Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill to all. Come to Bethlehem and see, Christ whose birth the angels sing. This Advent, I’m seeing angels all over the Christmas story – in fact I count six, can you? Of course, you have to combine the accounts in Matthew and Luke to get there.
Let’s work backward. The two final angel visits are warnings – to the magi and to Joseph – about Herod. The Christmas story is nearly over, the holy family has been through a heck of a time, those strange visitors have left, so they can finally get some rest. But now an angel shows up and says flee to Egypt and escape Herod’s murderous rampage. The sixth angel visit is a cautionary command – all creation is singing praise to this momentous baby, but you need to lay low and keep him safe.
The fifth angel visit we heard this morning. The magi are visited in their dreams, and get their own warning. Return home by backroads to avoid Herod. Herod, the current Roman-employed King of Judea, is waiting for the magi to report on the baby destined to be King of the Jews so he can kill him. The magi sneak home and Herod attacks full-scale, killing all baby boys in Bethlehem.
Does that story ever undermine Christmas for you, as you sit around the tree, or watch the fire, and read together from Matthew before you get to open your presents? The story unsettles me. It’s the same ploy used in every action movie – you get attached to some main characters and cheer for their survival, while minor characters die all around simply mounting the tension – and therefore relief – when the main characters survive. I don’t hold James Bond or Marvel Comics accountable, but I do struggle with this narrative in Matthew.
But…moving on back: Angel visit four is the most sung of – an angel finds the shepherds tending their flocks by night and tells them who this baby is and where to find him. Then a multitude of the heavenly host appears and sings them toward Bethlehem. Just how many angels were there? The Greek word for host (stratia) refers to the stars of heaven. So there might be as many angels in a host as there are stars in the heavens. And if there’s a multitude of host? That’s a lot of angels!
Angel visits two and three are back to the quiet kind. One angel visits Joseph, one visits Mary. It might even be the same angel – in Luke we read that the angel of the Lord, Gabriel, visits Mary, in Matthew we read that the angel of the Lord, unnamed, visits Joseph. This angels or these angels come to Mary and Joseph to let them know that this child living and growing inside Mary is God’s work, and that all will be well.
You’ve heard about these angels in the Christmas story countless times. But there’s one more – can you remember who receives the first angel visit in the story of Jesus’ birth?
The book of Luke opens with the story of Elizabeth and Zacharias – do you remember them? One of the famous couples facing infertility in the Bible, and just like Sarah and Abraham, Hannah and Elkanah, or Rachel and Jacob, Elizabeth and Zacharias wait for years and years for a child, and then end up with a child who will change history.
In fact, miracle conceptions – miraculous because of fertility challenges or virgin status – are a classic starting point for someone who will be a big deal. If you read the Bible as literature, you can see this is an excellent plot device, drawing on archetypal symbols. If you read the Bible as pure fact, you can see that God likes to bring significant leaders out of unlikely circumstances. Many of us read more than one layer at once.
The gospel of Luke doesn’t simply open with a miracle birth story for the heck of it. Elizabeth and Zacharias create John, who we know as the Baptist, and he paves the way for Jesus’ ministry. When Mary visits Elizabeth, both pregnant with their significant sons, John stirs in Elizabeth’s womb as he senses Jesus is nearby.
Just like Mary and Elizabeth, Stone Church is giving birth to a new thing – through the Discovery process, in this time of pastoral transition, and as we continue to welcome new people who shape the identity and purpose of this body. It takes parents, shepherds, magi and at least 6 angel visits to get Jesus safely into this world. It takes all of us to bring Stone Church’s next chapter onto the page. We each have a part to play in the narrative that is unfolding before our eyes--in this very moment!
Just like John the Baptist, we prepare the way for Christ’s love and justice to be born into this world, not just one Advent season, but again and again.
Just like Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zacharias, we are sometimes mystified by what is happening within ourselves. Like these parents, we must sacrifice as we sign on to God’s plans within this body and these walls – letting go of control, or like parenting teaches us, letting go of pretending we ever had control, and trusting that great things are in store.