The Angels’ Plea for Peace
December 10, 2006 | Brian Bill
Years ago I drove up to Milwaukee to celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday with my four sisters. One of my sisters had a pretty cool idea a couple weeks prior. She told all of us to order a black t-shirt with the words, “Mom likes me best” written on the front. She thought it would be pretty funny for all of us to wear the same shirt when we walked in the door. I had an even better idea. Instead of going along with her plan, I ordered one that said, “Mom loves me more than my sisters!” I think they wish they never would have had a brother.
In order to celebrate this milestone for my mom, each of us gave her 14 presents for a total of 70. Most of our gifts were small but they all represented a memory we’ve had of our mom. For instance, I wrapped up a box of Malt-O-Meal cereal because I used to make hot cereal for breakfast and my sisters would never eat it. The reason is because I would wake up about an hour earlier than they did and by the time they sat down for breakfast their hot cereal was cold and pasty. My mom would get pretty mad at them when they would just stare at the bitter blob in their bowls. I also gave my mom a can of pea soup in memory of the time I poured a whole bowl of it on my sister’s head because she refused to eat it. My mom wasn’t too happy with me that day.
I also gave her a box of raisins to mark one of the most memorable moments of my life…I actually almost lost my life over this one. When I was around ten or so I emptied a box of raisins and filled it with rabbit droppings and gave the box to our neighbor boy Craig. Let’s just say I was in big trouble with his mom and my mom. My dad thought it was pretty funny but he kept it to himself. One consequence of this escapade is that I can no longer eat raisins…and now you might not either.
My strange sisters also gave some goofy gifts but we did it all to celebrate our mom’s birthday. When one contemplates Christmas in our culture, there are some pretty weird things that we do. One Christmas card captures this sentiment: “What other time of the year do you sit around staring at a dead tree in your living room and eat out of your socks?” As we go back to the details surrounding the birth of Jesus, there are some strange, surprising and supernatural elements going on. Ray Pritchard states: “Take the supernatural out of Christianity and all you have left is a religious book club.” A virgin teenager becomes pregnant. A fiancé remains faithful. An 80-mile trip to Bethlehem. A birth in a barn. Shepherds leaving their sheep. A supernatural star. Wise guys traveling across a desert to see a king. Messages through dreams. And angels appearing.
Last week we were impacted by Isaiah’s audacious hope as his prophecies were fulfilled with pinpoint accuracy. Jesus was a sure sign, a sent Son, a shoot from a stump and a suffering Savior. Isaiah reminded us that one can never start too early when getting ready for something really big. On this second Sunday of Advent, our focus today is on the Angels’ Plea for Peace.
While the Christmas story is saturated with the supernatural, some of us miss the meaning because we just skim by this season on a superficial level. I want to suggest that we must see the mysterious and miraculous elements surrounding the birth of Jesus. In his book called, “Rumors of another World,” Philip Yancey writes, “The Bible presents a…view of reality that encompasses both the familiar visible world and an invisible world that coexists as a kind of parallel universe” (Page 165).
Angels appear in more than half of the books of the Bible, with over 300 total references. They have three primary responsibilities.
- They magnify God. The number one job of angels is to adore God. Nehemiah 9:6: “You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.” According to Job 38:7, at creation “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy.”
- They are messengers of God. The word “angel,” as used in the Bible, literally means messenger. Their job is to do what God sends them to do. Angel messengers basically convey two types of messages. Sometimes it’s good news like announcing the birth of Christ. That Christmas carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” captures the fact that angels “herald” or proclaim. But, other times they bring bad news. When they serve in this capacity, they are not cute and cuddly cherub dolls that we put on top of our Christmas trees. 2 Thessalonians 1:7: “This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.” The Book of Revelation is full of avenging angels and it is anything but pretty.
