The following is audio and text from the teaching given by Leah on December 20, 2015. Feel free to listen online, download, or read.
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” What do you think? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? It sounds like a silly joke. I’m sure you’re waiting for the punchline; sorry to say I don’t have one. Rather, the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is a question that has been attributed for centuries to medieval Christian thinkers, a group known as the Scholastics, who tried to use rational thought and logic to make proofs about a myriad of things related to God, including the behavior of angels. Now, it turns out this particular question is a bit of an urban legend amongst Bible nerds. When you do a bit of digging it sounds like there is no proof that that particular question was actually debated, but it does represent the kinds of questions these guys sometimes got into. For example, Thomas Aquinas, who was one of the most prolific and well-known Scholastics, did write a whole proof for the question, “How many angels can stand in one place?” and his answer was one. If you want to know how he came to that answer, you can feel free to read the Summa Theologica, but I’ll warn you, it’s a bit long and dry.
Well, I start with this little story about the Medieval theologians and angels because it alludes I think to the challenge of considering one of the primary sets of characters in the Advent story: the angels. Angels play a big role in the story of Christmas, and so it’s a custom for many churches on this Fourth Sunday in Advent as they light their Advent Wreaths to remember the Angels. But when you actually stop and think about it…angels are like weird. I mean, maybe you’re like me and you’ve heard the Christmas story so many times since you were a small child that you’ve kind of normalized the weird. Shepherds, wise men, donkey, angels…."Glory to God in the Highest” yada, yada. It kinda rolls over you and you don’t really think about the parts that are pretty darn strange.
Or maybe you’ve seen so many artistic depictions of angels in the nativity scene like this or this or this that they’ve become part of the setting for the season, a part of the decor like greenery and tinsel. Maybe you’ve seen parents with adorable little girls wearing Angel Garb - who doesn’t love that? And it’s easy I think to leave it there. In the classic Christmas card portrait. Because to thoughtfully consider the angelic beings in this story, what they represent, who they actually might be, how we think about them beyond the Christmas story, that’s more of a head scratcher. How do we really wrap our heads around these characters in the narrative in any way without reducing ourselves to inane questions that are pretty impossible to answer like angels dancing on pins, or resorting to sentimental, Western European depictions that have no actual basis in Scripture or likely, reality?
Well, we should start by looking at the Christmas story itself. Where do the angels show up there? I went through Matthew and Luke, both of which help tell the story of Christmas, to count the angel sightings. Here’s a composite list of how many that generates:
1. Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, tells him about John
2. Gabriel appears to Mary, tells her about Jesus
3. Angel appears to Joseph in a dream, tells him baby is from God
4. Angel appears to shepherds, tell them about Jesus
5. Choir of angels appear to shepherds, worship God
6. Angel appears to Joseph in a dream, tells him to flee from Herod to Egypt
7. Angel appears to Joseph in a dream, tells him to return from Egypt after Herod’s death
Whatever we think about angels, that is a very high concentration of them. They are all over the Christmas story. So in an attempt to go beyond the Christmas card fantasies, let’s take a closer look at the first angel sighting that this advent story tells. And as we do, we’ll consider how these angels might help us enter into this mystery that is Christmas in the week that comes. Let’s look together at this story in Luke 1.
5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. 7 But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
So let’s just review the story real quick. Zechariah is a priest, he was born into the line of priests, and, as such, he is one of many men who have certain responsibilities to fulfill regarding the religious practices of the temple in Jerusalem. Now being chosen to be the one who burns incense, just outside the holiest of holies in the Jerusalem temple, the most sacred place for Jews on earth, was very special; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If your name was called by lot it was a big deal, and this was likely the only time it would be called. So the story starts out with a special moment and it quickly advances from there.
Zechariah is in the midst of performing his sacred duties, he is burning incense, he is engaging in worship, when he has his encounter with Gabriel. Gabriel, as you might remember, is the same angel who will appear to Mary not long after. And in similar fashion, when Gabriel shows up, he tells Zechariah not to be afraid, because God is answering his prayer and is giving him the son he and his wife have been waiting for for decades. And he goes on to describe who this boy will be, that he will be like a prophet, who helps prepare the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah.
But Zechariah is clearly skeptical. And Gabriel responds with some tough love. He takes away Zechariah’s ability to speak until the baby is born, which does come to pass, just as the angel predicted.
