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December 7, 2008



We Hear the Christmas Angels – Angelic Proclamation

Luke 1:26-38


            I want to read a passage from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, beginning at Verse 26.  Hear now the Word of God.


In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.  You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.  For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”  Then the angel left her.



            Erik and June often vacationed with some good friends, a couple.  When Erik died, this young mother was telling her children about Erik going to heaving.  One of the children asked, “Will Erik be an angel?”

            The mother answered, “I really don’t know that.”

            “Well, if he is an angel, I bet he’ll be a really big angel!”

            This, of course, is the season for angels.  As surely as the goldfinches will return and change colors again in the spring, as surely as the cardinals will be at your birdfeeders through these winter months, as surely as the bluebirds will come looking for nesting boxes in February, and as surely as the ruby-throated hummingbirds will arrive in the spring, so, too, at Christmastime, winged creatures make their appearance.  These winged creatures, angels, appear on Christmas cards, tree ornaments, and gift wrapping.  Now in this Sanctuary, angels have appeared. 

You might wonder why we have angels here in the Sanctuary.  Actually Holly suggested placing them here when she heard the title of my sermon series.  The angels came into being through our son Kris.  Kris had a colleague who was going through a very difficult time on a day-to-day basis.  Kris, as many of you know, is an artist.  He also has a day job, and I am encouraging him to never quit that job.  Kris painted a background color on a paint paddle he had at home and then painted a little angel on that stirrer.  He gave it to this colleague and said to her, “Put this angel in a place where you can see it in your darkest times.  This is a guardian, and it will remind you that you are never alone.” 

            Clare, who heard about that idea and loved it, encouraged Kris to paint more guardians.  He painted a few and brought them to our home.  When Clare asked where we should hang the angels, Kris went around the house and showed us the places where he had been frightened as a child.  He hung a guardian in each one of those places.  One place was at the stairs leading to our basement, a place we called the Outer Darkness, a good biblical name.  He also hung a guardian in a dark hall in an upstairs area.  Now, if you look carefully, you will see guardians at numerous places in Spartanburg.  They have even made appearances in Vermont and on the streets in New York City. 

            After Henry Williams’ death on Tuesday night, I was visiting with the family.  When I told his wife, Ann, that the Sanctuary would be decorated for Christmas and that these angels would be in place during Henry’s funeral, she said, “That will be wonderful!”  Ann’s daughter, Helen Robinson, agreed.  I told Kris about that conversation, and he painted a little guardian angel, which I gave to Ann on the day of Henry’s funeral. 

            Every major epoch in the Bible begins with the miraculous birth of a child:  Isaac, Moses, Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist, and Jesus.  In each of these lives, many times right at birth, we see angelic experiences, encounters.  Sometimes those angels foretell the birth of a child.  Sometimes those angels attend the birth of a child.  Sometimes they come along later, as if a bit tardy. 

Angels, I suppose, are among the most misunderstood components of the Bible.  We just do not understand them.  The Bible has much to tell us about angels, probably more than we realize; but we are likely to focus on what we do not know.  Angels are mysterious and ethereal.  In most cases in the Bible, they have no wings and are not airborne.  They are absolutely flatfooted, standing and confronting.  Nowhere in the Bible are we told they have halos.  They somehow serve as liaisons between heaven and earth, as ambassadors, delivering a message on God’s behalf.  Both the Greek and the Hebrew word for angel means “messenger.” 

Angelic encounters are often quite confusing.  Angels may take on appearances that are difficult to understand.  They look like a person when first encountered, so people do not always recognize them as an angel.  Sometimes people of the Bible realize that they have had an encounter with an angel of God, a messenger from God Himself, only in retrospect.

            Sometimes the angel is identified as God.  In the first part of the Bible until the time of King David, the Hebrew phrase used for an angelic appearance is the term Ma’lik Yahweh.  That phrase can mean “angel,” but it can also mean “the appearance of the Lord.”  Consider the Old Testament passage about Moses standing at the burning bush.  In just a matter of a few verses, Moses identifies the voice within the bush three different ways: as “the angel of the Lord;” as Yahweh, the Lord himself; and as Elohim, God.  This passage identifies the voice.  All of them, of course, refer to the same theophany, the same experience.  The mystery is a part of our fascination.

            The angels clearly have divine function.  First, they deliver messages, which is the topic for today’s message.  In the 11:00 service this morning, we are going to think about how they provide nurture and protection.  Next Sunday, we will consider the way angels facilitate our worship. 