- They minister to people. Hebrews 1:14 puts it best: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” Most of the time angels are not seen; they minister invisibly behind the scenes. And yet, on occasion, they break into our world, appearing for a short time to accomplish a specific purpose. The Bible mentions that when they do appear, they often look just like humans. Listen to Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”
It is impossible to read the Christmas story without understanding a little about angels because it begins and ends with them. The Incarnation is so incredible and so earth shaking that only the angels could be entrusted by God to be the appropriate messengers. No earthly channels of communication could be relied upon to get this amazing message out because no human person could possibly be persuasive enough. One interesting point to be made is that if you were to look at all the major events in the Bible, there is no other occurrence that has as many messages from so many angelic messengers.
Yancey refers to a concept called, “thin places,” where the natural and supernatural worlds come together at their narrowest, with only a thin veil between them (“Rumors of another World,” Page 45). As we read the Christmas story, there are many of these thin places, particularly when messengers from the angelic world make an appearance into our world. I’d like us look at how four Christmas characters responded to these angelic encounters.
Let me mention something before we look at these accounts. Have you heard the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt?” That basically means that the more familiar we are with something at best, we get bored with it or at worst, we start resenting it. Let’s try hard to read these accounts as if we were hearing them for the first time. In fact, let’s put ourselves in their sandals, remembering that four hundred years have gone by when God was silent between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew. People have been pleading with God to come down into their world with words similar to what Isaiah said in Isaiah 64:1: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…”
Let me make some observations about angels in the Christmas story.
- Angels appear suddenly to ordinary people doing ordinary things. Angels don’t come with an announcement beforehand. Actually, they come bearing an announcement and they often break into our world unexpectedly with messages of galactic proportions.
- Angels cause people to be afraid. When an angel appears in Scripture, a sense of fear and wonder blasts through the blasé and predictable. This awe-inspiring element was built into the very worship fabric of ancient Israel. The Ark of the Covenant had two cherubim carved into it. Prophets like Isaiah came face-to-face with seraphim who cried out in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” With the doorposts shaking and the temple filled with smoke, Isaiah cried out in fear, “Woe is me!” Knowing that they have this kind of affect on humans, some of their first words are: “Do not be afraid.”
- Angels are never to be adored. Every reference to angels in the Bible is incidental to some other topic. We need to be careful to not give them too much attention. Psalm 103:20 says that they are “mighty ones who do His bidding.” We are never told to seek out encounters with angels and they refuse to be worshipped. In Revelation 22:8-9, the Apostle John is overcome by all that he has heard and seen: “I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel…But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and of all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!’” Good angels never draw attention to themselves. They can get our attention, but they always do it for God’s sake, not their own. When Biblical angels discharge their duty and deliver their tidings, they withdraw from human contact. They don’t stay long because they don’t want us to focus on them; they want us to worship God. One other thought in this regard. Angels are not to be prayed to. They may help deliver answers to prayer, but the Bible never suggests that we should direct our requests to them.
In one of the earliest recorded Christmas carols found in 1 Timothy 3:16, we read these words: “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.” We know that angels were present at His Temptation (Matthew 4:11), in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43), at His Resurrection (Mark 16:5), at His Ascension (Acts 1:10-11) and they will accompany Him at His Second Advent (Matthew 25:31). And angels were very involved during His first advent. Let’s look at four different reactions to these early angelic encounters in Matthew and Luke.
1. Denied and doubted (Luke 1:5-25).
The first appearance of an angel in the gospel accounts takes place in the opening verses of Luke when Gabriel, one of only two named angels in the Bible (the other being Michael) appears to Zechariah to tell him that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a son named John. Luke 1:7 indicates that “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” Zechariah was a priest and when it was his turn to serve in the Temple to burn incense, the angel of the Lord appeared and verse 12 tells us that he was “gripped with fear.” The angel comforted him and said in verse 13, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.” The angel then proceeded to describe what kind of person he would be as well as his purpose: “…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Even though Zechariah had been praying for a child and even though he was a religious guy he denied and he doubted in verse 18: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” Because of his doubts, he is made dumb (literally) and is not able to speak until the baby is born. Luke 1:64 tells us that when he is finally able to speak eight days after John’s birth, the first thing he did was to praise God. He then breaks into a song with these opening lyrics in verse 68: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has come and redeemed his people.” The song ends with an illusion to Isaiah 9:2 in verse 79: “To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
