December is a season full of busyness. There is a lot going on, both at the church and in our lives, as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas. It can be a stressful season even though we are seeking to announce a time of joy and hope. Maybe you’re like me and, as a result, you look for ways to bring a little laughter and fun into the month.
For the last few years, bringing in an element of laughter and fun during December has meant debating people on what constitutes a true Christmas movie. You may not know this, but people are really attached to their ideas of what counts as a Christmas movie and are willing to debate you nonstop on the topic. I’ve taken joy in putting up mock debates, especially on social media, about how I do not believe “Elf” is that funny or that “Die Hard” cannot count as a Christmas film. That last one really gets people going. Just because something takes place around Christmas doesn’t make it a Christmas movie. I’m sorry, John McClane.
I love these discussions, because I always laugh at where the conversation goes and the lengths people will undertake in order to convince me that Die Hard is, in fact, a Christmas movie.
If you’re wondering, it is not Christmas in my family until I have seen Clark Griswald have a major meltdown after receiving a 12-month subscription to the “jelly of the month” club. Nor is it Christmas until I’ve watched “It’s a Wonderful Life.” True story: I’m the only person in our family who loves the movie. I cannot help its story of George Bailey as the down-on-his-luck family man who believes there is nothing for him in the world. That is until he encounters a unique individual by the name of Clarence.
Clarence is an angel sent by his “bosses” to keep George from committing suicide. His mission is to help George to see his value and worth, and to experience what life would be like without him. If he accomplishes his mission, then, he will receive his wings. And, of course, we all know the classic line from the movie, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
Beyond that quote, the movie’s image of Clarence might be the best dramatic version of angels in film. Clarence comes as a normal-looking person and interacts with the various characters just as anyone else. In fact, this is the predominant image of angels we see in Scripture, especially in our passage from Luke 1:26-38. Not just here, but angels play an important role throughout the Nativity story. When we understand their contribution to the story of Jesus’ birth, it can give us a way to interact with the message they bring in our lives, today, as we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord.
Before we unpack how angels interact with the Nativity story, let’s take a look at how angels are seen throughout Scripture. It might be worth noting how we look at angels. We think of them as these winged creatures that float around in the sky, playing a harp, and with halos on their heads. That is not necessarily how they are portrayed in Scripture, but how did we come to this interpretation. For one, we are likely mixing the idea of cherubim and seraphim with angels. When we read about seraphim, for instance, we get the image of a six-winged being. Cherubim had four faces. These are not angels, but we have confused them in our imagery for them.
When we interact with Scripture, there are two primary roles we see for angels. One is that they come to provide protection to God’s people. The other is that they provide a divine message that announces what God is doing and will do. It is rare to find a reference to an angel with a proper name in Scripture. In divine literature, which includes Scripture and the Apocrypha (a collection of seven books that are part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles), there are only four angels who receive a name: Michael, Raphael, Uriel, and Gabriel. Each of their names end in “el,” which is one of the Hebrew words for God.
Gabriel, however, is the angel we interact with the most when it comes to the Nativity story. He appears to both Mary and Zechariah to tell them about what God is going to do in their lives. At other moments, with Joseph and the shepherds, it is an angel of the Lord – a divine messenger – who appears to share an important message. Gabriel’s name means “champion of God.” We see him, also, in Daniel to help the prophet to understand a vision he received from God. Here, Gabriel is part of a four-fold account of angels who appear to individuals to share what God is preparing to do through the Christ child.
The first visitation from an angel in the Nativity story likely came from Gabriel to Zechariah. He was a priest and serving in the Temple when Gabriel appeared before him. He announces that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth’s prayer had been answered. They had long-desired a child, and that had not come to fruition. Gabriel announces that this child would grow to play an important role in the movement of God. Their child would be John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Christ’s coming.
Zechariah was overwhelmed by the message. He couldn’t believe it. He was too old. Elizabeth was too old. It was impossible. His response was not what Gabriel was looking for from Zechariah. As a result, Zechariah was unable to speak until Zechariah participated in John’s circumcision and named him John, as he was directed by Gabriel. Zechariah refused to believe the message, at first, but came to understand what God was doing in his life and lived out its message.
Gabriel, then, makes a visit to Mary in Nazareth. There are two sites in Nazareth that portray where this event might have taken place: one is a Greek Orthodox church that protects a well where it is believed Gabriel visited Mary at and the other is a church that protects her historic home. Regardless of where it took place, Gabriel comes to announce to Mary that she, even though a virgin, would give birth to the Christ-child. A child who would be named Jesus, whose name means “salvation.”
Mary had a different reaction that Zechariah. She doesn’t doubt that God could do what, biologically speaking, was impossible. That was Zechariah’s response. Her response was to seek more information to help her understand what was taking place in her life. Gabriel was more than willing to give that to her, which, afterwards, leads her to respond that she was God’s servant.
Joseph was the next character to receive a divine appearance from an angel. We talked a little bit about this, last week, in looking at how he received an angelic visit in a dream. That message was to confirm to Joseph what Mary had told him. This wasn’t the only time that Joseph would be visited by an angel in a dream. He was told to move the family to Egypt to protect the child and when to return to Nazareth.
For Joseph, the angelic visions gave confirmation and direction to his life. It helped him to process unsettling news, but also to make decisions about how to protect Mary and the Christ child from harm. He was willing to listen, because his faith gave him the strength to trust what God was sharing with him through these visitations.
The last visit was to the Shepherds. This comes after Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They are at work on the hillsides of Bethlehem watching their sheep when they are visited by an angel. The angel announces that there is good news in the city of David. Good news was a phrase used by royal messengers to announce the birth of a child who was expected to become the emperor, Caesar, of the Roman Empire. This good news, for the shepherds, was to announce that the Christ, the long-expected Messiah, the world’s true king, has come, is born, and could be found in a manger.
The shepherds responded as quick as they could. They ran down the hill and into the city on a search for the child. They rejoiced as the message that the Christ has come.
Do you notice a pattern with each of these angelic interactions? There is a message that comes from God through the voice of this angelic messenger. A message that had to be processed and, thus, responded upon. These were not messages that could just sit there and let be. They demanded a reaction and a response.
When we see angels in the Nativity story, they come to announce what God was doing and going to do with the Christ. The angels announce that this child would bring salvation. They announce that this child would fulfill the promises of the Davidic king. They announce that God was going to change the world through this baby. That message demanded a response even before the child came, so that they people involved would be ready to receive what God was going to do.
The message shared with Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds is still being shared today and in this moment. Advent is about hearing the message alerting us that hope, peace, joy, and love are on the way through the coming of the Lord. It is the opportunity to hear the message anew and to hear how God is calling us to live into that hope today.
It is a time to hear the message, but also to respond just as Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds did to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Zechariah, through reluctant at first, eventually was ready to hear and go where God was leading. Mary was willing. Joseph, though doubting at first, went wherever God was leading. The shepherds left their jobs to go where God was leading. They heard the message and did what they needed to do to prepare their hearts to receive, with joy, the coming of the Lord.
What about you? The angels have spoken that Christ is coming. The angels have announced that hope is on the way. Do you believe the message? Are you preparing your hearts to receive the message? How will you respond to what the angels have shared?