             Some people have tried to work out the hierarchy of angels.  I have not tried to do that.  I have not even tried to follow that discussion.  The four archangels, in a rank above all the other angels, are named for us from the history of the early church.  Gabriel is known as the hero of God.  Michael is the messenger of God.  Raphael is considered the healer of God, and Arial is known as the light of God.  The archangels Raphael and Arial do not appear in the Bible, but they appear in what is called extra-canonical literature, sometimes called the Apocrypha. 

            Gabriel’s function in the encounter with Mary is an example of an angel’s role of delivering messages.  You will notice that Gabriel, one of four archangels named in the Bible, came to her, immediately giving her a blessing.  He delivers the message on behalf of God, “You have been blessed.  You are highly favored.”  Mary’s reaction to this encounter is one that any of us might have.  She is terrified. 

As the Christmas story unfolds, you notice that as other people encounter these angelic beings, their first reaction is usually one of fear.  We see that effect in the encounter Gabriel has with Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew.  We see it again on a hillside in Bethlehem where the shepherds are described as being “sore afraid,” scared to death at first.  After Gabriel’s blessing to Mary, he gives reassurance, saying, “Mary, do not be afraid.” 

Many people have had experiences that they identify as a close encounter with an angel.  We might call it a close encounter of the fourth kind.  These people feel as though they have been “touched by an angel,” to use the title of a television program. 

Last Christmas, when our member Betty Senn was very ill, I went to see her at Spartanburg Regional’s Palliative Care.  She grabbed my hand when I walked in the room and said, “Dr. Kirk, I have to tell you what happened to me last night.  I had a very hard time sleeping last night, and I felt something touching my face.  Dr. Kirk, I know it was an angel.  I opened my eyes and saw this unusual person, an unusual appearance.”

You notice that Kris does not paint a face on his angels.  A lot of times people who have these experiences say they do not see a face.  They just see light.  Betty’s experience was similar to that.  She said, “Before I knew it, we were dancing.”  Betty could not get out of the bed.  She could not walk, but she described that wonderful experience as being one of great comfort and great peace.  She said, “Dr. Kirk, I am not afraid.  I am not afraid anymore.”  Betty’s experience affirms the message we receive through angelic appearances.  “Do not be afraid.”  What a message for us now with all of the uncertainty and anxiety about the current economic problems.  This is a good time to hear the message, “Don’t be afraid.”

I read a story about a woman who had gone to her doctor for a routine checkup.  The doctor had found something unusual, ordered the usual scans, and found several masses in her abdomen.  The cancer she had been diagnosed with earlier apparently had had metastasized and spread.  The doctors suggested that she go to Duke University, and plans were made to transfer her there. 

The night before her transfer, an Asian nurse who came into her room awakened her.  This woman immediately noticed the nurse’s petite size and pleasant demeanor and saw that the nurse was not wearing a name tag.  According to this cancer patient, the nurse came over, took her by the hand, and reassured her, “I don’t want you to be afraid.  I know you have had this terrible diagnosis, but I have come to tell you that it is going to be fine.”  The nurse did not stay long, and the woman said that she slept so peacefully that night. 

Before being transferred to Duke, the woman told those at the nurses’ station, “I want to thank the nurse who came into my room last night.  I do not know her name because she did not have on a nametag, but she was an Asian, a very tiny woman.” 

The head nurse, confused, answered, “We do not have any Asian nurses.”  She asked other nurses on duty if they had any idea who this nurse might have been, but they did not know of any one.  One nurse who had been there through the night knew that no other nurse on duty would fit that description.  This cancer patient was convinced that an angel had come during the night.  When she reached Duke University, doctors repeated all the tests and scans.  The results showed no sign of a cancer. 

Many, many people have this kind of experience, but not everyone.  Some people have experiences that are very comforting like Betty Senn’s.  They still have cancer, and they die.  As a pastor, I have found that people are very reluctant to talk about these happenings.  They think that others will consider them crazy.  I call these kinds of experiences a Peter Paul Almond Joy experience.  They are “indescribably delicious.”  They are almost beyond words.  They are so special and meaningful.

An angel may also appear in order to assign a very tough job.  Look at the hard assignment Gabriel gave to Mary.  How is she going to explain to the people in the neighborhood that she is pregnant out of wedlock?  How is she going to explain that to her own mother and father?  For heaven’s sake, how is she going to explain that to Joseph?  Here is a woman who accepts this assignment, but what a difficult job!

I was thinking this week about the passage later in Luke where old Simeon takes Jesus in his arms to bless him.  Simeon looks at Mary and foretells, “A sword will pierce your heart.”  He is telling Mary that her task of parenting is going to be a difficult assignment.  Being the parent of this particular child is not going to be easy. 

