The Angels of Christmas

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Title: The Angels of Christmas

 

Text: Luke 1:26-27, 2:8-15, Matthew 1:20-21, Isaiah 55:8-9, Hebrews 1:14

 

Time: December 7th, 2013

 

 

 

We’re continuing in the Christmas season of 2013 because it’s impossible to run out of things to say from the Bible about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Every year around this time I try to bring out different aspects of the Nativity because my thinking is that if we come at if from as many angles as possible we’ll get a better picture of what really happed. We don’t have a whole lot of information about the first Christmas, so we’ve got to take advantage of every bit of knowledge we can gain from the biblical account. Over the years I’ve tried to cover almost every conceivable aspect of the Nativity, although by the grace of God I’ve never been able to exhaust the many different topics. I hope I never get to the place where I throw up my hands and say, “I simply can’t think of anything new to say about Christmas.” Besides, if I ever did get to that spot I wouldn’t despair, because I could always go back over the things I’ve taught on before, since we all need reminding of these important things, as well as a new generation of Christians need to hear them for the first time. But if you’ve been a Christian for a number of years you’ve probably heard many different sermons on topics related to Christmas. I won’t be talking about anything new today, except you may have never heard a message on all the angels of Christmas. I recently went back over the past ten years of Christmas messages I’ve given and I found that I mostly talked about the angels who visited the shepherds with the announcement of the birth of Jesus. I’ve also talked about the angel who informed Mary she would have a son. And finally, I’ve talked about the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream instructing him to marry Mary.   But I’ve never given a message on all three angel-encounters at Christmas. So today, I’d like to take a look at the three appearances of angels of the Nativity. First, there’s the angel, like I said before, who appeared to the virgin Mary. That was Gabriel. He announced to her that she would be the mother of the Messiah. Second, there’s the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream. We don’t know his name, but it was a real angelic appearance, only he visited Joseph in a dream. It wasn’t just a dream of an angel, but it was a real angel in a dream – if you can see the difference. I’ll get into that later. And finally, third, there are the angels, most famously, who visited the shepherds in the field to announce the birth of the Christ child. Now I know that an angel appeared to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist; in fact, the angel was Gabriel, the same figure who appeared to Mary later. But today I’m only going to deal with the angelic appearances that are directly related to the birth of Jesus, so I won’t be talking about other indirect references to angels. It’s the Christmas season, a great time to be a Christian. Let’s learn something more about our faith, hopefully encouraging and inspiring us to faithful service to the Lord.

 

 

First, there’s Gabriel, the angel who appeared to the virgin Mary. Luke 1:26-27, “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.”  Now the angel Gabriel is one of the most famous angels in the Bible because he appears in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, he’s found in the Book of Daniel, in the New Testament he’s found here in Luke. He’s one of the few angels that is actually named, along with Michael. His name in Hebrew means, “God is my strength.” He appears to both Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, and to Mary, in announcing to her that she will be the mother of the Messiah, Jesus. Now the question is, “Why did God send Gabriel to Zechariah to announce the birth the John the Baptist, and also to Mary to announce the Messiah Jesus? We’d think that because of the supreme importance of Jesus the Messiah that the angel sent to Mary might be more important than the angel sent to Zechariah. We might imagine that because of the lesser role John the Baptist would play that a lesser angel might be sent to announce his birth. But no, it’s the same angel Gabriel in both instances. Why? A very practical solution to this problem is that God might have simply used Gabriel to make both announcements because he was in the area, or that he happened to be “angel on duty” at the time. But that’s too simple of an answer. Yes, it provides an answer to the question, but it’s probably not the correct answer. Another question is, why was the angel sent to Zechariah identified by name, but the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream was not? Wouldn’t it make more sense to identify the angel who spoke to Joseph, if one angel is to be identified and the other is not, rather than have the more details given in respect to Zechariah’s angel. visitation? We know more about the angel who spoke to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah than we do about the angel who appeared to Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. That seems odd. Nevertheless, that’s the way it is. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” Isaiah 55:8-9. We’ll have to wait for the answer to this question. Anyway, Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary, signaling a very important and special announcement. No doubt Mary had heard of Gabriel from here Jewish heritage – all Jews would have known of this angel from the Old Testament. So when this figure appears to her she knew something important was being announced – and there was, she would be the mother of the Messiah. But there’s more.

