Angels in the Wings
December 9, 2018
I was once asked during a job interview what my favorite season of the church year is. Kind of a strange question. Maybe it was a test to see if I knew them all by heart? On the one hand, I love all the seasons- Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, Pentecost. But, it seems like hardly anyone cares about these liturgical seasons, anymore. And maybe that’s the church’s fault- for not keeping them cool or relevant. And maybe I’m not cool, but I don’t think they’re irrelevant- at least not yet.
So I answered their question. Advent. Advent is my favorite season of the church year. It could have something to do with the counterculture surrounding it. A season of waiting. Patience. Delayed gratification. All in the midst of holiday busyness and consumerism. It’s a season of joy, which is different than being merry, or cheerful. Someone recently said to me that joy is an act of resistance. And that’s how I’m choosing to make my way through this Advent. It’s joy that comes from the hope that love is being born into the world. And that’s a message we can all get behind, even when we’re lonely or going through a difficult season during the holidays. It’s hard to fake cheer- at least for me.
Advent is also the season of the church year where the stories are connected to the prophets of old. That’s probably true of other seasons, but it’s especially pronounced during this little sliver of Sundays in December. As we read the stories about Mary, Jesus’ mother, the angel Gabriel, the journey to Bethlehem and all the other familiar images that come with it, we are reminded, being on the other side of it of course, that there was a BC, a before Christ, when the hope for a Savior was very real. Most of the Bible is filled with stories of the people of Israel yearning for God to be present with them, for God to change the course of history and bring a Messiah who would create justice within a new and peaceful reign for the world. These weren’t empty desires. They waited, and prayed, and lamented to God for a long time. So, in Advent we mimic that waiting.
I told a bit of this story last week. At my last church there was a woman who joined during my time there. She had been Baptist her whole life and had gone to a mega-church of 13,000 members in Florida. She moved to St. Louis to be closer to her kids, and for some reason she ended up at our very traditional Presbyterian church with a mere 1600 members. She joined enthusiastically. And when it came time for Advent one year, she stopped me to say what a gift it had been to her since she hadn’t experienced seasons of the church year before. And I agreed with her. To be connected to a story and an ancient people who desired what, I think, we all still want, deep down. Which is for God to be among us. For God to be real. For God to understand what our present circumstances feel like. And to have some sense that God intends a greater purpose for our lives- that God can look at the vast sum of things and make sense out of what often seems senseless. Advent ties us to stories of old and a people from long ago whose God is still ours, too. And in a mostly cynical world I, however naively, must say that it gives me hope, that for thousands of years God’s people have waited together, generation after generation, for Jesus to come, and light to shine into the darkness.
Now, I don’t think I’m someone who is particularly patient, or good at waiting. But, Advent teaches us, among other things, that control is an alluring illusion. If you’ve ever been pregnant, well, there’s a reason it becomes one of the main metaphors of this season. That kind of waiting and this kind of waiting very much humble our cravings for power and control, and yet, it doesn’t allow us to be passive recipients, either. There is a certain amount of work that’s involved to allow and make way for God’s light to be born.
Theologian Howard Marshall calls the stories from Luke Chapter 1 the prelude to God’s “symphony of salvation.” And that makes sense to me- Advent as prelude. The time before the beginning. Just like there was a time before creation, when God worked hard to make and mold the universe, we don’t just start at the point of Jesus already born. Advent is a taste, an invitation to the main event. We get to know all the characters involved- all the history and preparation and humility and risk it took, particularly for Mary.
Tonight we get to meet them- some of my favorite characters. Mary meets the Angel Gabriel in this story, which has been fondly known for centuries as the Annunciation. Gabriel is only one of two angels who are named in the Bible. Most of them are unnamed messengers sent by God to deliver news, but, Gabriel has special news to bring. This illustration by Julie Vivas from her children’s book on this story is so wonderful I had to share. I love its whimsy and sense of humor. I have to assume angels don’t take themselves too seriously, as they are usually delivering surprising, rather outlandish information, and they tend to frighten people in the process, repeatedly having to say “do not be afraid.” Which, unless you could laugh at yourself, would be kind of a tough job.
Maybe one of the reasons I love Advent so much is that there is so much talk of Angels. If angels feel like they aren’t grown up enough for you then I will admit I have been there, too. Sometimes when we read the story from Luke Chapter 1, or even parts of Matthew’s telling of the story, we get that glowy sentimental feeling, remembering Christmas pageants in our childhood, or at least ones we’ve seen on TV. But, then we kind of dismiss the story, along with the angels, and shake off that childlike memory to get down to more important business. But, I’ve been thinking a lot about Angels lately and what they might have to tell us, particularly Gabriel and his role in the prelude to the symphony of salvation.