So besides the fact that Gabriel was not in the mood to be tested that day, what can we gain from this encounter that we might do well to ponder as we go into Christmas week? I’d like to focus on two aspects of the angelic identity that come out in Gabriel’s response to Zechariah.
The first is in this statement he makes about himself. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God.” That’s a powerful statement. I mean, how many creatures can say that in such a clear, straightforward way, especially at this point in the Bible’s narrative? For folks at this point in the story, God has been perceived only as the Almighty One, God the Father, Yahweh who is above and beyond all of creation. Humans, at least after the fall, do not stand in the presence of God. If they do in some way, again, it’s weird. Moses saw God in a burning bush. And then when he comes down from the Mount of Olives, his face glows because of his experience with God’s presence. But Gabriel is outright clear. “How dare you doubt me, little human priest? I am Gabriel. I Stand In the Presence of God. You might prepare these rituals, and even light the incense that sends worship to this God, but I stand in his presence. In the heavenly realm. In a totally other dimension. In whatever way the Divine can be perceived that is beyond your capacity, I have perceived him/her/it.” And this highlights the first piece of what I think is important to remember about this story, the supernatural element.
In truth, there is much about the birth of Jesus that is refreshingly natural. There is much we can connect with. Pregnancy and birth are natural, primal activities. Women have it in their bodies to nurture and bear children, just as many creatures throughout history have done. All of us were also at some point born, so we have some context for it. But there’s this other part that, when juxtaposed with the natural elements, reminds us how crazy and unique and beautiful this story is. It reminds us of the miracle of the whole thing. The whole point of celebrating Christmas, the whole point of worshiping this baby King, is that his is a birth like no other. His is an immaculate conception. His birth includes two miracle pregnancies. It includes a star that led foreigners to Israel. And yes, it includes a lot of angel sightings.
In the world of theology, “Angelology” is the term for the doctrine of angels. And what most who study angelology will tell you is that when we come to talk about what we know about angels, we’d be right to confess a lot of uncertainty. Because when it comes to angels and the Bible we find an interesting, perhaps troubling, paradox. You see, the Bible persistently testifies to the activity of angels, but the Bible also tells us almost nothing directly about them. The Bible persistently testifies to the activity of angels, but the Bible also tells us almost nothing directly about them.
What do I mean by that? Well throughout the greater scope of the books that make up the Bible, angels keep appearing. There are 196 references to them in the Old Testament, and 93 in the New Testament. And the references are spread out. They appear in the very earliest, most ancient documents - the Book of Genesis, the Book of Job - all the way to the last work to be written - the Book of Revelation. Angels are consistently brought up, including in the gospels, and Jesus clearly assumes them to be real, so if we are gonna give the Bible any authority to speak into our journeys with Jesus, we can’t just dismiss the angels, as if they were fairies in a fairy tale.
But on the other hand, while the Bible makes clear that angels are real players in the story the Bible is telling, the Bible gives very little details about these players. Everything we think we know we have to glean through inference. We see what an angel does, sometimes how an angel is described, but what that tells us about these creatures, is very little, so much of what we think about angels has to be inferred. Our inferences may or may not be right. For instance there are a couple places where angels are mentioned as being seen flying, and so many have inferred wings to them. It doesn’t necessarily mean they have them.
You see, ultimately, there is no place in Scripture that says, “let me explain angels to you”, or demons for that matter. So we can infer from Scripture that God at some point created all of these spiritual beings, the angels. But their creation is not a part of the creation story that the people of Israel told in Genesis. We can infer that at some point a group of angels, led by a particularly strong angel rebelled against God, and that is where the dark spiritual forces come from that are referred to in the Bible. The demons that appear throughout the Biblical narrative, working to accomplish the work of this Lead Enemy, sometimes called the Accuser, or “Satan”, in his rebellion against God are understood to be fallen angels. But there is no story in the Bible that tells us directly about these spiritual wars, how they began, or exactly what they have looked like. Perhaps this is because the Bible is more interested in the story of humans’ relationship with God, and so the places where good and evil angels appear are places where they seem to connect with that story, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a bigger story going on than the one we’re aware of, a story that all of these creatures are a part of, that we know almost nothing about.
So before you freak out and wonder if we’ve just crossed into fantasy fiction land, I want to bring this into the real by offering a couple of personal experiences. These are just a couple of illustrations from my life that have left me with a powerful sense that even if I couldn’t understand it or even perceive it much of the time, there was something else out there, beyond my perceived reality. And I bring these up because maybe, when you think about it, you’ve had some of these experiences too. One of these experiences I’ll share was with negative spiritual forces; one was with positive. I’ll start with the negative first.
