On Wednesday morning I sat down to write this sermon for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels. So while I was poring over some of the more obscure and arcane chapters of the Bible, journalists up and down the country were still poring over the judgement handed down by the Supreme Court. As I read about the angels who ascended Jacob’s ladder up to heaven, Parliament reassembled in Westminster, and the political crisis we face ascended to a yet higher rung of intractability. While I read of Jesus calling Nathaniel a true Israelite under his fig tree, MPs called each other much less complimentary names across the dispatch box of the House of Commons.
My researches were all very interesting. If we had an hour or two, we could trace an intriguing angelic labyrinth through the pages of the Bible. And we do celebrate today the creativity and imagination of people across our communities who were entranced by the idea of an angel festival, and who have contributed angels of all kinds. We have large angels, small angels, bought angels, hand-crafted angels, witty angels, challenging angels; angels that have deep, personal meaning for their owners. We enjoy a veritable multitude of the heavenly host, and we thank all those who made it happen.
But medieval theologians were criticised by later generations for debating, while the Black Death raged across Europe, wiping out a third of the population, how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. And although it’s questionable whether such debates ever actually took place, the point about idle theological speculation is a valid one. And we are at risk this morning. For there are lots of fascinating angelic questions we could debate today. Do angels really exist, or are they more a comforting expression of faith and hope? What do they look like? Do they have wings, as Isaiah suggests? Do they have feathers, as many artists depict them? Do they float about with harps and haloes, as popular culture would have it? Do we each have a guardian angel, the way some Bible passages suggest? And if so, can we make contact? And so on.
But will such questions seem important to our friends and neighbours, when there is a real sense of anxiety and crisis in our country? People are rightly more concerned about climate change, and Brexit, and getting home when their holiday company has collapsed, than they are about counting angels. And if we in our churches tie ourselves up in knots of angelic speculation, can’t they justifiably accuse us of living in what my old french teacher used to call ‘cloud cookoo land’?
In the Bible, angels announce to Abraham that he will have a son, and be the father of a great nation. One of the seraphim brings a live coal to touch the lips of Isaiah, sending Isaiah as messenger to his people, and to us. Gabriel announces to Mary the coming birth of her son. Angels proclaim ‘glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.’ Angels explain to Mary and Salome and the others that Jesus is risen. There are many other references, in which angels worship God, do God’s bidding, and deliver his message.
The word ‘angel’ means messenger; and this translation may help recall us from flights of fancy back to real life. For it is the message that is primary. Nowhere do angels simply swan around for the fun of it, showing off their angelic raiment in some supernatural fashion show. Nor is there much detailed description, much about how you identify them from their appearance. The angels who visit Abraham appear to be three men. In Matthew’s Gospel, yes, there is an earthquake; and an angel with the appearance of lightning, and with clothing white as snow comes and rolls away the stone that seals Jesus’ tomb. But in Mark, when the women arrive, they see that the stone has already been rolled away. They are greeted, more mysteriously, by a young man dressed in a white robe who delivers the message of the resurrection.
Are angels confined to the pages of the Bible then? Years ago there was a television series about nurses, called simply ‘Angels’ I think. The implication of the title was that nurses do good in the way we expect angels to do good, rather than that seemingly human nurses had visited us from the heavenly realm somewhere. In everyday conversation if I call someone an angel, I do so as a term of affection, or admiration, or gratitude. I do not suggest that they are in fact a supernatural being.
But what if popular culture is closer to the truth than it knows? What if being a messenger of God, or doing his bidding, actually does make you an angel? For the message of an angel seems to be the thing, far more than appearance, or biology. People have told me of occasions where a seeming chance encounter with a stranger has reassured them of God’s love and presence when they needed it most. The person who can calm your fears in the hospital clinic is delivering God’s message to you, and is comforting you. They are not simply behaving like an angel. One of the angelic displays in Allendale bears the legend, ‘angels who walk amongst us’. And on leaves, or feathers perhaps, lists all manner of caring, helping people: nurses, of course, but also lifeboat crew, mountain rescuers, paramedics, charity workers, midwives, even vets.
We might want to add, on folk festival weekend, musicians, for instance. If you have ever had your soul lifted by a cathedral choir, or your deepest pain expressed by the singer of a protest song, or your heart cheered by a folk band in the pub one night, you too have heard God’s messengers.
I’ve never met an angel clad in shining white and strumming a harp the way you see in paintings and illustrations. But on this definition, I’ve met hundreds of angels. People who have shown me God’s love, or guided me, contained my fears and worries, cried with me in grief, brought me joy and laughter, lifted my soul, brought me the good news of Jesus. They are all God’s messengers. They have all done his bidding in a dark and troubled world, sometimes.
So I hope all these angels around us this morning will inspire us to be angels; to be God’s messengers, sharing his message of love, peace, comfort, joy, reconciliation. Heaven knows, it’s a message our country needs to hear right now.
© Jon Russell 2019