2. Not sure but surrendered (Luke 1:26-38).
In the next angelic encounter, Gabriel appears to a virgin named Mary six months later. After giving a greeting, Mary is greatly troubled and so we hear these words of comfort once again: “Do not be afraid…” Mary is then told that she will be pregnant and give birth to a son and she is to give him the name Jesus. In verse 32 Gabriel tells her a little about the baby she will give birth to: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…” While Zechariah denied and doubted when he heard the amazing news, Mary was simply not sure how all this would happen when she asks in verse 34: “How will this be…since I am a virgin?” After Gabriel gives her a few more details that must have been very difficult for a teenager to comprehend, Mary responds with the heart of a servant in verse 38: “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said.” Mary wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out but she surrendered anyway.
3. Accepted and acted (Matthew 1:18-25).
We won’t spend a lot of time on Joseph’s reaction because we’re going to focus on his limitless love Christmas Eve morning. Joseph needed some divine intervention after he found out Mary was pregnant because he knew he wasn’t the father. His reputation was on the line. What was he going to do? Because he was a righteous man, he determined to end the engagement as quietly as he could.
In the middle of his misery, Joseph gets a visit. Let’s look at Matthew 1:20-21: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’” This unnamed angel fills in some of the blanks for Joseph but first he settles Joseph’s anxious heart by saying, “Do not be afraid.” Amazingly, he is being asked to raise a child that is not his. And, he’s given a glimpse of the glory of this child as the angel tells him that this boy will be the Savior, fulfilling the prophecy of a “sure sign” from Isaiah 7:14. Joseph immediately accepts his assignment and acts on it when we read, “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”
Joseph actually had two more encounters with angels several months later, and like the first time, he accepted these messages and acted on them. Look at Matthew 2:13-14: “When they [the wise men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.” Joseph had some “get up and go,” didn’t he? His response was identical some time later after another angelic encounter, in which he was told to go back to Israel because Herod had died. We see his obedience again in Matthew 2:21: “So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” Zechariah denied and doubted. Mary wasn’t sure but she surrendered. Joseph accepted and acted. There’s one more…
4. Believed and broadcasted (Luke 2:8-20).
The final exhibit of angelic intervention takes place when God rocks the routine of some guys who are just out doing their job. Luke 2:8-20: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” In the midst of the mundane, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared. Into the darkness of a silent night came the brightness of the glory of the Lord. I’m sure they were rubbing their eyes and shaking in their sandals. In fact, the word “terrified” means that they were alarmed and agitated. We’ll study more about the shepherds next Sunday.
“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.” Once again, an angel has to tell humans to chill out. The reason they did not need to be afraid is because the messenger was bringing “good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”
As the shepherds are trying to handle the message from this one messenger, they are taken aback again in verse 13: “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God…” The word “suddenly” means that the heavenly host came unexpectedly and without warning. The phrase “great company” means there were so many that it was impossible to count; a vast array of angels. The sky was filled with a multitude of mighty messengers. The phrase “heavenly host” refers to the Lord’s army in other passages of Scripture like 2 Kings 6:17: “Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” The shepherds watched as heaven opened up and literally saw an entire militia of messengers, hundreds and thousands of angelic warriors worshipping God.
By the way, while angels do sing in other instances, this time they say in verse 14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Notice that peace comes only after praising. We must put God and His glory first and then peace will come. While this is a neat time of the year, there is nothing magical about this season if one does not know the Christ of Christmas. The phrase “Happy Holidays” is meaningless without an acknowledgement of the holiness of God.