So a year or so after I graduated from Northwestern, I applied for an internship at Chicago Recording Company (or CRC), a prestigious recording studio in Chicago. Now this was the season of life in which I was living as a starving artist and wannabe rock star, working at Starbucks and playing gigs in Chicago rock clubs, as I tried to break into the industry. And as anyone who works in arts and entertainment knows, getting “a break” and getting “discovered” so that you can actually make a living doing art usually requires having the right connections. So in order to try to secure some of those connections for myself, I thought it might be helpful to put myself in a place where a lot of connected people in the industry gathered, which was CRC.
CRC was, and probably still is, the elite recording studio in Chicago. It was where Smashing Pumpkins recorded, Christina Aguilera did sessions when she was in town, tons of jingles and radio commercials were recorded there for Kraft Foods and Oprah. It was a big deal place. I remember showing up for my intern interview and having to keep my jaw from dropping as I took a seat in the waiting room and saw all the gold and platinum records mounted on the walls. This place had history. Stars were made here. I thought maybe I might someday be one of them.
So I got the internship, which was basically an opportunity to show up at the studio for 20-30 hours a week unpaid and make lunch, dinner, and Starbucks runs for all the ritzy clients who did sessions at CRC. The idea was that occasionally we’d be invited in to assist on a session, but the reality was that there were half a dozen interns at any given time, and those assisting slots were hard to come by. So I spent most of my time at CRC going out onto Michigan Avenue to grab food at a restaurant for a client, or hanging out in the basement, in a tiny room called the dub room. And there in the dub room, I started seeing first hand the seedy underbelly of CRC.
The dub room was a small cubicle of a space where copies of recordings were made, and it had a few chairs and a phone so that the engineers and producers upstairs could call an intern to do a food run or run some other sundry errand. It also had a ton of pornography. The whole room was wallpapered with it. Pictures from porn magazines were tacked up over every surface of the walls, and stacks of hundreds of abandoned porn magazines filled the corners of the room.
The porn made its way down to the dub room from the coffee tables of all the studios at CRC; because each studio had several subscriptions for their clients to take advantage of during sessions. Eventually, all the back issues made their way down to the dub room for the interns to help themselves to. Most of the interns at this studio were male, as were all the engineers and assistant engineers, and so all of them would come hang out in the dub room, smoke a cigarette, and look at porn whenever they had a break.
But an over abundance of pornography wasn’t the only dark thing going on at CRC. The longer I was there, the more stories I learned of sins of corruption, racism and sexism deeply embedded in the culture of the company. There were two female interns while I was there, myself and one other woman, and the other woman dreamed of someday becoming an audio engineer. She’d actually gone to school for it and had more seniority than any other intern. Yet she was regularly passed over for assisting on sessions, and when openings on staff became available, she was never even interviewed. Finally, the one African American engineer on the staff told her and I outright that we would never be hired to do anything at CRC but answer the phone because we were women. Through the years, he had learned in the same way that he would never advance past the status of assistant engineer because he was black.
Occasionally I subbed in for the administrative staff at CRC and started to learn about the dual booking system; there were the clients who were officially on the books and paid for studio time officially on the books, and there were clients who had studio time that wasn't on the books, for which cash was collected under the table. Some clients paid in drugs, and drugs of all kind were regularly enjoyed by clientelle for artistic as well as recreational purposes. Sex was also a regular part of what took place in the studio, and there were plenty of stories from engineers who'd been there awhile about famous recording artists who were given special accommodations, including one artist who had young underage girls service him while he was recording. And I could go on and on and on.
Now I don't tell these stories simply to gawk at the crazy things that went on when I interned at CRC, or because I'm prudish and easily offended. I’m not. What’s of interest to me about CRC was the way I felt whenever I was there. Every day I showed up for my internship till I was gone I felt weighed down. I felt cynical, depressed, hopeless just being there. It started to make me feel almost physically ill. And while I was there, I found it difficult to pray. It was like this cloud surrounded me and I couldn't see past it to anything good, and nothing good could really get to me when I was under it.
After a couple months interning, I was away from CRC and reflecting with God about why things seemed so bad there. And I felt like God revealed to me that what I was experiencing there was more than just neutral messy people. There was a real spiritual darkness that was very present at CRC, and God was allowing me to see it first hand, without being shielded from it. The longer I stayed at CRC, which was only a couple more months, the more I became convinced that this was the case; that CRC was a place where evil was being given a lot of room and the result was contagious and depressing.