Sometimes these angelic beings give us a harsh confrontation, as we have seen just recently in the story of Jacob.  Jacob has two encounters with angels.  One is at Bethel where he sees with angels ascending and descending a ladder.  On that occasion, Jacob received a blessing, just as Mary did here.  About twenty years later, Jacob has an experience by the River Jabbok.  A stranger comes out of the night and wrestles with Jacob until Jacob’s hip is thrown out of joint.  What a harsh confrontation!  This being, this man, this Ma’lik Yahweh, is alternately identified as an angel or as God Himself.  Sometimes we struggle with God and the message we receive is not one we want to hear, but one we need to hear.

Angels confronted women who went to the tomb of Jesus.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He has risen.”  Later in the book of Acts, the disciples go to the Mount of the Ascension.  When they stand looking at Jesus who has gone into the clouds, angels ask, “Why do you stand gazing into the sky?  Go to Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit will come upon you.”  In Acts, angels give to the disciples the Great Commission.  That is a tough assignment. 

I want to share a wonderful Christmas story you have heard before.  I know I told it last year, but here it is again.  Mrs. Rose Kennedy had much tragedy in her life.  After one particularly difficult tragedy, I believe the death of her son Joseph, she became upset with a maid who began singing Christmas carols.  Mrs. Kennedy was not in the Christmas spirit and did not want to hear carols, so she told this maid, “Please hush.”  The maid looked at her and said, “Mrs. Kennedy, you need a manger in your heart.”  That night, Mrs. Kennedy could not sleep.  She got out of her bed, knelt down by her bed and prayed that God would give her a manger in her heart.  What a confrontation!  I would submit to you that the maid was a messenger from God.  You may not want to call her an angel, but she certainly delivered a message from God, one that every single one of us needs to hear:  We have to have a manger in our hearts.

We can find no evidence in the Bible at all to support a claim that when we die and go to heaven we become angels.  The Bible talks about our being saints though.  I know for sure that here on this earth we are supposed to be messengers from God.  We have no wings and no halos, but we do have a message.  Sometimes that message is one of blessing or one of reassurance.  Sometimes it might be an assignment or a confrontation. 

After Betty Senn died, I wrote a poem called “A Rumor of Angels.”  I want to share it with you.




Ravaged by chemotherapy,

Cancer has returned.

“Last night,

I thought somebody was here,

Very near,

So close I felt them touch my face,

And we were dancing.”



Swirling in the air,

There is a rumor of angels.

How many can dance

On the head of a pin.

That depends,

On the kind of dance.

     The Myrtle Beach shag,

The electric slide,

A boot-scootin’ boogie.

Angels waltzing among us;

In palliative care,

            Dancing cheek-to-cheek.



In coronary care,

Awaiting by-passes,

“Somebody was holding my hand.

It was so real,

But when I looked,

There was no one.

I had such a peace.”



Angels travel incognito,

Not easily recognized,

Masters of disguise,

Some things must be believed,

Before they can be seen.

To catch a glimpse,

Insight is better than eyesight.

             Guardians hover lightly

Beyond our view,

No burdens to carry.

Until they draw near

To lift ours.  



Weeping at a fresh grave,

Facing the future alone,

“I heard my favorite song,

Singing far away.

Then someone behind me,


And they were gone.”


Angel music fills the air.

To hear, 

We must listen with heart

Rather than ear.

When we have trouble hearing,

The static of worry is interfering.

          Angels descending,

bring from above,

                                    Echoes of mercy,

whispers of love.

Angel voices,

Are soft.




Walking through the woods,

To a mountain brook,

On a winter day,

Divorced, broken, and broke.

“I felt something brush by me.

I somehow knew,

I was not alone.”


The playground of Angels,

Is nature.

Creation, recreation.

Their favorite game,

Is hide and seek.

The rustle of dry leaves, the brush of their wings

                        A gentle breeze, angel breath,

                                    Raindrops, angel tears,

                                                Snowflakes, angel kisses.

Encounters are more likely,

On a winding path,

Than on a highway.





A child,

Neglected and abused,

In a court room,

Caseworker, attorney, judge


Foster parents become

Legal guardians.


Some say,

We can become angels.

Emissaries of God,

Messengers of love.

To care for the least of these,

Is angelic.

And if we receive wings,

They are not earned,

They are a gift of grace.

If we become angels,

It will most likely be here,

Rather than hereafter.


Swirling in the air,

A rumor of Angels,

Some have entertained them


Not a clue.

Others know for sure,

The rumor is true!


            Pay attention.  Pay close attention.  If you do, at this season of the year, angels appear like birds in an aviary.  You might just hear a message, a message that will touch your heart and change your life, a message that will put a manger in your heart.

Kirk H. Neely

© December 2008









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