After witnessing this incredible display of unbridled adoration and praise, the shepherds knew that they had to move in verse 15: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’” They discussed what they should do and were unanimous in their decision to head to Bethlehem. I love verse 16 because it shows that their fear had been replaced with faith and then their faith went to their feet: “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” There was no delay. The word “hurried” carries with it the idea of speed. It was no small matter for them to leave their sheep behind because they could have lost their jobs by leaving them unattended.
The shepherds then became messengers of the message they had received from the angel in verse 17: “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” With hearts filled with gratitude, these men broke out into praise in verse 20: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
There are angels everywhere and I believe they are still doing God’s work today. But whether we see or hear an angel doesn’t really matter. What matters most is that we get God’s message and that we respond to it. Which Christmas character most represents where you’re at today?
Responding to the Message of Christmas
- Are you denying and doubting? Don’t be like Zechariah and allow your doubts to delay a decision. Did you know that angels are very curious about Christmas? In fact, they have studied salvation and are amazed by it. 1 Peter 1:12 says that “Even angels long to look into these things.” Angels don’t understand everything about redemption because they can’t experience it but my guess is that they’re dumbfounded when people deny and doubt. Ask God to dispel your doubts; study the Scriptures and be open to the supernatural. Wise men still follow Him; dumb people don’t.
- Are you a bit uncertain but ready to surrender? Mary wasn’t sure about everything but she surrendered anyway. Luke 2:11 says that a Savior is born to you. Christmas must become personal. Have you personally received Him if even if you’re a bit uncertain? When you repent and receive all that Jesus has for you, Luke 15:10 tells us that “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.” The angels are ready to throw a party on your behalf but you must first receive Jesus as your personal Savior. Will you do that right now?
Friends, heaven is now open but it won’t stay that way forever. John 1:51: “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” At the heart of Christmas is a gift heralded by the angels. It’s a present that must be received; a gift that must be opened.
- Are you ready to accept and act? Joseph is a good model of someone who put feet to his faith. What is God asking you to do right now? No matter how difficult it is, if God is telling you to do it, that’s what you need to do.
- Do you believe and will you broadcast the good news? Have you ever noticed the middle letters in the word “evangelism”? Do you see the word “angel” there? We are called to believe and broadcast the good news now, just like the angels did back then. The shepherds communicated the Christmas story. We are now the messengers of the manger story. Who can you point to the Savior this season? Invite a friend to church next Sunday for our Cantata presentation and to our Christmas Eve service at 6:00 p.m.
I came across a story that helps capture what may have been going on in the angelic realm during the birth of the Redeemer in our realm. It’s called “Out of the Ivory Palaces” (Adapted from Bruce Howell: www.sermoncentral.com)
There was sorrow in heaven! Can you imagine that? Sorrow in heaven! It all seemed so strange to two of the smallest angels by the name of Arnal and Pax. They were given the task of carrying the messages for the Master from one end of heaven to the other.
Arnal said to Pax, “I actually saw those things called ‘tears’ in Gabriel’s eyes. Something terrible must have happened to have caused that. Someone said that tears were shed in heaven on only one other occasion…I believe it had something to do with the first creatures of earth. They did something that broke the Master’s heart.” Pax replied, “The Father loves them so much but I’m not sure why. They don’t seem to appreciate what He has done for them. And do you know what I heard? The Lord Jesus is going down to earth to live among them!”
Arnal looked at his friend, shocked! And for the first time in his existence a tear fell down his cheeks and he said, “Going to leave us? Leave the Ivory Palaces and the Rainbow Throne and the love and beauty of Heaven? What will he do down there, Pax?” “I don’t know for sure. Someone said He was going to be born.” “Born? What’s born?” “I don’t know. It’s something that happens to earth creatures.”
You don’t mean to say that He’s going to be like them and take the same kind of body, do you?” “I’m afraid so,” said Pax. “Well, when is this thing supposed to take place, Pax?” “I think it’s what they call ‘tonight’ down there. It could be any moment now.” Arnal said, “Then come on, Pax. Let’s hurry back to the city.”