 

 

Second, there’s the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream. 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.’” Now what’s interesting here, again, is that Joseph’s angel is not named. Mary’s angel was named, but Joseph’s angel is not. We might imagine that since Mary had an actual angel appear to her, but Joseph merely had a dream, that possibly the angel wasn’t named in his case because it wasn’t really an angel appearance but a dream. In other words, if Joseph dreamed an angel visited him, and if it were only a dream, then there wouldn’t need to be any real angel and there wouldn’t need to be a name for an imaginary angel; only real angels need names. But the Bible passage specifically says that Joseph didn’t just dream an angel appeared to him, but rather than an angel really appeared to him in a dream. Joseph didn’t imagine an angel appeared to him, one really did appear to him in a vision or dream. So we might expect the appearance of an angel announcing such an important thing to Joseph as the birth of the Messiah might identify himself. But he doesn’t. Could it have been the angel Gabriel, the same one who announced the Messiah to Mary? If could very well be Gabriel who appeared to Joseph in his dream. We don’t know for sure, although it makes perfectly good sense that it was. Gabriel announced to John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, he announced to Mary, and it makes sense that he announced to Joseph. But there’s one main reason why it might not be Gabriel – it doesn’t say it’s him in the Bible. Gabriel is identified in other places, in the Old Testament, and also in places in the New Testament. But here, it doesn’t say anything about Gabriel. Now if it were Gabriel in Joseph’s dream, wouldn’t the Bible say so? Probably. So maybe it wasn’t Gabriel after all. If not, who was it? Maybe a lesser, unknown angel. After all, in Joseph’s case, it wasn’t actually a direct appearance, but only an indirect angelic visitation, in a dream. So maybe there are special angels who appear directly, and other angels who appear indirectly in dreams. Again, we’ll have to wait later for clarifications, but it all might boil down to the different functions of different angels. Anyway, Christmas isn’t about angels, their identities or their names, it’s about Jesus and his birth – everything else is secondary. Sure, we’d like to know all the details, but what’s important for us to know are the essentials. Do you know what’s most important at Christmas? That’s a big challenge for us today, sorting out what’s most important from the lesser important details of Christmas, in the Bible and in our life.

 

 

Third, there are the angels who appeared to the shepherds in the fields. Luke 2:8-15, “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. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you 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 manager.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go into Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’” Now these angels get the most attention at Christmas time; they are most famous, in songs such as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” for example. But what’s ironic is that they are not identified. We don’t know any of the names of these angels, assuming all angels even have names. I’m sure they do. I can’t imagine it being so impersonal in heaven that angels are simply numbered, like, for instance, “Angel #5335,” and so forth. No. That doesn’t make sense. I’m sure they all have names, it’s just that none of their names are given in this instance. Another important observation to keep in mind is that the announcement to the shepherds started out with only one angel appearing. We often overlook that fact. At first, only one lone angel appeared to the shepherds and told them about the birth of Jesus; then, only later did the other angels appear and begin giving glory to God. So it was probably not possible or practical for all these angels to identify themselves. But what about the first angel? Who was he? Why wasn’t he identified? Well, it does identify him not by name, but by function – an angel of the Lord. And then later, the shepherds say, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” Were they simply speaking generally about “the Lord” or were they referring to the angel as “the Lord?” The phrase “Angel of the Lord” occurs occasionally in the Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and sometimes it refers to angels in general, but at other times it refers seemingly to God himself, specifically, second Person of the Trinity, God the Son. But in this context, that wouldn’t make much sense because the Lord, the incarnate Christ, is Jesus, in Bethlehem, not announcing to the shepherds. So the announcing angel is probably just an angel, and the shepherds are talking generally about the Lord. Was Gabriel the announcing angel? Again, probably not, because it seems like it would have said so, although we can’t entirely rule it out.

 

 

As we can see from the Christmas accounts of angels, they really are what the Bible describes them, for example, in Hebrews 1:14, “Are not all angels ministering spirits, sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” It’s very rare that angels are named – we only have the names of a couple of them – and there’s a reason for that. Angels don’t like to draw attention to themselves because it’s not their role or function to get credit or receive glory. In fact, when men and women try to give them any praise or recognition, they refuse it. Recall in the Book of Revelation when John sees an angel, he’s tempted to worship it, but the angel corrections him: “Then the angel said to me, ‘Write. Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ And he added, ‘These are the true words of God.’ At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,’” Revelation 19:9-10.  The angels of the Christmas story don’t want to take anything away from the glory of Jesus. Most of them are not even identified or named, and even the one who is, nothing else is said of him other than his name – no details about him at all. This is on purpose so as to not detract from the real news of Jesus Christ, the Christ child. Unfortunately, we don’t know a whole lot about angels; we know only as much as the early Christians knew. Our knowledge of angels hasn’t grown much over the years. They are still mysterious beings from God who are sent to preserve and protect us in life, and once in a while, reveal something to us according to the will of God. Do we ever encounter angels today? Probably, although you’d never know it. They blend it, according to the Bible, so you could hardly tell they’re there. Because of so little information about angels, even in the Bible, folk tales have grown up over the years, such as that each person has a guardian angel, or that children are given each an angel at birth to watch over them. Are these true statements or merely comforting thoughts? They could be true, but we don’t know for sure because the Bible doesn’t clearly teach it. But what we do know is that during the first Christmas there was a flurry of angelic activity occurring. We also know that when Christ comes again at the Second Coming there will be another outburst of angelic activity. Are we close to that time? Yes, but how close is again hard to say. All I can say is, if you begin to detect or sense a lot of angelic activity, however that would occur, get ready, because it might just mean the Lord’s return is near. We know it is near, we just don’t know how near. Let’s be ready in any case.

 

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