My mother believed she had been visited by an angel once. It was what I understand now was her darkest hour: holding her baby (me) whom no one expected to live through the ordeals to come. We were at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. In the middle of the night, a woman with red hair and a white nurse’s uniform appeared in the doorway. “Mrs Green,” she said, “I came to tell you that it is going to be all right. No one knows that yet. But your baby is not going to die.” The nurse left before my mother could answer, and she never saw that nurse again. None of the other nurses had any idea who that one could have been. My mother only told me that story one time, and I don’t know that she told anyone else for fear that she would not have been believed. It’s like that when you see an angel. You just don’t know.
The women in my family were enamoured of angels. They hung pictures of them everywhere, wore angel pins and necklaces, dusted angel figurines, and hung them on the Christmas tree. No one, absolutely no one, would ever be afraid to tell anyone about an encounter with an angel of the likes of these adorables. Because I was in “the business” they thought I would love having angels too. Lots of them. I knew these women. I knew if I didn’t put a stop to it, my house and my office and my car and even my dog’s collar would be plastered in angels. So I did the unthinkable. I told them not to give me ANY more dustables, especially angels. Sheep, a few maybe. But enough with the angels. I was surprised that they mostly honored my request. I wasn’t used to being listened to very often by these women.
What does an angel look like? It’s hard to tell from the bible’s testimony. Sometimes people didn’t know they had encountered an angel because they looked just like any other nomad. Witness Abraham and Sara, with Sara giggling behind the curtain at their strange announcement. Witness the admonishment of Hebrews: Show hospitality to strangers, because thereby some have entertained angels unaware. But then, whenever an angel appears and speaks, the first words are always, “Do not be Afraid.” That makes me think there must be something about the message AND the messenger that causes fear. No one would be afraid of any of the typical angels at the Jesus Boutique.
Some preachers will follow the lectionary this coming weekend and preach for Michael’s and All Angels. Yup. It’s in a Lutheran lectionary too. It’s very hard to speak about real angels because people have too many pictures already in their heads, and the bible didn’t put them there. So a preacher almost has to dismantle before she can have anything useful to say. The readings assigned will have already put people on guard by the time the preacher opens her mouth. War in heaven? Satan has angels too? Our Accuser has been thrown down and is no longer in heaven to accuse us before God. In Daniel, Michael is the great captain of the army who stands guard, and inflicts such a time of great anguish as has never been known, but by his arm in battle, the people are delivered. “Those who dwell in the dust of the earth will awake….the wise leaders will shine like the bright vault of heaven and be like stars forever and ever.” I don’t think the typical Christmas tree angel is up to this job.
Here’s what I think. I think there are times in our world and in our lives that are so horrifying and confusing we have a hard time hearing God through the din of the battle. We balance between despair–God has abandoned us–and arrogance–God isn’t up to the job of helping us, there is no one to help us except ourselves. I don’t think God needs angels to show how glorious God is. (Although, reading Revelation, one has to admit the heavenly court scene is pretty impressive!) I think we need angels to bring us the message that bolsters us in hope, helps us to overcome fear, helps us to hear God when we can’t hear anything else. Not all angels pass the DNA test. It’s a human, and we gush, “You’re such an angel.” I think that’s beside the point.
When I am embattled on every side, when I am tempted by despair or cynicism, it’s not a Christmas tree angel I want rushing to defend me. I want an Incredible Hulk kind of angel that makes the bad guys take one look and run, knowing the battle is over for them and the best action is to quit it and run. I want an angel with a firm voice to calm the quiver in my own. I want an angel who silences me, because if I said anything it would be insufficient to explain what just happened. Inevitably, in every pew where Michaels and All Angels is preached this weekend, someone is asking “Do you think angels are real?” I don’t know. I’m not afraid to say that. But I am afraid of standing in my darkest hours alone and unsure, and I believe in a God who doesn’t leave us there. And if an angel is on God’s payroll, I believe a God worth having will use every means available to bring the Word to me. Even a Son.
If angels are real, I want them to look like these angels of Sadako Watanabe’s–angels ready to do some business. These are resurrection angels. They have to be bold. The powers and principalities of this world aren’t going to be so happy to hear their news, and those who are weeping are going to have a hard time believing their words through their sobbing.
All night, all day, angels watchin over me my Lord, all night, all day, Angels watching over me…and you…and a world that is still terrifying and filled with anguish. God wins, with Michael and all angels and all the hosts of heaven, where we will join their unending hymn and sing….