There was a great deal of commotion in the celestial city when the two little angels arrived. Messengers were hurrying to and fro and there was a great blowing of trumpets. Angels had massed from the four corners of heaven. Row upon row, rank upon rank—angels and archangels were there before the Great Throne of God Almighty. Then Arnal and Pax saw something that made their hearts sink—the seat at the right of the throne was empty! The Bright and Morning Star was gone!
Suddenly, Arnal and Pax heard their names called and Gabriel ordered them to find a place in the massed group. They stood together at the end of the front row. Gabriel raised his hand and there was complete silence! Then in clear tones as sweet as the sound of many waters, he spoke: “You’ve been called together to hear the most wonderful pronouncement ever made! Our beloved Lord, the only begotten of the Father, has left us.”
The voice of the great Gabriel trembled and sobs burst from the lips of the gathered host. In a moment he continued: “Our Lord has gone to earth to be born as a babe that He might take upon Himself the fashion of a man. Only in this way, the Father believes, can the earth people know of His love for them. He will take away the sin of all earth creatures who receive His offer of salvation.”
A gasp of astonishment rose from the angels. Gabriel continued: “On earth tonight in a little town called Bethlehem, His incarnation will be accomplished. By the order of the Father, you will accompany me as we bring the good news to that weary world. I will make the announcement to a few shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, simple-hearted men who fear God and believe His promises. You will join me and give glory to God in the highest. It’s time. Let us go.”
Arnal was trembling with excitement as he and Pax, small though they were, had been selected for the journey. The whole air seemed filled with the angelic host that attended Gabriel on his way. By the thousands and tens of thousands they swept through the heavens. Down through the belt of Orion, on past the Milky Way—down, down, they went through the still night air, leaving the stars twinkling far behind them. At a signal from Gabriel they stopped, poised above the earth. Below them, by the light of a camp fire, they could see shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. Suddenly, Gabriel broke through the clouds and stood before the men. The shepherds gazed at him in awe and then fell in terror to the ground. Then Gabriel spoke: “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. You shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
As the angel finished these words, the light of the glory of God fell from heaven and the angelic host stood revealed. They knew what they were supposed to say, though they didn’t comprehend the mystery of it all. And so they lifted their glorious voices in praise to Him: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
These words of worship floated out upon the still night air. It enraptured the shepherds who heard it. The night breeze that blows over the fields of Bethlehem caught it up and bore it heavenward, where it echoed around the Throne of God and was lost among the stars. Then at a signal from Gabriel the heavenly host moved upward once again.
“What does all this mean?” Arnal asked Pax. “I cannot tell. But wasn’t it wonderful? Oh, Arnal, it will be great when the people down there appreciate what God has done. I suspect they will soon be gathered to welcome the Baby. They will come from all over the earth. They will love Him as we do. I hope it doesn’t take long to redeem them for we will be so lonely in heaven without Him.”
Some 33 years passed and again we listen in as Arnal and Pax are engaged in conversation. “I can’t believe it Pax! They killed our Lord! He went to love them and to show them the way to the Father and they ridiculed Him and mocked Him and tortured Him and finally nailed Him to a cross. Why doesn’t the Father punish them? Why doesn’t He destroy that sick and wretched planet?”
“Well, Arnal, I guess it’s because He loves them. In fact, I heard one of the bigger angels say that the Master knew all along that they would do all of these awful things to Him and He willingly laid down His life to redeem them.”
“He returned to the city just two days ago, Pax. All heaven is rejoicing. It’s just like the old days. It’s so good to have Him back.” And so the two small angels returned to the city to behold their Lord. His glory filled the entire city—with one difference—His glory was shining through an earth creature’s body—a body with scars on His hands and feet.
And the angels had again come from the far corners of the universe to sing a new song. But when they approached the Great Throne, they saw that it was impossible to get near it for it was surrounded by thousands and millions of human souls singing loudly in perfect harmony: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever! The four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.”