For me, this was a wakeup call. Spiritual darkness is real. The demonic, some sort of personalized evil, is real. And while I don’t think we’re meant to obsess about it or live in fear of it, I do think we would do well to acknowledge on some level there’s something out there beyond ourselves and it’s not all good.
On the other hand, I’ve had a few experiences personally in my life that have left me feeling like, “there’s something else out there, and it’s wonderfully good.” One particular time that comes to mind was when I was helping lead worship for a special service. The church I was attending in Chicago was in a period of trying to follow Jesus forward into a process of growing in multiculturalism and multiethnicity. Our Senior Pastor had felt that call for a while, but had not seen a lot of movement on it in his congregation, (which was somewhat diverse, but predominantly white), particularly when it came to including African-Americans. And so he took a three month Sabbatical, and over those three months, every week, he attended a different Black church throughout the city. He took in their worship. He took in their preaching. He became friends with their pastors. And at the end of his Sabbatical he came with a whole list of ideas he wanted us to try to implement to help make our church culture more inclusive of folks who were coming from a Black church background. But it started with befriending a Black church.
Our pastor began to meet regularly with the pastor of an African-American church in town. He shared his heart to help his church grow in inclusivity and learn how to honor other church cultures, and the other pastor was receptive. And so the partnership began to extend beyond the two pastors. Their musicians started coming to our band practices to train our musicians on playing black gospel music, which most had never played. Their choir director helped our worship pastor start a choir. And early in that year or so of partnership, their church hosted folks from our church in a night of joint worship, where folks from both congregations could come together and take turns leading worship with a diverse congregation.
The crowd was extremely diverse. It was a wonderful mix of folks from our church and theirs. Their church led a set and then we were invited to lead a set. I was singing background vocals while the worship pastor was leading worship. It was a task I had done innumerable times at this point, but that night, something was different. As we sang, a strange warmth filled the room. I was overwhelmed. I think my eyes were closed when I first heard a sound I had never heard before. It was like singing, but it was more powerful and more beautiful than any group of voices I had ever heard (and I’d heard my share of good singing at this point). I opened my eyes to see if a lot more people had just entered the room…how had the voices that were there become so magnified? How was the sound this rich? There was a power to it, as if the music itself had texture and weight, and force behind it that could knock you over if you weren’t careful, but it would feel awesome as it happened because it was so beautiful.
“What is this sound?” I couldn’t help but wonder as we sang. And then a word rang in my head and in my core I knew that it was true. “Angels.” These were the voices of angels. It was as if God was highlighting that what we were doing, worshiping to gather across cultural divides, was so important that angels were worshiping with us. And for a moment, the veil was being lifted just enough for me to perceive them. For a moment, the boundaries between heaven and earth were very thin, and the heavenlies reverberated through the room. Something else was out there and it was very, very good.
Now I don’t share these stories to get into today how we are to address or interact with these other spiritual beings, whether they be bad or good. There are certainly teachings to be had on that, and if there’s interest, I’m definitely open to doing some teaching on that next year. But I do bring this up because as we enter into this final week of advent, where we will soon be celebrating Christmas itself, I think we’d do well to remember that Jesus’ coming is about more than “What A Friend I Have In Jesus.” Jesus has come to be our friend, yes, but he’s come for more than that. He’s come to be more than a buddy. More than a brother. More than a teacher or spiritual leader. He’s also come to bring victory and power and authority over all spiritual forces into our reality.
Gabriel is saying “I have been in the presence of God.” That gave him unique authority. But when Jesus came, all of a sudden everyone could be. To encounter Jesus is to encounter the presence of God, the God who is over and above every other spiritual force. Jesus commands the demons to leave and they leave. Jesus is fasting in the dessert and the angels minister to him. Jesus is born the King not just of the Jews, not just of humanity, but of ALL CREATION, that which we can see, that which we can’t see. That which is beyond us, that which we’re familiar with.