This fall I was reconnected to angels as part of a service I led that honored survivors of sexual violence. The openly gay pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul participated in the service and read a reflection he wrote on the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, and particularly on angels being male. “Perhaps,” he writes, “angels have something different to say about being male. After all, they’re a pretty gender-bending group. Look at them! They’re almost always in dresses. Try to find Gabriel without blush. They tend to show up to empower women or to announce that women’s bodies bear the truth of the universe. Every time, they honor women who are regularly dismissed or who will not be believed when they give their witness. They stand at boundaries with flaming swords to say, “Don’t cross that line, buddy!’ Angels minister to Jesus, who resisted temptation in the desert, and who said no to wielding his power and gaining the whole world in the typical way. Angels, by the way, have no interest in being Number One or the greatest of anything. They kill the dragons that threaten children. They appear in the night sky to demonstrate that in heaven an army looks more like a choir. And, of course, they sing. They sing gloriously.”
Even though angels tend to inhabit male bodies, their very way in the world, or the space between earth and heaven, flies in the face of our own way of being most of the time. Happily unassuming, unafraid, joyful, resistant to evil and pursuant of the good- they have a wisdom and spirituality that visits people with God’s grace and calling, sometimes inexplicably, which is the point, to shake us out of our normal routine. Angels humbly remind us that God has a way of being in the world that is not tied to our complete understanding. They challenge the notion that God only appears one way, or once in a while, or to those who have earned it. Angels kind of embody a part of God’s character, inhabiting the liminal, sacred areas of our lives, trying to get our attention. They counteract our “normal” way of doing things and point us in new directions. They unveil glimpses of God’s vision for the world that didn’t seem possible before, but taken into further consideration are surprisingly wonderful and welcomed into the darkness of our lives.
What strikes me about angels’ visitations to women- often women who don’t have children- is that they usually give them a job to do that puts them at risk. Which, upon initial consideration doesn’t really seem like a blessing at all. We are only able to read Mary’s response, but we don’t get to see the look on her face when Gabriel told her she should would have a baby who would become the savior of the whole world. She is not naïve to the task, however, and accepts it as what God’s will for her. She regards it as a holy position, which, ironically, does not help her in life. She signs up to bare a son she will ultimately have to give up. And for all this she is the favored one, yet in a worldly sense, she gains no positive recognition or affirmation.
I remember growing up I thought it was so cool, especially during Advent, and around Christmas time, that I had a dad who was a pastor- this, again, gives you a glimpse into how “cool” I am. But, my dad got to tell the beautiful gospel story over and over again to people who would come and gather in the sanctuary to hear about hope being born. The idea of it being cool obviously didn’t go away because I decided to do it myself, although now that I get to preach during Advent I think I see it a little differently. Yes, of course it is such a privilege to retell the ancient story of salvation that connects us all to one another and a God who loves us. But, I realize now that it’s not my job to tell it but to prepare a way for God to tell it. Which takes some of the personal allure out of it. My dad told me a story about one Advent Sunday in particular, early in the morning. He always got to church super early to practice his sermon. When he arrived, though, he realized the front area of the church- the chancel- was dirty and hadn’t been vacuumed. His initial reaction was annoyance, as he got the vacuum out of the custodian’s closet and started cleaning. But, what started as a moment of frustration that he had to do the cleaning, turned into a holy moment of humility, as he prepared and waited for people to come to worship. It would have been the perfect time for an angel to appear and remind him that the task of bearing love into the world is rarely shiny or triumphant.
Advent is like this. A time between hope and triumph. It’s probably one of the reasons it gets glossed over, as people head straight from Halloween to Christmas. But it has a purpose. Just like the angels waiting in the wings, who are there to remind us that God lives and moves most accessibly during the least miraculous moments.
The angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary has, however, been told throughout the centuries as a miracle story. The angel, the virgin birth- they get filed into the magical, miracle section of the Bible, particularly at this time of year. But, Scholar N.T. Wright says that this is a problem, “because miracles aren’t really a Biblical category.” He reminds us that, “the God of the Bible is not a normally absent God who sometimes ‘intervenes.’ God is always present and active, often surprisingly so.” In other words, the moment Gabriel arrived to bring this news to Mary, it might have been a surprise to her, but it should not be a surprise to us. God is always trying to break through. It just looks odd sometimes or we miss it because it’s not what we think we need. Angels remind us there wasn’t a miracle that happened once on that day back in Bethlehem. If anything, the miracle of Advent is that God was and is always there. Jesus is, wonderfully, Emmanuel, which means God with us. Always with us.
I love Julie Vivas’ take on this scene because Gabriel really settles in to be with her. It looks like Gabriel and Mary are negotiating the terms over a strong cup of coffee. Maybe Gabriel was reassuring her that he would stick around, close by, to see her through what would prove to be a risky pregnancy, being unmarried, and of a low social status, under the rule of King Herod. It was God’s way of saying, you’re not alone.
This is the scene I want to remember as we make our way through Advent. A holy prelude, filled with whimsy and humor and joy that doesn’t ignore the seriousness of the world, but connects us to a story of people who have been there before. It’s a humbling time, not extraordinary, but wonderfully holy- an unmiraculous reminder that God is always with us, with Angels waiting in the wings. Let us pray.