One Sunday evening, a mother overheard her five-year-old daughter practicing Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, a song she’d been rehearsing that morning in church for the Christmas program. It was all the mother could do to suppress her laughter when, in place of “with angelic host proclaim” she heard her daughter sing “with the jelly toast proclaim”.
We laugh at that child’s rendition of a well-loved Christmas carol; but I wonder: how much do we know about the angelic host vs. jelly toast?
I want to meditate with you for a few moments on the angels of Christmas. I would like to ask and try to answer four important questions:
- Who are the angels of Christmas?
- What is their work?
- What is their perspective on Christmas?
- Why does it matter?
Who are the angels of Christmas?
The word for angel in Hebrew means “one going” or “one sent”, “a messenger”. The word in Greek also means “a messenger”, either divine or human. Today I want to focus with you on the divine messengers.
Angels throughout Scripture are represented as created beings. In Psalm 148, the angels, along with the sun and moon and stars and sky are invited to praise their creator.
Scripture also indicates that angels are somehow between God and humans. The Psalmist asks,
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels,
And hast crowned him with glory and honour. (Psalm 8)
Do angels have wings? According to Isaiah 6, the answer is “yes”. Isaiah had a vision of God’s heavenly temple and the angels there had six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet (a euphemism for genitals), and with two they flew. Apparently angels can fly blind. Isaiah also introduces us to a hierarchical order among angels: seraphim are the highest order, closest in proximity to the throne of God.
The writer to the Hebrews indicates that angels are ministering spirits. (Hebrews 1:14) So they are servants.
Angels seldom receive names in Scripture. However, a few names are mentioned. There is Michael the Archangel who is mentioned in the books of Daniel, Jude, and Revelation. And there is Gabriel, who is mentioned in the book of Daniel, and who is also the angel who foretells the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah, and the birth of Jesus to his mother Mary.
What is their work?
What job do the angels perform?
First, we see angels as attendants at God’s throne. Daniel 7 mentions thousands upon thousands attending God. Revelation 8 talks about seven angels standing before God. Whatever their number, doing God’s bidding in God’s court clearly is one of the main functions of angels.
Second, we see angels as messengers to humanity. That is very much in keeping with their name. In Jacob’s vision in the book of Genesis, angels are depicted as ascending and descending the ladder that stretches from earth to heaven. An angel finds Hagar in the wilderness, also in Genesis. Angels rescue Lot out of Sodom, in the same book. An angel announces to Gideon that he will rescue his people, in the book of Judges. An angel foretells the birth of Samson, in the same book. And the angel Gabriel instructs Daniel.
Thus, it is in keeping with the Hebrew Scriptures when we see angels acting as messengers in the Christmas story. We have already mentioned the work of Gabriel depicted by Luke. In Matthew’s Gospel, an unnamed angel encourages Joseph to take Mary home as his wife. And then again in Luke the angels appear to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth.
Third, we see angels as personal guardians in Scripture. Abraham, when sending his servant to seek a wife for his son Isaac, says that God “will send his angel before thee.” (Genesis 24:7) Jesus says in Matthew 18:10, “See that you despise not one of these little ones; for I say to you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my father who is in heaven.”
After Jesus’ birth, an angel warns Joseph in a dream to take Mary and the child to Egypt because Herod is going to try to kill the boy. An angel also tells Joseph when it is safe to return home. “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
In short, it is the work of angels to comfort, guide, explain, praise the Lord, announce the good news, and even name the baby Jesus!
What was the angels’ perspective on Christmas?
I love what 1 Peter 1:10-12 says about this….
Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look!
This says to me that the angels’ perspective on Christmas is one of longing. The angels long to look into the story of Christmas and to understand it. But one gets the sense from this Scripture that there is a mystery about human salvation that is almost beyond their comprehension—that the God of the universe would give up his heavenly home (something the angels were very familiar with) and stoop so low as to become a human being—that is the greatest of all mysteries.
Why does it matter?
But why does any of this really matter? Oh yes, angels make for an attractive picture on Christmas cards, but what difference do they really make in our everyday lives?
One way to answer that question is to examine the one thing common to all of the angelic communications in the Christmas story. When the angel speaks to Joseph, Zechariah, Mary, and to the shepherds, in each instance the angel says: “Do not be afraid!”
This suggests that the appearance of angels to human beings is startling at the very least. Such appearances nearly always evoke fear, or certainly awe.
But I think there is something else going on here. In Joseph’s case, he had another reason to be afraid. He was filled with fear, concern, anxiety over what to do about Mary, his betrothed, who was with child, not by him. Thus, the angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.”
In Zechariah’s case, he was certainly startled by the appearance of an angel while he was on duty in the Temple. However, I wonder if there were other anxieties underneath the seemingly calm surface of his life. For the angel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid. Your prayers have been heard.”
When we go through difficulties in life, don’t we often wonder and ask, “Where are you God?” What assurance there is in the words of the angel! He lets Zechariah know that the Lord is aware of his situation and has heard his prayers! The Lord is aware of your situation as well, and he hears your prayers whenever you speak to him in Jesus’ name.
In Mary’s case, she may have been afraid of the plans the Lord had for her. Thus, the angel assures her, “Do not be afraid Mary. You have found favor with God.”
Many of us feel insecure at the thought of approaching God, or God approaching us. We are often afraid that God is coming to condemn us, when in fact he wants to speak to us a word of favor, a word of grace.
The shepherds too were obviously terrified at the mere appearance of an angel. But perhaps there was something more going on there as well. Perhaps the shepherds felt totally outside the realm of God’s grace. They must have wondered, “Why is an angel speaking to us?” The angel assures the shepherds that the Lord is interested in them, that he has a message for them. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
I imagine that every one of us here today has fear, worry, or concern about something. Perhaps anxiety is not in the forefront of our minds, but it is there, lingering in the background, waiting to leap out and paralyze us. We all need to hear the angel’s message to us today: “Do not be afraid. It is going to be all right. God has everything under control. He has a good plan for you. He loves you.”
One of my favorite stories about angels, outside of the Bible, comes from Billy Graham’s book entitled Angels: God’s Secret Agents. Graham writes…
The Reverend John G. Paton, a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands, tells a thrilling story involving the protective care of angels. Hostile natives surrounded his mission headquarters one night, intent on burning the Patons out and killing them. John Paton and his wife prayed all during that terror-filled night that God would deliver them. When daylight came they were amazed to see the attackers unaccountably leave. They thanked God for delivering them.
A year later, the chief of the tribe was converted to Jesus Christ, and Mr. Paton, remembering what had happened, asked the chief what had kept him and his men from burning down the house and killing them. The chief replied in surprise, “Who were all those men you had with you there?” The missionary answered, “There were no men there; just my wife and I.” The chief argued that they had seen many men standing guard—hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They seemed to circle the mission station so that the natives were afraid to attack. Only then did Mr. Paton realize that God had sent His angels to protect them. The chief agreed that there was no other explanation. Could it be that God had sent a legion of angels to protect His servants, whose lives were being endangered?
I believe the answer is “yes”. Psalm 91 says,
If you say, “The LORD is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Is the Lord your refuge? Is the Most High your dwelling place? If so, then you can be sure that he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.