The effects of sin, the power of evil is still very real in our world. We all know this is true. Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, violence, war, exploitation: these are all so real. It’s hard not to look at the news each day and not wonder “how long o Lord” will evil rule the day? And yet, the Christmas Angels remind us that one more powerful than all the forces of evil in creation has come. He has come in skin and bones. He has taken on the human condition to prove his love. And he has released a power that cannot be overcome. The Gospel of John says it this way:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The Darkness has not overcome it. And then the miracle we celebrate this week: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
We have seen his glory. We have seen his majesty. We have seen his magnificence. We have now seen God in the same way Gabriel said he had seen God, because the Word has become flesh. All of the majesty that filled the heavenly realms was wrapped in about seven pounds of flesh and born of a poor teenage girl. “Glory to God in the Highest Heaven and on earth, peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” In the face of great evil, the Angels remind us that Jesus has already won. The darkness has not overcome him. And he stands with us and on our behalf so that we need not be overcome by the darkness either.
So the angels in the Christmas story point us to the supernatural component of Christmas. But there’s one other facet of the Angels I want to reflect on as we close, and this comes from the second part of what Gabriel says to Zechariah. “I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” The angel has come with a message. The angel has been sent.
Now there are two words that are closely related here in Greek, and I think they are interesting when you think about them and how they are used in the New Testament. The first is the word we typically translate “Angel” when it shows up in Greek in the Bible. Anhelos. We say “angel”, but literally, the word is actually the Greek word for “messenger”. Anhelos means messenger. In this context, it is a divine messenger, this is a spiritual being, so Biblical interpreters in English have come to use the word angel to denote that, but the Greek, and also the Hebrew for that matter, tend to use “messenger” as the primary term to name a spiritual being sent to speak for God. But the word is not exclusive to those spiritual beings, which is different than how we read it in English. Mark uses anhelos to describe John the Baptist. “A messenger cries out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” God sends a messenger Gabriel to announce to Zechariah the coming of Zechariah’s son. God sends the son, John, to be a messenger that announces the coming of God’s son. God has messengers who are spiritual and otherworldly and messengers who are human flesh and bone. The relevance here is the function. Perhaps there are other spiritual beings we would consider angels who are not even referenced directly in scripture because that’s not their function, they’re doing something totally different in the heavenly realms, but the ones who enter the Biblical narrative are often there to deliver a message. Anhelos.
There’s another word that is closely related that I also want us to consider. Gabriel uses it here in Luke. “Apestalein”. It’s the verb he uses for sent. “I was sent to speak to you and give you good news.” This is also a word that doesn’t just get used in this context. It also is the word that will be used to describe the followers of Jesus who lead the church in expanding from this little tribe of Jews in Judea to be a group with Jesus followers and churches throughout the Roman Empire. “Apestalein” in noun form is “apestolos”, from which we get “Apostle”. Apostle literally means “the sent one”. Those Jesus followers called the “apostles” were being sent out to deliver messages of Good news just like the Angel Gabriel was being sent to deliver a message of good news. His word for good news is the same as the apostles. “Euengellion”. Good News. Also often translated “Gospel.” God sent the angels to share the good news of his coming. And maybe part of why we see less of them doing that after Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, is because then God starts sending people. Now Paul, and Peter, and Phoebe, and Junia, and yes, you and I are the apostoloi. We are the sent ones.
So as we prepare to transition to musical worship, I want to leave you, once again, with a few questions for reflection and prayer throughout this last days of Advent, into Christmas.
- When have you perceived the supernatural? Have you had experiences that have left you feeling like there is indeed “something else out there”, either good or bad? Ask Jesus about those experiences. Is there anything he wants you to learn from them?
- What areas in your life do you need to experience the truth of Jesus’ power over darkness? Name those places with Jesus. Invite him to break the power of any strongholds of darkness in your life or in the world around you.
- Who are the people who have been God’s messengers in your life? Likely they weren’t spiritual beings, but they are your angeloi. Name them before Jesus and thank him for using them in that way. Pray his presence and comfort and blessing on them this Christmas.
- Where are you being sent? Who is Jesus sending you to, to deliver the message of his good news? Ask him for direction, and to give you supernatural empowerment by his Holy Spirit to share with them your story of how God has come near and brought good into your life.
Tonight we light the fourth candle in our advent wreath, the Angels Candle. As we do, we remember that Christmas awakens our hearts to that is which is beyond our mortal world. The divine and sublime touches the natural and mundane. We hear the angels song and with them we sing along. “Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Glory to God in the Highest. And on Earth, Peace. And Goodwill to those on whom God’s favor rests.”
Lord, we welcome your peace, your goodwill, your divine presence. We welcome you Jesus as King of the mortals and King of the angels. We worship you. Open our eyes to perceive the rejoicing of the heavenlies this Christmas, and the truth of your final victory. Amen.