.
Picture psychedelic seraphim, eyes plastered all over their strange forms, wings flapping madly. Imagine disruptive intrusions into a person’s life or a nation’s destiny. Imagine bizarre and even painful angelic ministrations. All these things the angels do as God’s servants. And in their activity we glimpse something of God’s character. God is more than we want and nothing we expect. God is for us, but not like us. Much of what we think we know for sure about the divine turns out to be as elusive as Isaiah’s smoky vision in the wee hours. This is not comfortable news, but it is good news. It saves us from pride and certainty, and from the violence that is often the fruit of pride and certainty.
The angels conform to God’s purposes. They are created and exist solely to do God’s will. Their brilliance, strength, and ferocity are all ordered toward that one end. They are what it might feel and look like to love and serve the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, as scripture commands. Their service is free and complete and confident; it is service with authority. Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Who does God’s will in heaven? The angels do. Their responsiveness might be a model for our own.
Angels are God’s messengers. The Greek word angelos means ‘messenger.’ It’s the same Greek word from which the word for ‘gospel’, or good news, derives—evangelion. Angels are announcers, word-bringers, heralds of glad tidings, and therefore life-changers by proxy. Imagine! What it is that we have been baptized into if not a herald’s role? We are not and never will be angels, but perhaps in the course of responding to our own callings, we can still make people jump, surprise them in their sleep or on the road with the announcement of God’s merciful purposes, God’s pleasure and God’s peace.
The vocation of the angel army to defend God’s realm against evil confronts us with a question of great seriousness. Imagining that apocalyptic struggle, I imagine as well the earthly, human project of moral and spiritual growth. Do I expect it to unfold serenely? Will I not encounter enemies—the shallow world, the narrow mind, the fear-filled heart? Will they let me pass on towards my hopes for maturity and wisdom in peace, or will there be a fight? And what about the moral and spiritual well-being of others? Could the angels’ example of fighting hard for God’s interests prompt us to help someone in big personal trouble actually change the sad or self-destructive direction of his or her moral life? In addition to battling for societal and institutional justice, shouldn’t we be actively engaged in bringing sanity and strength to each other’s inner lives as well?
It is the nature of angels to worship night and day, crying out, “Glory!” and “Holy!” Every time we gather for worship, might we imagine that we are not doing it alone? Imagine that every sanctuary, when we gather as God’s people, is a thin place where earth and heaven meet, filling with the smoke of the angelic presence and the energy of their adoration? Imagine ourselves joined to their praise, engaged in the captivating duty of adoration? If you can imagine it, you may also feel a certain fright. Your heart may sink at the realization that you are so small, and a sinner. The One we worship is holy. But perhaps you can also imagine a fierce and determined seraph coming right at you with tongs, ready to burn off your protestations of unworthiness, and jolt you into a new freedom by which you will have courage to answer ‘yes’ when you are called.
Angels may or may not exist. But we do, and because we are people of story who live by beauty and imagination, we have done ourselves no harm—and we may have done ourselves some good—by thinking about them for a while. If you’re in a mood to do so, honor them too.
Their liturgical commemoration is October 2, the Feast of the Holy Angels.
Once on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, I heard a guest preacher give a 14-point (!) sermon on angels – the longest and most boring sermon I’ve ever heard in an Episcopal church. Thank you for replacing that in my mind with this verbal and visual feast! (I love the Annunciation with Mary in saddle shoes.)