What do you believe about angels?
A vicar about to take the funeral of a notorious criminal named John, received a visit from the dead man's brother, Peter. "Vicar", said this man, "when in the service you come to your talk, I want you to say (whatever the public think), 'at heart John was a real angel.' And if you say that, well, there'll be a big sum for church funds. However … if you don't say 'John was a real angel' be worried! Our family can get very nasty … and with you."
The following two nights the vicar hardly slept. But it soon was the funeral and his address. So, after his introduction, he paused, and said, "what I must say about John is this, he was a real angel … compared to his brother Peter."
Do you believe an "angel" is just a description for a nice or likeable person? Or do you believe, as Christmas reminds you, angels are for real? Tonight I want to consider three Christmas facts, and ...
… first, is THE FACT OF ANGELS
According to Jesus and his Apostles, there are great numbers of angels – supernatural, rational, created beings, who act as messengers and servants of God. While faithful angels in heaven worship God, some are fallen and demonic. And angels are not to receive worship themselves when working for human good. Nor are we encouraged to be obsessed with angels or to look for them in everyday life.
They have been most evident at the turning points of salvation history, especially at the birth of Jesus, but also at his resurrection and ascension. And his return, the Bible says, will be with angels. But what does the fact of angels teach you?
It teaches that this world of space and time is not all there is. For the unseen world of God and angels beyond space and time is real. So how foolish to believe the real is only what you see!
You may think you just see a Christmas tree in your living-room. But the reality is much more. Norwegian scientists are now telling you that 25,000 bugs may be hiding among the needles. Don't worry – most live inside the tree and quickly dry out and die! And the great 17th century revolution in science occurred when people through telescopes and, then, through microscopes (like these Norwegians) saw realities that were previously unseen. So never believe that only what you can see is real!
As the Bible says: "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11.1).
The second FACT is THE BABY IN THE MANGER
I like this year's A-I-D (Anglican International Development's) Christmas card. It is a jig-saw of pieces showing a bauble, Christmas tree, Christmas pudding, candle, wreath, holly, Father Christmas hat and mistletoe. But the centre piece is not properly put in – namely the piece showing the manger. So inside are the words: "Jesus is the missing piece to a truly Happy Christmas." But why?
The answer is in the message of the Angel to the shepherds:
"Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." (Luke 2.10-12)
100 years ago the announcement of the outbreak of World War I was pivotal for the whole 20h century. This announcement of the birth of the longed-for Messiah ("Christ") is pivotal for the whole of time and eternity. For he was divine ("the Lord") and "a Saviour". "On earth peace", therefore, were the words sung by the choir of angels.
But is all this true?
Discovering the truth of some things, nowadays, is relatively easy. For example, it is true reindeers do get red noses. Using thermal imaging cameras, (this time) Swedish scientists have found that reindeers get red noses due to increased blood flow needed to stop them freezing. But science can only tell you the truth about what is - not the truth about right and wrong.
Remember the man found, one Christmas, having had too much to drink, looking for his key under a street light. He explained to a passerby: "I've lost my door key." "Are you sure you lost it under this light? "asked the passer by. "No!" "Why, then, are you looking here?" "Because here at least I can see."
And so the light of science can't help us solve the problem for individuals, families and nations, which is human sin. But Jesus Christ can; for he is the true Saviour from sin, as the angel told Joseph:
"you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1.21).
Why is it that (according to one survey) on average British families have at least five arguments on Christmas day? The first is, on average, at 10.13 am and the last but one at 6.05 pm, when 15 percent of families fight for the TV remote. The last is at 7.25 pm, when 7 percent of senior family members try to play charades! Listen to the Bible:
"What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel [as you saw many do on TV on (so called) 'Black Friday']" (James 4.1-2).
That is sin - this fundamental problem of putting yourself first, others second and God last, instead of God first, others second and yourself last.
For many people Christmas is the loneliest time of the year. Many face personal crises. You may be facing one this Christmas. You may have a problem with your family or your job or no job. You may have an addiction. You may be facing illness or the death of a loved one.
The good news of Christmas, however, is that you can experience God's peace in your situation. And where there is sin – and we all sin - the good news is that God in his love has sent Jesus as the only Saviour from sin – from its guilt and power. On the Cross he died in our place to free us from guilt. And through his resurrection (with that empty tomb), and by his Holy Spirit, he gives us power for living and to conquer sin's power. As we sang …
"Jesus Christ our Saviour was born … to save us all from Satan's power, when we were gone astray."
Traditional 18th century English carol
But you still may be asking, "how can I know that all this is really true?"
Well, thirdly, there is THE FACT OF THE SHEPHERDS.
When they heard the message of the angels, what did they do? They didn't say, "we must have been dreaming". They knew you all never dream the same thing. No! The shepherds said:
"Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened" … [so] they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger." (Luke 2.15-16)
They trusted and acted accordingly. Then seeing was believing, as the next verses show.
So that is the Christmas challenge – not only to hear about Jesus Christ, but like the shepherds to find him. They found him as a baby. Today, by his Holy Spirit, you can find him as Saviour and the risen, reigning and, one day, returning Lord.
But living for, and with, Christ is costly. There can be opposition and even danger, as Joseph and Mary experienced from the ruthless King Herod.
Fairly recently there was a three person TV discussion on the world's most dangerous idea. Germain Greer said it was freedom. Sex columnist, Dan Savage, picked population control. But journalist Peter Hitchens courageously said it was "the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead, because it alters the whole of human behavior … It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope.
Yes, (as this season of Advent reminds you) Christ gives you hope not only for this life but also for a glorious future beyond death. And that is why the fact of the angels, the fact of the baby in the manger and the fact of the shepherds and their example, mean we should all pray, (for the first time or again), that prayer the choir sang in Phillips Brooks' Carol:
"O holy child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today!
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell –
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel."
P Brooks (1835-93) Music H. Walford Davies (1869-1941)